In January 2005, my heart was torn between two women. By June, it was in tatters. The first frosts of early winter were turning hoary the rugby fields outside my window in a student accommodation house in Dunedin, where I was a study-abroad student at the University of Otago. I had lost my way there – I never did manage to find the classroom for the Japanese Film course, and I was surviving on two-dollar plates of khichadi at the Hare Krishna centre near the University library. I had become withdrawn, meeting my housemates only at dinnertime, bored with the food we took turns cooking: each person tried to replicate their mother’s cooking and failed at it. I misspent funds and time on cheap bottles of New Zealand wine, refused to make friends, attended screenings for my other two classes but avoided lectures, never submitted assignments, wandered in the city’s botanical garden, tramped the bush to vantages from where the Pacific’s eastward spread brought a semblance of liberation, a possibility that I would someday be whole, healthy and happy.
What had begun as an affected display of heartbreak smothered me entirely: the realization that I had lost the opportunity of being loved by the finest person I had yet met hit me abruptly, knocked the wind out of me. The grief was not for the girlfriend freshly lost anymore, but for a love that never had the opportunity to find requital, and there was nobody to blame but myself. How trite that is – to mourn something that never was. But the young heart was being scored for the first time and nothing else seemed to compare with the hollow that was carried everywhere, with every breath and every thought. Therefore, schooled in the art of grieving for unrealized love by the likes of Dilip Kumar playing Devdas and Gérard Depardieu playing Cyrano de Bergerac – both movies viewed repeatedly in the University library over the autumn term – the heart took too fondly to the bottle. Soon, I was skipping most meals, living on three bottles of wine and a bowl of oatmeal everyday, and every few days shitting little black lumps, not very different from goat droppings. The thirst was constant but hunger was mostly absent. Drinking shrank the time between lying down and falling asleep, and no dream lingered on the eyelids to tease the mind. Passing out became a sought-after, blessed goal.
On Fridays I’d join a roving bunch of international students, trying to get into pubs, crashing house parties. The idea was to travel in a pack, tearing into a deep-fried leg of lamb, flourishing a lit cigar, bribing bouncers for entry into wherever a familiar bunch of girls had promised to be dancing the night away. Later, everybody bought fish and chips from a Chinese takeout shop. Terns and gulls circled and cackled overhead. A sport was to throw steaming hot bits of potatoes at the birds and see how many times they caught the food midair. There was a perverse satisfaction in the look of disappointment on a woman’s face as she first smiled brightly on seeing me, then shrank away upon realizing how wasted I was, slurring my words and swaying on my feet. A bottle of wine at a time, a wall of green glass separated me from the world.
It was time to go.
Nothing had been earned, nothing gained, but a precious lot had been lost. The funds that were supposed to see me through the term had been spent a month before the date on which I was to fly back to Walla Walla, in rural Washington State, with Los Angeles as the port of entry. Friends had sent a few hundred dollars to tide me over until the departure date, but my heart was no longer in Dunedin, and it longed for the lazy, long summers in Walla Walla where I had friends who knew me, who would welcome me into their lives. Huyen would make me cook for her and repay me with beer. Tuan knew the fruiting trees on public lands. Elena brought back fresh vegetables from the fields where she worked alongside undocumented immigrants. The fig plant in the community garden would have fruit. So I spent my absolute last reserves of good sense and used most of my remaining funds to pay the fines needed to bring forward by two weeks my date of departure from Christchurch. That fine was enough to pay for room and board for the remainder of the term, but not enough to buy booze. I made my choice, and it was only the beginning of a series of insensible choices ahead.
“Are you making your way straight to Walla Walla?” the immigration officer at Los Angeles asked.
“I’m not sure. I’ve always wanted to see Hollywood,” I put on a chipper grin. The officer gave me a leery look.
“You know where you’re staying?”
He shrugged dismissively, returned my passport. I took the bus to downtown LA and headed to the only hotel familiar to me. I had stayed there on my way out to New Zealand in January – a seedy joint redeemed by the presence of a pair of Mexican and Chinese fast- food restaurants where a person could eat their fill for three dollars. The room was on the fourteenth floor. As he gave me the key, the man behind the cage warned against opening the door for anybody at all at night. “All kinds of crazies,” he shook his head with a look of pity.
A room in the hotel cost forty dollars for the night, or by the hour. Thirty dollars remained. Tomorrow was another day. I washed, ate at the Chinese restaurant, and set out to explore the neighbourhood. The buildings looked familiar from the movies, the streets emptied before sunset, a storm whipped in from the west, and I knew I was at the farthest edge of the world. Every step now was a return to elsewhere. A bar full of Hispanic men turned cold and silent for a minute when I entered. After a beer, the barman asked where I was from and if I knew where I was. “Buddy, this ain’t no place to be after dark,” he advised.
I took the hint and returned to my hotel room, refused to open the door when a woman banged on the door in panic until someone from the hotel called her away. I watched as much TV as I could manage before falling asleep. In the morning, I took a long, hot shower, shaved with a scratchy disposable razor, ate chicken drumsticks and rice fried in old oil at the Chinese restaurant, bought a bottle of water, and set out to make it in the streets of Los Angeles for two weeks with a little over twenty dollars in my wallet.
I folded a few dollar bills into a small square and hid them in a pocket in the wallet. This is America, I reassured myself, this is Los Angeles, people show up here with a suitcase and a dream, and they are all fine, aren’t they?
Whenever I reached a new, big city, I made it a point to walk as much of it as possible, letting signposts and landmarks register on the mind until the silhouettes of buildings and bridges became familiar enough to navigate by night. But Los Angeles is big and hostile to pedestrians. An all-day pass cost three dollars and change, but it seemed the most sensible investment in the moment. The belly was full, the day was long, and there was a lot to see out of the bus window.
A teenager waiting for his school bus sifted through the change in his pocket. Pennies, nickels and dimes littered the bus stop. He tossed away a half-bottle of Minute Maid juice. His bus arrived. I waited for the next bus – did it matter which line it was or where it went? I could ride city buses well into the night. With careful planning, I would only have to spend five hours of the night outside a bus. No better place to fall asleep than on a moving bus.
“Last stop, man!” The bus driver shook me awake. “Everybody gotta get off here.”
“I have an all-day pass,” I said.
He must have accurately read the confusion on my face. “Tell you what – you get off here. I have to drive around the corner, punch in, and I’ll be back in five.”
Everybody must have disembarked because there was nobody else in the terminal. The driver drove around. I waited patiently for him to open the door, showed him the all-day pass. I was making my way to the back of the bus when he asked me to sit up front.
“If you don’t mind, that is,” he said. “Nobody’s getting on this bus for a while, but we gotta drive all the way out here anyway.”
We chatted. Rather, he talked and I grunted. He had been driving for over a decade, without incident or accident, even though the strangest folks rode his bus. “I used to get angry, the kind of people who get on and try to start something. Other drivers on the road. Kids – nasty kids, brats, no respect for nothing. But now, nope! What’s the point? Everybody’s trying to get somewhere, know what I mean?” He had found peace without having to find God with a capital gee – this allowed him to treat everybody with dignity. “Next stop, a whole bunch of ladies will get on. They’re not supposed to eat on the bus, but, so what? They gotta leave their kids at home, take the bus all the way to Palos Verdes. No way they’re allowed to eat at work. The rich? Nah, they don’t get it. You’re here on my dime, so you gotta clock in your hours, they’ll say. I don’t speak much Spanish, I can’t connect with them, you know, I can’t take away their tiredness. I see it on their faces, but nothing I can do about it. I got a whole lotta respect for them, though, you know?”
Outside, the hill rolled down to the Pacific. A long, quiet stretch of the road, until, outside a large gated community, the bus filled with women in various iterations of the housemaid’s attire. They funneled their chatter intact into the bus – hermanas and chiquitas and tias effusive with talk that needed letting. I didn’t understand much, but that didn’t matter. Most women greeted the driver, if they didn’t look down or away with shyness or the desire to shrink away from his cheeriness. They took out containers of food and ate, passing and sharing it, demanding a taste, forcing others to partake. The driver announced that in their midst was a young man from Nepal, a country far away. Somebody gave me an apple or an enchilada – I don’t remember what food I received from those strangers, but I do remember being too shy to eat.
Little Korea, Little Vietnam, Little Italy – no nation has managed to make its mark upon the American Project until it has acquired, in as many large cities as possible, the quota of its diminutive: the Little Nation Enclave. It mocks the numerous small nations wiped out of the American memory, and it panders most popularly through its cuisine. Little Ethiopia, Little Bangladesh, Little Tibet, Chinatown, Little Armenia: the exotic brought home, a twisted mirror to your image, a feast of dubious provenance. Block after block the waft of food from one or another exotic corner of the world floated past. Some commuters hastily threw away grease-paper rolls of food from a Little Nation fast-food joint, wiped their mouths and boarded the bus, the smear of a curry or tang of mustard or vinegar still clinging to their clothes.
I got off the bus at the downtown Los Angeles stop from which the day had begun. I knew the streets there – the Greyhound station for shelter in a storm, drinking fountains and air vents, toilet-rolls and sinks with running water, a McDonalds that stayed open all night. A burger for the fat to run down the chin, a bottle of orange juice for its sugar, the salted fries for a long, ruminative mastication: along with food came the purchased right to eat without hurry, secure in the knowledge that no bully would cruelly snatch away the first morsel. But after the mouth is wiped there is no purchase left on the space. Exit into the world.
Perhaps, more than twelve years since, the streets that I walked that night in downtown Los Angeles have become gentrified, or perhaps they remain the same ruin of broken chain-link fences and broken bottles, men and women raving in dark corners for their evening’s hit of crack, shopping carts each with a wheel cackling to mock the street-dweller pushing it to nowhere. Perhaps now young emigres from around the world gather to experience new art in reclaimed buildings, or perhaps junkies still die in gutted houses with inches of rainwater decaying into a gray slush. But on that night a storm had scattered the homeless into their familiar crannies in the largely abandoned neighbourhood. Of those who remained out I remember two people most distinctly – a woman who pushed a shopping cart full of shoes, and a man who had a cartful of paper and bottles.
“What you got in your backpack?” the man asked me. He was black, in his thirties, glasses thickly on the negative of the diopter, wearing a warm coat and speaking in a lukewarm voice.
“Clothes,” I said. “My passport.”
“Where you from?”
“Crazy shit going down over there, huh, brother?”
I smiled, nodded slowly with a faraway look, the works.
He was a regular at the Los Angeles Public Library – a longish walk, but a quick bus ride from downtown LA. Nobody carrying a valid US identification could be denied entry. Water, restrooms, central air conditioning, the freedom to stay indoors from nine to five, guest lectures, fifteen-minutes a pop access to the Internet to search for jobs and write emails to friends – it was a haven for those without refuge.
“These aren’t the streets for a guy like you, you feel?” I did not feel. “You don’t belong here,” he said. “You got any money on you?”
“Never say that!” he scolded me. “You want me to stab you and take that money?”
I shook my head.
“You look at me and you see a homeless black man. But you,” – a student from Nepal, down and out on the streets of downtown Los Angeles – “and me,” – black man with a cartful of picked paper and empty bottles – “we’re not that different. You’re in college – good for you. I study at the library, read about the world, form opinions. I’m not homeless because I’m too dumb to crack the American Dream – I’m homeless because I see it for the fucking sham it is.” He had chosen this life, he said, for more than a decade now. He read widely, wrote poetry in his journals crowded with scribbling but neatly indexed, debated when he met peers worthy of debate, performed his poems for change, made enough to live without stress by reclaiming recyclable bottles and paper.
“Go to Hollywood,” he said. “Nobody going to stab your skinny brown ass over there.”
The Hispanic kid was back at his stop, rifling through his pockets for change. After he left, I picked nearly a dollar’s worth in pennies and nickels and dimes. Once I started looking for them, there were pennies everywhere. But not enough to buy a day pass. For that, I had to bring out the twenty-dollar bill.
“I can’t take your money, honey,” the driver said. “I need exact change, no less, no more.”
Three women waited behind me to board the bus. Their impatience surged, I began my retreat. I would have to walk for a few minutes to spend money on a bottle of water or a meal – which I didn’t need. Meals needed to be rationed and scheduled through the day sensibly.
“Somebody help this child!” the driver told the women behind me. One of them took the twenty-dollar bill, bought my day pass and returned fifteen dollars. A loss of nearly a bottle of orange juice. “Everybody brings exact change,” the woman who had helped me explained.
“You sit here, honey,” the bus driver pointed to the seat behind her. “You know where you going?” I shook my head. The bus driver laughed. “I thought so. You sit here, and I’ll give you a tour of the city.”
She teased me mercilessly, the bus driver – and other women hooted and whistled. I blushed. She asked questions, I found the timid voice of the unmoored to answer. I don’t remember much of what she said, except the bombast when she drove past ivy-walled mansions of the brightest of Hollywood’s glittering firmament, or giggled at the Church of Scientology on Sunset Boulevard. Those were the hours of the first pangs of hunger that would last for a few days. I recalled the intense hunger that existed alongside plenitude in my boarding school years: breakfasts and the midafternoon tiffin at the institution where I spent nearly ten full years were tolerable, but lunches and dinners were unappetizing if not outright revolting. There was food on the table, plenty of it, but it was also entirely unpalatable most of the time. Meat was served three times a week and very much celebrated, even if it was curried chicken smothered under a thick layer of fat. A significant amount of intelligence was spent on finding creative and dangerous ways to pilfer from the kitchen gardens of resident teachers, or from the bakery, or in smuggling into the school bags of momos and chowmein.
Hunger wasn’t ever a stranger, but it didn’t unwelcomely linger on either. The certainty of the next meal was fixed, even if the wait between two meals was sometimes uneven. Hunger was most acute on festival days like Dashain or Bhaitika when the prescribed moment for receiving tika fell late in the morning or into early afternoon. But that hunger was ceremonial, a price extracted by tradition, part and parcel of the promise of the gluttonous feast that would surely follow. Hunger when nothing is certain about where the next meal will come from felt like a foot poised over the precipice, the mind leaning forward with nothing more than a vague hope that everything would be alright, that the foot would find its necessary hold above the abyss. And, ahead, for many more meals to come, the vertigo of a lapse, a deep and annihilating fall waiting.
I remember that the bus driver was very kind, maternal. She let me off somewhere in West Hollywood. I walked past a two-storey structure that I would recognize a few months later as the building where Steve Carell’s character works in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. It had an escalator climbing to a gym on the upper storey. Ha! In the gym were men prettier than the women who trained them, and next to it was a Japanese-themed restaurant.
“Can I get you something?” a waiter asked. California twist on sushi and sashimi, all-day breakfast, nothing under ten dollars. But there must be work and food in the kitchen, somewhere just out of sight, a secret treasure to be won.
“I’m looking for work.”
Not just the waiter, a few restaurant patrons laughed too. “Hey!” the waiter shouted to the kitchen, “somebody get this guy a serving of employment!”
“I can bus dishes, clean the floor…”
“You and a thousand others, buddy, you and a thousand others.”
I beat a retreat into the streets. Buses came a lot less frequently to this neighbourhood of ivy-clad walls studded with closed-circuit cameras and a silence poured-from-above. A man pestered with a star-studded map of the neighbourhood. A middle-aged woman in a pink velvet set of sweats walked an equally twee pair of tiny, terrified dogs.
“Are you lost?”
“I’m just walking.”
“It’s just… you’re looking at everything.”
“I’m looking for a job, actually.”
“Where’re you coming from?”
How would I answer that? Or, where was I headed?
As the gulf between the spectacle outside the bus window and my ability to approach it widened, a greed arose in the mind for the unattainable: sun-kissed women of willowy frames, the silk and satin of window displays, the ins-and-outs of drive-thru burger joints, shadows flitting behind closed doors and open shades, oranges on shrubs behind bright picket fences, a soft chair, anywhere. The thrum of the windowpane entered through the temple and echoed inside the head, became a comforting drone, painted pictures of tranquil, sunny days spent lolling on soft grass kissing the inside of a woman’s arm. Perhaps the salt from my own dry lips became the taste of her mouth and – quickly perverting – became the savour of khasi ko jhol from so long ago, so far away, the only taste capable of satisfying entirely. Hungers commingled. I’d suddenly sit up and cover myself with the backpack, embarrassed at the possibility of an erratic erection in a bus seat. In such moments heat swelled behind eyelids and the scalp and weighted the head, the body seemed unmoored from time but anchored to the place, and the limbs shimmered with a faint voltaic tingling as if they were only now awakening to the world. This was the opposite of coming into a room and knowing where everyone and everything was, and what would come in the next hour or the next day.
The large box of a mall with the Nordstrom logo passed on the right. On a whim, I got off the bus: the air would be cooler indoors, there would be water to drink and facilities to use.
“Do you like muffins?”
“Beg your pardon?”
“Muffins. You like them?”
I like them, I suppose, I said, followed the man into a room with rows of desks. The chatter was jargoned; I strained to pick up as much of it as I could. A tray, three muffins, a sharpened pencil and a form to fill out: the job was to eat and react to the taste and texture of the muffins. Is this a trick? The form asked me to comment on which muffin was the moistest, the driest, the saltiest and the sweetest, etc. Surely, the ones who made the muffin know which is the sweetest?
It wasn’t like I’d be returning to them another day, so I wrote honestly about what I thought of each of the muffins. I took careful bites, washed my mouth with water after each bite, and finished the muffins only after finishing the form. They handed me a five-dollar bill on the way out. I get to eat, and I get paid for it?
Braced by the muffins I decided to brave the beach. The Santa Monica Pier was only a short ride away – the Ferris-wheel was familiar from so many movies. The Pacific Park was looking for shift-managers.
“You worked rides before?” the amusement park manager asked.
“Nothing to it. Just make sure none of the kids get hurt.” The kids were African American high school students between fourteen and sixteen years of age, bussed in from East Los Angeles for an internship that paid above minimum wage and kept them off the streets through the summer. They were bright, curious, courteous, aware of the opportunity before them and its import.
“What’s your address?” the manager asked.
“Don’t have one. Not in LA.”
“That, I have.”
I got the job, but it would be another whole week before I could begin.
The crowd of tourists in North Hollywood began thinning by dusk – if you can afford to stay in a hotel on Sunset Boulevard, you’re likely not a tourist picking out names on the Walk of Fame – and by eight o’clock the sidewalks emptied. The bowl of rice purchased for fifty cents – the soy sauce gratis – at a Japanese restaurant on the pier had disappeared by the evening. Stomachs shrink rapidly and the pangs of hunger become rarer as the rate of ingestion decreases; a slow walk through the night isn’t as terrible as it sounds if the streets are well-lit and the air balmy. Stars illustrious and obscure lined the sidewalk; bits of quartz in the concrete shimmered like their counterparts in the skies. The team that went to the moon, the dog that saved children and foiled rustic villains, the starlet that passed too soon from the bright to the dark: companions for a meditative journey on how quickly bread turns to ash, how perishable the promise of nourishment.
It is difficult now to chart the route across the neighbourhood for where was the warm vent of air rushing out from grates over the subway line where, with a giggle and very little care, I did strike a Marilyn Monroe pose, the hems of my invisible gown billowing past the waist, or the bench outside one of the Scientology buildings from where I watched in awe troops of new inductees march out and around a block and back, their smart shoes clipping over the sidewalk. But I remember the square of light behind bars on a wall where it was possible to buy a plastic cup of cold water.
“How much is it?”
“You want water or you don’t want water?”
“You gotta keep hydrated, man,” a voice slurred from a corner. She was swaying and shivering – high on crack cocaine, I guessed. She carried a dollar bill in her hand. I counted out the nickels and dimes.
I was walking away with my cup of water when she called out.
“What you got in that bag?”
“Come on! Why you gotta lie to me?”
“I got some clothes.”
“Give me the pyjamas.”
These were pyjamas bought in Thamel, parcel-posted to Walla Walla by Dhiraj, who was studying at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. I gave them to her.
“I gotta lean on you. Turn away,” she said. “Thanks, buddy.”
She had changed into the pyjamas. Her old shorts were smeared in runny shit. She offered me two dollar bills.
“I can’t take them,” I said, more out of disgust than pity.
“You on the streets just like me. Take it!”
I took the money.
“UCLA! They got a nice library, fireplace and water fountain and everything. Just don’t fall asleep – they’ll ask you for ID,” she pointed down a road.
At around four in the morning a library assistant woke me up. “Can’t sleep in here, buddy.” I washed up, filled up a bottle of water, headed out to search for the nearest bus stop.
By now I knew two reliable sources of food: the tasting lab in the mall and the Japanese restaurant on the pier where the waiters were not unkind towards anyone who walked in and ordered just a bowl of rice. If I could make it on the streets for another five days or so, the job at the pier would provide shelter and wage, and certainty of a sort. Maybe a talent scout seeking extras to people a scene on the beach would give me my break in the movie industry. Peas and carrots, peas and carrots, carrots and peas – that much I knew for the filler background-chatter in movie scenes from hanging out with the theatre kids back at the college. A summer romance wasn’t improbable if sobriety remained and the gaunt frame filled up some. The silver screen had always been my aspiration; I had imagined I would train in acting and learn to write and direct, romance actresses, indulge in the sort of excesses that invite muses to nightly congress. It is possible to live on water alone for quite a while.
It was pizza day at the tasting lab in the mall.
“Do me a favour – put some other name down,” the assistant handing out the forms said. “They don’t like it if the same people keep coming through everyday.” That was that, then, wasn’t it? I nodded sagely, put my heart and integrity into judging the three slices of pizza – one was too soggy, the other too greasy and the last a tad bit too salty, but perhaps the best of the lot if paired with a sweet soda – and walked away with three half-eaten slices carefully wrapped in paper.
It was a bright day on Santa Monica beach. A woman had just won a prize for being the “most tanned” person in a competition. California. “I’m actually white,” the maid of the leathery visage chirped repeatedly, pulling down her bikini bottom on the waist to show how far she had tanned away from her fair skin to the unnatural terracotta hue. Men with biceps thicker than my waist pumped iron and sipped protein drinks. I chewed leftover pizza and walked through the waft of oysters and fish and crab being fried and baked in seafood joints along the walkway towards Venice Beach.
A dog sniffed my face. A few beach-bodies regarded me with curiosity. I had laid down my bag for a pillow and fallen asleep on the sand. Daylight thickened into dense syrup, made the head groggy and the limbs leaden. It wasn’t easy to stand, and the first few steps were unsteady, but it was time to withdraw from the fantasy of the California beach. Suddenly the quiet of the Hollywood hills seemed distant, unattainable. Upon arriving in Christchurch at the beginning of my New Zealand sojourn I had similarly been awoken by strangers who were worried for my safety because I had keeled over by the roadside. I had been sleep-deprived throughout the journey from Walla Walla. Now, on the California coast, I realized that sleeplessness would get me sooner than hunger would. Nothing is more damning than the window of oblivion between involuntarily giving in to sleep and waking into bewilderment. The cheeriness of revellers arriving at the beach made the walk back to the bus stop forlorn.
Back in Hollywood the stars underfoot seemed fainter, the streetlights colder. A storm arrived from the Pacific and brought with it an unseasonable chill, a cold drizzle and the threat of wind. I had been – in the parlance of those who keep a lookout for the undesirables – clocked at the University library. Scientologists on their eerie nightly marches did a double-take whenever they walked past, until one of them asked me for ID.
“You were here last night, too.”
“I’m just walking.”
The guy stared at me for a bit, walked away and spoke into the crackle of a walkie-talkie. That was that, then, wasn’t it, for loitering around his neighbourhood? The body’s centre of gravity had floated to the head, or perhaps a foot above it; the neck didn’t have the strength to hold the head up. Sometimes I walked with one eye open, lying to myself that it was enough to see where I was going, that half-sleep was also half-awake. The last half-slice of pizza became a prize gem, imperial seal and passport into another day closer to the date when I could start at the job on the pier. When I woke up with a start at cars zooming past and realized that I had been leaning my head against walls and telephone poles, I started looking for shelter to lay my head down.
Outside a quiet hospital, under a hedge, huddled in a corner to keep the rain and daylight out, a shirt wrapped around the face to keep out noise invading from the world without, I tried not to wake, tried to burrow myself through the tussle of scenes, faces, emotions, hurts and hungers that filled the head. The dreams were of dipping into a body of water and of waiting for food, hands washed and nails drying, watery-mouthed, senses eager for deliverance away from privation. The acid pangs of new hunger had given away to dull aches in the belly, then morphed into a heaviness that was buoyed with food, then to a lightness of head and tiredness of limbs, but sleeplessness threatened to hijack the mind, separate it from the settled and reasonable to the agitated and aberrant, colouring dreams, bringing quakes and shameful quivers to the loins. A dream was of an interminable, warm piss, pleasurable because of the release and of the quenching of thirst it brought to the mind. I tossed awake, in the tangle of a hedge bush, relieved that I hadn’t in fact pissed myself.
Sleeplessness brought paranoia. A great part of the fear was directed against myself: how did I know that some of the nightmare hadn’t bled into reality while I was asleep? Sure, I perhaps didn’t fly above the traffic on the road, but how would I know if I hadn’t punched a man or laughed at a woman while playing with myself? Sleeplessness – is that not a hunger of a second sort? – robs one of selfhood quicker.
America doesn’t like its poor because they are an indictment of its greatest lie – the prosperity gospel, which is its self-image. It hates its homeless even more: benches designed for uncomfortable sitting, laws against sitting down, uncharitable looks on the faces of the self-righteous. Without access to facilities, the homeless person begins to smell, to lose their mind, to rant and rave, to wear the shabby and disintegrating countenance built for them by their civic opponents. Teeth and hair fall out in the land devoted to bright smiles and hundreds of acres of wigs. The least bit of dirt on the person separates them from those who have strived and obeyed to purchase a place on the social scale. The homeless poor is reduced to a cliché and an unsightly adornment for the rest to differentiate themselves against. There must be the vertigo of the fall from social station that forever waits just out of sight, the undertow of credit-scores and real-estate bubbles and lost jobs lapping at unsteady feet. For a nation that converts so much of its grains into cheap alcohol and sugary drinks, America still sends a shamefully large number of its children to bed hungry each night.
Food doesn’t fatten anymore than hunger kills. Eating and fasting are ritually important across cultures, this we know. It is the absence of control over either hunger or consumption that removes us from the ranks of our peers and renders us lesser: the breathless obese sweating for a third serving at a buffet or the hollow-eyed mad who pictures us fair fare. It is a cruel jest to try to enter that world when no necessity for it exists.
I got out.
I checked my email at a County Library computer and found frantic emails from Tuan and from Sandy Trentham, a retired sales executive who had worked in Asia for thirty years and was my host-family, designated by Whitman. They knew of my departure from Dunedin and were alarmed that I hadn’t arrived in Walla Walla. I didn’t put up a brave façade for too long before accepting their arrangement.
At the Greyhound station in downtown LA awaited a bus ticket and a couple of hundred dollars for me to make my way back to Walla Walla. The journey would take four days, passing through Sacramento, somewhere past Reno, the part of Oregon that is like driving through Phakding and Manjo, through Salem and Portland in Oregon, east along the Columbia to Pasco. The bus would stop every few hours and I would eat and drink compulsively, at every station. But, immediately, I needed food, so I went to the McDonald’s.
Barely twenty paces outside, three men raced towards me. They had been sitting on concrete blocks by a weedy lot, shaking half-filled bottles of water.
“I gotta have those fries, man!” one of them said.
“What you got there? A cheeseburger?” another asked.
“It’s for me,” I said.
“Nah, man – I really gotta have those fries,” the first said. “I gotta have them.”
I smiled the most foolish and brave smile. “You come with me, all of you, and I’ll buy you a meal,” I said.
“No – I gotta have these fries.”
“Don’t be stupid. You come with me, inside, and I buy you a combo meal, and a Minute Maid. You coming or what?”
I turned and started walking back, counting change enough to buy the men what I had promised them. It was my purchase into the station just above them, and I knew it.
First published in La.Lit, volume 9.