As young children having recently moved to Bangalore in 1999, my cousins & I were fascinated with the Bangalore sky. It seemed like it was full of possibilities in a way we hadn’t learned to look for in other cities that we’d lived in. It was here that we fully grasped the idea of an aeroplane. It was also the time when an uncle had moved to America for a job, the first one to go abroad in our family. And everytime we heard a plane going over, we’d run to the terrace to scream his name out loud & say byeeee, even months after his departure. We never got tired of believing that he could see us from up there.
Adichie observes in Americanah that the image of America as a country like any other, with states & borders never seems to solidify in our heads. If one is going to the US, they are going to America – not Boston or LA or New York. So when I was accepted for a one month internship program at Seattle University, I didn’t register the Seattle bit until I was physically there. What did I know – I’d only packed my suitcase to go to America. As part of the scholarship, we were taken to Los Angeles, San Francisco, & Washington D.C. It hits me only now as I am writing this, that it really was as great as it sounds.
In films, Los Angeles was where Jackie Chan & Chris Tucker drove each other mad in Rush Hour. They ate something called Camel’s Hump in China Town, fought about whose dad was a better policeman, & danced to Edwin Starr’s War.
In The Holiday, Los Angeles became Iris’ escape. Before LA, she was weepy & unhappy. In LA, she finds what is called ‘gumption’ & falls beautifully out of love with an asshole. I wanted to find my gumption too. And even if Hollywood films had shown me Los Angeles as somehow less appealing than New York, I was most curious about why white women were always running away to Los Angeles when New York or wherever else became unbearable. I was convinced of this when Joan Didion did the same.
None of this was playing in my mind when I landed in LA though. I was distracted by my inability to touch the city. It wasn’t simply a question of size – in how big LA was & how small I – or perhaps it was. Los Angeles was like a hippogriff that I was afraid of not being able to pet on my own & certainly not in any grand way. This left me feeling crippled in part by guilt because I wasn’t doing a good job of being by myself, & in part by a maddening desire for female friendship. After all, the light & sky in LA was perfect for a lifelong female friendship. I needed her badly – someone to go on long walks, drink wine, eat crabs, watch films, and laugh loudly with.
We were a team of 21 & had pretty much settled in. At lunch that day, stuffing my face with hot seafood egg rice & cold beer at Grand Central Market, I decided I’d make more of an effort to be less afraid of the city. It wasn’t going to be easy – we had come across stories of people being mugged, shot at, and worse.
Even so, our first night in LA, a few friends & I walked to Clifton’s Republic in downtown LA. The decor was bewildering. There were huge taxidermied animals staring at us from corners, sudden upsurges of trees & shrubs from floors & walls, a 3-storied redwood tree (which I later found out was fake) shot straight up from the ground floor, and oddly placed furniture which made it difficult to have conversation. The deafening music didn’t help.
My friend, Esra from Turkey ran up the stairs because she sensed a whole other kind of music coming from the floor above. We followed her to see the craziest ballroom dance floor where people were dancing wildly. It was like a scene from a Jazz film – although I don’t know what that is. A bunch of musicians led by a young singer were performing in one corner, & in another, a small bar was serving classic cocktails. My friend, Simão from Portugal & I had an old fashioned, & then another, & then another, until we lost count.
I’d never heard live music like this before. My body began humming & my legs wouldn’t stop moving. Esra & I walked slowly to the dance floor like cats, & looked around. We were surrounded by couples & the more I watched them dance in sync, the more conscious I became but Esra who always sings her own tune was saying fuck you to people so delightfully, I stopped caring too. I saw only one gay couple on the floor who moved boisterously. On the other side, a woman wearing a retro yellow dress danced with a man like in La La land.
When it was time to leave, we didn’t want to leave even if our bodies had shut down hours ago. The trouble was that none of us had any memory of how we’d gotten in. We couldn’t find the exit.The place had grown arms of floor after floor. It had swallowed us in & it looked like we were in 5 different shooting locations at the same time.
One floor had a wilder party going on with rock music. Esra & I needed to use the loo & wandered into a Japanese Tea Room with zen music playing in the background, & people chit chatting calmly. We hurried out because we wanted to check if we were still in the same place. By the time we located the exit, we’d seen two more rooms with equally absurd things happening.
It was 1 am. We stopped for some shawarma & trotted back to our hotel.
The next day, we went to see the Hollywood sign – perhaps the only touristy place we visited in LA, and I couldn’t stop smiling because the previous night, I’d stolen a lot from the city when it wasn’t looking. Big cities like LA can only be petted when it wasn’t looking directly at us.
That evening, we went to The Museum of Jurassic Technology – the strangest museum I’d ever been to. It curated memory & forgetting. And much like Clifton’s Republic – this was a cabinet of curiosities. One showcase featured a plate of Madeleines accompanied by Marcel Proust’s literature about the same. Another, a video explanation on the theory of forgetting, another – dead baby clothes, & diseased fingernails.
On the topmost floor, there was a tea room. A woman emerged from nowhere & asked if I wanted tea. I nodded furiously. She gave me black tea with lemon in a small vintage cup. I took it outside on the terrace, where there were doves, plants, & a small boy happily chasing the doves.
An old man sitting on the stone bench was playing the Nyckelharpa (a Swedish folk instrument) while a massive dog looked on. The water from the fountain continued rising & falling. Esra & I sat, listened, & wept silently. Something happens to people inside this museum. Something had happened to Esra & me. We promised each other that we’d never try to understand it.
When we went back home, we told each other we’d try to recreate what we felt there. We called it The Museum Moment. During the last week of our stay in America, Esra & I returned to The Museum Moment over & over again – each time weeping our hearts out.
Later that night, they took us to a Karaoke bar & egged on by what had happened at the museum & how much of the city I had managed to pocket, I braved singing Rasputin- a song I’d first listened to back when our TV at home had a new music channel where people could phone them up to request songs.
That was the first & only time I’d actively listened to English songs and Rasputin was the only song my mother had recognized & I was surprised because she had never shown any interest in English songs before. She said it was a famous song in her college. I don’t know who requested Rasputin but it always came at the same time each day, & somehow that night in LA, in that dark room full of strangers who were quickly becoming more than that, I found the gumption to sing Rasputin badly & dance madly.
Next morning, when we discussed how crazy the night had been, someone made it a point to say that my song had been too long. I smiled. Normally, I’d have been bothered by how unnecessary the comment was but like Iris, I had recently acquired gumption so I didn’t have to care.
On the last day, I went to the LA Public Library where Octavia Butler wrote often. I had half a mind to go begging for directions from anyone I saw — ‘Kind person, please take me to the table where Octavia Butler wrote’
Walking aimlessly, I reached a long hall with bookshelves & writing tables. At the end of the hall to the left, where there was most light, I saw a bunch of small tables with lamps. I picked a random table, decided this must be where she wrote, plonked my ass in the chair, pulled out my journal & wrote in big, bold letters, ‘OCTAVIA BUTLER WAS HEREEE’
I’d just read Parable of the Sower so the whole thing was supremely real. It was a perfect day made even more perfect when at the library gift shop, I found a Joan Didion tote bag that was obviously made for me.
Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined that I would one day walk the streets of Los Angeles in motherfucking America & tell myself ‘Joan Didion must have walked here’
I’d always dreamed of beginning a conversation with the line, ‘So when I was in LA five years ago…’ & had no idea how the rest of that sentence would go because I only cared about the first part. I am now thrilled beyond measure that I can finally say ‘So when I was in LA…’ & feel assured that the second half of that sentence will be as crazy as the first. I just have to wait for five years now.
When you give hunger food, it will swallow it whole with everything it has. It’s what my people do when we are given an opportunity. It’s what my father does with mutton chops – he chews & sucks it inside-out until it’s bone dry.