Entering Los Angeles from Highway 1 is enough to knock anyone’s senses sideways. One minute, there’s nothing but picturesque ocean and neat little towns populated by surfers and retired corporate execs who have donned the trappings of hippiedom for the second time in their lives (though with fewer ideals and more gluten-free protein shakes). The next, the meandering road widens to a no-nonsense freeway.
Soon there are seven lanes on each side of the divider, and we’ve slowed to a gleaming metallic crawl. I’ve never seen so many fume-belching vehicles in one place. The air shimmers with late October heat. We descend into a haze of smog as though diving beneath the ocean.
I crane my neck as we slide beneath a road sign for West Hollywood. I’ve seen LA on screen, and yet it never felt concrete enough to exist on the physical plane. Rather, it belongs floating somewhere in the American imagination, a kind of collectively agreed-upon myth (like economics or inalienable rights). But home is two thousand miles away, and I suppose we must be somewhere.
Once off the freeway, we speed up to ten miles per hour and the city swallows us whole: a tangle of lofty hopes and dreams juxtaposed against squat peeling bungalows and a creeping mundanity in the faces of passersby. Halloween decorations twinkle incongruously from palm trees, and roving bands of young men hurl obscenities in our direction before dissolving into whoops of excitement at their own boldness. Hispanic women with harried eyes tow colorful hand carts brimming with shopping, and men hawk oranges from illegal roadside stands, ready to run at the first sign of Bylaw.
We pull up to a row of beige apartment complexes, all of them cordoned off by imposing chain-link fences. Hannah rings a stranger whom she met through the Couchsurfing app, and we wait.
A slender, respectably dressed young woman waves from behind the fence. “Hi,” she chirps. “Come on in!”
As it turns out, our hosts are a couple of young professionals, whose experience hosting Couchsurfers has fostered in them an unfailing faith in strangers. They offer us a bong toke and a key to the apartment before heading to bed. Bemused and grateful, Hannah and I make ourselves at home in the spare bedroom.
It’s fortunate that we have a temporary home base. Illness flares, and I spend the next few days prostrate. Hannah occasionally appears through a wall of mental fog, haloed by the bedside lamp, bearing the consolation of some God-tier Mexican street food.
Patience with bedrest depleted, I join her to stumble half-conscious through the city. Enter a disjointed montage: paying a whopping five dollars for a bottle of Dasani on the Santa Monica pier; street dancers gyrating to a pulsing drum; the quest for an elusive public washroom.
At some point, fatigue brings me to my knees. I resist the temptation to lie down on the gum-encrusted sidewalk. Instead, I duck into an adjacent carpet shop and roll myself up inside an expensive Oriental model to wait out this flare, shielded from the well-intentioned concern of passing strangers who will inevitably request an explanation I do not possess. Worse still, they might call an ambulance and bill me for it. My head sticks out one end of the carpet like a human burrito and if I could find the strength, I’d laugh aloud at the absurdity.
By the time I manage to stand, Hannah wants to browse a row of high-fashion boutiques. Shivering with fatigue, I assure her that I don’t mind waiting at the vehicle.
This might have worked, if my brain were functioning. Instead, swaying on the spot in an above-ground tram station, it dawns on me that I don’t know where the hell the van is. I’ve got nothing to rely on but my questionable wits—no phone, no wallet. I can’t quite recall how to count to five or what country we’re in. Mustering my resources, I devise an infallible plan: I plunk my ass down to wait.
As far as grimy transit stops go, it proves an entertaining stakeout. A Latino swigging cheap vodka from a grocery bag regales me with his full dental history. An old guy offers me a smoke, then praises me for declining it as though he is an undercover agent with the Nicotine Control Board. Two scrawny black kids jump the fenced tracks with skateboards slung across their backs, waving cheekily at a pair of onlooking cops. When I tire of people-watching, there’s the graffiti: neon-vivid dicks scrawled across a formidable portrait of Obama with the lower body of a mermaid. And there’s also that damn slogan again: Nov 4th: It Happens! Pershing Square.
It began in San Francisco. We first saw the words spray painted across an alleyway. I didn’t think much of it until the stickers began to appear: on lampposts, fire hydrants, gas station toilets. White text on black background. None of them clarified what ‘it’ was. By the time the stickers cropped up in Santa Barbara, they’d evolved into a bona fide mystery. I make a mental note to Google ‘it’ at some future date, and another to invest in data if ever I devise some way of procuring an income. At long last, a familiar figure steps off the tram. I leap up to greet Hannah, throwing my arms around her with enough force to restrict breathing.