I am standing at the gate at LAX scanning the terminal. I have just disembarked from my second airplane trip ever and I don’t see the one person I know in Los Angeles. Prior to this moment, the farthest west I’ve ever stepped foot was the mountains of East Tennessee. Now my white cowboy boots from Payless ShoeSource are mere feet from Hollywood. Ok. Miles.
The thing is, I have no idea how many miles. Truthfully, I flew to LA having never even seen a map of the city. In my defense, it is 1988. There is no internet. No mapquest. Yes, I could have found an atlas at the library, but I’m not particularly pioneering.
I scan the terminal and don’t see Mark anywhere. Mark was my Resident Assistant freshman year in college. We became friends, and after he graduated, we stayed in touch. We were talking a couple months earlier and he asked about my plans after graduation. “I don’t really know,” I said. “You should come out here! LA is great! You’d love it!” he said.
I’d seen Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Beverly Hills Cop. LA did look great. A seed had been planted. And a couple weeks later, a letter arrived at my dorm: “Our records show you are about to graduate from college. We would like to offer you a line of credit for $800.” EIGHT HUNDRED DOLLARS! It was a windfall moment, and I pondered how to use my first credit card for a week before I decided to follow my friend’s suggestion and go to Los Angeles.
You see I had dreams. Big, hopeful, unarticulated dreams. My mother always said I was “a champagne girl born into a Budweiser family” and I needed to get out of my hometown and let flow my bubbles.
As the end of college nears, it becomes increasingly clear that I’ve not achieved my mother’s primary goal for me in going there. The MRS degree.
“What happened with that boy you went out with last week?” mom inquired on our regular Sunday evening calls, when telephone rates were cheapest, “Didn’t you say he’s going to medical school? What about that young man who’s joining his family business? When are you going to find someone and settle down?”
My parents never ask what I am getting my actual degree in, and now that I’ll soon have a BA in Communications, the first thing I need to communicate is that I am NOT getting married any time soon.
So I make my first purchase with that credit card. A plane ticket to LA – for a couple weeks after graduation with a return ticket near Christmas. I am giving myself six months to figure it out. So there I am in the United Airlines terminal when I realize: a ticket is not a plan. An airline ticket is not the golden ticket to success.
Not seeing Mark anywhere, I head to baggage claim, and wait by the carousel for my two suitcases containing all my worldly possessions meant to get me through the next six months: clothes, my Walkman with mix tapes, some books, and a manila folder with a stack of resumes.
Now I’m at the curb looking like Ellie May Clampet in my floral dress and cheap boots standing by the tattered gray bags that once belonged to my grandfather. And Mark still isn’t here. I have a total of $200 and some change in my wallet, along with that credit card with its now $600 limit. I go to a phone booth and pull a folded piece of paper with Mark’s numbers on it from my purse. I call his home and office and get answering machines. I’m down 20¢. In the cramped booth I consider my options, watching as people who know where they’re going get into cars with friends and taxis with destinations.
I’m fighting an urge to head back into the terminal to buy a ticket home. What the heck was I thinking doing this? The panicked battle is raging in my mind for a full hour when Mark pulls up to the curb in his dusty red Datsun. He hops out and we hug hello. “So sorry I’m a little late” he apologizes, “Work was insane and traffic was a nightmare.”
It is the first time I have ever considered that traffic might be the reason someone is late.
“It’s ok,” I say brightly. But I’m near tears. I collect myself. I am in Los Angeles, the City of Angels and I’m ready for my next chapter! Only really, I’m not.
Mark lives in a non-descript tan apartment building in Santa Monica. It’s a bachelor pad with nothing but a bed, a couch, a coffee table, a bookshelf and a kitchenette. We make spaghetti together and eat it on the couch while watching 21 Jump Street.
Later, after he pours us a second glass of wine, he leans over to kiss me. I move away. Ours was never a romantic relationship. “What?” he questions, “I thought we could have some fun together.”
“I-I just wasn’t expecting that,” I respond.
“Well what did you expect?” he looks angry.
“This is just a little fast,” I stall. But he’s right, what did I expect? Did I think I was going to stay in Mark’s apartment indefinitely? We hadn’t really had a conversation about my plans. He said come. I bought a ticket and said I was coming. He said he’d meet me at the airport. What the heck kind of hair-brained plan was this?
Mark shakes his head and walks to the bathroom. “I’m taking a shower,” he grumbles. I hear water running and wander to his bookshelf. I’m mysteriously drawn to a plain black book among the Steven Kings and Robert Ludlums.
In it I find a list of women with whom Mark has had sex. Hundreds of names. He’s rated them all and written descriptions of some of the acts and their locations, from awesome blowjob on a rocky cliff to doggie style in a broom closet at work. Some have names and some are people I knew in college. Others are “blonde chick from the biker bar” or “black girl with the big tits.” My name is the last one in the book with a question mark penciled in next to it.
“Holy crap! What am I going to do?”
I pretend to be asleep on the couch when he comes out of the bathroom. My mind races all night as I try to figure out my next steps. I play possum as he gets ready for work the next day. Then I grab my Walkman and head down Santa Monica Blvd until I come to the ocean. I don’t know what to do, but as much as I am pulled toward home, it’s clear in my first sighting of the Pacific that there is so much more for me to see and do and learn in this expansive place.
On my way back to Mark’s apartment, I grab a copy of The Los Angeles Times.
And then I grab a cab.
“Where to?” the driver asks as he puts my suitcases into the trunk. I search my memory for what I know of Los Angeles.
“Sunset Boulevard,” I say.
“That’s a long road,” he chuckles. I feel foolish. “Hollywood,” I declare.
Soon I’m soaking in the lush landscape of Beverly Hills then it morphs into the hard edges of the Sunset Strip and I know we can’t drive like this forever. I have to call it.
“There,” I say, and he lets me out at a place that I figure I can afford. The Saharan Motel.
It’s seedier than I expected. I’m not street wise, but I can tell it wouldn’t be smart to walk down Sunset with my suitcases looking for a better option. The room reeks of smoke with its tan shag carpet and well-worn orange floral bedspread. The sun is setting as I search the Want Ads. A professor in college had mentioned that the ad agencies he worked for were on Wilshire Blvd. I guess I’d figured I’d walk there and drop off resumes? Surely someone would see that I’d just graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill and say, “You’re hired! Here’s your first paycheck! Get an apartment! Here’s your second! Get a car!”
But there aren’t any advertising jobs I’m qualified for in the LA Times. I am still in the A’s, skipping over accountant and anesthesiologist when I land on Au Pair. A place to live, a car to drive, a hundred dollars a week. I call and do a phone interview. They agree to meet me in person the next day.
I fall asleep fully clothed on top of the questionable sheets, but I’m awoken by a loud banging on my door. “It’s Ramona! You ready baby?!” The peephole reveals a woman wearing leopard print and leather and leaning suggestively against the railing. “Shit!”
I grab the phone as she bangs on the door. “There’s someone outside!” I whisper. She knocks louder. “Just ignore it,” says the person at the front desk,“She’ll go away.” So I do, but about an hour later, the banging starts again. This time the voice is angry and male. I look out the peephole and there’s Ramona accompanied by a large man in gold chains and a white fedora. “When you make an appointment mother fucker, you keep your appointment!” he yells as he slams his fist into the door. I call back downstairs. There is a commotion and then it is quiet.
I haven’t slept when I meet my potential employers at the Sunset Grill. We see first hand the working girls and basket people Don Henley sings about. Maybe the flight attendant and her pilot husband are scared for me. They hire me on the spot and I ride home with them to Palos Verdes as the new nanny to their seven-year-old daughter.
It’s more than a month before I tell my mother about my new job. Back home I have sisters who are seven and ten. Mom wanted me to stay nearby to help care for them. She isn’t impressed that I traveled all this way to do something I could have done in North Carolina.
But here’s the thing. There were many days when I nearly picked up the phone and changed my return ticket, but I didn’t. As I shuttled my young charge around the verdant South Bay hills in the nanny’s convertible, I fell in love with California.
I began to see myself as a risk-taker, irrepressible, a survivor.
After Christmas, I came back. Three decades later, after several jobs, a marriage, a couple kids, a community of friends, a pandemic, LA envelops me in her warmth. When the palm trees beckon in the breeze and the scent of jasmine fills the air, I look out over the Pacific Ocean and remember that girl who almost turned back, and I am so glad she didn’t.
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As told on TALES BY THE SEA, Sunday, July 11. You can see the wonderful show here. I come in at 38 minutes.