A March ago, as the light faded on a clear and brisk Wednesday evening, I hailed a ride to Guelaguetza, the landmark Oaxacan restaurant in the heart of Koreatown, for dinner with my dear friend, filmmaker Eric Nazarian.
As we worked our way through a kaleidoscope of moles, from the piquant rojo to the earthy mole negro, we shared our creative preoccupations — Eric’s afternoon of scouting locations at the Mar Vista housing project where he’d be shooting his next movie, my interview that morning with the survivor of a MacArthur Park gang attack I’d spent months trying to locate. There’s a cellphone picture of us that night, grinning in the dining room’s golden neon glow: sated, flushed, unaware.
By the time we’d paid the check, we’d learned that the NBA had halted play, that Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson had tested positive, and that this strange new virus that had been inching closer was officially here, altering life in ways we were only beginning to grasp. It would prove to be a last supper of sorts, my final night out in what has now been a year of limits and losses.
The Los Angeles I love is the LA others scorn: the city too vast and disjointed, too carved up by freeways and riddled with wrong turns to wrap your arms around, much less embrace. Ever since arriving 35 years ago — a sheltered Oregonian by way of an experimental Vermont college — I’ve delighted in taking the boulevard less traveled. I’ve tested myself and trusted the city, endorsing uncertainty, ignoring boundaries. Like stepping into Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrors” (which has mesmerized crowds at The Broad), LA is where Thai Town meets Little Armenia, which abuts Little Bangladesh, which spills into the El Salvador Community Corridor, which overlaps with the Byzantine Latino Quarter. You can hear live jazz in Little Tokyo, grab falafel in a century-old food hall downtown, sip sazeracs at a British chophouse-turned-Korean lounge, nibble rice cracker-encrusted asparagus in a West Hollywood izakaya, or bob to the mariachis in a 24-hour Montebello diner.
Or you used to — I did — and now you can’t.
The pandemic has hobbled LA in heartbreaking ways: upended livelihoods, swamped hospitals, shrunken our world. As the late Jonathan Gold, LA’s Pulitzer-winning omnivore, put it after the uprising of 1992, “the intricate framework” of our grand yet teetering city has again collapsed. The virus is our termite, exposing a fragile structure and years of deferred maintenance.
Despite some of the nation’s earliest and most stringent stay-at-home orders, we’ve managed to shutter our haunts and ravage our service industry only to emerge after months of self-abnegation as America’s latest COVID-19 epicenter. By the time LA reached its one-millionth positive case in early 2021, someone was dying here from the virus every five or six minutes. So overwhelming was the toll, the coroner had to request that air-quality regulations be suspended — to allow crematoriums to incinerate more bodies.
There was a perception, back when LA was avoiding the worst of it, that our sprawl and car dependence made us exceptional. But that’s a privileged swath. Nearly a million of LA’s 10 million people are undocumented, most without health insurance or sick leave, many doubled- and tripled-up in frayed tenements and bootleg garages in communities as dense as Manhattan. We have some 60,000 people experiencing homelessness, the tents lining our parks and underpasses a humanitarian disaster that belies our image as 2028 Olympics host. And if you scroll the public health department’s log of COVID-19 outbreaks, you’ll see what amounts to a map of working-class LA, from a carpet manufacturer in the City of Industry to a tortilla factory in the City of Commerce.
To have the flexibility to retreat, to remain solvent with only a keyboard and Wi-Fi connection, is a luxury. Still, it doesn’t change how weird and disorienting LA has become for those who have spent this past year sheltering and distancing, growing shaggy and adding pounds. We feel woozy on our rare outings, as if we’re all blinking away the fog from our screen-addled eyes. We’re unmoored on the emptier roads, trying to recall familiar routes and decipher new traffic patterns. And we’re unprepared for the sensory dissonance: malls jammed, skyscrapers desolate, drive-thru lines endless, storefronts still boarded from a summer of racial reckoning and an autumn of political apprehension.
The stupefying effects of life in a city on hold finally caught up with me on a warm, clear, glorious December day: time to get out of the house. I proposed a hike in the San Gabriel Mountains, where Altadena meets the forest. It was a moderate 5-mile loop I’d trekked the previous holiday season with my son. This year he was homebound in New Orleans, so I guided my girlfriend’s son and his girlfriend — super fit young adults — up the trail, taking off at a brisk pace to show them I wasn’t as sluggish as I might have appeared.
About an hour in, the trail no longer recognizable, we came across a treacherously delicate chute of loose stone and parched earth that looked to be the only way forward. I can’t explain why we didn’t turn back from that rockslide — except that after living with so many barriers, I was loath to allow an obstacle to stymie our great escape. Scrambling like goats, gripping fistfuls of needle-nosed agaves to hoist ourselves several hundred feet up the crumbling slope, we eventually made it to a steadier but steeper outcrop. And there we remained frozen, hearts pounding and legs trembling, unable to go up or down.
I’d made a series of bad decisions, so it was time to make a good one. With the bit of cell service we could conjure, we called 911. A Los Angeles County Fire Department helicopter spent an hour probing the crags and arroyos before our heroic first responders spotted us waving like castaways on an escarpment. To my dismay, our predicament required a “hoist extraction” — the technical term for the shudder of fear that comes from seeing a dude rappel from a chopper hovering maybe 40 feet overhead with plans to scoop you up and launch you skyward. As the blades engulfed us in a cyclone of debris, we were strapped one by one into a harness (appropriately labeled a “screamer suit”) and cinched to the dangling cable.
When my turn came, I couldn’t even look. I just told myself that it’d be over soon, that no matter how long I remained suspended midair, no matter how visceral my dread, this too shall pass. Maybe that is everyone right now — in ways less dramatic for some, more perilous for others — each of us waiting to exhale, hoping to get our footing back.