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FIRST PERSON

Sharing the Fountain of Youth

August 04, 1994|BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The toe of Emily's shoe flicked the water. The test of my values began. Her sneaker sankdeeper. She cast me a glance. Then she popped off both of her shoes.

Ashley, her older sister, had studied my neutral gaze. Now she leaped onto a ledge and wobbled along a fine line.

Moving water is always temptation. On this hot morning at the Central Library's gardens, the allure was almost cruel.

I scanned the sidewalks for security guards and the trees for surveillance cameras. Then I reclined on a slanted wall of the "grotto fountain" and watched my daughters' predictable dance.

Soon a dignified woman, neatly attired, arrived clutching a book. The assurance with which she settled in said this nook was a favorite spot.

I looked in the woman's direction, expecting a wink or a scowl. But she focused on her one-sandwich picnic, as if the obvious tension in the unfolding scene were invisible to her.

With Emily submerged to her ankles, I asked myself questions I'd asked at fountains before:

How far will they go? How far will I let them? What will that say about me? For two hours we'd prowled Downtown as if exploring a lost civilization. In the Central Library, we'd found the heart of the archeological site.

The library's Maguire Gardens are tricky to describe.

A line of three rectangular pools flows from the library's western entrance--with its odd facade honoring philosophers from Kant to Confucius--down toward Flower Street.

In the highest pool, emblazoned with the word CLEAR , a bronze falcon perches on a rock. A life-size woman's head, fashioned from chrome, spouts water into a white basin inscribed with ancient symbols for water , woman and such.

It's called the "Female Well," I later learned, but the girls didn't know that as they ran their hands over the woman's chrome lips and splashed each other tentatively.

The lower pools, marked LUCID and BRIGHT , contain sculptural icons of evolution: an enormous red newt, bleached amphibian bones, an eel-like ceramic head with a horrible, sharp-toothed mouth gushing water.

To my girls, 7 and 9, the place is a wild, unsettling wonder. As they skipped into the more tranquil grotto, they brimmed with joie de vivre.

Tucked off to one side, the grotto is a quiet niche framed by a multitiered fountain.

They claimed the place as if it were their own--which, of course, it is.

The city is harsh; the garden a sanctuary where people with armloads of books and brains boiling with big ideas can decompress in peace. But a child's curiosity is not of the arid intellectual sort.

*

So, with an occasional glimpse in my direction, a series of slight "accidents" immersed them in the aesthetics of this strange realm.

Ashley waded in, feet gliding along as if probing a mountain stream.

Emboldened, Emily slipped off in her own direction.

I remained expressionless, enjoying the gurgle and splash, and the distinct scent water drops pull from hot concrete.

Again I looked at the gray-haired woman and tried to put myself in her mind.

I imagined her as society's harpy, the relentless scold in each of us that seems to have gained control: "You negligent bastard! Think of the microbes! Your daughters will fall and drown and be sucked down the sewer and spit into the sea!"

"Hmmm," I thought, remembering permissive parents and their pariah mall-rat spawn--the graffiti-scrawling young nihilists with what John Irving called "the leer of the world" on their mugs.

But the woman remained focused on her sandwich as Emily sloshed across the fountain's next level, ducking and rising, ducking and rising, under a series of arching streams.

Ashley stood knee deep in the current, squashing geysers of water back onto themselves.

Should I reel them in, I wondered? But then I got distracted, imagining the chill of the water and the sensation of cold tile against their toes.

Through all this, the old woman seemed absorbed in her book.

When a siren sounded in the distance, I looked up nervously. But still, Authority hadn't found us. I still seemed to be it.

*

At the corner of the fountain, a concrete arch spans a series of red-tiled pools--a tribute to "the evolution of civil liberties," I later read.

But with mottoes etched in official-looking typeface, it conveys the stern aura of sanctity: Art, Democracy and all.

Approaching almost shyly, Ashley hovered for a moment then, for the first time, verbalized her desire: "Can I?" she asked.

"Why not?" I said, to her and to myself.

So she hauled herself into the semi-circular pool and scrambled under the black granite rim, which bears this Frederick Douglass quote:

"Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did. It never will."

I dipped my hand in the water and watched her climb with salmon instincts up toward the water's source.

I imagined my girls as women, asserting their own constitutional demand:

"We demand that no Authority deny citizens full access to public fountains; that no attorney collect contingency fees from injuries incurred therein."

*

The old woman rose now and brushed out her skirt. As she headed back toward the library, I tried to picture her as a girl.

Had she played in forbidden fountains--or stood longingly at their edge?

For a while, we had the grotto to ourselves again. The girls, soaked to the skin and beaming, continued their silent conquest.

Then, again hearing sirens, I decided to pull the plug.

While the girls pulled on their shoes, a security officer appeared.

I braced for a scolding or worse, but he stopped at the newt pond. Then, speaking into his handi-talky, he changed direction and walked briskly away.

Standing now, I saw that across Flower Street, the city had asserted its dark side. A police car and ambulance blocked the street. A man lay face down, pink belly pressed into the oil-stained asphalt.

"What's going on, Daddy?" Ashley asked, craning to see.

"Nothing," I said.

They walked off in the other direction, giggling and dribbling profusely, water squishing from their shoes.

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