Thursday, March 29, 2018

In Los Angeles, Part I: The Homeless Are Still With Us

I was in L.A. for two weeks in early March. I always enjoy my trips to my old stomping grounds; I lived there for almost thirty years. I enjoy visiting, but it’s not like the enthusiastic enjoyment that a child feels at Disneyland. It’s more like the semi-nostalgic Gemuetlichkeit* of walking again in the steps of prior life experiences. I walked again where I had walked many times; I drove again on roads that I had first driven on before my thirtieth birthday; my phone number from thirty years ago still got me the discounts at my old supermarket; I saw houses and stores that by now have taken on new lives. I took the pulse of the city that I called home for three decades. The city seemed okay, and it was certainly still very attractive, but it wasn’t all lollypops and roses.

It was two years ago that I had last visited L.A., and then only in passing. I like to plan rest stops into long trips. Traveling from South East Asia to Southern California is enough of a slog. It’s between twenty-five and thirty hours already. I refuse to collect my bags and go straight to another terminal to check in for a flight to another American city. Two years ago, I went to this hotel from the airport, and then back to LAX the next day for a flight to Tucson. And not too early, either. Returning to Bangkok from Tucson, I planned a similar buffer. 

Two years ago, I thought the hotel was fine. After all, all I did was collapse on the bed and sleep. This time? Maybe it’ll get its own post next week.

This trip was about twenty-six hours in the same clothes by the time I arrived at my LAX-close hotel. I took a cab, not wishing to drive a car for the first time in three years after all of that dizzying travel hassle. It was only about two p.m. when I checked in to my room. I was resolved to stay awake until at least eight p.m., nine would be better, so I fiddled around in the room, unpacking, making notes about the trip, reading a bit, and getting to know the cable TV. I recalled from my first stay that it was a considerable walk from the hotel to anything to eat, but I thought that the walk would do me good. I set off about six p.m., intending to visit a convenience store and a McDonald’s. That was kind of the choices; it would have been another quarter of a mile to a Taco Bell.

I walked north to Century Boulevard. There’s a long block of sidewalk outside a big self-storage facility. Two years ago, there was nothing there but the sidewalk, a strip of grass, and some trees on the almost bare sub-lawn (between the sidewalk and the street). This time the whole length of the grass area was taken up with a semi-permanent homeless encampment. That’s the preferred terminology in L.A. now, “homeless encampment,” and they seem to be all over. It was a big news item on all media. This one ran for at least two hundred feet from the fence to the sidewalk, a diameter of about ten feet across. It consisted of makeshift tents made from plastic sheeting or tarps. I could make out chairs and beds and shopping carts full of people’s belongings. The biggest tarp structure had a gasoline generator, and the inside featured electric lights and a TV. And some heaters, no doubt. Don’t let anyone fool you, L.A. is pretty cold at night, even in March.

After that block and across a small, dead end street was a gas station with driveways on La Cienega and Century. There’s a big convenience store there. There were two homeless people flanking the door. Both had obviously been outdoors for a long time. On one side was a tall man of uncertain age whose face was hidden by a large hood. He did not move or speak, at all. On the other side was a woman who appeared to be about sixty years old. Some of her teeth were missing, which you could notice because she got eye contact and smiled as you walked by. She offered me a greeting and asked for any spare change. Both were bundled up in clothing on that chilly evening. I wondered if the silent man was her bodyguard. He was younger and built for the task.

These are very bad signs, but you’d need a scorecard to follow all of the bad signs in America right now.

*Gemeutlichkeit: a word unique to German which conveys a meaning that combines the feeling of walking in well broken-in shoes with the pleasant experience of one’s favorite things.

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