Archive for September, 2012

A green smudge of a light filled my vision. I rubbed my eyes and it changed, slowly forming shapes and finally numbers. 06:00 – damn, it was early.

I opened the blinds and pale morning light filled the room. I could see Shakey’s Pizza, whitewashed apartment buildings, rows of palm trees tall as high-rises and, in the distance, the Hollywood sign. Maybe it was jet lag, but the H-sign didn’t look real; it was like a pencil drawing somebody sketched on the side of the hill.

Kate was lucky to get this gig. She was co-managing this apartment building with a friend called Martin, so the rent was dirt cheap. Only hiccup was that Kate and Martin fell out just before I arrived – they weren’t speaking to each other and Martin looked pissed. It was bad timing, but I was sure it would blow over.

Wearing a sweater for the damp air, I strolled around the neighbourhood. Sweet jasmine drifted over from bushes on North Kingsley Drive. I walked around the block as pastel-pink buildings soaked up the brightness of the sun. Everything was quiet, relaxed, ordinary. People moved slowly here, elderly Mexicans and Asians hung their laundry from balconies as young kids held hands on their way to school. An amphibian monster lurched out of a street painting covering an AT&T box; it looked like a B-movie poster from the 1950s. A mummy wrapped in white linen rampaged across another AT&T box further down Sunset.

East Hollywood is poor compared to its glamorous neighbour West Hollywood, but let’s put things in perspective. Facebook-founder Mark Zuckerberg lives in We-Ho, so does Drew Barrymore and countless other millionaires who, by the way, still aren’t as rich as this guy.

Before arriving I heard East Hollywood was a rough area, so I was expecting something from City of God: prostitutes on every corner, gang fights, drug barons and shanty towns. LA has all that, I found out, just not in East Hollywood. Or if it is in East Hollywood, it’s much more discreet.

Ea-Ho wasn’t posh but it still looked like inner city suburbia. Every house had a front lawn and a driveway. Every driveway had a car, usually two. Sounds smart for a “poor” part of town, but this is California. Three cars per household is the state average.

What Ea-Ho lacked in money it made up for in characters – old Mexican men wearing Stetsons, young kids playing catch in Shakey’s parking lot, an eccentric clothes store owner who pumped disco music onto the sidewalk every evening. Hispanics might be a minority in this zip code but they were a lively one. Checking out at the 99 ₵ store, I felt like I was in a village in Mexico. The cashier knew everybody and had huge disregard for the long line forming behind the register.

I fell for East Hollywood on my first day. Maybe the magic would have disappeared after a while; that’s how things usually work with me. I never found out. Three days later Martin pulled a coup – he called the apartment owner and got Kate fired. Our furniture could stay for a month, but we had to leave.

Less than a week after touching down, I was down and out.

Tune in on Monday for the next installment of The Road to Skid Row. (By the way, if you subscribe to my RSS feed you can read these in Google Reader.)

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Two: The Cheese Mule

Posted: September 24, 2012 in The Road to Skid Row

“Are you carrying any restricted items in your baggage?” A uniformed man with Humour Deficit Disorder asked.

“No,” I replied flatly.

“Are you carrying any animal products?”

“No,” I said again, a little firmer than before. I wonder if he noticed the flicker in my eyes, the minuscule dilation of my pupils.

I was smuggling a 2.5 kilogram wheel of brie in my suitcase and I was petrified I would be caught. I had just been through one round of customs and now I was being interviewed again. Shiny badges were asking everybody the same questions, pulling potential mules aside to rummage through their bags. As he looked me over my fear of authority figures started to take hold. What if they found my cheese? What could I say? Somebody planted it on me! It’s not my brie! Take it if you want, take the crackers too!

I kept my cool, more or less, and he waved me on. Evidently I did not look like a cheese mule.

I rode a bus to Union Station where I caught the metro to East Hollywood, my new neighbourhood. Getting off the metro at Hollywood and Western I saw a cute emo girl sitting on the steps. “Welcome to Hollyweird,” she said, as I hauled my suitcase onto the escalator.

Immediately I knew something was different. I saw signs written in Thai all over the place; palm trees stood lazily in the streets and sweet jasmine wafted through the cool evening air. This was the not the America I was familiar with: where was the stifling humidity of the east coast summer?

We ate at a nearby Thai joint called Jitlada; my sister’s neighbourhood straddled Thai Town, so that explained the signs I saw everywhere. I killed a beer and green curry as the exhaustion kicked in. People at a nearby table spoke with easy confidence and volume about places I didn’t know and TV shows I hadn’t heard of. Their conversation was right out of Steve Martin’s LA Story – not what they said but how they said it. Movies made their speech sound familiar to me – their intonations, their laughter, even their phrases.

I felt strangely like I had been to LA before. Palm trees, wide streets, fifties-style motels and the Hollywood sign – which I saw later that night from the rooftop of Kate’s apartment building – were all familiar from the interiors of darkened theatres. It was like I was remembering a dream or dreaming about a memory.

I crashed out that night. Tired and jet lagged, I dreamt about 2.5 kilograms of brie.

Tune in on Thursday for the next installment of The Road to Skid Row. (By the way, if you subscribe to my RSS feed you can read these in Google Reader.)

The Final Score

Posted: September 20, 2012 in The Road to Skid Row

I was riding the Santa Monica Big Blue Bus for the last time and I wasn’t singing spirituals. What do I care if this city has more sunshine in one day than Britain has in a year? I was leaving this town and I was happy. Los Angeles had beaten me: LA 1 – Tom 0.

I should have done my research before I left home. If I had known California was dealing with record unemployment I might have reassessed my chances. Who am I kidding? Even if I had done my homework, who’s to say I would have changed my mind? I needed to escape and LA sounded fun.

Jack Kerouac called Los Angeles “the loneliest and most brutal of American cities.” Sixty years older and it hasn’t changed, it’s just had a little work done. As soon as I arrived in LA I was struck by how people took pride in their ignoble reputation.

So what if we’re lonely? I’d rather drive a car than sit next to a weirdo on a bus.
New York is corrupt? We’re so corrupt I have to bribe my Priest to get Confession.
LA tears itself up every generation,
one person said, not many cities can riot like that.

I remember meeting a guy in MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) on my second day who had this look of glee in his eyes as he told me about all the sick murders LA can claim. There’s even a tour which shows you the “delightfully twisted underbelly of Hollywood.” Angelenos gloat about their homicides in the same way Parisians gloat about their pastries. That’s how fucked up the place is.

Maybe it’s the movies? Maybe Hollywood has blurred the line between what’s acceptable on the screen and what’s acceptable in real life? Teenagers drive Bentleys, homeless people live in shanty towns, cops routinely abuse their power and bank robbers have showdowns that make Assault on Precinct 13 look like a bunch of kids playing Cowboys and Indians.

For all its showbiz excess and bad-ass reputation, LA ground me down using the least Hollywood method around. No action sequences, no explosions, no entrapment by beautiful Russian spies, sadly, just boring old, I-can-barely-pay-my-rent, poverty. But this was poverty in a country where everyone chooses their destiny.

This was your poor and it’s your fault, poverty. I didn’t hear it at first, the voice that says fuck you, you’re poor. I am sure it was there, whispering in my ear, but I didn’t hear it until I got to Skid Row. When I got there and saw things no one should in so-called civilisation, the voice was screaming louder than a cop with a megaphone. That was when I joined Occupy Los Angeles, when I had almost given up on seeing anything angelic in the City of Angels.

Los Angeles 1 – Tom 0. That was how it ended; that was how I went from being comfortably middle-class to nearly out on my ass. That was the final score, now here is the ninety minutes before the final whistle blew.

The Road to Skid Row

Posted: September 18, 2012 in The Road to Skid Row

Half a year is a long time in the analogue world and even longer in the blogosphere. A lot can happen and, for me at least, a lot has happened since I last updated this blog.

I made two major changes to my life in the past six months – I left my job at Footprint Travel Guides and I flew out to the States, where I spent three months living in Los Angeles.  I intended to move out to LA for a year but I cut my trip short. Why did I go home early? Well, that’s what I hope to explain over the next few months on this blog.

I crammed about a year’s worth of experiences into three months and it is those experiences I want to write about. The Road to Skid Row – as I’m calling this blog series – is based on real life but I have taken some literary liberties. I have changed the names of some people and I have changed the order of events in some blogs to make for better reading.

The Road to Skid Row follows my journey from the affluence of Hollywood to what is effectively a refugee camp, a destitute slum area they call Skid Row. I will publish the blogs every Monday and Thursday, starting with the first blog later this week.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts and hope you enjoy it.

Tom