Every time I round the corner of Riverside Drive to turn into the tangle that is Los Feliz Boulevard I think, who is that for?
One day, I disregard my errands, flip a U, park my car and get out to see. The fountain is not flowing that day, many weekdays it is not (and some it is). What is a fountain when it’s not flowing? Just a monument, I guess. It makes me think of wine menus when vintages are labeled dry farmed. I know what it means, that farmers don’t irrigate the vines themselves, simply letting the weather pattern impact the grapes. They do it all the time in Willamette Valley, where I’m from. The grapes are fine; the grapes don’t have feelings. But there’s still something lonely about it, something sad. Like a fountain, when it’s not running.
The fountain is called William Mulholland Memorial, and it’s named after the man who built Mulholland Drive, or Mulholland Highway, depending on which part you’re on. As one of the city’s foremost civil engineers, he didn’t just build a country highway — he’s also responsible for the Los Angeles Aqueduct, a structure that’s over two hundred miles long and makes the existence of this city, smack dab in the middle of an inhabitable desert, possible. He deserves a fanfare I guess, a million bright blue tiles singing about precious water, even when the fountain doesn’t run and the pool is calm.
When they hear the name Mulholland, most people think of the iconic David Lynch film, Mulholland Drive. I’ve driven that country highway front to back, east to west, it’s only twenty-one miles, it’s not even that long. If you live in Malibu it’s a local backroad, basically. So I drove it for fun, a creature comfort, and never watched the movie. I don’t want it to ruin the road: the nowhere vibes, the sense of peace, the views. Lynch films have a way of lodging themselves in my subconscious, like water seeping into the cracks long after the initial wet. They drip, and pool, and mold. I’d rather have the road and fill it with my own thoughts.
I live a mile from the fountain, maybe less, for my first two years in LA. I drive past the fountain and wave to it, waving to no one, waving to myself, maybe. I get nearly overwhelmed on the days it runs, water glistening like an unexpected song, trumpeting up, shouting about a victory I haven’t yet felt. A running fountain is almost too much in this city. It’s ostentatious, or decadent. Think of the water crisis, the drought, global warming, a Didion essay, old but swimming in warning signs. I think of the dry farmers up in Willamette Valley who see their vines languishing in the heat and do nothing. Their wines are excellent, better even, for it. The juiciest Pinot grapes need to know want.
I sit at the fountain and search for more info about William online, how did he convince an entire city to breathe water in? A city is whatever you make of it, a city is whatever parts you claim as yours. So I step up to the fountain, dry, and I claim it as mine. Dear Los Angeles. No one will get that reference but her, and she’s not here anymore, so it’s mine now too.
Instead of good news, I find out about the St. Francis Dam disaster, a Mulholland construction that burst in the late 1920s, killing almost 500 people. William came to check on it just a couple days before, and told the worried dam foreman it was fine. Hours later, the foreman and his family were the first to die, crushed under the weight of water. All the people in the nearby cities tossed the thought back and forth before the dam burst; they tasted disaster with their senses, even when the expert told them it wouldn’t come.
In the morning, when the dust had cleared, Mulholland uttered his most infamous acceptance of blame: I envy the dead. Bad things happen this year and I want to feel this way about myself. But I can’t. I still like living, which somehow makes me angrier.
When the Mulholland Memorial is wet it feels like Los Angeles drips abundance. Living here, after the parch of the east, sometimes my throat gets tight thinking about my shiny new so much. Sunsets and highways and cheap, clean apartments, space and the smile of my friend when he’s really laughing, like late night at Bar Henry and the bartender rolls his eyes at us. I’m nervous around abundance. I like it better when the fountain is off.
I learn from a teacher that this thing I do is called a lyrical essay. I so prefer a lyrical essay to an expository piece, she says, with an encouraging smile. (First red flag, someone who likes what I do.) I’m not trying to tell them about facts, I tell her. Or, think of how much more they remember, with the feelings there next to them she says: I don’t know if memory is my goal, though.
I’m not talking about wine or a fountain or Mulholland. I’m talking about (write it!) disaster. Envying the dead. Recovery, maybe, if you’re optimistic. I’m talking — I’m writing — about how people might want to build a fountain about you, even after you accidentally kill 500 people. If Elizabeth Bishop was here, she’d say I’m talking about a fish. One art.
I think I’d like to fall in love. But more than that, I’d like to find someone who drives Mulholland alone. And who hasn’t seen the movie.
Maybe next year.