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When Someone Dies on the Mean Streets of L.A., Loved Ones and Strangers Grieve Together at Impromptu Curbside Shrines

December 06, 1996|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Several times a week, Elinor Aurthur places fresh flowers among the wilted blooms and rain-streaked notes at the rail of the Lincoln Boulevard overpass on the Santa Monica Freeway. "This little altar," she calls it, a shrine to her son, Charley, who jumped to his death there Nov. 1.

It is one of the street shrines that are now such a familiar part of the urban landscape, appearing overnight, sometimes disappearing almost as quickly. As on pilgrimages, friends, family and strangers come to lay flowers, light candles, leave poems.

In so doing, they are both honoring the dead and, perhaps, making a silent cry for help in a society where violent, senseless death is a relentless visitor.

When three young men and a 15-year-old boy were shot to death within a few hours Sunday on East 59th Place in central Los Angeles, flowers and cards quickly marked the places where they died.

Hours after Charles "Chuck" Willard, beloved co-owner of a Silver Lake pet shop--a man who wept when a goldfish died--was gunned down Nov. 12 in a robbery attempt, a floral shrine appeared. The flowers are gone now. Taped to the door is a hand-lettered sign, "Closed due to death." With a red crayon, someone has crossed out "death" and scrawled "murder!"

On a telephone pole in the shadow of the 405 Freeway in Culver City is a photo faded beyond recognition. A big plastic bow--once red, now orange--is tied to a nearby cable, holding a trio of papier-mache doves, gray with grime. This shrine honors Jina Nakamura, killed by a drunk driver in 1995.

A most unconventional shrine appeared at Denker Avenue Recreation Center near Exposition Park in April 1993 for Dwayne Capers, a former Crip slain by rival Bloods as he sat at a picnic bench. His shrine: flowers in 800 malt liquor bottle "vases" and a paper plate of fried chicken, a symbolic last meal.

A shrine at Norton and Sweetzer avenues in West Hollywood was for a time a local landmark, a tribute to actor Mauricio Bassa, 33, who was shot and killed in an apparent robbery while walking home, hand in hand, with his lover, Gari Casella, 29, from the Gold Coast bar in May 1993. One visitor left this note: "I don't know you but I miss you. You will not be forgotten."

The street shrine, which has roots in the roadside shrines found in Catholic countries, is not unique to Southern California. There were shrines at the Brookline, Mass., abortion clinics where two employees were slain in 1994. As many as 900 visitors a week, bearing teddy bears and crosses, have flocked to the Union, S.C., lake where Susan Smith drowned her two young sons that year.

Over time, most shrines disintegrate and disappear. But a few remain faithfully tended. At the northwest corner of Wilshire Boulevard and 14th Street in Santa Monica is one honoring four young people killed by a drunk driver in June 1992.

Once a week--early in the morning, "when it's very peaceful and very quiet"--Don Cash, 52, a movie makeup artist and father of victim Robert Cash, 24, brings fresh flowers to the site, which is three blocks from his home. He pauses to collect his thoughts and seek comfort before going to work.

From time to time, he replaces the composite photo of Robert and his friends--Christopher Baker, 26; Julie Dicks, 23; and Lucille Morgan, 25--with a clean photocopy or ties a new Mothers Against Drunk Driving ribbon around the traffic pole.

Now is an especially emotional time. "The thing that bothers all of us at the moment," he says, is that Dariosh Sariri, 28, serving time for vehicular manslaughter, will soon be up for parole.

Young Cash had just returned from Berlin, where he'd completed studies for graduation from the Vermont-based School for International Training. His father asks: "Who knows what he might be doing now?"

In a moment of reflection, he tells of writing a teen suicide-themed movie script, "Too Young to Say Goodbye," while a student at USC. Robert was then 5 and Cash, "out of superstition," put it away. "I thought, 'Oh my God, what would I ever do if I lost one of my children?' "

To give purpose to his pain, he's tried unsuccessfully to get the city of Santa Monica to erect a permanent marker at the crash site--a reminder that drinking and driving is a lethal combination.

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What do street shrines say about us? Gerald Larue, who lectures on death and dying as emeritus professor of religion and adjunct professor of gerontology at USC, says that we as a nation--men in particular--"have difficulty making public statements about tragic deaths. This fulfills a social need, an emotional need, perhaps even a religious need.

"In some countries, the wailing is very, very vocal, very public, but we don't like the idea of public spectacles where people tear their hair and cry out in agony. This is a public statement that is acceptable."

He thinks the shrines provide a public service, reminding people of a dangerous corner or of societal violence.

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