Persistence of Memories at a Roadside Shrine

Roadside Shrine in Lakewood, CA.
Roadside Shrine in Lakewood, CA. | Photo: DJ Waldie

At the end of my block and on the parkway panel that separates the boulevard from the service road, a community of mourners has maintained a roadside memorial for a young man at least since 2009. More red and white votive lights clustered at the foot of a streetlight that's a few steps from a bus stop.

The candles had been there several days already. They flickered ahead of me when I crossed the boulevard in the dark of a February evening. Some have burned down to nothing now. Some had gone out too soon. A plaster crucifix and Dürer's Praying Hands, ecumenically representing Protestant and Catholic piety, stood among them.

There have been times when photographs were taped to the streetlight in his memory: a lanky white kid lolling on a couch, smiling; a girl, also smiling; a crowd of youths mugging for the camera. Once, roses in cellophane -- the kind that a boyfriend buys from a roadside vendor -- stayed taped to the pole until the roses dried to pale ochre.

There had been a message in red ink and block letters attached to a copied photograph; both were made unreadable from sun and rain.

The city treats this roadside shrine with tolerant indifference. It's been cleaned up at times, but there's no rigor in the process and perhaps some superstition in letting the candles be.

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Puddles of pink wax have marked where the votive lights had stood before they shattered and spilled. Sometimes, the stain of paraffin grease on the streetlight base was the only memorial.

I once heard a confused story of the death that this shrine memorializes. That a kid -- drunk -- was run over by his friends, also drunk, when the kid slipped out of passenger seat of the car to vomit in the gutter. I also heard that the death wasn't at the end of my block but further south. There were two shrines for a while at different locations.

But this one persisted, perhaps because this curbside fitted itself better to the mourners' need to remember.

Richard Rodriguez writes about the "hunger of memory" and the compulsion to narrate -- if only to ourselves -- something of what we've endured. This shrine next to a Marbelite streetlight pole was assembled by children for someone's dead child, and memory's hunger has used there young people to fashion a place where memory might be briefly satisfied.

I don't know if the mourners made other arrangements. They probably have a Facebook page and online reminders to return from time to time to the end of my block.

Their place resists forgetfulness, even when no one is paying attention. That's one reason -- not the only reason -- that places matter. We make durable places from what we have at hand, and sometimes those places are braver than we are and more faithful. For a little while, that place is sacred.

Today, the candles and the plaster images were scattered. Some were in the gutter.

Scattered Memories.
Scattered Memories. | Photo: DJ Waldie

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