Los Angeles in 2003—my first visit—felt like a mysterious but friendly exotic island. A well-established tribe, protective of its culture, that built a landing strip to welcome curious foreigners. Over the course of a year I'd visit my partner monthly at USC, becoming more and more intoxicated by L.A.'s secrets and abundance. All the while thinking, There's something about this place I haven't figured out and I'm going to get to the bottom of it. Each time landing at LAX as though I was returning to my outpost with an important mission—the botonist with his orchid collecting kit. An honorary consul assigned to join hands between an anomalous child-city reluctantly annexed by a timeworn parent-state. Returning home to Michigan with my irritating sun-soaked Randy Newman cheer, "I love L.A!"
East of the Mojave, we're brainwashed to snub Los Angeles and all the excess it apparently stands for. A city where fake faces are as imported and implanted as the palm trees**. Yet, when one cares to look closer, it has all the real parts—abundance or lack—that so many assume have long since been waxed, nipped, and tucked away. Los Angeles still has laugh lines and crow's feet. It suffers for its excesses and doesn't need any help on that front from its critical east. Los Angeles has changes to make and it knows that better than anybody. And it's listening to itself.
I'm sitting across from Elysian Heights Elementary in the Elysian Heights area of the Echo Park neighborhood. The school's website explains that "Since the early 1900s, Elysian Heights has been home to artists, writers, architects, filmmakers, political radicals and counterculture luminaries." You wouldn't know it from walking around. It's a friendly and humble neighborhood with an unassuming neighborhood school—if anything, catching one's eye for its abundance of concrete and chain link fence, though it does have a beautiful student garden tucked in back.
There's playground laughter and a pleasant chime announcing lunchtime. Ubiquitous poster-paint posters hanging from the fence announce cookie sale fundraisers. But then, if you walk around the block paying close attention, you realize there's a lot more going on with this concrete facade. It's written everywhere but you don't know what it means. Carved into the sidewalk for decades and painted in murals on the walls: "Room 8".
I'll be honest, my dog likes to pee in their grass. The other day I actually stopped a woman from sneaking away from her dog's steaming pile: "Excuse me, could you clean that up please? This is an elementary school and kids will step in that." "But it's runny," she protested. "And it's difficult to pick up." "Yeah but could you do it anyway, please?" I may be a temporary stay in Echo Park, but in a matter of a couple weeks I'd developed pride for this place. I'm somehow proud of the school and protective of these kids. So pick up your shit.
Back to Room 8...
From my photos of the school's mural and sidewalk etchings, I set off on my research. Turns out, the story is everywhere. Room 8 is the name of the most famous cat that ever lived, apparently, and I the last human on Earth to learn about him.
As a relative newcomer to L.A., I don't feel right telling the entire story as though I know something you don't. You know how I know and I've only known for a few weeks. Here's what I know now, and below a few links if you'd like to learn more.
In 1952 a neighborhood cat started visiting Elysian Heights Elementary. He'd stroll into classroom 8 every weekday and became a living mascot, celebrated school-wide and spoiled with scraps of school lunches. Aptly named, Room 8 appeared every school year until his death in 1968. The principal of the school at the time, Beverly Mason, along with teacher Virginia Finley published the story of Room 8 in 1966. Before and since his death, Room 8 has been featured in national news media and the subject of a documentary. To this day his story is alive in the neighborhood and Ms. Mason's and Ms. Finley's book is still read to students. As a passerby, once you know what you're looking at, you realize he's memorialized everywhere you look...
No matter the place, we will find what we look for. Through a lens that we've developed and chosen to accept or challenge. When we stay where we are and safely watch the world from behind a TV screen, we are guaranteed to see everything we choose to see. Los Angeles will spoil your imagination with puffy-lipped housewives and belching SUVs. Or, it will gift you with wild mountain lions and cats of a tamer variety... there's a Room 8 story everywhere you look. Sometimes written in the concrete below your feet.
- Listen to Leo Kottke's guitar instrumental "Room 8" on YouTube.
- The Room 8 Cat blog.
- Room 8's obituary reaches the Tuscaloosa News.
- A condensed version of the Room 8 story.
- Room 8 in the community of Echo Park.
- Room 8's Wikipedia page.
**While there are indeed palm trees native to California, most of the palm species in Los Angeles are imports. Read the fascinating history of California's trees in KCET's How Did L.A. Become a City of Palms? And Other Questions About California's Trees and A Brief History of Palm Trees in Southern California.