A Creative Nonfiction Piece by Luke Nelson
You should be grateful.
You should feel blessed.
Look how beautiful this place is:
Wide open skies,
Finely trimmed hedges,
Pretty little houses.
Look at how good you have it.
See this utopia of American dreams?
Feel the lull and the sigh?
You are perfect in the beauty.
You are perfect in California.
Melrose Boulevard is paradoxical. It’s not a neighborhood, just more of a strip of shops and restaurants and people. When you enter onto the start of the strip, you’re welcomed by an assortment of run-down tattoo parlors, grungy thrift stores, and dilapidated liquor shops. And, of course, homeless people. Lots of them.
But drive along a few more blocks, and you’re practically in Beverly Hills: designer clothing stores, 5-star restaurants, pretty palm trees, tour buses searching desperately for Kim Kardashian, and… Kim Kardashian? Only if you’re really lucky. Those tour buses never see much beyond the massive hedge covering Hugh Hefner’s mansion.
But the last time I was on Melrose, the Beverly Hills section, there was a big, glaring sore thumb. The left had collided with right, yin had spilled over into yang, and as I drove through the masses of Kylie Jenner look-alikes, men decked out in Louis Vuitton and Gucci, and private school students clutching $10 boba drinks, I noticed a homeless man hobbling down the sidewalk, blood gushing from an open split in his forehead. His toothless hole of a mouth was agape in horrified pain, but his eyes were dead, emotionless, and unresponsive. He was looking around in a daze, his mind clearly not registering the flashy white department stores and the beaming photos of Hollywood movie stars.
People just brushed past him, not asking him if he needed help, not even acknowledging his presence. He was just a mistake. He was a minor discrepancy in the usual perfection of West Melrose. He would disappear after a while. Maybe he’d curl up in some dark corner and bleed to death, or maybe he’d get lucky and a passing ambulance would pick him up. But death would probably be a far better fate for this man than a pile of hospital bills he couldn’t pay.
Besides, this man was just one in a million. As we continued down and out of Melrose into some run-down area of East Hollywood, the streets were teeming with the homeless. And, through graffitied photos of Humphrey Bogart painted onto the sides of crumbling buildings, through stickers of the Hollywood letters plastered onto poles and street signs, and through large posters of Dwayne Johnson’s face glaring down at grimy sidewalks and rusty bus stops, I could just make out the soles of a man’s feet as we sped by. He was lying face down in the concrete underneath the black metal bench of one of these bus stops. Was that a needle by his side? Was he twitching? We were moving too fast to see. He disappeared back into the blur of the buildings, back into the other victims of neglect and hatred and disparity. He disappeared back into the Hollywood nobody wanted to acknowledge.
As we pulled farther away from the stick and the grunge and returned to open blue skies and fine, 1970s one-stories, boarded-up theaters turned into handsome Spanish manors and dinky palm trees into wise, swaying oaks. But they provided no solace. The apprehension still lingered in the air. The manors felt wrong, the trees felt unjust, and the clean blue skies felt unfair. The prim and the proper glared too bright against the backdrop of the ignored.
But aren’t you lucky?
Shouldn’t you feel grateful?
You’re living the dream!
No sore thumbs,
Safety, prosperity, and happiness.
Everything is perfect in California.