Day 3 and I’m in West Hollywood. There’s a little island of expat Brits who have a regular breakfast subsidised by Air New Zealand. They all meet on Tuesday morning to have bacon and eggs, tiny little pots of baked beans, bottomless tea, and chats about the British things that British people chat about. Traffic, weather, admin, accommodation, family. It’s a big group and has been running for years. I flew Air New Zealand so perhaps the subsidy will offset the flight a little. Getting there involves two buses through rush hour. I’m worried about the expense of an uber. As it happens I travel entirely free. On the first bus I artlessly produce my wodge of twenty dollar bills and ask if there’s change. The driver laughs at me in the way of people who can operate the machine. “I’ve been using it for ages, I know there’s no change, he should know what I know.”
A friendly passenger pities my haplessness and gives me $1.75. She advises that I go to a laundromat and get a load of quarters. I thank her profusely, and walk embarrassed past grinning strangers. 20 stops later I have to get on a connecting bus and there are no laundromats in sight, so still no change. Feeling slightly ashamed of myself I duplicate my behaviour and sure enough it yields the same result. Taking my seat in another grinning bus it occurs to me that I could probably travel for free all month if I could keep the act fresh. Until I get a repeat customer and then I get shot. Best go to the laundromat. But the genial lost Englishman thing evidently has traction.
Breakfast involves a lot of talking and people trying to establish if I’m important. I hate to disappoint so I remain elusive high status and leave abruptly. They ask me to get involved in something called The Toscars, which could be amusing and fits my timing. The details are hazy. I walk lots of hot streets and settle in a coffee shop full of sunglasses and sandals. It’s springtime in Hoxton! It’s ALWAYS springtime in Hoxton here, kids. I organise to meet an old friend. He comes round in his car. For the first time in a while I have a conversation that is not informed by subtext. “This place is weird, it has no centre.” I venture. “That’s because YOU are the centre. It wouldn’t work if there was an actual centre. Wherever YOU are, that’s the centre, for everyone here.” We talk about Trump. “Do you think there’ll be a protest here on inauguration?” “This is Hollywood. There’s no politics.” We cover a lot of ground in a short space of time and he buys me a steak and blue cheese sandwich which almost makes me cry. “The medium food here is the best in the world.” It’s also 16 bucks. Last night I saw a basic loaf of sourdough in a supermarket for 7.50. I’m going to be eating a lot of sardines. My friend drops me back at the coffee shop in time to catch the falling sun. It drops early. I sit listening to people offer to send each other their resumé, meet with someone else and give them mine, and get an uber pool all the way home for $2.50. No idea how that happened. Travel money makes no sense here. There’s a lot that makes no sense. But at least I get the sunset from the uber.
Day 1 and I am up before dawn. The Airbnb is lovely but full of sleeping strangers and considering I rolled in late last night and went straight to bed I’m aware they might be a little uncomfortable with me wandering around switching all the lights on. The patio is full of horny cats rolling around in the predawn, and as I close the door behind me and incompetently jiggle my keys in a terrible attempt to lock the door, the neighbours’ rooster wakes, guilty, and starts crowing. I stand to admire the palm trees and traces of red in the sky, and then open the big security gate that leads to the street. The cats make a break for it but I block them with my feet. I don’t know the rules here. As I close it behind me another man exits the house, precipitated by my incompetent attempts to lock his door. He introduces himself as Artur, and comes through the gate also blocking the cats. With all these cats it’s a miracle there’s a rooster. I tell Artur I don’t have a car but I’m going for a walk. He asks me if I’m mad. I tell him I hope not, and he offers me a lift. “Don’t walk around here.” He is going into work in his uber. He drives me to a starbucks on Jefferson and tells me it’s safer round here. He then gives me his number and insists that I call him if I am in danger. He repeatedly tells me to trust nobody. I trust him. It’s still dark, but Starbucks is open so I buy him a coffee and one for myself. I order myself a flat white as they have one on the menu, which is progress from the last time I was here. It’s a latte, but at least they’re trying. Artur makes sure I know that the emergency number is 911, and clarifies that he is best friends with all the local police because his family sorts out their life insurance. The last guy I met called Artur gave me a lift from France to London and left me standing by his van at Calais with a massive wrench in case “someone tries to sneak under the van”. Is there genuine danger, or are people called Artur lovely yet paranoid? Either way he leaves me on the street clutching a flat latte and feeling I might need to look over my shoulder. I shrug it off and go for a walk as the dawn cracks around me. Big shops, big stone churches, lots and lots and lots of cars, big trees, things built for show. I think I’m going to need to rent a car. Uber will break me and the buses are pretty bad here. I find a metro station. Artur has told me that nobody knows how to use the metro. An opportunity to be a pioneer? Sadly it doesn’t go in the direction I need to go, which is back to the cats, through this dangerzone of Artur’s. So I walk, following Google Maps, and there is nobody else walking. I walk through discarded clothes and ripped off bags, auto parts lying neglected on pavements, human turds, shopping trolleys. After an hour I come upon a small building with stained glass. Outside it sits a gigantic man with a gun. People are going in. On impulse, I go in too. To St. Matthew’s Evangelical Baptist Church. I stand at the back but it is obvious that I am new. I’m the only white face, and they worship together daily. I am gently asked to introduce myself. They make me feel welcome and the pastor preaches a gospel of hope and transformation. His context is that of children dead or in prison, and the shackles of deep poverty. I find the message very pertinent, full of hope, and a call to arms. “Too many of us mistake our stopping place for our staying place.” After the service, he runs to catch me in the street as I walk away. He thanks me, and warns me “This is a bad area. You should be careful here.” I walk back to the digs and open the fence. This time the cats don’t seem so keen to go out onto the street. Or is that my imagination?