The air smelled of campfire and burned the throat. We’d barely left the airport when we stopped, caught in rush hour traffic. Normal, for Los Angeles.
The road had cleared a bit when my ride-hail driver swerved to the right across four lanes. We cruised by passengers in the carpool lane and the other lanes for a half mile or so before slowing to a crawl.
“Wow, do you see that? How many are there?” the driver yelled, pointing as police cruisers – lights on and sirens blaring – sped by in the direction of the airport. I counted four. Then two more. Then approximately 30 seconds later another six. He said there were four more at the beginning that I missed.
“I wonder what’s going on. They usually only send that many for a shooting or something else big. I don’t see any news alerts.” He grabbed his phone. “If there were any they’d come across my phone immediately.”
Slightly concerned, though we were barely moving, I said I’d check my phone.
I typed in “Los Angeles Airport, news.” The most recent story was something banal about Nicole Ritchie, famous by association for being Paris Hilton’s friend and Lionel Ritchie’s adopted daughter.
Welcome to Los Angeles.
Distracted as I was by the driver careening through the now-fast-moving sea of cars while looking at me or his phone, I don’t know how our discussion veered into the homeless “epidemic,” as the driver called it.
Warm weather and “welcoming” policies attracted would-be homeless people to Los Angeles, he asserted. He rehashed largely discredited theories about welfare fraud that reminded me of that much mythologized Californian, Ronald Reagan.
While there are problems with government assistance programs, the goal should be to minimize fraud while helping the most vulnerable rather than using fraud as an excuse to gut a program. Not that I said that to my driver. I chose to avoid confrontation with this potentially unhinged man driving a weapon down a freeway who could also decide to drive me to a dangerous part of town and leave me there. Something like discretion is the better part of valor. Or I’m a coward.
Lest the conversation devolve further with at least half an hour left of the 20-mile ride to downtown that on a good day takes an hour (today was not a good day), I mentioned how skyrocketing housing costs were making a bad situation worse.
I told him the story of when I first attended a soccer match at a new stadium in San Jose a couple years ago, I noticed an RV in which people seemed be living in the neighborhood where I parked, a stone’s throw from downtown in the heart of Silicon Valley. This year the RVs and cars in which people lived lined the street.
The driver’s eyes grew large in the rearview mirror when I mentioned the hepatitis A outbreak among homeless people that officials in nearby San Diego feared would contaminate the river.
He said that in spite of efforts to clean up the notorious Skid Row, the homeless camps had spread.
But the expanded Skid Row is far from the only homeless enclave in Los Angeles. A few days later I read that one of the infernos raging that day had been caused by a cooking fire at a homeless camp near tony Bel-Air. (The neighborhood is known to children of the 90s from the popular television show “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” which launched the career of actor Will Smith. Rumor has it that a reboot might be in the works. Smith said he’d have to play the older Uncle Phil.)
The smoke-choked air darkened as the driver looked back at his phone and jerked the wheel to the right. We are already speeding onto the exit ramp when he said we were taking a different route to make better time. We headed into a residential neighborhood. Though the lights in most of the buildings were off, the neon sign from a beat-up liquor store illuminated the tents lining the street.
“Oh man, this thing is bringing us right into the hood,” he said, then slammed on his brakes, stopping just short of a homeless man pushing a laden shopping cart through a crosswalk.
I’d had decent luck with ride-hail drivers in the past. I was beginning to wonder if it had run out. But I wasn’t about to ask to get out here.
I reconsidered when the driver moved onto the Book of Revelation, the last in the Bible, picking up facts seemingly at random to support his belief that the end is near.
Nervously checking my phone to see how much longer the ride would take, and wondering if we’d eventually be close enough – and hopefully in a safer-looking neighborhood – that I could make some excuse to get out and walk the rest of the way, the driver looked at me in the rearview mirror and said, “I don’t mean to disturb you, sir. I’m only telling you things that are out there.”
I replied, pathetically, with something like, “The interesting thing about meeting new people is that everyone has their own point of view.”
After a few more minutes of his confusing monologue that included a statement about how important Belgium is to the end of the world, and the continuing apocalyptic conspiracy between Russia and Iran that started at the end of the Second World War, we finally arrived at my hotel in Little Tokyo.
Welcome to Los Angeles?
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Los Angeles County Facts
County Seat: Los Angeles
Population: 10.1 million
Named After: In 1781 a group of settlers founded the pueblo that become Los Angeles, calling it El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciuncula. In English that means The Town of our Lady the Queen of the Angels of Porciuncula.
Los Angeles County is the most populous county in the nation, with more residents than 41 states.
The city of Los Angeles is the most populous city in LA County at 4 million residents, more than 23 states.
LA County is larger than the combined areas of Delaware and Rhode Island.
Los Angeles became a part of Mexico in 1821 following the Mexican War of Independence, and then a U.S. territory in 1848 at the end of the Mexican-American War. California became a state in 1850.
LA County is one of the original counties in California. As the population increased sections were split to create parts of what are now Kern, San Bernardino, Riverside and Orange counties.
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