I thought I at least grasped how horrific things have gotten in L.A. and California. Then I met the 88-year-old woman who lived in my alley for a few days.
Like most Angelenos these days I have become disconcertingly accustomed to witnessing scenes that just a few years ago would not have been tolerated in a civilized society, much less on the streets of the richest city in the richest state in the richest nation in human history. Most mornings when I’m in Santa Monica the first thing I see out walking the dogs is a homeless person. They’re often doing something unspeakable: Defecating against a building, injecting toxic drugs, screaming at demons they alone can see. Often combinations of various horrific actions. Most evenings when I’m in Santa Monica the last thing I see out walking the dogs at night is a homeless person, often doing something equally unspeakable.
We are desensitized – and that alone is a huge problem, a problem of nothing less than existential proportions. Hideousness is the new normal, human suffering on an historic scale. The casualties of the homeless crisis alone are measured in the tens of thousands. Thanks to the incomprehensible fraudulence of “leaders” (and at this point I actively throw up in my own mouth when applying the appellation to our city’s and state’s execrable excuse for a political class) like Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and the disreputable collection of dupes and crooks who comprise our city council, Los Angeles over the past decade has descended beyond third world squalor. We careened past the apocalypse at top speed and didn’t make so much as a whistle stop at Armageddon. The poets will have to compose neologisms to describe the conditions in which hundreds of thousands of people live, conditions that make a mockery of mere workaday morphemes like horrific, hideous, nightmarish, hellish, ghoulish. Those epithets don’t so much as approach the gates of the new circles of Hell rapidly metastasizing across the City of Angeles.
We need a whole goddamn new lexicon.
We don’t have leaders anymore in California, not even in name, nor have we for years, maybe decades. True leaders gone, replaced by contaminants. They spread poison and disease, hopelessness and despair, wherever they go. They are anti-Midases, everything they touch turns to something indescribable. As they fete themselves at perverse Read Death style orgies they allow the systems that support millions to collapse. Encourage the collapse, even. For out of the collapse emerges dependency and need. Only the need is no longer succored. Need unemployment benefits in the midst of a massive economic shutdown and historic pandemic? A shame, though the Gavin Newsoms of the world will surely tut-tut about it with deeply furrowed brows at their next relentlessly scripted presser.
These are things we know. These are the realities we have come to expect in the world’s fifth largest economy. We have long since grown accustomed to would-be leaders who garb themselves in the mantle of progress only to reveal themselves as charlatans available to the right bidder (and never forget: the “right” bidder is not always the highest, merely the one who offers the most baubles). We have resigned ourselves to a degree of deceit and corruption that once was relegated to dime store detective novels and b-movies.
What I cannot resign myself to, and what I will never be able to desensitize myself to, are scenes like the one I confronted a few days ago. An elderly woman was lying on the sidewalk propped up against a parking meter. Dressed in a blue-black coat and long black skirt, with a black scarf tied over her head, grey leggings, and black shoes she looked like nothing so much as a Nepalese sherpa, surrounded by a menagerie of bags and half-eaten foodstuffs. She alternately scribbled in a wire notebook with a broken pencil and rocked back and forth speaking a language I didn’t recognize. Not until I approached more closely did I realize how old she was, the skin on her face like a topographical map. The first time I tried talking to her it seemed she literally didn’t realize I was even there. She continued scribbling and talking like she was in a trance.
In a sane world, in a rational world, there’d be a number to call in situations like this. There’d be a three-digit city number a concerned citizen could call and on the first or second ring a courteous, attentive, well-trained city worker would answer the call and help said concerned citizen connect an elderly, mentally disabled homeless woman with the proper services. In a sane world, in a rational world, this three-digit city number is a no-brainer, the governmental equivalent of tying one’s shoes in the morning. The sort of fundamentals a government nails before tackling, say, climate change.
Of course Californians, and Angelenos in particular, don’t live in a sane or rational world. We live in a postmodern dystopia where elderly women routinely are left to fend for themselves alone on the streets. Many of them die. We live in a city where politicians make comfortable mid-six figure salaries (not to mention the gifts, perks, and outright payola) to keep tens of thousands in living conditions not fit for sewer rats. Indeed, a compelling case can be made that in Venice, Skid Row, and dozens of other locales the rodents have it better these days than the human beings.
I saw the woman a couple more times. One time she was reasonable coherent, and I managed to get her name (or a name, Emily) and her age: 88. I couldn’t tell if the language she had spoken was real or just gibberish from her fevered mind. I went upstairs and got a bottle of water, the absolute irreducible minimum of help, but by the time I got back to her spot she was shuffling down the block. For two nights I saw her set up a makeshift sleeping place in a doorway in the alleyway behind my building. That was the last I saw of her. For all I know she’s dead already.
Not that it matters. Not that any of it matters. For the truth is that there was – there is – absolutely nothing I could have done for Emily. There is nothing anyone can do for her. I say this having spent the better part of two months last year helping another elderly, disabled woman navigate L.A.’s positively labrynthine homeless care system. Or rather, I tried to help her. The system is so hopelessly broken that the emergency telephone number listed on the official city and county homeless website, the number people like Emily are supposed to call when they are in a life and death situation, was not even active. The most vulnerable and helpless people are left with a recording telling them to try again later.
Again, there are no superlatives left. We are living them. Horrible things elsewhere in the world are compared to Los Angeles. Mogadishu, Somalia’s new slogan could be “Safer than Venice Beach!”
Emily is not just Santa Monica’s failure, or Los Angeles County’s failure, or even California’s failure. She’s not just Eric Garcetti’s fault, or Gavin Newsom’s. In fact the actual figures ii charge are largely interchangeable, as are the Emilys dying on our streets. No, Emily is our failure – mine, yours, eveyone’s. Just as Gavin Newsom is our failure, and Garcetti, and Bonin, and Gascon, and all the rest of the pathetic rouges’ gallery that passes for leadership (*hurl*) these days.
And that’s why I no longer understand. I no longer understand how an 88-year-old woman is left for dead on the streets of Los Angeles. A meth tweaker from Minneapolis who shows up with a pocketful of drugs and a sense of entitlement? Sure, that makes sense. The criminal class that preys on said tweakers, sure. None of it is remotely acceptable, but at least the average brain can process those examples of decay and decline on our streets.
I don’t understand Emily – or rather, I don’t understand how we reached the point that Emily is even a possibility. She’s not bashing in windows or assaulting neighbors or starting fires. She’s not addicted to fentanyl or black tar heroin. She’s just an old lady we collectively decided to leave behind. All of us – obviously we’re all perfectly okay with it, because we’re not taking to the streets. Obviously we’re okay, because no one’s manning the battlements. Eric Garcetti will get an excellent night’s sleep tonight, while four or five more Emilys die on the streets of the city he allegedly governs.
But Emily is our failure. Never forget that. Think about her the next time one of L.A.’s or California’s political class spews about compassion. Remember her picture when they talk about service and community and progress.
Remember well, because if things don’t change, and fast, we’re all going to be Emily.