The Weather

Vandalism of Yore: Early Civilizations on the LA River, Part One

This is the first part in a three-part series about unemployed dudes engaged in a neo-archaeological dig on the West Coast.

The archaeologist was having a drink in a bar on Hillhurst Avenue. A song from his youth was playing on the jukebox. The song was about a man who couldn’t stay true to a woman, as told from the man’s point of view, and it had often played on a personal radio the archaeologist’s school bus driver had kept in the front seat. Although pedantic and unserious, its rhythm reminded the archaeologist of watching the sky brighten over the hills as he bounced along with the other kids into town. A fond memory, and he tapped his toe with the other patrons in the bar. The archaeologist’s name was Eppersly. He wasn’t actually an archaeologist. In fact, he was a file clerk at a law firm downtown. Before that he had been an office assistant, and before that he had been unemployed, and before his period of unemployment he had been a file clerk at a different law firm downtown. Eppersly was twenty-six years old.

Eppersly was raising a finger for numero whatever when his two friends, also not really archaeologists, burst into the bar. Landry was an unemployed electrician and Farnsworth was what you might call a screenwriter. Eppersly had met Farnsworth at a Tuesday night Trivia Smackdown where they had debated factoids so petty they were booed, and where Eppersly had then intrigued Farnsworth with a story about a still-functional pay phone on Franklin Avenue, and soon the two were meeting regularly to talk about things that were old. Farnsworth knew Landry from when Landry had accidently destroyed the cable box in Farnsworth’s apartment. Neither were particularly what you’d call “industrious,” or “high-achieving,” or even “employable” in the strictest sense, but nor were they entirely “uncultured” or “felonious,” and by no means “completely illiterate.” The two of them stood panting with what seemed to be exciting news. They were also twenty-six years old.

“You gotta come see this,” sputtered Farnsworth.

“See what?” said Eppersly.

“A bona fide El Dorado,” said Landry. “A bona fide E-gyptian pyramid.”

Eppersly eyed the two of them. “Yeah right.”

Farnsworth nodded in a manner he himself would have described as emphatic. “For serious, man,” he said. “We went deep. Real deep. Found some shit.”

“Where at?”

“At the river. Shit’s old.”

“Ten years, at least,” said Landry. “Get up, come on, let’s go.”

Eppersly considered. And after the usual “nah, you guys go ahead,” after the usual “I don’t really feel like it,” after the usual “isn’t it supposed to rain,” he agreed to accompany his fellow archaeologists to the Los Angeles River.

Specifically: “Whatever, sure, who the hell cares.”

The three of them were dedicated to uncovering the history of Los Angeles. The city was two decades old, perhaps three, and yet its founding dynasties, its early mythology, its first cults and customs, its native religions, its early dialects and writing systems, were virtually unknown to the modern world. Most residents were unconcerned by this mystery. They went about their farmers markets and drank their grass-based juices, rode their little bicycles up and down Hyperion Avenue, got their awesome tattoos—it was a good life. And yet Eppersly couldn’t help but think: All you twenty-six-year-olds living in your pricey slums, hammering out blog posts in your renovated loft spaces, drinking craft beers in your month-old gastropubs, not a single one of you has a clue what this place looked like in 2002.

Farnsworth drove at reasonable velocity but recognized each stop sign only with a sustained car horn that said: “In the name of science, clear the intersection.”

Soon enough they had parked on a darkened side street in Atwater. Landry produced a flashlight and they kicked their way through the brush to the concrete banks of the river. The slow-moving water struggled to carry the moonlight. The Glendale Bridge streamed with a few lonely cars. Eppersly still wasn’t quite in the mood to be poking around in the dark. It wasn’t the first time the others had roused him from a stupor to “come and see.” For about a year, the three had been meeting to dig holes along the highway, in empty lots, and in vacant rail yards, and Farnsworth in particular was quick to proclaim a shocking discovery. He figured they’d unearthed a newspaper from 2007, maybe late ’06, the sort of thing you could expect to find at any daytime dig. He’d take a look and they’d all head home.

“This way,” said Landry, the beam leading a wild charge down the bank.

Eppersly and Farnsworth stumbled down the weedy slope. They arrived at the river’s edge and Landry held the beam steady as Farnsworth knelt to scrutinize the area. A homeless man sat up in his quilts, yawned in their direction, and went back to sleep.

“Here it is,” said Farnsworth. “Take a look.”

Eppersly stifled a groan as he lowered himself to one knee. Farnsworth was hunched over a tangle of wet debris that included branches, leaves, and what appeared to be a plastic bottle. Landry moved in with the light, and Farnsworth indicated the bottle.

Eppersly shrugged. “Thing’s probably a year old.”

“Look closer.”

Eppersly took a moment. “Is that a date?”

Landry brought the light to six inches from the plastic. A date indeed. The month was unreadable, scratched clean in its journey downstream, but the day was the seventh and the year was—

“Whoa,” said Eppersly. “Is that the bottling date or the expiration date?”

“Either way, the thing’s ancient.”

The year printed was 2004. Seldom had they ever found anything older. The oldest thing Eppersly had ever come upon was a pay stub from 1997. The employee’s last name was Gonzales. Gonzales had been paid for a forty-four-hour week.

“That’s not all,” said Farnsworth, directing Landry’s beam to a second clump of garbage.

Again the three huddled close and again Farnsworth picked away the leaves. Farnsworth had the hands of a surgeon. They never shook, each little twitch as delicate as the last. He was a phenomenal excavator, Eppersly had to admit.

“I would have brought this shit to the bar, you know, but who am I to disturb something where it lies?”

“No, no,” Eppersly assured him. “You did the right thing.”

The second item was a receipt from a gas station dated 9/22/2005. It was in remarkably good condition, minimally wrinkled, the ink hardly faded. Perhaps some chemical in the river had preserved it.

“There’s gotta be more, too,” said Farnsworth. “That’s as far as we went, but just look at all this shit.” Landry did a broad sweep with the flashlight. Indeed there was a considerable amount of garbage, all of it fairly well preserved.

They would have kept digging right then and there if they hadn’t been spotted by a group of kids across the river and if those kids hadn’t begun to throw stones in their direction. At that point they agreed it was probably best, given the hour, given the stones, to return in the morning.

Read the next installment in Vandalism of Yore.

Devon Bixler was raised in Blacksburg, Virginia and studied at NYU. He lives in Los Angeles.