The light in Los Angeles is striking: a milky white that gives way to white-hot afternoons, then the sky turns orange and purple, even the smog manages to add to the appeal. Buskers, stores selling quirk and kitsch, graffitied walls—it’s like walking into a museum, with a hall of attractions stretching out in all directions, overpriced, stimulating.
But the beaches get cold, and the hills are dry and cruel.
Blink, and you see the tent cities. People pitch their homes in parking lots, under bridges, on sidewalks. They push their belongings in trolleys, their backpacks burst with scavenged goods. They ask you for money, food, bus tickets; they clutch their water bottles and you see why, the heat burns, there are no drinking water fountains in sight. You who come from India, you are surely used to this. You excel at looking the other way, at walking past with tact, at dissociating from the circumstances; making sure the good time you worked hard to have isn’t stained. What’s a little inequality? It’s just some more inequality in a divided world.
Through no effort of mine, I had the opportunity to holiday in a place about four thousand kilometres from where I live, which in itself is something that was handed to me. I certainly know how good I have it, poised for takeoff in that aspirational space, unable to afford the international holidays that peers seem to plan nonchalantly and speak about endlessly, but still in possession of a vulgar amount of disposable income. I wish I didn’t remember this as often as I do. Yet, it is almost impossible to ignore when holidaying, when I find that I have the means to carry on with the trappings of lifestyle in spite of travelling so great a distance. I can buy comfort, possibly luxury, I can get slightly buzzed and make obnoxious jokes, I can call a taxi and retreat to the hotel room the moment I feel unsafe. This city is obviously unlivable; it need not touch me.
You could say I’m a bit wary of travel, and I’m not just talking about the grand idea of it. I am frequently defeated by the act of getting to a place. Flights are delayed, sometimes they go forth on the runway, only to stop. The pilot informs us of engine trouble, and the woman next to me exclaims “Nothing like this has ever happened to me before! I need to be on time!”
I would hear this line again, repeated to me with that same mixture of exasperation and incredulity, when a Metro train stopped in a tunnel under the city, with no explanation.
“Thirty seconds, folks!” a disembodied voice told us, and we waited for longer than thirty minutes, until the train somehow started moving backward, to deposit us at the previous station.
I got chatting with a man who seemed to be from Eastern Europe, this is the moment all movies prepare us for: the bonhomie of strangers caught in a situation outside their control. He said he’d been taking the train for years, and he’d never been stuck in a tunnel with no information. So I told him, laughing, about the woman on the flight. He grew concerned: “Is it you then? Maybe.”
The unbearable mass of people
I inhaled buttery croissants, I ate tacos and the shrimp didn’t have freezer burn, I was surprised when the tomatoes tasted tart and juicy—so they weren’t just red gap-fillers. I watched a movie in a theatre that prided itself on serving you snacks at your seat. All you had to do was place a card with your order at the edge of the flap desk attached to your seat, and one of the staff would perform silent squats to retrieve that slip, and later deliver your order. They were probably instructed to remain smiling, and not make a sound. I wished I’d gone elsewhere. I climbed a hill to get to an observatory that was crowded beyond hope, I’ll admit I felt some pride when my knee didn’t give up on me (I couldn’t climb back down though). I walked in parks and read on buses, I sat on edge when a smelly woman claimed the seat next to me. I toured all the floors of the library, still in awe of free, public spaces that want to serve people, especially those milling about with suitcases: either tourists whiling away time before they leave this city, or others whose makeshift dwellings do not have toilets. I read all the information presented in a display about redlining and descended further into gloom. I went to art museums and turned grumpier by the second, when the hordes with cameras descended on the art work: photographing but not engaging with what was available, creating content for their social media profiles, thinking up captions out loud. Watch out for the hot girls in jumpsuits, watch them as they strike their best poses against brightly coloured walls, that selfie stick was a bargain buy. Look out for the women with the perfect hair and the tiny handbags. Do you spot the men trailing them, lugging tripods? Did they find the best light, with the neon colours of Takashi Murakami in the background?
One docent asked another, “How is the crowd today?”
“Oh, you know, same trash everyday.”