It’s been a long time since I promised I would write the third installment of my Leaving Los Angeles series. And, right now seems good a time as any, I think. So, why not? By the way, parts one, two and this one aren’t necessarily in any kind of order. They’re simply bits and pieces of some of my memorable experiences living in the City of Angels. Basically, this is just my way of saying, I miss L.A., even when I have no intentions of going back there, at all. It was a great time. It was a time of learning and growth. And even at times… bittersweet.
Mid-Wilshire. Eastside. A busy part of town with a blend of world culture and a Wall-Street vibe with its high-rise buildings towering above an over-crowded, traffic-jammed, smog-filled strip. Just down the street is a neighborhood that seems a bit run down and ambiguous. Lots of old apartments, old houses, overfilled $5/hr parking lots and sidewalk food trucks that sell tacos so good you’d think you’re wearing a sombrero and a big fat wavy mustache.
In a corner down 7th Street stands a building that looked like a big old house. You wouldn’t notice it’s not a residence unless you’re looking for it specifically. Actually, it’s the Children’s Institute. A place where they temporarily house children from an abusive environment. These are kids who were taken away from their parents due to their inappropriate domestic lifestyle (drugs, violence, extreme neglect, etc.). The kids are there anywhere from a couple of weeks to a year or so. Just waiting till they’re picked up by foster parents.
About a decade ago, my life had no firm direction, being single and a hippie of sorts. My life was about playing guitar at a bonfire down Venice Beach. That’s pretty much it. I thought, it might be nice to make myself useful in a way, for a change. So I volunteered my time at the Institute. Three hours, twice a week, sometimes three. For about two years. And for no apparent reason, really. You can say I had nothing better to do back then. Probably not. But the experience was one that changed me forever. It made me see how much I truly have in life. And how much I had to give even when I was broke. To be with these kids who had no parents. No home. To play with them. To eat dinner with them. To turn on the TV while they scrambled to sit on my lap. Oh yeah, to let them play with my ridiculously long hair. And to finally tuck them in bed right before I had to leave. It was my teacher. My school. And I was in for the lesson of my life.
There was a lot to do. Not a whole lot of people to help out. Most of the time, the volunteers were there to earn points in school as part of their prerequisite for graduation. Me, I was there because it was 5PM and had just gotten off from work. But it was definitely chicken soup for my soul. That’s why I did it.
There were times when the staff would schedule my visits and designate me at the infants room. They would have me carry newborns for a couple of hours at a time. Two babies per session. I remember this room vividly. It looked like in the hospital where they have the incubators. Only the babies were in little bunk beds with sidewalls to keep them separated and from falling off. I learned that they need to somehow be compensated with human contact now that their parents aren’t around to do it for them. But there’s hardly anyone available to do it. Besides, collecting drool on your shoulder isn’t necessarily a fun activity for someone to be excited about. I know, I wasn’t. I was thrown in there because someone has to do the dirty job. But you never know what happens until you’ve actually done it. It was a process of transformation, in my case. I had a profound understanding of miracles born out of sacrifices. Believe me, I had not complained about anything since. That’s right! Life is good, no matter what.
However, for the most part, it was definitely a lot of fun. The kids I played big brother to ranged from about 3 to 10. There were times it was a packed room. Sometimes, kids get lucky they’re out of there soon enough, and there’ll be just 4 or 5 of them left. And it gets lonely without someone willing to play with them. Heck, I got lonely myself. When you’ve been accustomed to seeing someone there for months, and one day they’re gone – or worse, you see them walk out the door with new parents – it’s a pain you seem to never get over with.
There was a special moment for me during my time at the Institute. It lasted probably about 7 or 8 months. One day, I show up and there’s this new girl I had never seen before. Jessica, a beautiful 4 year old with long blonde hair, shamelessly runs up towards me with open arms begging to be picked up like someone’s baby she’s always longed to be. Well, nice to meet you too, little one. Needless to say, we quickly became good buddies.
Jessica always carries this rag doll. It’s my baby, she said. But I’M your baby, she follows through with firm conviction. Funny little rascal, she got in trouble with the caretakers a lot for hogging me away from the other kids who needed to be played with, too. I noticed that when I try to walk around the hallway and away from her, she stops whatever she’s doing and her eyes starts to follow me, as if making sure not to lose me. I remember one night, she was standing on the couch wanting to play catch with me. She falls on her back and expects me to catch her before she hits the floor. And so, I did. And I did, and I did. After a few rounds, I got tired and said, that’s enough, and even started walking away from her with an affirming tone in my voice… Bye, Jessica. However, just to make sure, my head turns for a quick glance. And sure enough, weeeeee… she’s halfway down the floor. And so, I run back as fast as I can. And just like a split-second homerun, I dive down the floor to catch her back in the nick of time. And when I do, she looks at me with that careless grin on her face that reads… Of course you’d catch me, silly. Of course.
Have you ever felt both happiness and sadness at the same time? How about pride and disappointment, at the same exact moment? It could get confusing sometimes. Especially when you’re not able to do anything about it. One day, I was talking with the caretakers and they told me that Jessica often looks out the window waiting for me. One of them said, She loves you, I can tell. Another time I came, it was raining hard. And she was sick. I remember walking through the door, the kids were all watching TV while she lays on the couch by herself, barely responsive. No screaming in excitement. No words at all. Not much like the Jessica I know. I mean, she couldn’t even hold her arms up to let me know she wants to be held. But obviously, I know what she wanted. And so I bend down to reach for her and I pick her up. Right when her head touches my ear, she pulls out her hand from her pocket, she pushes back to touch my face and she stares at me. And with the faintest of all whispers, her voice cracks… take me home.
It’s been ten years since the last time I was at the Institute. I remember the last day I came. I even brought a friend with me to show her what my extra-curricular activities have been like the past couple of years. Besides playing in bands, that is. Well, this day was special. Sort of. It was the day Jessica was supposed to be picked up by her new foster parents. I had to be there, no doubt about it. While waiting for the family to arrive, we spent time laughing and playing hide n seek with the other kids. We had so much fun. And then, the moment finally came.
Oh, guess what? Like a father giving away her daughter in marriage, I had the honor and privilege of handing Jessica to her new family… of course, I did it with the greatest strength I could possibly muster. I was falling apart by then. From my arms to another one’s. Gosh, it just felt so cruel! She wouldn’t even look at me anymore, at that point. She walked out the door without a single glance. Not a word. I said goodbye. No goodbye back. I waved my hand. No wave back. And I thought I was in pain. I can only imagine now.
Little does she know, though, that her life is about to be so much better than before. Her new family is very nice. At least from what I’ve been told.
She’s 14 now. And I sometimes wonder what she looks like. Where she is. How’s she’s doing. I can only hope that my baby Jessica is smiling at this moment. Happy, perhaps for reasons she’s not sure about. Who cares? Who cares if she doesn’t have the slightest memory of the times we shared. As long as she’s able to sustain that joy to this day, and have that as the foundation for her journey in life, that’s all that matters to me.
Now, when I look back, I can sometimes see the smog crawling down from the sky like a cape that shrouds my life as if being hidden due to its insignificance. But if for one reason it could’ve been, in fact, significant, maybe this experience is it. Or at least, the memory of it. Or something.
Something. Just so leaving Los Angeles would not have been so bad, after all.