Downtown: A Prose Illustration

The last time I came here, the drive took three hours in the rain. Today, December 30, is clear and warm for the season. No traffic; I arrive an hour early rather than an hour late.

Navigating the noodle bowl of freeways I dodge other vehicles and merge, from the south 5 to the south 110 to the south 101 which is also the south 5 again, jump a solid line to merge with the feeder ramp from the north 110 so I can use the Temple Street exit ramp. This is actually much more dangerous when traffic is flowing than when it is backed up. But I have done this hundreds of times before and this is within my skill set.

Once I lived downtown. I went to school here. I worked here and even after moving my office to a suburb I still came here for work often. The pattern of streets and freeways and tunnels in the financial and civic centers is tattooed in my brain; it will be among the last things to go should I fall into dementia.

My bladder is full and the parking garage requires my last dollar. There is a thriving cash economy here; electronic money so useful in my exurban home town has not yet penetrated to the businesses here even in the shadows of the towers bearing the logos of America’s mighty financial institutions. It is not they which bring me here though; my concern today is the home of a dead woman from the working class.

Needing cash, the ultramodern yet already obsolete smart phone advises me to go to the Music Center, .11 miles away. It is up Bunker Hill and adjacent to Flower Street, and I am soon ashamed that climbing the top of the hill and two flights of stairs has left me winded, out of breath. For too long have I deferred physical fitness.

Not so the other users of the streets at 7:30 this December morning. Men and women of all shapes prowl the sidewalks, some walking to work in hose and sneakers with good shoes in their purses and others jogging in track jackets and gaudy gold crucifixes. I hear a Babel of languages spoken. English, Japanese, English again, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Spanish again, something I cannot recognize. Everyone carries a face devoid of emotion and appears to move purposefully.

The plaza at the Music Center still has holiday decorations: on the west end a tall Christmas tree with oversized balls and garlands so as to be seen from the street and on the east with a fully-illuminated Menorah standing next to a statue of musicians, everything but the lights obscured from street visibility. The signs for upcoming performances at the city’s cultural summit showcase the blend of entertainments formerly thought discrete both highbrow and low — Broadway musicals based on pop music albums, another stage production based on a movie based on a book, television stars appearing in the opera. Workmen sit and exchange friendly lies over coffee in seats where later tonight the elite will sip overpriced flutes of average Chardonnay and gossip about political sub-luminaries during intermission.

A squadron of attractive young women in good suits and uncomfortable shoes surrounds me walking back across Grand Avenue. They wear the pensive mask of ill concealed anxiety which brands them as lawyers, even were they not going to the courthouse. I flatter myself that I am more relaxed in my appearance than they in theirs. Of such white lies told to oneself is the mask of confidence assembled.

Though I feel unhurried the rest of the city feels differently. There is courtesy of a sort, in the expectation of mutual disregard. A car stops on the street to yield to pedestrians crossing the driveway and I am the only walker to stop and allow the driver to maneuver out of traffic. She does not expect the lawyers on the sidewalk to yield and does not make eye contact with me. The attractive, pensive lawyers walking near me on the sidewalk indeed do not stop walking and do not even turn their heads to look at the car. A security guard, however, turns his head to admire the young women in business suits before resuming his conversation with a heavyset Chinese man buying a copy of today’s newspaper from a battered coin-operated dispenser.

Though I have come to court early, the court is unready for me; I learn that the court assigned to hear my clients’ matter is dark and the substitute court cannot — or will not — see me for another two hours.

It is both faster to live here, and more expensive, than I have grown used to. There seems an abundance of culture, a democracy of smells on the streets. Democracy of this nature is not always pleasant. The rich and powerful commingle with the homeless and mentally ill, and samples of all social strata in between, all seemingly observing the same unstated social contract to only glance at one another and to wear the same vaguely dissatisfied expression. The sunrise cuts through the remnants of fog but I am an attorney and thus not permitted to stop and take photographs of the winter plants in flower, the monumental buildings around me, or the deeply interesting people around me in this most diverse and sleek of cities, this urban sui generis called Los Angeles. No, it is time to wear my game face and act as though I’ve been here before — which I have, yet which I try to see with new eyes this temperate December morning.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. This might be my favorite of all the things you have written lately, Burt… which is saying something. Well done.

  2. This is just beautiful Burt. And extraordinarily relatable – change a few words, and this could be about a day in court in Newark.

Comments are closed.