In the summer of 2011 I came in safely on the Greyhound to Los Angeles from San Francisco and for once the terminal looked like it wasn’t in the dodgiest part of town. So I decided to walk toward downtown, determined not to spend any money on a taxi. A decision I would both regret and praise.
It must’ve been a sunday because everything looked dead and empty. I’d noticed the route the bus took through downtown and over to the Greyhound station a couple of kilometers away and decided the streets looked safe enough. So long as I could just double back along the same route.
I hung the camera bag over one shoulder and my laptop bag over the other, threw my big and heavy backpack on my back and started walking, the skyscrapers making it obvious which direction I should take. At first the streets were nearly empty, hardly even saw any cars driving past me. The weather was sunny, but not too hot, much more pleasant than a month earlier as I arrived in New York City on the end of a heat wave.
Somewhere along the way I must’ve taken a wrong turn. I no longer recognised the buildings and I started seeing more people, poor people, moving about in the street. But as I could still see the tall towers of LA reaching for the sky I kept on walking. More and more people started to appear, I thought nothing of it. It was a huge city after all. Soon I walked past the first movie shoot I was to see that day (2 more later followed). I was excited, but instantaneously the feeling subsided.
I was greeted by the hard truth of the city of angels, the city of dreams: the people that have fallen between.
The street was filled with people now, but they were not going from one place to another; they were living there. Shopping carts, clothes racks and sleeping bags were scattered all over the sidewalk. I held on to my bags and kept on walking. Avoiding eye contact almost as fiercely as I realised the poor inhabitants of this street were doing to me. Hardly anyone looked at me, and those who did quickly looked away, eyes averted in shame. Their society has told them they are so low that when a traveller from a different country stumbles upon them they are ashamed of their failure to fit in with a country that doesn’t love them. The shame becomes theirs when really it should be the nation’s.
Strangely I never felt unsafe; there was just nothing there to threaten me. I kept on walking, looking around in complete astonishment as I walked past thousands upon thousands of homeless people. No doubt in my mind that many of these had formerly been members of the middle class who lost everything as the crash on Wall Street 3 years prior had lead to the worst recession the world had seen since the Great Depression of the 30’s.
All of a sudden the congregation abruptly stopped and I was greeted by a police station and a sign that declared that it was a crime to sit, lay or otherwise occupy the streets of LA. I was amazed at the contrast to what I had just seen. Skid Row had ended.
Almost immediately after I passed the police station I saw the second movie shoot of the day as a car came driving past, cameras on cranes and filming the back of the truck where a car was parked. That’s how they do it. When you see a car driving around in the movies it’s really on top of another car, allowing the actors to focus on acting rather than driving.
Downtown Los Angeles
It might seem remarkable and strange that it wasn’t until leaving Skid Row that I was harassed for the first time. A rough looking fellow came up to me while I was waiting on the light to change so I could cross the street. He was asking for money. When I said I had none he refused to take no for an answer. Luckily he must’ve thought better of the situation as there were plenty of people about and he quickly moved on, almost running from the scene which forced me to check my pockets. Everything was still there.
I had just lost my wallet on the Greyhound coming into San Francisco and had only managed to get to LA by the fluke that my money was split between 2 different accounts and I had kept the cards separate. So I was in no mood to repeat that stress, even though I only needed to get to the airport by now, I’d wisely decided on largely skipping LA. The city of angels didn’t beckon me. I had a ticket out and I wasn’t intending to stay.
After a walk down the near deserted ghost town that is Downtown LA after office hours, I bought a carton of cigarettes as I still hadn’t been able to kick that habit back then. I wanted to save money as smokes were more than twice the price at my next destination: Melbourne, Australia.
Realising there wasn’t much more to see I went looking for a taxi. But I couldn’t even find that. Instead I walked past a skyscraper that had a warning plaque posted outside saying something or other about a carcinogen that had been used in the building. A typical American disclaimer allowing the owner of the building to swear off any responsibility on people getting sick while working there. They knew what they were getting themselves into, they had a choice.
Good Bye Mr. America
I finally managed to get a taxi and told the driver to take me straight to the airport. As we got further away from downtown I looked back through the rear window at the experience I had just had. I knew I wouldn’t miss LA, and in a way it was a great last stop on my tour across the USA, coast to coast over land. It fit in with the perspective I had already gained of the huge economic disparity that prevails in the Greatest Nation on Earth. I skipped out on Hollywood as I didn’t feel that it was the real LA. I saw the real Los Angeles that day, it wasn’t pretty, but I am glad for what I saw – the real, hard truth about the American dream: Some people fall between.
Beppe Karlsson, Stockholm