Wednesday, March 10, 2010
AUTHENTICALLY DEAD IN L.A.
There was no way around it. Early on in developing the story for Bloodthirsty, I knew where my research would take me.
My two main characters, Mike Lomax and Terry Biggs, are homicide detectives with LAPD. My murder victims are all A-list A-holes in Hollywood. There was no question that the people I was killing off were all going to end up in the same place. The LA County Morgue.
And so would I.
Having lived and worked in Los Angeles for several years, I have a basic grasp of the geography, the pulse, and the culture. And while I don't provide the same palpable details of LA that Mark Twain gives us of the Mississippi, I do a fairly adequate job of describing the city where my stories unfold.
But since I live 3,000 miles away from my characters, I need help. My friend Matthew Diamond (despite the fact that his directing skills have won him multiple Emmys and an Oscar nomination for Dancemaker), happily acts as my LA location scout. I also write with a Thomas Guide of LA County at my side, and Google Earth at my fingertips.
Even so, the only way to write about the busiest morgue in the country is to actually spend time there. For some of you that might be a real treat. But for a guy who won't watch ER or Grey’s Anatomy because they're too graphic, this was not a fun road trip.
Why not just make it up? you may ask.
At first I did. Would you like to read something my publisher never even saw? Here's an early draft of Victor, a morgue attendant, accompanying a grieving couple to identify their teenage daughter's body.
He picked them up in the waiting room and escorted them to The Vault. He loved watching the faces of people when they got their first look at that wall of stainless steel drawers. Grief stricken and scared shitless at the same time. Victor, of course, had his Official Morgue Face on. Not out of respect. It was strictly for the cameras. L.A. County had videocams recording every move, every word. It was, after all, a way station for a lot of crime victims.
He pulled the lower lip of 37-B and the silence in the room was broken by the whir of steel casters, and then by the mother's gagging sobs.
As I later found out, every word of it turned out to be totally bogus.
What I had created was a television morgue. In actuality there is no stark, sterile room. No wall of stainless steel drawers. No somber attendant sliding open a drawer, unzipping a black body bag, then closing the drawer with a gut wrenching metallic thunk.
That's a description of the set of Law and Order. Here's the description that ultimately made it into Bloodthirsty:
In real life, the morgue looks more like something out of Edgar Allan Poe. No steel drawers, just gurneys. And no body bags. They cost too much. The cadavers are wrapped in sheets, heads and feet sticking out at either end.
The air is ripe with the smell of disinfectant, formaldehyde, and decomposing humanity. The recently deceased don't smell so bad. But if Granny died in bed July Fourth and nobody found her till Labor Day, she's gonna stink to high heaven.
Gurneys are parked everywhere. On the loading dock, at the admissions desk, in the hallways, waiting to be weighed, fingerprinted, sliced, diced and gutted. At times you can't walk ten feet without seeing a toe tag. It's one big, crowded, waiting room. Everyone's waiting for the doctor.
It's not a pretty place. Which is why next of kin are not invited — not even to identify a body. Instead they get to look at Polaroids.
When I contacted Craig Harvey, whose business card reads Chief Coroner Investigator & Chief of Operations at Department of Coroner County of Los Angeles, and asked him if I could schedule a private tour, he wrote back offering me a choice of 9am or 2pm. I got the feeling that Craig has escorted more than his share of writers, producers, and other film types with the same pressing need through his facility. And yet, I've never seen on the screen what I saw up close and personal.
I spent the first half hour of my visit to the morgue in Craig's office. According to the coroner's daily inventory sheet, on that morning of July 10, 2006, there were 129 bodies waiting to be processed. Just another average day at the morgue. As Craig likes to say, "That's how we keep our prices so low. Volume."
I used that body count and his quote in the book.
I then got a tour of the forensic labs, the historical archives, and saw Polaroids of some current residents, victims of gang vengeance. Finally, it came time to suit up. Nothing fancy. Some of the dead are bio-hazards, so they have serious hazmat outfits for the pathology team. All I got was a pair of booties, rubber gloves, and the lowest level of protective masks they have. I'm not sure what it protected me from, but it wasn't the smell.
Craig used a key to take the elevator to the basement. The first thing that hits you when the door opens is that you cannot escape the dead. They're everywhere. We worked our way through an obstacle course of bodies who were at various stages of working their way through the system.
Then there's the equally inescapable smell. "It's riper in here than usual," Craig said. Eventually we came upon a big, bloated guy — head, legs, and one arm exposed, a large, bloated belly lifting the sheet several feet off the table.
"Ah, there's the culprit," Craig said. "He was probably dead a few weeks before he got here."
"Oh, you mean that black guy over there," I said, taking a girlie peek and quickly looking away.
Craig laughed. "He's not black. If you look closer, he's green. Once upon a time, he was white."
The books I write are either categorized as "police procedural" or outrageously funny. For me, funny is easy. The procedural part is the hard stuff.
If I still have a captive audience I'd like to show you something else no one has ever seen. In that earlier unpublished description I had Victor the morgue attendant showing a body to grieving parents. As gruesome as that is, I'm a big believer in cutting the tension with humor. Here's what I wrote (only to be seen by the three people who venture this far down into this blah-blah-blog).
He pulled the lower lip of 37-B and the silence in the room was broken by the whir of steel casters, and then by the mother's gagging sobs. Victor stood by quietly, waiting for the woman to regain her composure, when he felt it. Oh God. This one was really uncomfortable. No, it was worse. It was unbearable.
Victor had the world's worst wedgie. Those damn Bugle Boy thongs. They strapped his balls up like a rodeo bull, and crawled up his butt crack like a gerbil on the lam. The fact that Victor bought thongs that were Size Medium for an ass that was Size Fat never crossed his mind.
The father finally spoke. "She graduated high school in June. It was only five months ago."
Victor's face scrunched up as he suffered through the incessant rectal flossing. He hoped the pained look passed for empathy.
Is a wedgie funny? Yes, if it's someone else's, and he's in a situation where he can't extract it.
But what really gets a laugh every time I talk about it is this. After I finished the tour of the morgue, I went upstairs to their gift shop.
It's funny, but it's true. They have a gift shop.
Years ago they had a medical examiners convention and they gave out coffee mugs with the LA Coroner's logo. After the convention, they started getting calls for more mugs. The following year they gave out T-shirts. It caught on, and today they sell key chains, shirts, windbreakers, coffee mugs, and all kinds of fun stuff with the coroner's logo on it.
The day I was there, several people were shopping. One woman drove 30 miles because she had to give her brother the barbecue apron for a birthday gift. It says "Spare Ribs. Spare Feet. Spare Hands."
The signs on the door of the gift shop say "Shoplifter's Next-Of-Kin Will Be Notified," and "To Cash A Check You'll Need Two Forms Of Identification Or Dental Records."
The morgue, like the cops I talk to, all agree. If you can't find humor in this grisly business, you'll snap. That, (allow me this one plug) is why the books I write are, to quote reviewers and readers, "irreverently funny."
If you don't live in LA or you're too creeped out to visit the morgue to do your holiday shopping, they have a website.
The profits help fund their Youthful Drunk Driver Visitation Program. When a young kid gets arrested for driving drunk, the court can sentence him to spend three hours in the morgue, where he'll get an education he'll never forget.
I know I won't.