I tried something a little different today, making my way out to Koreatown, followed by some time past MacArthur Park. I saw a city voided of its usual color and character, marked only by what’s been left behind.
First, there was Koreatown, where I decided to pick up a cup of coffee for old time’s sake. On spotting a 7-11, I walked up to the doors, took a napkin from my pocket and clasped it between my fingers, then pulled the handle to enter; before the door would close behind me, a man in front of the counter, on seeing me, launched into a tirade.
“What the (expletive) are you looking at?” he groaned in my direction.
I had had my sunglasses on, and had just lowered them beneath my chin to scan the store for the coffee station in the instant the man yelled out. On hearing his voice in my direction, and sensing his stare, I realized he was yelling at me.
I looked up perplexedly in the man’s direction, made eye contact briefly, then quickly looked away, walking more hurriedly towards the end of the store to take my distance, as well as since the coffee station is usually found at the end of the sotre.
Behind me, the man kept yelling, though not necessarily in my direction anymore, but out-loud into the open. It became clear to me then that the gentlemen was unwell, yet somehow, I still kept my mission through the moment: searching for the coffee, for which there was neither a single cup nor jar at the station. I saw a sign: for coffee, I needed to ask the attendants.
My mind diverged in two ways at that instant. I knew I had to speak with one of the attendants, but also realized that doing so would mean I’d have to be closer within range of the gentlemen again, who was still yelling, although by then, less than a minute after shouting at me, it sounded like he had redirected his ire towards the store clerks opposite of him at the counter. I went ahead and walked up to the reception area, where I spotted one of the clerks, a tiny, Bengalese woman, whom asked her for a cup of coffee. Over the yelling still going on, I had to ask her to repeat her question to me over which type of coffee I’d like.
“Regular, or hazelnut?” she said behind her face-mask.
I asked her for the regular, with two regular creams on the side. The woman handily served my coffee, and provided me with two creams, two sugars, and a stirring stick. A handful of feet away at the reception area, the confrontation with the gentlemen reached its bittersweet end.
“I’m sorry, sir. That’s all we can do right now.“
A nanosecond later, the gentlemen left, taking all the bitterness of his scornful growling with him. The store clerk then saw me, and apologized on his behalf. It turned out his EBT card had just been declined.
I let the lady know there was no need to apologize. Behind a face-mask over her mouth area, she looked to be an African-American woman, perhaps somewhere in her mid-forties. The woman then told me that it was her second escalation of the day.
“At another store, a man spit at me,” she said, “then threw his coffee on the floor.”
I replied that it was clearly a difficult time for the city’s most vulnerable, with nearly no public restrooms being available, nor many places they could rest, or even the nearby welfare office for them to take their grievances to.
She agreed, but also said the day had made her rethink which line of work she should be in. Even so, a part of me couldn’t hold back from insisting,
“There are better days ahead,” I told her. As I left the store with my coffee, once again, I used a napkin to push the handle outward. Although just when those better days would arrive, I realized afterwards, I couldn’t dare to try and say.
On reaching the west end of MacArthur Park, I put my camera to work, snapping a few shots while cupping my coffee between my left arm and left side. I pointed my camera upward towards the sky, in reverence of architecture I once again saw with fresh eyes after a long time far away from the area.
After a few clicks of the shutter, when I fixed my sight towards the ground-level again, I saw a familiar though somehow changed setting: ahead of me stood the city’s myriad of unhoused Angelenos, whose tents and voices seemed to loom larger than they ever had over the sidewalks .
I also saw the scores of central-American men whom had little to nowhere else at the moment. Some of the men wore masks, while others looked as they would any other day navigating past grass grown only longer due to more rain this year.
The difference this time, was that the stores were missing, and deeply missed. Mama’s tamales was shuttered, as was the MetroPCS store. The Pollo Campero was closed, as were its neighboring shops. There were no central-american families to be seen waltzing through the sidewalks, nor even the usual police cruisers typically scanning the area nearby.
All there was, was an air of unknowing, which to be sure, was an air that was always present amid the landscape, ruminating underneath the day’s more familiar hustle and bustle of people, but which this time consumed the whole of the park and its surroundings no matter how brightly the daylight after a night of rain shone.
I walked patiently with my camera, searching all around me for what scenes would give. Across the street from me a dozen or so men stood near a blue tarp with earphones, chargers and other miscellany for sale. There weren’t many passersby to solicit, though. Farther ahead of me, a man and woman walked in my direction with face-masks on. They walked with more certainty than most of the other people I’d come across by then, and I moved aside to make way and not to discomfort them with my camera. Then, back in the direction of the park, I spotted a paletero. He was also searching as he walked through the trail of the park, ringing the bells of his cart within reach of other loners nearby whom had no response. A few more clicks of the shutter.
It felt like a deeply missed day for Los Angeles.