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Searching for Meaning in Litter of Our Lives


LOS ANGELES — I find odd things. Or maybe it's just that I've got time to notice stuff that others obliviously tread upon. Either way, I find odd things.

I've found: money (forty bucks lying in the gutter when I was in high school--still a thrilling memory), love letters (I never knew anyone actually wrote words like "Oh, babe . . . "), a life-sized cardboard cutout of Homey the Clown from "In Living Color" (which became a Christmas present), poems, a reel of movie film (nothing lurid, sadly, just an auto advertisement), a black lace brassiere (size 34B), a 1950 grammar book from Van Nuys High School and kids' homework (a pretty good short story about "Larry, the Flying Whale").

Lately, for reasons unknown, I have stumbled across a glut of curious items adrift in the streets. Whether they were deliberately cast off, lost or lifted out of Dumpsters by wayward wind gusts, I don't know. Each piece is a mystery. Finding one is like finding the last chapter of a novel; you are left wondering how things turned out the way they did. You know: Whatever made Van Helsing so angry with Count Dracula?

Take the pillows and the photo, for instance. They crowned one of those piles of earthquake-repair debris that have become as common on San Fernando Valley streets as bankrupt mini-malls (and a bit more attractive). The pillows were heart-shaped, delicate, quilted white satin trifles with frilly lace edges.

One was embroidered Nuestra boda--Juan, and the other Nuestra boda--Lupe. (Translation: "Our wedding.") Next to the pillows was a blown-up portrait of a handsome couple, presumably Juan and Lupe, in bridal gown and tuxedo, taken back in 1984.

The odds suggest, I'm sorry to say, that Lupe and Juan's boda did not have a happy ending. (But, then, maybe they were just redecorating.)

I was more puzzled by the circumstances of the therapy questionnaire. Crumpled under a cacao tree a few doors from my home, it consisted of multiple-choice questions aimed at isolating problems peculiar to Japanese Americans. It was apparently produced by a counseling center specializing in helping them. A sample question:

"In counseling, Japanese Americans are most likely to have complaints about A) situations at home, B) feeling isolated, C) American culture, D) sibling rivalries."

The subject filling out this particular form had circled B. I had two thoughts about this. First, I hoped that he or she hadn't felt so isolated as to fling the questionnaire into the street and give up on the counseling. Second, although I know nothing about the problems of Japanese Americans, I would have circled C. It's certainly the thing I complain about most.

In the same neighborhood (from the same counseling center?), I came across a bill from a psychotherapist to his patient--really.

It was fluttering among some weeds, requesting $475 from the patient for five sessions at $95 each. The diagnosis: "300.02, Anxiety D/O." This, I discovered after a bit of research, is from the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders III Revised, a guide used by therapists.

Section 300.02, in part, describes symptoms of "generalized anxiety disorder" as "shakiness, jitteriness, jumpiness, trembling, tension, muscle aches, fatigability, and inability to relax." What's more, there could be "eyelid twitch, furrowed brow, strained face, fidgeting," et cetera.

Hell, since the riots and earthquake, that describes pretty much everybody in town. The patient should have just come to me. I would have given a diagnosis for nothing and might have offered the following advice: A certain amount of anxiety might be relieved through the elimination of whopping therapy bills.

Two of my other recently retrieved items were minor histories of lives changed by the Northridge earthquake.

The first, apparently dropped on a West Los Angeles sidewalk, was a postcard from a woman who had fled for Colorado after Jan. 17. She was writing to a guy she had briefly dated, asking if his apartment was still quake-disheveled and declaring that she was very grateful to be in Colorado--even though it was snowing (this was April).

The writer closed by saying she would "give you a call sometime." I thought that the guy shouldn't bank on it as I delivered the card to its proper destination, musing over how many potential romances--even marriages and offspring--might have been canceled by that quake.


The other item, residing in the dust and soot along Ventura Boulevard, was downright tragic. It was a U.S. Small Business Administration letter from the Arcadia Disaster Field Office to a Sherman Oaks woman--denying her request for an emergency loan. Covered, symbolically enough, with dirty footprints.

Handwritten scribbles on the sheet told the woman's frustrating story: addresses of banks, an insurance agency phone number, names of various loan officers. The request had been denied on the basis of "a lack of repayment ability."

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