Archives for the month of: July, 2011

(This story is part of a continuing series, An Assault in Venice. Part 1 starts here.)

The wires clamping Jeanette’s jaw shut were finally removed but it took weeks for her to get her teeth apart to any distance approximating normal. The art of chewing came slowly, and her upper lip remained numb. I watched her unconsciously touch her face, trace the new grooves and divots, and pinch areas that still had no sensation. If she was distraught about how she looked with half her face caved in, she certainly didn’t let on to me—and I would have thought I’d be one of the few she’d tell.

In May, two months after the assault, she was scheduled for her first big reconstructive surgery in Santa Barbara. Gretchen, the woman who worked in Dr. Keller’s office had arranged for us to stay with a friend of hers. Jeanette and I shared a room in a beautiful sprawling ranch home with Saltillo tiles that stretched out toward vibrant, pink bougainvillea at the base of the surrounding mountains. Fresh flowers were expertly arranged in vases in nearly every room. The place was brimming with light and color. It was a true oasis.

The waiting room in Dr. Keller’s office was more like a spa with comfortable chairs and cucumber water and bowls of fresh fruit. But still, it was hour after endless hour of flipping through mindless magazines and scrapbook-like binders detailing every cosmetic option available: otoplasty, rhinoplasty, blepharoplasty, rhytidectomy and liposuction among them.

Dr. Keller and Dr. Lacombe cut through Jeanette’s gum line, lifted the skin from her face and inserted a silicone implant to build up her right cheek adding cadaver tissue on top of it to replace the flesh. I suddenly appreciated all those people who’d given their bodies to science because one of them was restoring Jeanette’s smile.

When she finally emerged from the long surgery, her entire head was wrapped in gauze and ace bandages that left holes for her to see and breathe. We spent a couple days letting the lazy Santa Barbara breeze mix with the painkillers before she felt well enough to make the drive back. She insisted on stopping for Mexican food on the promenade in Santa Monica. All bandaged up like a human tennis ball, she sat in the outdoor patio watching the people walk by, many of whom stared. We talked and ate and laughed as if we hadn’t just been through the worst trauma of our lives. There we were, coming out the other side.
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(This story is part of a continuing series, An Assault in Venice. Part 1 starts here.)

I used to make it a point to call Jeanette every year on February 8th, and then she wisely proclaimed that she didn’t want to mark the day as if it were some kind of anniversary commemorating something.

This year, February came and went as best as I can remember.

Then one early morning, it might have been in March, I was in my car going somewhere I no longer remember. I weaved my way through the Venice streets heading toward Abbot Kinney Boulevard—the Melrose of the Westside. I waited at the corner of Palms and Abbot Kinney for the traffic to clear. On my left side was an overpriced clothing boutique named Steven Alan, and there was a man outside with a hammer smashing the ceramic lettering on the side of the building. The traffic cleared, and I eased my way onto Abbot Kinney thinking, hmm, they must have gone out of business. In my mind, for a brief moment, some construction worker was out early removing the signage. But then clarity struck me: That wasn’t a construction worker; it was an angry homeless man causing vandalism.

By the time I’d swung my car around and headed back with my iPhone ready to capture him in the act, he’d disappeared. I circled several blocks looking for him to no avail.

Later that afternoon, I went back to the store and told the manager I’d seen a guy smashing his sign. I gave him a description, told him the approximate time and left him with my contact information. Several days later he phoned me to tell me he’d contacted the police and had pulled some surveillance footage of a guy in front of the store matching the description I’d given him. He told me that the police had requested he gather all the material and show up at the station with the witness who could identify the vandal. We agreed to meet at the Pacific Division of the LAPD the following day.
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(This story is part of a continuing series, An Assault in Venice. Part 1 starts here.)

I don’t watch standard TV “procedurals.” I don’t like the format where a crime is introduced, investigated and then solved in 42 minutes (minus commercials). Life doesn’t work like that. Sometimes the bad guy never gets caught. Sometimes shit happens that’s caused by shitty people and the shit never hits the fan for them (so to speak).

Unfortunately, this is the story of a crime left unpunished, and the damage remains.

I don’t watch shows like CSI or Cold Case but I sure know a lot more now than I did then. I know that when two people have an encounter like Jeanette did with her attacker, there is always an exchange of DNA. There was DNA in that room, and I naively thought someone would collect it. I don’t know why they didn’t. I don’t know if it was simply a different time with insufficient technology. I don’t know if the LAPD is so saddled with crimes that they can’t fully investigate all of them. I don’t know if only murders get the once-over with a fine-toothed comb. I can only tell you that if I knew then what I know now, I would have either tried to collect DNA evidence myself or hired someone to do it for me. And I would have really used Cagney as my partner. The truth is, I was probably lead detective on this case, and if I’d know how or if I’d known that I could, I would have driven this train in a very different way.

I don’t have regrets, but I do have lingering questions.
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I’d be hard pressed to come up with another story that approximates the level of conflict, intrigue and drama as the one I just wrote. So it’s possible that my follow-up can really only be a disappointment. Perhaps the one thing working to my advantage is that the conclusion of the Jeanette story was a disappointment for so many people. I’ve gotten great emails expressing outrage and sadness. I love that people have cared so much.

The morning after finishing the last installment of the story, I was awakened at 3 AM to sirens, flashing lights and police helicopters swirling above my neighborhood. Periodically, an announcement would blare out from the darkened sky telling us to stay in our homes, that suspects were at large. This continued, unbelievably, for just over four hours. The police had to swap out their “airships” three times because the onboard fuel only lasts two hours. With nothing else to do, I reached for my iPhone and followed Venice311 on Twitter to get live updates from the LA Police Scanner.

It seems as though three guys broke into a local Best Buy, loaded a U-Haul with stolen electronics and were chased by the cops to my neighborhood where they ditched the U-Haul and started running. Police established a perimeter, tracked the thugs by heat from the airship above, brought in K-9 units and after four hours they had all the guys in custody.

Go LAPD!

Unfortunately, when the sleep-deprived neighborhood clued into the details, pretty much everyone was stunned to discover that they’d been kept awake since 3 AM for a truckload of electronics. My neighbor shook her head over the fence and said, “That’s it? I’m sorry to say but with all that activity, you’d at least hope someone had been killed.”
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(This is the beginning of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago.)

In 1991, I was working as a personal assistant for a horrible man who owned the Malibu Gym. Every day I’d travel from my home in Marina del Rey along the Pacific Coast Highway past all the houses where the other half lived and wonder exactly where my life was going. One afternoon as I was flying home unconsciously at about 75 mph, I was pulled over by the CHP for speeding.

Sometimes, however, there’s a silver lining.

Instead of paying the ticket, I opted to go to traffic school where, ironically, I met one of those men who lived in one of those houses overlooking the Pacific. As a member of the “other half,” he happened to have a house on a tiny island in the Mediterranean off the coast of Barcelona, and for some reason, he offered to let me stay in it for a month, rent-free. I’d never been out of the country before, and I decided it was time to go. I saved some money, quit my job and planned a backpacking trip through Europe using that house in Majorca as a respite. It’s what every 25-year-old should do.

Just before leaving on my trip, George Bush the elder, decided to bomb Iraq in what would become the first Gulf War. My plan hadn’t included there being a Gulf War but since there was, the American government highly recommended not leaving the country. If travel was necessary, they advised Americans to not fly into London. If that wasn’t possible, we were urged to avoid Heathrow Airport. My ticket to Heathrow in hand, I didn’t flinch because I had something the American government didn’t know about: an elephant pendant a friend had given me, which she assured me was some kind of Jewish good-luck-for-travel charm. I figured that pendant and a few earnest prayers were enough to keep me safe.

My father had given me a printout of travel suggestions before I left.

Do not tell people I’m American. Do not wear Nike shoes or Levi jeans or other obvious American labels. Do not give out too many details about myself. Be guarded. Trust no one.

My passport, credit card, traveler’s cheques and emergency phone numbers of U.S. embassies all over Europe were literally strapped to me in a wallet on a belt. Xeroxed copies of everything were sealed, ziplocked and tucked into the side pocket of my bag.

During the first few weeks of my trip, I charted handpicked territories up one side of Great Britain and down the other. I read abandoned English newspapers in train stalls and cafés, and I watched broadcasts of the BBC from the common rooms of youth hostels whenever there was a television. All eyes had turned toward my homeland. I became aware for the first time ever that I’d been born into something considered to be a Superpower. Mine was a nation that was leading a war. We were in the ultimate competition, and like the Olympics, we were waving our flags and rooting for victory.
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(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

Yes, I’m a smart girl, and I know better than to hitchhike. And, let’s be clear, there are no excuses. But I’d just come from a month of traveling the backroads of England where kindly strangers pulled over to the side of the road offering me a respite from the obvious heft of my bag. Some of my best travel stories are born in these moments and these people who wanted only to share their time with me. I’d kept looking for ulterior motives in them to no avail. And so my guard was down. I wasn’t careful. And Spain is not England.

So there I was—with my thumb out.

The man slowed his bike, and I got on the back. I told him where I lived. He nodded, and we were off, dust kicking up in the shadows of our past. He kept trying to talk to me. In Spanish. No comprendo. He tried again. And again. I thought he was making polite conversation. Mi Español es muy mala, I offered. And then he said something I understood: Yo y tu.

The man began driving recklessly and laughing. Talking and laughing. Speeding up. Slowing down. And laughing. He used his left hand, the one with the wedding ring on it, to reach around behind him, and grope me. It was the most fun he’d had in a very long time. I knew this from the echoes of his delight.

With no weaponry of my own, what I had in my arsenal was only my anger. And I can tell you that I have never had more of an instinct to kill. Never. When something like this had happened to me before, I was first a defenseless child and then a floundering teen. So now understanding what it would take for me to put back together the pieces of myself in the aftermath of violation, I would sooner imagine mine being the hands of a murderer. And so I did. I looked at my hands, shaking with fear and fury, and I pulled the nylon strap from my camera between them, testing its durability. In one swift move it would be around his neck.

But I knew it would be better to get off the bike. If I choked him while he was driving, it could get ugly. I looked at the ground moving beneath my feet. Stop, drop and roll; just like a fire drill, I thought.

I noticed that if he groped me he wasn’t paying attention to his speed, and he’d slow down. I waited for his hand to reach back toward me again, and that’s when I did it. I threw myself off the bike, hit the ground and rolled into the ditch, disoriented. A thousand pieces of information barreled through my head, processed, evaluated and sorted entirely apart from me. Everything was suddenly useful or not useful. Black or white. Right or wrong. Good or evil. I evaluated the weeds, dirt, grass, sticks, pebbles. There was nothing with which to protect or defend. And nothing with which to retaliate. To torture. To brutalize. To maim. I clawed a handful of small stones as I rose from the ground, an animal. I could dart into the field and lose myself in tall reeds, but a momentary flash of forewarning had me raped and bloodied and dead, my body never recovered, my parents forever wondering. I could run down the road in the opposite direction heading for nowhere, hunted. Or I could be the hunter, engage the enemy, launch the battle.

I looked back at the man on the road, on his motorbike, stopped, watching me over his shoulder, idling. My eyes bore into him, ready.

Don’t. Fuck. With me.
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(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

A week after my encounter with the groping Spaniard, I limped to the Estacion Maritima in Palma de Majorca, boarded a boat back to Barcelona and got on the first train leaving the country. From my window, I watched as we crossed the border into France, and as I looked over my shoulder I thought, I’ll never set foot in Spain again.

Eleven years later, I read Shirley Maclaine’s book, The Camino: A Journey of the Spirit. Here’s what she writes about the book on her website.

There is a famous pilgrimage that has been taken by people for centuries. It is called the Santiago de Compostela Camino across northern Spain. It is said the Camino lies directly under the Milky Way and follows the ley lines that reflect the energy from those star systems above it.

The Santiago Camino has been traversed for thousands of years by saints, sinners, generals, misfits, kings and queens. People from Saint Francis of Assisi and Charlemagne to Ferdinand and Isabella to Dante and Chaucer have taken the journey, which comprises a 500-mile trek across highways, mountains, cities and fields. It is done with the intent to find one’s deepest spiritual meaning and resolutions regarding conflicts in Self.

Even before I’d finished reading the book, I knew I would take the journey. It seemed so like me to be drawn to something so extreme and arduous and atypical. But I hated that the trail happened to be in Spain. Of course it would be: never say never.
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(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

Preparing for the Camino was a game of weight management: accumulating the most possible gear in the smallest pack. Because I’d have to carry everything on my back, I could only take what was essential. I studied the climate charts for northern Spain. March promised average temperatures of 40 to 50 degrees. As for rainfall, I was to expect to get wet.

I began to scour the sporting goods stores looking at tags not just for pricing info but more specifically for weight. I discovered that as the weight went down, the price went up. So I made a list of what I liked and promptly set up an eBay account. Soon, I was a frenzied bidder, and packages arrived daily.

I selected a Go-Lite backpack made out of parachute material. Not only did it weigh in at only a pound, but it was also water resistant.

In the end, I could take only what would fit in it:

  • Waterproof jacket, Gore-tex
  • Waterproof pants, Gore-tex
  • Waterproof socks, Army-issue, Gore-tex
  • Waterproof gloves, SealSkinz
  • Waterproof shoes, Merrell, Gore-tex
  • Underwear, mens’ Patagonia boxer briefs, 2 pair: one to wash, one to wear
  • Sports bras, Patagonia, 2 pair
  • Socks: 2 pair thin cotton Pearl Izumi low cut, 1 pair Smart Wool hiking
  • Pants, Sierra Nevada quick-dry, zippered to convert to shorts
  • Long underwear, Patagonia Capilene
  • Shirts: 2 Capilene silkweight t’s, Capilene lightweight longsleeve t, REI fleece
  • Towel, small quick-dry, REI
  • Bandanna: bald head protection, face mask, tourniquet if necessary
  • Sun hat, packable
  • Cloth slippers: for nighttime walks to the bathroom
  • Sunglasses, polarized, Tommy Hilfiger
  • Sleeping bag, lightweight, with silk insert
  • Camelbak bladder
  • Platypus collapsible SoftBottle, 2
  • Compass with temperature gauge
  • Pocketknife
  • Pepper spray
  • Pack-It Compressor bags, Magellan’s, 2: takes air out, lends water protection
  • First-aid kit/toiletries: blister kit, Bandaids, tape, gauze, pain patches, Betadine pads, antibiotic ointment, wet naps, aspirin, Benadryl, ear plugs, eye mask, matches, sunscreen, laundry detergent travel packs, tooth brush, toothpaste, deodorant, Vaseline (I was told that if I put Vaseline on my feet every day they wouldn’t blister)
  • Trekking poles
  • Journal and Camino trail book tucked into a Ziplock bag
  • –No camera

I loaded the pack and put it on the scale. It was 17 pounds (including the water).

I hadn’t trained specifically. I had run and cycled and lifted weights for years, but I never went out walking with a backpack. The only thing I tried to prepare for was learning some Spanish. I’d taken a year of it in high school and forgotten most of it. So I checked out some Spanish language tapes from the library. It soon became clear to me that I was woefully inadequate and not likely to get much better.

(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

I’d specifically chosen Valentine’s Day as the day to shave my head because I wanted the act to be one of love. I wasn’t just doing it to learn something about myself; I was giving my hair as a gift to someone whom I would never meet: I was donating it to Locks of Love, an organization that provides children suffering from long-term medical hair loss with what they call “hair prosthetics.” It brought me comfort knowing that it would at least be appreciated and cared for.


In the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day, I couldn’t stop thinking about my hair. I’d never thought about it so much in my life, certainly not with longing and goodbye. I’d mostly taken it for granted. But knowing it would soon be gone—ALL gone—I kept getting teary eyed. I also had the strange sensation that I was completing a cycle. The first time I cut my long hair into a bob was out of anger. I was young, about seven, and I unconsciously decided that it was my hair that made me a girl and made me look like a girl. So I cut it all off in the aftermath of sexual abuse.

Then, oddly enough, I grew it long again during those sexually curious years of high school and college. I used it, however, to take attention away from my face. I didn’t know how to have beauty, or have a beautiful face—I couldn’t hear that. But I could have beautiful hair; that was okay with me; that was somehow less personal.

It struck me—the idea that having no hair would allow something else to emerge. I thought:

God, I wonder if I’m ready to show my face now. At 40. Has it taken me this long to show my face?

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(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

First stop, New York.

I stayed with my friend Brenda in her incredible apartment just off Lincoln Center overlooking the park. I had arrived the same week that the Gates of New York had gone up. I watched from the window, at least twenty floors above the trees, as the supports were laid out on the paths lining the park. And then suddenly, Central Park was alive in orange drapery. It was stunning, especially offset by the snow.

On my first night in New York, I stayed up late, still on West Coast time. I decided to take a bath. While I love baths, I didn’t take very many of them late at night because I always had too much hair I didn’t want to dry before going to bed. But on that night, I had no hair; what I had was a few days of stubble.

Brenda had set out all the bath salts and candles for me. The room filled with steam as I lit the candles and lined the tub with them. I got in the hot, aromatic water and began to shave my legs. Brenda had shaving cream in a bucket and the combination of it along with a new, high-end razor left my skin silky and radiant. So I decided to shave my head with it. I closed my eyes and began slowly, tentative. I noticed that my hair grew in circles from the crown radiating outward. I’d never known that. Following the pattern of hair growth and shaving each follicle was like reading Braille. It was also a bit like a dance. I’d trace along the stubble with my fingers and follow behind with the razor. Around and around my head. Eyes closed. Trancelike. Almost drunk with wonder.
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