Westlake

9 minute read

Sundays meant that señoras would get up before the sun to set up their small food stands, taking their kids along to help. You could get hot drinks and hot food for a cheap price and save yourself the hassle of cooking and cleaning in your small kitchen back home. Atol de elote or champurrado for the first batch of people, who still worked on Sundays. Tamales de maiz, tamales de arroz, and menudo were the best according to the crowd, but you had to get it from the right señora, who knew how to really cook them.

Cia used to come by on Sunday mornings to grab menudo, while it was still hot, for her young son. The chewable meat made it easy for him to eat. The tortillas were harder, but he still ate some anyway. Cia didn’t enjoy these trips initially. Old drunken men, who chose to stay all night with their buddies instead of their families, lined up the main street, catcalling the young women of the neighborhood. Cia knew what to expect, and would mostly ignore them; but the effort of having to do that made it a very unpleasant experience for her. She wondered if she dressed in sweatpants and a big jacket would their words would be less vulgar, or maybe even completely stop. This was not the case. Sometimes, out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw her husband hollering with those men, so she would hurry away faster, her feet almost flying off the ground. Though he claimed he was now living in Florida, Cia could never completely believe that. She could not let her guard down.

As she used to cross into 6th street, she used to let herself believe for a moment that this world was a magical place, with its loud music, carefree people, and smell of home cooked food. It was in these instances that she would stop trying to look for the same blue sky that she used to see back in Guatemala. Instead, the shades of blue were at once everywhere and nowhere. They were China and America. They were Argentina and Spain. They were free land. Unreachable, but a nice view to have on a Sunday morning.

I had come by this route one morning on my way to work. I had been running late so I took this shortcut. As I ran down the sloping street trying to avoid smelling the piss and sweat stains accumulated due to the recent hordes of people experiencing homelessness, I began to remember what Cia had told me about this place. She had said to be careful when walking at night. I had thought her warning a bit superfluous until a week ago when I had to walk through these streets at 10 o’clock because of a low phone battery and no cash in hand for the bus. The streets were mostly empty. There were a lot of angry people at different corners, though, either shouting, growling, or lamenting. Sometimes at each other, other times at themselves. I didn’t want to stand out. So, I too talked to myself. Muttering under my breath to Cia, how she was right, and how I did not know as much as I thought I did about this place. I should have listened to her.

This late morning, however, I did not see the danger of running through here. A whole section of bright umbrellas flanked the end of the street. You could find señoras anywhere there was space to set up two grills, a salsa section, and a makeshift table for customers to dine at, as cars accelerated inches away from their warm food. I had trouble snaking through their stands. Every so often, a couple of them would turn and look at me. I couldn’t figure out what it was about me that caught their eyes. Was it my sweaty hair, my lilac beret, my two inch heels clacking about, or all of that plus the fact that I looked vaguely familiar? If only they knew I had been raised here, right in the abandoned building below which they had set up.

Cia had moved in here when the rent was still low. The lowest you could find in Los Angeles. Though the food and sounds were familiar to her, she confessed to me that she hated this dirty business. People used to sell all kinds of stuff around here, from batteries to pirated movies. But in their hustle to make some money, they left a mess behind which unfortunately brought more shady business. The dollar store, which used to stay open till 10 o’clock, now closed at 6 o’clock - right at sunset. Ultimately, Cia was different than most people who settled here coming from Central America and Mexico. She was a single mother who took daily showers in steaming hot water, took her shoes off before entering her apartment, and cleaned as much dust as she could.

I met Cia a few years ago, at the local laundromat. And so it went, our chats tethered to this small place. We both liked quiet laundromats with big machines, so we would come to this specific one, around 5 o’clock, before sunrise. There were no children, no people gossiping, and most importantly, we got to pick the better washing machines that cleaned the clothes properly. Cia wasn’t like the people around here.

Soon, she left for good and moved to another side of the city with her grown up son.




I finally reached the end of the street, but had to wait for three traffic signals before I could run the rest of the way. I wasn’t sure when, but at some point, city officials had deemed this place so crowded by cars and passersby that a four way street crossing was constructed. When the walking signal turned on, we all looked like ants marching dutifully. I had to get to work, a few blocks away now. The park was my second shortcut. Halfway through, I came across a group of old men huddling. They all turned their heads to look at me. Their scrutinizing eyes made a hatred well up in me. I tried to make the least amount of sound with my heels.

The park was considerably more communal than it had been years ago. Earlier, if you needed to get a fake social security number, this was the place to conduct business. Among the secret trade of drugs, that remained unclear to me as a child - and still does - there were fake passports and travel visas that men sold to the crowd like candy. Hey, you want a green card? It was different now. I wasn’t sure if that kind of trade was still viable here. In early mornings, men played soccer, while children took over the fields in the afternoon. During summers, families gathered near the Levitt Pavilion for live music in both Spanish and English. The people who were homeless took shelter in the other side of the park.

Though I had grown up here, I felt like a stranger borrowing a bit of space to just survive in. I never attended any community events, but I advocated for them through my work with a local nonprofit. I did not talk to any people here, except Cia - but she had left. With my brown hair and eyes, I did blend in. Yet, I remained here only because rent was lower than most other places around. I longed for conversations about the nature of life and abstract aspirations. My neighbors were too embedded in gossip and strangers always only wanted to know “what I did” “who my parents were,” or “how many children I had.” At the age of twenty-eight years, I felt more stuck than ever.

At the last block, I saw the sunlight hitting the pavement, its glare blinding me for a moment. I looked up. My mouth fell open and I sucked in a breath. I saw a magical place, bright blue with tufts of white in random shapes. I strove to see all of it, but it was much too big. It looked exactly like the sky from my dreams, the one where I walked just to see the sunset, happy and carefree. And, no matter how much further I walked, the sky and its light kept going and going on ahead of me. In our last conversation, Cia had described it to me but I hadn’t fully understood it then. This same night, I dreamt it, waking up in a happy stupor with tears falling down my cheeks. I couldn’t believe that there could something bigger for me outside of the confines of my childhood home. In the week that followed, I packed all my things and left this old place to rest as a former part of my life.

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