Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Panopticon, a Bushwhacking: The Hollywood Sign

On a recent sunny day, Linz, Joel and I went for a hike. We left from the Oakwood Apartments in Burbank and walked up up up up into the hills. Joel brought his camera. Linz and I brought phones and keys, and that was it. We wore shorts. We thought it would be something nice to do.

Instead of nice, we got unexpectedly profound, surprisingly thrilling, and deeply memorable.

We found an enchanted forest of burned tree skeletons--where Harry Potter meets Tim Burton for a quick tea. Linz and I allowed the shapes to inspire our bodies and Joel allowed our bodies to inspire his camera.

Next, we decided to extend our hike a bit further and go to the Hollywood Sign. As anyone who lives in LA knows, one is no longer allowed to hike all the way to the Hollywood Sign, technically. In fact, the highly publicized security system installment has made the sign an even better symbol for the town itself: you can see the dream shining in front of you, but you really, really won't be allowed to touch it. Unless you're US! Unless you are magic and victorious and jolly and ignorant about the fact that you are on a real-time webfeed to a security team!

We took many beautiful pictures of ourselves climbing, kissing, hanging from, making love to our city's most recognizable symbol. We became part of the scenery. (Be my friend on Facebook to see them!) Periodically, a buzzer would sound--maybe from the cameras? Were they on motion sensors? I had one moment of "paranoia" during which I asked Joel if he thought the city actually had enough money to monitor the sign 24/7. He didn't think so. I didn't think so. We resumed.

Suddenly, a voice boomed from a loudspeaker I had not noticed before. A female voice, menacing and severe, telling us something important that I couldn't understand. Linz later told me we were being informed about a squad car waiting for us on the road. The voice of authority, nearly unintelligible, acomplished its intimidating duty simply by way of being loud and unexpected. We hid, and then, when the helicopter came, we ran.

Over the course of the next hour and a half, the helicopter we were sure was out to hunt us circled another 3 or four times. No one ever chased us into the brush, and no police cars appeared. However, we acted as if all these things were happening--hiding under thick bushes when we heard the copter, checking from high points for squad cars. Joel bushwhacked us a path to the nearest access road, where we eventually relaxed enough to walk arm in arm, out in the open, like we'd just gotten away with stealing bags of money from the city bank. The hike was hilarious and harrowing--we were all covered in scrapes and dirt, dehydrated and disoriented, when we tumbled out onto a residential street.

I think, now, that we experienced a strangely inflated sense of triumph over the Man, considering the fact that we never once saw a person trying to come after us. We thought we'd escaped the law, but really we'd just entered a Panopticon. Conceived in the 18th-century, a panopticon is a circular prison building designed with a guard tower in the center, and all cells facing it. The inmates can't see the top of the tower, so they can never be sure if they are actually being guarded, but the concept behind the panopticon is that if there are enough consequences in the beginning (i.e., if there are guards punishing wrongdoing at the outset) then inmates will eventually act as if they are being guarded all the time, even when they aren't.

So. We saw all the cameras at the Sign, but weren't convinced that we were being watched until the voice came over the loudspeaker. Then, we turned into panopticon inmates, dodging helicopters that were probably checking traffic, trying to find secluded roads to walk on long after the Hollywood Sign Security had probably given up on finding us. We knew we were probably safe, and the caution became a sort of joke. But what if those helicopters HAD been for us?

Since we'd emerged on the opposite side of the hill, we hitched a ride back to Oakwood from a friendly Swiss guy in a yellow Firebird. When we got home, Joel looked up the consequence for trespassing at the Sign. Surprise: it's not prison. It's a ticket for $283. This means that the state-of-the-art Panasonic security cameras are at the Sign mostly for fire warning and intimidation. The police are simply not going to go charging into the wilds of Mt. Lee to issue me a ticket.

I was humbled by my ignorance about the consequences of our adventure. I don't know a lot of practical information about the way life works. I used to think I did, which is even more disorienting.

A similar feeling came over me two days ago when I received a check for $801 from Emerson College as part of their settlement in a case regarding their student lending practices. I still don't exactly know what Emerson did to get sued--my guess from the cryptic letter accompanying the check is that they pushed us into contracts with "preferred" lenders when they were supposed to leave us free to choose our own banks--but regardless, I was faced with the fact that I was ignorant, again, about some piece of legality in my life. At the sign, I didn't know the consequence for breaking a rule. At Emerson, I didn't even know the rules that were getting broken.

And so the righteous struggle to be organized without obsession and creative without disintegration rages every day in my life.


  1. A week later, my legs look like I'm a cutter. We still need to wake up in jail.

  2. This is your most boring blog but I think that's part of the point. In any case, the metaphor of the Hollywood sign and the Hollywood dream is excellent.