I neglected to post the article I wrote about the mountain lions of Los Angeles for LMU Magazine. Here it is!
Tag Archives: Los Angeles
The first few minutes, I think I’m crazy. The water at Cabrillo Beach is never what a sane person would call warm. A deep trough off the shore provides a steady chill stream. And then there’s the wind. The channel off Point Fermin is nicknamed Hurricane Gulch for a reason. If you swim in the afternoon you have to watch out for the windsurfers that tack back and forth, into the shore and out toward Catalina. This time of year, the sea temperature hovers around 57 Fahrenheit. Even with a wetsuit on, the cold stabs at your face and fingers. When I first dive in, “I can’t do this” is my immediate reaction — every time, every day — even though I know I can. It takes a good 100 strokes for me to acclimate. And then I can’t stop.
Water has always been my element. I stumble on land, am scared to be high in the sky, but take to the sea like a fish. Still, I never thought I’d be an ocean swimmer. Body surfer, sure. Lake swimmer, yes. But for the first several decades of my life, I stayed close to shore even when catching the big waves. Then I moved next to Cabrillo Beach.
Cabrillo is a half-circle bay bordered by the cliffs of Point Fermin on the west and an artificial jetty of rocks on the east. Actually, it’s two beaches: The outer one I just described faces the Pacific, and the inner stretch faces San Pedro Bay, aka the Los Angeles harbor. The inner beach, also called Mother’s Beach, generally gets an F from Save the Bay because let’s face it, it’s a city beach with little ocean current. Tankers barrel in and out. Boats anchored in multiple marinas dump crap, literally.
But the outer beach earns an A, thanks to that gulch. I paddle the inside but only swim in the outside.
Swimming is not just exercise; it’s meditation. I count my strokes like a yogi counts breaths. The strokes are breaths too, of course: nose up for air every four counts. I’m scarcely alone out there: The Cabrillo Beach Polar Bears, a club that sponsors a New Year’s Day plunge, keep an orange buoy moored several hundred yards off shore, with a thermometer letting visitors know yes, it really is still 57. Sometimes I run into neighbors out at the buoy, stop and ask them how their family is doing. The first several times I swam to the buoy, it seemed impossibly far, and I clung to a boogie board for safety. Eventually I graduated to no board, just flippers, then no flippers. Nowadays, I swim right past the buoy and keep going.
These days, I need that swim more than ever. There’s a kind of ecstasy I get, pulling my body through the water, watching my hands cut through the sun on the surface, or lying on my back and staring up at the sky. And then there are the days when I think I am alone out there, in my groove, a trance — and suddenly, a dolphin swims right underneath me, or I roll over and discover I’m in the midst of a chattering porpoise pod.
The joke in my neighborhood is that we live in a small town called San Pedro. When I look across the inner beach and see the cranes and cargo ships of one of the busiest ports in the world, I know that I also live in a big city called Los Angeles. But when I’m out there in the ocean, floating alongside the kelp forest, I feel one with the world.
Of course today was a day to feel wonder and unity: a new dawn, a new day, a new life — “fish in the sea, you know how I feel.” A day of unity, of the renewal of accords and the return of water rights, of embracing the great middle of our country and its edges, of poetry and music, of a cowboy’s grace, of seasons of love, of a Boricuan from around the Bronx block singing this land is your land, a land of hope and dreams. The first day a woman, a Black woman, an Asian woman, became second in command of the United States. Hallelujah.
There were silver Priuses and white SUVs. A fire truck, two garbage trucks, public works trucks, an ice cream truck, a city bus, and several semis honked their horns as they drove by. One rig’s blast sounded like a train whistle, long and loud — that got our adrenaline going. Lots of men in pickup trucks honked or raised their fists, even the one in a big white four-door with an American flag flying from the tailgate and a Trump sticker in the window. “He must be driving his dad’s car,” my friend Sue said. Even some police cars honked. A majority of the traffic passing the San Pedro police station Tuesday afternoon between 3 and 5 showed their solidarity with protesters waving “Black Lives Matter” and “End Systemic Racism” flags. They signaled support either with their horns or with their fists, thumbs, or fingers in peace signs. Many drivers admittedly were handicapped by their efforts to keep one hand on the wheel and one on their cell phones filming. There were only three voices of dissent, from a thumb down to a disturbing “Fuck Floyd.” Some protesters misheard one shout as “Fuck you!” but in fact it was “Fuck yeah!” I could see the joy on the driver’s face.
We were a small crowd — about 50 — but given that this was the first protest in often conservative San Pedro since the murder of George Floyd, our presence was significant. And with every passing honk, shout and fist pump of support, we provoked a loud and clear message to the police standing outside watching us, or sitting at their desks inside the station: People have had enough. The horrific video of Floyd’s death has galvanized a worldwide protest movement against police brutality and white supremacy. President Trump’s warning on Monday that he would send the troops to clear the streets was the straw that broke the back for those of us still paralyzed by pandemic fear. He pushed folks like me off the fence/couch and out to the streets to show these protests aren’t about violent extremism: They’re about making long overdue change in our country.
The demonstration was peaceful. Police officers waved hello as my friends and I walked up to join the line of protesters and I flashed them a peace sign. There were people I knew there — all local San Pedrans — and mostly, people I didn’t. We were a notably diverse lot, trending young and female, but my friends and I are all in our 50s. Next to me was Paul, a retired longshoreman; Erin, mother of children in San Pedro High and Dana Middle schools; and Catherine, a young woman with long purple braids. We were black, brown, and white; first-nation, European, African, and Mexican — a “broad coalition,” as President Obama says. The only infiltrators I saw were not from the far right or left but a few Jesus freaks offering the typical crazy — but admittedly timely — apocalyptic rhetoric. There were the usual socialist worker party folks hawking their wares (ironically). After all, Pedro is a union town, land of Harry Bridges and Joe Hill. Artists and activists handed out signs from the punk Pedro printers Calimucho: “Together we are stronger” over two fists clenched together, designed by Ruth Mora.
It felt surreal and thrilling to be out with people again, after months of sheltering in place. Almost everyone wore masks, though social distancing was imperfectly practiced. We came in peace and we left in peace, as curfew neared — and the feet and knees of us olds started to ache. The officers waved goodbye and we waved back.
The only scary moment of the whole afternoon was on the drive back down Pacific Avenue, past the Sixth Street business district. Stores were boarding up their buildings and a group of scary musclemen in San Pedro Fight Club T-shirts looked menacing and out for trouble. The idea that any of the peaceful protestors at the cop shop or down the street at the city hall building were going to bust some glass and steal, I don’t know, T-shirts was laughable. Remember, violence in this country historically and right now comes from the vested interests and the police who protect them. If nothing else, the protest forced locals to spray paint “BLM” on their makeshift window guards; even if they were just trying to keep vandals away, the message was there this morning, on building after building: “Black Lives Matter.”
Tomorrow I get to return to the place where I am literally in my element: the ocean. Los Angeles County beaches reopen for activities in the morning; I am grateful to the state, county and city for letting us see the light of day. I sincerely hope we don’t blow it; I’ll be social distancing and wearing my mask — when I’m not in/on the water, that is. I’ve been imagining tomorrow’s schedule for weeks:
7 am. Get up and take the dog for a nice long walk down at Cabrillo. Used to doing this at least twice every day, Alexander Hamilton has been perplexed why we have been walking every direction but the most obvious one — toward sea, sand, and sky — for the last two months. I suspect he will feel close to as much joy as I will when we stride past the beautiful mission-style beachhouse and say hello to the inner harbor.
8 am. Pull the kayaks down to the shore and paddle off. Waves and weather permitting, my husband and I plan to pack a lunch and spend a long day out on the water. We will be hundreds, if not thousands, of feet from other human beings, but hopefully not from the dolphins, seals, and maybe even whales. We may jump in and swim/snorkel. Bud will fish.
Sometime in the afternoon: Pull back ashore. Swim.
3ish: Reluctantly drag our butts back on land so the dog can get his exercise — at the beach again.
6 pm: Dinner.
8 pm: Evening walk on the beach. Who knows, maybe there will be bioluminescence?
Next day: Same thing all over again, but on the paddleboard.
The Argonaut, a weekly newspaper serving the west side of Los Angeles, asked to republish my Blue Wave blog post calling for open spaces to be, well, open. I updated and expanded it for them. Since press time, Los Angeles announced it would reopen most trails today (Saturday), and beaches might reopen mid-week — with most of the precautions and restrictions I suggest. Here in San Pedro though, many parks were still closed this morning, perhaps because some of them are run by the Port of Los Angeles; thanks Port for polluting our air and restricting our movement. Neither Mayor Garcetti nor our City Council representative Joe Buscaino have responded to my requests for explanation as to why so many of our neighborhood parks — which were always supposed to be open for exercise — have been closed.
I have been on a wild goose chase. Literally. I worked for the Youth Conservation Corps in Wisconsin in the summer of 1984, and our job one day was to walk through the wetlands chasing Canadian geese. We started at one corner of a swamp, about a dozen feet apart – socially distancing decades before that was a thing. At the opposite corner was a net. It was molting season so the birds could not fly. As we trudged through the mud in rubber boots – sometimes up to our chests in muck – we moved closer together, pushing the flightless creatures further down the funnel until finally, they were trapped in the net. The hunt was for their own good: The captured geese were tagged for research and released. We hosed and showered ourselves off afterwards. We were teenagers. Being filthy was fun.
Now, I know how the geese feel. The country, state, county, and city have been driving us into tighter and tighter quarters. First they told us to stay indoors except for exercise. Then they closed every open space where we could exercise: the parks, the beaches, the marinas, etc. Instead of giving us ample places to social distance, they have driven us into crowded neighborhoods and streets. Unlike other cities, Los Angeles has not shut down roads to give pedestrians added walking areas. Where I live, San Pedro, I am surrounded by public spaces where we used to be able to walk for miles with minimal passers by. Now, to give myself and my dog the exercise and sunshine we all need if we are going to stay healthy and keep our immune systems up, I have to walk on hard sidewalks, ducking into the road to keep six feet from other walkers, on promenades filled with all the other people driven into this urban net, that the city keeps tightening.
The Los Angeles Times recently called on state and local governments to reconsider their stance on closing public spaces. Some counties, such as Ventura and Orange, were open this weekend in time for the first hot days of the year. Sadly, not the county and city of Los Angeles. Having made the mistake to shut the beaches to begin with, they have now created a dangerous bottleneck situation.
This is Southern California. We live here for the sun, the air, the oceans, the mountains, the desert. We need the outdoors like Las Vegas needs casinos and New Jersey needs golf courses. We are a people who swim, surf, run, ride bikes, paddleboard, kayak, skateboard, sail, and fish. Activity defines us. For many of us, to not be able to partake in these sports is an assault on our mental and physical health; this is not just emotion speaking, this is science. And believe me, there is enough room in and near the Pacific Ocean for us to keep six feet apart — if governments would just open all the beaches, instead of forcing us into a few. It’s not only science, it’s math.
As Dr. Shana Jordan, a family doctor on respiratory duty, neighbor, and avid surfer, recently wrote in a letter to Mayor Garcetti: “The ocean is not a contagion zone. No two surfers or swimmers or paddlers would ever be within six feet of each other. This is nonsense. The government is swiftly losing credibility among outdoors people, particularly surfers and runners. I understand that enforcement is made so much easier with blanket park/trail/beach closures. But without nuance it is barbaric and idiotic.”
Sure, some people are going to be stupid/reckless/forgetful and not socially distance. So control the crowds. Do what Hawaii is doing: Don’t let people hang out on the beach; let them access the beach and the ocean for exercise. Limit the numbers who can enter the sea by keeping parking lots closed or restricting access. If Home Depot can figure out how to socially distance shoppers, can’t Parks and Recreation do the same for recreators? Patrol the beach for people violating the rules. Don’t let a few bad apples spoil the bushel.
The last weekend Cabrillo Beach was open, it was a gorgeous day, and after weeks of restricted movement and rain, lots of people did turn up. It was early in the shelter-in-place restrictions, the parking lot was open, and families with small children stuck at home were desperate to do something with their kids. Rangers cruised the sands in four-wheelers politely reminding people to social distance. They were nice; they complimented my dog. Not everyone listened to them, I’m sure, but most people did. The situation could have been improved with more planning, clearer rules. Instead, by the end of the week, all access to all beaches and parks was closed. Period. That’s not government, that’s dictatorship.
Fact time: coronavirus is deadly, it’s highly contagious, it’s scary. And we in the US were not prepared for a pandemic. From the national to the local level, American governments have had to rely on social control because they have not been able to provide the social services that are the number-one factor in controlling the deadly outbreak. Five months since Covid was first identified, Americans still do not have free and widespread testing for the virus and antibodies, personal protective equipment, contact tracing, etc. Support for hospitals, the unemployed, parents with children stuck at home, small businesses, schools, etc., has been slow in coming and too little too late.
Our leaders have instead relied on us to keep each other safe – and we have been pretty damn good, overall. The infection rate in California is 104 per 100,000, less than one tenth the per capita rate in densely populated New York. It’s higher in LA, but that is largely because of infections in nursing homes, tragically. Our curve is flattening, and it was never close to the dire numbers Governor Newsom predicted early on. So why, instead of loosening the reins, do they keep wanting to tighten them? Could it be they did this not for our protection but for their own hunger for power? Or that they are misdirecting us from their continued failure to provide adequate testing? I swear Mr. Perfect Hair Newsom gets a gleam in his eye when he warns us infection rates will go up if we don’t be good little children and stay glued to our screens.
LA County Public Health director Dr. Barbara Ferrer recently said, “We know it’s best right now for us Angelenos to stay home, or stay outside [in] your own yard or your own neighborhood.” First of all, that’s the definition of a paternalistic, or maternalistic, government attitude. Secondly, not all Angelenos have yards. One of the reasons Covid-19 is affecting impoverished and minority communities with more deadly power is because people there tend to be crowded into smaller spaces with less access to public land. Third, I would like to stay in my neighborhood, but my neighborhood is closed, so I keep having to go elsewhere, where it’s more crowded, to exercise. Open my neighborhood, and I’ll happily stay put.
Florida and Georgia have opened their beaches. Michigan is letting people fish again. When will Californians be freed?
People are starting to go nuts. Instead of bringing us together, the virus is driving us further apart – literally, of course, but we are not only socially distancing, we are philosophically, psychologically and emotionally distancing. The go-outsiders roam manically, ever further, looking for room to move, venturing into dangerous territories to get the nature they need. The stay at homers lurk on social media shaming their neighbors for, I don’t know, kissing their children. There’s a woman in our neighborhood who walks around calling people into the police, even though she herself is not sheltering in place. Yesterday, ironically, we had to call the police on her because she purposely coughed on my husband and harassed our food delivery person, after we told her to stop her snooping. Early in the restrictions, one of the many locals we used to see every day at the beach stood desolately in front of the yellow tape, surfboard under his arm. A former cop, he shook his head: “They’re going too far. You go too far, there will be social unrest.”
We’re seeing that around the world now. I worry that despite every horrible thing Trump has done wrong, Democrats – and I am one — are driving people straight into his arms by making ours the party of fear, the party of no fun, the party of no freedom. Instead of the party of empathy, of support, of leadership.
I jumped into the ocean the other day for the first time in months. In seconds, it was as if the heavy coat of tar and dust that has weighed me down was rinsed off, and all that day – and still now – I felt joy again. I knew I was hurting, but I didn’t know how bad.
Push free-ranging animals into tighter and tighter quarters for a month, then turn on the heat lamp, and see what happens. And remember, we are not molting so we can fly, straight into the sun if we have to.