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Homelessness in the City of Angels

I was sitting with my family on the pier at Santa Monica. I was trying to take it easy after a 12-day road trip from New York to Los Angeles.

The ebb and flow of water close by was soothing to the ear. I sipped a glass of cool California beer and watched the sun sink into the ocean. My mind was not occupied with anything but the view.

I didn’t try to pull out my phone to capture what I saw. I didn’t want to ruin the joy of an idle evening with the distractions of social media.

My father, husband, and dog were sitting by my side. My family was together after two long years. Basking in just that put a smile on my face.

Happiness, however, is short-lived. A man who had walked into the beachside shack minutes after our food arrived, climbed onto a table directly behind us.

He had dismantled a giant slab of glass that cordoned off the outdoor seating area from the street. He now picked up the glass with both his hands and raised it high above his head.

He waved it in the air, like a giant frisbee, letting out a blood-curling scream.

I turned around to see eyes consumed with rage. They belonged to a man who had long lost touch with reality.

From his appearance he looked like many I had seen on the streets of Los Angeles. “Transient” is a politically correct term used to describe the homeless, a local had explained to us at dinner, few days earlier.

The transient man looked like he was fixed onto a plan now. A plan to launch glass like missile in any direction he felt like. He decided it should be the main street, right next to a patrol car.

In one loud crash, glass shattered into a million pieces. The man screamed louder this time, in what sounded like pain.

Did he hurt someone? I thought I heard more screams? Did he hurt himself? Did the police not see that? Oh My God—that police car is empty!

My mind spiraled out of control. The man now turned around to look at people staring back at him. People who were unable to move because they were frozen by fear, confusion, or both.

“Dad what are you doing staring at him? Come inside the restaurant this instant. I screamed at my father.

I had managed to walk a few steps away from the commotion toward the interior of the restaurant.

“What the hell are you both doing standing there? MOVE!!!” I shook my husband’s hands, pulling him toward me.

My father and husband were inches away. My dog scampered behind my feet, like a child clasping his mother.

The man’s eyeballs flitted nervously from side-to-side. It looked like he wasn’t sure he was responsible for the chaos. Yet, we couldn’t be sure what he was actually thinking.

He could easily pick up another slab of glass to finish off what he had started. Didn’t it seem like the obvious thing to do? And why the hell was my family still glued to the ground like deer caught in the headlights?

The man turned around and jumped over to the main street instead. He jumped directly over the pieces of glass on the ground. May be, he picked up a few, before disappearing in the direction of the beach. He quickly mingled into a crowd of tourists, far from where we were.

Frightened parents held onto their children long after the man was gone. A dozen people tried leaving the narrow exit of the restaurant all at once. The staff scurried about like headless chickens, unsure what to do. Few, who still had a sound head on their shoulders, called 911, only too late.

We heard the police siren 20-minutes after the incident. We were in the parking lot by then, ready to get into our car and drive away.

“What the hell just happened? Why didn’t any of you move?” I shouted at my family once we were in the car. “What if he threw the glass in your direction? On your face—

“It didn’t happen, alight? Relax! My husband replied, agitated. He was still trying to process what he had seen.

“If I made any sudden movements, he would’ve looked straight at me,” my husband explained. “I saw him enter the restaurant, you know, and sit right behind you. He had a piece of glass in his hands already. He was trying to slash his wrist.

“What? You saw him with a piece of glass before he climbed that table?

“Yes. Maybe. I could be wrong about what I saw. It all happened so fast…

“Oh my god! I gasped.

“By the time I could make sense of what was going on, he was on the table. If I tried to stop him, or draw anyone’s attention to him—a man in his mental state would attack whoever came in his way.

“What do you think he was trying to do— I tried asking the obvious. May be, I was trying to process as well.

“What the hell do you think he was trying to do? Of course he was trying to kill himself. When the tiny piece of glass did not work, he decided to break an entire wall.” My husband’s agitation grew worse.

Photograph by Sergio Omassi

“I don’t get this place. I don’t get this city. It’s depressing. I want to go home, to New York.

“Listen, you are in shock. We are all in shock!

No I am saying what I feel. I have never seen so many homeless people out on any streets I have ever walked on. Of course they will lose it. Anyone will lose it. Can you imagine what you would do if you didn’t have anywhere to go? Why won’t the government do anything about it?

“New York has homelessness too, you know.” My husband replied. “The homeless there are usually in shelters, because of the weather, I guess. They can survive in California because it’s sunny all the time.

“Or may be you don’t notice them because there are so many people on the streets of Manhattan, My father chimed in.

“It disturbs me to see all this, I said, ignoring all the explanations. “I mean Los Angeles has beautiful people, who come here to become rich and famous. To become models, act in the movies, become superstars.

It has these farms, and mansions, and luxury cars. It has these fancy restaurants with patios where people like us sit and drink our martinis with no care in the world.

And right next to you—in front of you—you have people who have nothing. Nothing at all…

“I think you might be overreacting, my father cut right in. “Let’s go home now. Let’s forget this ever happened.

But, I couldn’t just go home and forget that this ever happened. My mind wandered off like the homeless on the streets of beautiful sun-kissed California.

What if I didn’t have anywhere to go to, my mind probed. What if I didn’t have a family—someone I could call my own. What if I had to spend a night alone on the streets, looking for a safe corner everyday.

Would I survive? With no community. No friends. No family. No food. Nothing to do. Nowhere to be. Would I not try to end it all?

Life so fragile, like glass, that can shatter into a million pieces when it slips away from your fingers, under the beautiful California sky.

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