It was a dreary day. This may seem uncommon for the basin that is the "Southland", but in the winter, it is all too common. In January and February, the skies open, and rain pounds the streets, cleaning for a brief period the smog-saturated skies of Los Angeles.
I was out for Christmas, escaping my own deep-freeze of an East Coast winter and thawing out in what I'd hoped would be sunshine. Instead, sweaters were the mandate, and my tanktops stayed in my suitcase.
"So what do you want to do?" he asked. He was Joe, and he was my best friend. We'd been best friends ever since the moment he told me, in my red '87 Ford Ranger, the vehicle dubbed by family and friends, "Clifford, The Big Red Truck", that he was gay, that I was the first person he'd told, and that he'd known it for all 15 years of his life. That admission sparked a friendship that has lasted us through cross-country moves and nervous breakdowns, through job searches, identity searches, and, the most futile of all searches, the search for love. We'd often compare who had it worse: the straight girl living in Manhattan or the gay man living in West Hollywood. The argument was forever deadlocked.
I knew whatever we did would walk a fine line between ridiculous and fabulous. He was an only child, skilled in making his own fun. I liked to hang on for the ride. On past visits of mine, we'd infiltrated the Scientology Celebrity Center, resulting in near-arrests for us both, been lost in the caves of Bronson Hills (Who knew L.A. had caves? I sure as hell didn't.), and hiked to the Hollywood sign, where I kissed the Y and took in the great expanse that defined suburban sprawl.
I was full, having gorged myself on Del Taco, and feeling lazy.
"I dunno. Something low-key. Like a movie."
"Hmmmm." He took a long pause and scratched his head. Suddenly, he grabbed my arm.
"Have you ever been to Hollywood Forever?"
It sounded kitschy. It sounded touristy. It sounded fantastic.
"No," I answered, "What is it?"
"Well ... it's this place ..."
"What kind of place, Joe?"
"Well, I know you, you might not like it."
"It's called Hollywood Forever, what's not to like?"
He took a deep breath, bracing himself.
"It's ... a cemetery, Rach."
My eyes widened. My heart pounded.
"No way. Absolutely not."
My answer was firm and resolute. I did not "do" cemeteries. I did not like them, I did not visit them. I had the great fortune of being raised by an extremely superstitious, many-generations-removed Irish mother, who taught me to hold my breath as a child when we drove past cemeteries so that the lost spirits of the dead would not try to enter my body. I did not know death, as the only great loss in my life I'd dealt with up to that point was the death of my 17-year-old Siberian husky, B.J. (short for Brenda Jane, a good dog), so mourning, funerals, and customary cemetery visits were not only foreign to me, they simply could not be fathomed. But that was then, and since that afternoon, death has become as familiar to me as French fries and ketchup.
"But it's so cool! It's right behind the Paramount lot, and they have this mausoleum, and--"
"Stop. I'm sure it's cool, but we aren't going. Why don't we just drive around?"
He looked at me, the disappointment in his face undeniable.
We drove for hours, his windshield wipers no match for the buckets of water descending from the skies, a modern-day plague for the city's drivers. We drove along Melrose, passing the trendy shops we could not afford. We drove through Hancock Park, admiring the mansions of the 1920s. We drove in silence.
We reached Gower, and he turned right. Left was his apartment. We turned right.
"Where are we going, Joe?"
No answer. But I knew. I knew this kid incredibly well. He was extremely stubborn and, being an only child, prone to getting his own way. We got to Santa Monica Boulevard, and made a left.
There it was, out my passenger-side window: HOLLYWOOD FOREVER.
"Oh no, Joe."
"Oh yes, Rach."
We pulled in through the gates: rusted, wrought-iron pieces better suited for an estate in the country, not for an old graveyard across the street from a auto repair shop.
The cemetery was founded in 1899 as Hollywood Cemetery. In 1998, the Forever Network, a cemetery conglomerate, if you will, bought the place and renamed it Hollywood Forever. The park lies north of Paramount Studios, and its infamous watertower is visible from nearly every corner of the park. The park boasted the remains of such luminaries as Mel Blanc, Iron Eyes Cody, Valentino, Victor Fleming, Douglas Fairbanks, and John Huston. I was a film student, and should have appreciated the fact that a lost era of film was right here at my fingertips. But these were all details. I'd never stepped foot in a cemetery before. I was 21 years old. Joe drove up a long, paved road lined with palm trees.
In later years, I'd have plenty of graveyard visits to compare this to, and the biggest difference I'd find is this: many Southern California cemeteries have their headstones sunken into the ground; small, metal-made plaques laying in the grass give the information needed, causing the cemeteries to resemble fields and parks on a quiet day. I do not know why. Your typical SoCal cemetery rarely boasts crosses and half-moons cut from marble, which give the eye spatial perspective in an otherwise devoid piece of earth. Hollywood Forever is not the norm. Obelisks and monuments to those who'd passed rose from the ground, quietly competing amongst themselves in height and stature. There were above-ground tombs of wealthy Armenians the size of some shanties on Skid Row. Grave-markers were all around us. We were submersed in death, and Joe was giddy from it all. I'd stopped holding my breath a long time ago.
He parked the car and handed me an umbrella.
Over 86,000 people were buried here, and all I got was a lousy umbrella. With a busted handle. I was not happy.
The grounds were quiet, the rain and the season deflecting tourists and visitors. We walked. We passed statues, we passed stars ("I wonder if God tells DeMille He's ready for his close-up," Joey mused. "Doubtful," I responded.). We walked south. We walked west. 62 acres of land, full of bones and ashes. And a lake. A peaceful, quiet lake stood before us, a pathway cutting across it to a large, Grecian-replica mausoleum. He took my hand, and we approached the structure.
"It'll be okay."
And I knew he was right. I was superstitious, I was scared, but I wasn't a moron. He pushed open the heavy door. A gust of stale air rushed out at us.
Inside, knights stood in full armor, as though frozen in time, waiting for the appropriate moment to come to life. Our rubber shoes squeaked as we tracked mud and rain on the spotless marble floors. The only available light was what poured in through the skylights, and they were few and far between. We were breathless. It was a breathtaking place. Walls and walls lined with hundreds, thousands of plaques. Behind each of those plaques were ashes. Ashes of the dead. Some of them had been there 70 years or more. Did anyone visit them? Fake dusty daffodils sat in small glass vases attached to the wall. When you are interred somewhere, anywhere, are you there forever? Was there a clock slowly ticking in the admin offices, waiting for your loved ones to die off so that they could chuck your remains and fill the void with new ones? What was the turnover rate in your average cemetery?
We tiptoed down the corridors quietly. We were the only (living) ones in the place, but we were respectful of where we were. I was drawn to the dates of these people, second-grade subtraction giving me their age at death. 76. 89. 63. 12. Numbers. Years. Lives. It was hard to turn away. Till we heard it.
The heavy door to the mausoleum slammed shut, its groan echoing through the chamber.
An unfortunate cry left my mouth.
"We should go, Rach." There was a nervousness in Joe's voice that he'd failed miserably to disguise.
He pushed on the door with all his might, but it refused to budge. I looked at him. He shrugged. I slammed my shoulder against the door. Nothing.
There is within us the desire and instinct to survive, to stay alive. This becomes most apparent when one senses trouble or danger, and this instinct manifests into adrenaline, and this adrenaline rushes through your body, and suddenly all fears you may have had of cemeteries, of death, of ghosts and spirits and boogeymen all fly out the skylights of the hundred-year-old mausoleum as you repeatedly slam your shoulder against its heavy, three-times-your-height door. You repeat this motion until it becomes like second-nature. Your eyes water from the pain shooting down your right arm but you keep going because you refuse to give up. You are not going down without a fight. I was not going down without a fight. Each strike of mine was met with one equal or greater in strength by Joe. We were moving in sync, slam SLAM slam SLAM slam SLAM--
The door opened.
An old man stood, a trashcan on wheels next to him. He looked at Joe, who had reached down to pick up his glasses, and me, crying and rubbing my raw right side.
"Visiting hours are over," he said. Joe and I nodded, and quietly, quickly walked back to his car.