I have just moved to Los Angeles from the Middle East, and everyone keeps asking me if the city is too quiet—Am I bored? Is it safe?—and the answer is, No, I am not bored; yes, it seems safe, and yes, that’s fine by me. Mostly I am in a state of awe, blown away by a grocery store, the knock of the mailman at the door, the speed of the Internet; the easy friends you can make on the sidewalk or on the bus or while watching your kids play soccer or walking down Venice Boulevard, waiting for a light to change, en route to the University of Southern California, where I found myself the other day, seeking out the next thing I might do with my life, right before things went wrong again.
I was facing new and mostly pleasant options. Such as: Should I wish to travel across the east-west spine of Lost Angeles, in the fall of 2013, from Venice to the urban campus of USC, did I want to walk four or five hours, doing ten miles on foot; drive thirty minutes; ride a bike for an hour and a half; or, as I ultimately resolved to do, take a city bus to the Culver City train line.
Showering, lacing up a pair of suede boots, donning a clean shirt, loading up a satchel with books and water, I crossed Lincoln Boulevard, behind a smog-check shop, whose sign made it clear they’s only do checks, not repairs, and then I followed an alley parallel to six lanes of heavy afternoon traffic.
In front of a crumbling apartment complex, on a set of concrete stairs, I admired a selection of jars, bowls, fire-rimmed tin cans, and handmade signs. Next to one pagan cup leaned a pair of tongs, perhaps for a hookah, and then I was accosted by a man who stood beside the open door of a midnineties Ford Explorer.
“Yo, this is a brand new home theater,” he said, gesturing at a large brown box resting on a leather seat. “You want this shit?” He tapped the box.
Since leaving Beirut, my wife and I had been in Los Angeles for about a month. It was true I didn’t have a home theater yet, but then I didn’t have much. The whirr of a car wash behind us made it hard to hear the rest of his sales pitch. Did he think I lived nearby? Could I carry the box to USC and back? In the roar of the car wash, it sounded like someone was screaming.
“No thanks,” I said.
“What?” he said.
“I’m good,” I said, backing away. “I’m good.”
Next up was a bike shop and a massage parlor and a nail place and a vacuum repair shop and a shoe repair shop and in their presence I considered my shoes and my nails and my muscles and the condition of a vacuum we left behind in Lebanon, and then I found myself standing in front of a tidy burger place, where all employees wore paper hats and some had white aprons secured with oversize metal pins, like for a diaper, yet the potatoes were peeled while I watched and it was all more than I might have imagined a burger place might be in America, in 2013.
Intent on not greasing up my clothes, I watched a regal woman as she peered through sunglasses at a ketchup dispenser. Done, she walked away, a sack in one hand, in the other a small paper cup of ketchup. But in so doing, she left behind a milkshake, which sat on the counter, melting.
Watching, too, was a man who looked like Kevin Costner, who wasn’t sure what to do. First, he reached to grab the shake. The cup would have been cold to the touch. He paused, frozen. Hovering, he seemed to debate whether to make contact, or not. Then the woman came striding back in. The guy who looked like Costner tried to look away. In the bathroom, I washed my hands and hoped the soap would get rid of the smell of meat.
On the train, there was a crazy lady and a madman. I was amazed at how sleek and silent the cars felt, and then I noticed all were made in Japan. The crazy lady started raving pretty much immediately, once we passed into South Central LA. There was Crenshaw Boulevard, and this woman was railing on about whether we were selling our mothers for crack. She’d also really like some health care, she said, but she probably would’t get any health care, she said.
The madman was a tall white guy with a greasy pony tail down to his waist. You could tell when a guy like this was dangerous. He had filthy shoes and long fingernails, a spoiled gallon of coiled rage in the pit of his belly. He balled his hands into fists, rocking over and over, muttering. In his sight line, a nurse in scrubs laughed with/at the crazy lady, who continued to rave.
“Fuck you laughing at, bitch?” the madman said.
At the next stop, the nurse in scrubs got off, and I considered going, too. In stepped a father in his forties and his teenaged son, both of whom wore sensible shoes and black T-shirts. The madman turned on them, his mouth parting in a sneer.
“Sup boss,” said the father. “How you doing today?”
“I am A-1 okay, brother,” the madman said, disarmed.
The three joked and laughed and the madman loosened up enough to unball his fists. When the father and son got off at the Natural History Museum, the madman said, “God bless.”
On the USC campus, an orange balloon arced into a blue sky, and everyone was young and no one seemed angry. I canvassed a main quad, looking for the right place to sit. More bikes than I’d ever seen were parked on the sidewalk. A woman wearing headphones nearly ran me over. Others rode by on beach cruisers, a parade of identical jean shorts, while young men preferred baggy cut-offs and skateboards of various size and trajectory. Through the thicket of wheels and oiled chains and sandpaper gripping, a sleek undergrad with perfect skin swished down the sidewalk, wearing an elegant blue suit. His tan brogues made a smart clapping sound as he passed. Nonstudents were easy to spot, with their posture, scuffed shoes, pale skin, and satchels. I entered a campus coffee shop, where the line was thirty-five deep. I adjusted my satchel. Two young students in front seemed to know as much as anyone else.
“Listen, it’s all about King Fahad,” the tall one said.
“I just totally can’t remember how Jordan fits into all this,” the other said.
Together, they worked to draw an extensive flow chart, blue ballpoint pens working. At the register, I couldn’t understand what the guy was saying. I did not want whip cream, no. There was another line to wait for my drink, so I leaned against a pleasant wooden table, beside a redhead in a green sweatshirt.
“This is a great spot,” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, it is.”
“Totally,” she said. “We are smart.”
Our coffees came. Her name was Emily and then she was gone.
That weekend, in Los Angeles, someone stole my wallet. In twenty-four hours, they racked up various charges: $70.11 at a grocery store, $30.52 at a convenience store, $31.75 at a music shop, $88.88 at a clothing store. At Day & Night Food Mart, it was $21.03.
I tried to picture that money in a pile. At a Day & Night Food Mart in Venice, you could spend $21.03. I allowed myself to get angry. Nobody would ever pay for this. We’d all pay for this. Then I called the credit card company. A careful man in Arizona told me I was good. His name was Xavier. If anyone was ever found, Xavier told me, I could press charges.
Nathan Deuel has contributed to Harper’s, GQ, the New York Times, and many others. His debut collection of essays, Friday Was the Bomb, will be published by Dzanc in May 2014. He lives in Los Angeles.