THE EXODUS: PART 1 – Preparations
Los Angeles is a difficult place to live. Beneath L.A.’s picturesque blue skies, towering palm trees, sandy beaches, golden sunsets, tourist hot spots, and skyscrapers are the mentally ill, poor, hungry and desolate. In the shadows of Hollywood, recording studios and fashion districts are the common folk working honest jobs and earning less than honest wages living in tiny spaces, substandard housing and in poor communities. People’s livelihood exists on a slippery slope, and one mishap they will plummet into the abyss of hopelessness, despair, and become a member of the growing homeless population. Everyone I knew walked a fine line between living comfortably and feeding your family or losing everything and becoming another homeless statistic. This was the reality of living in a city where you could make 80,000 per year and still be poor.
It is a city where the very rich and extremely poor live simultaneously together, living out two distinct forms of reality. It is a place where one quickly adapts to the hustle and bustle of getting nowhere fast, the 24-hour traffic and the piles of trash accumulating on sidewalks where homeless people make their beds. Los Angeles is raw and unfiltered. The economic divide between rich and poor, between the well and unwell and the cyclic aspiration, birth of dreams and death of dreams—all existed without hindrance. Strewn across Venice and Santa Monica beaches, parks and alleyways lay homeless men, women and children, sleeping on the ground like corpses left to rot in the midday sun and oblivious of the world around them. Simultaneously residents and tourists walk by them, over them, around them, unphased by the smell of trash and fecal matter, and oblivious to the sounds of the mentally ill shouting at stop signs. With pristine beaches, palm trees, beautiful homes to serve as a backdrop to selfie pictures, the homeless go unnoticed. Young aspiring actors and actresses move to the city thinking they will make it big only to wind up living in a tiny shared apartment, performing at the promenade or waiting tables at a restaurant. They hold on to the hope that they will be in the just right place at the just right time to catch their big break. For some, the illusions of grandeur sing melodies as they fall asleep on a cold cement under the doorways of local businesses.
Despite the many shortcomings, my years in L.A. were my renaissance years. Los Angeles held a special place in my heart. I freely explored myself and my identity. I became intimately familiar with my strengths and weaknesses; what I am good at and what I’m not. I knew Who I was, What I was, Why I was, and What I believed. I lived some of the best years of my life in Los Angeles, despite the tremendous hardships I faced while living there. From the outside, Los Angeles is the all-inclusive utopia—a buffet of cultural cuisines, traditions, language, and ethnic varieties. It is the smorgasbord of creativity and imagination; a place where anything goes and everyone belongs. It is the epicenter of environmental conservation, liberal movements, the arts and the entertainment and filming industries. I, like many Angelinos, had my experiences fine dining, eating at the best cuisine at expensive restaurants while donning my best cocktail dress, glittering high heels and sporting my fresh haircut and French manicure.
Life before the pandemic was beautiful. I was a great mom, working a great job, living in a great neighborhood, going to a great gym, and enrolled in a great college. I had a great community. It was the type of community where you walk into a grocery store and everyone knows who you are, who your kids are, what you do, and what you buy—everything from the weekly challah, the six salmon fillets cut two-fingers width with skin, beef ground four times, chicken quarters with skin, hummus with paprika and the Turkish coffee. Every Tuesday or Thursday night I had dinner with my adopted family, drank great scotch or wine, talked about politics, watched baseball or college football. I spent holidays with these amazing people and never had I felt more at home than I did with them.
A year before the pandemic I was normal, and I lived a very ordinary life. I went to the same ordinary Starbucks, where I ordered the same ordinary drink. It was like the Cheers[i] of coffee shops where everyone knows your name and your order—Hope; grande iced latte in a venti cup, whole milk, light ice and extra, extra whipped cream. I only changed my order to an iced green tea, no sweetener, almond milk, and extra whipped cream on the hottest days of the year. Most times I walked in and the baristas were already making my drink. I sat at the same ordinary table and saw the same ordinary customers—who like old friends, talked with me for hours over the same ordinary topics—being poor, politics, failing education, increased visibility of the mentally ill and homeless, the ever-increasing cost of living, and the crushing reality we’d never own a home in Los Angeles. We often imagined a utopian California with great jobs, cheap gas prices, affordable housing, and less traffic with less drive time. This is the same ordinary coffee shop where I had extraordinary conversations with strangers—the strangers you only see once and who, for whatever reason, sat at my table and divulged their personal problems upon which I gave life changing advice in return. Although some conversations were strange, their vulnerability and transparency were beautiful.
My last year in Los Angeles became increasingly difficult to live with my finances stretched thin. In mid-spring 2019, I took on a third job to help make ends meet. However, with significant increases in day-to-day expenses, I felt living in Los Angeles was not sustainable and a move was inevitable. I decided the best time to move is in July 2020, after my son graduates from high school. However, unforeseen events pushed that date closer and closer.
Perhaps it was the 7.1 earthquake that hit southern California during the summer of 2019 that I became unusually concerned for emergency supplies. I lived in earthquake territory; it should be something everyone should be doing, right? However, I was not nearly as obsessive about it in the past as I was the last few months of 2019—so much so, my son thought I developed a mental disorder or became a doomsday prepper. I began obsessing over having enough water, food, toilet paper, medical, and cleaning supplies to hold us over fourteen days in the event of a major disaster. I updated my first-aid kit and restocked our emergency supplies and made sure in the event some major disaster hit, we would have enough to last a month. To this day, I can’t explain the urgency I felt for crisis preparation. Nor did I know what would befall us and the world in March 2020.
There were a lot of things going on at the time that added to my financial hardship. A new tenant moved into the unit above my apartment, who had obsessive-compulsive disorder. His compulsive behavior consisted of moving appliances from the street into his apartment, only to turn around 24-hours later and move it back to the street. This was his nightly routine—every night, like clockwork, move something in and the next night move something out. The bugs that infested these appliances made their new home in his apartment. He claimed they were his new friends, roommates, best buddies, and pets that kept him company. Whenever there was a discarded appliance on the street, he would wait until after midnight (to avoid being seen) to move it into his apartment—and, like clockwork, he’d move the same appliance out of his apartment the following night after discovering it didn’t work. His appliance fetish caused an invasion of cockroaches, fleas, flies, and ants. By October I had no less than ten variations of cockroaches that quickly became an infestation. Likewise, rats and mice began making their nests inside my apartment walls. Pest control was in my apartment every two weeks, from September through December.
On January 1st, we discovered my upstairs neighbor had a bedbug infestation which migrated to my apartment. This resulted in two heat treatments and four additional insecticide treatments. I literally felt like I had the 10 plagues; instead of frogs we had roaches, instead of blood we had sweat and tears, instead of lice we had fleas and bedbugs, instead of losing our cattle we lost a refrigerator and food, instead of hail and fire we had heat treatments that left me sleeping in an apartment after it cooled down to 125 degrees.
The cockroach and bed bug infestations were the most stressful of my human experiences—up there with deployment. Going through this for this extended period was physically, emotionally, and psychologically exhausting. I felt like I was in a war and I was the only one in my foxhole. There was no amount of venting, comfort, or strong alcohol to chase away the dark cloud that grew inside my soul. By mid-January I didn’t want to keep going. I wanted to end it all, stop moving forward and just quit life. Each day I expended every ounce of physical energy I had in getting tasks done that by the end of the day, I couldn’t imagine a tomorrow. As the days passed, I felt more and more defeated and my sources of strength were getting harder and harder to find. I don’t know how or why I kept motivated to continue packing and cleaning—I simply disconnected. I was in survival mode, living on adrenaline and cortisol. I completely disconnected from my emotions although I knew there was a well of emotions building up inside. There was no time to feel, and all I could do was pony-up and drive on.
I pushed myself until I could push myself no further. I looked at myself in the mirror and I didn’t see the girlish woman I once saw months ago. I wanted to cry but couldn’t. I wanted to scream, but no screams came. I wanted to get angry, but the anger wouldn’t come. “Who and what am I?” were the questions I asked myself one evening in the mirror. For the first time, I wanted peace. I wanted to surrender, I wanted to retreat and find comfort, serenity, calm, tranquility. I saw my hair matted together from sweat and bed bug powder the fumigator sprayed in the air. I saw my weakness, my limits, and my end. “Who and what am I?” and for the first time—I didn’t know. I doubted everything I believed about myself.
I grabbed a pair of scissors and cut away my hair. “Had I lost my mind?” I wondered as I pulled out a set of clippers and shaved away the remnants of my hair. Slowly and methodically, I cut away any doubts, weaknesses, or insecurities I had led up to that moment. What I found under the 36 inches of curly red hair—a soldier, a warrior, a fighter and a winner. In that seemingly infinite moment looking at myself in the mirror I found my strength—the years of army training came rushing back to me like a tidal wave from a well of strength I didn’t know I had. For the first time I saw my chiseled arms, chest, abdominal muscles—I found endurance, fortitude, and supernatural will to survive.
I’m sure everyone thought I lost my mind at the time—and perhaps there is concern for a psyche evaluation. From the outside I don’t blame them for thinking there was something clinically wrong. But what people didn’t see was the tremendous difficulty we faced during that time in our lives.
With all the time I spent packing, unpacking, buying supplies, doing laundry; the situation cost me my job, more than half of my belongings, and I exhausted my savings. I lost more than half of my possessions and spent more than $5000 not including the $1,300 electric bill I incurred from two heat treatments. This broke us financially and by the end of January we were on an inevitable path to homelessness and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
My savings dwindled down, forcing our inevitable move out of LA closer and closer. Initially, I thought we wouldn’t leave LA until July… then June… then May… then April… until I knew we would be homeless by April 1st. I felt like my life was spiraling out of control, and all I could do was plan, prepare, and hope things worked out.
With homelessness looming in our immediate and foreseeable future, I went to my son’s school to explain our financial hardships and to see if he can complete his remaining senior credits early. I sat with his principal, guidance counselor and the school’s social worker to explore our options. The school agreed to fast-track his education. We put together an assignment plan with the expectation my son would complete all assignments on or before March 13th of 2020. I paid for a moving truck with my tax returns approximately six weeks before our expected move date of March 17th 2020. While I spent the next days and weeks cleaning and packing up the rest of our belongings, my son worked tirelessly on his final assignments. The exodus was fully in motion and there was no turning back.
[i] Cheers was an American television sitcom that aired from 1982 to 1993. The sitcom takes place at a local bar in the City of Boston where bartenders develop close relationships with the customers who share their innumerable problems while drinking alcohol. It was the place where everybody knows your name. IMDb, (1990-2021). Cheers. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0083399/