Love And El Pollo Loco
The ample alcohol from my final night with the movers and shakers of the game industry made waking up for hotel check-out a slow and groggy process. With my things strewn about the room haphazardly it took nearly 2 hours before my sleep-deprived brain could figure out how to get everything back in my massive pack. By the time I’d left the hotel it was already early afternoon and I had a massive task ahead of me.
My dirty laundry had infected the rest of my clean clothes with their mustiness and I desperately needed to find a laundromat before the odor became permanent. I also needed to figure out where I was going to stay for the night as my limited trip funds meant even a few nights in a hotel – especially ones as expensive as those in downtown LA – would drain me to destitution.
After putting out an all-call on Twitter, a long-time internet friend offered a place to stay for the weekend if I could make it out to Long Beach before nightfall. Elated, I accepted and told him I’d be there later in the afternoon when I finished getting my laundry all tidied, and set out to find a coin-op.
I came across one 2 miles ahead of the hotel I’d left and got busy. When I’d finished cleaning my clothes, the owner of the laundromat came over to tell me that he too had been a backpacker once, setting out across Europe for months. He told me to be careful, gave me directions to Long Beach, and sent me off with a few cold drinks for the road. It continues to amaze me how helpful strangers have been.
The Los Angeles transit system seems remarkably better organized than Toronto’s. On top of that it was much cheaper. I threw my $1.50 into the electronic ticket machine and stuffed the stub in my pocket before making my way to the red, and then blue lines that would get me to the center of Long Beach.
Now, I didn’t know anything about the area I was heading to, but as I saw shifty character after shifty character file on pushing rusted bikes or peddling candy bars out of a tupperware container for a couple extra bucks, I started to realize I’d stepped into a bad part of town. By no means was it like the night I’d spent in Detroit, but there was clearly a poverty problem in the area and I realized a great deal of the individuals on the train were homeless.
I received a call more than halfway through my journey from the couch I was supposed to crash on. Apparently it wouldn’t be possible and I’d have to find somewhere else to go. Frantically I started begging online with no real idea of what I was going to do. A gay couple sitting next to me, Freddy and Christian, started commenting on my pack and my distress, talking casually about all the times they’d been in hot water. They spoke quickly and had a rapid banter between them that would border on arguing at times, but above all I could sense a very strong love between them.
As we chatted, the metro authorities started descending upon our half of the train looking for everyone’s tickets. I’d remembered reading the notice in the terminal where I boarded that the fine was $250, so the commotion the search caused amongst the homeless riders was understandable. However, as I reached in my own pocket to dig out the stub, it was nowhere to be found. Somewhere along the ride it must have slipped out while I was fishing for my headphones or something and I was now faced with seconds before getting a huge fine and potentially worse because I was a foreigner.
I looked left and right at Freddy and Christian who’d seen me frantically tapping my pockets and realized that they too didn’t have tickets – likely because they’d hopped the turnstile – and were also about to get in hot water. Ahead of us a very angry homeless guy started a commotion when he refused to submit to the officer and the confrontation kept everyone’s attention as we pulled into a stop around 3rd street.
Freddy, Christian, and I gave a knowing nod to each other and hopped off the bus without a second thought; none of us could pay that kind of fine and it was worth braving a random exit to avoid it. We laughed a good deal about the narrow escape and started walking together down the street.
Christian was hungry and had his EBT card, which meant we could go and find some food. I’d never used food stamps before and had always imagined them coming in little paper booklets that needed to be hand-signed by grocers in exchange for raw essentials like milk and flour. As it turns out they’d been modernized to function like debit cards with funds automatically getting deposited every month. On top of that, a lot of restaurants in the area had started allowing customers to pay with EBT, meaning that when Freddy suggested El Pollo Loco we were able to waltz right in and enjoy a meal on the government’s tab.
As we sat at the table with a sprawl of our socialist flavoured chicken, Freddy got to telling how he’d been in a fight the day before with some awful homophobe down by the river who’d left him with a few scars on his forehead. Clearly the conflict was a point of contention between Freddy and Christian, as the fight could have been avoided and Christian didn’t like being put in a situation where he needed to save Freddy. Although they fought about it rather fiercely, it all came out of how much they loved one another and it was rather sweet to watch.
We finished up our food and headed down the street where we found a Spider-Man playtent in the trash and Christian decided to pull it out and pop it open to see if it was any good. With the goofy, flimsy thing fully erected in the middle of the street the two goofed around in it for a little while before we folded it up and left it outside a Burger King for someone else to take.
We had to part ways before 6th St. as I still had nowhere to go and they had a reservation at a shelter they needed to make if they were going to have somewhere to sleep tonight. After our goodbyes I headed to Starbucks to find myself a hostel or someone friendly who’d be willing to let me crash, and wound up trying CouchSurfing.org for the first time to tremendous success.
Barely an hour after sending a few messages, a real cool looking guy named Jeremy offered me a place to stay over the weekend if I could make it back up to his area. Within minutes I was on the bus and less than a half-hour later I was already in his lobby.
Jeremy was a tall, good looking guy who worked with the Disney hotels that catered to the rich and famous. He was incredibly fit and most importantly incredibly friendly. He’d gone on CouchSurfing at the recommendation of his roommate, Madeleine, who’d used it all over the world. I think the fact it was both our first experiences made the whole thing less awkward.
That evening he took me out with his friends – a lovable group of guys – to see a flick at the giant movie theatre in a remote Long Beach mall. The place was huge, bigger than any I’d seen before it, and covered in neon lights all around. It housed multiple IMAX screens and had the plushiest seats I’d ever seen in a regular theatre, which combined with the dim lights offered a perfect place for a nap while our flick played. I woke up right at the end of the film, a little refreshed from my long day of running about with my 120 lb. sack on, and fell right to sleep when we got back to Jeremy’s apartment.
Again I’m reminded by how good strangers can be to each other and how much better that makes life. Jeremy didn’t need to answer my call, nor did he need to involve me with his friends, but we’re having fun together because we’re able to trust one another and I’m grateful for the opportunity.