Books, On the Run

Lost Angeles

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Crime writers Sulari Gentill, Robert Gott, Jock Serong and Emma Viskic are in the midst of a US tour, On The Run: Australian Crime Writers In America, and have promised a daily update of proceedings.

In this instalment JOCK SERONG walks the streets of Los Angeles.

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It’s jarring to be reminded that our government paid to send us here to talk about our writing. Americans find this idea incredible. They sent you here? Like, paid for it? Convinced that socialism is a swear word, they struggle mightily with public health care and award wages: subsidised cultural exchange is a bridge too far.

Why did our government send us here? I don’t know. Well, I know, in the sense that we are here to promote Australian crime writing, but why would our government, as blind and uncaring as most others, have done so? American governments, American societies, detach themselves from the obligation to support individuals, and leave the caring to private choice. Winners and losers are appointed without sentiment or apology. You, in the pool: winner. You, pushing the cart: loser. It’s one of the most enduring stereotypes about the U.S. that the people on the wrong end of the stick will still fervently proselytise about the wonders of their democracy, but it stands up. They really do.

One of our Los Angeles talks was moderated (that always sounds like somebody holding back a shouting match. It was very civil, I promise) by a local author named Desiree Zamorano. She disproves my thesis: she is neither winner nor loser but a fiery, funny humanist who does literacy work with former prisoners. They’re out there in their thousands in California, the decent people, but the stark duality of success and failure still rules over everything.   

The bodies of the Angeleno homeless are often young: Hollywood feeds on young bodies and turns them into a pre-digested mush called entertainment, or – hateful word – content. The bodies appear in stages of nakedness on the streets: tanned ribs and sinewed legs. A man stood stretching one morning by the bowsers of a service station, naked from the waist down, with the morning sun on his genitals. You can bake concrete in the Californian sun for hours but it will never be as warm as a living body. They writhe and shout and sleep and sit and watch, these living bodies. They are still supple – even the broken ones – and exuding human grace.

The bodies of the Angeleno homeless are often young: Hollywood feeds on young bodies and turns them into a pre-digested mush called entertainment, or – hateful word – content.

From somewhere, and it’s not at all clear where, the homeless scrounge some basic necessities. A sprung mattress with its stains. Shopping carts, tents. Bags, in endless variety, containing mysterious shapes. How do they guard their hard-won possessions, these people who are plainly in need of mental health services, a roof, a wash? Who were they before they passed out of love and support and into transience? Someone’s beloved son, or daughter? Does the prettiest girl in every small town in America really come here to have her hopes dashed or realised? I think not: I think that’s just a trope that grew out of the winner/loser dichotomy. Misfortune visits all strata of Los Angeles, not just aspirants to fame. 

The palm trees spear over the wretchedness, a hundred feet into the sun and the photochemical air, promising glamour. TV shows are framed by their graceful arcs, but they will never depict the scenes at the feet of the trees. Hollywood lies about everyone else’s lives: why wouldn’t it lie about its own? In the shadow of the global headquarters of Netflix, there are stories all over the ground: ones they won’t be telling.

There are tents everywhere in East Hollywood. On the footpaths, on the freeway ramps, crammed into vacant space: not hidden, but right up front.

I was peering in the shuttered windows of Counterpoint Books on Franklin Drive, when an old African American man shuffled up beside me. He was big, heavy and slow, pushing a cart filled with the shapeless bags of his belongings. He was also pointing a large iPhone at me, and speaking in slow sentences that were precisely constructed, even while their meaning was hopelessly scrambled.

Kerouac, the Dharma Bums. But not here. Not here, sir.

Voice rising. Deep, sonorous bass.

Rest in peace, John Wilkes Booth!

I tried to decipher what he was saying, or doing. I looked directly at him, not in challenge but in a search for coherence. In doing so, I looked into the little lens at the top left corner of the phone. Did the phone work? Why did he have this expensive thing, while living out of a cart? The verbalised fragments kept coming; not questions, as far as I could tell. He didn’t want money. I tried looking back into the shop window. I tried moving off, and the comments curdled and he called me a faggot, and wound up shouting at me.

There are tents everywhere in East Hollywood. On the footpaths, on the freeway ramps, crammed into vacant space: not hidden, but right up front. There are even a few in the spillway by the aqueduct: a bizarre mockery of a bucolic riverside camp. Not far from Hollywood Boulevard is the notorious Skid Row, a square quarter-mile that is home to hundreds of tents: depending which estimates you believe, between 2,500 and 5,000 people. Two decades ago, that number was nearing 20,000. Across the entire city it is estimated there are between 36,000 and 58,000 homeless people. They do not receive their tents from any government or NGO program. When President Trump last visited L.A. he said the sight of them was “ruining the prestige of Los Angeles.”

Sometimes the lost people are eating, even eating well. I don’t mean to infer at all that the community has turned their backs on them. To the contrary, I had the feeling that the traders were giving them food, coffee, comfort. I never saw anyone being moved on or harassed.

Walking west on Hollywood Boulevard, the gritty and nondescript sidewalks turn into a tourist precinct, self-consciously cheesy.

Walking west on Hollywood Boulevard, the gritty and nondescript sidewalks turn into a tourist precinct, self-consciously cheesy. The stars appear under your feet. We were moving fast westward, Emma Viskic and I, when we saw a woman, on the kerb side of the paving. Young, gaunt and twitchy, holding a sign. Americans like to hold signs. Hell, they like signs generally. Their signs are always grammatically correct and polite. But this one was written in felt pen on a large sheet of white card, in the jagged hand of open trauma. I saw it, didn’t read it, looked away. I want to be honest about this: I didn’t want to engage. She was staring at us, so intently. I was looking at my feet now, as she stared at the side of my head. I couldn’t vouch for what Emma was doing.

Then the woman started speaking. Firmly, directly. Rapidly rising to a shout.

He tried to rape me.

The words struck me with such force that I looked at her again. She saw the reaction, understood that she had gained purchase.

Yes, him. She was pointing very clearly at one particular star. Each of the stars is marked with a little icon to denote which branch of the entertainment arts the immortalised soul came from. I can’t remember why but I am sure this one was a DJ – either because she spat the term at us or because the icon told me so.

He tried to rape me

We hurried on as her pitch rose. The voice was strangled with pain as though we were the first people she had ever disclosed to, although she must have been accosting strangers all morning. Go on, walk away you fuckers. You don’t care. You just wanna take goddamn pictures. The camera was around my neck again, my albatross. I hadn’t touched it, much less raised it to take a picture. I understand voyeurism as well as the next person and I had no intention of exploiting her pain. You don’t even fucking care. Fuck you.

The voice was strangled with pain as though we were the first people she had ever disclosed to, although she must have been accosting strangers all morning.

Christopher Koch co-wrote the screenplay to his 1978 novel, The Year of Living Dangerously. The film feels literary because the words are so sharply chosen, so cutting. Walking through the slums of Jakarta, the enigmatic Billy Kwan speaks of Tolstoy and St Luke, of “opposite intensities: laughter and misery, the crazy and the grim, toy town and a city of fear.” He could so easily be speaking of Los Angeles.

The Australian journalist character, Guy Hamilton, based in part on Koch or his brother Phillip, is flustered by the city’s beggars, their unslakeable thirst for alms. If there is no solution at a societal level, he reasons, then nothing at all can be done to help. But Kwan sees a simpler truth: “You do what you can about the misery in front of you,” he says. “You add your light to the sum of all light.”

I wish it felt so clear to me. Thus far, it never has.

For the rest of this series click here.

One response to “Lost Angeles

  1. This story reflects my experience of LA and also San Fran. Sadly whilst the scale and numbers are smaller the same range of emotions confront me every morning as I traverse the CBD in little ole adelaide and I am filled with anger, sadness and despair that as a wealthy, lucky, country we fail to provide for the basic human necessities for a humane existence. The answer is not to be found in the temporary random acts of kindness by stranger, important thou they may be, but in the systemic government policies that create and sustain our homeless population shame. Voting and demanding action from our politicians is an important duty.

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