by Sam Kriss
I started giving cigarettes to the homeless. That’s how it all began.
When I first moved to Los Angeles, they’d terrified me a little. Well, everything had terrified me a little. The flat infinity of the city, the postapocalyptic emptiness of its streets, the harsh blank gazes of the strip-mall windows, the fury of the motorists, the pervasive anonymity and its constant gasping hunger for fame. It was so unlike the familiar crowded clutter of Europe: cities there hold you close in a maternal embrace; often they’re abusive mothers, but even if they’re actively trying to kill you at least they care enough to want you dead. Los Angeles is indifferent. I’d taken a drive through South Central, and what scared me most about the place was how identical it was to everywhere else: the same skeletal palm trees, the same uneven pavements, the same low bungalows with the same architectural inconsistency. But the homeless gave me a special kind of terror: I’d hear them yelping into the night as I walked drunk along Santa Monica Boulevard, howling like coyotes; I’d see their sleeping shapes in shopfronts, looking somehow coiled, ready to spring into a furious assault. There was one man who sat on a metal bench near my apartment, wearing a bulky green overcoat half-shredded into a mess of tangled fibres. He’d mutter softly to himself most of the time; sometimes he’d bark at people passing by. Once, while arriving home, I met his gaze for a single excruciating second. The lines in his face were slimy with grease, his beard was matted with blood and dirt, but his eyes were a cold hard blue and completely clear. I wondered what was happening in his head. I wondered what line separated me from him. I wondered how easy it would be for me to end up like he was. The Californian heat was enough to drive anyone mad; it bred prophets like swampland breeds mosquitoes.
It didn’t last that long. I got used to them. I saw how my new Angeleno friends behaved: people from my office and my apartment building, they were all good people with solid liberal principles, but they acted as if the homeless simply didn’t exist, as if they were drifting phantoms that had hallucinated themselves into being. I felt guilty about it at first, but I started to do the same. The city was packed with ghosts. Sitting impatiently on a bus as it lurched haltingly towards the smog-shrouded spires of Downtown, I pretended to ignore the fat black woman in a hospital gown singing gospel songs and drumming on the stinking plastic bags that carried all her possessions. Walking with groceries, I tried to forget the plaintive looks that emerged from every underpass. I kept my headphones and sunglasses on at all times, I sank into the music, so that the bright scorching world around me faded into a blur. It worked, to an extent.
“Spare a smoke, man?”
I was on Hollywood Boulevard; I can’t remember why – it’s a dump, frankly; I think I’d gone up there to buy some tacky gifts for friends back home. It was a hot day, even in the hills; an oppressive dull gleam shone from every surface, the blue sky throbbed with a feverish intensity. I was smoking, despite the dirty looks I got from Americans on the street, despite the sticky heat in the back of my throat. He was a young man with a short beard, hugging his knees in the entrance to an abandoned souvenir store, an overflowing rucksack propped up against the wall next to him.
“Sorry,” I mumbled instinctually, not meeting his eyes. “It’s my last one.” I carried on walking, quickening my pace a little, stamping on the names of forgotten celebrities, when I felt something shift inside me. Maybe it was my conscience. Maybe it was just the swarm of fat Midwestern tourists flitting about on the street around me with their sweatpatches and their gaping hungry mouths. I didn’t want to be like them.
I turned back. “I lied,” I said. “I’m sorry.” I took a cigarette out of my packet and held it out in his general direction. He took it without a smile.
“God bless,” he mumbled.
After that I started giving cigarettes to the homeless. I never stopped to talk to them, I never even stayed long enough to register their thanks – they still made me uneasy. I knew I wasn’t really helping; after all, I was giving them cancer. Still, it made me feel a little better; at least I wasn’t ignoring their existence.
It was a couple of weeks before I saw him again. The man I had given my first cigarette to was kneeling in a sleeping bag next to a fast food place not far from my apartment building in Santa Monica. It was just past sunset, and in the purple afterglow everything on Ocean Boulevard looked vaguely plasticky and unreal. The rounded white residential towers had an otherworldly sheen; the faux-Tudor ‘Olde English Pubbe’ across the street was mottled with the flickering shadows of palm trees. Tinny music wafted from the pier with the salty breeze, and bass notes were throbbing from a bar, but apart from the constant sound of traffic the street was silent. He was grubbier than when I had seen him before, scabbed and mud-speckled, while the smooth plastic façade behind him looked too clean and too glossy; like a backdrop in a Hollywood studio. He was trying to position a purple-bound book in the dim streetlight.
“Are you hungry?” I said to him.
He looked at me quizzically. “Always.” He peered at me for a second. “Hey. Ain’t you the cigarette guy? I remember a face, man.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Hold on.” I went inside.
I came out with two burgers and sat down next to him. “What’s the book?”
“Oh, it’s the Bible. Got me through a lot of tough times. Better out here than out in combat.”
“You’re a vet?”
“Iraq. Three tours. I saw some shit out there, I can tell you.”
“Not like buddies getting killed, you know. I mean, it happened, but I was never there…” He flung up his hands. “I was at Camp Alpha. You know where that is?”
“Babylon, man. We built this base right in the ruins of Babylon. It was all reconstructed by Saddam. But still. We’d be getting drunk at night and running round all these ancient buildings, climbing over these statues to gods, and we didn’t even know their names. It just felt like… at night it was like they was staring at you. You could almost hear ‘em chanting, like these deep ancient chants…” He looked down and started to unwrap the burger. “You gotta think I’m crazy. It’s just, you know, I don’t get to talk to people all that often.”
“Not at all.”
“It was just like, shit, I never even finished high school and I’m walking round Babylon. I was a fucking dumbass nineteen year old, and I was meant to be teaching these guys – the Iraqis – about democracy, when it was them that invented the whole thing – architecture, government, writing for fuck’s sake. I didn’t know that. By the end of it, when I kept getting called back, I was pissed as hell. Punched my CO right in the face after he kept going off on some hajji bullshit. Then I got my big chicken dinner – shit; BCD, bad conduct discharge – and, you know, the rest…”
We ate in silence for a while. When I left I reached out to shake his hand.
“You didn’t ask my name,” he said. It wasn’t an accusation, just a statement of fact.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“You apologise a lot. I’m Brandon. Brandon Leigh.”
Brandon slept on the street in Skid Row. Every day he took the bus up to Hollywood or the Westside to panhandle. I think he must have worked out that I lived in Santa Monica; most days I’d see him sitting on the street not far from my apartment. I didn’t mind. I would buy him some fast food and he’d tell me stories from the war – or one story, at least. Brandon was fixated on a single image: four young Americans cavorting through the ruins of Babylon, and one of them suddenly stopping, feeling a cold breath down the back of his neck, the chill of something vast and hungry and incomparably ancient. He didn’t believe in the gods of Mesopotamia; he was a good Christian, after all. It was something else: a vibe, he said. A terrifying vibe.
“Why do you do this?” he asked one day. “It’s not like I’m not grateful or nothing. But you gotta admit it’s pretty weird. Most folks here just ignore people like me.”
“I’m not from here,” I said. “I don’t know. I don’t like to ignore things. I want to experience everything.”
“You been to Skid Row yet, man?”
“I’ve been past it.”
“If you wanna experience everything, that’s where you gotta go. I’ll show you round.”
Brandon and I took the bus to Skid Row that weekend. We rode in silence through the sterile skyscraper-speckled landscape of Bunker Hill. After that the terrain became flatter; the Art Deco flourishes of the buildings to the West faded into squat white warehouses, car parks, empty lots ringed with chain-link fences in which a few stray tufts of grass shivered. Slowly the streets became more and more crowded: people wandering aimlessly, sitting in doorways, lying supine on the pavement, squatting next to their tents. The low cityscape was broken by the odd old brick building with a spluttering neon sign. The shopfronts were all boarded up. Paint peeled from the facades of the buildings.
“Welcome to America’s only Third World city,” said Brandon as we stepped off the bus.
The stench was overpowering. Rotting waste, sewerage, old urine, body odour. A tide of litter lapped against the kerbside; one woman was waving her hands idly through it, picking out small items and then tossing them back in. The ground was sticky beneath my feet. Leaning against an abandoned shop, a man wearing only a stained boxer shorts and a pair of threadbare trousers hanging somewhere above his knees was dangling a long thread of saliva from his lip. He swayed it from side to side briefly, and then sucked it back up into his mouth with a satisfied gulp. Most of the people that thronged the street stood silently. A few chattered continuously in a low mumble. Through the day’s haze the brooding grey shapes of the towers to the west could just be made out, monolithic and threatening.
Brandon followed my gaze. “I don’t wanna make this a race thing,” he said. “But you gotta admit, most of the folks out here are black. And most of the folks up there are white.”
He’d pitched a tent on one of the quieter streets. Despite the chaos and dilapidation of the place it had a kind of subdued stasis to it. There were few cars, and the people moved only rhythmically, nodding their heads to an absent beat or describing vague circles with their shambling walk. They weren’t going anywhere. As the street faded into the smog the hunched figures leaning against walls and fences took on an austere, ghostly quality: with their bulky clothes and their trolleys they looked less like human beings than abstract sculptures.
Brandon introduced me to some of his neighbours. Some of them mumbled politely. Some were silent; they wouldn’t look me in the eye.
“It’s not much,” he said afterwards. “But it’s a community.”
“More a community than most places in this city,” I said.
“Ain’t that true.” He stood up. “Listen. There’s this church near here, they do shave and a shower… reckon you could just watch my things? Fifteen minutes. Police’ll confiscate it otherwise.”
I waited, reading Brandon’s bible. I was halfway through II Corinthians when I was approached by two people: a tall woman in black jeans with her dark hair cut short and skin as pale and fragile-looking as gossamer, and a scrawny acned guy in a polo shirt slightly too big for him. The woman crouched down next to me. “Hi,” she said. “My name’s Molly and this is Tim. We’re from the Brotherton Foundation.”
“Hi,” I said, and told her my name. I extended a hand. She didn’t shake it.
“You have an accent… are you documented? You can tell us. It’s strictly confidential.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I have a work visa.”
Molly’s brow furrowed. “You’re not-”
“I’m not homeless,” I said.
“Oh, God. I’m so sorry. It’s just we try to keep track of all the guys here, so that if something happens to them… what are you doing here?”
“I’m watching someone’s stuff for him.”
She peered at the rucksack. “Brandon?”
She shrugged. “It’s my job. Who are you with? I haven’t seen you here before.”
“I don’t work with a charity. I just… I just come here sometimes.”
“That’s weird.” She gave a wry smile. “Are you writing a novel or something? Listen, our office is on Sixth. You should drop in some time.”
After Skid Row the rest of Los Angeles didn’t trouble me any more. I started to miss being troubled. My office in the US Bank Tower faced East: from the window I could see the San Gabriel Mountains vanishing into the city’s miasma, the warehouses east of Downtown fading into the green suburbs of Orange County. I’d never thought to look straight down, at the dive hotels and empty lots right below my feet. I started to visit Skid Row regularly. Most days I’d spend an hour or so there after work, sometimes giving out cigarettes and burgers, sometimes just talking to the residents. Many of them were suspicious at first; they didn’t know what I wanted from them. To be honest, I wasn’t too sure either. I got to know the eccentrics of the neighbourhood: Megan, the dumpster-diving daughter of a Silicon Valley millionaire who wore clothes stitched from palm leaves and insisted that she had been a yeast infection in a previous life; Bertrand, a wizened old man who walked around naked pontificating in aristocratic tones about the continuing relevance of Hellenic Classicism as a model for the worthy life; Rhonda, a drag queen whose shopping trolley was filled with discarded cosmetics she’d found in bins across the city; Colin, who went to an internet café every day to record a rambling videoblog. I ran into Molly occasionally, often with Tim as well; we gave each other a nod of recognition and sometimes chatted for a few minutes. I never did drop into the office. I think my presence confused her a little.
It wasn’t always pleasant. I saw paramedics fret furiously as a woman gave birth on the street, surrounded by shit and muck. I saw an argument between two men escalate suddenly into a knife fight; their lumpy overcoated forms circled and darted with an almost balletic fluidity. I saw near-spherical Latina prostitutes drag their patrons into Portaloos, I saw emaciated junkies whose eyes darted about from the bottom of dark cavernous pits, I saw men vomiting blood and oozing pus. It was never dull, though. Everyone there believed in something grand and cosmic: Brandon had his spirits of Mesopotamia, Megan her hippie Hinduism. Most had their own hobo variations on Christianity, some had intricate conspiracy theories – they saw demons and aliens behind the placid faces of the comfortable Angelenos who walked past them, carefully ignoring their existence. I had a long theological conversation with a recovering junkie who’d joined a twelve-step programme at the House of the Good Shepherd, one of the local churches, and was now hoping to be a preacher.
“There’s two powers in this world,” he told me. “There’s the Light. That’s the blood of Christ. Then there’s the darkness. That’s the tar. The darkness draws you in. It makes you all safe and comfortable. The Light hurts. But the Light is life and the tar is death, and that’s all there is to it. You can’t receive the blood of Christ while your own blood is still full of the tar.” He coughed. “Do you know Christ as your saviour?”
“I do,” I lied.
“God bless, God bless you. The dark does bad things for you. It made me steal from my momma. It made me want to hurt my fellow man. That shit even got me kicked out of Atlantis-” He stopped, suddenly, with the stricken look of someone who’s said something they shouldn’t have said.
“It’s a bunkhouse near here,” he said hurriedly. “They don’t take no junkies. Don’t blame ‘em.”
I saw Molly the next day. “What’s Atlantis?” I asked her.
She and Tim were taking a lunch break, eating quesadillas on a bench by a bus stop. She had a smudge of guacamole by the corner of her lip. I didn’t mention it.
“It’s a myth,” she said.
“Not the legend. Something here called Atlantis.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s a myth. OK. The story goes that back in the Nineties a bunch of homeless people started living in the disused subway lines under Los Angeles. We actually used to have the best public transport system in the country, but it all got closed down during the Depression… anyway, they’re supposed to have built this whole underground city of the homeless. Like two hundred thousand people. With electricity, even. They hook themselves up to power lines. And they’ve got common ownership over everything. There’s all these houses down there but they don’t belong to anyone, they sleep in a different place every night. So their society doesn’t make the same mistake as ours. A lot of the guys believe in it. You can see why, really.”
“But it doesn’t exist.”
She smiled. “Well, we can’t know. But no. It doesn’t exist.”
“Yesterday someone told me he’d been there.”
“A lot of the guys came out of psych wards, you know. They’re not always reliable.”
“He seemed pretty cogent.”
Tim leaned over. “If you’re into all that kooky shit you should talk to Roy Kelner,” he said. “This philosophy professor up at UCLA. He used to come down here every weekend and talk about Atlantis. He really believed in it.”
I took down the name.
The House of the Good Shepherd was a tiny bungalow with a peaked Gothic roof attached limpet-like to the side of a crumbling dive hotel. It was gloomy inside, with the taste of dust sharp in the air. Jesus hung crucified on the far wall. The lash-wounds across his chest were dark with dirt; the skin was peeling from his legs, revealing the wood beneath, shiny with wear. He wasn’t looking at me as I walked past the rows of plastic chairs towards the plasterboard altar; he was staring past me, through the open door and into the street, watching the ambling shapes that wandered in the scorching brightness with an expression of empathic agony. Sitting on the front row was a slim young man in a collared shirt frowning over some paperwork. As I approached he stood up and gave me a beatific smile. “Hello,” he said. “How can I help?”
“Hi,” I said, and told him my name. “I met someone who told me they go to a narcotics recovery programme here.”
He looked at me sympathetically and clasped my hands in his. “It’s great that you’ve made this decision,” he said. “We have a meeting tonight at seven. I’ll just-”
“Oh, no… I’ve been trying to contact him again. I don’t suppose you’d know where I could find him?”
I tried to describe the evangelist, feeling stupid for not having learnt his name, but as the pastor pointed out, there was no great shortage of short bearded men in Skid Row. He carried on smiling throughout our exchange, but there was a harried impatience in the twitch of his jaw: he had more important things to do than attend to my search. That evening I went to a session. My junkie wasn’t there. I sat through the first few minutes: almost at once the stories started to crowd oppressively around me. One woman had gone into prostitution to pay for her addiction; she’d used to shoot up before her customers fucked her, she’d lie there, immobile and numb. Now every time she’d break into tears midway through. A man hadn’t seen his son in eight years. He was horrified by the idea that he might pass him in the street and walk on, neither recognising the other. It may have already happened. Every account of isolation and hopelessness felt like an accusation; my forehead grew sweaty, my mouth went dry, my hands shook in my pockets. I stood up in the middle of one confession and left without saying a word.
The next week, I called in sick at work and decided to find Roy Kelner. The UCLA campus was broad and open, dotted with green spaces. Little kids ran between the trees, shrieking unintelligibly. Musclebound students in vests and sunglasses bumped fists as they crossed paths with each other and walked on without saying a word. In front of one building a gaggle of earnest-looking types were protesting against something or other. I asked for Roy Kelner at the front desk in the Philosophy department.
The receptionist frowned. “I don’t think I know him. Hang on.” She tapped at her keyboard. “K-E-L-N-E-R? I don’t think there’s anyone by that name here.”
Another woman’s face appeared from behind a doorway. “You’re looking for Kelner? He doesn’t work here anymore.”
“He got fired?”
“Not exactly. Is this about Atlantis?”
“Yeah, we get people asking about that sometimes. One guy wanted to make a documentary about him. Kelner was my professor when I was at grad school here. He got really weird about it, to be honest. We were meant to be doing Contemporary Continentalism and all he’d ever do was talk about Atlantis. Obsessed. He was so certain that it existed. And then one day he just vanishes. No note, nothing.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “Maybe he found it. Who knows? I’m sorry I can’t help. He did write a book about it, though. The Impossibility of the Real: Theorizing Atlantis. He put it on our required reading list.”
“You don’t have a copy, do you?”
“’Fraid not. They should have one at the Powell Library, though. It’s just across the quad.”
The library swarmed with students tapping away at their laptops: I only saw one, a dark-haired girl in green leggings, who was actually reading a book. Kelner’s book was very slim; more of a pamphlet, really. Underneath the title was a painting I recognised as Poussin’s Et in Arcadia ego. I opened it a few pages in:
The homeless operate according to a temporal and spatial paradigm that constitutes a nomadic smooth-space disruption of the striations of space as interpreted by the State. They manifest themselves not as a series of molar entities but as a single substance engaged in a total deterritorialisation: their model is not that of the herd but that of the swarm.
I flipped forwards a few pages:
Here it may be valuable to consider the development of the subterranean city in terms of Negarestani’s ( )hole complex and his conceptualization of solidus and void.
Towards the end:
Hardt & Negri’s assertion that resistance is ontologically prior to power provides a reversal of traditional social dynamics that allows for a wealth of new theoretical approaches. Similarly, a richer understanding may be achieved if it is postulated that it is, in fact, Los Angeles that forms a vast parasite on Atlantis; a teeming, grossly over-extended remora-city whose inhabitants live out their lives unaware their existences form a superficial manifestation of a far more profound reality. Los Angeles, home to the entertainment industry and epicenter of global spectacularity, is constructed of artifice and simulacrum; it is only its leech-like attachment to Atlantis that prevents the entire city from drifting off into the air. It is the tellurian powers of Atlantis that maintain, direct, and control the nature of existence in the surface-city. The lack of popular recognition for the city’s dark twin and the official denials of its existence do not demonstrate that it is unreal; rather, they demonstrate that in the society of the spectacle, the Real unavoidably takes on the aspects of myth.
I went to the UCPD’s Missing Persons unit to ask about Kelner. They told me that a little over a year previously he had given an undergraduate lecture, spent three dollars from his credit card on a cup of coffee, and then promptly vanished. There had been no unusual phone calls made or received, his car remained in its driveway, he had not been seen on CCTV or by any acquaintances. Some of the homeless people he’d been known to have spent time with had been questioned but it soon became apparent that they didn’t know anything; his neighbours and students were similarly nonplussed. It was as if the ground had opened up and swallowed him whole. They didn’t seem all that anxious about that: this kind of thing seemed to happen the whole time in Los Angeles. I tried a different approach, asking people in Skid Row what they knew about Atlantis. Many of them believed in it. Only a few claimed to have been there, but their descriptions were rambling and contradictory: Atlantis was populated entirely by horny white women, Atlantis was decked out with chrome and holographic screens, Atlantis was a humid jungle miles below the Earth’s surface, Atlantis existed across a portal to another dimension. I started trying to draw pictures of the place, shakily to begin with – I’d abandoned my art some years before. The first attempt looked like a subterranean Skid Row. Chiaroscuro against a background of tangled wires and scuffed brickwork I drew bodies slumped against the walls of corrugated-iron shacks. Bare lightbulbs hanging from the ceilings gave long shadows to the piles of litter between the train tracks and the shit running down the walls; in one corner a mange-bitten rat posed dramatically on its hind legs. It didn’t look right: this was not Atlantis. I tried again. This time, I decided that the founders of Atlantis had had the subway tunnels faced with white marble. Shining chandeliers were placed at regular intervals; they bathed everything in a soft crepuscular glow. Jutting from the walls were Ionic colonnades; here and there were fountains and statues depicting the gods and heroes of the homeless. The citizens of Atlantis were drawn strolling around at a leisurely pace, naked, with beards and long glossy hair. They slept wherever they pleased, on the steps of the various temples and academies, or on the long grass strewn with wildflowers that had been planted on the tunnel’s floor. Only the wires and pipes running through the ceilings and the odd subway car converted into living spaces served to remind that this was not some supernatural realm but a city buried under the streets of Los Angeles. I discarded that one too: what I had drawn was a fantasy; I knew that a real Atlantis existed. My third attempt was closer to the truth, I think. Why would the Atlanteans, who had successfully hidden their city from the world for decades, be content to live in the spaces carved out by Los Angeles? What if they had continued to excavate, broadening the abandoned subway lines until they all converged? I drew an immense cavern, crisscrossed by flaking girders from which bundles of power lines hung loosely. Floodlights were bolted to some of them, a glittering constellation of floodlights, shooting beams of light in random paths, revealing fragments of the vast city below. Atlantis was a bric-a-brac mess; its streets were a tangled scribble, like those of a medina or a medieval town. The buildings were all in irregular shapes, built on top of each other; none had all four walls made from the same material. Winding around and between them were more wires, ziplines, staircases, slides, hidden passages, secret entrances. Towards the centre was a cluster of skyscrapers not unlike those in the city above, but these too were wreathed in twisting ramps and staircases, like ivy around the trunk of a tree. Atlantis was a schizophrenic city, but it was consistent in its own logic; its anarchy was a warm and human one, a necessary counterpoint to the cold rational gridded psychopathy of Los Angeles. I kept the drawing in a drawer in my apartment. I never showed it to anyone.
Before long I stopped going to work entirely. I’d spend my days in Skid Row and my nights doing feverish research in my apartment. A few of my friends still called me occasionally, but after a while they started to drift away. I scoured the Internet for maps of the tunnels under Los Angeles and started looking up prices for head-mounted torches. I read accounts from other people who’d spent hours traipsing around the catacombs of the city trying to find Atlantis. I knew why they’d failed: they were trying to invade Atlantis, to plant their flag on its soil. To go there one had to be invited in. I thought about trying to contact Kelner – even if he’d found Atlantis maybe he still read the paper; I could place an advert in the Los Angeles Times. My trips to the laundry became sparse. I stopped shaving; I trimmed my beard occasionally, when I had the time. My jeans frayed at the cuffs. I didn’t replace them.
I was sitting on the kerbside, smoking a solitary cigarette, when I saw Molly running past me. “It’s Jerome!” she said.
I followed her. Around the corner, a moustachioed cop was wrestling for control of a shopping trolley with a wiry old man in a ragged t-shirt. Molly stopped next to them.
“Sir,” she said, panting. “What’s happening here?”
“I’d stand back if I were you, miss,” said the cop.
“What’s happening?” she said again.
The old man fixed Molly with a frenzied stare and shook his jowls, liberally dousing us in spittle. “They wan’ my treasures!” he said. “Stop ‘em, Moll! Buzzers! Bluebottles! They wanna take my treasures!”
“Let him keep it,” said Molly. “Sir, he’s not hurting anyone.”
“Your man here has a shopping cart full of bottles of his own urine,” said the cop. “It’s a public safety hazard.”
“It’s all Jerome has,” she said.
Jerome made a lunge for the cop’s waist. “Buzzers away!” he roared. The cop pushed him to the ground and cuffed him. Jerome writhed desperately. “A-da-da,” he moaned. “A-da-da-da. Not my golden. I made it myself. Stop ‘em, Moll.”
“What’s your badge number?” said Molly. “I’m going to make a complaint.”
Jerome’s head darted upwards and struck the cop on his chin. “My treasures!” he roared. The cop truncheoned him in the back of the neck. Molly rushed towards the trolley.
“Stand back!” shouted the cop. With one knee now on Jerome’s neck, he pulled a Taser from his belt. “Not one step!”
“Or what?” said Molly. “You’ll shoot me? Give him his things back!” She reached out to grab the trolley handle. The cop fired: there was a sudden crack of electricity, and two darts arced out to Molly’s chest. She fell over backwards. Her head hit the pavement with a dull thud. One arm twitched. Jerome shrieked. I rushed over to her. There was another crack. The world flashed a searing white.
“Jesus Christ,” said Molly as we walked back around the corner, defeated. “Fuck. I need a drink.”
“Shouldn’t you go to a hospital or something?”
“I’m Irish. I need a drink. I’m going back to the office. I’m going to have a drink and then I’m going to get that fucker fired. You want one?”
“It’s only five in the afternoon… what am I saying? Of course. I’d love one.”
The office was, as it turned out, two small rooms over a dollar store, half-buried in papers and ring binders. “As you can see, we’re not the most well-funded organisation out here,” said Molly, reaching into a drawer and withdrawing a bottle of whiskey. She took a big glug. “I hope you don’t mind drinking from the bottle.”
I laughed. “Reminds me of being a kid.”
Molly sat down on an overstuffed sofa leaning against one wall and beckoned me to join her. “Where do you work?” she said. “I don’t think I even asked.”
“At this accountancy firm. It’s not very interesting.”
“So what makes a guy who works at an accounting firm suddenly decide to spend all his time on Skid Row?”
“I wasn’t always an office drone. I used to be-” I paused.
“I wouldn’t dream of it.”
“I used to write graphic novels. Unpublished, of course.”
“That’s cool. What were they about?”
“Superheroes… my thing was superheroes with boring powers. I did a whole series about a guy who had laser eyes, but they were only good for scanning barcodes at the supermarket.”
Molly laughed. “That’d go some way to explaining your obsession with Atlantis.”
“What about you? How’d you end up working here?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I came down here for college, from a tiny whitebread town up in NorCal, and I was just so upset by it all… you know, two months in and I was a radical feminist and an anti-poverty campaigner and everything. I just wanted to help, I guess.” Molly stood up. “Do you like blues?” she said, walking over to a CD player in the corner of the office.
“Sure,” I said.
She pushed a button. A few dusty-sounding guitar notes sounded out. As she walked back Molly swayed her hips a little, clicking one hand, looking slightly bashfully at the floor.
“My dad only ever had one record,” she said, sitting down next to me. “He’d play it the whole time in the car. Robert Johnson. You know him?”
“Isn’t that the guy who sold his soul to the Devil?”
“At the crossroads, yeah. It’s actually all based on this Yoruba legend. It’s not necessarily the Devil. It’s Eshu. The spirit of the crossroads.”
I thought of Brandon, hearing the voices of dead gods in the ruins of Babylon. “There’s myth everywhere. Under the surface.”
Molly gave me a strange look. “You’re such a Romantic,” she said.
“Aren’t I just.” I slid an arm over her shoulders and leant towards her.
“Oh, knock it off.”
“It wasn’t a fucking compliment! Why are you here? I’ve seen you. All you talk to the guys about is Atlantis. This made-up tooth fairy legend! Like they don’t matter. There are real people suffering out there, and you come down here because – because what? You find it interesting? You get some sick aesthetic enjoyment out of their misery?”
“That’s not true,” I said, not fully believing myself.
“Yes it is! You don’t really care, do you? You’re interested, but you don’t care.”
“It’s still true. You don’t give a shit about anyone but yourself.”
I stared at the floor. “I don’t know how to.”
Molly stood up. “Please go,” she said. “I’d feel a lot better if you- please, just go.”
I didn’t go back to Skid Row the next day. I sat around listlessly in my apartment, watching TV, trying not to think about Atlantis. I watched from my window as the sun drowned itself in the Pacific and a wave of purple swept over from the East, smothering the pinkness that glowed on the horizon, darkening until all I could see in the glass was my own face. I shied away from my reflected gaze.
It didn’t take long to collect what I needed: I had a torch, a pair of heavy boots, a brick, and my third drawing. I left the old subway maps at home. They would not help me find Atlantis. Atlantis would find me – it had to; I had nothing else now. I knew where to go. The inhabitants of Atlantis presumably had their own entry points, but for the time being I had to make do. I found the door buried in an unassuming shallow recess on the plain brick back wall of Grand Terminal Place, an apartment building downtown that from the front was dense with Art Deco flourishes. The account I had read on the Internet discussed bribing a security guard, but I didn’t have the time or the patience. The door was locked with a single padlock; it broke after the third strike with the brick. I looked around quickly to make sure nobody had seen me and went inside. In the tiny room there was only a single fluorescent bulb hanging on a wire above a manhole from which the rusting guardrails of a ladder spouted. Climbing down, I found myself on the platform of what had once been the Grand Terminal. It was chilly, and the smell of mould and wet concrete hung limply in the air. The tracks had been ripped from the ground and the paint stripped from the walls, but scraps of litter still huddled in the corners. I sifted through them: tickets, faded, sodden, disintegrated; wrappers from Hershey bars and Tootsie Pops; flyers for musicals long cancelled and fairgrounds now rusting in scrapheaps. The sheer concrete faces of two walls were punctured by two yawning round holes, gaping like a pair of inhuman mouths roaring silently at each other across the concourse. I jumped down from the platform and walked gingerly up to one of them. My torchlight vanished into the hungry depths of the tunnel. I stood there for a few minutes, clinging to the arch of the tunnel’s entrance, staring into its empty depths. Finally, with the trepidation of one walking through the gates of an ancient and forbidden temple, I stepped inside.
At first I tried to walk, slowly, ignoring the thunderous drumming of my heart and the short high rasps of my breath, but within seconds I was running, the beam of my torch making erratic arcs over the floor and the high ceiling, not sure if I was running gleefully towards Atlantis or away, in terror, from the rest of the world. That didn’t last too long either; before long I collapsed, wheezing, against the walls. After a recuperative cigarette I set out again into the city’s catacombs. At every corner I approached I thought I could hear the distant echoes of chattering voices or the low warm hum of machinery; my heart would flap about wildly in my chest and I would nervously creep forward only to be faced by another seething chasm. I walked for hours, trying to ignore my growing exhaustion, the impatient growling of my stomach, the steady dimming of my torch. When the lightbulb finally spluttered and went out I froze for a moment, then carried on walking with a sudden frenzied urgency, feeling along the side of the tunnel, trying to suppress the quiet but insistent voice in the back of my head telling me that I had fucked up and was going to die, over and over again. I don’t know how long I carried on like that. Eventually, I turned a corner to see a cold glow from the top of a stairwell built into the side of the tunnel casting speckled shadows on the rough floor. I ran towards it, grinning wildly. I had not been deserted. It had found me.
At the top of the stairwell was a wide flat expanse of concrete with a heavy metal grille at one end, from beyond which a blinding light shone. I crawled desperately towards it. Wincing, I pulled at the grille. When it refused to move I roared into the whiteness. Eventually the hellish glare coalesced into a scene. Not the one I’d expected. A pavement, an asphalted road on which cars trundled noisily, a row of shops. I kept on screaming. I don’t know how long for. Eventually my cries broke down into sobs. Nobody heard me. Los Angeles went about its business.
Eventually I was prodded awake by the rough hand of a policeman. The metal grille lay to one side on the pavement. I was handcuffed and pushed silently to the waiting car. The station was drab and sepia-shaded, in my disorientation the entire building seemed to tilt and stretch distressingly. At first the questions were terse and brutal: they wanted to know my name, how I had entered the old subway, if I was aware that trespass was a criminal offence. I told them everything: I told them about Skid Row, I told them about my search for Atlantis. They looked at me as if I was crazy. Then, after half an hour left worrying alone in the interrogation room, the door was opened and another man, in sunglasses and a dark suit without any badge, walked in and sat down opposite me. I half-expected him to tell me that the question of Atlantis was a federal secret, or a matter of national security, or of interplanetary importance. Instead he sat silently for a few seconds, and then told me in curt tones that as I hadn’t shown up at work for weeks my visa was no longer valid, and that I was remaining in the United States illegally.
On the flight back, I stared out the window as the desert melted into the vast flat cornfields of the Midwest, as the Appalachians soared past me, as the interminable expanse of the Atlantic was finally broken by a rolling patchwork of tiny constricted pastures. I was home, back in that crowded little space where all the ancient myths died out centuries ago.
I manage. Friends and family were surprised to see me back so early; when I tried to explain what had happened I could tell that they didn’t really understand. I have a job, and my old apartment again. I’ve given up drawing altogether, which is probably for the best. Most of the time I don’t even think about it. But whenever in one of those little moments of blankness my mind floats away from its surroundings – when I’m in the shower, or on public transport, or bored at the office – it always goes to the same place. I float through the miles of empty tunnels under Los Angeles, chasing the faint gleam of a light that is always close but never within reach, searching for Atlantis.