The black family is packing all they have into a small car, heading for another unknown. During the day people move by each other in ignorance but after sundown mumble a greeting to acknowledge there is no threat. The night owls are youngsters, moving in small packs with their backs curved like frightened cats.
L.A. – City of Angels. Yeah Right.
During a road trip through the US western states in 2014, I stayed in the cheapest motels, which are run almost exclusively by migrants from India. The worst dumps promote ‘Weekly Rates’ and once I rented a room for three weeks in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. This is a reflection of what life is like in those places.
Rainbow Inn — 831 South Beach Boulevard, Anaheim.
This is the kind of dig where you want to keep your flip-flops on in the shower and smudgy windows hold the daylight back. Where the walls have stains of suspicious origin and the blanket in my non-smoking room is freckled with cigarette burns. Don’t look under the bed, because it has not been vacuumed in years. Most eight-dollar accommodations in Bolivia were more pleasant than this.
Cheap barbecues dominate the doorsteps and trash bins are full of microwave meal boxes. A sign instructs me not to hang my clothes to dry on the balcony. The snack machine is not quite cold enough to keep the chocolate from going soft and shopping trolleys collect dust under the staircase.
The manager tells me “I don’t let the walking people in.” Not homeless or addicts, but walking people. It first confuses me but then makes complete sense — the bicycle and the shopping cart provide their mobility. The rest of America owns a car.
Room 217 hosts a skittish balding man who only comes out to dispose of his trash. When I walk by the door I can smell his cigarettes. Room 117 occasionally dispenses an old lady in a blue nightgown shuffling across the parking lot, clinching a coffee cup. Once I say “hello” and she just stares at me uncertainly, then looks away. Out front of her room, there is a neatly stacked pile of pinecones.
Arguments regularly wake me up. One night around 2:00 am I hear a couple having a fight that keeps increasing in intensity. I’m worried it might get out of hand. What could I do if it does? She decides to run off while he leans over the balcony banister, closing off the morning’s disruption with a sincere “Go to hell, bitch!”
In the morning a black mother yells “stupid nigger” at her 4-year old son for dropping something.
Out front a tall black man wanders, red-eyed and twitching uncomfortably. His fresh bandages make me wonder not only what happened to his arm, but also who applies them daily. A skinny woman with wild hair sits on the sidewalk, wailing hysterically. He studies her with bewildered attention.
One day in the park I meet Mr. Tsing from Pakistan. He objects to how the homeless fornicate in the open, forced to experience their only shred of human connection in public bathrooms or behind some bushes. “They cross the line of respect and spend money on wasteful things like drugs and alcohol.”
There’s a lady who screams “My husband hits me for methamphetamine!!” every time I see her. Some days she illustrates this by thumping herself in the head.
Estimated 3 million people experience homelessness every year. They grew from an unnoticed minority into a full-blown class. The main causes of homelessness are mental illness, substance abuse and financial strain. Welcome to America, the leading first-world country in homeless population
On an evening stroll I am approached by several men who are more than just polite. I want to stay out longer to enjoy this cool dark air, the only escape from the pressing California heat that lingers in my stuffy room, but quickly learn that L.A. after dark is for the homeless and hoodlums. Beside those, there are some better-kept younger ladies who are looking to make thirty bucks to pay for their room. Cruising cars slow down, lower the window and express interest with a short honk.
In a way this is a very stimulating environment. At the end of a day I sit down with my journal and ask myself: What did you see today? But what makes me jumpy is the unpredictability of these people. The crowd colonizing the intersection of South Beach Boulevard and Lincoln Street seem to often be intoxicated or mentally ill. Social frustration intensified by psychological instability needs little provocation to turn into violence. When people exhibit out-of-the-ordinary behavior, you don’t know what to expect.
John and Julius
John lives in room 109 with his wife and two cats. He is a friendly and thoughtful older man, sporting an outstanding beard. Julius the cat is orange, sleeps atop the air-conditioner and drinks from the swimming pool. Like all long-term residents they open the door at night to let clean air in. “We’re all in the same boat so let’s be neighbors,” he suggests after hearing I’m staying for several weeks. The chance at connection in an overnight guest environment is scarce.
John and his wife used to share a large house with several others but when everyone else moved out, they wanted to downsize. They found a smaller place nearby for a very good price and took a look at it. The ‘owner’ gave the address but never showed up to give a tour. Thus, they decided to invest the last of their savings into a place with bad walls and an overgrown garden. It was the best deal in town. Too good to be true? It was.
The ‘owner’ didn’t own any of it, ran off with the money and our friends were evicted. The installment for an apartment is three times the monthly rent and prices in southern California are some of the highest in the world. There was no other choice but to temporarily move into this motel. That was a year ago. Now John is working a simple job and I am left to wonder how people can possibly get out of a situation like this.
The United States: a Modern Class Society
America operates on the belief of individual freedom and justice through reward for hard work. Translated: Figure your own shit out. For the middle and upper class it is easy to say these disadvantaged people I describe here are lazy or dangerous. That way you can be selfish without feeling responsible. People hang their head in embarrassment while trying to crawl back into society because they have bought into this lie of vindication. I can never again see them as a nuisance after living among them. I have found that a greeting and a smile will easily crack their dark stare. Being acknowledged as a human being when living as a ghost can mean a lot. Consider doing this next time you come across one of these discarded people.
I have seen a side of America that most people choose not to be exposed to: the homeless, mentally ill, addicts, prostitutes, swindlers, drug dealers and thugs. Welcome to the wastebasket of society; the dirty feet of America. The richest country in the world could use a pedicure.