A Family Affair

March 9, 2009

Everyday when the middle school across the street lets out, people line up on the sidewalk to sell snacks to the students. Whole families cluster on one corner, each offering something different. Mothers have little carts full of Doritos, Funyons, and Hot Cheetos (everybody’s favorite). Young daughters stand shyly behind coolers overflowing with Coke and Gatorade. At the end of the row fathers wrap hot dogs in bacon and grill them on portable griddles. All of it is on wheels.

As soon as the bell rings kids swarm them, a short stop on the way to the corner of 1st and Vermont where boys practice kick flips and girls chat excitedly. Some days a cop sits in his car across the street and eyes them all suspiciously. Everyone’s got a bag of chips or a drink in their hand, fingertips stained red by the Cheetos.

Half an hour later the students are gone and the sidewalks by the school empty. Colorful wrappers lay in the gutter. The families pack up their wares and wheel them away down the street, grills still sizzling, off to some other opportune corner.

Inside

March 7, 2009

On the street last night there were some people standing around in front of a newly opened art gallery. As we walked up a bald man with his head and face painted bright white appeared on a clown bike, pulling a trailer made out of a wheelchair. He went around in circles on the sidewalk and then rode away, looking over his shoulder like everyone was supposed to follow.

Around the corner he and another man in a blank face mask turned their trailers into a mini stage. One threw puzzle pieces at people. The other periodically took pictures. A small crowd gathered, a mixture of whoever was walking down Melrose at 10:30 on a Friday night. Cars slowed down to see what was going on. “We do not apologize for the delay,” a nasally voice said through a microphone once they were ready. “If you don’t like waiting, you should just go home now.”

The puppet show that followed was beautiful and nonsensical. Marionettes on unicycles, marionettes on stilts, marionettes flying kites, all with demented horror-movie clown faces. They sang songs about the Almighty Ogg and puppet therapy. It started nowhere and we left before it was over. We imagined they just kept going until there was no audience left.

You couldn’t see the show unless you were right in front of it–it was hidden, against a brick wall on a residential street. Half a block away people hung out and ate ice cream and drank beer and had no idea it was there. Five minutes later and we would have missed it too.

In Los Angeles it often feels like this: like something’s happening right around the corner but you can’t find it.

The best way I can describe moving to Los Angeles is to say it’s like moving to another country.

When people think of LA—like, say, Mexico—they think of extremes, of the plastic glamour of the Sunset Strip (or Cancun) and the gritty violence of South Central (or Ciudad Juarez). These are the places people who have never been here know about, the parts so over-represented in movies and music and TV. They come here on vacation, are careful to never go south of the 10, and spend all their time gawking at the beautiful people in West Hollywood and Beverly Hills. From this small part of this massive, sprawling city—region, really—they have all their suspicions confirmed and go home thinking LA really is just like the movies.

It’s easy to forget about the rest of the city. Of course that’s nothing new—we’re always more aware of the extremes. “Middle America” is, by nature of being the “middle,” supposed to be unexceptional. But in Los Angeles, the rest of the city if a very far cry from Middle America.

On Halloween I went to see Very Be Careful, a local band that plays a type of Colombian folk music called vallenato. The show was at a nightclub called Guatelinda, the type of place you’ve passed a hundred times but never thought you’d have a reason to go to. Inside were low ceilings, mirrors on all the walls, flashing harsh lights, bartenders in bow ties. It was a lot like going out in Mexico or Central America. Everyone in the very mixed crowd knew how to dance. Everyone had a good time.

That night a friend and I figured out that the parts of LA that remind us of other countries are great. They’re exceptional. They’re the parts that are unique to Los Angeles, where people from all corners of the globe cross paths and invent new, hybrid cultures that just couldn’t exist most anywhere else (yet, at least). The parts that have to do with the US—as in US pop culture—are the bad parts. That’s where the ex-pats hang out. As long as you don’t go too far west you’re pretty safe from it. The boundary is debatable but it definitely exists. I try not to cross it.

The thing that’s really interesting is that these hybrid cultures have very little to do with white people. Being here has made me realize just how much I see through a lens of whiteness. I understood “diversity,” without thinking about it much, as a mixture of white people and people of color. A “segregated” neighborhood had people who aren’t white. When there were too many white people a neighborhood was “gentrified.” As if white people are the engines behind all urban processes, as if everything is defined relative to me.

Most of Los Angeles is not about me. It wasn’t made for me and it doesn’t care about me and that’s a pretty foreign feeling, to be honest. I sometimes have flashbacks to one of my first days studying abroad in Costa Rica, trudging home from class through the mud on the side of the road while cars blew by going way too fast, occasionally swerving onto the shoulder to pass each other. The smell of diesel fuel mingled with burning trash. People would stare at me but never say anything. I couldn’t talk to them yet. I was an outsider. Way outside.

When someone celebrates their birthday at the Thai restaurant down the street the Thai employees turn off the lights and sing along to a recording of “Cumpleaños Feliz” to their Latino customers. The taco truck around the corner has an LED sign that shows the menu in Spanish, English, and Korean. The first time I went there thought it was Korean food truck. Turns out those exist too. So does a Korean taco truck where that sells short-rib tacos and, soon, kimchi-sesame quesadillas. You can eat Pilipino, Japanese, Vietnamese, Mexican, Korean, Thai, Salvadoran, and Halal Chinese food within a block of my apartment, plus donuts and pizza. There’s talk of naming this corner of the neighborhood “Little Bangladesh.”

Like Mexico, or India, or anywhere you’re not used to, LA is pretty amazing to look at, to wander around and think about and talk about. Things happen that I can’t really imagine happening anywhere else, things that are difficult to describe to someone who hasn’t lived here, or at least been here. And just like when I’ve been a traveler in other countries, the difference between looking at a place and actually interacting with it is huge.

Hunger

February 4, 2009

People in LA are hungry. Maybe it’s for fame. Maybe it’s for a career. Maybe it’s just for food. But everyone’s after something and they can’t seem to get enough of it.

In most of the world everyone’s hungry too. Here in the US the hungry are pretty invisible, hidden off on the edges of the map or in the parts of town that aren’t on the way to anywhere. Or they call the hungry ‘ambitious’ or ‘motivated’ or ‘driven.’ We don’t usually see these people because we’re not allowed into their boardrooms or gated communities. Either way, they’ve all got that same starved look in their eyes.

In LA you can feel it. You see it everyday on the street. You hear it in strangers’ voices on the bus. It’s what makes this city more like the rest of the world and less like the rest of this country.

Quiet

January 24, 2009

The most striking thing, at first, is the silence: you realize it’s never quiet in Los Angeles, though you don’t necessarily notice when you’re there. Sirens, helicopters, trash trucks, music, voices – they’re always there, invading you, surrounding you. Beneath it is the flow of cars that, from the right distance, becomes a river, endless. You swim through the thickness of the sound until it’s just like walking, like it’s not there at all.

Last year I went on a very long ramble around San Francisco with my friend Jeremy. He had his new camera with him and I had a voice recorder. Whenever he took a picture I recorded 15 or 20 seconds of sound; whenever I heard a sound I wanted to record he took a picture. Later he put it together and posted it on his website. I was a little surprised to find that pretty much all the pictures sounded the same: like cars. I guess I’d stopped hearing them.

It’s not as hard as I’d thought to get out of LA and away from its noises. We got up early yesterday and by 9:30  were high in the mountains, above 5000 feet and surrounded by snow. (Down in the basin the high was supposed to be 86.) Everywhere we looked were more mountains and wild rocky outcroppings. Through the gaps the distant desert shimmered. We passed a few ski lifts that were not running. There were no people or cars anywhere.

We drove as far and high as we could. At the barrier closing the road for the winter we turned back and then stopped at the last trailhead we’d seen. When we got out of the car the silence was deafening.