"Excuse me! Do either of you have a pen? Please I need one! I don't mean to frighten you but I really need a pen!" a voice cries out from the LA RIver. I look at Karen's dimly lit face as we walk closer to the man at the the end of the long dark shit smelling access tunnel. Karen is confused. I look back at the silhouetted figure of a man frantically running towards us. "Sorry, but neither of us have a pen" I yell back at the man. I can see his face now as we get closer to the end of the tunnel. The man is clean and well dressed, seems normal. Still in a panic the man explains, "I know I probably seem crazy but there is a homeless guy down there that has an unbelievable voice. My brother is still down there with him. I was recording a little bit of him sing but my phone died. This man's voice isn't like anything I've ever heard! I don't have money and my phone is dead. I need a pen so I can give him my information! I need to give this man something! I NEED A PEN NOW!" I think for a second of how I can possibly help this lunatic, "There are some people on Santa Fe filming who probably have a pen." He then runs down to the other end of the tunnel leading back out to the street. Karen and I continue onwards down the path to the LA River.
Originally, the plan was to spend the day together on a photo adventure. To see the new Ace Hotel in Downtown LA and grab Stumptown Coffee beforehand on the assumption that there was a café in the hotel like the one in Portland. I was wrong. Stumptown is actually in the Arts District far away from the Ace. To give Karen a little taste of a city she has never been to, we grab coffee first. But there is nowhere to sit in the small crowded café. We both agree to walk around the popular neighborhood and take pictures instead. This adventure is forever evolving.That is how we stumbled upon one of the few access tunnels to the LA River. I had never been and neither had she, but then I remember we are on a time limit. My grandfather is a guest speaker for Black History Month speaking about his experience in the negro leagues along with a two other influential African American's in the community. One being an ex-Dodger and the other… well I forget.
The sun was bright and the river was relatively deep. It hasn't rained in months and still the river is flowing strong with God knows what. Off to the south of the river entrance we could see the frantic man's brother talking with the homeless man. They walk towards us but rather the homeless man detours from taking the tunnel and jumps onto the bridges support columns to climb into the railroad yard as though he has down the tight rope walk a thousand times before. The brother on the other hand hops on his motorcycle without saying a word and takes of down the tunnel. It is now just Karen and I taking in the river for what it has to offer. We start to name off movies that have been filmed in this very spot. It's an important piece of Los Angeles history we realize. We are both taken away by the thought of living in LA most of our lives without having ever been before but have seen this place all our lives on TV. We start to take pictures.
It wasn't long before another photographer came out of the dark tunnel with his assistant holding his gear. He says barely even acknowledging our existence, "I'm surprised from how much water is in the river." This man was an older Angelino with sunglasses hanging off the back of his bald head and a grey t-shirt that read the words in blue "LA Dodgers." The encounter was brief as he takes a photo and walks back off into the tunnel. Boots deep into the water, Karen and I walk on the slippery slimmed algae covered river bed and wait to see how far either of us can go before falling. Our boots were soaked as we walk back onto dry cement and look at the photos. She is so close. We haven't been this close in years, but have remained friends all this time. The last time we were this close was after a Halloween party five years ago as we stood smiling face to face outside my car. Still high from the excitement of that night and arms wrapped around each other I wanted to kiss her. The only premise of ever meeting her was because she was a friend's ex-girlfriend. I wanted to kiss her. Standing there on the edge of uncertainty outside of my car, an image that appeared all too "LA." I wanted to kiss her. Finally fate arrived with an answer. My two drunk friends Robert and Juan que the music and play it loudly on my car stereo system. Two 12 inch sub woofer let out the words "I love having sex but I'd rather get some head… rather get some head." I lean over and look into the open driver side car door and see Robert and Juan busting out laughing getting hyphy in my car. The timing wasn't right. Now here we are again years later, high from the excitement of having fun in the sun together once again. Our world's coming together as timelines of life experiences traveling at a million miles an hour come crashing into each other in what we both felt was unexplainable but yet unavoidable. The five year long awaited kiss. Coincidence began to play its melodic harmony as the two of us stood there alone.
Loud child laughter begins to echo out from the dark hole carved into the river cement walls. "More people? This must be the place to be!" she says with a half hearted laugh. I joke back with her, "Sounds like a field trip is coming. Who takes their kids on a field trip to the LA river…" (obviously not ours were the words we both hold in) The chilling laughter gets louder. I point my camera up towards the tunnel and wait for whoever it is to exit the tunnel. If it is kids, what a photo it would be to have the juxtaposition of innocent kids playfully exiting a dark tunnel into the LA river. We wait and stare up towards the tunnel. A brother and sister exit, followed by their parents. The mother of the two comes down to us and asks, "Are you here for the Instameet?" Karen and I look at each other in confusion. "Or did you just so happened to be down here shooting as well?" "This is an instameet?" I ask. "Yeah there is this girl on instagram named Femme Photale who organizes this. There are about to be a lot more people down here in a second!" I turn my attention back towards the tunnel. I can hear the commotion of the crowded tunnel up above full of talking people. Then, it happened. Photographer after photographer started to spill out of the tunnel as they all glance at Karen and I and walk by. "Are you two models?" one would ask. "Can I take your picture?" another would ask. We stuck out from everyone else, mainly Karen. That day she became a star. Still caught in the surreal moment of what was happening, the woman who organized the instameet, Karla, found me and we begin to talk as Karen is off back in the river posing for pictures.
"People tell me it's strange how I can get all these people together but all my close friends know me as an extreme introvert. I get really high anxiety in social situations, but this… this makes me feel comfortable. I feel like I am doing something more meaningful in life… something bigger than myself. I think that pushes me out of my comfort zone into situations like these. It's exciting! And I figured I pick here because the bridge above our heads is going to get torn down soon." All the while she is talking I'm thinking, this is it. Here is my opportunity to compete with Rob. What a lot of people don't know is that I have a friendly competition with my good friend Robert Vega, who is an LA based photographer. The same friend who five years prior put on Three 6 Mafia's "I'd Rather." Last month he got over 1000 followers on instagram (big deal) because of a photo he posted. I sarcastically became his competitor because that is the kind of friendship we have, always pushing each other to do better. I told him "By this time next month we are going to laugh at that number. By this time next month I will have more followers than you!" And now here I was with LA instagram heavy hitters. "Do you ever take group photos of everyone at these instameets? I think it would be great to get a photo of everyone here, high school portrait style, with you standing in front of everyone with your camera as an homage to what you are doing here." We look around and although it is an instameet, everyone is not really interacting, but rather wandering off in solo groups or individually. It was strange. "No we really don't do group photos. I just get everyone here and let them go about their own devices. I don't have the social capability to get everyone together for something like that." I know this is her baby and I don't want to be that guy barging in unannounced so I ask "Would you be interested in doing a group photo?" "Of course that would be awesome!"
I run north to one end of the stretched out instameet along the LA River and ask them "Are you interested in a group photo?" Everyone looks at a man who is recording another homeless man speaking about his life. I'm assuming this is the alpha male of the situation. It was as though they couldn't speak for themselves. "Sh-sh-sh-sh-sure!" says the man. "Great meet at the tunnel entrance in five." That should give me enough time to get to the other end and convince others for a photo. I run along the diagonal sides of the river in my wet boots and avoid he slippery river where we have already witnessed plenty of people take the fall. I get down to the other end and the same thing happens. I ask and they all look to a select few who are the heavy hitters and see if they are in. "Th-th-th-th-that sounds like a great idea." Another stutterer? "Well come on" I demand. I look back at the entrance of the tunnel, the people I had gathered first are walking out. I was too late. People had followed Karla out towards the street. She had other plans on the itinerary.
As everyone was following the rest of the herd back through the tunnel, the singing homeless man appeared from the darkness and began to sing. One of the kind photographers makes a quick announcement, "This is Leon. He lives here. He has an amazing voice and is going to sing to us. If you would be so kind to contribute anything to this man, he would really appreciate it." I hear a smack of the lips "psh" behind me. I turn around and acknowledge the fact that the man is telling the truth of Leon's voice. The overweight alpha instagrammer who let out the sigh of disagreement responds, "As if I want to hear him sing. Even if I did have anything to give, I wouldn't give it to him." That's when it occurred to me: these people are celebrities on their instagrams but in the person, they each have a defining insecurity that makes it difficult for them to function comfortably in normal social situations. In some way, I'm sure I have mine. I looked down at my watch to check the time. It also occurred to me that in all the excitement, I had missed my grandfathers speech.