The following is from Ivy Pochoda’s novel, Wonder Valley. A visionary portrait of contemporary Los Angeles in all its facets, from the Mojave Desert to the Pacific, from the 110 to Skid Row. Ivy Pochoda grew up in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, and is a former professional squash player. She is the author of The Art of Disappearing and Visitation Street.
He is almost beautiful—running with the San Gabriels over one shoulder, the rise of the Hollywood Freeway as it arcs above the Pasadena Freeway over the other. He is shirtless, the hint of swimmer’s muscle rippling below his tanned skin, his arms pumping in a one-two rhythm in sync with the beat of his feet. There is a chance you envy him.
Seven a.m. and traffic is already jammed through downtown, ground to a standstill as cars attempt to cross five lanes, moving in increments so small their progress is nearly invisible. They merge in jerks and starts from the Pasadena Freeway onto the Hollywood or the Santa Ana. But he is flowing freely, reverse commuting through the stalled vehicles.
The drivers watch from behind their steering wheels, distracted from toggling between radio stations, fixing their makeup in the rearview, talking to friends back east for whom the day is fully formed. They left home early, hoping to avoid the bumper to bumper, the inevitable slowdown of their mornings. They’ve mastered their mathematical calculations—the distance × rate × time of the trip to work. Yet they are stuck. In this city of drivers, he is a rebuke.
He runs unburdened by the hundreds of sacrifices these commuters have made to arrive at this traffic jam on time—the breakfast missed, the children unseen, the husband abandoned in bed, the night cut short on account of the early morning, the weak gas station coffee, the unpleasant carpool, the sleep lost, the hasty shower, last night’s clothes, last night’s makeup.
He ignores the commuters sealed off in their climate- controlled cars, trapped in the first news cycle and the wheel of Top 40. He holds a straight line through the morning’s small desperations, the problems waiting to unfold, the desire to be elsewhere, to be anywhere but here today and tomorrow and all the mornings that run together into one citywide tangle of freeways and on-ramp closures and Sig Alerts, a whole day narrowed to the stop and go.
His expression is mid-marathon serene, focused on the goal and not yet overwhelmed by the distance. He shows no strain. But the woman in the battered soft-top convertible will say he looked drugged. The man in a souped-up hatchback claims he was crazy– high, totally loco, you know what I mean. A couple of teenage girls driving an SUV way beyond their pay grade insist that, although they barely noticed him, he looked like a superhero, but not one of the cool ones.
The day is an indeterminate, weatherless gray. The sun is just another thing delayed this morning. Beneath the 10, the air over the bungalows of West Adams and Pico-Union is a dull, apocalyptic color. The color of bad things or their aftermath.
The other city—the remembered and imagined one—stretches west, past the sprawling ethnic neighborhoods where Koreans overlap with Salvadorans and Armenians back into Thais. It begins on the big-name crosstown boulevards lined with deco theaters, faded tropical motels, and restaurants with sentinel valets, and ends where the streets run into the ocean. But in this trench where the 110 sinks through downtown, that place is barely a memory. Here there is only the jam of the cars and the blank faces of the glass towers.
The runner is on pace for an eight-minute mile or so it seems to the man behind the wheel of his SUV who woke up late and didn’t have time for his own jog. He missed his predawn tour of Beverlywood, the empty silence of the residential neighborhood when he visits other people’s cul-de-sacs, peering into the living rooms of dark houses as his pedometer records his footsteps, marking calories and distance until the morning’s ritual is complete. He wonders what went unseen—coyotes slinking home before sunup, a car haphazardly left in a driveway after one too many, a man sleeping in the blue glare of his TV, a teenager sneaking through her back gate, liquor bottles shoved into bags and left at someone else’s curb. During these stolen hours before his wife and kids need him, he believes he glimpses his neighborhood’s secret soul, seeing beyond the façades of the bungalows and the manicured squares of unremarkable lawns into hidden discontents.
There is never anyone to encourage him on his early morning runs, no one to witness his labored breathing in the sixth mile, his heroic triumph over his ebbing willpower. Watching the runner navigate the stationary cars, this driver is aware of the jellied muscles of his own legs after a weekend’s drinking.
He wants to reach back for the hour he cheated from himself, when he lay in bed and instead of lacing up his shoes, rolled over, checking the clock to see how long before others needed him. Without his run, today will belong to the commuters in their cars, to the team waiting for him at work, and now to this shirtless jogger cutting through traffic on the 110.
He rolls down his window and wedges his torso out to watch the runner pass.The man’s mechanics aren’t bad—his chest upright, shoulders relaxed, hands not balled into fists. He cups a hand over his mouth, shouting at the man to keep going. Then he sees that the runner is naked. He pulls back inside, raises the window, and busies himself with his cell phone, moving on to the next thing in his day.
The freeways welcome spectacle just this year an undiscovered rock band closed down the 101 between Sunset and Hollywood to play a concert on the back of a flatbed, three poodles escaped from a stalled station wagon and chased each other down the 5 between Burbank and Los Feliz Boulevard, and a truckload of onions was released onto the 405 blocking all four northbound lanes. There were two car chases that ended in gunfire and flames and the prop plane that landed on the 10 just shy of the Santa Monica airport. The unlikely, the bizarre, and the tragic grinding people to a halt and capturing the attention of the city.
And even though you are stuck, you want to write yourself into the story, listen for your experience on the radio. You want to be near the action instead of miles back in the jam. These commuters are already translating their experience of the naked jogger into a story they will tell when they get where they are going, figuring how to play it for their audience, exaggerating their part in it, making it a thing of annoyance, insanity, or beauty, depending.
A helicopter climbs over the towers of downtown and hovers over the 101/110 split. It lingers above the runner, before dipping to the right to circle the interchange. The percussive beat of its blades fades in and out with its approach. The chopper is just another addition to the anxiety of the morning, its aggressive sound suggesting a danger more exotic than a man jogging through traffic.
The runner passes through two cars log-jammed between their lanes, one trying to move into the fast lane, the other trying to exit. He jumps the narrow space between their front bumpers with only a “fucking perv” to urge him on.
A woman shields her daughter’s eyes. Another stops applying lipstick and turns to admire his butt as the runner heads south. People lean out of their windows, holding up cell phones, making videos, hoping this thing goes viral.
The man who missed his run phones his wife. It’s a reflexive gesture, mindlessly executed. He keeps his cell on speaker, tucked into his shirt pocket. When she picks up, he says nothing, listening instead to the sounds of his family’s morning. “Tony? Tony?” she says. “Tony!” There is the ding of the microwave, the clatter of a dish set down on their granite countertop. “Tony, you’re pocket dialing me.” He listens to the opening of the microwave door. “Anthony, you’re pocket dialing me. Again,” she says, even though they both know his phone won’t register an earlier call. He fumbles in his pocket and disconnects. He puts the car in park and flexes his calves.
All around him people are tuning their radios, searching for the story of their delay. They crane their necks toward the chopper, following its tight circle, trying to see whether it’s news or police.
The first radio reports are low information, tucked into a growing list of citywide slowdowns. A vehicle stalled in the right lane on the 710 near Artesia Boulevard. An accident reported on the northbound 5 at Colorado Boulevard. The 110 through downtown stopped between Fourth and Hill Street due to a pedestrian running against traffic. The southbound 101 slow over the Cahuenga Pass. On the 405, drive time between Getty Center Drive and the 10, fifteen minutes. No elaboration. No explanation. A fact tucked into facts.
Ren’s not big on driving. He came to it late and never got the feel. He doesn’t have a proper license, let alone a vehicle. Which is why this car is hot, reappropriated, boosted from an alley off Mateo. Ren trusts the universe to correct the balance.
Not that he’s out for himself, planning a joyride or intending to drop the Honda at a chop shop and make bank on the parts. It’s only for a couple of hours max, enough time to take Laila to the beach like he promised. Then he’ll leave the car somewhere for the cops to find without a scratch, like the Honda wandered away on its own.
But this jam wasn’t part of the plan. The first wail of sirens is making his palms sweat and his heart beat time with the copter. No good deed—and doesn’t he know it?
Ren’s instinct is to jump, abandon the car, thread his way through traffic, clear the guardrail, and lose himself in the grid of downtown. But family is family and he can just imagine Laila’s tone should he bail. Can’t keep a single goddamn promise, no matter how simple. Say you’re gonna take me to the beach and then cut and run when things get hot.
He checks the clock on the dash. It’s been less than thirty minutes since he boosted the Accord. “Be cool,” he says to the rearview.
Ren doesn’t live in the car city, but in a place where people walk, crawl, and straggle. Where they roll into the streets and stagger off sidewalks. Where they don’t have houses, let alone cars. A place where too many possessions are nothing but a problem.
Just look at these people in cars that are overflowing with living. Backseats piled with extra clothes, emergency snacks, a lifetime of objects lost under the seats. Cords to charge the electronics that they’re not supposed to be using. TV monitors on the seatbacks. Everything to distract them from where they are. Ren wipes his hands on his jeans. He fiddles with the controls, letting the air cycle from hot to cold, an entire weather system in the shift of a dial.
In the cars ahead of him drivers are rolling down their windows, straining to watch something coming down the freeway. Ren keeps his seat belt on, his window up, his eyes on the digital radio display—another commuter marking time until he’s set free. He’s just like you or me, fussing with buttons and switches, searching for some combination of temperature and music that will make this moment pass. He’s so focused on acclimatizing that he nearly misses the show, a naked man jogging between the cars going in the opposite direction. Ren glances up in time to get a good look. He knows the runner, a white face in the Skid Row panorama. Not exactly of the place but in its orbit. Before Ren can get his window down, call out to the jogger, pull him to safety, he has disappeared between two box trucks.
The runner crosses into the fast lane as he passes the sixth street exit. Then he jumps the barrier so he’s running with traffic now, continuing south on the 110. He keeps pace with a steady flow of cars that are heading toward the exit for the 10. But behind him, traffic is stalling, slowing, unwilling to pass him.
Put some clothes on!
Fuck you think you’re doing? Looking fine.
The first images appear on the local news, the runner, a beige
blur, streaking through the gray downtown streets.
Northbound traffic is now backed up the ramp where the 110 slides off the 10 and is working its way west, past Hoover, Western, and Arlington, cars slowing as they approach Crenshaw, unable to work their way into the exit lane. Soon it will be stopped as far back as La Brea.
A man with full sleeve tattoos, driving a yellow diesel Mercedes east on the 10, coming home from the after show of an after show, watches a second helicopter heading for downtown. He can’t hear its blades, but sees it circle like a hawk hunting over the freeway. Instantly his thoughts are back in the desert ranch where he grew up, where hawks silently hunted rabbits and mice above his parents’ land, the spread of their wings creating shadows across the sand and scrub. He was terrified of the moment the birds struck, rocketing downward with their talons outstretched, their wings making a sound like ripping fabric as their shadows grew larger.
He lets his foot off the brake and collides with the car in front of him creating another slowdown within the slowdown as he and the other driver struggle over to the shoulder to exchange information.
Tony is startled by his phone ringing in his shirt pocket. “Do you know about this?” his wife says. “There’s some psycho running down the 110. Naked. Who does that? At rush hour?” He can hear sirens approaching from the opposite direction, threading their way through traffic that’s slowed to a crawl in appreciation of the facing jam.
“Tony? Did you see him?” “I saw him.”
“He was running.” “That’s it?”
Every day the same route. The city streets to the 10 West. The 10 West to the 110 North through downtown. The 110 North to 5 North into Burbank—his car passing above or through or along neighborhoods whose names he’s unsure of, whose streets are unfamiliar. A city thoughtlessly traversed.
“Tony? You should lock your doors. It’s on the news.”
From television to television, computer screen to computer screen, the jogger will cover the city. He’ll enter living rooms and appear on kitchen countertops. He’ll be watched by people burning off last night’s calories on treadmills. He’ll pop up on smartphones, his journey in the palm of your hand.
“Did you lock your doors? You don’t know what’s going to happen.”
“I’m not locking my doors.”
It’s too much to be sitting in this traffic jam while the runner moves freely, part of the city, in it, not just passing through it.
“What time do you think you’ll be home?”
The runner exits the freeway, cutting up the embankment just after Seventh Street. Only a few drivers see him as he scrambles up the hill dotted with exhaust-choked trees, skirts the dismal shrubs sheltering a gaudy Italianate apartment complex. He emerges on Bixel, then pauses for a second before doubling back to Seventh and continuing west.
He begins to leave downtown, emerging into the no-man’s- land of medical buildings, drab apartments, and off-brand restaurants. He passes businessmen in flashy cars headed for the glass towers of the financial district, delivery trucks returning to the warehouse district, cyclists darting between the stop-starting buses.
It’s an odd crowd that watches him: arrivals for the first shift in the sweatshops, homeless who’ve wandered up from Skid Row a mile or so to the east, hospital workers—medic techs and tired nurses—leaving their overnights, residents of the few tumbledown apartments, undocumented workers hustling gigs in the Home Depot lot. To those who see him over here, the runner is an apparition.
They are tracking him from the helicopter, swooping down Wilshire over to the park, the police chopper just ahead of the news crew. The 110 still stalled through downtown. A two-car collision on the 10 has moved to the shoulder. Drive time over the pass twenty minutes. The southbound 5 slow between the 710 and the 605. A mattress on the 105 blocking the right lane near LAX.
Tony watches the two choppers cut to the west. He undoes his seat belt and opens his door. He peels himself from his seat and leaves the keys in the ignition. He doesn’t bother to stretch. He begins to run, following the path of the jogger through the stalled cars and onto the city streets.
He’s a gearhead: trail shoes, barefoot shoes, energy boost footwear, heat-tech in the winter, moisture-wick in the summer, iPod, sports headphones, GPS watch, calorie counter, heart-rate monitor, dozens of gadgets and outfits to make his run go faster, seem more professional, more meaningful. Still, on his morning runs Tony experiences a tightness in his quads that drops to his calves until he’s fully warm. There’s an ache in his right knee and a click in his hip. No matter how much he spends on gadgets and gear he never feels as good as he should.
But running down the 110 in his button-down, twill pants, and loafers he is lithe. His limbs are loose. He’s not lost inside the music from his headphones but buoyed by the sounds of the city. Even the hard slap of the asphalt underneath his flat-soled shoes is an inspiration.
You too, motherfucker?
You can’t leave your damn car like that. You can’t leave your damn car. You running after your boyfriend?
The hecklers urge him on. He cuts up the embankment at Seventh and heads west. At the intersection of Lucas Avenue he catches sight of the naked jogger a block ahead and continues his pursuit. The jogger enters the outskirts of Pico-Union, a tangle of Salvadoran and Honduran shops, indoor swap meets, and calling centers. He jogs north for one block before cutting into MacArthur Park where homeless and those who didn’t make it home are stretched out on the grass like body bags.
Back on the shoulder of the 10 the tattooed dude in the old Mercedes is sweating. He tries to count the hours between now and his last drink, desperate to estimate his BAC, trying to guess the cost of this accident. His phone’s been going mad in his pocket, buzzing and buzzing, making his leg itch. It’s his mother. He holds it to his ear.
“It’s your brother.” “What?”
“The man on the news? Are you even listening to the news? It’s all over the radio and the television. He’s running. On the 110. Or he was. Now he’s downtown somewhere.” His mother exhales into the phone. “There’s something else,” she says.
The man clenches the steering wheel and sits up a little in his seat, craning his neck toward downtown as if he might be able to see his brother running through those streets.
Ren’s sweating hard as the police chopper circles above and two cruisers honk and bleat their way through the stalled cars. He recites the directions in his head—110 to the 10 all the way to the end. He checks on his mom in the backseat, making sure she’s covered, comfortable. He hopes the cruisers pass by quick. But he’s getting antsy, anxious to get out of this jam. He tells himself to chill. He can’t afford to drive aggressive, draw attention to himself, even in this nondescript car.
“It’s cool, Mama,” he says. “It’s cool.”
Tony’s heart lunges in his chest. He sees the naked runner cut into the park. He watches him make a circle of the pond. Tony crosses to the west side of the street. He’s about to run onto the sidewalk when a cop car squeals at his back and another jumps the curb, blocking him from the front.
Tony stutter-steps. Then the police bring him down.
“I almost got him,” he says, as his cheek hits the asphalt.
The cops are cuffing him, but he manages to lift his torso and look into MacArthur Park.
“Where is he?” he says.
Because the runner is gone. He’d been there, at the eastern edge of the pond, making a counterclockwise circle. Tony could swear it. “Where—” he says again as the cuffs pinch his wrists.
He watches a few of the cops fan out into the park, split into two groups, circling the pond in opposite directions. He hears the news come over the crackle of walkie-talkies—the jogger has vanished.
The city was watching and then it wasn’t. A seam of wildfire began to threaten Malibu State Park. A singer was found dead in the Peninsula Hotel. And everyone’s attention turned west away from the naked man running down the 110. But he was there— Tony and Ren know. And he’s still somewhere, running, naked. He will be found. He has to be. Because no one can vanish for good. Not in Los Angeles. Not with so many people watching.
From Wonder Valley. Used with permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 2017 by Ivy Pochoda.