Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Brief conversations with strangers

A Day in Downtown Los Angeles
February 15, 2006

After driving around for what seemed like hours, I finally find public parking I can afford. As usual, there is a movie crew on every other block crowding the sidewalks with equipment and all the stuff they use for making fantasy worlds. Worlds we (sometimes) believe are real. I zigzag my way through downtown, crossing the street every time I come across a movie production crew. They remind me of my summer at film school, and quite frankly, making movies was not that much fun! 

My stomach is growling. And so I go to a sandwich shop, order a veggie sub and sit on a booth facing the street. For me downtown L.A. is striking: first because when I'm there I feel as if I am in Distrito Federal, Mejico (without crossing the border); second, because there is so much sand swirling in the air, each particle reminding me that this is a desert; and finally, and perhaps most disturbing, because there are so many homeless men and women here. Statistics reveal that 90,000 men and women call the streets of downtown L.A. their home. This part of downtown is known as "skid row." It is hard to tell skid row apart from any other part of downtown. Don't get me wrong, there are interesting and striking things happening even in the midst of all this "marginality." But that is precisely what bothers me most, that there is such extreme social and economic disparity coexisting side by side.  

After "wolfing down" my sub (I was really hungry), I step out into a balmy L.A. winter day. I love this weather! I do not miss New England winters at all. I love the cloudless sunshine raining down on me 300+ days a year. I love the roses that bloom year around and the fragrant smell of eucalyptus, and lavender, and rosemary. I love that the San Gabriel Mountains stand tall behind me, snow capping their peaks, and that the vast Pacific Ocean is on the opposite side. The weather here is just perfect! (but the smog and the traffic on the 405 isn't!).

As soon as I step onto the street, a homeless man approaches me: 
"hey, you have some change you can spare? I have mouths to feed...times are hard..."
I stand there staring at him. 
"hey, you got some change...i'm hungry, my kids are hungry, got mouths to feed..." he repeats.
Finally, I understand what he is asking...I search my pockets. I come up with 10 cents, and some pennies.
"Yeah man, this is all I have, you know, I'm sorry, I just had lunch and I spent my money..." I say apologetically.
We stand there staring at each other. I hand him the change. I feel someone 16 cents...that doesn't even buy a person water these days. 
So I say, "hey you want my drink? its cold...are you thirsty? here, have my drink!" 
He looks at me, his brown faced widening, revealing a shy smile, I see that he his missing some teeth... 
He replies, "no, I can't take your drink...I can't do that." 
"Of course you can, c'mon, have's hot today.... and beside I will probably not even drink it all...these cups are made for a large animal I think. You know, no one can really drink this much of anything in one sitting..." I force the iced-tea into his hand. 
He takes it.
I feel better. I gave him 16 cents and half of an iced tea and we both begin to walk our separate ways.
Then he turns to me and says: "hey, don't go over that street there...that's skid row over there...they'll try to offer you drugs and stuff, there's nothing good over there."
"Okay, I'll stay over these streets here" I reply. 
"Are you Caribbean?" he asks. I smile a big smile, happy that my "true" place in the world has been recognized, because here on this coast, being from the Caribbean is as exotic and far away as being from say, Alyatki.
"Yes, yes I do you know...?" I ask starting at his brown skin that resembles mine.
"I know the accent...I love that accent...!" he says. 
 Just then, I wanted to ask him all sorts of questions like, "where are you from?," and "how did you end up on skid row?" and "where are those hungry kids of yours?" But I think it is best to let him go carrying his stories with him.  
Then he says with big eyes and a teeth-less smile, "you know, people don't talk to us...we ain't bad people..." 
I don't let him finish and say, "I're human!" 
"Yeah, yeah," he replies smiling. As if thinking that's exactly right...but I can't believe you can see my humanity shining through in spite of the fact that I am another homeless man asking for money.
Then I say, "I better be going man...nice talking to you...take care!" He waves goodbye while sipping iced-tea. 

I cross the street and take pictures of the statues lodged discreetly on the side of buildings. Then I go into a nearby botanica. This botanica has one of the largest  inventories I have ever seen. They carry everything from beauty products to herbs. And I love the smell inside botanicas. Herbs, candles, oils, potions, perfumes, incense, all coming together to make the place smell spiritual, healing. It is so soothing. 

I continue to the central market. This place is one of my favorite places in L.A. There is produce, and people, and food, and all kinds of things going on all at once. I like the overwhelming feelings of buzzing markets. I talk to the food vendors and the chili vendors. They tell me the names of the huge variety of chilies and point out the hottest varieties. They pose for pictures. I don't like asking strangers to pose for photos, but if they volunteer I snap away. I always feel awkward taking someone's image, the image of a person whose story I don't and will never know.

Aside from the impatient toddlers forced to hold their grandmothers hand, I realize I am one the youngest persons in the entire market. I am always mystified at how (many) young people disregard local, central and traditional markets, repositories of incredible foods, knowledge, recipes, and wisdom for the impersonal, hyper-sanitized, and processed food of most contemporary food retailers (including those that flaunt high-end foods--which are often so ex-clusive that they are in fact, undemocratic and elitist).

After the market, I walk back out into the sunshine and begin to look into the windows of the stores selling elaborate quiceañera and wedding dresses. The dresses themselves look like they are made of sugary frosting, they look like elaborate cakes. They are big, puffy, and embellished. There are literally hundreds of stores selling these cake-like dresses in L.A. Then again, there are 20 million people living here. I walk around taking pictures, admiring the dresses in the window displays (I fantasize about trying on  big puffy dresses and having a big "tacky-Latino" party, with bright dresses, and cheap figurines to give away, and a layered cake with thick, sugary frosting, and even a piñata!). (Note to self: must have a puffy-dress "tacky-Latino" party at some point in the near future, maybe for my 40th birthday? Note to self pps. but such a party might be misconstrued by family and friends as a "midlife crisis"? *Must consider implications further and thoroughly).

I continue walking, camera in hand, watching the overall scene in the busy discount-store area (my favorite). A woman walks by and gives me a really nasty look; she looks back at me every so often, giving me dirty looks each time. I have no idea what that is about. I suspect it has to do with my camera. By that point, I am tired of snapping photos, so I take her cue and put the camera away. I make my way to the super cheap designer clothing samples that end up in the racks of the wholesale district. And suddenly I feel I have arrived in a discount clothing nirvana!

1 comment:

  1. i loved this one. The conversation between you and the homeless man was timeless.