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A writer's experiment becomes a neighborhood ritual

Curious passersby turn what began as a project — an artist, a typewriter, an Echo Park roundabout — into a new kind of reality.

November 28, 2013|By Nita Lelyveld
  • Stacy Elaine Dacheux, a writer and artist, sits at a small roundabout in Echo Park, typing on her vintage typewriter, as her neighbor Gene Novak walks his dog Coco up to see her.
Stacy Elaine Dacheux, a writer and artist, sits at a small roundabout in… (Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles…)

Each morning this month, from 8 to 9, Stacy Elaine Dacheux has seated herself in a little roundabout in Echo Park, with low rosemary bushes behind her and a skinny cactus in front, at the spot where Lake Shore Avenue meets Effie and Lemoyne streets.

On a folding chair, her legs arranged such that her right ankle rests on her left knee, she's improvised a desk on which to prop her vintage Smith Corona. Thus settled, she has typed — as cars and trucks have whizzed by and neighbors have walked by, often with dogs in tow.

Dacheux is a writer and artist who had been thinking a lot about ritual when a friend asked if she'd like to give a talk at a Chinatown salon. She chose ritual as her topic. Her research started with herself.

Her morning routine had been to surf before she even sat up, checking Facebook status updates moments after opening her eyes.

She followed half-forgotten friends, logging the minutiae of their lives.

As for her life, she wrote in her blog:

"My past was overwhelming my present state of mind. The past was in my head before the present had time to happen."

Dacheux and her husband had only recently moved from Hollywood to Echo Park. Why not, she thought, as a monthlong experiment, take her status updates out into this new world?

In the open air, she would document what she experienced in the moment. She wouldn't fuss about spelling or punctuation. She wouldn't polish and repolish her sentences. Her manual typewriter would serve to slow her thoughts down. Tapping on its keys would be satisfyingly tactile. Satisfying too would be sending out those thwack-thwack-thwack audio relics of the world as it was before Wi-Fi.

Dacheux grew up first near Boston, then outside Birmingham, Ala. She went to the University of Alabama and then to Naropa University in Boulder, Colo., where she got her master's in fine arts at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.

There she studied under Ken Mikolowski, a poet who for decades, on letterpress postcards, spread the work of such writers as Allen Ginsberg and Charles Bukowski.

Ordinarily, a Facebook status update would zip through the ether. But following in Mikolowski's footsteps, Dacheux decided to send cut-up snippets of her reports from the roundabout out on handmade postcards by snail mail.

Such was the theoretical construct of her project. The reality was different — and better.

Dacheux has a beatific quality. She looks fresh-faced and gentle and kind. It wasn't long before her presence, accompanied by time-warpy typewriter tapping, began to draw in and break down the barriers of the curious.

"There's a bus stop right there, so I thought maybe she was waiting for a bus," said Gene Novak, 66, who lives right across the street. "Then I thought, maybe something is wrong with the poor child!"

One morning, to put a stop to his questions, he walked over with his Shih Tzu Coco and, before he knew it, he was making a new friend. He opened his garage door to show Dacheux his Austin Coopers. He started telling her deeply personal thoughts about his experiences in the Army in Vietnam.

"I've actually cried in front of her, and I don't do that," he said.

Not everyone asks Dacheux what she is up to. Some simply admire her for doing what she's doing, day after day, even in the rain (in a camp chair with a built-in umbrella, the typewriter protected by a plastic bag).

"Beautiful, beautiful, working every day," said Ana Escobar, 77, another neighbor, hugging Dacheux close.

Escobar isn't at her most comfortable in English. Dacheux never learned Spanish. But when the older woman brought the younger one a can of 7Up, the two began to bond in a way that transcended words.

On Tuesday morning, Gabriel Nicolas Vivian, 50, a stained-glass artist who lives less than a block away, biked by with two colorful glass boxes he had made as gifts for Dacheux.

"Whatever she's doing, she's doing fantastic work," he said. "She deserves a trophy."

A stranger in a Jeep rolled down his window and handed her a cup of coffee and a package of Twinkies.

If she holds to her schedule, Dacheux is due to wind up her roundabout residency on the last day of November, which is Saturday.

But will she?

In short order, seeing Dacheux every morning has become a ritual for the neighborhood.

Seeing the neighborhood from the roundabout has become a ritual for Dacheux.

She came to Los Angeles in 2004. In her early days here, her father was on the other side of the country, dying of a brain tumor. He was a university professor. The tumor was shorting out his mind. Her sadness at that, like watercolor on wet paper, spread outward to her every experience of this city.

After he died, she said, she found social interaction hard. What do you say after you've seen your rock crumble?

In the roundabout, she said, she has stepped out of that grief into a public world once again suffused with color and brightness and light.

"the roundabout makes me feel at peace, and i love greeting my neighbors before work. and i love making new friends who live around me," she wrote in a recent update.

"i don't know how I can leave the roundabout now. it seems like I would be giving up too much."

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