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A Clear Presence

By
June 17, 2013

When I heard that Rodney King had died, two details in particular stuck out to me. One was that he died in a swimming pool. The other was that, earlier that day, somebody had heard him scream.

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/David_Hockney_575px3.jpg
A Bigger Splash (1967), David Hockney, Tate Collection, London.

When I was in junior high school, my mother and I heard the sound of helicopters while house-sitting for friends in Hancock Park. We had just come in from using the swimming pool when someone on a megaphone instructed us to come outside with our hands up. When we did, policemen were facing the house with guns pointing toward the door, and neighbors were standing on their porches in alarm. Our dog ran outside, and we squealed with terror that they shouldn’t shoot her. It turned out that we had accidentally triggered the security system’s distress signal, and it took awhile for the police to determine that we were not being taken hostage. But the incident was, in some ways, an elaborate confirmation of a feeling that I held already, about that house and Los Angeles in general: that even though we had permission to be there, we had somehow managed to trespass.

When he was a young man, the Olympic diver Sammy Lee was allowed to use the public pool only on a certain day in the week reserved for people of color. After that day, the pool was drained and refilled for the comfort of the white patrons. My father remembers, during an interview with Lee, that the diver returned years later, after his win, and confronted the people who maintained the pool to ask why they felt the need to drain it—as if his Korean background and the black skin of his friend had somehow infected the water. They told him that, to the contrary, they always considered the order ludicrous. Rather than draining the pool as they’d been told, they would lock the doors for a couple of hours and add a little extra chlorine to satiate the people in charge. But the fact of Lee’s exclusion, the accusation that his body was a contaminant, had already influenced his understanding of the world.

In a recurring dream, I am swimming in somebody else’s pool. The city is always Los Angeles, the grounds are always well-maintained, there is often a flourishing garden filled with climbing vines of jasmine, bougainvillea, and bird of paradise. The house to which the pool belongs is empty. I might get out of the water to wander around, always with the sense that while I’ve been invited, I am not supposed to be there.

*                      *                     *

In his book on lucid dreaming, B. Alan Wallace writes that the dreamer can prepare to “awaken” in his sleep by following the Buddhist practice of Shamatha before bedtime: “the mind’s distractions are stilled so that one’s attention can eventually rest comfortably and effortlessly on a chosen object for hours on end.” In the attempt to cultivate this ability, I stare at a coffee cup on the table in front of me. I feel flickers of that sensation I used to know well as a child: when I could look at a truck parked on the street outside of our apartment and feel that the world radiated out in all directions, that infinity existed inside of each scene and every second, like the sound of wind or falling water. Only in moments of extremity does this feeling return.

Though I’ve only had a handful of lucid dreams myself, I wonder if Hockney’s realm isn’t just the quiet landscape of a lucid dream. A distillation and capture of that intangible state of being that we have talked to death, can’t possibly bear to utter again, but still seem desperate to enter.

Once, I saw a set of portraits by the painter David Hockney. Everyone portrayed in that particular series worked as a docent in a museum, and if I remember correctly, the background for each was the same dark gray. Hockney sometimes uses a roller in his paintings, so that the shape and shadow that realistically depict a nose or chin floats inside a stilled space that has been divorced from the rippling pulse of passing time.

If, as curators have demonstrated, you look at the Polaroid image that was used as a reference for the portrait that Hockney would later create, you can see the way that he brings the friends he paints into a new realm by stripping away the subtlest of layers, creating a dimension that is at once matte and luminous, breathing and flat. And, though I’ve only had a handful of lucid dreams myself, I wonder if Hockney’s realm isn’t just the quiet landscape of a lucid dream. A distillation and capture of that intangible state of being that we have talked to death, can’t possibly bear to utter again, but still seem desperate to enter. Through his brush, the present moment becomes a shoebox diorama into which the viewer can wander, taking refuge and maybe a nap.

Hockney helped to establish what Christopher Simon Sykes describes as an “image of California as a carefree land of sunshine, affluence and leisure” by painting its wealthiest citizens and their swimming pools. But while presenting California as an idle playground for the rich, Hockney also engaged with a meditation not unlike Shamatha, devoting himself to the task of rendering water with a diligence of spirit that he himself compared to Leonardo Di Vinci’s. This meditation involved grappling with the essence of movement and time. He studied the way that sunlight manifested itself through dancing lines of light, explaining that “Water in a swimming pool is different from, say, water in the river, which is mostly a reflection because the water isn’t clear. A swimming pool has clarity. The water is transparent and drawing transparency is an interesting graphic problem.”

*                      *                     *

Rodney King was swimming on the first day he ever heard the word nigger. His small self popped out of the water only to be pelted by a fast-passing stone. It was the first time he realized that he wasn’t just a kid; he was a black kid. Despite the life he would live thereafter, King writes that it was “the saddest day in creation for me.” He wishes he could “find a way of forever removing that day from every black child’s life.”

As I was growing up, African-inspired names were pronounced to elicit humor. People liked to exaggerate the “y” sound, the “e” sounds, the funky “q” pronounced with a flip of the head and a series of snaps. As one of the only people of color in my school, I hated to have my difference pointed out to me, and got famously angry any time someone pronounced my name with three syllables (Ay-ee-sha) instead of the two (Ee-sha) that my parents had used, for no reason in particular, since I had been born. The former pronunciation of my name was featured in a song by Another Bad Creation, and my classmates were not about to let me forget it. Whenever somebody wanted to laugh, they could sing the chorus, and I would explode into what I did not realize at the time was a vaguely self-hating rage.

The incident cemented my reputation as an easily coaxed spitfire, ready to face off with anyone who dared call attention to my membership in that blackness, the one that was in the process of being both revered and bitterly mocked, depending on the viewer, through shows like Martin and In Living Color.

During a game of “ga-ga” one afternoon, I responded to the taunting by slapping the singer, a girl with whom I was both friends and bitter enemies, on the back. She responded in kind, until we were engaged in a full-out brawl, to the entertainment of everyone in the auditorium. We began to giggle soon after the after school director pulled us apart, but the incident cemented my reputation as an easily coaxed spitfire, ready to face off with anyone who dared call attention to my membership in that blackness, the one that was in the process of being both revered and bitterly mocked, depending on the viewer, through shows like Martin and In Living Color.

I grew up in an apartment building two blocks away from where Nicole Brown Simpson was nearly decapitated alongside Ron Goldman, who worked in a restaurant up the hill from our apartment. My mother and her friend passed by Simpson’s condominium on an evening stroll about an hour before the murders were committed. Perhaps because the only known black male resident of this neighborhood was OJ Simpson, the community has for as long as I can remember acted toward my me and my father as though we had wandered into the place by accident. If I was wearing a thick coat or heavy sweat shirt, grown adults would cross the street to avoid me while I was walking my dog at night. Women held their purses tighter when my father stood behind them at the bank, and he was frequently approached by patrolmen, accused of “looking like he didn’t belong” while walking in a sweat suit through his own garage.

Of the night of his beating, King writes in his autobiography: “I could smell the hatred. It was a clear presence.”

Recently, while walking down the sidewalk in the neighborhood where I grew up, I trailed behind an African American man who pushed a cart of his belongings near the middle of the street, his back sloped nearly parallel to the ground. I grew nervous when a car started to drive quickly up the road behind him without seeming to know he was there. Like me and the homeless man, the driver of this car was black. Up ahead, I heard a second car swerve quickly, and somebody beeped. As the Caucasian driver of this other car drove from the opposite direction, I could hear him shout out his open window, “Get the fuck out of Brentwood.”

Whether he was talking about the homeless man or the other driver, I felt strangely relieved by the outburst, as if the source of my discomfort in this neighborhood was finally being spoken out loud.

Of the night of his beating, King writes in his autobiography: “I could smell the hatred. It was a clear presence.”

*                      *                     *

In 1978, David Hockney began work on a series entitled Paper Pools, including twenty-nine color pictures created by pressing paper pulp. As Nikos Stangos writes, the project allowed Hockney to bring “together many of the themes he most loves: the paradox of freezing in a still image what is never still—water, the swimming pool, this man-made container of nature, set in nature which it reflects, the play of light on water, the dematerialized diver’s figure under water.” Hockney recalls, “As the time had gone on and the sun wasn’t coming out as much now and the days were cloudy, the water began to look a bit different and the tones were all-over blue. It rained and when it rained the steps started with a deep blue at the top and the blue faded as the water got more opaque because of the rain, and I thought the water looked wetter, it was all wet, now it was all about wetness.”

In one Polaroid picture that Hockney used as inspiration for an image entitled “Pool with Cloud Reflections,” the water is nearly indistinguishable from the sky it reflects. The clean-lined shadow of a building amplifies the bright lines of an overhead cloud, making it difficult to know whether the sky is being reflected on the water or, through the trick of glass and shadow, water is being reflected onto the sky. The picture encapsulates what must have drawn Hockney to return, time and time again, to this particular subject: “Depending on the weather, whether it was cloudy or sunny—each day was different—you could look right through it, into it, onto it.”

Though they might not perceive it while under water, a swimmer in such a scene would seem to be moving through two realms at once: gliding weightless through the water, at the same time that they moved through those darkening clouds, their edges set aglow by the same sun that deepens the shadow of the surrounding trees. The image calls to mind the web of emotions I swam through while dreaming, again, of pools last night. This time, I did so with a former lover, whose absence still makes me nauseous. Reentering, through dream, the confines of a relationship that just ended, it is like I am moving through two elements at once, water and air, two states of being: occupying a self that has not yet had to grieve the loss.

In the dreams I’ve had of pools in the past, I remember craving the house nearby. I feel a sense of separation from the very notion of a home. Even if I am able to walk inside, feet leaving a trail of puddles behind me, I would not be able to know it: the comfort of having arrived constantly eludes me.

According to B. Alan Wallace, the lucid dreamer is given an opportunity. You come upon an old fear and may “be able to confront that fear lucidly in your dreams—repeatedly—and overcome it. For example, you may forgive and be forgiven by placing yourself in a replica of an original situation that traumatized you or caused you embarrassment. By revisiting it, you may accept and integrate a situation that occurred years ago but is still disturbing you.”

Before he died, Rodney King took part in a reality TV show on VH1 in which celebrity guests moved in together as they went through rehab under the guidance of Dr. Drew. He had been a life-long alcoholic, and his own drunkenness on the day he led the police on a car chase contributed to his feelings of guilt, as though perhaps he deserved to be beaten to a pulp. When Dr. Drew tells him that he is sorry for the way King was treated, King writes, “I never get tired of hearing that I didn’t deserve what those police did to me.”

For the purposes of the show, King was taken to the site of the beating. “I just looked around and just took everything in,” he writes. “It was a day that couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be cloudy or sunny, and I remember feeling kind of hazy myself about whatever we were planning to do next. But Dr. Drew kept saying this was a good way to get closure on the whole ordeal, and I definitely felt that seventeen years was a long enough time to be tormented and unresolved… As we lingered there for a few moments, all the conflicting feelings inside me, all that rage kind of took a breath, quieted down enough for me to ask: ‘Okay, Rodney, now what are you going to do here? Not for the cameras, but for yourself… make this true, make this count.’”

When he returned home after the show ended, clear-headed and optimistic, he came home to a mess. “There was a toilet seat out back and an empty pool with gunk in it.”

In an image called “Green Pool with Diving Board and Shadow,” the world around Hockney’s pool has a nightmarish feel, blackness interspersed with what look to be bright, red shrubs. As though an apocalypse were flaming outside the confines of the pool.

*                      *                     *

On a recent February afternoon, I stood at the sink. For some reason the hot water stream was especially thin, and I was listening to a story about an explosion in Damascus. It occurred to me that water is a resource, that riots are about resources. And I felt perilously close to the way that the pending water crisis will resolve itself socially, politically.

After the police who beat him were acquitted in 1992, before the LA riots began to unfold around him, Rodney King and his family sat on tattered lawn furniture in the yard. A signal flair shot out through the sky over South Central. One of his cousins drove up to the house and began to unload boxes of stolen diapers, food, and liquor, charred from a fire.

As they began to perceive what was happening, King “went up to the attic and grabbed an old Bob Marley wig we used to keep around for Halloween. You could never tell it was me with all them dreadlocks hanging down.” But after nearing the scene, he had to stop. “I sensed that terrible presence of hatred that I felt the night of the beating, that palpable wall of loathing that was absolutely suffocating. I mean there were sounds like I never heard before, like evil erupting. I lowered the window and heard what I thought was a high tension wire that had snapped off from its tower and was spraying sparks all over the place.” That’s when he turned around and “headed the fuck out of there.”

At home, he watched the news in horror. A construction worker was forcibly removed from his truck and robbed. One person “smashed his forehead open with a car stereo, another rioter tried to slice his ear off.” A crowd spray painted the man’s body and genitals black.

King mentions the “hundred or so soldiers in camouflage” who were called in to bring the destruction under control, pointing out that “one of the guards admitted that they were all ill-prepared and said that street duty for riots worried them more than being called up for the Gulf War.”

Later in life, King explains to a reporter for the New York Times, “I don’t want to be remembered as the person who started the riots. I’d like to be remembered for the person who threw water on the whole thing. Part of the solution, you know?”

*                      *                     *

At the Los Angeles Museum of Art, I stand behind a class of children being taught how to see a David Hockney painting of Los Angeles. “What is a landscape?” the teacher asks. A boy raises his hand and explains, “A landscape is land that is curved.” The children point out that the trees at the bottom of the painting don’t look like real trees. An African American boy is handed a paint brush and asked to imagine the strokes that would have been required to create the gaping, colorful cityscape that hangs before him.

Hockney did not limit himself to painting swimming pools. In a video review of the exhibition A Bigger Picture, Alastair Sooke walks through the exhibition halls at the Royal Academy of Arts, describing Hockney’s pastoral scenes with an air of disappointment. “Here, though,” he says, heartened, “you have something else. There’s a very, as you can see, vivid, intense palette… it has an almost religious vision intensity.” Sooke continues, “It doesn’t take very long to look at that tree stump, and to look at those chopped up logs awaiting collection and start seeing symbols of mortality. Hockney has managed to take quite an everyday humdrum scene in Yorkshire, something really with very little mystery and imbue it with power and strangeness.” The images here are convoluted, trees are blue, pink, and yellow, and the tone is one of a brightly colored nightmare.

“Were you flying,” B. Alan Wallace asks, “passing through walls, walking on water? What about odd and repeated environments? Do you frequently find yourself in the same dreamscape? Are the surroundings odd—blue plants, purple sky, red clouds, two suns?” If so, you can remind yourself that you are dreaming, and navigate the dream as though you were awake. “You can practice walking over tall bridges, experiencing the sense of height while simultaneously aware that it is all a dreamscape. You can jump off the bridge if you like, and you will merely float down to ‘earth.’”

Earlier this month, an African-American man who claimed that he had been unfairly terminated from the Los Angeles Police Department went on a rampage. He wrote out a long list of people who should expect to be targeted, and was ultimately accused of killing four people, including the daughter of a former police captain and her fiancé. What was most frightening about him was how well he knew the system that sought to catch him. He said that he knew the routes that his colleagues took to and from work, their “children’s best friends and recess,” even the hours when their girlfriends went to the gym. It was, according to the police, the biggest manhunt in LAPD history. In the very lengthy manifesto he posted on his Facebook page, Christopher Dorner asks his reader, “Are you aware that an officer… seen on the Rodney King videotape striking Mr. King multiple times with a baton on 3/3/91 is still employed by the LAPD and is now a Captain on the police department?” Death, he claimed, was the only way to get anyone’s attention about the inequities of a flawed system.

One of the incidents that Christopher Dorner contests in his manifesto took place during his days as a recruit. While trying to paint a portrait of Dorner as a bully, officers accused him of ganging up against a Jewish colleague. Dorner argues that it was he who stood up for the man whose father had survived a concentration camp when a group of recruits sang Nazi Hitler youth songs “about burning Jewish ghettos in World War II Germany.”

During the peak of the manhunt for Dorner, I went on a Friday night date to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Dorner’s face, eerily cheerful, was lit up on neon billboards all over the city, and in some ways his presence acted as a kind of secondary exhibition as we wandered through the museum. The sound of a helicopter permeated the galleries of one wing, and even after I found the source of the sound in a dark room with a projected video, I couldn’t help peeking out the windows, fully anticipating a shootout in the museum’s atrium. I peered closely at a small, black and white photograph of what looked to be an emptied swimming pool somewhere in Southern California, in which someone had erected a paper sign that said, “HOLY.” Later that night, my date would talk about the incongruity of Dorner’s smiling face, given his crimes. “He must be in so much pain,” he would say, and start to cry.

I still hear reports on the radio in which the LAPD supposedly “found” Dorner’s body in a cabin. But the event, like Dorner’s motivation, was much hazier than this… A local TV station, KCAP, accidentally broadcast a deputy shouting, “Burn that fucking house down.”

The rampage and manhunt remind me of the day when my mother and I sat in a living room filled with cigarette smoke while I got my hair braided. A little girl with severe autism ran in circles through the house, the woman braiding my hair acting as though, despite the fact that she was touching me, my mother and I weren’t actually there. The television played a movie that I did not think I was going to be able to stomach. But, to my surprise, fifteen or so minutes into the Michael Douglas film Falling Down, I found myself filled with adrenaline, even laughing at points as the actor walked through the city of Los Angeles with measured gait, full of venom, attempting to right wrongs with weapons that he picked up along the way, including a rocket launcher. Our laughter seemed to say: couldn’t we all sympathize with his ennui? Weren’t we all sick to death of the traffic and the bullshit? I understood even then, as a child, to feel pride about the fact that this film took place in Los Angeles. We are the city of rampages and riots! The home of the white Bronco!

On television, a male reporter sounds annoyed with his female colleague as he asks her for new information, saying her name, “Gigi,” over and over again. Dorner’s car was last seen in Big Bear, and journalists, SWAT teams and police officers have swarmed the San Bernadino Mountains. The news camera stands by as a group of officers search through the trunk of a car, looking for weapons, for bodies, for Dorner. In one shot, a camera mounted on a helicopter shows the cabins from above, and the distortion in the video makes it look as though the snow-covered trees are pink.

The Los Angeles Police Department and the media covering the Dorner episode focus on one key point: Dorner was angry for being fired. But his manifesto makes it hard to cast his motivation as simply rejection. He writes that the weapons he is using for this rampage are the same ones used at Sandy Hook elementary school, and that they shouldn’t have been so easily accessible to him or to anyone else. He calls the president of the NRA “vile and inhumane” and tells the Westboro Baptist Church that they can die “slowly in a fire, not from smoke inhalation, but from the flames and only the flames.” He thanks a woman he has dated over the course of his life for “great and not so great sex.” He thanks his friends and tells them that he loves them. He mentions that Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” is the best piece of music ever written. He voices his support for gay marriage, quotes Mia Farrow, and gives Bill Cosby some advice. He mentions a favorite quote of his brother’s, written by D.H. Lawrence: “I never saw a wild thing feel sorry for itself. A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever feeling sorry for itself” (sic).

I still hear reports on the radio in which the LAPD supposedly “found” Dorner’s body in a cabin. But the event, like Dorner’s motivation, was much hazier than this. In an article entitled “How Law Enforcement and Media Covered Up the Plan to Burn Christopher Dorner Alive,” Max Blumenthal writes that after Dorner engaged in a shootout resulting in the death of one officer, “the deputies decided to burn the cabin down.” A single shot was heard before the fire had burned through the interior, which “may have signaled Dorner’s suicide.” A local TV station, KCAP, accidentally broadcast a deputy shouting, “Burn that fucking house down.”

On the internet later, a photograph will flash across the screen, and for a moment, I won’t be able to tell if what I am looking at is the meteorite that just hit Russia, or the burnt remains of the cabin where Christopher Dorner’s body burned.

*                      *                     *

As a child, Rodney King used to swim or fish with his father and brother in the irrigation canals near his grandmother’s Sacramento home. “I loved the way I looked,” he remembers. “The way my body sucked up the sunshine, the way my hair dried off with a shake.” As an adult, he looked himself up on the internet, and found that his name had become part of the slang vernacular: when someone has been beaten by the police, some might say he has been “Rodney King’d.” He writes, “Rodney King’d? So now I’ve even become a verb, but when will I become a real person, a whole person?”

When I heard that King had died, two details in particular stuck out to me. One was that he died in a swimming pool. The other was that, earlier that day, somebody had heard him scream.

“On a hot, still, cloudless day,” Hockney’s biographer, Christopher Simon Sykes writes, “with the sun at its highest in the sky, the heat at its most intense and the surface of the water in the swimming pool mill-pond calm, a diver has leapt from the diving board and disappeared into the depths of the pool, gone for ever, his existence marked only by a violent eruption of water that is in complete contrast to the ongoing stillness of the scene.”

Upon taking his award-winning dive, Dr. Sammy Lee recalls, “The pool had a skylight, and when I went up to do my last dive—a forward three-and-a-half somersault—the sun broke through the clouds and I thought, ‘Oh Jesus Christ.’”

When I heard that King had died, two details in particular stuck out to me. One was that he died in a swimming pool. The other was that, earlier that day, somebody had heard him scream. As Anthony McCartney reports, neighbor Sandra Gardea “heard sobbing from his house earlier that morning. It sounded like someone really crying, like really deep emotions… like tired or sad, you know?”

The way Hockney describes a body in a pool is not unlike the image we’ve seen, time and time again, of King’s face after he was beaten: “If somebody went under the water or made a splash, the splash was on the water’s surface, you could look into the water and the figure was distorted.” He explains, “The arms become long, the body goes odd and you begin to look like a lobster or a crab.”

I tried to write an essay about David Hockney and Rodney King once before, before King had passed away. While doing research, I became obsessed with a particular painting that Hockney had created of a Beverly Hills housewife. Painted during the same year as the 1966 Watts riots, Hockney’s housewife gazes idly outside the range of the portrait. She is miles away from the action, likely captured at a different time of year, but I want badly to imagine that she can hear the sound of sirens. I wish that she could at least smell the smoke.

“If you don’t know Los Angeles,” Rodney King writes, “it’s hard to explain how different it is from the pictures you see on television and in movies. No pretty palm trees and manicured lawns or any of that. No fancy boutiques or pretty buildings with shiny windows. All the big houses and Beverly Hills may only be about ten miles to the north, and the beautiful beach houses on the ocean in Malibu only about ten miles to the west, but those places may as well be a million miles away.”

Before he died, Anthony McCartney writes, a severely intoxicated Rodney King was seen by his girlfriend “making grunting and growling sounds and having frothy secretions coming from his mouth.” While she was calling for help, “she heard a splash.” By the time she got to the pool, King’s body was “face down in the deep end.”

While he studied the swimming pool in the process of painting “A Bigger Splash,” Hockney recalls, “What amused me was the fact that the splash only lasts a very, very short time.” He explains, “A photograph can freeze it, and that’s not what it’s like. When you paint it, you can make it flow.”

G

Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s essays have appeared in Ninth Letter, Identity Theory, Michigan Quarterly Review, and The Southern Review. Her first book of essays, The Fluency of Light: Coming of Age in a Theater of Black and White (Sightline Books) was published by the University of Iowa Press in 2013.

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