I never used to like Los Angeles. After exploring it day and night as an Uber driver, I find it beautiful. Beverly Hills has silver-painted fire hydrants on very clean street corners. Dark green leaves of Banyan trees arch across wide roads, shading the line of secretive mansions set back behind ivy-covered walls. Some of these multi-million-dollar homes are brave enough to show sun-spattered entrances to their lofty doors and windows. On other streets, along canyons, Pink-flowered trees line roads for pastel-colored homes with white picket fences and rose gardens.
I used to live in the San Bernardino Mountains–before traveling overseas to teach English for 5 years. When I came home summers to sell my books at a posh Big Bear coffee shop, most LA people (up for the weekend) would walk past me as if I were invisible. I asked, “Would you like to buy a book?” They would not answer. Wearing their gold and diamond jewelry with name-brand clothes, they would breeze by in their Personal Trainer-sculpted bodies crowned by salon-crafted hair. They would examine kitchen gadgets or wooden wall signs: “My Kitchen, My Rules.” Sometimes they held a small designer dog instead of leaving it in their new Range Rover, BMW, or Tesla parked under a pine tree. That’s what I thought of them: materialistic, shallow, not inclined to read books. But now I see their world closer, and I understand a little how the wealthy seek to preserve their wealth.
I left the mountain because I could not find a good teaching job or sell enough of my books online. I started driving for Uber Eats. This new division of the personal car taxi service features ordering food online from many LA restaurants. A driver like me will get an offer on the Uber smart phone app, navigate to the restaurant via Google Maps, pick up the food, and deliver the trendy taste experience to customers.
Most of my customers are middle-class workers with cute LA homes downtown. A few reside in those Beverly Hills or Hollywood mansions. Windy roads like Mulholland lead past cliffsides with dizzy city views and hidden estate entrances. These compounds usually have high walls, gates, and electronic security systems to keep people out. They are not well lit at night and rarely display house numbers. The people who live in them collect foreign sports cars but hardly ever give tips.
Such communities are not the only secrets I have driven past in Los Angeles. The best ones appear late, when I drive all night. Usually I do not have time to photograph them. As I turn yet another corner, I try to remember images lit by streetlights.
A homeless woman sits by the curb, wrapped in a blanket. A shopping cart nearby holds all her worldly possessions, her skinny chihuahua leashed to one wheel. A man in a business suit reclines in a corner by a dumpster. He mutters something as he works on his laptop plugged in to an outlet on the brick wall above him. Under any freeway bridge, tents and cardboard line the archways littered by papers: a secret, subculture world where residents look out for and prey on each other.
On a swift walk to a chic Indian restaurant, I pass 2 drag queens with long, blonde wigs and glittery Marilyn Monroe dresses. Near them, a low, black and white Lamborghini waits for its Valet parker. A tall man with a guitar slung over one shoulder strides quickly past me. I pause to notice he’s wearing black like a reinvented Johnny Cash whose star I found on the Walk of Fame. I step on an abandoned Starbucks cup and almost fall to the not-so-clean sidewalk. When I open the cafe door, a tree taller than I greets me, its branches spread out gracefully, lit by blinking white LED petals. Curry and spiced tea scents the air. My stomach growls. I pass cloth-covered tables set with wine glasses and cutlery, past the bar with bottles that seem to glow with liquid gold. Each bottle sports a different shape on its shelf spot, each a different hue of yellow like heavenly ambrosia.
I duck into the Woman’s restroom. Its walls are brilliantly painted and hung with dried flowers. I catch a selfie in the mirror, wondering why I love to do that. I whisper a prayer, touch my Samsung phone screen to recall my customers’ names, and return to the discreetly hidden cash register. The manager, in a black and white suit like a polite penguin, checks the order information and hands me 2 big bags filled with herbal rice, spiced chicken, carrots with potatoes, and fresh peppermint. He thanks me, a fellow worker in this City of Angels. I walk near the white tree again–like the Tree of Life from an ancient garden–my hands too full to stop and take a photo.
My immigrant husband assists me in finding the 2 addresses for the Indian food. It’s well past midnight. Light rain dots the windshield as I adjust my Chevy’s headlights and climate control. We try to find numbers on street curbs or house fronts. A man wearing trendy black shorts with matching vest, piercings, and tattoos walks out to the car, takes his fragrant bag, and thanks me for his order.
“Nice sign,” he comments, pointing toward the “Jesus Loves You” license plate Omer bought me in Alabama. It hangs in my back window, across from the Uber sticker. “How’s your night going?”
“You don’t want to know,” I reply, almost too tired to see, as I climb back into the driver’s seat. “You’re right about the sign, but some people don’t like it.” We’re somewhere far up on Hollywood Blvd. A pink apartment building rises behind us like a Hollywood back-lot facade. My customer returns to his wrought iron doorway. I nudge the Chevy into “drive.”
The Man in Shorts was my last delivery. I switch the Uber app to “Offline” and GPS my way back toward the high desert. I notice that few cars leave LA on the freeway after 2:00 a.m. We stop to eat at a Taco Bell in Pomona, then get back on Interstate 10 East. Many long semi-trucks wind westward toward LA at 4:30 a.m, pulling their cargos on 18 wheels. By 5:30, the opposing lanes become a long white snake of commuters headed toward their LA workplaces. I traverse the gateway between mountains as a greenish-blue light fills the eastern sky. Clouds become misty white against the darker white of snow on summits. Pink, then orange, then yellow stretches across the eastern desert as we arrive at our Hesperia truck stop. A bird sings morning greetings from his sage bush. Wind blows cold across the rock-strewn sand. I pull my scarf tight for a quick sprint to the truck stop restroom, wishing I had energy and extra money for a shower.
A homeless man reclines against the outside wall, his hat pulled over his eyes, his backpack leaning against worn-down boots. Back at the white Chevy, I take off my shoes and cover the rear window. We spread blankets. Omer reclines his up-front passenger seat. You can never have too many memory foam pillows when sleeping in your car! I take off my pink crystal earrings and set them inside the door niche. Shifting my legs, I try to find a comfortable reclining position, too tall to stretch all the way out in my sedan’s back seat. Cargo trucks all around me hum their huge engines, multi-colored guardians in a wide circle. They take their last minutes of rest before heading toward Los Angeles, city of secrets, and the new work day.
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