When you think of California, what comes to mind? Beaches of blue crashing against a jagged cliffside, long legged, big breasted blondes in bikinis scattered across the white sand? Playing volleyball, surfing killer waves, skating down the boardwalk without a care in the world? Do you think Los Angeles is just like the movies? Valley girls sipping mimosas, gossipping through their noses over brunch, under cat-eyed shades? Driving into a sunset in a convertible, one hand on the wheel, one hand on your hat, hair flowing in the wind?
The movies don’t show you her dark side, they don’t show you the city of fallen angels. Her poverty plagued streets, where junkies toss themselves at the foot of a tall palm and sleep as the sun shines on them. At night a small group of friends set up camp on the sidewalk, the outhouse is the street behind someone’s parked car. They roast up some crack and pass it around, talking and laughing. You see an abandoned shoe, a torn teddy bear, an upside-down baby stroller in the grass, you wonder how they all got there. Everything, everyone down here has a story. Down here in the underground, where people who shoot for the stars and miss land. People who never stood a chance. How are some people that terribly unfortunate?
I arrived in LA with a car full of belongings, without a job or home, but with a heart full of dreams. My plan was to stay in the valley with my friend Fluffy for a few days until I found an apartment. The next few days, or weeks or months, I’m not really sure, all became a blur of driving around in circles, or getting acquainted with my new home. Endless freeways leading in every direction stacked to the sky encircled me, disoriented me. Cars roared past me on every side. I felt like a rat learning my way around a new maze, only a rat might have adapted faster.
I had to learn the city’s strange rules, driving and otherwise. Here, red light means turn left. The term “pull and pray” has a whole new meaning here. I pull out into traffic and pray I don’t get hit. I have no idea how I didn’t crash. I must have had an angel looking over me. When people would honk at me or flip me off, I’d say through a fake smile, “I’m sorry! I don’t know what I’m doing!” Once I was driving the wrong way in a parking lot, and this older Mexican woman yelled, “Fucking gringo! Learn how to drive!”
The roads in the valley sometimes work in a grid, sometimes the road just ends abruptly, and other times it leads you to a juvenile detention center. Never assume you know where you’re going, how you’ll get there, or when.
No matter how close you think you are to your destination, you can still hit a dead end.
Traffic, time, and people here all moved so much slower than I was used to. People took forever to call you back. During my job and apartment search, some people took a few days to respond, others never did. One woman called me back about a job two months later, then called me back to hire me another month after my interview. I became impatient and agitated with the amount of unprofessionalism. I’d arrive on time to my interviews and still had to wait. I felt overdressed with my blazers, dress pants, and heels, while everyone else was wearing shorts and sandals.
Of the people I met with rooms for rent, some chose other roommates, some I couldn’t live with, and others were just downright crazy. One guy, who I never met, begged me to move in and told me the world was ending. Another guy seemed to be looking for a live-in sex-maid kind of deal. I couldn’t really afford to be picky, but part of the reason I moved here was to escape unsafe living situations. I needed a good home base if I was going to have a chance out here.
After four or five days, which was much longer than I’d planned on staying, Fluffy couldn’t have me anymore because of a gig which would require all of his time over the next few weeks. I called my friend who lived in San Diego but she was out of town.
Longing for home, any home, I went to a pizza place called Brooklyn Pizza. The waitress brought me the most depressing piece of pizza I’ve ever encountered. “This is not Brooklyn pizza! This isn’t even real pizza! This is a burnt-to-a-crisp crust, some tasteless sauce, with a dash of dried cheese for decoration!” I thought while making angry hand gestures in my head.
Fighting back tears, I took out my journal and poured desperation onto a page. I begged God to grant me strength, to aid and protect me on this challenging journey. That night, as I was falling asleep, I imagined myself lying limp and hopeless on the ground. He lifted me up in his arms and carried me to safety.
I knew one other person in the entire state, I called her my Peruvian princess, like Yma Sumac. She had moved from Harlem a few months earlier and was living with her family in Santa Clarita, a small desert community just outside of LA. Her family agreed to take me for the time being. They were some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. They were so warm and welcoming and cooked the most delicious dinners. How did I get so lucky? As the richest man in the world in Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan would say,
“I guess somebody up there likes me.”
My second week in LA, there was a record-breaking heat wave that lasted a week, with temperatures as high as 114 degrees Fahrenheit in Santa Clarita. I have never experienced such a heat in my life. I literally felt like I was burning in an oven. I could feel my skin drying up and breaking off like petals on a dead flower. I drank and drank and never quenched my thirst. Probably because I instantly sweat it out. I sweat from places I didn’t even know you could sweat, like behind your knees. And it didn’t get cold at night, it just got slightly less smoldering. Yma’s family didn’t have air conditioning, so we slept with one fan blowing on us both. I would lay awake at night sweating buckets of anxiety and self-doubt.
Uprooting my entire life thousands of miles across the country was proving slightly more difficult than I had anticipated. How on earth do people move here? Unless you have 10,000 in savings, or have a co-signer that makes 100,000 a year. I don’t even know anyone who makes 100,000 a year. You need a job to qualify for an apartment, you need an apartment for a job. Endless barriers and constant dead ends,
I guess that’s why most people just stay put.
I was offered a job as a behavioral therapist, and a few landlords accepted that as proof of income. I applied to those apartments and waited to hear back from them. I kept calling and getting a voicemail. I felt like stalking these landlords, following them around with a wad of cash saying, “Please take my money. Please!” I withdrew cash to give to one landlord, but the process took so long I ended up driving around with $1,200 in my glove box for two weeks. In New York, I’ve broken up with a boyfriend and moved into a new apartment in two days. Everything moved so slowly out here. People are so laid back, a little too laid back. I hoped that I too could be so carefree one day, but for now…
I’m fucking homeless. Take my money.
I needed a haircut and found a place on Yelp in Panorama City, a predominantly Latino neighborhood in the valley. I drove around trying to find it and eventually came upon a little outdoor mall called Plaza Del Valle. When you enter from the parking lot there’s a painted roundabout with a statue in the middle. There are little buildings on either side, one has a mural painted on it. You can walk down a path of stores whose names are all in Spanish on both sides, under hanging lights.
I found a hair salon. When I walked in the woman said something to me in Spanish. I tried to read prices, but all of the signs were in Spanish. All of the women were talking in Spanish. I felt rude for not knowing Spanish and just felt incredibly out of place. Feeling embarrassed, I awkwardly walked out.
Incredibly stressed out, I found a park nearby, called Lake Balboa, where I could relax. I watched the people, riding their bikes, skateboarding, wearing jeans when it was 100 degrees out. I longed to be one of them. I called my Godmother and she reassured me it would take time to get settled. She reminded me, “The greatest gift of all is to wake up in California.” For a moment, I slowed down and just enjoyed the moment, watching birds dance in the water. As I was getting in my car, someone came up to me and asked if I was living in my car. I laughed nervously, scratching my head, “I actually am looking for a place, I mean I found one, I think, I’m just waiting, but I’m okay” and quickly got into my car.
I spent most of my time in my car and I felt suffocated by all of my things. I like things neat, everything in its place. Everything was a mess. Also, when I took a sip of my water I had left in my car, and I think it actually started to boil, I was reminded about the propane tanks that I’d been driving around with, in million degree weather. So I went to Walmart to try and return the propane tanks and some other things I bought but didn’t use for my road trip.
The cashier said I couldn’t return the propane tanks. I asked him if he could just dispose of them for me then. He said he had to ask his manager. The manager was wearing a nice suit, he came over to me, crossed his arms, and told me he couldn’t dispose of them for me like he was insulted I would even ask. I felt a rage and panic come over me. I asked him as calmly as possible, “Do you know where I can dispose of them because I really don’t know.” I left out the part about me being afraid my car was going to explode with everything I own inside of it. He ignored me and walked away.
I was so mad, I walked outside boorishly, panting heavily, and one by one, I shoved the tanks into the garbage, about twenty feet from where I just talked to the manager. I got into my car, started crying, and called my best friend for the first time in weeks. “I’m having a mental breakdown. I’ve reached my breaking point, in a fucking Walmart. It was a nice Walmart too.” I told her the story. She told me that’s really not that bad, and reminded me of the much crazier shit she’d have done. But that she wouldn’t have ever gotten that far. She wouldn’t have had the balls to leave. That the hardest part is to get in your car and leave, to believe in yourself that much.
I felt so numb. I told her I couldn’t call her earlier because I didn’t want her to worry. I also couldn’t admit out loud that I was still technically homeless close to a month after I left New York. I couldn’t admit that I was terrified. I felt my fear winning, and faith leaving me.
I feel like God always tests me, sees how much I can take before I break. If this was a test of my faith, I failed that test. I started to doubt that He would always take care of me, as He always has. Just when I stopped believing in myself completely, my new roommates let me move in illegally, the day before I started my job.
It was a tiny room in the corner of a townhouse. It had a private entrance through a sliding glass door, which I never used since I’d have to climb over my bed, which took up most of the room. The townhouse was two stories, had two balconies overlooking the pool, we had central air.
I soon found out that in LA, looks are deceiving. We got a notice on our door the next day that we had a bedbug infestation. The neighborhood, North Hills, was notorious for gang violence, which deemed its nickname, “Little Mexico.” There were several shootings the first few months I was living there. Twice my building was barricaded off, no one could come or go. Once as I left my parking garage, an officer in full swat gear, carrying an automatic rifle asked me to look in my trunk. Now in any other situation I would have been a smart ass and said “I know my rights, you need a warrant,” but when the guy with the big ass gun asks you to do something, you tend to listen.
But that’s my home. That’s my neighborhood chicken crossing the road, holding up traffic. That’s my trash on the graffitied sidewalk, that’s my toilet on the sidewalk filled with newspapers. Those are my people getting dressed outside their RV. That’s my taco truck man, my fruit cart lady, my neighbors pushing their baby in a shopping cart.
In my tiny room, from an air mattress on the ground, I listen to the music my new city makes, the mariachi bands, the guy preaching into a megaphone in Spanish, cars crashing on the freeway not far from my doo. I live in Los Angeles, I came here alone with nothing, and I made it. I think about my journey and all the challenges I’ve overcome. A wide smile rests on my face, as the helicopters gently hum me to sleep.
“It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs – and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.”-George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London