One and a half million people live in this forest. How many houses do you see? Looking South from O’Melveny Park.
He rented a room from a woman at the end of the block. He drove a shuttle van for the disabled. He said he was from Costa Rica, but had no family anyone knew of. Did odd jobs around the neighborhood, but usually for Freddy and Rosa, who gave him meals, and treated him as one of their own. Played the Lotto with Catholic devotion, shuffle-walking to the liquor store on Sepulveda each afternoon for smokes and dollar scratchers, and the weekly MegaMillions draw. Didn’t drink. He wore festive man-thongs under his pants, occasionally revealed while he was working in Freddy’s yard. What this portended about him, was anyone’s guess. No one was sure of his age, and he was opaque about his history.
In recent years he avoided spicy food and waved off inquiries with vague pronouncements of stomach problems. Quietly, he began to forego his daily Starbucks coffee, a cherished indulgence. He ate less, and ate bland. The difficulties accelerated around Thanksgiving. He stayed home from work, and had trouble keeping down soup. Soon, he spurned all food but Vanilla-flavored Ensure. He went reluctantly to the County Hospital. By then, the cancer had metastasized throughout his gastrointestinal tract. They told him he had a few months, and there was discussion of hospice. He spent a weekend in an ICU ward for the indigent filled with beeping, buzzing machinery. Then they put him in the Comfort Room. A week later he was gone. First the English went. Then the Spanish. As he sank into the arms of Morpheus, the visitors from the neighborhood became disembodied voices patting his forehead. Then random shapes. Then shadows. No one was in the room with him when he passed.
Among the belongings found in his room were Christmas sweaters Rosa had bought him, neatly stacked and unworn, with the tags still on them. Tantalizingly, there was also an old photo of a woman holding a baby, and written on the back: ‘You could never love us’. This was news to everyone.
Millions of men have come north to labor in Los Angeles. One might put down an anchor and pull his entire family north after him. Marry a girl from the village and father American children who grow up insensible to his sacrifice. Another lives a quiet life of labor and duty, supporting parents, wives and children back home in perpetuity, but whom he rarely sees. Still another might juggle a Telenovela-like double life with a chica in Pacoima and an esposa in Michoacan, each with her own set of kids, separate understanding and separate cell phone number for him. Then there are men who make a complete break with the old country, but establish no foothold in this one. They drift. Work where they can, but do not advance and do not save and do not own. Beyond the basics of verbal necessity they don’t learn the language. They harbor secret shames. Labor is a young man’s game. The body betrays you after 40 and employers know it. You become itinerant. You spend the last 16 years of your life in a small room in a funky smelling house paying rent to a woman who sleeps fifteen feet away but doesn’t know anything about you and with whom you rarely converse. You don’t live on the dole, but you don’t become a citizen either, even after 40 years. You are in America, but you are not of it. You buy lottery tickets.
Your neighbors sprinkle your ashes into the soil of the San Fernando Valley, and a New Year begins.