The wind is so fierce that the bear on the California Republic flag outside my window looks like it’s having a seizure. The strongest storm system to hit California in years is here and I should stay put, but I just can’t. I’m determined to go to the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office – to buy presents.
“Bring me Charlie Chaplin’s mustache!” my friend says as I leave, but celebrity relics are not on offer at Skeletons in the Closet, the gift shop at the office in Boyle Heights. Its best-selling item is a black beach towel with a chalk outline of a body drawn on it.
“The body outline at a crime scene is kind of anachronistic,” says Craig Harvey, who was chief of operations for 28 years and now serves as a consultant there. “Nobody really does it anymore, with DNA and contamination of crime scenes.”
The outline, though, is an icon of death investigation.
“And,” he says, “it looked kind of cool on a beach towel.”
In this snug little store, you can get scrubs, T-shirts and a license-plate holder that says “Coroner,” which might get you a little grace on your parking-meter time. You can get a pin with the department’s seal, which has symbols of medicine and law enforcement, a reminder of the collaboration required to uncover how people have died. You can get a desktop model of a human torso or a red cooler bag with the seal on it, which can give the impression that instead of beach snacks you might be transporting organs (to go with that crime-scene towel).
Of course, all sales are final.
If you’ve watched “Angie Tribeca,” you’ve seen the building the gift shop is in, as it was used as the facade for the TV show’s police station. Built in 1909, it’s the frontmost of three buildings housing a workforce that tends to the 174 people a day who live then die in L.A.
“Los Angeles General Hospital,” its first incarnation, is still written in tiles on the entryway floor. Its warm, old-world interior and genial staff are a bonus, considering that it’s the only building where the public can interact with the coroner’s office. If you had to identify a loved one or pick up their belongings, you would come here. This is where mobs of media representatives and fans gather when a show business icon such as Michael Jackson dies in the city. No medical work is done on the premises.
Skeletons in the Closet is tucked in the front-right corner of the lobby, and its beginnings stretch back to the early 1990s, when the office put on a forensics seminar and gave registrants a coffee mug decorated with the departmental seal. It was a huge hit, so the following year the mugs featured “Sherlock,” a skeleton in a deerstalker hat, a perfect symbol of death investigation drawn by former investigator Phillip Campbell. When employees Marilyn Lewis and Mark Cooper came up with the chalk outline beach towel, the department decided to sell them. And so the gift shop began.
If you’re a grieving relative, Harvey acknowledges, the gift shop might not appeal to you right at that moment. But most people are fine with this cuckoo in the nest. Surprisingly it’s not the only coroner’s office to sport one. Clark County, Nevada – home of Las Vegas – has one, too.
Harvey says the people who seek the shop out are usually either in forensics or just “identify strongly with the institution,” like “people who wear T-shirts that say USC or UCLA who never went to the school.”
That’s not surprising, as the number of forensics students has increased steadily since the 1990s and the profession has been popularised by numerous TV shows, fictional and reality-based. One of those is the documentary series “North Mission Road,” based on cases that have come through this very office. In the episode “Frontier Justice,” for example, a film crew shooting an episode of “The Six Million Dollar Man” at a California fun house in 1976 discovers a prop hanging victim that turns out to be an actual mummified person. The coroner’s office successfully identifies him as Elmer McCurdy, an old west Oklahoma outlaw, who was shot in 1911 in a gun battle with law enforcement in the Osage.
“We can’t do it in 44 minutes plus commercials,” Harvey says, a disclaimer that is wonderfully and thoroughly L.A. “It takes us longer to arrive at these things.”
The tale of Elmer McCurdy and other lively times at the coroner’s office can be found in the book “Death in Paradise, an illustrated History of the Los Angeles County Department of Coroner,” which turned out to be one of my favorite souvenirs and a ripping airplane read.
The rain has worsened by the time I leave the building and despite the dangerous conditions some people are still driving like they’re in the Daytona 500. My Lyft driver apologizes for going slowly, saying it’s just not safe to go fast.
“Take your time,” I tell him. “I just came from the coroner’s office. I don’t want to go back.”
My last trip to this city was in 2003. I didn’t have time to tiptoe through the toe tags on that visit, but 14 years later I was thrilled to find that Skeletons was still rattling along.
“The gift shop makes its expenses,” but not much more than that, Harvey says.
I’m rooting for it to last. But if it ever dies, I hope it goes somewhere that has a gift shop. It’s nice to get souvenirs.