About a year ago I arrived to Los Angeles with an initial sense of panic. By the time I got off my flight at 3:30 p.m., I was teetering on the edge of having my phone turn off at any second with a mere battery life of 25%. Siri, how could you let this happen to me? I was too busy hitting it off with my single serving friends, Barbara and Robert. I had forgotten to turn off my phone during the flight. They were visiting their 5-year-old grandson and gave me a list of book recommendations. I couldn’t help myself, really. They were the best old couple I’ve ever met in my life. Everything I aspire to be.
My phone was the only form of navigation I had. I didn’t want to dish out $150 to rent out a GPS for the week. In line I had overheard a horror story from a furious mother from Michigan who rented a GPS from the car rental and how it brought her to a dirt path with no signal. She was a loose cannon and held up the line for a very long time, but she was standing up for what she believed in.
My body writhed with both anxiety and fear, but showing any signs of frailty could have landed me whimpering in a backseat of a taxi with a stranger from Oklahoma. With this in mind, I remained brave. What was the worst that could happen?
There was sartorial splendor peeking out from every corner. Form fitting leather jackets, Manolo Blahnik stilettos, Miu Miu handbags, wrinkled Hawaiian shirts, stylish gaudy metallic fanny packs, big bold sunglasses. It was refreshing. I was cloaked in a sheer black top, black leather motor boots, skinny jeans, and a cream white cardigan. My demeanor resembled a lost fawn from Bambi with no hope of ever coming out from the woods alive.
After picking up the Fiat, I tried to find the closest food establishment to charge my phone. I made eyes with a Denny’s from across the street. After finishing a half-marathon a few days before, I caved and indulged with a plate stacked with pancakes drenched in maple syrup. I will never deny a stack of pancakes and maple syrup as my savior, friend, and strong supporter in love and life.
I hopped on I-105 and fiddled with the radio. The announcer’s voice billowed through the heat wave; there was a car accident up ahead. In LA, you have no choice but to sit in traffic and suck it up for a few hours. I sat cradling and clenching my dead phone like it was going to resurrect from the dead, but it wasn’t in the cards. I was channeling a lot of yogi philosophy to remain centered.
My plan was to inch toward the closest exit to seek help. After hitting a few traffic lights, I was met with a white wrought iron fence plastered with graffiti, which barricaded the exterior of a Jack in the Box. I know what you’re thinking; my judgment on everything was questionable to say the very least.
I walked inside and was met with a sea of elevator eyes. With grace, I surveyed the restaurant for any outlets. I made my approach, with an air of confidence, toward two teenage girls sitting in the back corner of the restaurant.
“Excuse me. Do you know if there’s an outlet I can use to charge my phone?”
They ducked and craned their necks for a few seconds with no effort. These soulless teens needed a nap. I could see it in their eyes. They shook their heads in unison.
“Do you know if there’s a Starbucks or coffee shop nearby?”
With a confused look on her face she asked, “No. What’s a Starbucks?”
The question reverberated and I was sucked into a black hole and buried in a field of forgotten hopes and dreams. In that moment, I knew I as in the wrong part of LA and needed to get out of there fast. I got back into the car and drove over to the next building to seek help.
I parked in front of a Coin Laundry that not only smelled of dryer sheets and detergent, but also layers of booze and cigarette smoke. I met a mother-daughter pair inside who had friendly faces.
“Excuse me? I’m looking for a place to charge my phone. I don’t know where I am and I need to get to my family.”
“Sure thing honey.”
She surveyed the area with great detail, looking behind every nook and cranny, but the washer and dryer units occupied every plug.
“Darling, where are you from? You don’t look like you’re from around here?”
“I’m from Rhode Island. I’m here for the summer.”
“Well, you should get yourself out of here after you charge your phone. It’s very dangerous this is where all the pimps and prostitutes hang out, girl. You can’t be here for too long.”
“What’s your name?”
“My name is Vicki and that’s my daughter Nicki.” Nicki played with her baby son at the folding table.
“My name is Mia. It’s nice to meet you. Thank you for your help.”
“Not to worry, honey.”
She shared stories about how the Coin Laundry transformed into a hip and happening nightclub with booze and sex during the night. I’ve never heard of such a thing and was in shock. I probably said the world “really” a hundred times during the course of our conversation.
She was comfortable with revealing her life to me, a total stranger. She informed me on the gang activity and how her home gets broken into at least two times a week. Her husband left her and maintained three jobs to stay afloat. My problems were minuscule compared to hers.
“Where am I exactly?”
“Honey, you’re in Compton. You need to juice up your phone in my car. I want you to have enough juice to get you on your way.”
Oh my god, I’m in Compton.
I was hesitant at the idea at first, fear of having my phone stolen from the car, but I was desperate. She led me out to her car and had me tuck my phone underneath the seat with it plugged in. There was a metal baseball bat in the passenger seat, which was a tool for self-defense if anyone gave her trouble. It worried me a bit.
In the meantime, Nicki was kind enough to look up directions on her phone. I wrote them on a set of flash cards I found in my backpack. I felt at ease for the first time in hours.
“How old are you?”
“I’m 20. How about you?”
“Really?! You look like you’re 26. I’m also 20. I think it’s the way you talk and dress. You sound really smart when you talk too.”
“Wow. I thought you were much older too!”
We both laughed.
She shared her story about how she got pregnant at 17 and dropped out of school to take care of her son. She shared her passion for cosmetology, but didn’t have the means to go back to school. The sun was about to set and as much as I wanted to have these mini interviews with the mother-daughter pair I had to go, and they did too.
I went back to the car to check on my phone and it was at a 40% charge. I knew it was my time to go. I hugged them both and went on my way. I’ll never forget them and their friendly smiles.
A few days later, I found a USB port in the glove compartment of the car. I perished and sank into my seat laughing so hard I cried.
I anticipated enduring a summer of hardship and pain in this lonely city, but only ended up forming a lot of meaningful friendships. Los Angeles, I love and hate you. I’m coming back for you, fully charged this time.