My 13 Months in L.A. – An Illustrated Essay

Never in a million years would I have believed that when I left Phoenix, AZ to relocate to Long Beach, CA my journey would end with me buying a house in Tucson, AZ a mere thirteen months later.  When I packed up that U-Haul and spent my 32nd birthday driving across the desert with my drugged-up cat screaming and yowling the entire way, it was supposed to be permanent.  Even when I packed up again seven months after that and drove a U-Haul twenty miles away to Silver Lake in Los Angeles, that was supposed to only be a minor setback.  How life has gone over this past year has been… interesting.

I asked my job for a transfer to the Los Angeles office in 2018 and it took months of begging and pleading and, eventually, lying to finally get it, but I got it.  By god, I got it.  My wife, working in tandem with me, was also working the connections with her job and finagled a work-at-home position.  I used that as leverage with my job and told them that we were moving to LA with or without my job.  At last, they relented and told me the transfer was mine.  I was ecstatic.   My wife and I both were.  We knew it was going to be a lot of work but, in the end, worth it.

We’re both originally from California.  She’s from in and around L.A., lived downtown for a time, and grew up around West Covina and Paramount.  I’m from a small-ass town that I usually refer to as, “the scenic route from San Diego to Palm Springs if you don’t want to take the freeway.”  We had a Dairy Queen, a Circle K and a twenty-foot-tall rock that looked exactly like an erect penis.  To this day, I’m still surprised no one has spraypainted crudely-drawn jizz dribbling down its shaft.

For me, this was both a return home and a new beginning.  I’ve always loved LA.  I loved that each neighborhood and community is vastly different.  Silver Lake, Echo Park and Los Feliz are all a hop, skip and a jump away from each other, but each represent their own unique identity as part of the macrocosm of the city.  And downtown is only miles away and represents the madness and brilliance of the city, with shops, restaurants and unique districts all next to each other.  In downtown, you can spend a lazy Sunday going to both the Flower District and the Garment District and then have lunch in Little Tokyo.  I wanted to be a part of this.  I wanted to live in a place with a Little Armenia, a Korea Town, a Chinatown and a Filipino Town all within a short jaunt of each other.  I wanted this to be my life.

And for thirteen months, it was.

On the night before I moved to Long Beach, I packed up the U-Haul with my brother.  Maybe I should have known how the next year of my life was going to go based on that brutal experience.  I had lived in that house for five years and had more than enough time to accumulate years worth of crap.  I had to donate boxes and boxes of stuff.  I had to curb furniture.  There was this beautiful computer desk that I found for free in front of some fancy condos I had to say goodbye to.  Without my brother, I don’t think I could have done it.  U-Haul had fucked me on the reservation and I had to pick up a smaller-sized truck.  “It’s still good for one bedroom, and you just have a one bedroom house,” they assured me.  My brother utilized Tetris-like genius in his ability to utilize unused space.  Boxes were packed into other boxes.  Shoes into backpacks.  Backpacks into shelves.  Shelves into the grooves of couches.  That truck was packed so tightly that if I had rolled the vehicle going 90 miles per hour, I may have died, but I think my stuff would have been fine because there was no wiggle room for it to have gone anywhere.

I never did roll the vehicle, or even come close to it, but I did swerve violently when my cat, who was sitting in the seat next to me, drugged and crying, looked at me with her sad, gloopy eyes.  We went to the vet to get some drugs for her travel anxiety and the drugs did nothing.  Her eyes went wonky, and seeped tears and thick, mucus-like fluid, but the most silence I ever got from her was twenty minutes when she screamed herself to sleep.  So, when she looked at me with those sad eyes, I made that familiar clucking sound with my tongue I do to all cats, then pet her nose.  She seemed to enjoy it, then her eyes went black, Satanic black, and sunk her claw into my finger where the digit bends and I couldn’t get it out.  My wife, who was following behind the truck in our car, saw the truck swerve and later was like, “What happened there?”  I don’t think she was surprised to learn that the cat was responsible.

The drive from Phoenix to Long Beach took something like 7 hours.  I had slept roughly three hours the night before and had forgot that it was my birthday.  When we arrived, my mom joined us, along with some movers (thank God we had movers), and some friends joined us later that night.  We all ate pizza, drank beer and watched my drugged-out cat wander around the apartment in a daze.

That night, there was an earthquake.  The next morning, there was a giant pile of human shit in the alley beneath my window.  Outwardly, I said, “Oh, well, these things happen!”  But inside I know I was thinking, “I’ve fucked up.”

I mapped out my route to work carefully, at all times of the day, before I had moved, and my drive from Long Beach to my office was to take 45 minutes to an hour.  Kinda shitty, but hey, that’s LA.  That 45-minutes-to-an-hour commute in reality was closer to an hour and a half, two hours.  It was hell and the 405 was the River Styx.

The apartment itself was right, smack dab in the middle of downtown Long Beach, literal steps away from Hamburger Mary’s.  We had to rent it sight unseen because while we were in Long Beach on a visit, we couldn’t secure any appointments.  There was no air conditioning and during that (of course) record-breaking hot summer, I would have the windows open with a fan propped.  I could hear every noise of every person walking by, and every person walking by had a Bluetooth speaker attached so that they could go about their day with their own little soundtrack.  No headphones for these people, they needed everyone to hear their life’s composition.  When a homeless woman digging through our trash even had a speaker, I asked her to please keep it down, I’m trying to sleep, she plugged her ears and screamed at me.  I have no idea how so many homeless people had speakers.  I understand they’re cheap, but I image there must have been a nonprofit organization supplying the homeless population with speakers because everyone had them.  Even the homeless couple that appeared in our alley and spent a week there.  First, the mattress was there.  My wife and I saw a soiled, abandoned mattress appear in the alley and said, “That bed is trouble.”  Sure enough, a day or two later, a homeless couple appeared on the bed and stayed put for a week, smoking cigarettes directly beneath our window (we were on the second floor), drinking alcohol, breaking the bottles and screaming, laughing and crying.

Living among this for such an extended period of time did a lot to kill my sympathy.  Living there turned me into a cold, uncaring person, and I could feel it happening and I hated myself for letting it happen to me.  At one point, at 3:00 a.m., I was woken up by the homeless couple on the bed in the alley and I opened the kitchen window to scream, “SHUT UP!” down at them, but when I opened the window, and felt a blast of cool air on my sweaty face, I heard the woman crying, saying, “I have nothing!  Nothing!  I hate who I am and I hate where we are!”  I relented for a moment, then screamed, “SHUT UP!” down at them.

My apartment had a parking lot for all us tenants, but less spots than actual apartments, so sometimes it got tight.  There was a spot that wasn’t really a spot that, if someone parked in it, which they always did, I couldn’t turn around and would have to back out the entire way, which wasn’t easy given some of the tight corners.  If someone wasn’t parked in that spot that wasn’t a spot, there was a homeless shanty town erected.  Once, going to work in the morning, I saw a homeless couple having sex.  At that point, I was so numb that I didn’t even say anything.  I think I just sort of sighed like, “Of course,” and went about my day.

Meanwhile, my wife who was working at home, was being shaken for hours and hours, during her entire shift, as the apartment right across the street from us was being demolished and fancy, new condos were being put up in its place.  The neighborhood was changing, but for who I’m not sure.  I’m not sure who could afford, and would afford, those prices in that neighborhood.  It’s like the plot of Land of the Dead come to life.  The rich people in their tower of ignorance while the world suffers below them.  It’s practically fucking biblical.

There was a resident tweaker who lived and hid somewhere inside of the building named Jonathan.  I still smoked at the time and sometimes I saw him when I was on the balcony having a cigarette.  He was always very vague about where he lived, saying something about how he was helping out the owners.  He told me he fixed up my apartment before I moved in and that he left his jacket inside.  I told him I hadn’t seen it, but if I did, I’d let him know.  The next time I saw him, he threatened to kill me for keeping his jacket.  He went on a warpath, destroying potted plants and when he was gone, the locks got changed to keep him out for good.  A neighbor finally told me where he was living:  Inside the walls of the laundry room.  He had a secret door and he would crawl in there to sleep.

Just when things couldn’t appear to get any worse, the apartment above ours, which was vacant this entire time, was now occupied with night owls who would find the squeakiest part of the floor and bounce on it for hours.  I couldn’t sleep.  I took whatever solace I could in the form of drinking.  I was drinking a lot.  And I knew how bad my drinking was getting, so I lied about it to my wife and was secretly getting drunk so as to appear not to have a problem.

That’s not to say I didn’t have a problem with drinking before, because I always have, and have had a history of alcohol abuse, but living in Long Beach is when I decided something had to give.  I couldn’t be an alcoholic drinking his way to an early grave and living in squalor.  Who was I, Bukowski?

I don’t think I would have survived this mess without the Avocado, whose community was an enormous amount of strength to me when I quit drinking.

After an all night movie festival went predictably bad, I couldn’t make my way home because of a marathon.  I was tired, feeling sick and every single street leading to my house was closed.  I asked a cop how to get home, and the directions he gave me led to a dead end.  I had to drive out of Long Beach to get on the freeway to get home.  But on my way there I wept uncontrollably.  I finally admitted I hated living in Long Beach.  When I had visited my friend before, I thought my life was going to be like hers.  She had a great apartment in a great neighborhood, near the beach and the best farmer’s market I’ve ever been to.

Luckily, we were only in a three-month rental agreement and could move out at any time after that.  It took a while, but we did it.  We first found this beautiful, smaller apartment unit in Los Feliz.  It was less than we were paying in Long Beach, it was a short walk away from the train, and the complex itself was quirky, cute and full of personality.  Unfortunately, we didn’t get it.  In the first part of a bizarre pattern that was to repeat itself, the landlord’s mom had died and the unit was under her name and it was in legal limbo, so we had to move on.

After numerous false starts and bad leads, we ended up finding an apartment in Silver Lake.  Unlike the apartment in Long Beach, this one wasn’t sight unseen.  We could grill the current tenant for information on the place, get her real opinion on the place.  When the manager slipped out for a second, my wife said, “Okay, tell the truth:  Is it loud?  Are you leaving because you hate it?  Are there people drinking and smoking outside all day?”  The tenant assured us, no, it’s none of that.  She was leaving to move in with her boyfriend and they were going to get a bigger place together.

It felt like fate.  The apartment had a flow similar to our old house in Phoenix.  It had a gas stove and a nice, big tub.  It had hardwood floors.  They allowed cats and it was the same exactly amount of rent we were paying down to the dollar.  We were within walking distance of a place that sold papusas for $1 twice a week.  We were within walking distance of the train.  Sqirl, the trendy hipster restaurant, was down the street.  Hell, I was even close to the Army Navy Store from the movie Falling Down.  We could see Griffith Observatory and the Hollywood sign from where we lived.  Hollywood Forever Cemetery (which we’re in the process of buying a spot from because it’s still the best cemetery I’ve ever been to and still want to stay in when I die) was a short drive away.

The night I signed my lease, I looked out of a floor-to-ceiling window to witness the neighbors set up a wall with trash cans so that they could openly piss outside.  “Oh, great,” I think I said.  And my wife cried.

Things, honestly, weren’t that bad when we moved in.  It was surprisingly quiet inside.  We even spent the night there with the cat the night before we moved our things out of Long Beach and slept on the floor, but it was still the nicest sleep I’d had in months.  We ended up using the same movers we used when we moved in to Long Beach and they were just sort of like, “Things didn’t work out, huh?”

Life was actually amazing for about a week.  And then that’s when Juan happened.  Fucking Juan.  He was the demon that haunted my stay in LA.  A short, angry old man who lived upstairs.  We were told when we moved in that it was just him.  But then we learned he’d had a wife.  Then we saw that at least one other old man lived with them.

We would hear noises, these high-pitched clops, like cowboy boots on a hardwood floor, echo throughout our bedroom at 4:00 a.m. every morning.  And it would continue for half an hour.  After that, sleep was over.  I was now set to waking up at 4:00 a.m. every morning, whether they were waking up at that time or not.  We did everything we could:  We bought ear plugs, we played music lightly to cover the noise, but nothing worked.  My wife went upstairs one morning to be a diplomat and told him, “Hi, good morning!  Sorry to bother you, but when you get up this early can you try not to make so much noise?  It’s so early, and we’re trying to sleep, and–”

Juan demanded she call the landlord to complain and slammed the door in her face.

After that, things got worse.  The manager we went through to book the apartment said he was stepping back from work for a bit because his father had died.  I was beginning to wonder if we were somehow responsible for these deaths.  We went to the landlord regarding Juan, but nothing ever, ever came of it.  He’d been a tenant for 18 years and they trusted his word over ours.  He set about intentionally making more noise than ever before.  He began dropping things, using power tools, vacuuming his apartment for up to five times a day, for fifteen minutes a time.  Our gate broke and he told the owners I had crashed my car into it, and that’s why it broke… despite the fact that neither my car nor the gate showed any sign of this so-called damage.  Obviously, I never had to pay anything, but he was doing everything is his power to make our lives hell, all because my wife asked him, nicely, to be mindful of us.  He even began kicking our packages off the porch when they arrived.

Juan seemed to be the first thing to go wrong in a series of events that happened one after the other.  Suddenly, every single noise began happening in our neighborhood.  The drunks next door began to party all day, blasting music, whipping out their dicks and pissing in the street.  A homeless drug dealer who we saw selling weed to a young kid–and I’m talking young, I’m talking middle school–who lived out of his van, took to living right in front of his house.  This dude, who lived in a goddamned van, sold weed to kids, pissed out in public, was somehow the most popular guy on the fucking block and constantly had visitors.  His most frequent guest was this guy who always, always sucked on a pipe and coughed out for minutes at a time, this low, “Uhhhh huuuhhhh huhhhh huuuuuhhhhhhhhh…” and they would keep it up all day long.  An entire work shift.

Cars would appear out front, blasting music loud enough to shake my dishes.  Someone who owned a motorcycle would need to let it warm up for twenty minutes while he sat upon it texting everyone in his phonebook, and he would of course leave and arrive multiple times a day.  For two weeks leading up to the Fourth of July and for two weeks after, the entire block would set off fireworks.  It was like living in the stupidest, most incompetent war zone.

Escaping the noise was impossible.  I drove out to Griffith Park just to have a goddamned moment alone, one moment to be by myself and when I finally found a spot, someone pulled up right next to me and blasted their music.  When they found me, they slammed on the brakes, reversed hard and peeled in, specifically to ruin my day.  I booked a vacation in Portland, OR to get out of LA and wound up booking a room at a hotel next to a noisy highway and a bar that had karaoke until 3 a.m.  It felt like I was never, ever going to have peace.

My time in LA was marked with records of all kinds.  It was a record hot summer when I moved in.  A record amount of rain fell when I arrived to Silver Lake, pouring nonstop for weeks at a time.  A record earthquake hit and I assumed it was Juan dancing an asshole’s jig hard enough to sway the building; and then its even-stronger aftershock struck when I was getting dinner.

I sought comfort in the banal.  I found strength in basic things, things that were market researched to death for maximum impact and least likely to offend.  Starbucks iced coffee saved my life.  It was $2.50, always tasted the same and I could depend on it.  My wife and I also binged the late-90s-early-00s sitcom The King of Queens.  You’ve never seen a more formulaic show with performers willing to give it their all.  It ain’t Shakespeare, but goddammit, it’s charming.  I wanted to be able to lay in bed and watch TV like they did.  It was nice to see a show about a child-free couple struggling to make friends later in their lives.  I saw myself in both Doug and Carrie.  At that point in my life, making friends had become such a low priority for me that I felt open embarrassment for having bought video games that offered a two-player option.  I felt like a fucking idiot for moving to a place and imagining myself to make all these friends, which never came to be.

Thank God for AMC A-List.  For $20 a month, I could see three movies a week, in a city where seeing a regular showing is at least $13.  I went to the movies a lot in 2018 and 2019.  I’ve seen just about every major release, for the first time in many years, so when it comes time to create a best-of-list at the end of the year, I’ll finally know what I’m talking about.

My friends, Vivian and Vanessa, also helped us to survive.  They were friends when I really needed to catch a break.

My job, who I had to beg and plead to let me transfer to LA, without much ceremony to it, told me that my department was soon to be dissolving and that, after that, I may or may not have a job.  This coincided with a new telecommuting policy my job enacted.  I figured, you know what?  Since I’m going to possibly be fired anyway, I might as well finish out this project working from home.  So I asked if I could, and they said they’d get back to me.

Instead of being sad that Los Angeles didn’t work out and that my job was coming to a close, I decided to think of it as a new, new beginning.  A second rebirth.  A third chance.  My wife and I decided to leave Los Angeles, and after much mulling about over various options, we decided to go with Tucson, AZ, where my sister lives and loves.  Instead of renting, where we were paying through the nose for a place and at the total mercy of rent increases, we decided that it was time to finally buy a house.  For once, when we paid for a place to live, we’d be paying into an investment.

The original realtor we were going to use disappeared for a bit, then reappeared to tell us he had to take time off because his friend had died.  Jesus Christ.

My boss told me that he didn’t have an official word on whether or not I could work from home, but if I found “my dream house” to go ahead and put a bid on it.  My friends, who bought a place in Albuquerque, told me that when they were hunting for a home from out of state, they didn’t find the house they wanted until the morning they were leaving.  I didn’t want this to happen to me, I said, because I just want to ease into everything and I’m sick of rushing around and having everything be a fucking hassle.  So, of course I didn’t wind up finding the place I’m living in now until the morning I was leaving.

We were pre-approved and put a bid on the place and were accepted shortly thereafter, a little three-bedroom brick house where I finally have my own office where my cat can watch me write and draw from her curled up spot in my laundry basket.  Midway during the inspection process is when my job told me they weren’t going to allow me to work from home, so when I moved, it was going to be sans job.  I had already gotten pre-approved based on my income and the underwriter for the loan needed verification from my job that I was going to be allowed to work from home.  Of.  Fucking.  Course.  I asked my job if they were planning on giving me severance because my department is being dissolved and they told me no.  All I got in terms of severance was a fucking pizza party on my last day.

Panicked, my wife called the loan officer we were using and he told us it was no big deal, put the loan under my wife’s name, and everything went through.  It wasn’t all easy after that, of course.  Buying a house is a nightmare of an experience with fears, doubts and unexpected costs popping up every fucking day.  I had literal nightmares about moving in.  I dreaded the moving process.  I feared driving all the way across the desert again, further this time, two hours past Phoenix.  And for some reason, U-Haul was charging over $1,000 for a truck and I booked with Budget, whose Yelp reviews told me I had about a 10% chance of actually getting the truck on the day of my move.

We wound up not using the same movers for a third time.  We just couldn’t have them face us again, although I think it would have been appropriate to have the people who welcomed us to California also send us off.

On the night we moved in, I heard phantom bass from cars that weren’t there blasting imaginary music.  I could hear the specter of Juan tap-dancing above me.  It was quiet all through the house, but I still only slept occasionally.

I love where I live now, surrounded by quiet houses on a street that’s literally 500 miles away from where I was only earlier this month.  As I’m writing this, birds are chirping and chasing bugs after a morning rain.  For the first time in over a year, I feel peace.  I went out for breakfast about a week ago and it was a strange feeling that I wanted to go home.  Before, if I went out, I was out all day.  I’d kill time at the movies, drive here, drive there, check out some touristy location and finally come home when I knew Juan was asleep.  For the first time in over a year, I can watch TV at home without having my stomach in knots that someone is going to ruin it for me.

As relentlessly dour as I’ve been about my time in LA, I don’t regret having done it.  I hate to sound like I’m patting myself on the back, but moving out there took a lot of courage I didn’t know that I had.  If I had never done it, I would have always wondered, “What if?”  I would have always regretted not doing it.  But now that I’ve done it, and it was a total nightmare, I feel okay living a quiet life, sipping on a cup of tea in my living room, like Simon Pegg at the end of Shaun of the Dead, having had enough excitement for one lifetime.