After dozens of letters, countless project pitches, miles of bike-unfriendly South Central Los Angeles sidewalk, and more inconsistently conjugated Spanish verbs than I would like to admit, my attempt to switch places with a hard-working resident of Los Angeles came to an unsuccessful end. The problems I encountered were many, and a few of them were unforeseen, but I am proud to say I tackled this experiment with every ounce of professionalism, compassion, gusto, and moxie I have in me.
While I was unfortunately unable to give any of the Angelenos I met a day off from their job, I was able to inadvertently meet some of the goals I originally sought out to accomplish. This project was twofold: I wanted to spread goodwill by making one deserving L.A. resident’s day a little bit brighter and launch myself into a challenging eye-opening experience. I’ll never forget the first day I set out down Figueroa on foot, a stack of letters in my messenger bag and the practiced lines to my pitch running through my head. I paced the restaurant ramp at a slower pace than my usual excited gait, took a deep breath, reached for the door handle, and made my way to the counter to ask for a minute of the manger’s time. From then on, my confidence rose with every smile I tallied, my heart grew with every humbling life story I heard, and my spirits fell ever so slightly with every realization that I would not be able to give this wonderful person in front of me a chance to relax for just one day. As much as I wanted to know that I made a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity possible for one person, I also came to know that factors like the economy, communication barriers, and bureaucracy would ultimately block me from my goal.
Even after I had to give up on my original main objective (at least for now), I also realized that even though I could not give my time and efforts in their place of employment, I could still give my gift of writing and photography. Unfortunately, this time around my subjects were a little camera-shy. I could not even convince most of them to let me take a still photo of them, let alone participate in a video interview. Out of all the business owners and workers I pitched to and interviewed, I was only able to convince one of them to let me take a picture of them. For this reason, Manny earned the right to be my mock interviewee.
When I walked in, Manny was chatting up a potential customer, explaining that he would be happy to order any part that the customer needed. My fingers skimmed the longboard wheels in the storefront window of the skate shop that I had stepped into purely out of curiosity. When I saw that the young man behind the counter was free, I approached him with a smile and extended hand and started in on my project pitch.
“Aw man, that sounds really cool. I think it’s really noble of you, too, giving your time for free like that. I wish I could help, but I have to be here at all times,” Manny responded.
At this point, this was an answer I was used to hearing, but I was still determined to find out what he would do with a day off and genuinely driven to learn more about his job, his life. Running the store is his full-time job, but you would never guess from the way he talks about the innumerable projects he is trying to tackle.
“If I had a day off, I’d do some serious work on some of my other business ventures,” he explained. One that I think you’d be interested in is my new art project. I’m making some really sweet stencils right now, and I’m going to use them to design USC-themed skate decks and sell them around campus, maybe pass out some flyers for the shop. I just finished the of the uh, mascot (“Tommy Trojan,” I offered), and I’m going to make them all red and gold.”
Aside from his clever idea to capitalize on trends in the area and cater to his skate customers’ interests, he is also working on getting his tattoo license.
“It’s mostly a lot of safety and hygiene things you have to know. I’ve been practicing my work a lot lately, and I think it’d be cool to make this a combination tattoo and skate shop.”
After convincing him to let me take a picture of him to share with the class, I complimented the bright, intricate artwork on the side of the store. I was surprised to learn that he did all the artwork himself and that he starts over and changes it as often as he can.
“Keeping the artwork fresh helps attract new customers, and keeps the old ones to keep coming back around,” he explained. “We’re not doing bad as a business, there’s a lot of skaters in the area, but I’d still love for it to pick up. I’m saving up to buy some new paints for the store but right now all of my extra money is helping pay for my school. We’re doing a lot better than a lot of the stores on this block. I mean, I could use a day off but I know for a fact that the lady at the store next door could use your help a lot more than I could. I always pass by and think she’s too old to be running that whole market by herself”
After our conversation for a little while, we bid our goodbyes, I gave him some advice on marketing to USC students, and I wished him the best of luck.
My conversation with Manny taught me a lot of things about the big ambitions that many young business owners have, as well as a lot about the skate and guerrilla art culture of the area. While he is just one of the many people I spoke with, most of whom said they would spend their day relaxing with their kids and pets or partaking in leisurely pastimes.
Hopefully someday soon I’ll be able to follow through with this project, because I just started learning that the giving spirit, along with the thriving skate and art culture, is alive and well in L.A. Even though I encountered some serious setbacks, I realized that the little things mark our successes in life, and I counted every worker whose day I made better, every detail I learned about the surrounding streets as a small success. I want to give back through my writing and maybe even through the positive publicity I can make for them if I work for a more established publication. I started this project because I had a profound respect for the kind of hard work and determination I saw in my Los Angeles neighbors, as well as deep appreciation for everything Los Angeles has given me. I hope that through my writing and photography in the future, I can help perpetuate this spirit of giving and show that as USC students, Los Angeles residents, and human beings, that we all depend on each other for a helping hand every once in a while, and that when we give and cooperate, we all thrive.
5:15 PM on a Friday.
The bus is running late today, but that’s hardly news. As I take a step forward to look down Figueroa, I see my big white bus finally rounding the corner and double-check the change in my apron pocket, running my already raw fingers against the ribbed edge of each quarter and dime. I collect my grocery bags with the same rough hands and my tired knees shake a little as I lift myself off the bench. The bus slows to a stop and I can see Sal, the bus driver, slowly reach over to open the double doors.
“Happy Friday, Ethel!”
“Hi Sal,”I offer, giving the best smile I can muster and dropping my fare into the counter. We both know today isn’t the end of my work week, and tomorrow morning I’ll be on a different bus on the way to a different job, but the kind gesture does not go unappreciated.
We pull away from the corner and although the bus pulls me closer to home, my work there has yet to begin.
5:18 PM Friday
Looking down at my bags, I realize I probably shouldn’t have splurged on that extra red velvet cupcake from Big Man Bakes, but otherwise I smile to myself for an otherwise successful venture into Downtown L.A. Not having class on Fridays means I’m already well into my weekend – the rest of which I will largely spend volunteering at a local elementary school, doing homework, and relaxing before another busy school week.
I glance out the window and see I’m almost back to home-sweet-home USC. Three people get on the bus at the next stop - mostly middle-aged people in work uniforms. Two men in dirty “Peter’s Construction” shirts and worn-out boots flash their Tap cards, a tired-looking woman clutching groceries and wearing what looks like a maid’s uniform pauses to greet the driver. As I get up to let one of them take my seat on the crowded rush hour bus line, I know that Los Angeles is just getting off work and heading home.
I look around and with a sinking feeling, and realize that I stick out like a sore thumb. I am the exception here. The average Angeleno is not a Hollywood actor, millionaire record producer, or even a USC student. I’d also bet that the average Angeleno doesn’t take the bus to go shopping downtown because they have the day off on Fridays, but that most of these people take it to work, every day, out of necessity. Heck, I bet most of them could use a good day off.
I open my front door and the laughter coming from the one bedroom and four pairs of shoes piled by the door tell me I’m coming home to a full apartment – all the kids are home from school and John is just home most of the time now, when he’s not out trying to supplement my income by working odd jobs here and there.
“Mom’s home!”I hear two voices yell in unison, and my two youngest, Connor and Joshua come bounding down the hall to greet me.
“Mom, guess what! I memmer the whole thing without looking at the paper now!”Connor smiles as he looks up from hugging my leg.
“My part’s better,” Joshua adds, taking a step in front of his younger brother, “Abraham Lincoln has more words.”I feel the corners of my lips drop into a frown. Before they notice, I manage to fake a quick smile.
“I’m sure they’re both wonderful, boys,” and I pick up the rest of the groceries that my oldest, Valerie, has already started carrying to the kitchen.
I know they don’t mean to, but their excitement breaks my heart. Their school play is in a week and for the second time in their elementary-school-play –acting-careers, I won’t be there. Instead I’ll be at the motel, working an extra cleaning shift that will mean we’ll have just enough money for this month’s rent.
Cooking and cleaning, while just as incessant, is different at home. At home I at least know I’m doing it for my family, not motel guests during the week or the family I work for on weekends. When I’m working for my family I can almost ignore how years of scrubbing other people’s floors makes my lower back ache as I pick up Connor’s toys, that almost a decade of lugging around full baskets of laundry makes my arthritis act up as I chop onions for a soup for five. I can’t, however, forget about that play, because I’ve forgotten how many times I’ve had to miss out on plays, soccer games, and family parties to ensure I made enough money to keep us all fed, sheltered and independent without the help of handouts.
My thoughts from the bus linger as I fish my USC ID card from my purse to swipe into my apartment building. As much as I love L.A., love the city with its quirks and character, not even volunteering at local schools, homes, and shelters every weekend can stop me from feeling a little disconnected from its community.
Often times my favorite part about my bi-weekly grocery shopping trips is taking the complimentary shuttle home from Ralph’s. I usually end up listening to little old Latina ladies rattle off in Spanish and try to catch as much as I can, learning of their trials and tribulations and smiling in admiration as they handle more hardship and responsibility than I’ve ever known with more strength and resilience than I could ever hope for.
I wonder what their lives are like and my thoughts go back to an idea I’ve had for as long as I can remember. It sounds crazy, but I’ve always wanted to switch places with someone for a day. Or at least, take their place working their job and running their errands as they got to spend the day doing anything they want – everything they would never normally have time to do. I’d find someone who really deserved it, an overworked, probably minimum-wage-earning, thankless, but always modest breadwinner. Of course, they would still receive all their wages for the day. The only catch is that I would ask them to document their day and share it with me after, so I could see all the fun things they got to do. Making people’s days even a little bit better is my favorite pastime, and I always thought this would be a unique way to do just that.
What’s crazier is that I’m actually doing it. It took some searching, but through the 32nd Street School where I volunteer sometimes, I found a girl, Valerie, whose family has more than convinced me that their mom is the perfect candidate for my latest school project, Day-Off L.A. Her boss over at the motel off Figueroa has similarly wonderful things to say about Valerie’s mother. Even though working as a maid there is only one of her two jobs, they say, she’s still one of the hardest, most cheerful employees they have.
I’ve already started training and her daily tasks are no easy job. I know I haven’t even had to work the full day yet, but with every toilet bowl I scrub and every tricky bed sheet I struggle to fold, I can feel my respect for service laborers grow tenfold.
We’re telling her tomorrow and I’m really hoping that she agrees to this wacky bucket list experiment of mine.
10:11 AM the next Friday
It’s back on the bus, but this time with my entire family in tow and a disposable camera in hand. Valerie and John hold Connor and Joseph on their laps, respectively, and I can’t help but laugh at their antics as they argue over which dinosaur they’re most excited to see at the Natural History Museum today.
“T-Rex could totally eat a Stegosaurus,”Connor asserts.
“I’ll eat both of you if you can’t sit still during the IMAX movie at the Science Center!”Valerie jokes.
I smile and take a picture of her pretending to chomp on Joseph’s arm. After the museums she and I have an appointment for a mother-daughter manicure.
This week’s been a bit surreal since I found out I won a kind of strange contest of sorts, that there was a local university student who wanted to do my job for a day, still give me all the money, and only ask that I spend the day relaxing and document my adventures for her school project.
I can’t say I quite understand, but I do understand that instead of clocking in at work this morning, I was sleeping in and dreaming about the sit-down breakfast I would have with my entire family for once. I understand that tonight, instead of finishing my regular shift just to start my extra shift, I’ll be at my children’s school finishing off the roll of film from this disposable camera and congratulating my sons for an excellent on-stage recreation of the Civil War.
I think the sweltering dog days of summer really got to me, I went into a sort of mild hibernation.
Just because I stopped posting doesn’t mean I stopped doing fun stuff! Some of the great things I’ve been up to in the past few weeks:
I know there’s much more but I can’t remember them at the moment, as I’m running out the door. I don’t have time to go into detail about all of these things, but feel free to ask me about any of them!
Checking all your gift card balances is a perfect summer mini-project! (20 minutes, tops, depending on how many gift cards you have.) If you’re anything like me, you’ve been carrying around a wallet full of the things for months or years, and haven’t used them in just as long. If you’re even more like me, you have no idea how much is on each card and you’ll be pleasantly surprised with how much you have!
The vast majority of companies let you check gift card balances on their website. If you can’t find it, check under “Customer Services.” Out of all mine, only Forever 21 didn’t have an online feature - I actually had to go to a store to check. Remember to write the balances on the back of each card in sharpie and promptly throw away empty cards. I even wrote all the balances on a post-it and put it in my wallet; I’ll always be able to update the post-it if I don’t happen to have a sharpie for the card.
In the end, I found out I had $112.36 on 11 different cards! And here I thought I was flat broke. Needless to say, I went out right after and bought all the beautiful goodies above! I had an absolutely wonderful time feeling rich for a day.
If you dig up some cards you know you’ll never use, check out sites like GiftCardRescue, Plastic Jungle, or Cardpool, where you can sell unwanted gift cards for cash, Paypal credit, or Amazon credit, or even swap them for cards you’ll actually use. Many sites will also let you donate the money to charity! Just keep in mind, you’ll probably only make about 90-92% of the gift card’s actual balance.
Every second Sunday of the month, admission to the Orange County Museum of Art is free! Located in Newport Beach (across from Fashion Island), OCMA features modern and contemporary art from the early twentieth century to the present. OCMA also boasts many interactive features, from hands-on activities to collaborative visitor-made art pieces to the wall of questions and comments to the artist (updated regularly with their answers!). Aside from free admission, Target Second Sundays also offer additional tours, shows, and kid-friendly crafts to complement the featured show. Don’t worry, adults are welcome to get creative too - I have two new sculptures in my room to prove it.
Not only did I spend the day enjoying the galleries, but I added to a giant web of red and white yarn, experimented with 3-D paper sculpture, painted and assembled a hanging gravity-drip piece, flipped through art books, and combined everyday recycled objects to make my own art!
The current exhibition, Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art: Form, Balance, Joy, is just that - full of joy and whimsy. Famous for inventing and perfecting the mobile, a term which Marcel Duchamp penned for the sculptures, Calder was also fascinated with the circus. A charming video of Calder performing his fully-functional circus, a set of miniature hand-crafted ringmasters, trapeze artists, lion tamers, and animals, plays in the first gallery of the museum. (Above: Calder’s Finny Fish inspired many pieces in the exhibit)
Carter’s Traveling Language Machine with #3 Frequency Disruptor & Disinformation Numbers Station
Other contemporary pieces from Abraham Cruzvillegas, Kristi Lippire, Jason Middlebrook, Martin Boyce, Nathan Carter, Jason Meadows, and Aaron Curry round out the show and share Calder’s same love of recycled materials, bold colors, and precarious aerial displays.
So, clear your schedule for July 10th! I’m not sure if the museum will have the same activities lined up, as Form, Balance, Joy runs until September 4th, but I am sure you’re sure to have an enriching afternoon of (free!) art and inspiration.