Evening traffic in the city was exasperating, so slow that bumpers touched each other and bits of conversation and radio talk escaped through open windows to take refuge in neighboring cars. I had just bought my car; I knew it could handle the slow crawl of bumper to bumper traffic and not overheat as previous cars had done.
As I waited, my eye was caught by the frozen figure of a man who stood, transfixed, looking through a chain-link fence into a sea of flickering lights. There was, on a normally empty corner lot, a makeshift carnival in the throes of its early evening business when children and their parents came for a bit of after-school entertainment. The man stood calmly on the sidewalk staring straight ahead. He held a plastic bag with one hand, his other arm left dangling, a hooded sweatshirt falling slightly off his shoulders.
As I sat in my car lost in thought looking at the man, looking at the simulated country
fair, music and laughter distracted me. I traced the music to the car stopped next to mine. Two young women were laughing and talking loudly, white teeth framed by red lips, their radio spewing a ballad sung in Spanish: “Y volver, volver, volver, a tus brazos otra vez, llegare hasta donde estes…” Vicente Fernandez . From somewhere deep in me the lyrics of the song came flying, catapulted, into my lips. I knew every line without making the slightest effort to remember. When I looked back to the sidewalk, searching again for the obscure figure, I noticed that a group of people had gathered around a bus stop bench. All brown faces holding plastic bags and parcels; tired, haggard, expectant faces lost in the dread of the daily routine. Now and then someone took a few steps to the edge of the sidewalk and craned her neck to see if the bus was coming. Others, patiently waiting, stared at the twirling electrical seats and at the round and round of the carrousel horses which sported a few exuberant children on their backs.
I panned my gaze over the entire scene and no longer seeing him, believed the man had gone. Impatiently, I shifted gears waiting for the traffic light to change and for the cars in front of me to clear the way, even just for a feeble inch, just enough to get the sensation that we were finally moving. As I moved forward in the next bout of activity, the mysterious man suddenly became visible again, partially hidden behind a young tree. He remained still, transfixed by something far, far away, as if intensely pulled by a strong memory.
I suddenly felt the warmth of my mother’s hand squeeze mine as we zigzagged through a crowd of people who seemed to have no particular destination in mind. She held my sister on one hand and me with the other. With our free hand, my sister and I ate a corn-on-the cob lollipop. A corn covered in mayonnaise, smothered with a dry, Parmesan -like cheese and sprinkled with lemon drops or hot pepper flakes, and held in place by a bamboo stick long enough to allow the eater not to get her hands dirty.
The carnival came once a year to every town, no matter how big or small to celebrate the local patron saint. Since we lived in the second largest city in the country our fair was a bit more elaborate with more rides and attractions than a more modest town could attract. We finished the corn and took a ride on the carousel, both fighting to find the most handsome horse on the lot as sweet music spewed forth from speakers underneath the carousel’s tent. My mother always stood by the side of whichever ride we were on and waved at us every time we came around her side. She seemed to enjoy herself just watching us go round and round, whooshing past her in one ride or another, always watchful and intent.
I loved the carnival because my father never joined us and all the indulgences my mother allowed us seemed all the more permissive in his absence. Maybe it was the combination of the three way conspiracy, people walking around with smiles on their faces, the smell of fried and sweet foods floating in the air which lent an air of suspended reality to our outing. The indulgence of eating certain things only once a year: sweet roasted peanuts, salchichas alemanas-- white sausages-- cotton candy, corn on the cob. The marvelous, festive lights against the setting sun, such a wonderful, sweet world masking the more immediate one: the drunkards sleeping underneath the trees in the fair grounds, the beggars with their faces unrecognizable with dirt, dust and shame, the legion of pick-pockets ready to pounce on the most innocent victims.
Mechanically I shifted gears again and the jolt of the car brought me back to the city of
. I was in Angels , not in some forsaken, war torn Central American country. I was sitting in rush hour traffic, in one of the biggest cities of the biggest country in the world. But the lights had not changed, they still held the same enchanting quality. Even the players and the setting remained the same. The brown faces, the squalor of the grounds, the chain link fence marking the fair limits, the drunkard in the corner, and the robbers were present here too. All of us transplanted from another place, sharing and not sharing the same space, just like we did in our small homeland. L.A.
When I crossed the intersection I realized that the man transfixed by the festive spectacle knew all of this. I looked back again at the Ferris wheel lights twirling in my rear-view mirror, only this time they were joined by the sky scrapers that shape the Los Angeles horizon.
Originally published in Critical Planning, 2007