Sometimes you just get yourself stranded, because while there’s always a way out, the price in hitting that panic button outweighs the need/drive/desire to escape. Right now I’m there. Sweating through my underwear for the third month in a row, living out of my suitcase in El Sereno, realizing that in order to pack up my 1989 pickup truck and drive it across the country back to Michigan, that precious homeland of mine, full of whole wheat bread and red maple leaves and Thursday night $2 happy hours, I’d have to either sell my prized Toyota or drop at least a thousand dollars into her. A thousand dollars. All the things a thousand dollars can be, can do, can mean.
I went so far in my escape plan to land myself a top waitressing job in southern Michigan. It ‘s a premier gig, and my getting it is a motion of self-sufficiency that makes me feel a bit less maniacal, a bit less self-sabotaging. Running for running’s sake gets old — the this city is destroying me trope starts to feign a whole victimization narrative that just doesn’t sit well when you’ve sobered up, eaten a burrito, and watched the sunset reflect off the San Gabriel mountains.
Still, September in Southern California is essentially the same as February in the Midwest — an unbearable repetition of remorseless weather that’s not suited for human survival. Every day looks and feels exactly the same: white sun/deadened gray, over 90/under 20, days and weeks and months spent indoors until the sun sets, the wind stops, the heat breaks, or the snow melts. The weather can break you if you’re wanting to get broken, which most of us are, unconsciously maybe, praying for some freakish trident to strike our life apart and send us running for a clean slate, new town, fresh start: an end of a chapter.
I got mine last month when my upstairs neighbor locked his ex-girlfriend in our garage. A few hours later, the garage was on fire. Everyone was fine. Everything is fine. But now my life is packed into a storage unit and I’m wondering if it’s time I bow gracefully to this beast of a coast. Sometimes your life is just balancing on that one perfectly placed cheap-rent-in-an idyllic-neighborhood jenga block. I don’t want to be so dramatic, but when you’re homeless, you hate your job, and walking to the post office becomes a hellish, death-affirming journey that leaves you sunburned and dehydrated for the rest of the day, it’s even easier to remember how awful earthquakes and freeways are.
All it really takes is driving the 110 Arroyo Seco Parkway between downtown Los Angeles and Pasadena, to know that the infrastructure of this city is profoundly, both spiritually and materially, fucked. The 110 is a freeway where the entrances have stop signs — where you bring your car to a complete stop before blindly accelerating into Los Angeles freeway traffic. It is the most dated and dead-panned idiotic (albeit deeply philosophical) highway I’ve ever experienced. The speed limit is 55, everyone drives 70, I drive 50. But that’s the vibe out here — living in a desert city in a drought, paying $9 for a pack of sliced turkey, listening to Neil Young’s On the Beach on repeat, just hitting the gas for dear life, hoping the water and your money and your sanity don’t run out before you figure out how to make a better living.
I took a run through my temporary neighborhood yesterday. I stumbled into an area where most of the houses were built with exposed plywood and tarps. Every house had numerous dogs, most terrifying, most able to push their faces through openings in the broken plastic sheeting and chain-linked fences. The street slowly became less of a street, and in full-fledged panic at the idea of turning around and passing the same homicidal dogs, I kept going, weaving through an entire shantytown perched up on a northeastern facing ridge. The view was gorgeous. There’s no way some of these structures will survive El Niño this winter, but these people probably don’t have a choice; they’re just going to figure it out, or they won’t.
I could always sell my truck, sell my amp, quit my job, get another one, leave my boyfriend — do all the things one needs to do to run. But sometimes even if you want to leave, even if you can leave, even if you know you should leave, you don’t. You wait for winter. You wait for the rain instead of running toward water. You find a new home and a new job and you stay, and maybe you suffer in the same way, and maybe you die in the earthquake or get lung cancer from the smog or skin cancer from your walk to the post office, but regardless, you wait, at least until after February to move back to the Midwest. •