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LAIst Rants: Truth, Speculation, and Something in the Air

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I've gotta abandon the royal "we" for this one, it's just too complicated and I don't want to invoke LAist's good name in the service of my paranoid insanity -- if that's what it is. But what follows is entirely true.

It's hard to spend much time plugged into mainstream media these days without catching the Fear. The real pandemic sweeping the country -- the toxic subsoil of our times -- is the sense that the stitches of bourgeois life have come undone, and it's just a matter of months before our comfy clave gets the stuffing humped out of it one way or another. Watching politicians addressing various grave threats facing us, one gets the sense that not only is disaster inevitable, but any government response will inevitably fall short as well.

Thus with so many threats in the air, as it were, it was a little jarring to awaken one morning about a month ago to the heavy chop of a low-flying helicopter that rattled the windows of my Highland Park bungalow. Peering outside, I saw it turning circles, a large orange-and-white bird trailing a sinister plume of yellowish-brown smoke that settled slowly over the neighborhood. I threw on jeans and ventured outside. The chopper had entered a pattern over Mount Washington. Looking East I saw another one, cruising up the Arroyo, spraying the freeway. A few minutes later it came South again, this time directly over Figueroa.

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I was curious and somewhat alarmed. Certainly, there had been no notice of Malathion spraying, or any such thing; in any case, these helicopters didn't look like bug-sprayers. They were bulky, long and military-looking.

Hard to say which has become more ingrained in my consciousness these last tumultuous years: Fear of terrorism or distrust of the government. Brief thoughts of some new Tuskegee experiment ran through my mind, and that scene in "Atomic Cafe" where the soldiers are made to run into a mushroom cloud. I jumped in the car and drove uphill to get a better view. From the heights, I could see a third helicopter zig-zagging toward Downtown.

Craving untainted air, I headed over the hill for Eagle Rock. But halfway there, driving down York, another orange and white chopper came blasting its spray straight up the boulevard, no more than two hundred feet high. I sat stuck in traffic and watched the yellow haze fall on the unsuspecting cars all around me. This was the point at which the panic kicked in.

It should be pointed out that at this exact same moment, a Jet Blue plane with a fucked-up landing gear was circling LAX, waiting for its final approach. So when I called my girlfriend to tell her about the helicopters, all she wanted to talk about was the airplane.

"They'll be fine," I told her, "planes land without gear all the time. That's what the foam is for. I'm telling you; they're spraying people out here. This airplane is just to distract people."

This, surprisingly, kicked off a fight. It was my alleged paranoia over people being sprayed versus what turned out to be one of the most "meta" media moments in our history to date. Which event was more deserving of our (ultimately fruitless) attention was the point in contention, and my girlfriend and I each found each other hopelessly obtuse for caring more about the other story. I hung up with her then and called the LAPD, Northeast division, on the non-emergency line. By this time I was on the Glendale Freeway, headed for the 210 and the mountains to the North. A sergeant answered the phone.

"Hi," I said, "this might sound strange. But do you guys know anything about helicopters spraying over Highland Park today?"

"Helicopters?" the officer repeated, in a voice that made clear he'd already consigned me to the loony bin.

"Yeah," I told him. "They're orange and white. They're spraying something up and down the streets. Are you guys aware of it?"

"We're not aware of it, no," he responded.

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"Well, I thought someone should know..."

"Uh," he hesitated, "I really don't know who we'd report that to."

And that was that. For all the cop knew, I'd just seen Osama Bin Laden dropping a can of Anthrax over half of Los Angeles; but he didn't seem the least bit concerned about it. Why not, I wondered, driving up Interstate 5. Did the police already know about it? Were they in on it? Anything seemed possible. The world had gone mad. I pulled off onto a high foothill, just before the Highway 14 cutoff. Looking back, I could see a heavy brown haze blotting out the north side of town, specks of helicopters darting back and forth through the nebula like vicious little insects.

It was the end of the world, and no one cared.

I kept driving, stopping sometimes for food, coffee, meaningless phone calls. Around nine at night I found myself in a redneck mountain bar, miles from the interstate, on a dark road halfway to Palmdale. I was engaged in an intense, blotto conversation with a local gun dealer of some kind, a man who lived in his trailer in the parking lot behind the bar. He was, at least, open to any and all theories, and believed that what I'd seen was somehow portentous. The Jet Blue plane's shaky landing looped on the TV screen above the bar, bringing with it bad memories. My new friend told me long and horrible stories, stories about wandering the Mojave desert with nothing but a revolver and a King James Bible, about returning to find his dead mother in her nursing home, half-eaten by ants. He introduced me to Jesus Christ, and assured me that only He would save this Godforsaken Country, and I wondered at how easy it was to find this attitude less than fifty miles outside LA.

I didn't want to go home. I didn't want to be anywhere. Was I nuts? Was the world nuts? What the hell was wrong with people that they could be sprayed like vermin from unmarked helicopters and not even notice? And what could I do about it, besides breathe that shit and hope it didn't kill me? In the end, my noticing or not noticing didn't make any difference at all.

I broke up with my girlfriend a few days later. She couldn't understand what she described as my "choice of a paranoid lifestyle." But I was desperate to believe that the truth I saw with my own eyes was more real, more important, than that other, sanctioned, granulated and self-fulfilling truth that kept everyone else sitting in a chemical fog, glued to their TVs. Not that a fixation with either is what you'd call a sane or healthy reaction. But when people can watch filtered commentary on their own plight in mid-air off a satellite feed, I guess the irreducible subjectivity of reality just presents too complicated an answer by comparison.

- On January 21, 2001, at 0808 eastern standard time, an Airbus A320-232, N509JB, operated by JetBlue Airways, Inc., as flight 88, departed the left side of Runway 4R during landing roll, at John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK), Jamaica, New York. Josh Strike was a passenger on that flight, the only major Jet Blue incident prior to the one at LAX. He can confirm that everyone screamed and immediately whipped out their video cameras.