The Tower Will Not Hold is the third place winner for the 2022 Creative Non-Fiction Contest, as selected by Judge Luna Ferguson.
I’m sitting on the rooftop of Venice Suites, enjoying a view of the hot sand, the slate-coloured water, the skinny palm trees, a winnowing of electric guitar blowing in from nowhere. I sit on one of those patio-style couches, hiding my sunburnt wrists inside a souvenir hoodie I bought on the beach. This is the first time I’ve been able to afford to play Tourist. I sit up here above the boardwalk, thinking.When my twenty-one year old self walked this same boardwalk how much time did I spend gazing up at this same building, wondering how anyone not only got inside but was allowed to stay?
That had been back in the winter of 2008, the spring of 2009, before the maelstrom of Covid-19.
Returning to Venice Beach this year I began preparing myself for the sterility of corporate encroachment, the condominiums infecting North America as badly as the pandemic, exacerbated by the variant of Air B n’ B.
But how trite to show up in a place and decry lost fixtures, bemoan the disorientation gentrification brings. So as I strolled the boardwalk with new eyes I contented myself with the fact that things change and change. And stay the same.
I’ve come for the 2022 L.A. Times Book Fair to peddle my memoir of an episode in my life where I got a taste of life on the streets of Los Angeles, thirteen years before. I attend a panel called Understanding L.A.’s Homelessness Crisis. But what’s to understand? That society is drowning in an arbitrary bureaucracy we’ve invented and enforced on our own selves? That some people have money and some people don’t? That housing prices are senseless but there’s nothing we can do because the wheel of late-stage capitalism stops for no one or nothing, least of all logic?
When the floor is opened for questions one elderly gentleman asks serenely, “Don’t these people have relatives they can stay with?”
I call to mind my own abusive, dysfunctional clan, how a place to stay was no offer of safety or consistency, how intergenerational trauma robbed me of that option long ago. How it became simpler just to figure things out on my own.
Afterwards I approach one of the panelists, Gale Holland of the L.A. Times, and ask: What would happen if people simply began taking housing instead of waiting for bureaucrats and underfunded organizations to green-light their survival?
Holland gives me a wry smile. A tackler of urban inequality, a chronicler of homelessness and poverty, I am sure she exhausted such naive idealism long ago. She says, “You know, at the beginning of the pandemic that was tried. Remember the group of unhoused single mothers who took housing in Oakland? Another group of mothers tried to do the same thing in Los Angeles.”
“And what happened?” I have not observed any housing collectives or guerrilla housing takeovers in my tedious taxi rides across the bland intersecting highways of this concrete city.
Thirteen years before I squatted in a half-built condo in Venice Beach with a group of young people. We took over the building but there was no running water. It was not housing, it was merely shelter. When the LAPD discovered our sleeping bags inside the condo, they put them in a dumpster and covered them in wet cement.
“Money,” Holland says, not smiling now. “There’s so much corporate money in California real estate the police will protect that money before they protect the people who get in the way of it.” I become quiet in the shadow of that unfathomable bulk, billions of dollars unspendable in one short human life.
Descriptors such as Mental Illness, Addiction, and Late-Stage Capitalism have become flavourless, wrung-out words in our lexicon. These qualifiers get used with dismissive closure—we’ve identified the root source of our troubles now let’s cue up Netflix, put in an internet dinner order. Individuals who have never slept rough cannot grasp what having no roof, no bathroom, and no walls actually does to a human being.
What came first, the mental illness or the poverty?
What came first, the drug addiction or the lack of housing?
Once you’re out there, the days and weeks and months chipping away at your dignity, how do you preserve your mental health, what are you bothering to stay sober for?
When I arrived in Venice Beach at twenty-one years old in 2008, a Canadian with no belongings, no way back to Canada and nowhere to stay even if I got there, I thought I had touched down in some sort of bohemian paradise. The boardwalk was teeming with people like myself, rootless, coming from the east and midwest to avoid the winter. Venice Beach must still contain the carefree ideals of the sixties, surely, the notion that one could show up hopeful and make something of oneself, that one could sit in the sand like Jim Morrison in the Oliver Stone film, sing some lyrics to a stranger and suddenly find yourself on a stage. Wasn’t that how Los Angeles worked?
I had enough money to stay in a hostel for two nights. When my money ran out I wound up sleeping in a camper van with a pedophile named Tad until I cottoned on to the fact that I was unsafe.
Thus began my time on the streets proper. I had been homeless back in Canada, had, in fact, been experiencing homelessness for almost four years by then, bouncing from place to place. But I had never slept outside.
What I would experience over the next four to five months would harden me in ways I did not know a person could be hardened. I developed permanent arthritis in my hips from sleeping on concrete. I came down with a case of shingles so severe I was almost hospitalized, almost lost my left eye. I quickly learned that to survive on the streets I could not be expectant, could not be hopeful. Whatever happened happened. The days came fast. I kept my head down. I kept my mouth shut. And so I lived. Young women are assaulted, raped and murdered all day every day on the streets of Los Angeles. Several of the women I traveled with disappeared completely as if they had never been.
How surreal, then, to be brought back by the very story I lived on my last trip. I walk around marvelling at the miracle of being able to go into a restaurant and order something from the menu, of being able to take an Uber back to my hotel room when I’m ready to rest. What unbelievable riches.
I wander into The Last Bookstore to find my own book placed on a shelf beside the Joan Didion section, feel a prickle of surreal unworthiness. As I scribble my name onto the first page with a Sharpie marker provided by the cashier, we begin speaking of Venice Beach, of life post-pandemic. He warns me, somewhat cryptically, that much has changed. But this comes as no surprise. 2008 is worlds behind us. Everything has changed.
Even though I can intellectualize the housing crisis, it is one thing to think about it, another thing to be in its midst.
I go to the Venice Beach Library because, once loosed from the pedophile’s van, that had been the first place I went in 2008. Bathroom and computer access, shelter from the elements—a public community space can offer a balm of normalcy to what is otherwise a demeaning series of attempts to stay human.
Despite preparation I am shocked to come upon the library lawn. All the lush hedges have been hacked away, who knows how long ago. The grass is worn down to bald dirt and covered in endless detritus, plastic, trash. A swath of tents and tarps, wooden shelters cobbled together, all of it looking like a Cormac McCarthy novel, stretches for yards.
I walk amongst the shelters, self-consciously aware of my clean sneakers, my shampooed hair. I stop in front of one of the cruder structures, an actual box, windowless, lone lawn chair inside by way of furnishings. A young woman sits in the sunshine, calmly pulling on a pair of socks. She introduces herself as Marissa, rolling the R beautifully. I ask her if she made the box. “No, no, Fred made it,” she says, familiar, blasé. “How long have you been sleeping here?” I ask. I tell her I used to sleep in this same spot, back when there was the camouflage of bushes to tuck myself under. “Oh, five, six months, maybe longer?” She squints in the afternoon sun. Her skin is browned, blistered in some places. She looks how I used to look, un-showered, trying anyway to pull together some semblance of personal style. She sits there as if we’re on her front porch, chatting. “I’m trying to get into shelter,” she continues. “Been trying. I don’t know when or if it’ll work out but…” and she breaks off, shrugs. We both know and don’t need to discuss the brick wall of bureaucracy one must bulldoze through if one is to get off the street.
There is also the asterisk of food stamps. Before I came down to the beach, I watched the short documentary on Netflix directed by Pedro Kos and John Shenk. Called Lead Me Home, the documentary tackles L.A.’s incompetence when it comes to sharing their wealth with their have-nots. One woman in the documentary explains that while she was given housing, she quickly lost it again when the government took away her food stamps. See, now that she was housed the government decided she no longer needed any other benefits and the woman was forced into a choice of evils: food or rent. Because she had children she chose food. When the documentary caught up with her again she was living in her car.
I wander through the tent village, waving at clusters of villagers huddled around their shanties and tarp shelters, discussing what they will do for the day.
I remember all too well the arbitrary hustles used to fill long hours, distractions created so that you felt as if you were accomplishing something, moving forward with your life, even though when night came you found yourself curled up in your sleep-spot, knowing heavily that tomorrow you would wake up and the progress you made the day before would be erased like footsteps in the sand eroded by the tide. The cycle of poverty.
I overhear one young man tell a woman that he likes her dress, her shy murmur of thanks. The sun out here is relentless. I start talking to the young man, named Justin, recently released from prison. His nose is horrifically sunburnt, peeling. He starts telling the girl in the dress about a place that’s giving out cellphones, iPads. “I tried to get one but I had to give an address,” she whispers, unable to meet his eye. “I guess someone was already using that one.” Justin goes into action mode, taking her arm, telling me goodbye. They wind away through the tents, sombrely scheming about how they will get her the devices.
I’m surprised how many people have smartphones in the camp—a bizarre flashpoint in the stupid waste of homelessness. I watch people push shopping carts full of their belongings while fiddling with their phones. Back in 2008 I had to line up inside the Venice Beach library to use a PC desktop to check my email. Now they’re giving out iPads. But what’s the point of an iPad if you don’t even have an outlet, I wonder.
I head back into the Venice Beach library to decompress, feeling safe in the knowledge that whenever I am ready I can call an Uber, go back to my air-conditioned hotel room in downtown L.A. I remember a night in San Diego when I had been riding the bus wearily back and forth just to get off the street and a woman on the bus bought me a hotel room. “I would want someone to treat my daughter this way,” she said.
I am brought back from this reverie by the voices of a few security guards entering the library. “You called us to remove someone?” “Yeah, he’s over there.” The voice of the librarian is tired, fatalistic. The security guards amble over to where the man is crouched against the wall. They’re not in a hurry. I wonder how many times they come in here to deal with a person who’s reached the edge of their ability to endure.
When I go into the women’s bathroom I run, almost literally, into a girl in her early twenties. She’s standing there under the blueish lights, clad only in bra and panties, scrubbing her clothing in the sink with the industrial hand soap. I say hi, she says hi, goes back to doing her laundry. I remember washing my own things, frantically, in the bathroom sink of the now-closed cafe, Abbot’s Habit, while someone hammered on the door, screaming at me to get out.
Nobody at the library is coming to evict this girl, though. Small mercies. I know how good that feels, washing your things, brushing your teeth—it wraps securely around you like arms, makes you think you might be okay after all. If you can just brush your teeth, if you can just wash your face, maybe the world will wait for you to catch up.
The boardwalk is where I head last, after strolling down Abbot-Kinney Boulevard. The only place I recognize is that little cottage-shop, Tumbleweed & Dandelion, a laminated sign in the window saying No Trespassing. Thirteen years ago I pushed in the back fence, slept in the shed.
In 2008 what I loved about the Venice Boardwalk was how it seemed as if a passing circus decided to stay. The rollerblader in his American Flag speedo. The jugglers. Magicians. Puppies being sold by men who carried them around in their arms as advertisement. Face-painters and fortune-tellers and hair-braiders. Throngs of people all seeming to know one another, people who looked as if they’d been in the sun for years with no sunscreen, hair matted with salt. All of it streaming past, obnoxious and iridescent, pulsing, vibrant, overwhelming, alive.
I learned to wire wrap crystals, bought a chihuahua from a man named Abraham who left his hand-painted RV in the parking lot and made murals on pieces of plywood, laying them in the grass to dry. In the early morning, he put out day-old garbage bags of bread for anyone who was hungry. Now the parking lot contains Teslas. There isn’t an RV in sight.
There used to be a soup kitchen out here. Called Heaven’s Pennies, it was run by a man from South Central named Tony who brewed cauldrons of instant noodles from the 99 Cents Store, like some kind of inner-city MacBeth witch.
There used to be a woman named Jan, a permanent fixture on a certain bench, wearing red cowboy boots, a mess of silver and turquoise rings, straw hat, pink lipstick. She came to Los Angeles from Georgia back in the seventies, said upon arrival she’d been kidnapped and raped. She cautioned me how life on the boardwalk could turn on you. It turned on my friend Kriel. She was raped in the public bathroom stalls on the beach.
They are all gone now. I walk up and down the quiet beach, get a smoothie, talk to a man named Phillip. He wears a bikini top stuffed with pillowy breasts, a sequinned blanket over his head like some kind of Seer. I can smell him from four feet away, the wind from the water blowing it in my face. Phillip asks me if I know anyone in the movies, tries to sell me an electric guitar, pulls around a wheeled platform heaped with blankets and, weirdly, a regal-styled chair, a mass of stuff. His home.
I want to ask him what happened to wipe the beach clean but I know the answer already. The police. The pandemic. Air B n’ B. Apathy. Not In My Backyard. House the homeless but not where I have to see them. I worked hard to get where I am, don’t make me feel bad about it. It’s not my fault these people are so troubled. I give plenty of money to charity. I’ll help as long as nothing has to change for me.
When this socioeconomic crisis finally levels us, because it will, the root cause will be that last phrase right there: As long as nothing has to change for me. Meanwhile Marissa crawls back into her plywood box to sleep.
We’ve structured our societies like a Jenga tower. The middle has already been removed, the tower wobbling but somehow staying intact. With Covid we pulled out a few more blocks and it seemed as if the thing would finally tumble, but no—the structure has been well-built enough that its very shape is self-sustaining. We know it must tip eventually, we know we can’t keep removing blocks the way we’re doing, but we can’t stop pulling them out either. Will this block be the one that buries us? We ease it out, the tower shivers, shakes, holds. We exhale. And then we go for another block. The tower begins to shake again.