A longish chapter here, perhaps worth the time to make a cup of coffee or tea. Enjoy.
The moon is distant from the sea,
And yet with amber hands
She leads him, docile as a boy,
Along appointed sands.
Emily Dickinson The Moon is Distant From the Sea
Los Angeles, California Twenty years later
He seemed to feel the concussive gunshots almost before he heard them, the loud wump-wump sound coming through the clinic’s insulated windows in staccato bursts, causing several patients to automatically dive to the floor. But, Gene Sherman knew, people all around west LA were used to taking cover whenever a ‘drive-by’ went down, so he wasn’t exactly surprised. Besides, he had work to do.
Because he had a kid on a gurney right now, a kid found almost comatose in a nearby alley. Another kid with a needle still dangling from his arm, the filthy insulin syringe still loosely in the boy’s cephalic vein. His lips and nail beds were deep blue and the kid – he guessed the boy’s age was around 16, tops – was barely breathing.
“What’s his BP now,” Sherman asked the paramedic standing-in for their usual nurse that afternoon.
“65 over 40, pinpoint pupils,” Jim Turner replied.
Sherman was sure the kid had overdosed on heroin but really needed to make sure so he soaked a 4×4 in Betadine and swabbed the area around the syringe before he gently slid it free of the vein. He held the syringe up to the light and looked at the brownish gray fluid and nodded, then he injected a tiny amount onto the NarcID test pad and watched the fluid react.
Then he heard one of their volunteer receptions on the PA in the front office: “Multiple GSWs in the street! Doctor Sherman, you are needed out front, STAT!”
Sherman guessed the kid’s weight and filled a syringe with Naloxone, then injected the opioid antagonist into the kid’s upper arm before he turned to the paramedic: “Jim, get him cleaned up and see if a social worker can get to him while we’ve got him here.”
“What’s that around his mouth, Doc?”
Sherman shook his head. “Me guess is it’s semen. Kid’s been using his mouth to earn enough for his next hit.”
“You want me to do a draw for HIV? Or maybe an STD panel?”
“Not without consent, Jim. Sorry. Good instincts, but we can’t do it.”
Turner nodded. “Doesn’t seem right, ya know?”
Sherman looked towards the street and shrugged. “Hardly anything right about what’s going on out there,” he said as he walked to the supply room, grabbing a couple a gunshot wound trauma kits on his way out the door.
Next, he knew from experience, came the screams. The mothers and the girlfriends caught in the crossfire as two rival gangs shot up the neighborhood. This first casualty of the afternoon was a little girl riding home from school on her bicycle, the nine year old taking a round from an AK-47 in her upper thigh. Not far away, a young woman had been pushing a baby stroller and now she was on the ground holding her belly, though she was quite still now.
Sherman went to the little girl on the bike first. Blood oozing, not pulsing, strong pulse and decent respiratory rate, so he moved to the woman laying next to the baby stroller. Sucking chest wound just under the sternum, strong pulsing arterial flow so the bullet probably hit the aorta. He knelt and started an IV, running blood expanders wide open. Without getting her on by-pass, and fast, she had less than a minute left, and the sirens he heard were probably five minutes out – in this heavy evening rush hour traffic. The math was simple…she would die out here this afternoon.
Then…a cop car pulled up and two patrolmen – and another paramedic – hopped out and ran up to him.
“Man, I’m glad to see you guys!” Sherman said. “We need to get this gal to an OR, STAT, or she’s a goner…”
And seconds later the cops and the medic had loaded her in the back of their patrol car and were off, running code as they left, and at the same time he saw Jim Turner coming out of the Westside Free Clinic with a gurney, stopping by the little girl still in the street.
“Can you get a BP and stats going?” Sherman asked as he walked back to the girl, helping Turner lift the girl onto the gurney then looking at the wound more closely. “No exit wound,” he sighed as he started a line, “so the bullet probably took out the femur.” He taped the line down and looked at Turner, then down the street as LAFD paramedics approached, with pulsing strobes and sirens blaring away …
“Looks like 90 over 65, 16 and shallow, O2 is 92.”
“Okay, thanks. Get a mask on her while I start fluids.”
Then he saw the look in Turner’s eyes. Fear, anger, fight or flight. Then he felt someone coming up from behind, and he turned and saw a teenager with some kind of short-barreled carbine – like maybe an Uzi or a Mac-10 – and the kid was pointing the gun right at Sherman.
And as Sherman turned and faced the boy, the boy saw the priest’s collar and his eyes went wide.
“You a doctor or a priest?” the kid asked Sherman.
“Then could you come with me please, Father?”
“Is someone hurt?” Sherman asked.
“Yeah. My momma, she been shot.”
Sherman turned back to Jim Turner. “Get her loaded then come on over.”
Turner didn’t like the looks of this armed banger and smelled trouble, but he turned back to the girl and got her ready for transport…
And Sherman, or Father Gene – as he was known around Venice Beach – followed the banger along a dirt path between two run down houses, and there, slumped alongside a roaring air conditioning unit, he found a middle aged Black woman with a gaping gunshot wound that had shattered the left side of her face. “Jim! I need a kit over here, STAT!”
“Father?” the banger said, openly weeping now, “That’s my momma, she gonna die or what?”
“You wanna put that gun down and give me a hand?”
“I need to get your mother on the ground but I want to keep her head elevated, okay? Then we’re going to start an IV…”
“She gonna die, man. Don’t you need to say something? You know, like talk to God?”
Turner came running up and skidded to a stop when he saw the woman’s wound. “Shit,” he whispered under his breath…
“Jim, go find me a couple of paramedics,” Sherman said as he took the trauma kit. “What’s your name, son?” he asked, turning to the banger.
“LaShawn,” the boy said.
“Okay, help me get your mom down,” Sherman said softly, wanting to calm the kid down, walk him back from the edge a little.
“You think you can help her?”
Sherman looked over the wound, then, using his fingertips, he worked his way up her neck and then palpated around the base of her skull. “It looks worse than it really is, LaShawn. So my guess is your mother will be fine, but you’ll find out more in a couple of days. But, and this is important, her recovery is going to take a while, and it will be painful. Now, what say you and me get to work, okay?”
“Did you ask him about the gun?” the detectives investigating the shootings asked.
Sherman shook his head. “As soon as I go down that road they shut up. My value here is as an honest broker, Andy. They need to trust me or they won’t come in for help.”
“Yeah, but,” the detective added, “that might work out okay for you but it makes my job that much more difficult.”
“I understand,” Sherman said. “And I know you understand that we’re walking the straight and narrow down here, Andy. One false step, one bad move and if we even appear to be taking sides, you know as well as I that we’re the next target on the next drive-by.”
Andy Ainsworth had been with the LAPD for almost fifteen years, and he’d been working homicide for six. He was a good cop, a cop who’d walked a beat down here and who knew what the score was: civilization was falling apart south of the I-10, from South Central all the way out to Venice Beach. Cops held an advantage during the day, but once the sun went down the balance of power shifted and the cops were suddenly outmanned – and outgunned. Cops had airpower, sure, but after two were shot out of the sky in a three week period, and at a loss in excess of twenty million bucks, the department was hesitant to risk those assets anymore, unless a truly dire emergency existed. Besides, from a PR perspective, helicopters were much more useful as Medevac and rescue assets.
Ainsworth was still working the westside, yet because of ongoing recruitment shortages his beat had expanded to include the movie studios in Culver City, the marina district, as well as the area around Venice Beach. There were now also twenty percent fewer officers assigned to CID than there’d been as recently as 2010, and yet the numbers were falling more and more with each passing year. As a result of this ongoing shortfall, detectives were doing their best to recruit snitches and other informants all over the city, but the danger these informants faced if they were blown was as ongoing as it was severe. And because the gangs in LA had nationwide affiliates in almost every city and town across North America, there was literally no place informants could hide. Even the FBI wasn’t as well organized, or anywhere near as lethal, as the Gangs of South Central.
And while Ainsworth knew that Sherman, like all the other priests working down here, was walking a tightrope, he still tried to cultivate ties with the physicians and nurses working the free clinics. They heard stuff, good intel, all the time, and the priests working the clinics had no qualms going out for a beer and shooting the shit, even with a cop. Still, Ainsworth knew better than to push…
“I know, Father Gene, I know. I gotta ask, you know?”
Sherman was working once again on the heroin overdose, getting more fluids onboard and trying to get a sample of sputum from the boy’s lungs so he could get a culture going. “How many dead today, Andy?”
“Four. Assuming that woman shot in the face doesn’t die.”
Sherman nodded. “We’re losing the war, aren’t we?”
“Sure feels that way. You know, some group from the mayor’s office was down here making a count of the homeless people, and I mean just right around here, at the beach. Almost ten thousand people, Father. Living either on the beach or sleeping on the sidewalk, and man, I just don’t get it.”
“What don’t you get, Andy?”
“Why so many? Why here? And what happens when more people come, Father? Where are they gonna go? We’ll end up with a hundred thousand people down here, sleeping on the beach, from Malibu all the way down to PV. Then what?”
Sherman looked in the boy’s mouth and found a likely bit of puss and took a bit on his swab and transferred it to the petri dish, then he put the dish into the culture ‘oven’ and marked the time on his clipboard. “Well, at that point we’ll be knee deep in feces down here, which’ll mean massive outbreaks of cholera. Rats will move in after that, plague will follow and pretty soon you’ll be burning bodies on the beach just to keep all these diseases from spreading inland.”
“Oh. Gee, thanks. Now that’s a happy thought.”
“Really? Well, our politicians can’t fix things anymore, Andy, because they’ve boxed themselves in by making promises they can’t possibly keep. Poll numbers on one side, polarized constituencies on the other, and anytime they try to innovate a radical new solution and, by the way, simply try to get something done, another aggrieved party calls forth one of the infinite legion of waiting lawyers to stop it, and endless appeals make any kind of meaningful progress impossible.”
“But it wasn’t always that way…”
“Once the courts were swept up in all the partisan bickering, all hope of meaningful democratic participation in government fell by the wayside, because up until then we had relied on impartial referees. They’re gone now, the courts are full of partisan hacks and so no one believes in the courts anymore. No one, Andy. Which makes me wonder…how will you enforce laws no one believes in? Especially when laws are seen only as protecting the economic interests of the wealthiest people, like, say, the one percenters? What then?”
“Father, I have four murders to make sense of…”
“Make sense of? Really?”
“You know what I mean.”
Sherman opened the sleeping boy’s eyes and, using the wall-mounted ophthalmoscope, peered into his eyes – then he groaned and shook his head.
“What’s wrong?” Andy asked.
“First signs of jaundice showing up.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Liver failure. Which, if it is what I think it is, he needs a transplant. But because he is who he is he’ll never qualify for the transplant list.”
“So, what happens to him?”
“We throw his body on the funeral pyre, Andy. Probably by next weekend, too.”
“Where’d he come from?”
“A homeowner found him passed out behind his garage, needle still in his arm. Some kids carried him here. And here’s the real nice part, Andy. His mouth was full of cum, crusted up around his mouth, too.”
“So turning tricks with his mouth to pay for his…”
Sherman nodded. “Sure looks that way, doesn’t it? Oh well, he wouldn’t be the first, would he?”
“So, you got nothing for me?”
“The kid? The one whose mother took a round in the face? I’m not sure he’s a banger. Could be, but I’m not sure.”
“But he had a gun…”
“Said it’s his father’s. Keeps it in the house for times like these.”
“So you’re saying I shouldn’t go after him?”
“I don’t think he’s a bad kid, not really. Why waste your time putting away one of the good ones?”
“You know him?”
Sherman sighed. “No, not really. I’ve seen him around though, from time to time. He helps out around the camps every now and then. Cleaning up, helping some of the older people down there, little things like that.”
“You know his mom?”
“Never met her.”
“Say, you know that movie producer? William Taylor?”
Sherman stood up and then stretched. “Taylor? Yeah, sure, I’ve heard of him. Why?”
“He moved out onto the beach last night, started organizing food trucks to start feeding the homeless down on the beach.”
“No kidding? That’s going to stir up some shit in a hurry…”
“Yeah. Our Watch Commander told us ‘Hand’s off’ at briefing this morning, I think they want us to back off for a week or so and see what happens.”
“You say he’s in a tent down there? You know where?”
“Yeah. Not too far from the old aid station, by the life guard shack. You working the aid station any this week?”
Sherman nodded. “Tomorrow night, and I’ll be there all weekend.”
“Then you’ll see him. He’s hard to miss, has an entourage and groupies, all the usual Hollywood bullshit.”
“I wonder what he’s up to? Think this is a political move? Maybe against the mayor?”
Ainsworth shrugged. “Yo no se, Amigo.”
“Pues…porque así es, Andy. We’ll just have to wait and see, but thanks for the heads-up.”
“Yeah, well, from what I hear Taylor and Father Kerrigan are pretty tight, so maybe you should talk to him about it.”
“No kidding? Kerrigan?”
Sherman hesitated, hovering over the edge of his indecision, then he spoke slowly – and quietly: “Scope out the pink house at Andalusia and Grand, maybe around two this Sunday morning.”
Ainsworth nodded, then abruptly turned and left the clinic. ‘Welcome to the war,’ Ainsworth sighed as he walked out to his unmarked car. “Where, like it or not, everyone has to take sides.” He checked into service then made his way to the intersection to take in the details, and start his surveillance.
Sherman made it back to the Jesuit House at Loyola Marymount in time for dinner, and he found that, as was their custom these days, Andrew Kerrigan was waiting for him. They went to their table and sat, then poured iced tea from the pitcher on the table.
“Looks like you had a bad day,” Kerrigan observed, looking at Sherman’s hands – which were shaking a little more today than they had in weeks.
“A drive-by right outside the clinic while I was working an OD,” Sherman replied. “It never ends, does it?”
“What? The War?”
“Yeah, the war, good and evil, whatever you want to call it. It’s never going to end, is it?”
“Maybe you should reread Revelations again, Father.”
“No thanks. I’m trying to quit.”
Kerrigan chuckled. “If only we could.”
A waiter came by and dropped off several bowls of food and Sherman groaned. “Ah, if it’s Tuesday this must be pot-roast.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Kerrigan sighed as he ladled a spoonful of the goop onto his plate.
“I hear some kind of big-wig movie type has set up camp down on the beach. What’s up?”
Kerrigan looked up and smiled. “Yes, William Taylor, a producer over at Fox, I think. He’s working on a new project, a cop movie.”
“So…this is research?”
“You know, I’m not really sure what he’s up to, Gene. He’s got some new actress parked at a house down on the beach and the next thing I know he’s down there trying to organize food for ten thousand people…”
“I’m having breakfast with them tomorrow. Why don’t you join us?”
“Tomorrow?” Sherman sighed. “Won’t work. I’m filling in for Wittgenstein while she’s out on maternity leave.”
“That’s right. Tuesdays and Thursdays. I keep forgetting.”
“I’ll be at the aid station from noon on, so I…”
“By the old life guard station? I’ll see if I can get him to drop by. He’ll like you.”
“Me?” Sherman asked. “Why’s that?”
“He loves anyone that plays the piano, and the better they play the more he loves them.”
Sherman groaned. “Where’d you meet this one? Beverly Hills?”
“Hamburg. An old jazz club over off the Reeperbahn.”
“Yeah. I learned a pianist I’ve known for years – from San Francisco, by the way, and a real master – was playing at the club while I was teaching at that ‘Vatican and the Holocaust’ seminar.”
“Oh yeah. Last year around Christmas, right. How was playing?”
“Callahan…Harry Callahan. Know him?”
Sherman nodded. “Yeah, of course. The cop. My mom worked with a doc at Stanford who’s supposed to be real tight with him. He took us to hear him play at a club up by the wharf one night. He’s good.”
“High praise coming from you. Still, I don’t think he’s as good as you.”
“I need to practice more.”
“Yeah. In your spare time.”
Sherman laughed. “We make our choices and then live with the consequences.”
Kerrigan wondered if Sherman really understood the layers of irony he’d just let slip. “Why don’t you play tonight? Maybe some Bach? A little Brandenburg? Before bed, perhaps?”
Sherman leaned back in his chair and looked at the sun falling behind the Santa Monica Mountains, then his eyes fell to the city stretched out along the base of the mountains. “All those people, all this – life,” Sherman sighed, exasperated, “yet we always seem to be caught up in endless war. The odd thing, Andrew, to me anyway, is that most of ‘em don’t even know the stakes.”
“What’s troubling you, Gene? What happened today?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Another drive-by, another overdose, a couple more bodies caught up in this endless cycle of suffering, and yet I’m always on the sidelines, always wondering where all this suffering is taking us, what does all this suffering lead to?”
Kerrigan nodded. “I have to assume we’re nearing the end, don’t you?”
“The end? And then what, Andrew? What happens after that?”
“I don’t know, Gene. Maybe it starts all over again.”
“So, an endless enigma? Is that what you’re saying? Is that the only answer there is?”
“You can always go over to the chapel and have a talk with the Old Man.”
Sherman shrugged, then looked at the piano across the room. “Last couple of times I did that I felt like, I don’t know, kind of empty.”
“I still think you’re simply depressed, Gene. Two big heart attacks in as many months and, well, I don’t know what you expect of yourself.”
“Really? Me? I was always so sure I’d live forever.”
“We all do, Gene. Then we grow up.”
“Or you have a big fuckin’ heart attack.”
“Yes,” Kerrigan sighed, “nothing get’s you in touch with your own mortality than ten tons of pressure on your chest.”
“You really want me to play tonight?”
“Would you? I know Father Rolfs would appreciate hearing the Bach.”
“The Third Brandenburg, the allegro. He loves that.”
“You don’t want much, do you?”
“Gene, if you stop using your hands the arthritis will get you before your heart gives out.”
“Did I ever tell you that you’re really a very pleasant, upbeat dinner companion, Andrew.”
“Yes. Last night, as a matter of fact.”
“Damn. I wonder what’s next…Alzheimer’s or dementia?”
“Are you looking for sympathy tonight, Gene?”
“No. Besides, there’s only one place you can find sympathy.”
“Yeah, in the dictionary, between shit and syphilis.”
“Of course. I knew that.”
Sherman took a taxi over to his bank and transferred some excess funds into savings, then he hopped onto a local bus and sat in silence while other passengers stared at his collar – some reverentially – yet more than a few eyes were laden with reflected suspicion. He understood both but had long since given up caring about the suspicious eyes he passed on the street; Kerrigan liked to say that such people were beyond their help, but Sherman saw them in a different light.
If he had learned one thing on his journey it was that there truly was something to the notion of fate, or destiny. Too many coincidences created a simple kind of math, at least in his mind. Watching Betty Cohen fall not once, but twice, had only sealed the deal.
He looked at the passing cityscape almost warily now; over here in Westchester there weren’t so many homeless camped on the sidewalks, but the closer the bus came to Venice Beach the more signs he spotted. The ubiquitous blue plastic tarps draped over a fence, forming a makeshift sun shelter, was the usual outlier, because this was the shelter of choice for the newly homeless. As you moved into more densely settled encampments you saw more tents, even makeshift latrines – and then the bus turned onto Grand and the real action was unmistakeable here. Within a block of the beach about all you could see was a sea of blue tarps covering tents, the tarps providing a little extra measure of cooling shade or room to move around and maybe set up a chair just outside your tent.
When he’d finished seminary Sherman had been assigned to teach at a Navaho reservation school in eastern Arizona, but because he was both a teacher and a physician he taught and he worked in the local IHS health clinic. Finding heart wrenching poverty the norm on that frigid, windswept winter desert, he’d begun to feel a kind of pity for the men and women who drank themselves into diabetic comas or overdosed on opioids.
Until he realized that pity was generally just another paternalistic tool to put some distance between his comfort zone and the suffering he encountered. And for Sherman that was a kind of epiphany, even if a small one. As both physician and priest he simply couldn’t afford to place even more insulating layers between his secondary roles in the community and his official position as parish priest. Being their priest was paternalism personified, and he’d had to find a way, and quickly, of being able to teach and work as a clinician.
For him it all came down to listening and not judging. Maybe that’s what Christ was really all about, he told himself over and over again. Let God be the judge, and just let me do what I can to ease their suffering.
Which led to another epiphany, Sherman’s second. Now assigned to a small parish church in western Cameroon, he soon understood that all the patience or empathy in the world could not ease the suffering of others – unless the person in need wanted help. Soon after he arrived he learned that guerrillas and other assorted ‘freedom fighters’ were more likely to come to his clinic in the middle of the night than mothers might bring sick children.
It all came down to trust, simple as that.
And the collar didn’t guarantee trust anymore, if it ever had.
Trust had to be earned, and if people didn’t know you well enough to understand what you were doing there they certainly weren’t going to trust you, and perhaps that was Sherman’s third epiphany. This he learned in the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia, which proved to be his most dangerous posting ever.
He was pulled into a dispute involving two rival families there. Both were involved in the ‘meth’ trade, producing and distributing product all over the region, from the Carolinas to Kentucky, but once he appeared to have taken sides his life was in danger. Within days the church had pulled him out and sent him to South Bend, Indiana, and he started teaching Astronomy again, this time at Notre Dame. He was reunited with Andrew Kerrigan at that time and, in a sense, they’d been together ever since. When Loyola Marymount requested Sherman come teach astronomy and astrophysics, Kerrigan managed to secure a teaching position there, too. Now they were considered too old for further postings, so this was it. They’d both finish their teaching careers in Los Angeles, spend their last years in the Jesuit residence on the hill overlooking the west side of LA.
Then Kerrigan was instrumental in opening a new free clinic near the beach in Venice, primarily to augment the basement clinic at the nearby parish church of St Mary’s, and he asked Sherman to seek permission to work at the new clinic – as a physician – when not teaching.
And so, by the time Sherman started working at the new clinic he was both a tested priest and a physician well equipped to handle the poorest people living in the area. Low level drug dealers and prostitutes were his usual patients, and while these people came to trust Father Gene, he never pressed anyone for information and rarely passed what little he did hear along to the police – unless lives were at stake. Within a year the word was out: ‘You can trust Father Gene.’
Then came the explosion in the number of homeless people in Los Angeles, and then the rapid concentration of homeless encampments in and around Venice Beach. Sherman was soon working seven days a week, serving an estimated population of more than ten thousand homeless people, a huge number of which were children. He recruited paramedics and pre-med students to help out, found a ready pool of talent in local convents, then he put the word out that any retired nurses or physicians were welcome and pretty soon the clinic was a real going concern.
Then came Sherman’s first heart attack.
He was at the clinic when it hit or otherwise he might not have survived.
His second occurred in the Jesuit residence while he was asleep, and only Andrew Kerrigan had heard his cries for help – but that had proven to be the margin between life and death. Now he was on a half dozen medications for his heart alone, but now his hips were shot, as was his right knee. Arthritis in his hands was becoming an issue too, but he could still suture the usual minor lacerations they typically saw at the clinic, and that would have to do – for now. Still, what he needed most and more than anything else was an able-bodied replacement who could take over the day to day supervision of the clinic, because he feared that when he was gone the clinic would simply wither and die.
He stepped off the bus and into the usual maelstrom that was the street scene in Venice Beach, and life was everywhere. Rich kids on skateboard rattled by, clutching fruit smoothies that had cost at least ten bucks…while passing destitute kids surviving on what their parents could scrape together – or steal. That was LA – in a nutshell, Sherman sighed. Endless.
Then from somewhere in the crowd he heard someone calling his name and he turned to see Father Kerrigan on the boardwalk waving at him. And with him, an impossibly dapper gentleman who simply had to be the movie producer he’d mentioned at dinner. ‘But who is that woman with him?’ Sherman asked himself as he returned the wave and then walked over to join them. ‘She has to be an actress,’ he mused – because he thought she had the look of someone used to being in front of the camera. Stunning and gorgeous were the only words to come to mind…
And then the producer leaned into his handshake, his grip firm, his eyes direct and penetrating.
“William Taylor, Father, and this is Angel. She’s here getting ready to start work soon.”
Sherman smiled and took this Angel’s hand in his, intrigued by the look in her eyes. “Gene Sherman,” he said before turning back to Taylor. “I understand you’re organizing some services down here. Very generous of you.”
“Yes, yes, and we’re off to lunch now, if you’d care to join us?”
Sherman noticed a pale little girl holding onto Taylor’s hand and it only took one glance to realize the girl was one of the residents down here at the camp. And now, suddenly, he was curious.
“Yes, I’d love to, and thanks,” Sherman added as he fell in beside the Angel. “And you, Angel? You aren’t from Los Angeles?”
“No,” she said, turning her head just a little and looking his way. “I’m from Palo Alto.”
“Indeed. I graduated from Palo Alto High.”
“Oh? So you’re a Paly?”
“Indeed I am. What about you?”
“I graduated from Castilleja, then went to Stanford.”
“Oh? What did you study?”
“Philosophy, then medicine.”
“Really? My mother used to teach at the medical school there.”
“Meghan Sherman? Is she your mother?”
“See, it’s a small world after all,” Sherman said, grinning a little.
“How is she?” Angel asked, frowning.
“Well, for one she just turned ninety seven, but all things considered she’s doing rather well.”
“She wasn’t full time when I was there,” Angel added, “but she dropped by from time to time.”
“I think she still tries to. She hated the idea of retirement, fought it tooth and nail.”
They walked up to a huge group of food trucks and Taylor lifted the little girl up and helped her pick something to eat, then Kerrigan and Angel ordered – but Sherman passed on food. “I had a late breakfast,” he said by way of making an excuse.
“Bosh!” Taylor cried. “At least get some coffee, would you?”
Once they found seats at a cluster of picnic tables, Taylor seemed to focus on the little girl – yet Sherman could see the man was lost in thought, struggling with the reality he’d discovered within and around this sprawling homeless encampment. Taylor helped the girl eat then held her in his lap as she fell asleep, and as touching as the scene appeared, at least on the surface, again Sherman sensed that something much deeper was – much like origami taking shape before the eye – enfolding within the producer’s mind. Then, out of the blue…
“Father? Something’s bothering me. Did you play football?”
“Yes. Quarterback. At Palo Alto and at Annapolis.”
“Linebacker. SC and the Forty Niners.”
“Grow up around here?” Sherman asked.
“Montana. Ranch outside of Billings.”
Sherman nodded, but he could tell Taylor was struggling with something. “Something else seems to be troubling you, Mr Taylor. The situation here, perhaps?”
“How could it not be troubling, Father. I’ve only run across scenes like this in Third World countries, and frankly, well, I never expected to run across anything like this…”
“So close to home?”
“Exactly. So close to home.”
Sherman smiled. “There were few safety nets left intact, Mr Taylor, as I’m sure you know. Most were systematically dismantled back in the 80s, and these days the remaining bureaucracies often do little more than impede help.”
“I see so many young people, families too, but there are a lot of older people out here, too. I keep wondering about Social Security, things like that…?”
“Hard to get benefits without a physical address. Harder still without access to a computer. And it’s impossible if you’re in the grips of Alzheimer’s or dementia.”
“But aren’t there people whose job it is to…”
“Systematically dismantled, Mr Taylor. Those are the operative words you need to recall, but really, that’s not where the real war is taking place.” Sherman caught an admonishing glance from Andrew Kerrigan but decided to press on. “You know the Bloods and the Crips?”
“The gangs? Yes, of course, but what have they to do with all this?”
Sherman shrugged away the indifference such questions represented, then he sighed. “Nature abhors a vacuum, Mr. Taylor. And complex systems in nature always seek balance. Call it homeostasis if you like, or even harmony, but a profound imbalance currently exists in nature. Here, in Los Angeles, and in cities like LA. These homeless encampments are just one manifestation of that imbalance, though they are very much one of the most visible elements of this imbalance. And remember, nature abhors a vacuum…”
“But what do the Bloods and Crips have to do with all this?” Taylor said, his arms sweeping wide to take in this sprawling human mass on the waterfront.
“Because the gangs are organizing politically, Mr. Taylor. The Bloods and The Crips are going after the hearts and minds of the people, and they are doing so systematically, neighborhood by neighborhood. They’ve already backed several people running for office…”
“You’re not serious!” Taylor growled. “Once word got out…”
“Hearts and minds, Mr. Taylor. Once you have the support of the people on a neighborhood level the game is afoot and all bets are off. And that’s kind of how things stand right now, as a matter of fact. But what you, as an outsider, have to wrap your head around is what happens when gangs, or even organized crime families, begin to tackle lingering societal ills like homelessness and even drug addiction? Because here’s the kicker? What happens when these gangs do a better job serving the people than our currently elected government does? Then what? Care to extrapolate the long term consequences of that? Care to think about who might be running the show ten years from now? Or twenty?”
“I can’t believe it,” William Taylor said, his voice now a coarse whisper. “How could such a thing…”
“Things fall apart, the center can not hold.”
“That’s Yeats, isn’t it?”
Sherman nodded. “That’s right. The Second Coming.”
“So, what you’re saying is…”
“That’s right. Moderation in politics has given way to the extremes, only the extremes turned out to not simply be limited to the usual left wing and right wing malarkey. Turns out that politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Gangs are learning with the times, moderating their impact on families and neighborhoods, using their massive reserves of cash to undermine established political discourse and back their own representatives.”
“Sweet Jesus. And you’ve seen this process? The gangs, I mean. Organizing politically?”
“Every day. The process is well underway”
“Do you work down here?”
“I teach,” Sherman said as he pointed in the general direction of LMU, “up on the hill, but I also work in the clinic,” he added, pointing to the free clinic on Grand Avenue.
“So, you are a physician – as well as a priest?”
Sherman nodded. “I am. And I also teach astrophysics and astronomy, if that makes any sense to you. And, oh yes, in my spare time I help undergrads in the dorms learn how to separate and do their own laundry, too. And sometimes I even stick around and help them fold.”
Everyone at the table laughed at that, but Kerrigan had been growing visibly nervous as Sherman brought up the moves being made by the Bloods and the Crips. With all the seismic epistemological challenges these shifts would bring to ongoing political discourse, disbelief was sure to be a common first reaction. And because these changes weren’t really open knowledge, not yet anyway, talking about these shifts to someone like William Taylor might, perhaps, piss off all the wrong people. And that usually meant unanticipated consequences. And Andrew Kerrigan hated unanticipated consequences.
“Well, that’s laudable of you, Father Sherman,” Taylor said. “Too many of us talk a good game these days, but then we retreat to our McMansions and nothing ever gets done.”
“Oh,” Sherman began again, “things are happening, Mr. Taylor. Just not what you expect, or want to happen.”
“”If I might change the subject, this little girl seems a little under the weather to me. I’ve been looking after her for a day or so, while her mother is in the hospital, and she seems…”
Sherman leaned over and felt her pulse while she slept, the he felt her neck and forehead. “Do you have time to bring her by the clinic this afternoon?”
“I’ll make time, Father.”
“Okay. Well, I’m headed that way now if you’d like to join me.”
“May I come along?” the actress said. “I know I mentioned it, but I do have an M.D.”
“Indeed,” Sherman said, looking at her. “Please, the more the merrier – I always say.”
Taylor easily stood while still cradling the little girl in his arms, and he carried her to the clinic without breaking a sweat – and Sherman absentmindedly noted this, filing it away for future reference – but as soon as they walked inside the clinic the antiseptic smell hit the little girl and she woke up in the producer’s arms, then she looked around the exam room, suddenly quite alarmed.
Father Kerrigan sat in the waiting room – as he still needed to talk to Sherman about a few ideas for the homeless project Taylor had in mind, yet Kerrigan felt the timing was now all wrong. All Sherman’s talk about Bloods and Crips had to have upset Taylor, yet as he’d watched Sherman and Taylor interact he’d soon felt a shadow pass over them. A shadow…like death passing overhead.
A shadow because the South Central Bloods were using homelessness as a cudgel to beat the mayor, to chip away at his political legitimacy. And it was working, too. And as the problem grew and grew, as homeless encampments spread up and down the west coast, broadcasters aligned with the right were attacking liberals as out of touch, their misguided policies contributing to the problem, and not solving anything.
Typical liberal constituencies had been holding fast, until recently that is. Then more radical activists joined the fight for elected office, yet when their public fundraising appeared minimal several investigations quickly found the source. Gangs were underwriting these campaigns, gangs were slipping into the mainstream, and it didn’t take much imagination to see where this could lead, and when Father Kerrigan learned about the growing depth of concern in the mayor’s office he began to take the shift seriously.
Because Jesuits had been mediating these types of conflicts for almost five hundred years, Kerrigan knew he had to get the Church out in front of the problem. The Church had never just found itself in a position of power; no, to the contrary, Jesuits had over the centuries learned how to identify and manipulate factions best seen as amenable to the Church’s long term goals, to shape discourse and help eradicate ideologies at odds with the Church. Kerrigan was a teacher, true enough, but first and foremost he was a Jesuit, literally a Soldier for Christ, and as a soldier it was his duty to advance Christian ideology in a heathen world. That was why he’d recruited Gene Sherman – and Sherman had been an effective voice for years.
Was Sherman becoming a danger?
And what if Sherman ‘infected’ William Taylor, one of the few Catholics in the top echelon of Hollywood producers? Would all his work recruiting Taylor be for naught?
And just then an LAPD detective walked into the clinic, a man Kerrigan had known for years.
“Andrew!” Father Andrew Kerrigan cried – in mock surprise.
“Andrew!” Detective Andrew Ainsworth replied – in his ritually feigned indignity. “How dare you steal my name! Again!”
Kerrigan stood and embraced the detective, as they’d been friends for more than ten years now. “How are you? The children?”
“We’re well, Father. You?”
“Ah, the burdens are heavy, but…”
“Someone’s got to do it!” the both added, laughing at an old, inside joke.
“So…what brings you to the clinic today?” Kerrigan asked.
“Oh, maybe nothing. Father Sherman mentioned a possible drug deal going down this weekend and I wanted to know if he’d learned anything more.”
“Ah. Well, he’s in with a little girl right now, but I’m sure he won’t be long.”
“Well, would you tell him I dropped by? Maybe he could give me a call later today?”
“Of course. So, will you be taking the girls out for ‘Trick or Treats’?”
“I hope so. Depends on how busy it is.”
But Kerrigan was hardly listening now. Sherman had violated their own precious neutrality, given the detective privileged information. And if word got out, well, there was no way to see all the unintended consequences, was there?
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