Thursday, August 30, 2012

Off Time

To start a 1930 Ford Model A Tudor (mine at least) you must do the following:  Push spark advance lever to its top position; push fuel lever down one third of the way; turn fuel valve down; pull the choke out all the way; turn on ignition; press starter button on floorboard after turning my foot to avoid pressing the gas button or brake pedal; hope and pray the old girl starts up; and wonder what you did wrong after the third or fourth try.  When the car starts, happy begins!
The job of crime scene photographer means I am exposed to the worst in life, at least the worst there is in a big city.  Los Angeles ranks as the 10th largest city in the world with all factors added and its size and population taken into account.  It took a long time to get used to all of the issues associated with this job.  My Model A has really helped alleviate a lot of the stress.
To say I love the old girl is a bit much.  I am, however, ecstatic every time she starts.  Why?  I don’t know.  The output from the four cylinders is about 38 hp on a good day.  It might go 60 mph on the freeway without a headwind.  Going downhill, you would avoid going any faster because the roof is made of cloth and the aerodynamics are just slightly better than a shoe box.  I did, in fact, get her going rather quickly once.  Ever been in a car that swirled and danced?  Not fun.  Well, maybe just a smidge.
For about 60 years, my car was not maintained to the highest standards.  Now then, 60 years is about 45 past the longest time anyone expects to drive any car today.  As of 2012, the year this missive was penned, the old girl turned 82.  She is entitled to a creak or two.  A rattle or several is charming.  Get that?  
Slowly but surely, I have traced down her major ‘health issues’, working my way around each window, the mounting of the windshield, the stops on all the doors, and welting for the fenders.  The more I fix, however, the more I find.  I hate the thought that one day I will accidently massage all of the charm out of her.

The history of my car, both as a production line Ford and her journey through time and into my life, is unique.  The Model A was an advanced car.  I know the starting procedures described above make her sound like an antique.  Although she definitely is, at least I don’t have to get out and turn a crank.  Yes, there is a place where you can do that, and yes, I carry a spare hand crank.  
She was like new to me and had only been owned by one family her entire life.  The man who sold her to me did so for far less than what he could have profited for one reason only.  I would never make a hot rod out of her.  I had been telling him how hot rods ruin an antique car.  The body is taken, the roof cut off, and most of the rest thrown away.  I just don’t like it. 

The owner took me to see a lonely, blue car tucked away in a garage, which was needed for more valuable things.  No one in his family could take her.  His grandkids were uninterested and he despised the idea that she would be chopped up and lost into the yester world of custom like everyone else’s world of hot rodding.  His father had given him the car.  I am now her third owner.  I like the idea that she is as classic as her previous owners.  
As I paid for her and made arrangements to take her home, I found out that the man who sold her to me was instrumental in raising the funds to build Parker Center, the building I now work in.
Personally, I don’t have anything against hot rodders.  I just do not want it done to mine.  As I get older, the slower I go, the faster she catches up with me, creaks and all.  My job is forgotten as we put-put down the road, feeling every pothole, turn, and wind gust.

Sunday, August 26, 2012


            What we have as a modern society does not suit everyone.  Forget the technology, just living in an organized way, like most of us do, just can’t be done by some people.  It may be that attachments are simply not possible for some.
            I was at a huge celebration.  It was for a couple that had been married for 50 years.  They had relations come in from all over, Hawaii, San Diego, North Carolina, etc.  It made me think about this world we live in.

Modern conveyance allowed people to make a decision, book a flight, and come on over.  Less than two lifetimes ago that was just a ridiculous notion.  A lifetime ago it was as expensive as it is now.  In the middle of that lifetime, one could make some house payments with the money used to fly in from the big island.  Housing prices have gone up, flight prices have remained almost the same.
            Some people love to travel.  I don’t.  It’s a hassle.  The compacting of the things that I use and acclimating myself to unfamiliar surroundings is not my ideal joy.  I could easily put up with it if love and joy were at the other end.  
At this celebration, it certainly was.  I said little and watched a lot.  From the children to the grandparents, one could only describe the room as being full of life, laughter and love.

            Adrift are those in our midst that cannot conform to any of society’s standards.  It’s not having an address or checking account that is so insurmountable. It’s the lack of anything to do with others on any permanent basis that drives one to start wandering and never stop.  They make themselves free in the middle of the wide-open concrete asphalt oasis we call a city, floating like driftwood peppered with gathered flotsam as they pick up objects deemed valuable.  Cans and bottles for money, bits of tarp for shelter, a jacket for warmth, another for a pillow.  
A surprising number are quite sober.  I have encountered some loaded with cash; at least a year’s worth of housing neatly bundled in plastic bags tucked into an overcoat.  There is a place where one man sleeps on the sidewalk in front of the house he used to live in.  Only the foundation was left after a fire reduced it to a memory.  Not everyone can self start or rebuild.

            In the past, I have pondered upon the lives of those who live on the islands. How peaceful it must be, yet boring.  Although that may sound unromantic, I assure you I am not.  I just know I couldn’t live that way by myself.  The world can be an ocean of loneliness in the middle of a densely populated city.  How warm and connected I felt being in the middle of those who value family far above any I have known.  
I am left with the hope that family is what you make it, and with whom you work to have it.  I have a further understanding for those who just need to drift with the tide and winds, traveling along their road to nowhere.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

When a loved One…

            I’m in the trauma, crime, and dead business.  What do I know about what to do with a grieved loved one?  A bit.
            What not to do.  The person you’re about to help has just had the rug pulled out from under their feet.  They do not need platitudes like, ‘God is with them now’ or ‘They’re in a better place’, as if the person you are trying to console is reeling with anxiety that the person they just lost is going to hell.  I know that sounds harsh, but the last thing I ever wanted to hear was something about their pain being over.  I know it is.  They’re dead.  I am still here.
Whatever you do, please save your grief for the church.  They have enough to deal with, thank you.  It’s not the best idea to ask them to come out.  That is inviting a depressed person to drive somewhere.
            What you can do.  Do something, anything, like a car wash to helping clean up a kitchen or rearrange a room.  If it was a husband lost and now an old widower is left, clean the yard thoroughly. 
After my father died, we completely cleaned out my mother’s room.  Every family member helped me.  My mother was so delighted about it. I will never forget it.  
Call them, ask if they are home, and go to them.  Perhaps they would like to get out.  Okay, take them anywhere.  Let them indulge in some window-shopping, flower smelling, or puppy watching.

            For some time after, they may need help selling things they don’t need like tools, camera equipment, or a car that someone said was a priceless classic and is not really.  I have one of those.  Although it is precious to me, like some old photo equipment I still own, it is just not worth as much as it used to be to keep and talk about. 
Of course, someone is going to say that his or her loved one never bought junk.  No, at the time it may not have been, but I just overheard a conversation where someone possessed a very expensive dark room enlarger.  At one time, that machine cost up to many thousands of dollars.  They are all paperweights now. Follow-up can take years.
Keep your grieving loved one busy.  There is nothing like a hobby or meeting new people to work off the grief.  Give them a taste of the freedom their loved one would have wanted for them.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Just Plain Dead

            Do you have a career where looking at bodies gets to be like wearing an old hat?
            I have seen them all, I hope.  They come in all the shapes and sizes you could possibly see by walking the mall.  Not the beach, the mall.  You would need a mall, a big one, to get that much variety.  The majority of the bodies at the beach are beach-ready; in the mall, they are mall-ready.
            I add a variant to this wonderful thought.  Bodies come in various states of freshness.  A common question a coroner will ask is, “When was the last time you saw or spoke to the decedent?”  They like a bracket of possible time of death.  I do not know all about why they want to know.  I just hear the question being asked a lot.  For the sake of my nose, I do know that sooner is better.

I do not like decomps.  That is short for decomposing body.  That gets gross fast.  In three days, a body can become unrecognizable.  You may have heard the smell is unlike anything else. Not true.  The smell is like everything amped to the highest degree.  The trauma created by seeing your first few decomps is something that stays with you.  So does the smell.
I have a keen sense of taste and smell.  I can tell the difference between many types of coffee.  With my wonderful ability and acumen regarding potpourri, let me tell you what decomp is like.  
I would describe the smell as being very musky, moldy, and heavy on the ammonia.  It is a bit like any dead thing you have come across, plus that sour smell some fast food pickles give off.  I can testify in open court that the memory of decomp is commonly triggered by going past most fast food places.  I know that some people out there are really interested in the total variants of decomp smell.  I hope I never meet one.
Interesting note:  Smell is the most common hallucination.  In my case, these hallucinations are just disturbances like those experienced during a nightmare.  I accept them.  They do not bother me.  In fact, they have actually helped me lose some weight.  I will now avoid any possibility of a lawsuit by not revealing which restaurants trigger the flashbacks.
            Can you say, “Together?”  Not all bodies are found in such a state.  Folded, stretched, twisted, flattened, and many combinations of torn and scattered have become practically normal to me.  
I was doing overalls at a train versus car situation.  “Overalls” are photos of the whole scene at various angles and POV’s (Points of View) that are the hallmark of good crime scene photography.  The detective on scene asked me to photograph the body.  
“Sure,” I said and asked where it was.  He told me it was still in the front half of the car, which was further down the tracks than the last half.  I walked the several hundred yards back to the intersection where the victim’s car got stuck on the tracks.  She could have panicked; I do not really know what happened.
I found the front half of the vehicle, began to do overalls, and then poked the camera into the open parts of the interior.  There was no one in the car as far as I could tell, so I went back to the detective to inquire about it.  He informed me the victim was in the front seat.  I asked where that was.  We went back to the vehicle together.
The victim and the front seat were under the dashboard.  I did not realize a body was in there until the fire department pulled the car apart with the Jaws of Life and extracted the remains.  Despite the contortion and cramped space, she laid out pretty nicely.  The body looked better than most involved in a train versus whatever else.  As if there is ever a contest.
            Just plain dead is not something I come across very often.  Normally, I photograph bodies related to murders, traffic, and industrial accidents.  Recently, I lamented to the coroner that an elderly man, who had passed some hours previously or perhaps a day before we arrived, had died alone.  I was told that his family described him as a problem that wanted to be left alone.
I judged a book by its cover.  My empathy told the story before I had any facts.  I find I am not alone in this regard.  Taking care of yourself and being kind to others without expecting anything in return seems like such a trite bit of advice.  There is a vast majority of people, however, who do that very thing.  I have seen the stark difference so often.  

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Black Smoke Rising

        I drove into work during a recent heat wave.  For us in Los Angeles that means temperatures exceeding 100 degrees.  I know Phoenix, you are not impressed.  If Arizona were Iraq, well,you see, life can get worse.
        As I drove up the freeway off-ramp, I saw a column of black smoke rising very near to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.  I wondered, at first, if it were a terrorist attack.  I do not know if that is me as an American with 9/11 forever etched into my conscience or this job.  I did not think it was a diesel motor starting up, like the kind that is in the train yards.  I did not think it might be a car fire.  My very first inclination was that it might be a bomb that just exploded.  I did my best to fight off the feeling I might be immediately deployed to this black smoke rising the moment I clocked in.
        Working myself into knots and becoming stressed in anticipation of what awaits me out in the field happens a lot.  There are times I hear something on the radio and think it might be the nextcall I do.  It could be anything in the range of an officer involved shooting, a major crime, or a giant pile up of cars.  I have been to all of these situations often enough to know what they look like just by hearing about them.
Reaction is always a matter of degree.  Screaming about your bad fries is not appropriate, although it does happen a lot.  Hollering your lungs out to warn everyone of a fire or bomb, okay.  You get a good citizen certificate from me.  
I do my best to keep these odd events from taking over my sense of well-being.  I have come to understand burn out; it can happen to anyone, anywhere.  It has happened to a loved one.  She had that one ‘last case’ and could take no more.  The unsung heroes of my day are those in child protective services.
column of smoke could derive from something nice like a BBQ.  Maybe that could be my lesson.  I will try to learn -- no, unlearn the trigger that sets my reaction to negative at firstblush.  I sure as hell better or one day my head will explode in a column of smoke once the steam stops spewing from my ears.  
We are all keepers of something tragic, something wonderful, something awesome, something inspiring.  There, that is three positives to one negative.  If I did not write this, I would never have seen that.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A second look

This job is not without humor.

I don’t mean gallows humor. Not the kind of amusement, that comes with working with bodies, blood, and mayhem. I mean just plain funny.

I was printing photos for a case of child neglect. Without thinking about it at the time I took pictures as the suspect was manipulating popular themed dolls to depict how he thought a baby’s leg was broken. Showing child’s play, using one doll on its back with another sitting on it he maneuvered the dolls around on the floor to depict his scenario. The doll on top was a teddy bear. The doll on the bottom was a well-known character that I will avoid mentioning because I can’t afford a law suit from the company that used it in several movies. Let’s say this; the doll on the bottom had a look of exuberant confidence, a cracked smile, and pie eyed enthusiasm. Happy doll on bottom and a teddy bear on top. I hope you get the picture, this blog is PG rated.

Murders that have me working in an alley’s are quite common. Some alleys are better than others. This one I was at was worse than most. It was strewn with moldy living room furniture that hosted rats and who knows what. Potholes that could hold fish were full of water from a late morning downpour. Weeds were knee high except where cars were crushing them down. The group of us, some five officers and two detectives came together in a spot that was at least, not muddy or had things that were ready to jump out and infect you. With nothing better to do, I mean nothing; I began to play a popular game on my smart phone. This game involves birds and has many levels. The theme song and sound effects were so well known that it must have inspired others to try and go up in score. Soon, as though in an amphitheater with an echo I was surrounded by officers who also had nothing else to do but pass the time with me in spirit. Partners cheered each other on and tips on what to do were passed out liberally.

Downtown Los Angeles hosts a lot of crime and crime scene shows. Within a block of Broadway and fifth I was supposed to report to a major robbery. I still don’t get the odd on one side, even on the other fact of addresses. So, I get close and look for my peeps. A burglary is when someone comes around and realizes something has been taken. A robbery is when one or several robbers shows up armed or not and takes things from people or places while others are there. Armed robbery with several suspects involved usually ends up being a big scene. I expect to find units parked in various positions around the store and some form of human dishevelment where normally prim business attire is the norm. I walk in, oh so confidently, into the scene on Broadway. Everyone looks confused which is normal enough. I am face to face with an officer who is looking scared so I think he may have been involved in a gun battle which makes sense because there are bullet holes, plaster chunks, a make-up artist and a craft service table that has nuts, fruits and coffee. “Hey man, who’s the IO?” I said to the officer whom I did not take a very close look at.

            “I’m sorry you are?” A tall perplexed man says walking up behind me.
I turn around and am about to tell him to go wait somewhere while I talk to the officer since I don’t like talking to civilian’s, distraught as they may be, I don’t know who the bad guy is and who the victim is. “I am with LAPD Scientific Investigation Division and…. This is not a crime scene is it?” I start to notice the officer’s phony badge and some movie camera equipment
Some nervous laughter breaks out. The tall man with what I now recognize as a production radio smiles broadly and shaking his head tells me no. I excuse myself.
I walk out and begin to recognize other parts of production like lighting and what appeared to be some other actors. I found my crime scene across the street and a few doors down. I hoped that my sincere mistaking of the set as a crime scene would be taken, as a compliment and that I did not offend anyone.

For the many times I have wanted to do something else for a living I also remember times like these. The grass always looks greener somewhere else. Stop, take a second look, you may find plenty of green around you.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


Lots of things in my job are done so often I forget how they get done. They are repetitive things that occur on every assignment. I found today that they can be life saving.

I stop and think about what actions I take to begin every job, they are as follows. Pull the lever, the flap opens, insert the card, close flap, format the card, enter the information into the cameras computer so it will tag every image for the job, check settings. Most of those things I don't even need to look while doing them. I use the view finder to tell me what the camera is set on. I know the knobs I need to turn to set up. Again, I don't look while I do this, I know where they are. I can deploy my tripod without looking. You might think one could get tunnel carpel from all this repetition. The variety of actions probably saves me from it.

One of my favorite things to do is take photos of Officers who are getting recognition. One has to do a lot besides put up with the heat while wearing black nylon and a thick bullet proof vest. They are required to put up with people having the worst day of their lives. So many by their own choosing. The greatest job security for law enforcement is the never ending stupidity and jealousy that is a catalyst for most of the tragic scenes I visit. You can add your own opine here_____:)

Now I'm in the studio with an officer and his partner. A parter is like the left ventricle of your heart. No one lives without one. I have to prepare the lighting and the camera. Standards require I ask the officer to remove the vest and the Sam Brown which is the tool belt that carries the batman stuff all officers have now, they have lots of stuff. Just the stuff alone makes a lot of people want to be one. The tools include a gun with extra clips. Communications like a radio and cell phone. Tasers and other less than lethal items. I had to ask about a recent ruling on an officer who pulled his gun instead of taser that caused a fatality. The officer gave me a quick lesson on the amount of training they go through to ensure that it does not happen. The practice involves drawing either, each, one or the other, until a thought becomes an action. The same way you don't think about driving your car, tying your shoes, or what I do to work a camera or tripod they put into making sure their hand is full of the object they need. The one appropriate for the situation. Each situation an officer can be expected to encounter is trained for as rigidly and exhaustively. That is what they are trained to do. Being exceptional, above and beyond the twelve thousand others is rare, that is why I enjoy taking those particular portraits. I am portraying a person who is above and beyond the finest and brightest.

I have only had one nightmare about grabbing the wrong thing. I will never have the ones an officer might when a small falter, not their own, ends in tragedy.