The Other Half and Half

We were fresh out of half and half earlier this week, not the French vanilla half and half – we had that -- but just plain half and half. The day before we went to World Market and bought ourselves a bottle of real vanilla to pump into our french pressed cold brewed coffee and so what we had would not do. I decided to take the short walk to Walgreen's, and what I saw as I walked, I've thought about for a week. 

I headed out of our apartment, down the front stairs, and into day light that oddly felt foreign. I get out everyday for errands and to walk to Starbucks where I avoid digital distraction and write, but I hadn't realized that, until that point, it had been several weeks since the last time I walked out the front of the building during the day. The alleyway behind is where I usually start my mile long daily trek to avoid internet click bait debate and get more substantive work done. I walk while looking forward to suffering through unsweetened coffee that I ritually leave the house to buy only because sitting at Starbucks isn't cool, if you haven't bought something you become undifferentiated from the homeless, which is actually remarkably easy to do where I live. The neighborhood we live in is made up almost exclusively with millionaires so if you wear a backpack people give you side eyes. If you wear a backpack with mismatched cloths, people will walk in the street to avoid you. Also, our car is parked in the back so in a blink of an eye weeks passed without daywalking in the front, and I walked out the front door with an uncanny feeling that I must have been shut in too long thinking about Michael Brown and how social hierarchy is enforced by the police.

It's down hill to the corner across from Walgreen's so I clomped heavily in the shade of tall buildings. The shade was nice because even at eight in the morning it was already eighty degrees. It'd been a week straight of a hundred degree temperatures. Even with air conditioning on constantly our apartment would be eighty five degrees, which makes life sweaty and bleak by mid afternoon. And, Sleeping is the hardest part of heat like that. Even with only the sheet and a fan, it took hours to fall asleep. 

I'm still adjusting to life in southern California. It's definitely one of the most beautiful places I've ever been. I just sat up straight as I wrote this and looked out my window. I saw mountains in the distance -- mountains and the Hollywood Hills. This isn't the mid-west. If I walk out my front door, I can see the Hollywood sign and, more times than I can remember, as I've exited the front of my building, a Ferrari has yowled while down-shifting as it approached the red light. It's a place that defines mythic American beauty; Hills, stars, cars, the sun, and a deep seeded denial; the birth place of noir.

Man, can this place get uncomfortably hot.

As I exited the shade of the buildings, I lamented the unrelenting southern California sun and noticed a police car pull into a parallel parking space. The car rolled slowly into the spot with the yellow caution lights flashing on the roof. 

The police here are diverse and have clearly tried to compensate for the deep history of corruption in the police force but, in my experience, they're largely not present. And, that has big consequences for driving in LA. I've personally been passed two or three times while waiting to turn in the left turn lane by people driving in on coming lanes. The first person to do it to me was driving a Mercedes. She was at least seventy. Mind you, it happened two feet in front of my apartment, and I actually looked out my window one day and saw her do it to a whole line of cars again. And, she's not just one crazy person. I stopped counting the people I've seen driving in on coming lanes on busy roads after I counted fifteen in our first ten months in LA. I used to think Chicago had the craziest drivers, but the level of crazy is next level in L.A.. I'm sure that the traffic is largely to blame but, also, I don't see many people getting pulled over. There is a major sense of lawlessness on the streets here. I had expired registration for eight months and was only followed by a police car three times and was never pulled over. One day, I just decided it was time to get our registration up to date so we could go on worry free trips to any region where police might show up behind me and pull me over for breaking the law. 

On a cynical level I think the police in parts of LA are basically there to get the homeless people to move along. So, when I saw the police slow rolling into place, I scanned for familiar shapes and looking for a homeless person, but all I could see what a heap of stuff. It didn't look like it was normally on the sidewalk ahead of me, but I wasn't sure. As I got closer, I walked passed the police who were sitting quietly in their car probably ten yards away from the heap of cloths that I eventually could tell was a man sleeping. What gave him away was his shoulder exposed through a sweatshirt. His formerly fair skin was tanned leather in that spot. I figured he was covered in a blanket because his shape was so indistinguishable from a far, but I realized that his cloths were so destroyed that they broke up his shape like a hunter's camo.

As I walked to the corner, I thought about what it must be like to sleep on the street. On my way out to LA from Chicago I slept in my car two nights and constantly felt unsafe. When you're sleeping outside of your home, you're vulnerable like you never are anywhere else. Now sleeping in the street where literally anyone could decide to walk up and take literally everything you own, that's a completely different level of vulnerability. The people aren't looking through glass to you before they try to break the glass and get it. They're just able to walk up, kick you in the face or stab you, and leave with everything. Unease is low dose adrenaline ready to pump at the slightest wrong sound that says, let's fight. That's what I felt in my car, and I knew it must be much more intense to be homeless. 

I couldn't help but think about Robert Sapolski's baboon hierarchy study that observed that the baboons with the lowest social position had the greatest adrenaline in their blood stream and because of prolonged exposure to that they developed hypertension, hardening of arteries, and had shorter life spans than other individuals. Being low on a social hierarchy causes a type of stress that can be observed by looking at adrenaline levels, obesity rates, life span, and cause of death. But, interestingly, Sapolski found later that the same group of baboons had changed slightly. The alpha males had changed and were kinder to the lower hierarchy baboons. The result of which was that the entire hierarchy had lower adrenaline levels, less hypertension, and longer life spans, even for the alphas. 

The second I hit the walk button at the corner, the police officers blared morning radio crackling over the intercom. It sent adrenaline coursing through my veins as it scared the crap out me. They said, "Hi, wake up." They smiled and laughed.

When I crossed back over with my Half and Half in hand, he was sitting, still in the same place, still wrecked, newly half awake, and not ready for the day that had already begun.

It made me understand what I saw six months ago when a homeless man walked kiddy-corner across the intersection of Route 66 and Sepulveda about three miles from where the historic road and the American Dream meet the Pacific Ocean at a shopping mall. He was carrying fifty feet of plastic unrolled and blowing, the plastic arch of Los Angeles blowing in the wind. Fifty people in BMWs and Mercedes on four sides honked at him as I watched. A Ferrari with two twenty year old boys in it pulled up next to me behind other stopped traffic and I looked over at them while they lowered their colored, mirrored Ray-Bans exposing their empty souls as they gawked at a woman on the sidewalk. They said something and laughed, completely oblivious of the man in the middle of the street, until they finally saw the reason they were stopped and passed everyone in the right lane, blazing through the intersection, lifting the woman's skirt and blowing her wig off exposing that she was a mannequin selling fast weight loss in front of a business owned by a man. They drove down the road cut across three lanes and passed cars waiting to turn in the left turn lane in on coming lanes before blazing onto the the 405 as a police car finally noticed the homeless man and got him out of the intersection. We all rolled on, complicit.

And, even though I added the guys in the Ferrari, all of what I've said is true. And, I've still got the other half and half.