Sidewalk Archeology is an honorable pastime. An all ages game, there is no minimum or maximum on players. I grew up playing a two player variation, with my father as my coach and teammate. All one has to do is look at the ground and observe. My dad’s strategy was to focus on history.
“Look,” he would have said, pointing his finger at the pavement. “See how this square is lighter than the others? That means it’s older.”
I wasn’t interested in such trivial matters. I was more concerned with writings and markings. Symbols. The stuff that people left behind. I suppose my dad was too. When my mom split her chin open a block from our home, we’d return to that spot and note how the blood stain faded as the months went by. In between playing with ants I’d crouch over kids handprints frozen in time and puzzle over where they were today.
I wanted to be just like my dad. A nonfiction writer, he dotted my childhood with facts about the worst parts of human history — these were the topics he liked to write about. Not only did I know what a lobotomy was before age 10, I could also explain how to perform one and what conditions would qualify one for the procedure. Instead of bedtime stories at night, he’d summarize whatever book he was reading at the time. I’d fall asleep and dream about the barricade in Les Miserables or the penal colony in Papillion, a book that I’d finish on my own a few years later. Along with abridged versions of classic literature, he’d tell me about Los Angeles.
Before moving to Eagle Rock for college, my understanding of LA was colored by my dad’s memories of growing up there in the 70s. His family lived in Mar Vista, where they enjoyed an earthquake-proof swimming pool and a lemon tree in their yard. He went to Venice High, the same school where Grease was filmed. And once he and his sister visited Disneyland at the height of the anti-war movement, when you’d be barred from entering if you were a man with long hair. That didn’t stop the hippies from raising the Viet Cong flag on Tom Sawyer Island, but I digress. Aside from pop culture stereotypes, the only Los Angeles I knew of existed between 1958 and 1975. When I started college in 2016, my classmates revealed they also knew everything about a city they didn’t understand.
The second I accepted Northeast Los Angeles as a real neighborhood, I should’ve had my Angelino card revoked. Any utterance of the acronym NELA (pronounced neee-lah) would invoke an eyeroll or a glassy stare from a local on foot and maybe a sigh from an Uber driver. My claim to Angelino identity wasn’t informed by any real life experiences. I thought of my great grandfather, Abraham, a Sephardic Jew who immigrated to the Boyle Heights neighborhood knowing only Greek and Ladino. He arrived around 1950, by way of Heraklion, Crete and New York City. Boyle Heights was known for being one of the neighborhoods that did not have restrictive housing covenants. This made it a popular spot to settle for immigrants from around the world. 11 years after my grandfather’s arrival, Boyle Heights would be permanently altered by the development of the East LA Interchange which brought about the widespread passing of many racial housing covenants. Historians speculate that much of the Jewish community left not because of the housing covenants, but because of similarly restrictive bank redlining, which denied housing loans to Jews and other groups. When he opened a furniture store in Boyle Heights, which still housed a large Jewish community at the time, my grandfather conversed well-enough with his Mexican neighbors in Ladino until he learned proper Spanish. His work as a union-buster was either omitted from the story or my memory. This was my claim to this city.
I was well prepared for the East LA landscape. I was startled but not shocked when the flocks of tropical Red Crowned Parrots screamed outside of my dorm room window. I knew they originated from my dad’s childhood classmates buying them as pets in the 60s and 70s, growing bored, and releasing them. Perhaps I could become like them — not from the area but eventually inseparable from the landscape.
Forget Minneapolis, no one at my liberal arts college knew what that was anyway, save for the bubble of other wealthy south Minneapolitans who got ACT tutoring and picked up their plastic dresser drawers from the Target parking lot where the Hillside Strangler abducted and eventually murdered two elementary school students. The serial killer – later discovered to be two cousins –was active in Eagle Rock in the late 70s. In fact, it took me several years before I realized that I regularly walked the blocks where he watched for victims. See? I knew the area. I knew the history. I was ready to forget the midwest.
As much as I claimed to be disturbed by my surroundings to friends back home, I also knew immersing myself in them was required if I wanted to keep up my commentary. Despite my knowing little about the area, I could recognize the telltale signs of Los Angeles gentrification: high density of bad coffee shops, adults dressed like toddlers, various spots to purchase watered-down sangria, and an unsubstantiated rumor that Quentin Tarantino was a regular at a cafe that disregarded my friend’s sesame allergy and almost killed them. Three months into living in LA, I could recognize every iteration of burnt orange jumpsuits worn by script-supervisors who had never set foot in a county jail. Of course, these are the signs of gentrification that are actually visible to outsiders. I was never privy to the rising rent, forced displacement, or increased policing of Eagle Rock because I facilitated it. There’s no need to advertise a hip new area to techies and wannabe producers when you get an annual shipment of their kids. Many of my classmates continued the work of raising the median rental prices in the area by settling into cute backhouses with their emotional support animals, nestled comfortably amongst echos of college parties and vegan food trucks.
I did the work too. Now that I was more adjusted to the city, I could become an agent of neighborhood destruction like everyone else. I loved LA. Every rumor I heard about the city revealed itself to be true. I relished in the West Coastal culture shock of aggressive eye contact and driving. In Minneapolis, people would cut you off in traffic and look away. Here, you’d get flicked off before and after being victimized by an aggressive lane change.
By my third year of college, I’d amassed a tight-knit group of friends and was settling into my identity of not just someone who lived in LA, but as an individual ordained by divinely pulled puppet strings to return to the land where my family had laid its roots. I didn’t realize this at the time, but I was replicating a similar trip I’d taken just a few years earlier.
After talking incessantly about my family’s Sephardic origins, we finally made the trip to Greece in 2017. On the way over, I psyched myself up expecting a newfound feeling of homecoming or something like that. One day we walked the stone paths of Chania in sandals, stopping to pet sun-drunk cats along the way. In my hand was a small piece of paper we’d been given the day before by the gentile researchers who stationed the synagogue my family attended until 1944. On it, were a few scrawled addresses of where various family members used to live. It wasn’t hard to find the houses. They looked no different than the other houses on the street. I kept glancing up at balconies, trying to access a photographic memory I’ve never had that would allow me to pinpoint a house where a relative, Chryssoula Elhais murdered at 18, posed for a smiling photograph in the month before being forced to leave her home. No grand recollection befell me and I sensed no cosmic shift as I swayed in front of the houses. I wondered if the current residents, who were not embracing us and weeping as I’d hoped, even knew who lived there before. There were no Jews here. That was the problem. Who did I think I was coming home to? Afterwards, we went to a cafe and ordered Turkish coffee. The server snapped at us. Understandable.
Kendra and I met during my junior year of college. Two years passed since my freshman year but I remained damaged by a heartbreak my second semester at the hands of the personal assistant of a Teen Choice Award winner. It was only upon experiencing an of ungodly amount of grief during this break up that I accepted my doomed fate as a lesbian. When Kendra and I met two years post-breakup, I was out as lesbian but completely fractured from the version of myself I left in Minneapolis.
Since my teens — despite brainwashing myself with Tumblr discourse and “gay rights!”— I felt like a freak surrounded by the centurial Victorian houses my old neighborhood in Minneapolis was known for. When I identified as bisexual I felt some misguided solace that I could always end up with a man if need be. Now I was past the point of no return, sentenced to spinsterism at age 20. I didn’t grow up around any gay people. It’s not that it was a road to nowhere, the road was never even paved. Perhaps I’d paved it recently but the concrete was still wet and I kept stepping in before it could settle.
Los Angeles sidewalks are an entirely different ball game compared to Minneapolis, but I had no reason to look. In only a few blocks you can find a patchwork of different shades of gray broken up by jagged concrete carried by fault lines. My illusion of knowing LA was burst with Kendra. She grew up in South LA. South LA was flat, golden, and not marketed to tourists. A couple months into dating, when the claustrophobia of a small campus really settled into me, I’d escape with her. We’d walk along the street admiring the dogs in her neighbor’s yards and eating shaved ice. Under the heat, the bright blue crystals would pale into robin’s egg as they melted into a puddle of condensed milk. When she dog sat for the uber-wealthy, she drove me around private roads in Bel Air where we’d park in view of priceless sculptures and backyard helicopters. You could get away with anything here, I thought.
We had a lot of fun. And unlike my first three years of college, my head nods of recognition when someone referenced a prominent city street were no longer as feigned. I was coming into myself. I was finally becoming an Angelino.
I did not deploy Sidewalk Archaeology for the rest of my time at Occidental. It was too tethered to my life in Minneapolis, and that was the last thing I wanted. I was on a new timeline — one defined by a big city and my first lesbian relationship. I participated in a butch lesbian photoshoot where I wrote an essay about eschewing naivety in favor of true love. I scrolled through the comments praising the completeness of Kendra and I together. I reposted fanart baby gays drew of us, marveling at our faceless outlines sketched in neon on someones iPad. I knew who I was.
I graduated in 2020 over Zoom. My BA in English was finally represented in accordance with its recognized value — two words in Comic Sans floating across the backdrop of a desolate campus. My school sent me a confetti cannon but I never set it off. I didn’t want to clean up the mess. Kendra and I shacked up with my parents for a few months. We left the house periodically to get groceries, our faces obscured by bandanas we found buried under winter scarves and jackets. We renounced the springtime aromas of honeysuckle and lilac in favor of protection from a virus we knew nothing about. I caught COVID on the flight to LA in May and had to remain isolated where I also missed the smells of orange blossom and magnolia and agonized about the repercussions of the instinctive handshake I offered my elderly neighbor when we moved in. We maintained six months of cohabitation before our interpersonal lives matched the chaos in the outside world. I soon came to understand the pandemic as the great relationship accelerator.
I slammed the computer screen shut. If I wasn’t on the verge of a panic attack, I might’ve laughed at the absurdity of discovering my girlfriend’s infidelity via a Reddit post.
Our schedules were nearly opposite by this point. She had overnight shifts and I was working inconsistent hours at a Starbucks within walking distance. It was six blocks down from our studio apartment on La Cienega. Our place was 800 square feet and a cat. It was pretty much all I owned. We were well into our promises of starting a life together.
My vision blurred as I scooted back across our Ikea carpet. I stared at my closed laptop and heard the quiet crumbling of the future I envisioned in the steady rumble of the air conditioner. There was only one thing to do.
A few months prior I’d rediscovered Sidewalk Archaeology as my household responsibilities grew. Keeping a Kosher kitchen, which I knew nothing about. Carrying the heavy clothes sack to Love Laundry at least once a week. I was starting to worry about the red marks and bruises on my shoulders and collarbones until I realized the source was the laundry bag. Kendra would vanish for hours at a time and I would panic call her over and over again. She’d come home late at night to find me teary eyed, stoned, and guilty for bothering her about her whereabouts. I was always chastised.
I thought I perfected Archeology as a coping mechanism but these circumstances called for something extreme. My version of Sidewalk Archeology had grown up in the time since my dad taught me and was now a mishmash of vices under the guise of being nostalgic. I was flipping the old timeline in favor of something edgier. I had to keep the narrative.
There was a favorite sidewalk drawing I would return to as time went on and my walks became more frequent. It was kitty-corner from Glatt Mart. I’d stare in awe at it every time I passed and looked around, hoping another pedestrian would notice such a remarkable drawing right below their feet. It had all the qualities of a piece of prime Archeology: an illustration, a name, and a year. In the top left of the sidewalk square was a large star with “LA” written inside. Diagonal from it was “Lisa Oct 1982”. That was it. I loved it.
The piece summed up all my feelings about LA. There was Los Angeles itself, the personality of the city that I claimed to know so well and discovered two years ago, safeguarded in its own representation in the form of a star. A real Angelino made this one, I thought when I first saw it.
I began my usual routine, but modified for the current state of affairs. After rolling a potent joint of weed from the dispensary that gave me discounts in exchange for free Starbucks drinks (“This job isn’t commission, don’t worry about it”), I averted my eyes from the pile of laundry on the floor, said goodbye to the traumatized foster cat under the bed, and plugged in my earbuds.
When I did laundry, I employed two levels of numbing. On the way there, I glued my eyes to the pavement so I could maneuver around seismically altered sidewalk squares. Once at Love Laundry, I’d rest for a moment to watch whatever cooking show they had playing, throw my laundry in, and try to find a true crime podcast so horrific that I would be grateful my emotionally-absent girlfriend was out at odd hours of the night hanging out with the much-younger girl she’d met … online? I never found out. The self-conscious vocal fry and inside jokes of the hosts as they casually talked about the death of someone whose family would never be interviewed for their podcast was almost enough of a distraction to make me forget the questions my girlfriend would throw at me when I questioned the nature of her new relationship.
“Why do you have such low self-esteem? Don’t you have your own friends to worry about?”
I’d light the joint and let my eyes scan the ground as I crossed the invisible border from Pico-Robertson to Beverly Glen.
As I picked a random direction to go on this day, I glanced at the ground but found myself unable to concentrate on whatever amateur historic markers lay below my feet — initials, pavement discoloration, anything. I felt lost, like every other Midwest transplant who made the move to the city of angels and found themselves in the very situation I warned others about: to be without a plan.
It was hot the day I found the Reddit post. I turned up my podcast without hearing it any better. My thoughts were as directionless as my baked walk. I was supposed to be living my dream lesbian life right now. I felt like the Procreate fan sketches I saw myself memorialized in. I was an outline. How could the person that pulled me out of self-loathing and into a proud lesbian identity leave me with so much less self-esteem than I started with?
The color of the sidewalk suddenly snapped into a beige monotone. I looked up and squinted at the street sign. The Grove Drive. Great. When I was with Kendra, I had free access to the real LA. But when left to my own devices, I relapsed into tourist traps that self-described as “an open-air environment pulsing with style and energy.” I deflated. I scanned the ground desperately. Nothing. No metaphorical foothold to be found.
I wandered around aimlessly, occasionally checking the sidewalk for evidence that once upon a time, someone was struck by their friendship or how much they loved their partner and took a few moments to scrape initials into wet pavement. I wasn’t in the mood to pay a 50% tip to the overwhelmed barista in the kiosk a few feet away. There was nothing useful for me here. Time to go.
I crossed ten lanes of traffic and made it to the Farmer’s Market where I wandered through the inside to a store selling fresh fruit and juice pressed along the back of the building. There I bought a pink lemonade for Kendra and two juices for me — fresh strawberry and jamaica — as if the imbalance in juice purchases would offset my emotional turmoil. I could not complete an action without tracing it back to her.
I stepped back onto the boulevard. Hours had gone by and it was nearing dusk. I spotted the beginnings of a brilliant pink pollution-assisted Los Angeles sunset. It would take over an hour to get home and the sun would set much sooner than that. I gritted my teeth and bought an Uber for $50 . Another rookie mistake.
45 minutes later, the Uber dropped me off on La Cienega and I walked into my apartment shortly after Kendra arrived home from work. I hugged her and offered the pink lemonade which she drank. My skin felt like it was on fire. I chugged the jamaica which had become lukewarm in the rush hour traffic and excused myself to the bathroom.
Variations of this self-sacrificing ritual continued for months. The more distant I grew from reality, the more attached I became to disparate symbols on the ground. I was obsessed with the idea that someone took the time to ensure their name was recorded somewhere in this city, even if it was on an overlooked block in front of the Kosher market. While new residents of Pico-Roberston rebuked any obvious Jewry, I rolled my eyes and told myself I was different because I was keeping my money within the community.
It took me a month to confess my knowledge of Kendra’s infidelity to her. When I told her, she cried and I held her in my arms. I wiped her tears with my shirt and peeked under the bed hoping the cat wasn’t scared by all the commotion. I was completely and utterly alone. I felt a newfound sense of calm come over my body. I was alone. This was it, wasn’t it? I think Los Angeles just broke the lease on me.
I thought about the star Lisa drew in 1982. What if she wasn’t even an Angelino, what if she was just passing through? Was her name even Lisa? The pavement was dark but it could just be dirt, maybe she wrote this in 2010 and was passing it off as a vintage sidewalk square? Did it even matter?
I thought of my mental catalog of sidewalk archeology. It spanned so many decades I often wondered if they ever repaved the sidewalks here. Even if fabricated, it meant something to me. Lisa and everyone else left a piece of themself behind.
After three months of cohabitation with Kendra after we broke up, I took a flight home to Minneapolis and didn’t catch COVID this time. I stepped into my old neighborhood. I ran into people from my high school. I scanned the sidewalks and, this time, I stopped and buried my face in the lilacs.