I’m standing in the Starbucks at the corner of Wilshire and 26th, Santa Monica, when I get talking to a woman who is holding a small terrier-style dog on a leash.
‘That’s a cute dog.’ I say to the woman as I bend slightly forward and hold out my hand toward the dog, making one of those sweet dog attracting sounds people make to a dog when they want it to engage with them.
‘He’ll just ignore you,’ says the woman who is wearing a white tee shirt, chinos, bright red lipstick, and has curly dark hair and arms covered with some portraiture tattoos, ‘he’s not interested in you out in public, but if you come to his home he’s all over you.’
‘I see.’ I say, giving up on the animal and straightening up, ‘So out in public he’s a snob.’
The woman laughs.
We stand there for a few moments until I say, “I like your tattoos.” and I point to a particularly excellent black and grey work of a couple.
‘Those are my parents.’ she says.
Then she shows me other black and grey portraits up her arms but none are as skilled as the one of her parents and I ask her who did it,
‘It was a woman up in Orange county,’ she tells me, ‘she was really good,’
I don’t have any black any grey and thinking maybe one day I might get one, I ask her for the woman’s number.
‘She committed suicide,’ the woman says.
‘Jesus!’ I say.
‘Yeh,’ says the woman,’ and she did this one too.’ and she rolls her arm around and shows me, this time without explanation, a good, but not as good as the parents, portrait of a baby on the back of her arm.
‘Yeh, it was a real shame,’ says the tattooed woman, as we both look down at the tattoo of the baby that the woman from Orange County who had committed suicide had done.
I’m in the 7 Eleven on the corner of Gramercy and 16th buying a decaf coffee when I strike up a conversation with a couple of smiling young men standing at the end of chip aisle.
The young men, who are wearing white shirts, red ties, have 5 o’clock shadows, gel in their black hair, and lanyards around their neck with a cigarette company logo on them, tell me they’re employed by the cigarette company to seduce smokers into changing brands.
‘I gave up a very long time ago,’ I say when they offer me a samples, ‘because I dislike the idea of choking on a throat tumour.’
The young men laugh and I tell them I hope they don’t smoke.
They laugh again and one of the young men tells me he smokes, but only crack.
‘You do? I ask him, and we all laugh again, ‘it’s lovely isn’t it?!’
This makes him and his colleague laugh even more.
And then, because I am waiting for Erin, who is in the queue paying for my coffee and her sweets and chips, I tell them that I smoked quite a bit of crack when I lived in London.
‘What’s it feel like? they say, all of a sudden taking me seriously.
‘If you ever had cocaine,’ I tell them, ‘well, crack is to cocaine what lobster ravioli with asparagus sauce is to ramen noodles.
Then one of the young men asks me if I have ever ‘done molly’, and when I tell him yes, he briefly closes his eyes and moves his head around in a circle, as if he is a 1950s crooner commencing his set.
Then, for the next few minutes while I drink some of my coffee and they half-heartedly attempt to convert a couple of smokers, we discuss the merits of ecstasy: the enjoyment we get from taking it and the absence of violence amongst ecstasy takers compared to drinkers of alcohol.
Then, suddenly, we are interrupted by a very large man who is leaning forward and pointing at my tee shirt.
Next to him, and holding his hand, is a very large woman, covered in tattoos, with a 1950s style bandana on her head, and she’s smiling and giggling at the man.
‘I have to tell you that I love that stuff.’ he says.
‘Really?’ I say to him as everyone looks in the direction of my my chest, and my dark blue tee shirt, which has the word ‘Gefilte’ written across it in white lettering.
‘Really?’ I say, ‘I think it’s awful stuff.’
‘Naw,’ says the large man, ‘the jelly is a bit gross, but if you get over that, it’s pretty good.’
Then the young men from the cigarette company ask the large man about Gefilte, and the man begins to talk, knowledgeably, about Jewish food and holidays.
‘You’re not Jewish, are you? I say, when he finishes, ‘you look a bit big and …Hispanic to be Jewish.’
‘No,’ he says, looking down at me and laughing, ‘I’m from El Salvador.’
‘I never had Jewish food before I came to the US,’ I tell him, ‘ thought it was all going to be spicy and yummy, like you’d get in a Bedouin tent, or something, and I have to say I was disappointed when it turned out to be brisket and gefilte and eggy bread and chicken soup.’
We laugh at this and then I turn around to see Erin standing off to the side, with chips and sweets in her arms, waiting for me to stop talking so we can leave.
‘Oops, I have to go,’ I say, turning back to the young cigarette company men, ‘it’s been lovely talking to you.’
‘You too,’ they say, and we smile and wave, and so does the large man who liked my gefilte tee shirt, and so does the girl standing next to him: the girl who smiled and giggled, and is wearing a bandana and is covered in tattoos.
I’m seated in 40F on the 1.05pm from LAX to JFK, waiting for the plane to take off, when the guy in front of me in 39 looks back to me through the space between the seats and tells me that he really likes my shoes.
‘I really like your shoes,’ he says, ‘I noticed them when we were boarding,’
‘Oh, thanks,’ I say of my shoes, which are a pair of very worn burgundy leather Converse high-tops, ‘I bought them at a music festival in England, years ago, second hand,’
‘Wow,’ says the man, who is wearing a dark knitted beanie, a tee shirt with an Adidas logo on it, dark blue jeans and Converse of his own.
‘Yeh,’ I say, looking down at my shoes, ‘a 20 quid bargain!’
Then he asks me if I’m from Australia and I lean forward and hang my arms over the seat and tell him yes, originally.
Then I ask him where he’s from.
‘Los Angeles,’ he says, ‘Downtown,’
Then we talk for a little while about how sketchy Downtown is, and how the apartments in the building he lives in have been bought for students by their rich parents and how there are now keg parties every night.
‘I get in the elevator to go to work and kids are smoking weed in it,’ he says, ‘and, like, I’m no prude, man, but it’s like 7am!’
We both laugh, and then he asks me if I’m ‘going home’.
‘No,’ I say, ‘I live in California, now,’
‘Oh,’ he says, ‘so, um, no escaping, then,’
‘No,’ I say, and give a really feeble laugh.
And he too laughs weakly, and even though we are not looking at each other, we know why we are laughing these feeble laughs.
And then the man frowns.
Then he rubs his stubbly chin between his thumb and forefinger and says ’My mum called me crying this morning,’
‘Yeh, I say, ‘There were a lot of people crying. I cried a lot,
‘She’s a school teacher,’ he tells me, ’A life-long Democrat,’
Then there’s some quiet between us and we are both shaking our heads.
‘She just can’t understand how it happened,’ he says.
And then there’s a bit more quiet, until he looks up at me.
‘It feels like somethings gone wrong,’ he says, ‘like really, really, really very wrong.’
I’m standing at the avocado display at Trader Joe’s, Studio City, holding the dog in my arms and checking out the fruit, when a woman comes toward me and starts talking about the dog.
‘Oh, my god, look at you,’ she says to the dog, ‘aren’t you sweet?!’
Then she asks me if she can pat him.
‘Can I pat your dog?’ asks the woman who has long dark gray-at-the-source hair and is dressed in an Hawaiian shirt, dark blue track pants and white rubber sandals.
‘Of course, he’s called Charlie,’ I say, turning slightly toward the woman to make Charlie’s head more accessible.
‘Aw,’ she says as she starts stroking Charlie’s head, ‘I had 2 little dogs but they died earlier this year,’
‘Oh, that’s bad luck,’ I say.
Then, as she continues to pat Charlie’s head, she asks me if it’s an Australian accent she hears.
‘Is that an Australian accent I hear?’ she asks me.
‘Yes,’ I say, ‘but I lived in England for a long time so it’s not so extreme,’
‘I lived in Bundaberg, mate,’ she tells me, and laughs.
I laugh, too, and ask her how she came to live in Bundaberg.
‘I married an Aussie,’ she tells me, still patting the dog, ‘We were married for 8 years, but he couldn’t keep his arm straight,’
‘Oh,’ I say, ‘I see,’
The woman laughs and claps and raises her voice slightly and says-‘SEE! you know what I mean. I knew an Aussie would know what I mean,’
‘Yes,’ I say, nodding my head, ‘I know exactly what you mean,’
‘I gave him an ultimatum,’ she says, frowning slightly, ‘Me and the kids or the booze,’
‘Oh, dear,’ I say.
‘He gave it up for a while,’ she tells me, ‘but he went back to it,’
‘Shit,’ I say.
‘I didn’t want to lose everything,’ she tells me, ‘I have a nice house in the canyon,’
‘Nice,’ I say.
‘Yes,’ she says, ‘I had my dogs there but I can’t get anymore animals because I have vertigo and asthma,’
‘Oh, dear,’ I say, ‘that’s not good,’
‘No,’ she says, still patting Charlie on the head.
Then we go quiet while she pats Charlie and says sweet things to him.
Then she stops patting Charlie and laughs and says- ‘I gave him a hit of acid on a beach in Indonesia…and then I married him,’
And then she laughs again and rubs Charlie’s head.
It’s Thursday afternoon and I’m standing in front of the large format printer at the FedEx on Sepulveda Boulevard, Sherman Oaks, where I have gone to make prints of my giant world colouring map and scan a pastel drawing I have done of Donald Trump, when I notice a small boy staring at me.
After a few moments of staring at each other, I say hi to the boy, and then, because he doesn’t answer me, I lean forward slightly, and ask him a question.
‘Why aren’t you at school?’ I say, ‘did you get kicked out or something?’
‘No,’ the boy says, ‘I finished for today,’
‘Oh,’ I say, ‘did you learn anything while you were there?’
‘Yes,’ the boy, who looks to be approximately 7 years old, says.
‘What did you learn?’ I ask him.
‘J’, says the boy, ‘the letter J,’
‘Okay,’ I say, ‘tell me a word that begins with J,’
‘Juice,’ says the boy, and then smiles,’
‘Excellent,’ I say and clap, ‘now tell me an animal that starts with the letter J’,
I can see by his face that the boy is thinking, and then a small girl, slightly taller than the boy, comes over and both of them are looking at me and saying ‘um, um’ and thinking of an animal that starts with the letter J.
Then a very tall man comes over and stands between them and says ‘come on,’
And then suddenly, at exactly the same time, the boy and the girl shout ‘Jaguar’,
‘Yay,’ I say, and clap my hands again, ‘you should keep on going to school, it seems you learn things there,’
The man says good bye to me and takes the children by the hand and is starting to walk them away, when the small boy notices the drawing of Donald Trump I am holding in my hand, and he stops.
‘Wait,’ he says, ‘Is that Donald Trump?’
‘Yes,’ I tell the boy,’
‘Did you draw that?’ says the boy, and I tell the boy yes.
‘Wow,’ says the boy, smiling at me, ‘that’s really good,’
‘Thanks,’ I say.
And then I ask the boy if he likes Donald Trump
‘No’ says the boy, making the face of someone who has smelled something unpleasant,’ he’s a jerk,’
Then the man, who is trying to lead the boy and girl away says ‘come on’ again.
And I wave to them and smile and the girls waves to me and smiles and I watch and smile as the boy looks up at the tall man and calls out loudly-‘Well he is, Daddy, he is a jerk!’
It’s Saturday afternoon at the post office and I am waiting in the queue with a parcel under my arm when the woman behind the counter calls me over.
‘Hey, Honey, hi,’ she says, ‘watcha got for me today, huh?’
‘Hello,’ I say, ‘I have a parcel that needs to go to Australia,’
‘Okay, Sweety,’ the woman says, holding her arms out toward me as if she is going to hug me, ‘Why dontcha let me have a look at it’?
I hold out the parcel and the woman takes it from me and then, cheerfully, starts asking me questions.
‘You know what it weighs, Sweety?’ she says as she tilts her head and turns the parcel around in her hands.
‘I’m afraid not,’ I tell her.
‘Okay, hun, let me just get some measurements on it then,’ she says, putting down the parcel and taking out a tape measure.
Watching the woman, who wears small wire-rimmed glasses and whose long whispy pink hair is tainted by several inches of gray root, I feel compelled to tell her how pleasant she is.
‘You are the most pleasant post office worker,’ I tell her, ‘usually they’re so mean spirited,’
‘Well,’ says the woman as she adds some strips of clear packaging tape to the places on my parcel that are not secure, ‘that’s because of him upstairs,’
I tilt my head back and look up for a window to the manager’s office or a CCTV.
But all I see are stained beige ceiling batts.
So I look back at the woman who suddenly, like an ostrich, darts her head toward me and says-‘It’s the Lord. My Lord and saviour’.
Then she winks and smiles and nods her head.
‘Oh,’ I say, ‘I see,’
‘Yeh, Sweety,’ she says as she does post office things with my parcel, ‘I accepted Jesus Christ into my life,’
‘Oh,’ I say again.
Then the woman, whose name badge says ‘Sharon’ tells me that previous to her acceptance of Jesus Christ as her saviour, she had led a life of sin and misery.
‘Oh, dear,’ I say.
Then, as I am taking my debit card from my wallet in preparation for payment, Sharon tells me that if I wanted, I could have Jesus as my saviour, too.
‘Oh,’ I say, ‘how?’
‘Now, Sweety, what’s in your parcel…documents, liquid, any flammables?’ Sharon asks me.
I tell Sharon no, none of the above, and Sharon writes something on a customs label, and then, without even looking up from her work, says-
‘I invite Jesus to become the Lord of life,’
‘Pardon,’ I say.
‘You can just say that after me, Hun, ‘I invite Jesus to become the Lord of my life,’
Sharon, who is now pressing buttons on a calculator and writing numbers on a pad, goes quiet, and there is an uncomfortable silence, so I break it by saying- ‘And, so, um, what happens after that?’
‘Jesus will be working in your life,’ she smiles and tells me, ‘so…, ‘I invite Jesus to become the Lord of my life,’.
I look around the post office, at the other people in line, and then back at Sharon and quietly repeat the words ‘I invite Jesus to become the Lord of my life,’
‘To rule and reign in my heart from this day forward,’ says Sharon, who is nodding her head up and down and peeling the backing from my customs label.
‘To rule and reign in my heart,’ I say, twisting and turning my debit card over and over with my fingertips.
‘Please send your holy spirit to help me obey You, and do your will for the rest of my life,’ says Sharon, who is now making a red mark on my parcel with a large rubber stamp.
‘Please send your holy spirit to help me obey you,’ I quietly repeat, ‘and do your will for the rest of my life,’
‘Hun,’ says Sharon, sliding the parcel and pen back over the counter toward me, ‘Hun, please put your name and address up top there on the left,’
I take the pen and parcel and write my name and address in the top left hand corner and then slide the parcel and pen back across the desk to Sharon, who leans to her left and puts the parcel in a large fabric bag.
Then, out of nowhere, Sharon closes her eyes, bows her head, holds her own hands and says -‘In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen,’
I look at Sharon for a few moments willing her to raise her head.
But she doesn’t.
And so after a few moments I say- ‘In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen’
Then Sharon opens her eyes and looks at me, and not knowing what else to say, I say thank you.
‘You are very welcome, hun,’ she says, smiling, ‘Now is there anything else I can do for ya today?’
I’m standing in the street, checking my car tires for chalk, wondering if I’m going to get a ticket later in the day, when a man walks past with his dog and starts up a conversation about the parking situation.
‘Ma’am,’ he says, ‘you should call the city and ask them to issue you with a permit,’
‘We’ve tried that,’ says my neighbour, Melissa, who is standing behind my car checking for chalk, ‘but they won’t do it,’
Then Melissa tells the man that she has lived in the apartment for 20 years and that things regarding parking are unlikely to change.
‘I work for the city,’ the man says, ‘maybe you could try again, though you might have to pay,’
We both agree that we would probably have to pay, and then Melissa, who is wearing a towel on her head because I have just touched up her roots, goes inside and then, because he asks me where I am from, the man and I stand on the footpath, talking.
‘I am from Australia,’ I tell the man, who then tells me he has been there.
‘I’ve been there,’ he says, ‘I went to Sydney for my son’s wedding,’
‘Nice,’ I say.
‘Yeh,’ he says, ‘he married an Aborigines,’
‘Oh, yeh?’ I say.
‘Yes, ma’am,’ says the man, ‘and I knew nothing about the Aborigines until he married one,’
‘Well,’ I say, ‘they are the original population,’
Then I tell him a short history about Australia’s attempted genocide of the Aboriginals, and how once there was the White Australia Policy.
‘They are so black,’ the man says of the Aborigines he saw, shaking his head and laughing, ‘but they live just like normal people,’
‘Some do,’ I say, understanding that the man means in houses, with beds in the bedrooms and living in the living room.
‘They live in London, now,’ says the man about his son an the son’s wife.
Then the man tells me he was born in Shanghai, but came to the US when he was 10.
‘My whole family is out there still,’ he says, ‘and I ain’t seen none of them,’
‘Oh, yeh?’ I say.
‘Yes, ma’am,’ he says, ‘they weren’t too happy with my grandpa marrying a black woman, so my grandma came back here,’
‘Oh, yeh?’ I say again.
‘She lives in San Fransisco now,’ he tells me, ‘but she got married when she was 15,’
‘Interesting,’ I say and he laughs and says yes it is.
‘Well,’ I say, ‘I’d best get back inside,’
‘Yes, ma’am,’ he says.
And then he ask me my name and I tell him and then he tells me his name
‘That’s my English name,’ he says, ‘But my Chinese name is Lee Lee Ching,’
‘Okay, Lee,’ I say, ‘I hope you have a good day,’
You too, ma’am,’ he says as he starts to walk off with his dog, ‘you too.’