It is 8 o’clock, and the light has started to fade as I sit on the floor of my apartment staring at the spot where the rain not so much dripped as oozed from the doorjamb a couple of months ago, swelling the wood and leaving a rust-yellow stain on the wall. Downstairs, a baby cries out in Spanish; in the distance, the Geto Boys boom from a passing truck. For the fifth time in about an hour, I think about the other parts of town, the ones with croissant shops on the street corners and air-conditioned shopping malls and neighbors who look like me. I slap in the new DJ Quik tape and crank up the juice.
For the last decade or so, I have lived in a creaking apartment, probably swank in its day, that has been home to a dog trainer, a fiddle player and a series of writers in a smartly columned building in an aging neighborhood nobody has yet bothered to name. The runner on the front stairway was tacked down in May 1926, the approximate date of the newspapers used as padding under the indeterminately colored rug.
Before the fires of April, there were 14 different kinds of ethnic restaurants within a five-minute walk; now there are just 10. For a while, everything in the neighborhood seemed just a little more ominous, the Saturday-night gunshots a little louder, the omnipresent sirens and helicopters a little closer to home.
When you spend some time in my neighborhood, you learn the rhythm of the place, the mornings when the Mexican fruit truck shows up on the corner, the hour when Filipino teen-agers snack on liver buns and Coca-Cola at the pancit shop, the peaceful time in late afternoon when the avenue flows majestically as a great, slow river of cars. Midafternoon on Fridays, traffic slows to a halt as pious Muslims pour out of the local mosque; Sundays it slows for worshipers exiting the Korean Philadelphia Presbyterian Church, which is housed in an enormous onetime synagogue where a friend of mine was bar mitzvahed many years ago.
Guatemalan women walk home from Ralphs with bags of groceries balanced expertly on their heads. Salvadoran construction workers crowd into the local Korean noodle shop for steamed dumplings. On the first Tuesday in November, one might vote in a Japanese travel agency, an Islamic meeting hall or an Armenian carpet store.
The guy at the dry cleaners seems to think that my name is American Customer. On the day of the fires, looters broke into his store and took off with most of the shirts.
The first warm day of spring is greeted by the jingle bells of the paleta men, who trudge up and down the block behind cartsful of delicious fruit popsicles, pursued by children. With summer, iced coconuts appear, sold out of the backs of trucks by laughing men who whack the fruit open with long machetes. You sip at the liquid with long straws, and later gouge out strips of the sweet, gelatinous meat to nibble on.
In this neighborhood, most of us are just passing through, transients on our way to more permanent homes in Long Beach or Huntington Park. We are all citizens of the world: strangers, together.
But to my Korean landlords, this neighborhood is home. When they came into my apartment a couple of years ago to inspect the building they had just bought, they removed their shoes on the landing in the polite Korean manner and promptly drenched their socks on the freshly mopped kitchen floor. I have been awakened before dawn by the rhythmic thud of their pounding garlic into paste on the back porch. I have stumbled out the door with an armful of wet laundry, only to find most of the clothesline taken up by drying fish. I have also come home from work to find the back stairs spread with leaves of cabbage, curing in the hot sun. Even when their son was slain a half-mile south of here, there was no questioning of their sense of place. The landlords keep to themselves and so do I, but I often wish that they would invite me over for dinner.
Last week, I ran into one of the coconut men at the big swap meet down on Alameda and 45th, wearing a big cowboy hat and dancing to a norteno accordion stomp that was blasting from a flatbed truck. He waved and smiled. “Hey!” he shouted across the parking lot, nudging his girlfriend. “It’s my American customer!”