Sightseeing buses are for those who deeply dread the places they’re visiting. You can’t really see a city or town from a motorized anything, so if you claim to have driven through Los Angeles, for example, you haven’t seen it. The speed and protection of a car prevents you from being anywhere except inside your car, with what’s outside rushing by so fast that each face, tree and building is rudely dismissed by the next, next and next. You can’t pause, come closer, examine, converse, sniff or step on something, so what’s the point of visiting Los Angeles like this, except to say that you’ve been there?
Like television, the private automobile was invented to wean us away from our own humanity. From each, we’ve learnt how to amp up our impatience and indifference towards everything, and with life itself. Anything that’s seen through a screen or windshield becomes ephemera, with its death nearly instant. You don’t have to switch channel or run over it, it will disappear by itself. All screens and windshields have been erected to block us from intercourse. Of course, I’m writing this on a screen, and you will read it, patient reader, while staring at a screen. Screen-bound, then, let’s visit Los Angeles.
UC Berkeley hosted me for a month, and I used my time in Northern California to explore a bunch of places, but with my academic responsibilities done, I decided to take a megabus to Los Angeles, a city I had only visited a handful of times, and knew hardly at all. Evelyn Waugh wrote, “There is no place that isn’t worth visiting once.” I’ll amend that to say, “There is no place that isn’t worth visiting a bunch of times, with each subsequent visit richer than the last.”
My coach rolled into Union Station at 3 AM, and right outside, I encountered the homeless, with their belongings stored in trash bags or beat up suitcases. I then crossed LA Plaza, where many more homeless slept around a statue of a priest brandishing a crucifix. From afar I assumed it was Saint Francis Xavier, the dude who brought the Inquisition to India, complete with slow and methodical mutilation of children, with their parents’ eyelids removed so they could not shut out the blessed spectacle, and women raped by rapiers, and men’s penises hacked off, you know, the entire package, but thank God, up-close I discovered it was only Father Jupinero Serra, who merely beat his Indians, as far as we know. American Indians, East Indians, whatever, all you can do is convert them to Catholicism, blue jeans, knife and fork, happy hours, Monsanto, a lousy cheeseburger or neoliberalism. It’s all good.
Crossing Main, I then saw perhaps a hundred people lying on the grounds of Nuestra Senora Reina de Los Angeles, a beautiful church founded in 1784. Some folks were in tents but most were just under a blanket, prone or curled up on cardboard, with shopping carts, bags and the occasional bicycle parked near them. Blue, green or yellow tarps were tied to fences to make up half-assed lean-tos. In the dark, a handful of souls were arising. One man quietly pissed. Waiting for a free breakfast at 5:30, another gent asked me what time it was.
On Spring, I encountered dozens of tents on both sides of the street. In late 2009, I had been precisely here but hadn’t see any of this, so these tents had only accrued in the last few years, with many more coming, I’m sure, unless the authorities decide to raze, with their occupants chased to another part of town. Magnificent City Hall was only two blocks away.
Across the country, I’ve seen many small flags stuck to tents, as if to declare that this, too, was America, and of course it was, and becoming more representative by the day. Though they flaunt no political signs, these tents on concrete or city grass are no less of a statement and indictment than the Occupy encampments. In fact, I’d say that they are more so, since you don’t have to read anything to understand exactly what they mean. No joking or contradictory messages distract from the fact that hundreds of thousands of Americans have been reduced to living like savages in this self-proclaimed greatest country on earth.
In Oakland, a man in his early 60s said to me, “Human beings are not supposed to live like this. Look at the birds and squirrels. They can go where they want and sleep where they want. These animals can piss and shit where they want and still look civilized. Man, I’d rather be an animal!”
Many of our homeless are also in wheelchairs, so this is how we treat our lame, feeble and sick, even the horribly injured or diseased. In Berkeley, there’s a diaper-wearing homeless man with a huge blood and pus-caked wound on the right side of his head, yet he’s forced to be outside from before dawn until early evening. Around the Downtown Berkeley Station he hovers each day, to be ignored, mostly, by the thousands who walk by him, the way one instinctively averts one’s eyes from a piece of shit on the ground.
Our criminal bankers, meanwhile, are kept in high style with billion-dollar bailout after bailout, as served up, shuffling and grinning, by our criminal politicians, with the entire criminal enterprise sanctioned by American voters, whether conservatives, liberals or progressives, and explained away or ignored by our moronic or dishonest intellectuals. It’s no wonder we’re bankrupt.
Critical thinking is dead in this country, at least in the public sphere, for the most serious and urgent questions are never asked, or only briefly aired to be ridiculed. Take the Boston bombing incident. It is known that the FBI has lured and guided many fanatical idiots into participating in fake bomb plots, with each step of the process meticulously planned by their FBI handlers. Duds planted, these framed fools can be triumphantly arrested by the US government as it points a finger at its chosen enemy. Now, I don’t claim to know what is happening in Boston, which is still ongoing as I type, with the second suspect still at large, but I have a strong hunch he will never live to see a court room, for a serious investigation into his network of backers might just turn up Uncle Sam himself, for this terror incident benefits American global and domestic agendas, and not, by any stretch of the imagination, Chechens or Muslims in general.
Further, if two dorks want to massacre Americans, they can just as easily pick a supermarket, shopping mall or even airport check-in area, instead of the heavily guarded finishing point of the Boston Marathon, swarmed that day with hundreds of cops and undercover agents, not to mention bomb sniffing dogs. Also, I don’t see the Boston Marathon as having special significance for those who hate Americans, for it is an international meet routinely won by foreigners.
For the US government, however, any major event allows it to bring in agents to facilitate the planting of duds or bombs, as it sees fit. Finally, let’s not forget that our terrorist government has often aligned itself with, and manipulated, lesser terrorists of every stripe and level of competence, from Italy to Syria, and many, many other countries. Without question, we are the most prolific generator of terrorists the world has ever seen, and we actually like it that way.
Back to LA. Iconic City Hall is something to behold, all right. Erected in 1928, it was retrofitted in 2001 to be “base-isolated,” that is, it can now withstand, supposedly, an 8.2 earthquake, so as Los Angelenos freebase from Burbank to Gardena, City Hall itself is hovering over nothing while running on fumes. Bankrupted by the crooked banks, LA has also seen its manufacturing, residents and even porn stars fleeing to less arid pastures. LA’s unemployment rate is among the highest in the nation.
It was still pre-dawn when I made it to 5th and Broadway, and who did I run into but the appropriately named Eric Hurt. Born in Compton, Hurt went to San Jose State and was signed by the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted free agent. A cornerback, he played four games on a special team, and returned four kickoffs for an average of 17.8 yards, with a long of 24 yards. Several injuries ended his career after one season. Hurt is now 55-years-old and homeless. To prove that he was an NFL player, Hurt carries, at all times, a Cowboys team photo from 1980. Hey, at least this still confident looking man got to cradle that fabled pigskin four times before he got knocked stupid into 2013.
Across the street from Hurt, I saw two people sleeping in front of Rite Aid, then half a block away, an old, white bearded guy lying in front of a shuttered store, and what was his name but “Storm.”
“Yeah, like the weather. That’s my name.”
Not to sound superstitious, but, parents, please don’t tempt fate by naming your child Earthquake or Mudslide, especially if you live in LA, and if you’re an aspiring athlete and your first or last name is Hurt, Spavin, Concussion or Lame, then maybe you should consider changing it. Of course, just calling your offspring Richard or Jewel doesn’t mean that he or she won’t end up on Skid Row.
It was now around 5:30, so buses were already delivering workers downtown. Many got off one, just to wait for another. Most of these early risers were Hispanic, I noticed. In the orange glow of the still-lit street lights, they hurried past Broadway’s clothing stores, electronics shops, restaurants and botanicas. A black sanitation worker swept, while a white cop on a Segway woke up a sleeping woman, “You have to move on.” She sat up groggily, a middle-aged woman all alone on a dirty sidewalk, but plopped right down as soon as he was gone. To prevent it from being stolen, she was lying on the handle of her collapsible shopping cart.
It was now light, and I had made my way to Skid Row. Nearly five thousand homeless people live here. On sidewalk after sidewalk, they have set up their crude dwellings made up mostly of tarps and cardboard. I saw shopping carts all over, and a few bicycles. Bodies lay on cardboard, bedding or sometimes just concrete, but trash was generally confined to trash cans. There was a commotion at 5th and Gladys, with cops and an ambulance, and people were speculating that it might have been a stabbing.
I talked to Fred, a Hispanic man in his mid forties, and he said he would have to move to another block since one of his neighbors was too volatile, and perhaps not quite right in the head, “I just don’t feel safe around that guy.” I offered to buy him a beer, but he said he had stopped drinking. “If I had one, then I’d need another, then another,” he chuckled. Then how about a coffee? No, he said. He didn’t need anything.
In LA’s Skid Row, destitution is on vivid display and goes on for block after bustling block. Warmly lit by the Southern California sun, squalor is bright and lively here. Even in winter, a light coat is sufficient, and most folks don’t need to wear two or three pairs of pants to keep warm. Stores and restaurants are few and not of the best quality, of course, but you can also get what you need from an underground economy. If your pants are too raggedy, you can buy a new pair, for no more than $5, from this man right here, and this upstart entrepreneur ambling around with a slightly used blanket will let you have it for $2, after some haggling. I saw a security guard buy a charity shirt from a homeless guy, which didn’t surprise me in the least, for the rent-a-cop lived on a fixed budget too. One pink slip and he might end up on Skid Row.
I walked for a few blocks, but could find no store that sold beer, for having eaten only a Boston crème for breakfast, I was getting hungry again, and since I didn’t want to waste time in some eatery, at least not yet, a cold, tall can of yeast would have to do. I hollered at a random dude, “Yo, where can you get some beer around here?” Follow me, he said, then led me to a fat man sitting on a folding chair next to a cooler, from whom I bought a Colt-45 for me and a Steel Reserve, alcohol content 6%, no less, for my guide. They cost but $1.50 a piece, though after dark, it would be $2.
It was thus I met Jay, who told me he had worked all sorts of jobs, at a store, in a factory making aluminum siding, and as security guard at a warehouse. He had a wife who stayed at home, and had a lover, or lovers, he suspected, for she was becoming increasingly distant towards him, and when he got home early one day, said to him, “What are you doing here?” in a way that irritated him to no end, and from which he never recovered. He finally placed his wedding ring and a brief yet carefully worded note on his pillow, and left before she woke up. They never saw each other again. Jay then boasted of other women, and of a threesome escapade, after which he was tipped $200 by one of his lovers.
“What about the other one?”
“She liked it too.”
“But two hundred bucks?! Man, come on, you got to be shittin’ me!”
“You know what they say, Once you try black, you’ll never go back.”
O, why was I born a scrounging shadow of a poet, and not a resplendent and strutting gigolo? And with my luck, my threesome would have me permanently locked in a room, No Exit style, with my mother and mother-in-law, Herr Doktor Freud.
Continuing my interrogation, I then asked, “Hey, how do you get pussy on Skid Row?”
“No, for you.”
“Shit, man, it is easier to get pussy here than it is to get food!” Jay did add, “It won’t be high grade pussy, but it is still pussy.”
Leaving Jay, I thought I had exhausted this line of inquiry, but then I met Johnny Velasco. Clean and trim, Johnny looked younger than his 53 years, and his living area was also neat and clean. Mike, in a blue muscle T and blue Nike cap, worn backward, sat on a canvas chair. Peacefully dozing, he never got up to burp a single word, even as Johnny waxed insanities about him. Per Johnny, Mike was the coolest guy the world, practically, “He’s like the Dos Equis man! Women come down from Brentwood to pick him up!”
“If he’s so cool, what the fuck is he doing on Skid Row?”
“He’s just chillin,’ man, he doesn’t need to be here. He’s just relaxing.”
So here we had our second gigolo, one still extant, and not reminiscing. Like paunchy, middle-aged guys scampering to Bangkok, or Japanese broads landing in Java, a few Brentwood housewives or caress-less bachelorettes have discovered the comforts of really cheap loving. At this rate, they can hang on to their cuddly toy for a week or more, or until they get sick of their chatty dildo, all without having to endure jetlag or airport groping. Why fly to the Third World when it is already here, and becoming more pronounced by the day?
For those with lots of cash stashed away, the coming years will be an orgy of cheap thrills dished up, for next to nothing, by a ballooning army of increasingly desperate Americans. They won’t just screw us figuratively, then toss us a penny. They will do it literally.
Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.