My Other Neighbors

In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.

-Albert Schweitzer

Homelessness kills me. Living in LA has magnified how pervasive the problem really is.

I live in a fairly middle class area though I can’t feasibly pay respect to everything that’s happening just at and around my little corner off Venice Boulevard. During the day, Culver City is every definition of a bustling little hollow. Sony Studios on one side, a thriving foodie-centric downtown, and smaller businesses and firms all over its perimeter. At night (when I walk), the streets are still alive. People come from far and wide to eat at every variation of cuisine known to man. Almost all of them are delicious: Indian, Thai, Vegan, Celtic, and Korean. Culver residents love to walk and run –and they do – all over the place. Just north of Venice, in Palms, I see a lot more families and hear a lot more Spanish. In my little swatch of Culver, my neighbors define the neighborhood’s demographics: late 20s, late 60s, white, black, gay, straight, mixed couple(s), dog-lover, grad student, Sony (and UCLA) professional, etc. My perfect little swatch is also home to a very visible homeless population.

Outside of being homeless, I can’t readily find one other thing (subjectively) that unites my other neighbors. The neighbors I barely know. But I know exactly who they are and where I can find them. Their circumstances are and will probably always be a mystery to me though I always wish I knew.

Maxine: (in my head) I call her this because she looks just like the Hallmark card character. She’s older, lanky, white and white-haired, sometimes outrageously dressed, and always has big glasses on of some sort. She also typically has zinc oxide across her face and a curious collection of scraps of paper, taped together, with volumes of information hand-written on them. I have wondered if she isn’t the next J.K. Rowling. The bits and pieces of paper are taped, with meticulous care, on and around a shopping cart. She carries several other bags and things with her, but when she’s decided on a location, she’ll unload and the literary shopping cart becomes a stand-alone piece of art. Sometimes, when she’s not standing near it, I’ll try to casually read what’s on the seemingly excessive post-it notes. Typically, I can’t see a thing (but I’m still fascinated).

The Young Guy: he isn’t just young – he’s a teenager. Note: in the world of who I was accustomed to identifying as homeless in Miami, “the young” were rarely one of those categories. I started out seeing him at all the local coffee shops. He’d usually have a drink and sit somewhere where he (like me) could watch everyone. I realized pretty quickly that he was younger than I thought; I’m guessing he’s no more than 15. One night, on a journey to Ralph’s, I realized that a large array of carts and bags that I always saw tied to each other and next to a church belonged to him. The young, cute, curly-haired black kid was lying next to the carts, in a make-shift tent made out of blankets. My heart nearly fell out of my chest.

The Reader: there’s a familiar series of carts, bags and miscellaneous things all tied together on another Venice corner as well. They belong to The Reader. While I can’t say I know where he goes during the day, he’s always there at night. He looks like he’s in his 30s (and Latino), and, depending on the night, I’ve seen him using both a tablet and a phone; I’ve also seen him reading a variety of books. He looks so casual, lying in the grass on a bed of blankets reading peacefully. The way I would be (and am) at night in the comfort of my bed.

Maxine could have been (or could be) someone’s mom or someone’s grandma. I can’t even fathom my mom being on the street without anyone, her only company a hand-written mosaic of thoughts and words (memories? Ideas? Past loves?). The Young Guy could easily have been one of my students or one of my future students in a few years. He could be one of my friend’s kids. He is someone’s child. To me, he’s just a baby, and he shouldn’t have to fall asleep in a nest of blankets. The Reader makes me think, (given the age I think he is) ‘he could be a friend of mine’. He could have been someone who (in Miami) went to school with me. We might have known the same people. We’d understand what it means to have grown up in the 80s and to love the awful music of the 90s.

Regardless of who they are, I’d just like to know what drove them to where they are. What did they experience? What did they leave? Or (maybe more aptly) what left them? Do they feel like they’re alone (the way I perceive them to be)?

Although I don’t know their stories, they have inspired me to think about what else I could be doing in this life. They have sparked a different kind of fire. Like my other neighbors, they are very much a part of my LA story.

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