‘You was lucky I found you.’
Downtown Los Angeles was covered in bleached dirt. Some streetlights glowed dull, most had given up. It needed to rain.
‘They would a robbed you without thinking. White man can’t walk in these parts. Doesn’t matter if you Scottish or not.’
Tumbleweed rubbish scraped along the street. There was no Hollywood skyline, just ruddy smog. Night had come on quick.
‘What you mean you half Irish? Wouldn’t make any difference, they’d take everything you got. When you live here you one thing or another. You Scottish or Irish, you black or white, you rich or you homeless.’
I had been sitting in a café on Venice boulevard sipping ice tea. A production line of effortless cool strolled by, clean trainers and boutique Tees. In the tide of individuality only the boring stood out. Street venders sold bamboo framed Ray bans, well-heeled buskers smirked at anything less than a fiver. No restaurant dared to be fancy, only grainy wood and dirty floors. Nothing honest, everything appropriated. Even the dirty floors were sterile. My phone rang:
‘We can’t pick you up anymore, you need to get to Sacramento for 1 pm tomorrow. Don’t be late.’
Sacramento was 500 miles away, it was 8 at night. Venice Boulevard grew obscene around me, a choir of ‘I, I, I’ stories coming from every table. Fixed smiles and nodding heads waited their turn to self-publicise in lives now merely a PR exercise.
I walked back to my Hostel and booked the 10 pm Greyhound to Sacramento.
‘You’re going to Sacramento? Tonight? That’s tough dude.’
Tim ran the Venice Beach Hostel. He was a tall middle-aged Englishman with the build of one accustomed to slow walks and organic smoothies. He had a warm smile and good local knowledge.
‘You need to get Downtown. Catch the 733 and ride it to the end. After that grab a cab to the Greyhound station. Avoid walking Downtown.’
I had been ready to spend the night star spotting and sipping craft beer, getting mildly emotional as I thought of home and watched older couples dance. Instead I felt like a child’s balloon loosed into the atmosphere.
A couple of years ago I was walking down Lothian road in Edinburgh. It was a bitter December day. I couldn’t stop shivering, big explosive chitters like a dog drying itself. Only the certainty I would soon be in the warm made it bearable.
Sitting in the doorway of an abandoned barbershop was a man from another world. He had a tea cosy hat, torn jackets, and bulbous purple nose. He was trying to move as I walked by, like a fly in its final moments on a sticky trap. I went to the cash machine and got out a tenner. It felt like money could warm him up. He tried to thank me but didn’t have a voice.
I got on the inner-city bus from Venice and rode it to the end. The occupants gradually changed from white to black to Hispanic as the streets outside got shabbier and the fast-food joints more numerous.
I got off and looked for a taxi. There wasn’t one. I asked in one of the empty restaurants, the server shrugged his shoulders;
‘You won’t get a cab down here sorry.’
I started to walk, looking for a sign. A thin guy walked towards me, mid-forties, shaved head, see-through skull cap and baggy white t-shirt. I stopped him:
‘Excuse me, I’m trying to get to the Greyhound station.’
He looked around, trying to work out if I was real or not. His eyes were dull, pupils dilated.
‘I show you – these streets ain’t safe.’ He looked at the bags cutting into my shoulders, guitar case about to slip out my hand, ‘You want me to carry one of you bags?’
I looked at the black shiny case, he read my thoughts:
‘Don’t worry, I ain’t want to steal it. I need food, not a guitar.’
His voice was little more than a whisper. I passed him the case. We walked down Washington Boulevard, two wide pavements split by a four-lane road. No shops, no bars, no offices. Just tall grey buildings either side. Traffic went by in red light waves, the silence in-between cut with distant shouts and screams. Grime climbed the walls like the watermark after a flood. Piles of rubbish on the pavement often turned out to be people sleeping with their belongings.
There are over 50,000 homeless in Los Angeles. A severe housing shortage, an obsolete generation, and rapidly inflating rent all contribute. Drug abuse is widespread.
Villages and towns are dying. As the rural community is crushed by automation and commercial investment, the human population is pushed into the megapolis. Is this progress or has the concrete jungle become a paddock?
‘See these folks standing around staring, these the surplus. We not needed, we been chewed up and spat out.’
We were walking through a community of sun-bleached tents, oil can fires and torn tarpaulins. I had bought the case last week to take my guitar on the plane. My clothes were cheap, my big bag worn, but the case shone like a spotlight. Everything was dull on Washington Boulevard but that case. Eyes ate it as we went by, conversations stuttered and stopped. Urine ran from the tents and into the street. Tinny music came from phone speakers within, wild animal eyes stared out.
They would have been invisible if I wasn’t scared.
I was sat on a night bus a few months before. It stopped every couple of hours in a different town. Each stop, the bus driver got out and disappeared for a couple of minutes. I was curious to see what he was doing so followed him out. He was giving Starbucks cans to the homeless that lay on the pavement. He did more in one stop than most folk will do in their lives. The smallest actions will always outweigh impressive ideas.
I had one of the best feeds of my life at the Lemonade Canteen on Venice Boulevard. Mango chicken with burnt kale and wild rice. It was divine. When the server heard my accent he looked disappointed, tourists weren’t good tippers. Americans are proud of their gratuities culture, but they don’t tip everyone.
McDonald’s serves food. Its employees are low on the wage to misery ratio (there’s a guy whose sole purpose is to microwave). But they don’t get tipped. Why? Where else can you so consistently and quickly get what you ask for to the ounce. Bus drivers, cleaners, dish washers, fast-food workers, America’s accepted underclass. All below the tipping point.
We arrived at the Greyhound station and my guide passed back my guitar. I would have been mugged without him. I shook his hand and tipped him $20. It wasn’t enough.