In Spaulding Gray’s one-person show and film Monster in a Box, the monster is a novel manuscript and it sits beside him on stage. A huge problem as prop. Often I’ve thought of the 20th-century storytelling great as I’ve vaped, smoked and munched on the streets of downtown Los Angeles.
My life is that of a pedestrian in an intensely auto-focused town.
Nearly as much as it’s about being consumed by writing drafts, Monster in a Box is about Gray arriving in Los Angeles, fresh out of Manhattan, aiming to tell stories about local transit on his day gig and work on the novel at night. Early in Gray’s L.A. trip he’s riding with his assistant—searching for Angelenos to interview—when he realizes his driver suffers from a distinctly local affliction.
“Nothing under thirty-five miles per hour registers on her retinas,” he said during the mid-nineties UCLA gig I caughtme. Unless you lived in a village or a city like New York or San Francisco you didn’t think this way. Never mind living in New York, I hardly yet knew Los Angeles.
My downtown neighborhood is in commercials and movies a lot. It’s visual shorthand for the edgy part of town. A flavor in the American mind, like The Fast and Furious. And I am in these streets. Throughout the pandemic, my thing was to spark one before dawn and watch the sun come up amid murals and 100-year-old industrial structures. Skid Row and general L.A. shenanigans are in range enough that my stoned ass is not trying to survive 35 MPH POV.
Practically, I gave up owning wheels in 2003. In fits and spurts, I’ve since owned a car and had girlfriends with cars, but I’ve not much invested in them. In 2021 there are apps for when I need wheels, as well as apps that get people to drive me around so that I can deal with email and not have to pay for gas, parking and insurance.
Don’t get me started on the “car is a symbol of freedom” bullshit.
Mostly, I walk, which in turn lets me think. And burn enough calories to drink.
You know how sometimes when you get high you lose your earbuds? On low-key fortuitous sunrises like these I sub in actual urban sounds for podcasts and raps. Hearing the city awaken is as important as viewing it, ya feel me. Truck sounds work the low end, with birds and braking freeway flybys playing the high side.
My building is in an East side suburb of Greater Downtown Los Angeles, which is to say far from the center of DTLA. It’s gentrified and exotic. But once a pedestrian crosses the Alameda Delta —late in the predawn hour, into downtown downtown — ain’t nothin goin’ on but houseless voices.
“Hey, OG!” That’s the call that can truncate a draw from my Keith Haring one-hit. “OG, got a light?” “Let me holler at ya, OG.”
“OG” is what Black men under 40 whom I don’t know tend to call me. Usually, I’m good with it, taking the name as a moniker of respect. But on Alameda Street before dawn it’s too often not cool. Of LA’s homeless, Alameda Delta panhandlers are the least together.
But the secret to living in this town, pedestrian or auto-slave, is to live in a geographic space roughly the size of Portland. Kobe Bryant never could wrap his mind around that, living more than 40 miles away in Newport Beach and employing a helicopter in order to avoid the dreaded 405 gridlock. It eventually, tragically, killed him. To have 35 miles-per-hour consciousness is to constantly put yourself in mechanical danger while missing out on the feel of a heat foretold in crisp morning air. In the 80s, some white pop rockers made a song about how (only a) nobody walks in Los Angeles. Maybe the sentiment was accurate, but it feels like what Spaulding Gray, may he rest in peace, warned us about.
Too many Angelenos out of their autos for elitism to breathe in these streets today. When the Oscars aren’t interrupting, we walkers are catching trains at Union Station by the invisible million and linking up L.A.’s many suburbs. We buy less gas, damage less Southern Cali air. And sometimes we walkers snatch a train ticket to Oregon, home of sweet, cheap weed that I can roll back into the station with and fortify my perspective. I’m a pedestrian, living slow enough to see a whole coast as home.
Featured image by Gina Coleman/Weedmaps