City of Angels

Coming down from the sky LA begins as a trickle of houses on the mountainside and then explodes into what looks like a glowing yellow motherboard from 37,000 feet. I am fascinated by the grids within grids; the massive boulevards and freeways that stretch on without relief until the whole thing tumbles into the sea. But I don’t see the sea yet; all there is are roofs, black ribbons of road, cars crawling like beetles everywhere, and as we descend a football field with Crenshaw
 emblazoned in the grass.

As it is when I travel by train, I find the poorer neighborhoods more interesting. The houses are small, boxy, with postage stamp yards in front. Most sobering of all are the large blocky apartment complexes, places where I imagine there is little respite, little relief. There are no pools. I begin to see huge industrial campuses, not pretty at all; giant Lego warehouses and Soviet office blocs and I think, people actually work there, and are glad to, and suddenly I’m overcome with gratitude for the beautiful mid-Century building I work in, nestled in a valley surrounded on nearly all sides by trees (but let’s not forget, its own hellish, permanently-clogged black artery of a freeway, too). As we head west the houses expand and so do the lawns and then come the inevitable aquamarine jewels dotting the landscape. Swimming pools, some of them drained, which makes me think of skaters from my childhood.

My best friend, R., and his man pick me up and we pull off the Harbor Freeway and go eat at Mercado La Paloma, trying desperately to choose between Oaxacan, Thai, or American. We have steak. Rice and beans like you only get in LA.

And I buy R
la5.’s man his first ever Thai iced coffee, which he loves and ends up completely jacked on. As we drive home we fly down the wide streets, strangely free of traffic, De La Ghetto’s Es Dificil, which I’ve never heard before, blasting from the speakers. Everything – the breeze, the music, the slanted gold light that you find only in LA – crystallizes into overwhelming emotion and R. turns back towards me and as
ks why I’m crying and I answer I’m so happy, and I am.

We get home and they leave to go see Pink Martini and I’m alone in the huge blue house. I try to read but I’m too tired. Sun going down and the last hint of light in the sky, I go sit on the balcony. Downtown lights glittering, the peacocks, now seasonally free of their heavy tails, roosting in the telephone poles. I take a few photos, text a friend. I’m so tired my bones hurt. I lie down and sleep, waking up near midnight and suddenly everyone’s home.

1am five of us pile into the Jeep and head west on Sunset towards the grocery store. Five carts, each with a list, and we’re all done in a half hour. Like all kids who grew up in hard times, we buy too much. We stop for Mexican takeout, machaca-style, please. I feel joyous at the life on the streets; people everywhere, even in the middle of the night – I miss this. We get home and begin prepping, Didi grinding up her Dominican marinade for the steaks. Finally at 4 I barely manage to fall asleep, on the floor, looking at the downtown lights through the sliding glass doors.

Sunday morning I’m the first up as always, brewing the French Press and reading about the Kennedys. Slowly the dead arise and then we’re all machines: no one is washed, we’re barely caffeinated, but tla2ogether we are a heat-seeking, party-throwing missile. Driving on the freeway to Fontana to pick up R.’s Mami, putting together salads, fueling up the grill, skewering meat, coming in with more bags. We are ready.

The people we love start coming. Mami comes in and almost starts to cry, telling me she thought she would never see me again. The house and garden smell like Jamaica, mon. Azara, 17 months, dressed up in skeletons and smiling big. We smoke, unapologetically. Hussy makes a pitcher of Southern Kisses and we all get kissed. Then Didi makes her mojitos and R. adds strawberry soda (ghetto! but I love it!) and it’s on. There’s too much food and it keeps coming. Chips, salsa, pita, hummous, pasta salad, fruit salad, green salad, cucumber salad, steak, chicken, shrimp, burgers, dogs, veggie burgers, corn, it never ends. The smell of clove cigarettes and discussion of how they’re about to be illegal. So much laughter. The birds overhead and the ants under feet.

Night comes. We herd inside, try to play board games, but it’s futile. We are a box of firecrackers, set off and sparking every which way. Eventually we all trickle away and it’s just me and Didi and Hussy catching the last episode of Project Runway. I can’t keep my eyes open and soon it’s morning and I’m up with the French press again. Didi comes out and we have our one on one time on the patio. I have missed her so much, and I relish getting her to myself for a minute. I pack up and she drops me off at Olvera Street. The Virgin of Guadalupe weeps on me, or at least I want to think so.

I spend every last dime in my wallet. Earrings, a cross, a bracelet, a lot of little gifts. I eat my ritual shredded beef taco, the delicacy thatla3 all exiled Southern Californians grieve for. I stand at the foot of Olvera, across from the Chevron and the train station, and watch the flood of people go by. A lot of cops. A woman says she loves my earrings. Guys in their grey sweats, just released from jail, carrying plastic bags of their belongings, yelling to one another across the boulevard, going somewhere, going nowhere, going back again. Soon.

The ride to the airport is quiet. We listen to Seal: ‘Everyone says you’re amazing, now that you’re clean.’ The houses back up right to the freeway, the signs are endless, there’s no green relief. When the boys drop me, R. embraces me, his vanilla-musk scent a cloud around me, crying hard.

Herded through security, I get pulled over and patted down again, like I did coming south. The plane is tight. The ride is fine. I suck down airplane coffee and read the story of Sarah Palin’s daughter’s baby daddy dishing about the reality of the Palin household. Scandalous. Landing at SFO, I notice a really pretty girl in a cute print dress getting off the plane with me. As she’s walking ahead of me I think her skirt’s maybe a wee bit too short and on the escalator behind her I get a full view of what she’s got beneath it (commando!). I consider telling her but figure this is not a sisterhood moment.

In the car, up the road, the fog comes on and then I’m going slow down Skyline, barely able to see. I stop in the City, at the ocean, to say hello. Everything is wrapped in cottony mist. Once over the Bridge, the fog lifts and I’m not really happy about it. I notice how our freeway, brutal as it can be, is lined with dark green trees. I pull off my exit. I am home, but not sure I want to be.

Olvera Street & The Olive Tree

I was in LA again this past weekend, for a family-and-friends end-of-summer party. Having learned the hard way, I booked a late afternoon flight so I’d have pretty much the whole day to get myself together to leave. My friend Daisy was headed to work that morning, so she dropped me off near Olvera Street for my usual orgy of conspicuous consumption, which was an unexpected treat I’d not planned on during such a short visit.

Before I took out my wallet and emptied it of all liquid assets (booty scored: tattoo-style charm bracelet, several pairs of earrings, the obligatory cross, a calavera car sticker, and gifts for several loved ones), however, I decided I’d stop in at Nuestra Señora Reina de los Angeles (otherwise known as La Placita Church), the oldest church in LA, right across the street from Olvera. It’s an active church and like many in LA, site of some amazing murals. On the north wall is a stunning one of the Virgen de Guadalupe and Juan Diego. The area of the plaza below it is fenced off and several racks are set up for devotional candles, as well as two kneelers for those who come to pray.

I was there at about eleven in the morning. Roughly a half-dozen worshippers – all Latin – were gathered beneath the mural, praying, kneeling or standing, reading from missals, holding rosaries. I felt too much like a spectator to go in myself at first, so I stood outside the fence and took it all in, especially one diminutive woman in particular, her coal-black braids trailing down her tiny back, her right hand holding a well-worn missal as she intoned her prayers quietly to La Virgen. Candles flickered in the hot noonday sun; not as atmospheric as it would have been at dark but just as moving. I watched people come and go and in a strange way envied their faith; its absoluteness and reliability – they didn’t need their religion to be a poem or a metaphor the way that I do. I wondered what it must be like to feel that way, to feel God under your feet, solid as earth.

I went inside the Church and joined the others taking part in Adoration for a while. It was cool inside, and quiet, despite a couple of dozen people in a small space. I love old, Spanish-style churches. There’s just nothing quite like them.

I went back out and made my way to the Guadalupe mural I’d visited earlier. There were fewer people there so I stood beneath the olive tree (hey! shade! Thanks, God!) to give prayers of sincere thanks for the many wonderful blessings I have in this life, and offer prayers of protection for a Marine friend who is heading back to the war in Iraq. My eyes were closed behind my sunglasses and I was super emo that day, so let’s just say that while I wasn’t openly sobbing on the street, I wasn’t exactly dry-eyed.

And then, a huge drop of water fell onto my forearm. I felt it and the first thing I thought of was pigeon, but when I opened my eyes, and then ran my finger through it, it was pretty obvious that it was water. I looked side to side – no one, nothing. Up – just the olive tree. I searched thoroughly for any sign of moisture, any logical reason to justify the splash on my arm. There was nothing. Dry as a bone. I got the chills, crossed myself, and made my way to the plaza, though I kept reflecting on it for the rest of the day.

I receive so many strange and lovely gifts, all the time. I don’t know what this was – my best friend called it ‘a small miracle.’ Maybe. Or maybe it was a coincidence and there’s a perfectly logical explanation. I’ll never know. But I’ll take what I can get, and I’ll err on the side of miracles.

Holding Vigil

I flew down to LA in June of ’04 to help my best friend, R., take care of legal stuff, do some shopping, and then fly back to San Francisco with R. in tow for a few days of Bay Area fun. While I was on the plane from Oakland to Burbank, both Reagan and his father died. Plans changed.

He and his mom (divorced from his Dad for decades and in town from Mexico) and his brother asked me to stay for the funeral – because even though I am a guera, I am family, and I think they needed my German stoicism to get through what was going to be a very messy and painful day.

Jay had over a dozen children by several different women. He was a hustler from the rez; a womanizer, a con artist, a boxer, an opportunist, a colorblind maverick in a segregated culture, and a mystery to his children. He was mean, and he was funny, and he was a bastard. He had another wife and set of kids after R. and his clan, and there was a tug-of-war going on over the house and money when he died.

The day before the funeral, the four of us went shopping for black clothes. Luz, R’s mom, dissolved into tears when the boys said they didn’t want to wear ties (and trust me, in the end they did wear ties. Mexican mothers are not playin’) – clearly she wanted them to reek of class and respect when they went to the funeral of a man who had neither. She herself was elegantly bedecked in a dress and shawl that had R. calling her ‘the Mexican Jackie Onassis.’ As is my practice with all funerals, I wore white, head to toe.

We got there early. Real early. We were the first ones there, by a longshot, and sat sipping coffee out of Styrofoam cups in the dim light of a Downey funeral home. But not Luz. She wasn’t having coffee. Or water. Or breaks. Or anything. She had settled into that generic stacking chair as if it were the throne of England and was moving for no one. Not even God.

‘Mami, do you want some coffee?’ we’d all asked, ‘Some water? Mami, why don’t you take a break?’

‘No, honeys,’ she said, ‘I’m fine.’

And she sat there, for hours, witness to the dead body of a man who scooped her up from a village when she was little more than a girl, brought her pain and suffering and nightmares but also gave her two beautiful sons, who are her life. After several hours I turned to R. and said, ‘Damn, that bitch can hold a vigil!’ We still laugh to this day.

I wrote R.’s father a letter and stuck it in his casket and he’s buried with it in the dirt in Los Angeles. I said ‘this is on behalf of all the women,’ and the rest of what I said is between me and him. Luz, R., and I went home and put on our street clothes and bought a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and while eating it and taking the piss at the rest of the greedy bystanders who had showed up laughed so hard we cried. To this day I believe that’s the day I became her surrogate daughter, and a member of our tiny familia.

Later, when her mother, R.’s Mama Juanita, died she sat in the church in Guadalajara for 3 days. Her sisters were all, ‘I need to go home and make some tamales,’ and Luz was like, ‘That’s okay. I’ll stay. She was only our MOTHER.’

I can only hope for this – that someone will love me enough, despite my sometimes meanness, pettiness, and base nature, to watch over me like a Mexican Jackie Onassis before the button is pushed and I return to ash.