"East of East" is a series of original essays about people, things, and places in South El Monte and El Monte. The material traces the arrival and departures of ethnic groups, the rise and decline of political movements, the creation of youth cultures, and the use and manipulation of the built environment. These essays challenge us to think about the place of SEM/EM in the history of Los Angeles, California, and Mexico.
Rush Street is a main artery in South El Monte that runs from one end of the city to the other, and it has come to mean different things to different people. Rush Street can be the street that you took to the Starlight Swapmeet on Rosemead Boulevard every weekend with your parents, usually against your will. Rush can be the street you took with your father to get to the soccer fields at Whittier Narrows, also against your will. Or perhaps it's the street that you took when you got older, on your own time to get to either the San Gabriel River on the eastern end, or the Rio Hondo on the western end --cemented or raw, both riverbanks good for smoking crudely rolled joints.
Rush itself, however, is hardly a destination or scenic route (much like the rest of the city, which only marks its name on maps via traffic reports as the place where freeway congestion knots itself the tightest -- a place to avoid). Its own name recommends how it should be navigated -- as quickly as possible. And yet for me, this street has marked itself upon me, silently engrained its name in phantom scars. It started as an unlikely destination and one day, unexpectedly, it became a landmark.
The truth is, I sought out Rush Street for one simple reason: to be alone.
At 25 years old, I was a grad student working a part time job and I found myself nestled again in the tight quarters of my parents' home. For nearly 30 years, they've rented a single story 2-bedroom bungalow where my two siblings and I grew up. At various times, we've sprawled into unlikely corners for sleep and privacy. I wrote wherever I found vacant space, during the day in a bedroom using a bed as a desk, or late in the evening at the kitchen table, keeping a single light on so as to not disturb the sleep of living room dwellers. In the middle of the night, I read in the small walk-in closet, again like when I was an adolescent. And sometimes, on a day like Sunday, I just had to get out completely.
I found that bike riding was a good way to let off steam. It allowed me to contemplate the city I had grown up in and explore parts of the neighborhood that I'd never been to and would not have accessed by car or foot. I became fascinated with Rush Street's desolate landscape the same way many grow to love the desert. Sundays were the best days, when the city rested, off-guard in its dominical lull.
I'd ride through the tight residential streets until the short, chain-link gated homes were abruptly replaced by Rush's rows of cinderblock warehouses, welding and car repair shops. Unmarked clusters of buildings in variants of grays and dirty beiges witnessed my passing in silence. And behind dog-guarded gates, I caught glimpses of constellations of more buildings, everything heavily garlanded with barbwire. All of this sprawled out before me, below a great burning blue sky.
On these shadeless summer days, the asphalt roads and dirty concrete sidewalks scorch the life out of everything. All is covered in dirt and soot and grime. But late in the afternoon, the sky blushes out the earth's heat and the asphalt seems to darken in relief. A lonely bar opens its front door for the first time all day and from its darkness lets out a strain of an accordion's song.
On this particular Sunday, like all Sundays, I was relieved too.
As usual, I occupied an entire lane where normally, during the week, flat-bed trucks compete for sharp turns and big rigs perform daunting traffic feats. Today, it was mine.
I was not dressed to shield myself from penetrating gazes or to protect myself from the elements of the street and weather, as I usually would do. Instead I wore flimsy shorts, a tank top and sandals. It was an absurd outfit but I didn't care. I enjoyed feeling the sharp breeze filter through the thin fabric of my clothes. My exposed toes thrilled in their proximity to the gritty asphalt as the pedals descended only inches from the ground.
Although I can no longer remember the details of the car except its unexpected presence as a large predatory body that came up fast in my peripheral vision, suddenly I could hear and feel its dangerous nearness. Instead of changing lanes, it seemed to pull closer. Quickly I pulled toward the curb, directing my wheel to the sloping plane of a driveway.
By then, I'd already learned that when your wheel doesn't hit the lip of the driveway precisely straight on, it slides uncontrollably and you drop to the ground. However, on this day I learned that if you're biking fast enough, you drop and keep going until you run out of momentum, or in my case, until your course is broken. I hit the concrete and continued to slide across the sidewalk, slamming wheels-first against the metal wall of a welder's shop. The wheel hit the wall, the bike seat hit my sitting bones, my entire thigh dragged against the concrete, collecting in its exposed raw flesh all of the trajectory's dirt, gravel and rocks.
I lay stunned under my twisted bike. The car that nearly pushed me off the road was long-gone, as if it had never existed. But in the distance, I saw another bike rider approaching me. He was a middle-aged man, darkly tanned under his baseball cap pulled low against the sun. He wore a grease-stained, navy blue uniform. But as he neared me, he lowered his gaze to the asphalt and did not alter his pace. He continued to pedal, as if I were also a phantom that had failed to make its apparition. He acknowledged my presence by blatantly ignoring me. I did not hurry to stand up. I lay there, on this industrial landscape feeling like the only live being, made more alive now by my pulsating wounds.
I limped home, the whole endless way. My bike wobbled on its now crooked wheel and its loosened seat hung at an awkward angle. My sit bones blared with pain. Blood dribbled down my leg. On my journey I recall only one other car. The passenger, a woman, watched me and then turned her gaze to avoid eye contact. I hobbled down my own street where all of my neighbors had retreated with the fading sun into their homes.
When I arrived home, I found the house empty. My mother and siblings had gone to church, and my father... who knew. I wasn't sure whether to feel relieved or desperate -- it was more solitude than I'd bargained for.
I sunk in the bathtub, still dressed, dirty feet muddying up the porcelain white walls of the tub. I let the water run lukewarm as I inspected my dirt encrusted wound. I call the grime embedded into the meat of my leg and fleshy part of the palm of my hand, dirt simply to signify filth. I wish it was dirt, which is earth or soil, but true dirt is hard to come by in places like Rush Street. Grease, dust, metallic flakes, rust, jagged pebbles never worn smooth by water or wind, but broken down jagged like many knocked out little teeth in the busy mouth that is this street. Today, on Sunday, the debris had rested, waited in its week's worth of breaking and grinding, for other bodies, out of synch with its industrial flow, to come crashing down. I let the water gurgle around me and cover my wounds. As I tried to pick out the larger pieces, I felt overwhelmed not only by the stinging pain, but also by a kind of defeat I did not have words for or understand. I rubbed the bright coral skin in the water and watched plumes of blood dance and dissolve as I abandoned myself to tears. Truly, one of the greatest rewards of being alone is being able to cry with no shame.
I lie on the couch and fell asleep waiting. My mother woke me up, horrified, wanting to know exactly what had happened. She stared at my leg, panicked, not knowing what to do. But she knew who might. She called Doña Mari, a sweet elderly woman that lived down the street with all five of her grown children and all of their children in a small wood frame house. Doña Mari is one in a series of grandmother ladies my mother seeks for advice, say, when she can't remember an ingredient in a particular recipe her own mother used to make, or perhaps, when she needs an herb for a child's stomachache.
Or today, when my thigh is ballooning and the scraped area is too deep and wide for alcohol or Band-Aids. We watched the wound and looked at each other helplessly as we waited for our neighborhood grandmother. Doña Mari arrived a few minutes later, in the company of half a dozen of her grandchildren ranging from ages 3 to 10. They were a lively pack of cousins ready to explore all nooks of a new environment. But nothing attracts a crowd, even a very young one, like gore. The children solemnly joined their grandmother around the couch to witness the mess. I had my shorts rolled up halfway up my scuffed butt cheek. The blood in the scrape had congealed into a deep red-pink gelatin studded with grains of dirt and gravel. A biking accident. It happens to children, and it happens to adults, 20-something year old women that ordinarily should be nursing cuts and bruises of children of their own. They stared at everything, my butt cheek, my leg and knees, the palms of my hands held up to the ceiling like an agonizing martyr. But there was no martyrdom and no cause. No real reason. I was riding, I explained, I fell. That's all there was to it. The wound and the woman, I was aberration all around: spectacle to be witnessed and somehow learned from, though the lesson was too obscure.
Doña Mari stood over me, inspecting my body and thinking very hard. She peered through her bifocals to get a closer look over each limb. The living room was heavy with a rare silence. Finally, Doña Mari's face lit up with a solution. She had just the thing in her magical bag full of time-tested remedies. As she rustled through white plastic grocery bag, I felt relieved that I could rely on a special non FDA-approved herb or an exotic pomade concocted by ancestors and inherited over many generations. I'd recently watched a show on PBS about all of the stunning medicinal properties of near-extinct animals in remedies made by native medicine people in straw huts all over the world. As long as it wasn't made out of axolotl or sea turtle, I thought. I'd have to ask Doña Mari. I just hoped my inquiry would not offend her.
Neosporin, she stated with great authority as she pulled out the tiny plastic tube with the orange label. This will do it.
Neosporin. I doubted there was enough Neosporin in that tube to even begin covering the large area, and graciously thanked her anyway. At least there was no axolotl in Neosporin. I advised the children to be careful when they ride their bikes as they filed out of the house -- all of their playful effervescence had long fizzed out.
Should we go to the emergency room? My mother offered.
Instead, I decided to allow the routine of my daily life to deflate my leg back to normality. It didn't work. Instead it made me a freak show at the front desk of the YMCA where I worked greeting people and scanning their membership cards as I attempted to conceal my undressed wound. I was concentrating on summoning the axolotl's regenerative powers. Unfortunately, too grotesque for public view, I was soon sent home.
Later that day, I decided it was time to call the woman I'd been house- and cat-sitting for the last several weeks prior to my accident. She lived high on a steep hill in Highland Park in one of those old renovated homes that the creative middle class had just started taking over. She was a professor of mine. She had asked me to watch her kitty for a week while she was away on a trip to New York. Cat-sitting mainly consisted of leaving the grumpy old cat alone except when it was time to give her medications. Tablets ground into small balls of fine soft cheeses that I pried into its mouth and syringes full of clear fluids to be injected under its skin. In exchange, I could help myself to all of the gourmet hummus and tea I wanted and I could sleep in her bedroom with a spectacular view of the Los Angeles basin.
In the first few nights, I'd marveled at her bookshelves and her office where she wrote books and plays and prepared lesson plans for her art-school students who were quick to love and respect her left-leaning ways. I thought, how wonderful to have a place of your own with all of your stuff and no one to bug you or hassle you about what you're wearing or how late you come home after hanging out with those good-for-nothing who-knows-who. But after a day or two, I grew lonely in that adorable hill-top house. Books that usually brought me great solace and refuge in my suffocating life kept me no company. This loneliness surprised and irritated me. So I descended from that hill and went back to my crowded family home in the San Gabriel Valley where I sought respite from my cramped quarters with persistent desperation. I returned to the hilltop house only to perform my cat-sitting duties. Regularly, I escaped on random bike rides through my dirty little hometown. Each time, wherever I went, my only true destination was solitude. Especially on Rush. Over the course of my life, I have found solitude in unexpected iterations, in various concentric circles, each different in characteristics, sometimes soothing and sometimes unbearable.
After my fall, as I contemplated my wounds, I realized that I would not be able to 1) drive my rusty stick shift car and 2) climb up the steep hill to the professor's house and 3) stomach sticking another needle through that ancient cat's skin when really it should have been left alone to die on its terms under the porch or by the persimmon tree in the garden. I explained my dilemma on the phone to the unsympathetic professor who refused to speak to me for the following full year.
After a few days, the scabs had finally begun to harden over my wounds. I was relieved by my healing (perhaps the axolotl spirit had been at work after all) but I could not shake thoughts about all the crap trapped under that scabrous layer. Finally I went to the emergency room where a doctor, after brief inspection, knew exactly what to do. He pulled out a wire brush from one of his sterile bins, something nearly identical to the kind my father used to scrub the charred grime off of the barbeque grill. We can use anesthesia or none, what do you prefer? He asked. The scabs had grown thick and in some parts bulbous. My gnarled skin vaguely reminded me of the broken up gritty asphalt that I had grated my leg on. Anesthesia, I answered. He proceeded to stick long syringe needles into numerous parts of my wounds. He applied additional pressure to break through areas where the crust had hardened more thickly. The pain was always greatest when the needle came close to a bone. Was there such a thing as anesthesia for the anesthesia, I wondered. (Later, on an unrelated series of visits to my dentist, I learned that yes, there was such a thing.) He scraped everything off with great vigor. Clearly, he was a very dedicated doctor. The thigh, knees and one of my palms were scraped clean and then packaged in those plasticky pads used to absorb blood in packaged meat at the supermarket. He explained that they would allow me to heal while preventing scabbing and scarring.
I hid my other crusty palm from his view -- I was willing to live with a disfigured hand -- yet he caught sight of it and demanded it from me. Again he prompted: Anesthesia or no anesthesia. Fuck it, I thought. No anesthesia, I said. And he scraped.
The pain of the bike accident and all of its aftermath is impossible for me to really describe. Yet the telling of its story strangely assuages the fire-ants-in-my-pants need that had driven me into odd corners of my parents' house, across town, and back again onto Rush Street. Greater than a need to be alone, was my need to create a space that simply belonged to me. Grinding into Rush Street's dirt and grime in a bike accident was a way to do it. Embedded into my body, Rush Street belongs to me even more so. Or rather, we belong more to each other. And yes, there is solace in that.
This piece was originally published on Tropics of Meta in April 2014.