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.