On Foot in Los Angeles

The village of Hollywood was planned according to the notion
People in these parts have of heaven. In these parts
They have come to the conclusion that God
Requiring a heaven and a hell, didn’t need to
Plan two establishments but
Just the one: heaven. It
Serves the unprosperous, unsuccessful
As hell

– Bertolt Brecht, “Hollywood Elegies”

Espere la luz.  

– Los Angeles bus door

Los Angeles on foot was a different place. I had a decade in that city. I can go back there in a moment, but it feels remote from the city I’m writing in today.

The motion blur of driving resolves. Asphalt pushes up lumps and gravel, concrete is a failing glacier. Waiting for the bus at night, the intersection in front of me presents a moonscape. A surprising amount of car junk sits in the gutters. Rusty auto bits, melting plant material, and street oil mix with night jasmine to create a unique smell.

Poor parts of town are dark. There are fewer and weaker street lights. Even their color looks dirty and strangled. A troubled neighborhood looks dark at noon, maybe from the memory of its night dress. Keep moving, it says. You can’t necessarily see what’s wrong here, but watch yourself. The street has scars.

On a long city walk, details reveal themselves. In childhood, I’d lie face down on the playground grass and look into the forest under the flat green field. Close and slow, the city blooms. There are twice as many closed storefront businesses than I’d thought. Little office buildings are crammed with hopeful tenants with names like Sweet Power Productions, Agape Counseling, Tremendous Events, New Sun Clinic. People have left odd little offerings and blazes. Fresh flowers are tied to a bus bench, once , and there’s a sticker on a news box that just says “hope.” Someone has written on a transit shelter with a permanent pen: HE IS HERE FOR YOUR NEED. Someone else tried to open a gift boutique too close to the liquor store. A dead record store can be carbon-dated by promotions for hits from two years ago. A travel agency has become the Mary Celeste, frozen a year ago in the midst of offering great rates to Guatemala.

Every neighborhood has residents, local homeless poor, and a set of poorly defined denizens. Some of these people orbit and pace all day. They never quite leave or stay any one place. A man will sit at a Starbucks patio for an hour or two, then walk down the street a few blocks, pass through a park and a business or two, and then return to his table. Their wealth and mental status are indeterminate. Every part of the city has Flying Dutchmen on foot. It’s not a good idea to engage these people in conversation or even meet their eyes. They’re faeries and tulpas. Avoid.

The more normal pedestrians are friendlier than drivers and greet each other. On buses and benches, at street lights I had dozens of conversations with strangers. I met an archeologist who’d gone mad researching Hell. The short-order cook who was in Spielberg’s first student film. A six foot six guy built like Superman, twitching and shrugging too much, told me he had no worries about the streets because he’d been in the Rangers and Uncle Sugar taught him how to open a can of whoop-ass when he needed one. I was told I was an angel, that I should avoid black marks on white papers as tools of the devil, that I should buy stock in WD-40, that it was tiring to ride a bicycle naked through the swamps of Louisiana on assignment hunting KKK for the FBI. With fewer pedestrians, we all get to know each other eventually.

Walking won’t get you from Westwood to Van Nuys, so here comes the bus. The bus was soul murder.

Buses smelled like drunk guy: sweat, smoke, stale beer, urine, a little vomit. The emotional memory is harsh. It’s lonesome and demeaning to wait for the late night bus, knowing that the wait for the transfer is just as long. I hated everyone who got somewhere on time and could get groceries or do errands without a huge plan. Only the poor, the very old or young, the disabled, drunks, addicts, and unsuccessful criminals ride the bus. A decade with them is humbling.

We’d all rather be on foot, or flying, or just home. Years later I still felt urgency and a little despair when I heard a bus throttling up to pull away from a stop.

Arriving at a social event from the street, I punched through an invisible wall into the world of the living. Everything seemed brighter, people more relaxed and jovial. Hey, how are you? You okay? Have a drink. I hadn’t marched a trail of tears to get there but I looked it. I’d always wonder if I still smelled like bus, but I probably just had my game face on for bums and petty criminals. It would take a while to be properly social, like coming in from snow to warm up.

One day I went to Disneyland with some friends. That place is always lysergic, but this time I felt a tremendous sense of calm and relief. What did this mean? I had gone to Disneyland a hundred times growing up next door. What was new?

For the first time in months, I was on foot and protected. There was no bus to miss. Nobody begs for money or cigarettes at Disneyland. Nobody paces you just closely enough to set off fight-or-flight. There aren’t any mysterious puddles of don’t-get-it-on-you to step around. It was not until I was free of it that I knew how hard the stress of the streets had pushed me.

In those years the streets were lined with the poor. Pedestrians and the homeless did not feel much apart. After some initial awkwardness I got to know the regulars on my walking routes. Some of them I had to shut down every time to stop madness or aggression, others became acquaintances. One guy got my newspaper every day because he was a Calvin & Hobbes fan. A regular who did constant crazy-guy kung fu moves would stop long enough to greet me before resuming his war with the trees and the mailboxes.

There’s little to miss about a decade on foot in Los Angeles. It was dirty, degrading, exhausting, dangerous. I never looked right or felt right around the automoted classes.

But there are still some things to celebrate. The total calm of a deserted West L.A. bus stop in the moonlight, with an asphalt sea receding into a big diagonal intersection, is flat out beautiful. Little details of the shops and houses are still in my head when I blur by them. I won’t give back all the characters and stories I gained, either.

It’s hard to tell where you’re going on a long walk. Later on, it turns out, you may have picked things up and not noticed.

One response to “On Foot in Los Angeles”

  1. lamech

    Have you read Daniel Alarcon’s piece in Granta 117 titled “The Ground Floor”? The depiction of LA there made me think of you.

    “Los Angeles – not the real city, but the version of that city that exists in the popular imagination – is a glamorous, glittering place of palm trees and movie stars. The actual city, which I’ve come to know just a bit over the course of many visits, is at once more interesting and superficially much less attractive. I’d go so far as to say there is no glamour at all remaining in the city itself, but only in its reflected image.”

    http://www.granta.com/New-Writing/The-Ground-Floor

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