Wrought with warmth and wit, Jacobs’ debut novel digs into Pasadena’s most infamous structure and the city itself. In their journey to discover the source of the bridge’s macabre alter ego, Nick Chance and his impish mutt interact with some of the big personalities from the Progressive Age, including Teddy Roosevelt, Upton Sinclair, Charles Fletcher Lummis, and Lilly and Adolphus Busch, whose gardens were once tabbed the “eighth wonder of the world.” They cavort and often sow chaos at Cawston Ostrich Farm, the Mount Lowe Railway, the Hotel Green and even the Doo Dah Parade.
While digging up the truth about the Colorado Street Bridge, in all its eye-catching grandeur and unavoidable darkness, the characters of Arroyo paint a vivid picture of how the home of the Rose Bowl got its dramatic start.
Narrowed it down, haven’t you, buckaroos?”
You see a wheezing old man in a tuxedo and top hat, acetylene torch in hand, and the choices seem obvious. I’m either a dapper escapee from a mental asylum, or a geriatric thespian shooting the album cover for an avant-garde band. Either way, you peg me as a pathetic dinosaur out for attention in an accomplished town.
You’re all wet, but I forgive you. Wrinkles can deceive.
My story, or rather her story is a razzle-dazzle whodunit from the cusp of the tailpipe age. If my knees weren’t so arthritic, I’d be down on them in gratitude, thanking the cosmic breadcrumbs for shepherding me here. Now I can croak full of life, a disruptor with an AARP card.
But I digress.
Having been away so long, I’m proud to report our lady remains as enthralling as ever—lithely posed, majestic from her studded crown to her floating toes. Forget age. She’s as mysterious as a fog bank, epitomizing classic beauty despite the predictable skid marks.
What, you think I’m laying it on too thick? That my Sears-brand hearing aid runs on New Age crystals. Then inch closer for a peek. She won’t bite. Just don’t get too comfortable, for the old gal, on this her eightieth birthday, has depleted her tolerance for the bullshit myths garlanded around her. Whitewashed glories, forgotten heroes: she can no longer bite her tongue, assuming there’s one in there.
Ever since that young man’s visit, my descent into miserable decrepitude has reversed into the determination to rise above self-pity. Put pep in my hobble. Why? I now appreciate that unseen forces drafted me—me, the crotchety fossil that detests bingo, Seinfeld, and sports visors giving headwear a bad name—to connect the firefly dots around our silvery empress.
Who killed the brightest lights this side of Busch Gardens, when Pasadena was a wonderland of possibility? Permitted our thirst for pretty objects to callus us? Let me tell you: neither an illustrious reputation nor a knack for pageantry is a force field against sin.
Appearances. It’s always about appearances in this damn place. No one wants to confront this bugaboo: that “history,” as one skeptic laid bare, “is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren’t there.”
Well, I was an eyewitness, back when Orange Grove Boulevard was a macadam thoroughfare for old money millionaires, and tamale-cart vendors made killings on blue-collars’ paydays.
First things first: you’ll notice our lady in question has had some “work done.” Blessedly, the patrons who financed the procedures refused to allow a gauche Botox job to wind back the clock, knowing a trout pout on her would constitute criminal disfigurement. Imagine Lauren Bacall, or, for you whippersnappers, Michelle Pfeiffer, with a weeping goiter.
Consequently, she hasn’t been so much “refreshed” as restored, jowls tightened, calves bolstered, along with more intimate intrusions best detailed once the children are asleep. Let me also stipulate that none of these nip-and-tucks were required to warrant her spot on the pedestal of all-time greats. Her unflagging grace, revealed when party animal Woodrow Wilson ran America and you could only find one decent brand of mayonnaise, earned her stature long ago. If a person can adore someone of her physical grandeur—no offense, Sally, my beloved—color me enchanted.
Allow me to confide a few darker twists. now that I’m throwing this all out there to you, a perfect stranger I’m making privy to my snowballing epiphanies. For every blandishment lavished on her, for every popping flashbulb and cream-puff story, she rarely enjoyed a red-carpet existence. By her mid-twenties, in fact, some of those who exalted her as “magnificent” and “hypnotizing” clamored for her summary obliteration. They woofed that she was obsolete, a statuesque has-been replaceable by the next hot number. She’d done her duty. Take a dirt nap.
You think she brooded at the conspiracies to topple her, by metal teeth no less? Never. She stood proud, shoulders back, that proverbial good sport willing to let painters brush-stroke her and middlemen over-commercialize her while selling Chryslers on television. She even refused to slap defamation suits against the rumormongers who smeared her as a pied piper for ghosts and a stoic murderer of the helpless. Brace yourselves, folks. It was her human masters who superimposed that alter ego on her.
Trust me here: the Arroyo Seco’s queenly bridge and I go way back.
Judging by the hippopotamus camped on my chest, I don’t have much time to convince you, either. Bribing a cabdriver to taxi me from my lasagna-Tuesday, Lysol-ed nursing home to the hardware store and then here almost did me in. With heart disease, high cholesterol, gout, anemia, and more, my blood chemistry is a biohazard.
But miraculously I persevered, with places to go at 0.5 mph. Hunched forward on my walker, I clacked toward the scene of my future defacement, the august Rose Bowl (and cosmos-probing Jet Propulsion Laboratory) to my right, asphalt subdivisions to the left. I brushed my hand up against her fluted railing in re-acquaintance. Pure jazz!
Not to gloat, but I accomplished this feat in the same fucking penguin suit that used to constitute my trademark get-up, when I owned the San Gabriel Valley’s finest haberdashery. That I collapsed backward gasping for breath upon reaching my destination, a bench inside one of the bridge’s romantic sitting areas, was, admittedly, less dignified.
Again, feel free to decry the vandalism I’m plotting against this nationally recognized landmark afforded all manner of federal protections. Know I’m hoping to win your absolution in the end—a liver-spotted light-shiner in a sundowner canyon. It was in reading about the public festivities surrounding her grand reopening that I realized I had my opening. There’d be indulgent layers of decorations you could’ve camouflaged a Marine Expeditionary Unit behind.
Personally, the trimmings harken childhood memories of the sycophantic extravaganza staged for presidential visits: the overkill floral arrangements and congratulatory banners; the ritzy, color-coordinated table settings and special refreshments. Thank you, city fathers, nonetheless. Your bridge party is allowing me to be the asshole I need to be.
Now, excuse me while I try not to die.
Phew. That was a pain. Not that I was ever agile with power tools, but I have a suggestion for whoever manufactured the acetylene device I just lit to slice through a section of the iron, suicide-prevention fence: you might mull lightening future canisters for us elderly deviants.
No such gripe with my leather, side-shield sunglasses, which I recently fished out of my keepsake trunk to recycle into welder’s goggles. Like history, fashion is circular. Shades popular with biplane pilots and Progressive Age motorists are de rigueur again as “steampunk aesthetic.”
The person at the epicenter of this gave them to me as a child, along with the surprise in my bag. My hope is that they’ll persuade him to speak truth to concrete; that he’ll remind Pasadena that for all its Old-Money probity and cultural firepower, it’s the light in our collective eyes that counts more than our rose-water vanity. Last time he saw me he called me cuckoo, so I have my work cut out for me.
Another absurd truth dawns on—oh, crap, here comes the fuzz.
He’s gangly and balding, this fifty-ish cop, with an aura of resigned diminishment in his drooping shoulders and scrunched-together features. Roughly thirty feet away, he’s approaching from the east, visibly annoyed at his day-wrecking development.
“Excuse me, sir, but mind telling me what you think you’re doing? That fence you just destroyed is public property.” He’s speaking in a loud husk, assuming my waxy face also confers deafness.
“Yes, officer, I’m quite aware of that. There’s no need to yell.”
“Good. Then stop.”
“Not to split hairs, but stop what? Cutting the fence or not revealing my thinking?”
My glibness is poorly received. I know this because the cops’ nostrils flare and his palms stiffen in double-halt formation above his night-blue uniform. He must be working morning security for the rededication bash following the queen’s $27 million structural/seismic rehab. Poor sap’s probably visualizing telling his captain that this geezer outflanked him.
“I’ll clarify,” he says. “Lay down the torch. That’s an order. You could hurt yourself, or someone below. You wouldn’t want that on your, uh, conscience.” Under his breath he mumbles, “Jesus, of all days for a 5150.” That’s police code for nut-job unloosed; he’s confused me for a jumper. “Whatever is eating at you, there’s help available.”
He’s roughly fifteen feet from the bench now, with the forecast calling for a high chance of another life-is-precious cliché. Soon he’ll have the bead on me.
“Officer, I can assure you I pose no threat to public safety or myself. I’m here to set some records straight. Nonviolently.”
“A-ha. I knew you were educated. And I’ll tell you what. Since you’re dressed like Alfred from Batman, I’ll be your Commissioner Gordon. First thing I did when I was assigned here was drive past the mansion behind you they used as Wayne Manor. Sergeant Daniel Grubb requesting permission to approach. And you are?”
“Name’s Mr. Incidental.”
My curveball annoys him. He scratches the tip of an ear the size of a soap dish. And here he thought he charmed me into surrender. “Is there someone we can contact? Someone looking for you?”
Officer Sneaky has further narrowed the gulf between us. “Why yes,” I respond. “There is one particular individual you can track down. But I’ll need time to explain about it all first so you don’t think I’m certifiable.”
When I dip my head to wink rakishly, my top hat tumbles onto the sidewalk in front of where I sit. Embarrassing. “Leave that where it is,” I add.
“Let me propose a bargain?” he says slyly. “You desist from further tampering with the fence, and I’ll agree to your terms. This doesn’t have to escalate. Big event starting here later today: the mayor, speeches, giant scissors. The works. Fair?”
Fair? Really? Fair would be sparing the Branch Davidians from burning to death in Waco, Texas, or those innocent kids from being gunned down here on Halloween night. Fair certainly isn’t blaming yours truly for defending himself after a pimple-faced shoplifter punched him years earlier. “Exhausted as I am, sergeant, I can’t. If, out of principle, I have to sever a hole in this fence and drop a few things on the vulgar condo below I will.”
“No, you won’t. I’m going to counter-offer you, one gentleman to another.”
As a retired businessman, I’ve seen this movie. Compliment, disarm, and then blitz. “Don’t test me,” I say, though I doubt he will. “I still have my reflexes.”
With a flick, I reignite my Orchard Supply torch in my white-gloved hand and tug down my side-shade sunglasses. The nozzle hisses a burnt-orange nozzle of fire, which I briefly aim at him. Then I run the flame over the lower part of half a dozen fence posts, whose upper ends I previously sliced. After a little more melting, one good whack will probably detach it, sending a roughly three-foot-by-three-foot section crashing downward.
Grubb’s mouth plops so wide I count three fillings. “That’s a fucked-up move,” he snarls. “I thought we established a dialogue.”
“They’re not mutually exclusive.”
He’s done reasoning with my feisty-curmudgeon routine. “Dispatch,” he says into the Motorola walkie-talkie clipped near his right epaulet. “Sergeant Grubb requesting backup to the Colorado Street Bridge, and probably the department shrink if she’s around. Copy?” Ssssssssssssss. “I said, ‘you copy?’” Evidently, no one does. He wrenches down on his Motorola to bring it nearer to his mouth. “Dispatch, dispatch,” he says louder. Nope: still static isolation.
The flatfoot, even so, has drawn closer. Once he bum rushes me, he won’t even require handcuffs to subdue me, just a decisive hand around my grizzled neck. For a lifer likely a decade from his pension, Grubb has moves.
Then again, so do I.
When he lunges at me, I release the torch, which clanks metallically on the bench. My weapon of choice is less formidable, outwardly anyway. It’s my walker. The action-reaction is karate-esque. He barrels my way. I bash him in the temple with one of the walkers’ space-age-light aluminum arms. Kiai!
Down goes the sergeant. Down in a heap at my polished Italian loafers. For the first time in years, I’m a senior in control.
He comes to quickly, perpendicular to me, discovering that he’s pinned down on the deck. One of my walker’s green-tennis-ball-tipped-legs presses on his throat. The other squishes his crotch. While old age has shrunken me, I’m still six-feet two-inches, so my legs fit easily over the top of walker to keep the pressure on.
From the concrete, Grubb sputters statutory threats: about how I’m guilty of assaulting a law-enforcement official; how I’ve ratcheted a minor vandalism charge into a felony; how my walker better “not have fucking cracked” his Ray-Bans, the location of which, like his police cap, he’s unsure. He’s a squirming human alligator, ashamed at his predicament, madder by the second.
Anxious about what I’ve done—hey, even us old-fogies saw the Rodney King thumping—I subpoena every stringy muscle to continue immobilizing him. I grunt. I channel applied physics I heard at a free Caltech lecture. I ask God why he’s led me down this preposterous road, and to spare me physical agony once the officer thirty years my junior breaks free.
That shouldn’t be long. Heart palpitating, I wonder about releasing him. Pleading for mercy; blaming the antidepressants, a dead wife, despair about my social relevancy.
Then, faster than the hot winds blow, to quote from those gods of classic rock, I sense a change in my combatant’s degree of resistance. His writhing is slowing; so, too, have his hands, which were scrabbling for leverage.
Sgt. Grubb, whom I’ll soon learn transferred to Pasadena after the 1992 Los Angeles riots made him question humanity, has stopped fighting because he’s worked the math. He’s calculated that he wants to hear my far-fetched yarn a few integers more than he desires to club me within legally defensible police guidelines.
“Sonny Jim,” I say, “let me ask you something. Do you believe in second chances?”
He eyeballs me from his back. “Depends on what kind?” he says. “For a codger quicker than he looks?”
“No. The kind, and this will sound worrisomely eccentric, that Shirley MacLaine would applaud. Life repeats.”
“Not really. I’m Catholic. We believe you go up or down. Not around. But if you can spell it out before any of my colleagues see me like this, imprisoned by a glorified cane, I’m open.”
“Deal. Imagine a past when—.”
Where are you from? Tell us a little about yourself!
I grew up in the eastern foothills of Pasadena, back when all the kids went to the same public schools, you played sandlot baseball on asphalt, and the smog was so thick you accepted seeing the local mountains disappear behind the chemical haze half the year. I was the youngest of three sons, as well as an eager reader and benign troublemaker who had a talent for breaking other people’s windows. My father, being the Caltech graduate, always excelled at math and science. I was much more of right-brained personality, one aligned with my mother’s side of the family that’d worked in Hollywood and the creative arts. She always supported my love of English and writing, though she did tire of me constantly asking “why” about everything as a kid. My father would’ve much preferred me to go to law school or into the family real estate business, but my destiny took me elsewhere. Thankfully! I graduated from USC with degrees in journalism and international relations, and went on to earn my masters in U.S. national security affairs at American University in Washington, D.C. For a while, I dreamt of being either a foreign-service officer or CIA nuclear weapons analyst, but, when the Cold War ended, so did that passion. I returned to L.A. and did what came naturally: I became a journalist, and then an author.
Tell us about your book? How did it get started?
Being from Pasadena, everyone called the Colorado Street Bridge “Suicide Bridge” and talked about its dark folklore, including the rumors the deck was inhabited by ghosts. Not that us teenagers from the local prep schools cared as much about that as its proximity to nooks where we could party, blast classic rock, and try outdoing each other with reckless stunts that we were lucky no one got killed attempting. Years later, while working on my first two books, I was freelancing and wrote a feature about this dramatic (and pretty much) forgotten construction accident that struck the bridge in 1913. It infuriated me that the workers who died had been forgotten. The story seemed to touch a nerve because so many people contacted me about it, including documentary filmmakers (who turned out to be hustlers) and a British TV psychic. My curiosity about the real story behind this famous, curvy structure kind of fermented in the back of my mind until I conducted some additional research and became convinced it was the gist for a historical novel calling me to write it. To this day, I feel blessed no one else snatched the idea first.
How do you create your characters?
That’s an excellent question, and the honest answer is that it took a long time to develop my cast, especially coming from a non-fiction-writing background. To spark ideas, I devoured other historical novels and looped back to my favorite contemporary authors – T.C. Boyle, John Irving, Nick Hornby – to try to develop an anti-hero main character and an annoying pal determined to guide him to his destiny. But I’d be dishonest if I didn’t credit my older brother, Paul, for scolding me that I needed to inject my incorrigible sarcasm and affection for dogs into a storyline on subject worthy of exploration.
What inspires and what got your started in writing?
People reacting to crisis became the galvanizing theme behind my most successful book – a social history of the L.A. air pollution predicament (Smogtown: the Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles, with William J. Kelly). It’s in the turmoil where character comes out, fault lines emerge, and us writers can pretend we’re sociologists observing what average folks will risk in extraordinary circumstances. That same intrigue played out in my true crime book (The Ascension of Jerry). I find is endlessly fascinating to not only see how mysteries are solved, but also how it changes people, for better or worse. As to the first question here, I feel like writing was something I was always meant to do but that life needed to spin me around a few revolutions before that epiphany slapped me in the face. In my next life, I’ll be a novelist from the get-go (if I can’t make it as rock guitarist).
Where do you write? Is there something you need in order to write (music, drinks?)
I write out a little home office crammed with guitars, favorite books and literary knickknacks I’ve amassed over the years. Being in Pasadena, I’m able to look out my window at a virtual collage of trees, though the Internet and a tendency to get distracted often makes me wish I had an editor pacing behind me telling me I haven’t written my 1,000 words for the day. But you can’t beat writing with a picture of the Beatles looking down on you and the dog who inspired a character in the book hanging out with me.
How do you get your ideas for writing?
I read a lot, be it novels, non fiction or articles. I do a lot of “what if” exercises (which drive my family crazy). I bounce ideas off writer friends. I try finding subjects begging to be composed, especially stories that allow me to zig where others zag. That’s the natural habitat for a born iconoclast like me. I’m already thinking about my follow up novel, which will also take place in Pasadena and revolve around an apology letter and a long ago accident.
What do you like to read?
Lately, it’s been historical fiction, but my favorite books in the last years have been Avenue of Mysteries, Swamplandia, and All The Light You Can See. When I was writing the last draft of Arroyo, I sometimes had trouble wrapping my head around the universe someone else was building. So I read a non-fiction — about near-death experience, the Cold War, and a slew of other disparate subjects.
What would your advice to be for authors or aspiring in regards to writing?
Live a little before you start your debut. Read everything you can, including on subjects and from outlets out of your comfort zone. Be open to the idea that the best book (or article) idea may not be the one you set out to pen. Some of my favorite newspaper articles flowered from somebody making an offhand comment that got me interested in where it’d lead. Finally, write the book you’d want to write. Don’t fret too much about market demands or other people’s opinions about what you should be doing. Follow your heart and don’t stop!
Anything else you’d like to share?
A world without books and ideas isn’t a world I care about inhabiting. Thank you so much for the interview. I’m both exhilarated and a bit petrified about releasing my debut novel, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.