Seven years ago, I arrived in Los Angeles. A friend picked me up from LAX and after getting compliments from him on how great I looked depsite my long flight, we picked up my luggage and he asked me if I was hungry. I was and although it was one a.m. he knew of a late-night Thai restaurant. The flight from Chicago had been long but I had no idea where Thai Town was in relation to LAX. So, we headed off to the restaurant, Torung.

I thrive on maps and knowing where I'm going so I was disoriented as we left the airport. We drove on what seemed to be a never-ending maze of highways.

Everything was fast.
Fast cars zooming by.
Faster headlights gleaming and striving to catch us.

We changed from one freeway, to another, moving from what I know now is the 105 onto the northbound 110. I was struck by how high off the ground we were, and by the fact that the walls on the sides of the freeway meant car passengers couldn't see anything down on the street below. All that was visible were the tops of thin, stringy palm trees. In the distance, the skyscrapers of downtown were shrouded in a filmy mist.

"Is that smog?"
"No, just the marine layer."
"The what?"
"Marine layer. It's just low-lying clouds."
"Oh. What's down there on the street, under us?"

I remember his reply, "Nothing. Just ghetto."

The miles zipped away and we passed green signs with meaningless freeway exits: Manchester, Slauson, Vernon. Below us, there continued to be only this faceless ghetto with the sickly palm trees. Then we hit the tiny L.A. downtown, then the northbound 101, and finally headed into what seemed to be civilization: Hollywood.

Little did I know how soon that so-called ghetto would become my heart.
My home away from home.
The place most of my time would be spent, traveling to and from dozens of different schools

Seven years later, I find myself staring at the abject poverty that trickles and streams from block to block. Last week, I drove down Vermont Avenue for about 12 miles. I started at Vermont and Melrose, Hollywood, by my house and ended all the way down in Watts at Vermont and Imperial.

I don’t have to see when I’m on the 101 or 110. The music is turned up a bit higher as traffic flows or creeps, depending on the time of day. I can't see what's below. Only what's in front of me, cars, and what's behind me. Yes, you guessed it, more cars.

Being on the street, driving through neighborhoods that change from Latino to Korean to Black then back to Latino, I have no choice but to see.

And, it’s easy to see the worst.

Beat-up cars driving next to me

Beat-up, tired bodies waiting for city buses.

Vibrant hues of gang-land graffiti, rippling and bouncing on the sides of vacant buildings. I can’t make out the phrases or words being spelled out. In my naiveté, I can only remark on how pretty all the colors look together or how much time the “artist” must have had to take to cover the entire side of the building.

Duos and triads of young men leaning against the corners of buildings. Pants sagging. Baseball caps tilted. Doo-rags tied to the side. Tattoos covering exposed forearms. Hands down the front of pants. Alert in such a casual-seeming pose.

Stray dogs running down the street, pacing themselves till they take a chance and dart into traffic. Sometimes they make it across the road. Most often they don’t. The bodies lie in the gutter providing a warm home for thousands of flies. Unfortunately, I've hit a few of these risk takers.

Shopping carts containing the unknown are pushed across busy streets by hunched figures, faces hidden, hair matted, bodies unwashed, sores and injuries visible, clothing in tatters.

Oblivious to whether the street is being crossed at an intersection or not.
Oblivious to the screeching of brakes as drivers avoid hitting them.
Oblivious to the curses hurled from car windows.
Oblivious to everything but the carefully protected shopping cart.

Most of the time, we all stay on the freeways. We don’t have to look. We don’t have to see. We can dart from our own private pleasures, or lack thereof, to the lives of the beautiful people on the pages of OK, Star, Us Weekly, Enquirer, In Touch, and People…or flop on the couch to view the latest red-carpet fashions on Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood, and The Insider.

Because it’s so important to find out why Renee Zellweger and Kenny Chesney are getting their marriage annulled.

It's so important to see what the latest trends and fashions are. The must have clothing items of the season. The must have jewelry. The must have shoes.

Focus. Where to focus when so much swirls around me? It's easier to stay on that freeway.


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