One morning this past December, I felt particularly grateful that the coldest it usually gets in Los Angeles is the lower 40s. No bone chilling rain, no icy roads to navigate, and no snow to shovel.
In celebration of our relatively balmy weather, instead of driving, I figured I’d take a quick walk over to one of the overpriced cafes located a few blocks away on Sunset Boulevard. I was ready to score some hot tea, and cozy up in a chair with my writing notebook.
I wrapped a scarf around my neck and pulled on a pair of gloves to keep my hands warm. And then I set off, weaving my way through the streets, anticipating the aroma of a hot cup of Silver Needle tea.
A couple minutes into my journey, something happened that I did not expect.
I heard the faint sounds of music, something that sounded like Benny Goodman. And the further I walked, the louder the music became.
Right when I got to the point when I should have been able to determine which house or car it was coming from, I only saw a tent, a mattress, and a table.
Someone had set up a home along the street. In the tent.
I’ve seen enough homelessness in this city to know that the mattress blocks the wind and provides a bit of privacy. The table is useful for storing items. And some nice neighbor helpfully provided a garbage pail for any refuse that may need discarding.
I sat down on the curb across from this makeshift home wondering who was inside, but also secretly hoping whoever it was didn’t come out. I imagined being confronted by some angry person yelling, “What are you taking pictures of my house for?”
There was none of that though. Only the melodic strains of jazz. Indeed, the music was Benny Goodman.
I heard a bit of laughter, the kind of laughter that someone lets out when enjoying music that brings back memories of a happier time.
And then I heard the sound of a hammer clanging.
I let my eyes follow the sound. The house directly to the left of the tent was being expanded and rehabbed, another beneficiary of the out-of-control gentrification that’s taken over my neighborhood. It used to be a small bungalow but with the renovations, the house has tripled in size. It’s the kind of renovation that can easily cost tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars and it’s been going on since last summer.
I began to wonder if whoever’s in the tent used to live in a house like this before falling on hard times. Maybe they used to live in an apartment like mine and then something happened to change their circumstances.
A couple cars whizzed by and I realized I should probably move before my toes got run over. So I stood, still curious but ready to continue my journey toward the indulgent $3 cup of tea.
I felt guilty while I drank my tea knowing that whoever was in that tent would not be welcome in such a trendy cafe. No, my homeless compadre wouldn’t have the nouveau bohemian look: carefully tousled bed-head hair, a trendy hipster t-shirt covered with a military style jacket, skinny jeans, and, despite the cold, flip-flops.
I bought another tea before I left the cafe and held it carefully as I walked back home through the hills. As I approached the tent, I noted the music had subsided. Now only the sounds of the construction workers banging on the adjoining house filled the air.
I paused on the sidewalk next to the tent, unsure if anyone was still inside. Uncertain, I put the cup of tea down on the sidewalk and said, “I thought you might like something hot to drink.”
There was no movement, no response.
I was a little glad for this as I stood to walk away, the cup of tea steaming merrily, waiting to be grasped, and held once more.
A car approached and the rushing noise it made as it passed me almost obscured the gravelly, “Thank you,” I heard. I looked back and saw a gritty hand emerge to grasp the tea and pull it inside the tent.
Then the Benny Goodman once more began to play.
At the time I wondered how long the tent would be in residency. I figured someone would immediately complain that this tent pitching would bring Los Angeles’ crashing real estate prices down even more quickly. But week after week, the tent was still there. The mattress and desk eventually disappeared and the music stopped, but the tent remained. I suppose I began to take for granted that it would become a semi-permanent fixture in our neighborhood.
Now it’s gone.
I don’t know exactly when the tent disappeared. It became so ubiquitous that I sort of stopped noticing it, especially when I zoomed by in my car. Funny how easy it is to not notice the plight of others when you’re just driving by. But today, once more on foot and in search of tea, I headed over that way again. My heart broke when I saw only sidewalk where the tent once stood.
The cynical side of me notes that the construction on the house being rehabbed is 99 percent complete. I wonder if the owners, or someone else, called the city to complain. And who am I to say they shouldn’t?
I’ll never know why the owner of the tent had to pack up and leave. But I hope wherever he is that he’s someplace safe and warm. I hope he can put up his feet, play some Benny Goodman and sip a cup of tea in a real home.
Photo Courtesy of the Los Angelista