Friday, April 18, 2008


I got off the plane in Los Angeles and clutched my purse and laptop. It's home, but it's also hostile. I feel less safe in LAX than I do in any other airport in the world, including Kinshasa where we were told they do actually sometimes steal your suitcase.

Once I walked past Wolfgang Puck's cafe and caught my first glimpse of a palm tree through the tall sunny windows, I felt better. I picked up my red bag, headed to the rental car station and snagged a set of keys to a white PT Cruiser. I did do the LA walk-around where you surreptitiously glance in the back windows of your car for lurking rapists before climbing into the front seat. The car was cool. I hopped in, stripped off my sweater down to the cami and drove.

I know LA. I love knowing it.

I exited at Wilshire Blvd. and turned right heading toward UCLA. My hotel, the Claremont, was (and still is) situated on Tiverton, right in Westwood. It's an old place without TVs or parking. I knew that going in. Its advantage to my stay: walking distance from UCLA and 60 bucks a night.

I liked the look of the place from the outside. I pulled up, hauled my bags out of the back, dragged them up the sidewalk steps and then up an entire flight of stairs (apparently no elevators either!) and dumped them in my clean, spare room.

My next mission: parking. Finding parking in Westwood is a test of the gods. You have to know which one is in charge of that day. Otherwise, forget about it. But my real concern this time had to do with finding parking that would allow me to drive to the UCLA event that night and return my car to a safe, lighted parking space that was within an easy walk from the hotel.

No such place exists. The paid parking was around the corner, on a hill, with no attendant and no re-entry. That left street parking which is, as I said, a crap shoot or a miracle depending on who you tell your parking stories to. As I sat in my car, halfway up the curb deciding where to put this rented vehicle, twinge. Like shots of tequila through my veins.

I glanced in my rear view mirror. Street sign: 2 hour parking between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. It was now 3:30. Perfect. Parking until morning. I suppressed the surge of panic, hauled that puppy into reverse and did my parallel parking thing, which being from LA means I'm a beast at it.

I walked back to the hotel, working my way into what would become a paranoid thought obsession: How will I get home from the Anne Lamott/Elizabeth Gilbert event tonight without getting assaulted, raped, shot, burgled, jumped, spit at, or flipped off?

It didn't help that I began this cycle of panic in the old hotel. My little second story room had windows that were open with tiny little latches. The door had one twist lock in the handle and that's it. No deadbolt, no little chain. Thousands of dollars of electronics, my all-by-myself body and a lock I could pick with a bobbypin!

The room went hot and airless.

I paced and panted. Every bad decision about safety I had ever made came back to me in waves - the times I jogged in college right by the rapists hiding in bushes at 1 in the morning with my 5' 2" roommate without blinking; the time I got into a car with an Italian guy at midnight in Zurich because I didn't have a hotel lined up, then he felt up my knee, so I heroically jumped into another car with another guy, and still wound up in the red light district alone; the alley in France I walked down as a shortcut to the movies where a North African male hand grabbed me in the wrong place, and my friend and I leaped three feet in the air, screamed and fled... I could, unfortunately, go on.

Now at 46, those memories, 25 years of news stories, this squalid half-locked room all bundled themselves together to beat and cripple me. I wrenched open my laptop and logged onto the Grand Wilshire hotel website. For $300 per night: parking! two blocks away! rooms with triple locks!


An anvil smashed my chest. I had hit full panic mode, the kind where every nerve ending thrashes my skin and my thoughts turn irrational but the whole time I'm in awe of their rationality. I couldn't imagine any way to safely make it through the next 24 hours.

I called Jon. The hotel can't exist if people get raped and burgled. You can always call a cab after the event. You will be fine. I dropped to my knees, accepted Jon into my life and adopted his Gospel message. But I still felt sick to my stomach.

After we hung up, a strange sound wafted to me from behind the barely locked door. Ce qu'il y a ici est... French? Outside my door? I could not believe my bon chance!

This hotel must be on the list of cheap places to stay for Europeans who come to America. No French person would ever steal my iPod! They won't fight wars! They love the Dali Lama! They drink wine till they have a cigarette, not so they can jump unsuspecting middle-aged women! I'm saved!

My breathing returned to normal. My stomach, not so much. I still had to figure out how I'd get home from the event. I inquired at the desk which held a barrel chested man who would be watching the front double bolted glass door all night. Is this a, um, safe neighborhood to walk in at, say, oh, 10:30 p.m. all by myself after an event at UCLA? I squeaked.

Funny how I walked it as a nubile 20-something without ever thinking twice. At 46, really, what do I have to recommend me?

He replied: Safe enough. But why go through all that? You can just get the UCLA escort service to walk you back to our hotel.

Salvation! Choirs of angels burst through the clouds... Well actually, they didn't. And this is where it gets interesting.

I heard him with my ears, I believed him with my head, but my body said, "No way. There's a flaw in this plan. You will surely die, after you've surely been burgled, and raped." For the next 24 hours, even after I had been safely escorted home by a nice Vietnamese ROTC student, every nerve-ending continued to fire, zing, and say "You're in danger!" In fact, I didn't eat well for nearly half my ten day trip. My body didn't recover or forget or believe.

I sat, parked, in the "let the trucks go by" lane of the San Marcos pass, shaking, though it was two days later.

Jon says it's midlife: the sense of vulnerability, mortality, danger sensed and narrowly averted, the weird out-of-context alone feelings that overtook me.

On many more levels than one it turns out. A foreshadowing of internal work to come.


Ampersand said...

beautiful journey, beautifully expressed.

Yours Truly said...

Oh yes...I know the mid life madness that you speak of. Fraught with danger and opportunity! hysterical laughter and the cold I am sure you discovered during your soul searching. I look forward to hearing more.


Dave said...

Like it. Gritty. Candid. Tough. Dare I say... Chandler-esque? Maybe, maybe not, but the LA milieu brings him to mind. Philip Marlowe lurks in a nearby alley, brim pulled low, trenchcoat on though the weather doesn't call for it, puffing on a Lucky Strike. It's his job to keep his eye on dames like you.

Steve said...

Or, you could have been visiting USC. Just look at it that way!

Peace and Bruin Love.

concretegodmother said...

this is a fabulous piece, a good roller coaster ride between paranoia and relief. :-) i'm dying to hear about the lamott/gilbert event. i had to give my tickets to my sister, as i was still up in mendocino for spring break when it occurred.

Carrie said...

I can't believe it! I thought I was the only one going through this. You don't know how much this helps me. I feel so vulnerable these days, and like you, scared of things I didn't even think about 20 + years ago when it might have mattered!

Does the fear happen in other areas of your life? I can't drive with my young drivers, either. Will has to do all the practice driving with them because, frankly, they terrify me.

Maybe we're just too aware of what not only can happen, but what actually does happen way too often. We no longer feel the immortality of youth.

iluka said...

Funny. I've felt the panic you describe, not in relation to myself but my daughter. I think that having my anxiety chips overloaded so many times worrying about the horrific stuff she went through and put herself through, didn't leave me with any thing left over to worry about myself. I've sat in parked cars in the worst parts of town and stalked through dark streets past junkies shooting up and meth users tweaking and drug deals going down because she phoned me crying, not knowing how she got where she was. Once when she was in the hospital after an overdose I was up late because I couldn't sleep. I heard some noise downstairs and went down to investigate. I found an obviously stoned young man burglarizing our house - we had neglected to lock the back door. We stood and looked at each other. I asked him if he was lost. He said maybe. I told I thought he was in the wrong place and escorted him to the door. I remembered hoping that he would find his way out of the mess he was in. I then woke up my husband, who flipped out and called the police. I don't remember feeling the least bit fearful. There was no room in my head for that.

A year ago when I was in for my check-up my doctor asked me how my periods were. I thought about it and then said, "I don't think I've had one for about a year." So that was that. I went through menopause and never even noticed.