The Virgin Mary on Griffith Park Boulevard
By Rodger Jacobs
“It’s a violin case,” Artie insisted.
“What’s wrong with your damn eyes?” Romolo scowled. “That’s a cello case.”
The two men stood beside their overstuffed shopping carts in the alley. The instrument case had been carefully propped against a recycling dumpster that Romolo and Artie were preparing to
raid. In the dim light of dawn Romolo could see that the outside of the case was of a slightly
faded chocolate brown and was obviously well cared for.
Romolo knew his musical instruments. For six years he was a music instructor to middle school
students at a private school in Burbank. But an incident involving a ‘mentally challenged’ student
- gifted with an oboe, Romolo recalled - who couldn’t confront a urinal without assistance led
him here, to an alley off Fountain Avenue and Griffith Park Boulevard in Silverlake, his Ralph’s
cart overflowing with aluminum cans and plastic containers. It would be another hour before the
recycling center on San Fernando Road would open.
“Why do you suppose someone threw it away?” Artie wondered aloud.
“Maybe they’re coming back for it. We shouldn’t touch it.”
In defiance of Romolo, Artie extended a palsied hand toward the instrument case.
“What’re you gonna do? Chuck it through a church window?”
Artie seethed. “I told you I was drunk at the time. Why d’you always bring it up?”
“Reminder of why you’re where you are and what you have to do to change it.”
Romolo lit the last cigarette from a pack of generics with a Bic lighter he discovered on the hard, cracked sidewalk of Vermont Avenue last night.
“Stealing that cello won’t undo what you’ve done,” Romolo said through a thick plume of blue
smoke. “It’ll only compound the damage.”
“We’re not stealing it if someone threw it away.”
“We?” Romolo needled. “I’m not touching that thing. This is between you and the Virgin Mary.”
No doubt, Artie thought, the Virgin Mary was looking on. And he wasn’t even Catholic.
But for one fateful day, Artie had never whined or complained about his lot in life. When that
day arrived - a red-letter day of personal disaster like none he had ever endured in his thirty-seven years - Artie found his fate entangled with the corrosion of metallic elements in nine panes of glass.
The hours before Artie shattered the glass panes were spent on a hard wood bar stool in
Marcello’s Taverna in Clearwater, Florida, two blocks away from the intersection of the way
things were and the way they’re going to be. Seven shots of harsh tequila and three bottles of
Heineken - which always tasted like skunk water to Artie’s jaded palate - had loosened his
tongue and he wanted to talk, to confess, to just spill every heart ache he had suffered through in
silence until now.
But there was no one to talk to. The bartender was engrossed in an episode of Oprah. A couple of
junkies were making out in a corner booth, or so it appeared until they hit the sawdust floor and
Artie realized that they were wrestling over a dime bag.
Artie palmed a $20 bill onto the bar and demanded that the bartender hand over the bottle of
tequila, a request that the hollow-eyed, beefy man gladly complied with.
It was well after dark when Artie emerged from Marcello’s with bottle in hand, perambulating
like a pinball down Clearwater Avenue. It wasn’t right. Your wife was not supposed to leave
you. Your kids were not supposed to hate you. Your job was set for life. So he had been told. So
he had been lied to.
He paused outside the seven-story office building two blocks from Marcello’s. Now, here was
another big fat lie. The image was discovered just days before Christmas in 1996. Within weeks,
it drew almost half a million visitors. What a bunch of deranged loons thought they saw in the
top three panes of glass in that building, Artie recalled, was the image of the veiled head of the
Artie looked up and down the rain-slicked street twice. It was bereft of traffic. He raised the
bottle in the chill night air and by the time the sun rose over Clearwater, Florida, Artie found
himself charged with criminal mischief and jailed on $10,000 bail.
“How could you take it upon yourself to shatter the faith of all those people?” Romolo asked
when Artie first told him the story.
“I was mad at the world.” Artie spat back.
Romolo hunched his shoulders. “A lot more creative ways to get things off your chest.”
“It wasn’t even real. It was corrosion in the coating on the glass. It was an illusion.”
Artie escaped the pressure in Clearwater - one local rag described him as “a tequila-enraged Anti-Christ” - by taking his cousin in L.A. up on an offer to move out west. When Artie arrived by bus four days later, he discovered that his low life cousin had been evicted from his Van Nuys house two days prior and had left no forwarding address.
“Go ahead and open the case,” Romolo said. As soon as he said it he took two steps back,
distancing himself from the dumpster and the cello case.
“Where’re you going?”
“Just standing over here.”
“Why? You think there’s a bomb in it?”
Romolo smiled, exposing a row of crooked, yellow teeth. “I don’t think it was meant for the
garbage is all.”
Romolo knew better than to trust any good fortune that came upon him. If his life taught him
anything - and it taught him many lessons, but this was the most important - it was that there was always a dark side to good luck. He turned to regard a paramedics wagon screaming down
Fountain, rack lights spinning, klaxon siren wailing, and by the time he turned back Artie had the instrument case open on the ground.
It was, without a doubt, a Strad or the best impression of one Romolo had ever seen. He crouched down on the asphalt, arthritic knees popping like small firecrackers, and ran two fingertips across the surface of the cello. There were multiple cracks at the top of the instrument, he noted, but otherwise it was in perfect condition. Hundreds of years old. Probably worth millions of dollars.
“What d’you think it’s worth?” Artie panted.
Romolo considered the question for a long time before answering.
“Doesn’t matter what it’s worth,” Romolo said, straightening himself with a pain that shot down
his spine and through his left leg. “It wasn’t meant for the garbage, which means it isn’t ours to take, not a story for us to interject into, if you understand what I’m saying.”
Artie did understand what his friend was saying. He was saying that the damn thing was worth a
lot of money but they had to do the right thing and leave it alone because their miserable fate was not connected to whatever and whomever caused it to end up next to the dumpster, waiting for
the next chapter to unfold.
Romolo lifted his unkempt beard to the brightening dawn sky. If the sky wasn’t streaked red and orange from brush fires, it was always filled with chem trails.
“I got some change,” Romolo sighed. “Let’s get some coffee at 7-11 before the recycling center
They grabbed their shopping carts and steered them out of the alley toward Griffith Park
(C) Rodger Jacobs, 2004
All Rights Reserved