Spend enough time around virtually any urban lake in SoCal and you will eventually meet some of the more colorful characters that make the urban environment so…eclectic.
Usually, the universal head nod along with a quick, cordial, but not too dopey smile will dispel any hostile intentions. Every once in a while though, quick thinking and fast action distilled from years of being in places one ought not to be is the only recourse to ensure a happy ending…at least for one of the parties concerned.
Several years ago, I had a job with a certain governmental agency that required me to visit most of the urban waters in SoCal, collect water samples for basic water chemistry data and make observations on the numbers and species of fish being caught and taken.
I was given a stack of official looking tally sheets on an official looking aluminum clipboard, the keys to an official looking white pick-up truck, an official looking khaki colored uniform, complete with official looking patches and the official admonition to be discreet.
So naturally, SoCal being the melting pot that it is, as soon as I pulled up to any lake about 50% of the folks would give me one look and immediately pack up and leave. Another 30% would kick over their buckets, spilling the contents back into the lake and pull the hoods of their sweatshirts up over their heads to hide their faces and the remaining people would pretend to ignore me or glare threatening in my general direction. As far as being discreet, I might as well have put on a fuzzy pink bunny suit and skipped around tossing jelly beans, except one citizen at one lake already had that gig covered.
One morning, Echo Park Lake showed up on my list of lakes to visit for the day. Now, I had grown up not too far from Echo Park and always thought it was a funky, quaint kinda place, and as I had not been there for a couple of years, I was looking forward to visiting it as part of my assignment. As I collected my gear and grabbed a final cup of coffee, my supervisor called me into his cubicle. “I see Echo Park is on your list today,” he said. “Make sure you park the truck parallel to the shoreline and collect your samples from behind the truck. Have a good day and be safe.”
I arrived at Echo Park around lunchtime. Since it was a week day, the lake was fairly empty of fisherfolk but there were a few homeless folks lounging about, as well as a couple of people walking their dogs but no gang bangers or obvious druggies – all in all nothing out of the ordinary.
After cruising around the park once, I found a service driveway and drove across the grass until the truck was only a few feet from the water, parallel to the shore as my boss had instructed. I grabbed the testing kit from the passenger seat and began getting my samples.
About ten minutes into the test, an angry voice came from the other side of the truck.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m collecting samples and testing the water quality of the lake.” I replied, without turning around.
“No you’re not.” Said the voice from much closer.
Startled by the sudden proximity of the voice, I spun around only to come face to face with a thin, raggedly dressed man wearing an honest-to-goodness aluminum foil hat.
His skin was yellowed and his eyes looked ready to pop right out of his head, “You’re one of them. You came to poison us poor folks so you can claim this land for yourselves.”
“No, I’m testing the water to make sure it is safe for the fish that are stocked here,” I said, rising to my feet.
“It’s a conspiracy,” He said, “You put something in the water from one of those tubes in your hand, didn’t you?”
He started intently at the test tubes in my hands. I could see this was rapidly deteriorating into an ugly confrontation — Like I said, years of experience being in places one ought not to be in…
“I’m testing the water to make sure it is safe,” I said again slowly and deliberately, emphasizing the word “safe”.
“It’s poison. You got poison,” He hissed while smacking the side of his head.
That’s when the fast action part kicked in. Mind you, it was not elegant or completely manly, but it did turn out to be effective.
I dropped one of the test tubes.
As luck would have it, it hit the ground and shattered with a crisp, tinkling sound. I faked a gasp, opened my eyes wide and in the most panicked tone I could muster, shouted, “Holy crap! Run! Run right now!”
Unfortunately, Mr. Foil Hat, screamed like a little girl and did the duck and cover thing right there next to the truck. He may have done something else right there next to the truck too, but I didn’t wait to find out. I yelled again, “Get up, you idiot! Run! Run as fast as you can!”
I grabbed my gear and tossed it in the cab of the truck. Tinfoil guy jumped up and started running. I leapt into the bed of the truck (for effect) and across to the driver’s side, all the while yelling at the guy to keep running.
For good measure, I fired up the truck and did a little peel out in the grass. Jiffy Pop Boy was about fifty yards ahead of me at this point, moving along at a fair clip but in a manner that told me I had probably guessed right about what else he had done while curled up in a fetal position next to the rear tire, so I started driving across the park in his general direction while honking the horn and yelling out my window for him to keep running until I finally made it to the street.
Last I saw of him, he was headed down Glendale Blvd. towards downtown L.A.
When I got back to the office, the first thing I did was hunt down my boss and ask, “why did you tell me to park my truck next to the water at Echo Park?”
“Oh, so the crazy guys will think you’re a city worker fixing a broken sprinkler and leave you alone.”
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