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A Grave Matter

So I went out to visit a friend in Califor-ni-ay. A guy I hadn’t seen in a while, but we grew up together best friends in middle and high school and had sorta kinda kept in touch afterwards. He asked me to come for a visit and since I had zero to the left going on at home I thought why not? My friend Jay asked me to come out there and maybe get in the movies.  I couldn’t see myself in the movies (I’m not THAT good looking LOL). I couldn’t make it as a stuntman either. I tried a stunt on my bike when I was like 12 or 13 and was damn lucky not to have killed myself. I would have liked to have been the kind of guy who falls off the horse and gets right back on...kinda like Paul Newman or one of those types, but I just wasn’t that type. I might have rode my bike one or two more times like some old Grandma riding around the block for exercise, then confined it to a corner of the garage and pretended I was too old and cool for bike riding. I mean I was getting my driver’s license in three of four years so who needed a bike now? But, that was then and this was now. 

I figured my friend lived out there in L.A. and probably had a place on the beach or at least a swimming pool to lay around by and check out the babes. So I pawned the guitar that I never learned to play and an amp and got a bus ticket out to L.A. and man that took a long time to get out there. I thought I was being thrifty and smart by not spending a little more and flying. Instead, I was cheap and dumb. That bus must have stopped in every god awful little town from Chicago to Los Angeles and it took FOREVER. At first, I thought it was kinda cool seeing the country one small town at a time, kinda like Kerouac on a Greyhound, but the novelty wore off real fast. It seemed like ON THE ROAD to hell. It snowed and rained and broiled on the way out there from the Loop and the thought of spending some more money on an airplane ticket sounded mighty good then.

But, I got there or somewhere...I was in kind of a haze when I arrived...and it wasn’t exactly what I pictured, but it was a bus station that was full of broken down looking old men, bag ladies, and a motley looking group of people of which I was one. What the hell did I expect? I called my friend to pick me up but Jay was working so he I had to sit around on a hard wooden bench for a few hours and people watch and dog watch and bum watch. When I thought he couldn’t take no more, Jay shows up with his Venice Beach tan. Jay said we’d go back to the apartment he had and have somethin’ to eat cause he just got off work and was starved. So we spent a lot of time parked on the ‘expressway’, rode down a lot of crooked dirty streets and passed a bunch of dirty people with no names and eventually got to his place. ‘Hell, I don’t think there is a swimming pool is there?” I wondered out loud. Jay said to shutup and that if I wanted that, I should have made richer friends and laughter filled the car. Maybe we could hit the beach that weekend and I could work on getting a sriracha red California sunburn.

Jay lived up on the third floor of a four floor building that had seen better days but was still okay, sorta. There wouldn’t be any gunshots going off in the middle of the night at least. Luckily, the cramped, dirty, dingy, and occasionally working elevator was in a good mood. His place was a one bedroom decorated in early Goodwill and curbside. There was a cot in one corner. “That’s your bed man.” said Jay. “OK, thanks, looks good to me after being scrunched up on that bus for four days” I said while I secretly wondered if I could ever get to sleep on such a god awful thing. “So what do you do for fun?” I asked hoping to be blown away by an answer like picking up girls at the beach and bringing them back to the apartment. “Not much man, just get up, go to work, come back here and lay around. I don’t make enough money to do much. I gotta work a second job sometimes, but the weather is better and people are more...I don’t know” his voice trailing off. Wow, that sounded exciting. But Jay made some decent tasting spaghetti and there was some beer, and after all I was worn down, wore out, worn away, and just wanted to get some sleep. I could wait on the excitement until another night or two. It was hot because the A/C was broke but I was too exhausted to complain and I was knocked out in no time. It couldn’t felt better if it was a Waldorf Astoria suite.

Early Friday morning and Jay slipped out for his glorious work as a call center rep for some communications company that had been bought by some other communications company recently. I slept in until 11 and then stayed in bed for a couple of more hours because I could. Then it was time to hang around the funky apartment that needed a good cleaning, looking out the window at the jets taking off and landing from LAX, walking around the block a few times, sitting on a bench outside staring at the old cracked concrete steps and the apartment sign which was falling apart, and watching the people passing going to their jobs or going somewhere, who knows? None of them seemed to be happy about it. There was the old guy drinking out of a paper bag with his back leaned crookedly up against the wall of the building next door. I went inside and took a nap from all the excitement and still recouping from the bus ordeal. A couple of hours later Jay came back and we went out to play some pool and grab some street tacos. When we got back to the apartment I asked “What do you got planned for tomorrow?” Jay looked around and said, “well, I kinda got a hobby, you probably think it’s weird, but I like it. I hesitated to ask. “Yeah, what might that be?” Jay said “I’ve been going out to the cemeteries looking for famous know reading their tombstones or mausoleum passes the time and it’s free and it’s pretty cool to know somebody famous is under you. Yeah, that qualifies as weird thought I but I was a guest and didn’t know anybody else to hang with. “Uh, I guess that’d be okay” I said haltingly and without an ounce of conviction. “Cool” said Jay. “I was thinking of going out to a couple of places tomorrow.” Well, that should be interesting I thought as I went over and laid down on the bed of nails torture cot. I fell asleep easily last night, but tonight might be a different story since I was no longer practically dead from fatigue and having my knees jammed up against the seat in front of me and every time I moved some piece of metal was jabbing me like a butter knife and the thought of walking around some cemeteries the next day was just a little disturbing.

The sun came up as it usually does the next day. It was cool in Los Angeles and Jay and I were working the grave watch to paraphrase Joe Friday. After a breakfast of half-stale bagels and not so instant coffee, we got in the car and started on our appointed rounds. “I think we’ll go over to Holy Cross Cemetery first, I haven’t been out there yet” Jay excitedly announced. I still wasn’t too sure about this whole thing. “Who’s buried out there?” I asked. Jay said Bela Lugosi for one was buried out there…”you know, the guy who played Dracula.” Well, that piqued my interest a little. It should have been about a fifteen minute ride but it took three times as long, what with all the traffic and that. They eventually got there. “Don’t they chase you off at these places?” I asked. “No, sometimes they even have maps or you can ask somebody who works there. They’re cool about it.” replied Jay. We started walking around and before long bumped into BA-BA-BA BOOM BA-BA-BA BOOM Bing Crosby’s marker. “You know Bing Crosby, don’t ya?” said Jay. “Yeah, I’ve heard of him. So he’s really buried here huh?” I crooned. Jay sang some out of tune ‘White Christmas’ and said he liked to read some about the people he was ‘visiting’. It made it seem a little more ‘personal’ and there were some people whose names he didn’t know, but he knew their work. “It makes for a little more connection.” he said in hushed tones for some damn reason. Some of those people whose graves they saw had some real sad lives. Yeah, they were famous, for a while at least, but a lot of them wound up destitute or committed suicide. 

We saw the gravestone of Mel Blanc, the guy who did almost all the voices in the Bugs Bunny cartoons. His stone said “That’s all folks” just like what they used to say when the cartoons ended. Jay told me that he didn’t do the voice of Elmer Fudd though. “They had some other guy do that one. I don’t know why.” Then came the graves of Rita Hayworth who we had heard of and knew she was an actress from long ago but really weren’t sure who she was or what movies she was ever in, the comedian John Candy who we did know and liked, and Ricardo Montalban. “Welcome to Fantasy Island” Jay said in a really bad imitation that probably had Ricardo turning over in his grave that was beneath our feet. Good thing he didn’t try ‘rich Corinthian leather’ or ol’ Ricardo might have come up from his grave to choke him.

Then we got to the grave of Bela Lugosi, Dracula himself sort of. Both of us grew up watching old horror films like Dracula and so this was of special interest...far more than any damn politician or film executive who might have been around. “It’s pretty cool thinking that the guy who played Dracula is buried right here” I said and I was starting to get into this new pastime. “He’s buried in his cape! Did you know that?” asked Jay. “No way, really?” exclaimed I. Apparently, Lugosi never actually asked to buried in his cape, but his wife thought it would be a nice touch, so that’s what happened. He wound up getting typecast in that kind of role and his career never took off. “What about that guy who played Frankenstein? Where’s he at?” I wondered aloud. “Oh, you mean Boris Karloff. I think he’s buried in England or something. By the way, he didn’t play Frankenstein. The monster didn’t have a name. That was the doctor’s name, you know the guy who put him together.” said Jay sounding like a tour guide. After a ten minute argument over whether the monster was named Frankenstein, we agreed to disagree, but Jay was right. “Where’s the Wolfman buried?” I asked this fountain of cemetery information. I of course was referring to Lon Chaney Jr. who was the original wolfman. “I have no idea but I’m sure we can find out.” Jay howled, sort of. Just so you know, Chaney’s body was donated to medical science. Personally, I think it would have been cool to have Lugosi, Karloff, and Chaney Jr. buried next to each other. That way, you’d have they guys who played Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the mummy (the original one, not the modern crap ones made recently), and the wolfman all together. Anyway, we walked around some more and then decided to head over to another cemetery. Reportedly at Lugosi’s funeral, one guy said to another, “Let’s pound a stake in his heart just in case.” I think Bela would have liked that joke.

We drove over to a place called Pacific View Memorial Park. It took like an hour and a half but Jay promised it would be worth it. We stopped for a late lunch on the way. “I wanna show you one grave that I know you’ll wanna see.” said Jay. Walking around, they saw a funeral service taking place. I remarked that it was a beautiful day for a funeral. I also trotted out the old joke that the cemetery was so popular that people were dying to get in. After that bit of comedy and a bit more of looking around and finally asking somebody we were directed to a grave that marked the final resting place of somebody else we always liked, John Wayne. I couldn’t believe it. I’d seen all of John Wayne’s films and even had a poster of him in my room at one time. “Wow, John Wayne” I said as I looked at it. “That’s so cool, well you know what I mean” I said in a lower register and a somewhat respectful voice. If anything, I was a little disappointed that the marker wasn’t any bigger and the Duke seemed to be kinda out by himself with no other famous people around, but maybe he wanted it that way. Besides, there was a nice picture of a horse on his stone. Jay said “Hey look what it says on his stone”. It read... ‘Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight, very clean. When it arrives it is perfect. It puts itself in our hands. It hopes we learned something from yesterday.’ “Man’s that pretty poetic for John Wayne, but he probably didn’t write it. Still it’s pretty cool” I said. “Who do you think wrote it, Whitman, Frost?” “I haven’t the slightest idea. I must of been asleep in Literature class when they covered that” said Jay rolling his eyes. We stood there silently for a few minutes and then I thought of a great idea. “They should have some motion activated thing that when you triggered it, it would say in John Wayne’s voice; “Well, what the hell are you looking at pilgrim?” I laughed. That would scare the shit out of some people. They should have by Bela Lugosi’s grave too. It could say “I bid you welcome” or something like that. That would be awesome. We oughta start up a business with that.” Jay thought for a moment and said, “Yeah, that’d be cool, but I don’t know if you get the surviving families to sign up for something like that. You know it might be considered disrespectful.” And so another million dollar dream idea dies.

There didn’t seem to be much else to see at Pacific View, at least anybody that they had heard of, so we hopped back in the car and made the long drive home in the afternoon heat. The sun had come out and all the cool in the air was gone. We got back home and had a few cold ones before later deciding to go out and get some street tacos (again) and go to a club or two. I had to admit I was hooked on this new hobby and wanted to go the next day to see some more graves so that’s what they did because Jay was up for it too. Jay warned me, “If we meet a couple of girls, don’t mention we were out looking at graves today. They might think we’re a couple of weirdos, of course they’ll probably think that anyway.”

So we found some other cemeteries to go to and saw the graves and markers of David Carradine, the ‘Kung-Fu’ guy who supposedly hung himself, uh...yeah, hung himself...William Conrad, who narrated a childhood favorite cartoon Bullwinkle, and dozens more including the obligatory trip to the crypt of Marilyn Monroe even though neither one of us was really a fan of hers. It just seemed like a mandatory thing to do if you’re out visiting graves. Hugh Hefner’s buried close by her too if you’re interested which I wasn’t. “I gotta think of some people I kinda liked or at least heard of” I mused. “I don’t think you’d ever run out of places to visit” Jay said excitedly. “We can look at the internet and look some other places up and see who they got there”. “Maybe when I get back to Chicago, they got some famous people buried there huh?” I said. “Ya think?” said the sarcastic Jay. “Al Capone’s gotta be there right”? I thought I’d wanna be cremated, but after seeing all that, I think I’d like to be buried with a nice marker I said. “Something to be remembered by you know. “Hell, no offense but who would come visit you” said my sarcastic good friend and deep down I knew he was right. We walked right by a lot of markers and never looked at them unless they were known for something. “The same would apply for me, seems pointless and a waste of time and money.” Jay added.

Alas, all good things come to an end and I found myself getting ready to get on a plane to Chicago O’Hare in a few hours. I decided to spring for a few extra bucks and decided to fly instead of taking that bus again. It had been quite an interesting trip. Not everybody in California lived in Malibu on the beach and I had found a new hobby thanks to Jay. There was more than just finding famous people though. I wouldn’t ever admit it, there was a sense of peace that came over me when I was in a cemetery. Quiet, tranquil, relaxing...sometimes just sitting on a bench for an hour or so just feeling the feeling of feeling the peace around me. Sometimes things just seemed out of control but when I’m it was different. Maybe that’s how death pain...just a release from life which can be full of pain and unhappiness. When I got back I thought, I’d do some exploring on my own in the area and see what famous people were buried nearby. Me and Jay parted and I headed for the ticket counter. Goodbye L.A., Hello Chicago cemeteries.