MacArthur Park’s melting in the dark

by Gautam Raja

I enjoy the surprise of international visitors at our local CVS Pharmacy. The actual medicines are sold only in one corner of this giant shop that has everything from birthday balloons to alcoholic drinks to frozen foods. This particular California location is so large that they recently cut it in two, and were able to house an entire Aldi grocery store in one half.

In my last Cuff I’d written about a road trip, and said that, “Few other American experiences outside of the National Parks live up to or even exceed fable.”

The retail experience is one those. And specifically, the membership-only warehouse clubs such as Costco, a place where even Americans shake their heads as they walk in. At Costco, you don’t (and can’t) buy one or two rolls of kitchen towel. You buy a pack of 12. You don’t get one toothbrush; they come in packs of eight. The huge jar of instant coffee is taped to a second. You have to buy both.

We got our television from Costco, from the front where they are piled on shelves like so much produce. When we chose one, we looked around. Surely we need to tell someone to get it for us? Nope, we simply had to load our new television onto our cart, along with the dog food, Wet Wipes and peanut butter.

Costco changed my perception of what it means to be almost running out of things. A few years ago, to be almost out of cooking oil, would mean there’s an inch at the bottom of the last one liter bottle. Today, running out of oil means there’s only one more sealed 2.84L bottle left in the cupboard above the fridge. It’s easy to become accustomed to jars of mixed nuts the size of your head and beverage bottles so large, you need two hands to heft them off the shelf. Costco is another fun stop for visitors from out of country, and I enjoyed my parent’s astonishment as they entered the store on a recent visit.

But I’d saved the saddest, perhaps biggest, surprise for another day. We were to visit a restaurant near MacArthur Park in Los Angeles. “It’s a rough neighbourhood,” I said. “But even so, when we come up the escalator from the Metro station, if your eyes don’t widen, you get your money back.”

Sure enough, as they crested the escalator, my mother looked at me, eyes like saucers. On the left, a bunch of men and women, just hung out, belongings strewn everywhere. Ahead, street vendors had spread junk for sale—everything from old phone chargers to shavers. Around the corner, food vendors sold mango slices with chilli powder (if you’re from India, a lot of Mexican street food will be familiar to you). A tamale vendor sold out of the back seat of his SUV. As always, there were the hustlers trying to sell you fake ID’s.

After our meal, we walked through the faded glory of the park itself. A crazed homeless woman stood in the middle of a lawn, screaming at the world. Trash was scattered everywhere, and when you peered into the waters of the pretty lake, you could see shoes, clothes, plastic bags filled with junk. The pavement was storage for the local homeless, with shopping carts loaded with possessions, mattresses, tents and sleeping bags piled everywhere. This wasn’t just grit and character. It was devastation. It was shocking that this was the “greatest country on earth”, and my parents were shocked. It was, I’m sorry to say, another American experience that exceeded the fable.

First published in Gulf News, September 27, 2016