by Meghan Cason
“Don’t people visit the graves of their loved ones on Christmas? Isn’t that a thing?” I asked John, my husband, as we got in the car. I’m no expert on this variety of macabre etiquette — I don’t know where anyone in my family is buried or otherwise stashed — but as it turns out, I was right. Forest Lawn’s massive gates were open, and we drove right through them, bypassing the information kiosk and the English Tudor-style main office building. Up a hill, we park outside the vaguely Italian-looking Great Mausoleum. Later, I will learn this building was inspired by the Cimitero Monumentale di Staglieno, a cemetery in Genoa, Italy, famous for its lifelike mourning sculptures.
When there isn’t a global pandemic, John and I like to travel and frequently visit cemeteries in other cities. We’ve lurked among tombstones in New Orleans, Key West, and Edinburgh. We’ve stumbled over Spanish epitaphs in Buenos Aires. We’ve stood solemnly above the graves of Edgar Allen Poe in Baltimore and Hans Christian Andersen in Copenhagen. But somehow we’ve never visited this cemetery in our own backyard, the final resting place of Walt Disney and Elizabeth Taylor. Several times a week, I bike past Forest Lawn’s imposing entrance, purportedly the largest wrought-iron gates in the world. I admire the rolling, grass-covered hills within, which beg to be climbed on a bicycle. I frequently wonder if it’s uncivil to cycle through a cemetery. Never certain, I stick to my planned route, bound for the familiar sights of Griffith Park, with its golf courses and Observatory, its joggers and equestrians, Travel Town, and its locomotive graveyard.
Glendale’s Forest Lawn Memorial Park is the original location of the Los Angeles-area funerary chain, “a Southern California landmark since 1906,” according to its website. The weather is perfect today — or not, depending on how you like your Christmas weather. But it’s a nice day for a stroll among the dead, which seems like an appropriate way to spend a holiday during the plague.
Out of the car, I gaze up at the Mausoleum’s pointed ivory tower and think of Evelyn Waugh, the long-dead British novelist whom I hadn’t thought about in a long time. Waugh famously parodied Forest Lawn in his novel The Loved One, which I never did read. In fact, I never finished any of Waugh’s novels despite once being charged with a collection of his rarest books and ephemera. Fourteen years ago, when I’d interviewed for the job and confessed my ignorance of all things Waugh, my future employer suggested I start with Scoop, Waugh’s satire of tabloid journalism. Though I was recently in possession of a Master of Library and Information Science degree, I’d worked as a journalist for many years, and those jobs were still on my résumé. Leslie Snodgrass — a Bel Air-based rare book collector from a finance family so comically famous I’ve given him a pseudonym — thought Scoop would be a fitting gateway into Waughlandia. He was wrong.
* * *
I rode my bike to the Snodgrass interview from my squalid apartment next to a dumpster, a building not remarkable enough to have a name emblazoned on its facade like so many other mid-century Hollywood apartments. I took Santa Monica Boulevard, passing the donut shop everyone called Tranny Donuts. It’s offensive now, but that word was dropped so casually then, a penny tossed in a fountain. My neighborhood was famous for its twenty-four-hour patrol of gender-fluid sex workers, its queer vaqueros, and the trans security guard who patrolled the Del Taco. It was they, not me, who owned this corner of Hollywood where I was merely a guest. Fourteen years later, that donut shop is a memory. Today, a block away on the corner of Santa Monica and Highland, sits the Pepto Bismol-pink Trejo’s Donuts, owned by the actor Danny Trejo, which features a decent selection of vegan confections.
I ride on, Hollywood’s grit giving way to West Hollywood’s panache, rainbow flags
to greet me, the bodegas and check-cashing stores usurped by sidewalk cafes, juice
bars, and gyms. Here, I happily cruise in a bike lane, and even the police cars have
rainbows on them. Finally, the iconic Beverly Hills sign comes into view, a sentinel.
The sign is absurdly large, and passing it means I’ve crossed a threshold. I’m in
the land of lawns and money, the Los Angeles I grew up watching on Beverly Hills 90210.
I often rode this route to UCLA when I was still in graduate school. I veer north
to Sunset Boulevard, but bypass campus and continue into the ultra-wealthy enclave
of Bel Air, the neighborhood with the highest median income in Los Angeles County.
Its denizens are also among the oldest, and they lurk behind monumental hedges. Not
unlike Forest Lawn — the cemetery where some of its residents may eventually relocate — the
community is gated.
When I arrive at the address Mr. Snodgrass had provided over email, I have two problems. First, I am sweaty, which I should have anticipated, but somehow I never second-guessed my decision to ride across town for a job interview in a mansion. The second problem is that I don’t know where to lock my bike. I don’t necessarily think it will get stolen from this posh cul-de-sac, but leaving a bike unlocked on the street is unfathomable in my part of town.
At the gate, I ring the bell, and a woman responds in Spanish-accented English. I explain that I have a job interview. Also, that I have a bicycle. A pause.
“Leave it on the side of the house,” she says. There is a buzz, and I venture into the compound.
With its red-tiled roof, the Snodgrass estate evokes the Mediterranean, but the grounds are so lush — intentionally overgrown — that in my years working here, I’ll never get a good sense of what the house actually looks like from the outside. A uniformed housekeeper opens the door, and behind her stands Mr. Snodgrass, avuncular and somewhat younger than I expected — late fifties or early sixties — around the age my father would have been. The housekeeper steps aside as he reaches out to shake my hand.
“Call me Leslie.”
Leslie guides me down a dark, wood-paneled hallway, its walls lined with glass cases that are stuffed with well-worn books, the gilded imprints of their spines twinkling at me. This is a taste of the modest library that awaits us, where we will have our interview, which is filled with more wood, more glass, more books. The interior of the house — distinctly old European, portraits and battlefields painted in oil — contradicts its subtropical exterior. We sit across from each other in antique French armchairs. He’s holding my résumé. I’m fresh out of graduate school, and I’ve been working part-time with special collections at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but I have very little professional library experience. I am not qualified for this job. Also, I’m still sweaty.
“You were a writer,” he notes, looking down at the piece of paper in his hand. My first love was fiction, but I’d worked for years as a journalist because it seemed like the most practical way to make a living writing. Reporting was tedious, it turned out — at least the jobs and assignments I kept getting — and I’d found it exhausting to write about things that didn’t move me. So, I put away my pencil and did what seemed logical: applied to library school.
“Yes,” I tell him. “But it wasn’t for me.” A half-truth. “Now I just want to surround myself with books.” It sounded stupid coming from my mouth, but he smiled, and took that platitude as an invitation to tell me about his collection. He specialized in rare books and manuscripts, nineteenth- and twentieth-century British literature, with an emphasis on three Great Whites: Sir Richard Burton (“my collection is second in the world only to the Huntington”), W. Somerset Maugham, and Evelyn Waugh. I’d heard of Waugh and Maugham, though I hadn’t read their work. I admitted as much, but Leslie wasn’t fazed. He asked my rate, and I named an hourly wage that seemed outrageous, surprising myself by what I’d said: twenty-five dollars an hour. The number hung between us.
“That sounds about right.”
The job was part-time, but at that rate, I wouldn’t need anything else. I looked around the room and saw myself working here slowly, painstakingly, for a very long time. He noticed me looking.
“This won’t be your office,” he said. Leslie led me down the hallway to another room, much smaller, with a bed and desk. It was some kind of guest room. The glint of a knife on the desk drew my eye, but then I realized it was a letter opener — sharp at one end, baroque at the other. From the ceiling hung an incongruous glass chandelier, a wild Chihuly-looking thing from which sinister glass flowers dangled, dripping blood and raspberries. It was so out of place in this house — as was the white crib I noticed in the room’s corner. Was that to be a book deposit?
“Perfect,” I said.
As Leslie escorted me to the door, we passed his wife, Frances, in the hallway. He introduced me as “our new young librarian.” I shook her hand, which was cool and remained motionless.
“Nice to meet you,” I said. She nodded. I studied her face and thought I saw surgery,
her lips pursed and fishy, judging. Later, I would learn that she was a justice on
the California Court of Appeals. A surprise. Who was judging whom?
I opted for a bus ride home, hitching my bike to its front rack. On the Number 2, I examined Leslie’s parting gifts: a copy of Waugh’s Scoop and a self-published booklet entitled “Almost the Best Sir Richard Burton Collection.” I scanned the text, noting Burton’s opinion of women: “Quite bad and cunning enough without putting such weapons as pens in their hands.”
The bus smelled distinctly of human waste. Across from me, a man sat holding a yellow-glowing mason jar, its contents appearing suspiciously like urine. He grinned, a Cheshire cat missing a few teeth. I turned away and leaned my head against the window, watching the lawns of Beverly Hills tumble past.
* * *
Toward the end of The Loved One, a young woman’s body is incinerated. Her ex-fiancé, an undertaker of pets, burns her in a crematorium constructed for a dog. I know this because I was inspired to finally read this book — my first Waugh from cover to cover — after our Christmas Day visit to Forest Lawn. It seemed fitting: a belated visit to a world-famous cemetery in our neighborhood, a long overdue mind-meeting with a writer who once demanded so much of my time. Reading this book did nothing to change my opinion of Waugh. Rather, it was affirmed.
The Loved One is mean. It was published in 1948 following a six-week American holiday on MGM’s dime. Ostensibly, Waugh came to Los Angeles to adapt Brideshead Revisited for the screen, but he had no intention of following through. He referred to Brideshead’s American popularity as “my humiliating success.” Waugh did not trust any Hollywood studio to do the book justice, a work he once wrote that “only six Americans will understand.” And though the trip did not yield a script for Brideshead, it introduced Waugh to Forest Lawn, Glendale’s death-themed amusement park. During his Los Angeles holiday, he visited the Park several times a week, becoming friendly with its chief embalmer. He wrote, “It is an entirely unique place — the only thing in California that is not a copy of something else.” To be clear, with its painted corpses, trees native to other hemispheres, and architectural pastiche, Waugh considered Forest Lawn positively pagan, an affront to religious traditionalism he couldn’t turn away from. From this necrophiliac fascination, The Loved One was born.
In Waugh’s view, Americans were a primitive lot. In the first pages of The Loved One, he draws a straight line from the British colonial abroad to a fraternity of English expats working within the Hollywood studio system. The book’s opening scene finds these men outside in rocking chairs, drinking whiskey sodas on a balmy Los Angeles night. They are the “counterparts of numberless fellow-countrymen exiled in barbarous regions of the world,” the relentless pulse of music from nearby “native huts” their soundtrack.
Briefly, the plot of The Loved One is this: Denis Barlow — an English expat, film
industry failure, and occasional poet — is employed by the Happier Hunting Ground,
a pet cemetery and crematorium. Charged with making funeral arrangements for a human,
Barlow visits Whispering Glades, a death park modeled on Forest Lawn in all its ostentation — from
the pervasive marble statuary, to the English church replicas, to the countless concealed
radios that intermittently amplify something called “Hindu Love-Song” and the incessant
twittering of caged birds. There, he meets and is bewitched by Aimée Thanatogenos,
Whispering Glades’ cosmetician to the corpses. Aimée is beautiful, her eyes lit with
“a rich glint of lunacy,” but Waugh reminds us frequently that she isn’t very bright.
Barlow woos her with plagiarized poetry from the English canon, which the beauty school-educated
Aimée fails to recognize. A love triangle forms with Mr. Joyboy, Whispering Glades’
chief embalmer. Things go badly and Aimée commits suicide on an embalming table. When
Denis finally burns her corpse in the pet crematorium, he recites love poetry as a
blubbering Mr. Joyboy looks on and weeps.
Not knowing what I was looking for, I wasted most of a weekend reading this book. My opinion of Waugh had been cemented long ago. He was a snob, a social climber, and, some have argued, a fascist. He was also Catholic, a religion he came to after his debauched youth among London’s “bright young things” and a year-long marriage that ended in divorce. He’d been a cuckold and so he turned to Catholicism, relishing in the conservatism and traditionalism of the church. His newfound faith did little to improve his character. He traveled frequently to British colonial outposts, and, according to biographer William Myers, “was a habitué of foreign brothels and was excited by perversion, slavery, primitive nudity, and the sexual implications of racial dominance.” When asked by a friend how he could reconcile “being so horrible with being a Christian,” Waugh replied that were it not for religion, he would have “committed suicide years ago.” Another biographer, TJ Ross, writes: “If we were to grade British authors of this century according to the degree of compassion manifest in their works, one novelist sure to flunk would be Evelyn Waugh.”
It’s been nearly twelve years since I’ve had to relinquish my time reading, thinking of, or cataloging Waugh. Then, at least, I got paid. What is compelling me now to write about those strange few years I spent working for Leslie Snodgrass? Years that amounted to — for all I know — nothing. I built a database to house rudimentary bibliographic records of Waugh’s work and papers. Those records reside on an ancient iMac, and the software I used is now likely obsolete. A computer’s age is not unlike a dog’s, and I imagine that iMac buried somewhere in Leslie’s Bel Air backyard, no rock or cross or bone to mark its grave.
* * *
I did a lot of creeping up and down hallways in that house, a librarian-ghost opening creaky glass cases, extracting books, and hauling them back to my weird office-slash-bedroom-slash-nursery. There was a book stand on my desk, and I’d lay my volumes upon it, gently. I had a small collection of luxurious velvet bean bags that I would drop into a book’s gutter to prop it open, unleashing the musty odor of dead white men. If I wasn’t examining a book, I was sifting through the contents of gray archival boxes, reading correspondence between author and publisher, or letters from Waugh’s good buddy, Jessica Mitford. I did my best to distill what I found in those boxes and books to its essence. This is the witchery of bibliographic description. Newspaper journalists are taught to write for sixth-graders, but librarians and archivists do something else. We strip a thing and give you its bones: page count, year of publication, a summary. In rare books cataloging, marginalia is noted. Differences in editions — British versus American, for example — should be expounded upon. In the case of Waugh, I was instructed to cross-reference each title with the man’s biographies, linking the year of publication to major life and/or historical events. I was to position any given book in the larger context of Waugh’s existence. If the significance wasn’t obvious, I sometimes felt compelled to divine something. Meanwhile, the more I learned about Waugh, scanning his biographies for the salient bits, the more I loathed him, and the more trapped I felt in that room where I sat beneath the dripping glass chandelier.
Did Leslie believe I read Waugh in the bathtub every night, dutifully completing my unspoken homework? My attempt at Scoop was aborted by the fourth chapter:
“That’s Mrs. Cohen,” said Effie. “You see how it is, they’re Yids.”
“Oh dear,” said William, “I was told to come here by the passport office.”
“Sure it isn’t the nigger downstairs you want?”
“Perhaps it is.”
The casual racism and anti-Semitism permeating this book — a gift from my Jewish employer — shocked me. Some critics will defend these lines as relics and note Waugh’s quickness to swat a WASP. Who cares? I didn’t want Evelyn in my apartment; it was enough to share my room with him at the Snodgrass estate. When I was on the clock, I entered my descriptions into the white boxes on my computer screen, which demanded to be filled. This was the metadata Leslie and I established during my first week. For an archivist or rare books librarian, this work can be thrilling if you care for your subject. I fantasized about Grace Paley and Virginia Woolf, thumbing through signed first editions and reading their letters, the paper smelling not of old men, but of roses and cigarette smoke. I thought of the archivists charged with Andy Warhol’s “time capsules” — 612 boxes filled with 300,000 objects, from half-eaten sandwiches to junk mail to the occasional Basquiat. At what point does processing that collection become a kind of torture? Did those archivists begin their work eagerly? Was it a dream job that gradually became a mean joke, Warhol’s final, disaffected ha?
Sometimes when I arrived in the morning, a single pink rose would be waiting on my desk. I didn’t know what to think. I wondered if Leslie was making an overture. He’d been nothing but professional; he never mentioned or acknowledged the flowers on my desk and I was afraid to broach the topic. Eventually I’d learn it was Lupe, the uniformed housekeeper who had buzzed me in on the day of my interview. Taking a break in the kitchen, I watched her through the window, plucking the prettiest flowers from the rose bushes in the yard. Her English was limited, so we didn’t speak much, though we often took our lunches together in the dark and quiet kitchen. We ate in companionable silence — a salad for me, shredded meat wrapped in tortillas for her. We were the help, united in the lunchroom, stranded on a kitchen island.
My stepmother had been a maid — when you still called it that — and the Snodgrass residence evoked the Oyster Bay mansions I’d haunted as a kid on Long Island. Unwilling to leave me unsupervised, Cindy would quietly usher me into the estates she serviced. If the family was home, I’d usually retreat to the yard with a book. So many of these mansions came with massive weeping willow trees on their grounds. I’d seek them out, a good tree my most prized reading nook, disappearing behind a swaying curtain of leaves. I’d find a comfortable seat among the branches and lose myself in the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.
If the family was gone, it was a different story. Those sprawling Oyster Bay estates invariably housed teenagers, their bedrooms ripe for snooping. I’d listen to their CDs — Billy Idol, Paula Abdul, Guns N’ Roses. Perched on a vanity, the big red triangle of Liz Claiborne perfume would beckon, the smaller triangle-shaped window at its center like a hypnotic eye commanding: spray me! I did, everywhere, and then I’d rummage through closets and try on clothes: too-big overalls and crop tops that fit me like regular tops. I was so small for my age — a runt, always mistaken for much younger — and fifth-grade-me swam in those teenage girl clothes. I’d plop down on their canopy beds and read their diaries. I rifled through drawers and opened jewelry boxes, pocketing a mood ring here, a scrunchie there. These were souvenirs from my trips to this land of make-believe where I was a spoiled Long Island princess, a daddy’s girl who wanted for nothing. When I’d had my fill, I ransacked the kitchen cupboards, looking for Entenmann’s cookies or the saltines I liked to eat by the tube. I’d open the fridge and guzzle soda straight from the bottle. I was a bright and feral cub — a fox — who got away with so much because of my size, cunning, and color.
In my twenties, newly tamed by academia, I often felt at odds with myself, fighting impulses I tried to bury and the questionable behavior I once relied upon for survival. I sometimes reverted to old habits at the Snodgrass estate, occasionally poking my head into closets when no one was around, running my hands along beaded designer dresses. On my first day, Mrs. Snodgrass had told me to help myself to anything in the refrigerator, and I took her at her word. I dug deeply into the freezer where I found so much chocolate buried, a sweet treasure. My eating was disordered, but somehow pilfered calories didn’t count. I walked into the walk-in pantry — so exotic, a whole room! — and looked for things I could take home with me and not eat.
* * *
One morning, I found a baby in my office. To my relief, she wasn’t cataloging books, so I didn’t think she was intended as my replacement. The baby was in the mysterious crib, which finally revealed its true purpose: not a book drop. This was about a year into my tenure at the Snodgrasss’. Later, I’d learn that my desk sometimes doubled as a changing table, a clear sign that boundaries were disintegrating.
The baby wore a pink onesie. She was a plump, pastel beetle on her back, kicking and cooing at the plush mobile that hung above her head. I peered down into her habitat. Not wanting to be rude, I thought I should introduce myself. “I’m Meghan,” I tried, catching a whiff of sour milk and something else. “What’s your name?”
“I see you’ve met Cleo,” came a voice behind me. I turned and faced Mrs. Snodgrass — or Frances, as she preferred to be called. “Our newest granddaughter.”
“Yes. I was just saying hello.”
Frances beamed at Cleo and then returned her attention to me, the light in her face restrained. “I’m expecting someone. Would you mind keeping an eye on her for a few minutes?”
I didn’t know how to say “No,” so I said nothing. I sat at my desk, opened my laptop, and tried to ignore Cleo, but she wouldn’t let me. Within seconds, she was crying, her little fists punching the air. I could relate, but I didn’t know how to help her. I could barely help myself. I stood and hovered over the crib. “What do you want?” I asked, but her tiny face only puckered and changed colors in response. At a loss, I scooped her into my arms and cradled her awkwardly, unable to recall the last time I held a baby. I had probably been a child myself. I rocked her and tried to think of something to say. I’d always thought baby talk condescending; I wanted to speak woman to woman.
“Do you know I haven’t menstruated in a year?” I asked her. “It’s true! The doctors have run tests, but they still don’t know why.” I thought I’d try to relate to her. “I also have insomnia. I bet you do, too. I usually can’t sleep more than a couple of hours each night. I was just prescribed Ambien. Do you want to try one?”
Cleo was relaxing, her cries becoming hiccups. I kept talking, softly.
“I don’t know what I’m doing with these books I don’t care about, locked up in glass cases for no one to read. Maybe it’s better they’re locked away? They’re not very good.” Cleo gurgled, responding to the sound of my voice, and I was afraid to stop talking. I worried Frances would hear Cleo’s cries and think less of me somehow, that it was some failing of my womanhood that I couldn’t soothe a distressed baby. I wanted to prove that I could be both librarian and nanny.
“How about I tell you a story?”
The only line I remembered from Alice in Wonderland popped into my head: “I knew who I was this morning, but I’ve changed a few times since then.” Lewis Carroll, another Great White, that curious Christian bachelor with a special affinity for children. The cursor in my mind was blinking impatiently; I needed to make something up. I thought of the nightmares I’d been having recently, recurring fever dreams of my teeth falling out or crumbling. According to the internet, dreams of crumbling teeth were common; they signified feelings of powerlessness.
My storytelling skills were rusty, but I jumped in, the words dribbling from my mouth like something I couldn’t keep down. Now, I picture the “Drink Me” potion that made Alice small, and later, a giantess. I don’t remember exactly how my story went, but its dark spirit has stayed with me.
“Once there was a poor girl with a beautiful smile. She loved to read, but had no money to buy books. One day, she met a wizard who lived in a tower made of novels, every story a story. The wizard was a tooth-collector and so he proposed an arrangement: a tooth for a book. It seemed like a good deal, so the girl agreed. Before long, she was toothless, her mind full, but her mouth a gaping hole. Sadly, without teeth, the girl found it difficult to speak. Worse, she had nothing left to trade for books. The girl pleaded with the wizard. Was there anything else she could possibly give?”
I paused, unsure how to end the story. Cleo looked at me expectantly until I remembered another line from Alice in Wonderland. In my queenless tale, the wizard uttered the infamous words, which I whispered to Cleo:
“Off with her head.”
The terrible story calmed the baby, who gazed up at me and blinked, sweetly. She reminded me of the Glo-Worms I’d played with as a girl. A voice came from behind me.
“She’s nice to hold, isn’t she?” Frances was there. Had she been listening?
“She’s warm,” I said quickly. “A little radiator.”
With tremendous relief, I allowed Frances to extract Cleo from my uncertain arms.
She cradled the baby like a pro, this woman who was a presiding justice on the California
Court of Appeals. She was also a philanthropist and volunteer, working on behalf of
children who — according to one website I’d read — were “emotionally disturbed.” I
wasn’t sure what this meant in practical terms, but I didn’t think it would happen
to Cleo. She looked so cozy in Frances’s arms, so clearly beloved. I watched them
and felt a creeping hollowness inside — not envy, exactly, but something like its
Years later, long after I’d stopped processing Leslie’s collection, Frances would call and ask if I could help the family with a dying relative in hospice. “We want someone who can sit with him when we’re not available. Maybe run the occasional errand.” She paused. “We trust you.” I had other employment by then — work that was rewarding, that drew on my experience and expertise — but I still seriously considered this offer, unable to say no for reasons I can’t articulate. I waited a few days before finally turning her down.
But this day, in my office-slash-nursery, Frances gave Cleo a few expert bounces and started with the baby talk. She was no longer looking at me, but adoringly into the baby’s eyes, undoubtedly thinking of all the advantages her granddaughter would be given.
“Meghan’s the best librarian, isn’t she, Cleo? She takes such good care of Grandpa’s
books, doesn’t she? Yes! Yes! Yes!”
Somehow, she made all that baby talk sound dignified.
* * *
In hindsight, I’d gone to library school with a dream of disappearing, though I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time. I wanted to recede into the stacks, get swallowed by a cataloging backlog, be crushed by an avalanche of ephemera. I imagined myself pinned under the weight of so much genius, that sphinx on my chest. In school, would-be librarians specialize. We choose a track like public service or reference and instruction; academic librarianship or corporate libraries. I chose special collections cataloging. I envisioned a solitary career in the bowels of a museum, poring over musty artist books and never speaking with a patron. I look back now and see what might have become a career of submission, working in the service of artists who spoke more loudly than I felt capable; who knew what to say and how to say it. They had a message. I would be the quiet messenger, a mouse, pushing a book cart.
But the Snodgrass gig didn’t take me down that path. Waugh stirred something in me, summoned an opposition. I wanted to file a grievance with the academy: who were these men we anointed to the canon? I didn’t want to work for them. If Waugh gets any credit in my book, it’s for waking me up and kicking me out of bed.
ie cut my hours drastically in 2009, citing the recession, which is laughable in retrospect. This man was a peripheral member of the world’s oldest banking family. With my hours reduced, I could no longer make rent, so I scrambled to find work during an economic downturn. I took another job I wasn’t exactly qualified for, and, eventually, that Bel Air mansion drifted away in the wake of my newly acquired 2002 Saturn S-Series.
My new job required a car, and that purple Saturn became my bookmobile. I had no office, no museum basement in which to dwell. I worked in the field, a field that covered parts of Los Angeles County I’d never seen previously, spreading to the south and the east. One week, my purple Saturn cruised through Watts, past its tightly-packed, candy-colored homes, the iconic Towers casting their spider-webby shadow over 107th Street. The next week, I was in Compton, with its Dollar Generals and strip mall churches, the occasional horse-mounted cowboy doffing his hat as I drove past, the eternal ring of Dale’s Donuts looming large on the horizon. I navigated the labyrinthine neighborhoods of East LA, admiring the faded murals and dodging the occasional stray chicken as the robot mannequins waved hello — those bare-breasted torsos without legs, crooked wigs perched on eyeless faces — trying to sell me sunglasses or car insurance. In South LA, I visited elementary schools situated beneath freeway overpasses, their jungle gyms blackened from soot.
Before I started working for Access Books, I knew these neighborhoods in name only. Like many white Angelenos, I’d had no reason to venture into this corner of our city, much of it nestled within the right angle of the I-10 to the north and the 110 to the west. I’d also never seen school libraries that looked like this: tiny converted classrooms, colorless, often drab and dusty, a few hundred books for a few hundred students. I’d heard of American NGOs that fundraised for and built libraries in Africa. I wondered how many Americans knew the conditions of libraries in South Los Angeles, or any other city with a grossly underfunded public school system. I hadn’t until I took this job. The books were old and tattered, and the students weren’t interested in them, which was understandable. There were science books from the 1960s, history books featuring cowboys and Indians, once-popular fiction titles now long in the tooth. While this job was unlike anything I’d done previously, this part was familiar: old books filled with antiquated ideas. Only now I was empowered to get rid of them.
My job was to update elementary school library collections and, with the help of volunteers, process new books for library circulation (think barcodes and spine labels, checkout cards and inserts). When I described this job to friends and acquaintances, I was often met with warm but glib approval: “Oh, that’s so great!” A pause. “How about another glass of wine?” The work was perceived as adorably noble, wholesome. I suppose it was, but doing it also felt refreshingly subversive. I culled the shelves of whitewashed history and racist garbage. I sought out books by writers of color, featuring characters that looked like the children I served. I found biographies of Venus and Serena Williams, Dolores Huerta, and Ida B. Wells; picture books with titles like Lowriders in Space; books about the Compton Cowboys, the Stonewall Riots, and the history of hip-hop.
It is a misconception that books are inherently good, objects to be treasured simply because they exist. Though the majority of the books we gave were brand-new and hand-picked by me, Access Books also worked with donor groups to run book drives and host library makeover events. On any given Saturday, Santa Monica moms and Beverly Hills grandparents would show up at a Compton elementary school hauling their blond kids, a tray of Starbucks, and boxes of books to unload. Too often, these books were castaways, not unlike the outdated titles we’d just weeded from the library. They’d bring thirty-year-old encyclopedia sets and ancient textbooks, popular fiction from the 1980s. Did they really believe black and brown children deserved their hand-me-downs? That reading something was better than nothing? I found it offensive. What kid is going to sit around reading an old social studies textbook? When I informed these Westsiders that we couldn’t accept their donations, that perhaps they should consider a Goodwill or even a recycling bin, some people grew irate. But they’re books! — as if the word itself were sacred.
Not all books are created equal, I’d tell them. And some age better than others. With that, I’d move on to something else. I was always so busy at our library refurbishment events, a hummingbird flying between different groups of volunteers, answering questions or demonstrating the correct way to place a spine label on a book. Inside elementary school cafeterias, I stood on tables, better to make myself seen and heard, and shouted instructions. I towered over dozens of eager volunteers, warning that they were in for hours of tedious, detail-oriented work. “Are you ready to be library assistants for a day?” I asked the assembled masses. They’d roll up their collective sleeves and start pulling books from boxes, voices reverent as they admired the technicolor dust jackets.
* * *
In Waugh’s time, Forest Lawn was a major tourist destination. Los Angeles in the mid-twentieth century lacked many of the attractions that occupy visitors today: no Disneyland or Universal Studios; no Getty or Broad Museum; no waiting in line to eat soup dumplings at Din Tai Fung. In an article titled “Half in Love With an Easeful Death,” a precursor to The Loved One published in 1947, Waugh wrote that Forest Lawn received twice as many visitors as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. When I first read this claim, it seemed laughable, but I wonder if it’s become true again. There’s people like me — relatively affluent and trapped, stuck in this city where the bars and restaurants and museums are closed. So we choose a cemetery we’ve never seen for entertainment, playing tourist at home.
But there are also the tens of thousands of people who have died in our city since the pandemic began, many of them disproportionately black and brown. On Christmas Day 2020, Forest Lawn was shockingly busy. Families spread out their picnic blankets and sat in lawn chairs beneath the nonnative evergreens; they brought coolers filled with sandwiches and sodas. They dressed for the holiday in festive sweatshirts; some wore Santa hats. They brought offerings for their loved ones: poinsettias, tiny Christmas trees, and holiday lawn ornaments.
Forest Lawn doesn’t have any tombstones. The founder, Dr. Hubert Eaton, thought them too gloomy. Instead, graves are marked by flat placards, and the Cemetery’s rolling hills are tiled with them. Families clustered around these grave markers, some groups maintaining social distance better than others. The racial diversity of Los Angeles was on full display in the faces of Forest Lawn’s pilgrims. Until the 1960s, the Cemetery had refused to bury nonwhites. Today, Michael Jackson is entombed here, locked away in the Holly Terrace of the Great Mausoleum, inaccessible to the public.
From its highest hills, the Cemetery offers panoramic views of our sprawling city: bustling downtown Glendale to the north and the familiar scrubby hills of Griffith Park to the West. Montecito Heights is visible to the East, its colorful homes nestled into the hillsides, precariously perched on stilts. A turn to the south reveals the towering palm trees of Elysian Park, home to Dodger Stadium, but before that, a community of Mexican-Americans who were displaced by its construction. From our vantage point on this artificially grassy knoll, this strangely verdant oasis of death where urban meets suburban, the city is breathtaking. It’s dying and being reborn every minute.
In “Easeful Death,” Waugh imagined Los Angeles a thousand years in the future, Forest Lawn’s grass brown and brittle, the city a barren landscape extending from mountain to ocean. He wrote of a region ravaged by drought, Bel Air and Beverly Hills naked “save for scrub and cactus, all their flimsy multitude of architectural styles turned long ago to dust.” He didn’t imagine that a pandemic might come for us first. Or a space laser helmed by a Snodgrass, one of the countless conspiracy theories espoused by followers of Q-Anon.
In the weeks following Christmas, while California remained on lockdown, I returned to Forest Lawn on my bike. It was not verboten to cycle through this particular cemetery after all — at least not today. It’s different on nonholidays, less busy and more solemn. Where families had once picnicked, there were open graves, the illusion of an ordinary California park stripped away. I cycled past the vacant platform where a life-size replica of Michaelangelo’s David once stood. Last March, as the city retreated in response to the encroaching pandemic, David inexplicably shattered.
“I was surprised, but I wasn’t shocked,” said the Cemetery’s director in the LA Times. It was the sixth in a long line of Forest Lawn Davids. His predecessors had fallen victim to earthquakes, but this one spontaneously imploded of its own accord.
A moment from The Loved One comes back to me — the last page as Barlow awaits Aimée’s “final combustion.” He describes the loss of his young heart, which was replaced by “a great, shapeless lump of experience, the artist’s load.” It’s one of the book’s better lines.
I have a book with me today, and it’s not written by Waugh. The weather is dreamy,
and I briefly consider plopping down under a tree to read it, but I stop myself, recognizing
I’d much rather be somewhere else.