Old Peter in the toilet

Griffith Park has been home to many interesting and unique individuals over the decades, ask enough longtime L.A. residents and you are bound to hear about a few. Mostly weirdo character types, oddballs, friendly transients and the like. The oldest one I know of goes back to the early 1920s, but that story comes later on. This one is about a man, who, as far as anyone knows, spent the last two years of his life in Griffith Park's public restrooms.

Nobody knows if Peter is his real name but it is what he came to be known as during his residency in the park. He lived in the park at some point during the late 2000s, likely 2008 and 2009, but he also had a home someplace outside of it. He held a regular job from the late 1990s until sometime around 2008-2009 but his earlier history remains a mystery. There are stories about someone who matches him as a park regular, an avid hiker, which go back to the late 1980s, but when he became a mainstay of the park is anyone's guess.

During that ten year period beginning in the late 1990s, Old Peter worked in Burbank, CA. I know this after speaking briefly to a former work colleague of his under the condition of anonymity, who did, however, refer to him as Peter. It is likely that he lived in Los Feliz or a neighborhood south of the park and used the Metro 96 bus to commute. It is understood by those who encountered him that he was very fond of the park and had lived an active life exploring it for some years before his disappearance or, more likely, his death. He has been described as a short, husky man, having a stoic aggression in appearance, a quiet, simmering demeanor by the few who recall encountering him on his commute. In his later years, he'd grown his hair long and wore a dense, bushy beard. Those who've encountered him in the park during this period paint a much more colorful picture. 

Old Peter spent the last two years of his life living in the park, part time. The home he erected in the park had been documented previously but I could no longer locate the article. It was a type of hutch, carved out of the side of a slope, well off trail, below Vista Del Valle road overlooking the city of Glendale. The entrance of this dwelling was obscured by a complicated lattice of branches and brambles covered in poison oak and wild cucumber vines, nearly invisible to anyone who might accidentally wander off trail and into that route. Inside of the hovel was an elaborately crafted bed made of soft dirt and various grasses and nearby it, a dozen candles. No food, toiletries or personal effects of any sort. The location of this hovel suggests that he had been in decent physical condition upon its creation, enough so that he could climb a mostly vertical path through dense brush to access it without difficulty. Upon its discovery in early 2010, a crowdsourced neighborhood news site (Patch) obtained photos of it (presumably from the Park Rangers' office), where it could be best described as unfinished, a work-in-progress cut short. The Rangers, when quoted, seemed unable to hide their appreciation for his handiwork despite delivering a firm "don't even think about it" message to anyone else inspired to attempt a life in the park. But by then, where he slept wasn't where he made his home.

Those who agreed to share their experiences with 'Old Peter' have one thing in common: all of their encounters with him took place in the park's public restrooms. A stocky, gruff man with long, coarse hair, seated on the toilet with the stall door ajar; his pants bunched around his ankles, his stomach obscuring his genitals and always accompanied by a burning candle, Peter would call out to those who entered: "You may ask one question, nothing more!"

In those early days, nobody replied. Most people encountering this scene probably wrapped up their business and hurried out of there. It is unknown how long this went on before someone indulged him but eventually some of those who did found something fascinating, something intoxicating: secrets, more importantly, Old Peter's secret knowledge of the park. No matter what was asked of him, the answer digressed into park folklore. One who asked about their deceased father would receive a one-sentence answer, reducing what they came to hear, followed by an animated story about entities, disfigured voyeurs, nexus portals and other strange folklore alleged to have taken place in the park. The stories were so fantastic, so engaging that these visitors weren't disturbed by the sporadic defecations or distracted by the smells and general filth that fill a public restroom over an entire day's use.

"Not at first, no."

"He was a wonderful storyteller, he knew exactly how to leave you hanging, begging for the next bit."

"You were in a trance and the next thing you know - he'd shout at you "BE GONE"

"time's up. Time to get back to your life."

"You get up off the floor and you walk out sort of dazed, back to real life."

How did Old Peter acquire this knowledge, what was the source for these stories he told? Depending on who you ask, he had spent years exploring the park, mapping out the land, bushwhacking off trail and uncovering the secrets himself. Others heard a different story, one where he had help. He'd shared with some of his visitors that the park is watched over by the spirit of a deceased hermit who had taken residence in the park in the 1950s. How or why he decided to tell which story is unknown. This spirit apparently guided him over the decades toward underground networks, long buried rooms and hidden ledgers and journals full of writings from former park inhabitants dating back decades. Several bizarre characters have taken residence in the park since he'd began exploring it and if you were lucky, you might get to hear a tale about one of them. One such figure was a silent man that Old Peter encountered throughout the park on several occasions, notable for his face: an indiscernible blur of flesh tones. Most of his former visitors remain tight lipped about the content of his stories and the info he shared, it was difficult to extract much of what they'd learned from him: which I believe is less the result of resistance and more of an indifference-based memory loss.

"The first time I listened to him, I left annoyed. He goes on about the blurry face guy but everybody already knew about that stuff, there were gatherings for that, for years. The second visit…that’s when things changed for me: he tells me about the tunnels."

"He encouraged us to see these things on our own, demanded it, really."

"I followed the instructions and I dug some things up... and they were already like that when I dug them up."

"Aside from that room, none of it was real. And for all I know, he built that whole thing himself."

During these storytelling sessions, regular park goers would walk in and out of the restroom, using the facilities for their intended purpose, doing their best to ignore what was taking place and likely, reasonably, assuming it was related to methamphetamine use. Within a matter of months, some of these same people returned to him and many of them started talking about what happened in the toilet to their friends, coworkers and loved ones

"I'd tried talking to my mother about him and she looked at me like I'd grown a horn"

"she says "you went in the men's room...at the park...to listen to some man talk" she really didn't understand."

One visitor even brought their 10-year old along, and, upon the conclusion of their session, was surprised to discover the child, bored, playing outside of the restroom instead of enjoying the unorthodox story time. Before long, late afternoons and evenings saw an inordinate number of people lining up to the restrooms that dot the lower perimeter of the park, each eager for their bit of lore.

"The Sierra Club was meeting near where he set up originally, so, after I found out about him, I figured out how to slip away long enough for a tale and catch up with them on their way back down to the parking lot."

"This all changed when word got out. He had to move once the lines started. That was the beginning of the end"

"He didn't like that. The lines outside the door. Sometimes he'd already be beet red as you entered the stall and took a knee"

Old Peter's health had declined considerably by the time he was finding his afternoons and evenings swelling with eager visitors. It was at this point that he announced a caveat: if you are the last to ask, it is your job to clean. To the old storyteller, this was only fair. He had given freely of his secret, arcane knowledge, why must he clean up after an entire day of it? According to one visitor, they’d heard about an incident where Old Peter delivered a fierce blow to somebody’s ankle using a thick branch when they had attempted to leave without cleaning him

"Fair? I wouldn't...I mean...how is that reasonable?"

“I’d just close my eyes, imagined it was my…grandparent or something…I don’t know.”

This, naturally, led to arguments and fights within the line, violent altercations were not uncommon with visitor cutting in front of visitor, the last always nervously, hopefully, looking over their shoulder as the line slowly advances. None of this aggression was of any concern to Old Peter.

"I never went last. Not ever."

Old Peter managed these growing crowds by rotating between restrooms every day, which only increased the mystique and demand for his time. Finding which toilet he was holding court in became a game to them. Curious visitors scrambling, zig-zagging around the park with flashlights in hand, peering into restrooms looking for him, hoping to be first. Two of these visitors brought his knowledge to the internet, forming a private chat group where they could share and theorize, anonymously, about what they'd learned. But as time went on, his messes became more complicated, tougher to clean, especially when he told a particularly agitating story and his gestures became more volatile, rocking back and forth on the seat. According to his visitors, waste would get everywhere, it seemed as though it was no longer something that could be ignored or, perhaps, his stories and his hold over the visitors simply started to wane.

"You knew he wasn't well, the air in the stall had a thickness to it."

"Once you got to be last, you sort of lose interest in it..."

"I mean, that's what I think."

"I'd still post in the group and see what people were finding but I was pretty much done with the visits."

For most, the act of having to clean this stranger became too much. No longer simply wiping the anus but getting in and cleaning the legs, his feet, his anywhere that needed it, went far beyond their interest in his stories for most. The thought had crossed my mind and it felt necessary to ask but almost all who shared their stories with me emphasized that this act, however unusual, never devolved into anything lewd, nothing inappropriate.  Adding that Old Peter, despite his agitation by the end of each story, never behaved like any of it was sexually gratifying for him 

"No, not at all."

"He was very focused. He had a story inside him that he wanted to get out..."

"besides, it was tucked away, out of sight. Nobody was thinking about it."

He was generally described as spent, exhausted and occasionally "near catatonic" after reaching a story's crescendo with the remainder of the story told softly, with labored breathing

"He seemed almost sweet, peaceful at that point in a story."

"You could see that this was a person at that moment. Not the mess waiting for you or the next guy but there was this sort of awareness...of a soul, a human vessel just wiped out."

"It was really beautiful."

But it was brief, shortly after this period of exhaustion, something would stir inside of him and he would gradually return to a more agitated state, just as he'd began, eventually culminating in him shouting "BEGONE!" This worked as both a definitive end point for the current listener and a summons for the next. It was at the end of these long evenings where the worst displays of aggression came out with some saying that he could become easily irritated if the last visitor look too long wiping him

"Oh sorry your majesty, you in a hurry..."

"that kind of shit really got under my skin. Anyone else who got that way with me while I wiped their ass would've found my foot in it."

Few people spoke to one another as they came and went and nobody had any interest in getting to know each other, at least not in person, any community building would be strictly for the chat group

"Really, I was just looking forward to going home, reading the chat."

"I wasn't interested in meeting these other people, something really sad about them..."

"these weren't normal people like you and me."

The last few weeks saw fewer and fewer people seeking out the park's hidden history and Old Peter eventually found himself alone more, once again dependent on himself. In these last weeks, with so few still visiting him, I couldn't help but wonder how these remaining visitors of his felt watching his decline. How did it feel seeing, close up, this fascinating stranger that they had devoted so many of their nights to, deteriorate before their eyes?

"Well, he wasn't exactly a nice guy. You know, none of us were there making friends, we liked his stories. We liked those a lot but the man was foul."

"I don't remember what I was thinking towards the end. It was all pretty disgusting, when I think back on it."

“No idea. I don’t think about him. I mean this is a guy who made people wipe his ass while making up stories…”

I didn’t though, I wasn’t ever last. I was never really that into the whole thing anyway.”

Old Peter's declining health left me with questions, mostly wondering what exactly had happened to him, was it just age, did anyone even know how old he was? Was it something else? The last sightings of him were in late 2009 or 2010, one former visitor spotted him on the 96 bus, exiting near the Mullholland fountain. Another, a former Sierra Club hike leader and early visitor of Old Peter's, claims to have encountered him in the parking of a Pavillions grocery store in Burbank, CA, sometime in late 2009

"I was walking toward the store and I see this hefty, topless guy with a big head of hair sitting in the backseat of his car, legs hanging out and it just hit me. I knew that shape, that position, so well - this is how we saw him when we we’d visit..."

"so I start to speak but nothing comes out and he doesn't seem to recognize me. Part of me was ready to walk right up to him and ask him “how dare you” but I was running pretty late...what are you gonna do."

Another former visitor, a resident of the Rancho, a nearby equestrian neighborhood, recalls encountering him, seemingly ill, along the Skyline Trail, an area of the park some distance from where he had held his story sessions. Though unsure of the date, they agree that 2009 or 2010 could be accurate. In this encounter, Old Peter was coughing and wheezing, plodding along the trail with balled fists, his sweatpants soaked

"I was out on a ride. I didn't get a long look..."

"but there's this taste...in my mouth...and you know it after you've visited, you don't forget it and it was in the air that day so I think it had to be him."

The chat group is long gone, existing only in some digital depth, way out in the internet ether. Half of the visitors I was able to speak with about Old Peter have long since moved out of the area with nearly all of them saying that they haven't spent much time in the park over the last decade. They all shared one thing in common: each of them, throughout our discussions, displayed a notable indifference to the man, to their experiences with him. There is nothing left of Peter's hold over them, the spell, long broken, the draw to acquire hidden knowledge about the park no longer strong enough to pull these people toward it. For a time, the park’s secrets were once again protected..

"This is a guy tells me a story about tunnels going under the park, under the river and to a hospital in Burbank and they're guarded by some little half…animal guy"

"and, c’mon, he said all this shit while sitting on the john. He didn't have any clothes on. What else needs to be said."





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