The intersecting lives of immigrants and gentrifiers in Northeast Los Angeles.
This article appears in Blunderbuss Magazine’s forthcoming print issue.
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For years my dad had offered to help me make a down payment, and for years I’d brushed him off. My partner C.C. and I were happy renters, and even if we managed to negotiate a relatively low mortgage, we couldn’t afford the extra costs associated with home-owning—the taxes, the insurance, the sudden burst pipes.
Then it occurred to my dad that he could buy a house and rent it to us. Our nineteen-month-old son, Dash, was outgrowing the corner of the office we’d repurposed as a nursery. So we started looking. Just to see what was out there.
The house that would become mine—but really my dad’s (but really and eventually mine)—was a 1912 California bungalow, its wood siding long since stuccoed over, a carport built over the narrow driveway. A century into its life, it had been flipped. Someone bought it cheap, spruced it up and sold it for a much higher price.
My dad and I—sometimes with C.C. and Dash in tow, but not today—had looked at several houses, all attractive and livable. A couple of days ago, we’d traipsed through an airy, newly remodeled three-bedroom at the top of a hill in Highland Park. From the backyard, we could see the rent-controlled duplex where we’d lived for nine years. House-hunting stories about finding “the one” are as common as love stories, but I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to feel. Or rather, all the other things I was feeling—guilt, ambivalence, surprise—created a kind of static that made it hard to listen to my gut.
This house, painted a dark olive green, sheltered by old sycamore trees and a new canvas sunshade, was the first to break through the static.
When my sister and I were kids, our family vacationed up and down the California coast in a 1979 Dodge Four Star motor home. In every small town we visited, my dad would peruse the local real estate listings. His dream was to buy a plot of wilderness, build a home from scratch and retire among the redwoods. He was a sun worshipper, and redwoods craved the fog, but he believed that there must be a bit of Northern California that was somehow both sunny and redwooded.
My mom, who had moved nearly every year of her childhood, just wanted to be near her family, friends and a reliable hospital in case of emergency. But because she was first and foremost loyal to my dad, the house in the redwoods became her dream too.
When my sister was still in college, my mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She retired the old-fashioned way, by getting too sick to work.
At her memorial service, we projected a slideshow onto the church wall. It included a picture of my mom holding my cousin’s baby. Afterward a neighbor we didn’t know very well said, “At least she got to meet her grandchild.”
In reality, it would be eleven years before her first grandchild came along, after my own bout with cancer (breast cancer, early stage; I was lucky, but permanently rattled) and a long adoption process.
My dad found me on the deck off the kitchen, my eyes wet.
“This was all supposed to be Mom’s,” I said. “This is her retirement.”
“Mom would want you to have this,” he said, which was what I knew he’d say. “I realized too late that we should have enjoyed ourselves a little more. But you made sacrifices too. You didn’t get a lot of things your friends had. If we have the money now, we should spend it. I could just leave it to you when I die, but this way I get to enjoy you enjoying it.”
Who would I be to deny my dad joy?
Veselin arrived on time and took off his shoes before entering our house. It was our house now. It was August, and wildfires were springing up in the hills around Southern California. Veselin had been a man of few words on the phone, but now, seeing Dash send wooden cars careening off the porch, he volunteered that he had an eleven-month-old daughter.
“She wants to walk. She is trying, but she can’t yet.” I placed his accent somewhere in Eastern Europe and his age as close to mine, which was thirty-nine.
“She’s pulling herself up on things?”
“Yes, she really wants to walk.”
It had taken C.C. and me four and a half years to become parents. Now that Dash was fully mobile, my exhaustion was genuine, but pretending to be a beleaguered parent sometimes felt like a performance. In truth, being Dash’s mom was a privilege brighter than the sun—I couldn’t even look at it head-on. I just basked and panted in its warmth.
On his phone, Veselin pulled up the list of repairs my dad had sent him. The house was not a fixer-upper. The previous owner moved out when her show won an Emmy and she found a bigger place.
Nevertheless, Veselin had a long list. He ran his fingers over the grout around the bathtub and knocked on walls to listen for studs, like a doctor making a diagnosis. He climbed on the roof to inspect missing shingles, and wondered aloud how much of the ceiling he’d need to take out to install a ladder to the attic. I followed him around the perimeter of the house as we tried to decipher a note about sealing windows.
“There is no gap between the windows and the stucco,” he said.
“I know, I don’t see one either,” I said. “My dad can be a little bit of a perfectionist.”
“He asked a lot of questions,” Veselin agreed. “It’s not a bad thing, though.”
The first neighbor we met was a Chinese woman with leathery brown skin, hair that looked as if it had been cut by hand and only a couple of teeth left. She always wore the same brown tracksuit jacket with yellow stripes down the sleeves.
When she first showed interest in our broken-down moving boxes, I thought she was collecting recyclables. I kept them out of the blue bin and put them directly in front of the house for her. But then she put them in the blue bin herself. And moved them from one bin to another. And disappeared with the bins themselves for days at a time. I thought she might be homeless, but when she wasn’t roaming, she returned to the house two doors down from ours.
She liked to knock on our door and let us know when we had mail. She made noises, but didn’t have words in any language I recognized. Once she showed me where her shirt was missing a button and tried to hand me a needle. Another time she appeared in our front yard as a pizza was being delivered and begged for a piece. Sometimes our neighbor seemed like a toddler, and I tried to treat her as such. I was friendly, firm and boundaried. Other times she seemed like a creature from a horror movie, the kind of scorned, forgotten woman folklorists might write about. When she moved our trash cans to weird places, I moved them back. C.C. bought padlocks and lengths of plastic chain to anchor our trash cans to the fence.
One morning I was putting on eyeliner in the bathroom when I heard C.C. talking to someone outside. The voice had a Chinese accent. I knew right away that she was the matriarch of the home two doors down, the sister or niece of the free-range neighbor. When C.C. came in, carrying Dash, she recounted their exchange.
“Isn’t your baby cold?”
It was in the upper sixties and Dash was in a diaper. “We’re only going to be out here a minute. Hey…is she yours?” C.C. gestured across the street, to where the woman in the brown track jacket was squatting. “She goes through our trash and moves the cans all the time.”
“She no listen to me,” said the matriarch. “You don’t like, you can call the police. Where you from?”
C.C. suspected that the woman wasn’t looking for a story of our migration from the other side of Highland Park. She got to the point: “Mexico,” she said, although her family had been in California for three generations.
“We’ve lived here twenty-eight years,” the woman said. “Your baby, is he cold?”
Veselin returned a week after his first visit. I met him in the driveway, Dash on my hip, and asked how his weekend was.
“It was okay,” he said. “Ah…it was bad. I didn’t sleep much. From stress.”
“I hear you,” I said. “Dash wakes up at four some nights, and it wrecks me for the whole day.”
“I lost seven pounds in two days,” he said. He was already thin.
As he covered the kitchen floor with paint-splattered bed sheets, he asked what we did for a living. I explained that I worked for an organization that helped people who’d been in prison get back on their feet.
“I studied criminology and psychology at university,” he said. “In London. But it’s a hard field to find a job in. And the jobs that there are, I think they want someone who has a degree from a local university.”
“What brought you to the U.S.?”
“I met my wife. She is from Bulgaria too, but she has lived here long time, like sixteen, seventeen years, and so I come here. Her family all lives here now. And then our daughter was born. Being handyman is good, but….”
Here is what I knew about Bulgaria: I’d had a Bulgarian classmate in a college creative writing class who wrote beautiful short stories about disaffected youth bumming around post-Soviet urban landscapes, smoking a lot. At seventeen years old, she’d been one of the most sought-after translators in her country, and that was when she knew it was time to leave. I also knew a woman who’d adopted a girl with Down Syndrome from a Bulgarian orphanage. Years later, her daughter still bore the markings of an understaffed institution. She rocked herself to sleep; she was much smaller than most kids with Down Syndrome; at seven, she was just starting to walk. I thought about all the things contained in Veselin’s ellipses.
“The place I work for is pretty open-minded in their hiring,” I said. “I mean for all positions.”
I put Dash down and handed him a book, which he threw aside to chase one of our cats.
I didn’t want Veselin to think I was pushing him toward a track geared to felons. I searched for a succinct way to explain the tangled history of our twenty-eight-year-old organization, which began in an East L.A. church and grew in fits and starts into an $18 million media darling that still didn’t have an office manager or a proper client database or enough stationery. Working there was magical and confounding.
“What I studied, it wasn’t clinical,” Veselin clarified. “I don’t know anything like cognitive behavioral therapy, things like that. Things you need to help, uh, the criminal. It’s more like why do the whole society do what we do. Poverty, social tensions.”
Dash tried to push past Veslin’s gear so he could get to the backyard. “Bubble,” he insisted.
I told Veselin that C.C. was accumulating hours toward her Marriage and Family Therapy license. Then I took the front door key off my keychain and put it in a leaf-shaped dish on the counter. “I’ll be in and out today,” I said, “so feel free to just lock the front door if you have to run to Home Depot or anything.”
I told my favorite online parenting group, Parenting for Social Justice, about C.C.’s interaction with our neighbors. I was interested in all the layers of culture that had culminated in the driveway exchange. This family had come all the way from…Taiwan? Hong Kong? The mainland? They’d made their own lattices out of twigs in their front yard, planted vegetables, flown little flags made of crumpled Chinese newspapers to keep birds away.
They’d set up camp in 1988, the year my boss was riding his bicycle through Boyle Heights, injecting himself into the middle of gang showdowns. Where you from, one young man would say to another, and the fight was on. There were four gangs in one Boyle Heights housing project. Where you from? Same place as you, dog. But different.
In 1988 I sprayed AquaNet on my bangs to make them stand at attention; with different clothes and makeup, I would have looked like a Chola. My dad invested in small post-war tract houses in working-class Lawndale, because he figured the neighborhood was due to change. But the violence got worse in Boyle Heights, and things weren’t great in Lawndale either. One of our tenants had a pit bull who attacked someone. The victim sued my parents. Property values slumped in the early nineties. I grew out my bangs.
Our neighbors would have watched Highland Park deteriorate and become populated by more and more Latinos, only to be overtaken, now, by unkempt white people obsessed with Craftsman architecture. At the back of my mind, this was why they wanted to know where C.C. was from.
I asked the parenting group: Does anyone here have experience with dealing with xenophobia from people who are themselves immigrants?
The responses varied in tone, but they all agreed: I was the xenophobe here. The woman meant well. I was being a shitty neighbor at best, and a racist gentrifier at worst.
Dash was asleep in his stroller by the time we got home from the coffee shop. His room was adjacent to the hallway and kitchen, meaning Veselin couldn’t work on the dishwasher or the attic entrance for the next two hours. He was entirely agreeable, and I told myself that my request didn’t make me a diva, it made me a mom. Veslin was a dad—he’d understand, right?
“I’ll just put the seal on the bathtub first,” Veselin said. “So, C.C. says you are also a writer? Not just of grants?”
“Yeah, I write fiction and essays and stuff.”
“She said you have books?”
“I had a couple of books published by small independent presses a few years back.” Increasingly it was feeling like a lot of years, and I was self-conscious talking about my work. It always felt like bragging and simultaneously lying, because what if I never had a book published again?
“I like to write too. Also fiction,” Veselin said. He was searching his toolbox for something that eluded him. “I write in my own language, of course. And not so much now. It’s hard to find time with work, and coming to a new country.”
“I hear you. I don’t get to write as much as I’d like either, especially since becoming a parent.”
The lack of free time was a great American equalizer. Even the wealthiest people I knew had schedules that were bursting at the seams; the only difference was that they went home to bigger houses at the end of their long days.
Not long after Dash woke up, C.C. came home and started her shift so I could go to therapy. The times that we were together as a family and not rushing off somewhere were rare. I kissed them both on the cheek and waved goodbye to Veselin. It was the last I saw of him.
C.C. told me what happened next. She and Dash went out to buy milk and bananas, and when she returned, Veselin was sitting on the living room couch, staring at the coffee table.
“I’m afraid I didn’t get much done today,” he said. “Cheryl’s father does not have to pay me.”
“But you drilled that hole in the counter for the dishwasher and—” C.C. said.
“No, I am not myself today. Pardon me. I have to confess—my marriage is breaking up. We broke up. Last night. We live with my wife’s parents, and she does anything they say. I have no voice in our house. They are awful, her parents.”
“Oh. That’s a lot to deal with.”
“Last night it all came to a crash.” He looked at her as if pleading a case. “I didn’t know it would be like this. When we were in London, I didn’t know what she was like with her family.”
“Do you have a place to stay now?” C.C. asked. She thought of the air mattress in the spare bedroom we now had. She wondered what my dad might say; whether it would be right to let a distraught handyman we barely knew stay the night.
“I’m not sure,” Veselin said. “I should go. I’m sorry you had to hear all of this. I will probably have to go back to Bulgaria. Thank you for being so kind.”
When I went apartment-hunting in my early twenties, my roommates accused me of wanting to live in a condemned building. I was drawn to studios carved out of sagging Victorians, to Mission-style apartment buildings with vaulted ceilings that rained plaster chips and ironing boards that folded creakily out of the kitchen walls and threadbare carpet that smelled like smoke. My favorite musical was Rent, which is set in an illegal East Village squat. In the opening number, its starving-artist tenants find their landlord has turned off the heat. To keep warm, they start a fire in their wood-burning stove. We light up a mean blaze / with posters and screenplays! they sing.
On our family vacations, my dad and I liked to traipse through abandoned buildings in ghost towns official and unofficial. I wrote stories about the ghosts who lived there; they inevitably befriended a bored young girl traveling with her family.
I liked the nooks and crannies. I found history comforting; it wasn’t uncertain, like the future. I was a striver and a perfectionist in a family of strivers and perfectionists, and there was something appealing, too, about claiming a spot no one wanted. No one will try to take it from you. I suppose that’s how poor people live and how gentrification begins. It culminates when everyone agrees that everyone wants that spot after all.
Highland Park’s homes crept toward the million-dollar mark, but the streets were lined with motor homes, some of them as old as our Four Star. There was a virtual caravan along Figueroa. During the day, you might catch a glimpse of someone’s life. Brown carpet. Newspapers. A patio chair. Marijuana smoke. One day all the motor homes disappeared from Figueroa. They popped up elsewhere.
When we’d lived in our house six months, a fire at an Oakland warehouse/art space called Ghost Ship killed thirty-three people. There was a party that night on the upper floors. The first floor was described as a “labyrinth of artist studios” by city officials. The photos from before the fire depict a place that is part gypsy wonderland, part Hoarders. Exposed rafters and rusty metal support beams framed old fainting couches, furniture made from hubcaps, drum kits, paintings propped against a wall of speakers, Christmas lights like a parade of fairies.
The day after the fire, writer Michelle Tea posted: I have spent so much of my life in places like ghost ship…. They are vital community centers where low/no income artists, marginalized queers and anyone seeking a meaningful life outside the mainstream come to gather, to build a world.
We didn’t hear from Veselin the next day. I knew it was stupid to think my role in Veselin’s life could or should be more than employer proxy. But I kept thinking about his daughter. What if I suddenly couldn’t hug Dash anymore, or feel his sixteen teeth sink into my inner thigh when he got too riled up wrestling on the living room rug?
C.C. and I had gone through a serious rough patch during our long road to parenthood. During the weeks we’d spent apart, I’d gouged my fingernails into my forearms and slept only with the help of alcohol and the worst TV shows I could find on Netflix. Heartbreak was torture. I imagined adding a child and another country to the mix.
I didn’t want to overstep or make assumptions about Veselin’s immigration status, but if he was going back to Bulgaria because he was about to divorce a possible American citizen, I wanted him to know he had options. What about DAPA, Deferred Action for Parents of American Citizens? People talked about “anchor babies” as if Mexican (always Mexican) couples colluded to pop a child out just north of the Rio Grande and begin a life of wealth and leisure for their entire clan. People imagined the lives of others as so much more intentional than they actually were.
I asked around and found out DAPA had been suspended. Nevertheless, I decided the risk of intruding was worth any shred of help I might provide, so I texted him.
I obviously don’t know anything about your situation, but I know a couple of reputable immigration attorneys who help people for free through my organization.
I didn’t expect a reply, but Veselin was, like me, a person of words. I knew this about him now.
Hi Cheryl, I am sorry that I did not answer you yesterday, but we were in the midst of our argument and hadn’t had any sleep before last night. Also my heart was going repeatedly through a meat grinder for the last several days. Our case is not that much a legal matter, because even if I am allowed to stay here after we divorce, I have no job, not income and no place to stay. Becoming a homeless person just for the sake of being physically near will not bring me closer to my daughter nor is it a good thing for her.
Veselin wasn’t willing to live in a car or a warehouse with faulty wiring, and I didn’t blame him. It’s hard to create a world after you’ve lived in this one almost forty years.
My dad is conservative when it comes to helping people via any sort of “hand-out,” but a bit of a bleeding heart on the individual level. I suspect these things are related. If he believed that the scope of the world’s suffering was as large as it actually is, it would crush him. So he tells himself those old myths about hard work and tough love. When I explained the situation and requested that he find a way to pay Veselin for the work he’d done, my dad sent him a check and a long list of immigration resources he’d found online.
Veselin’s reply came a few days later, from Bulgaria. Elsewhere in L.A., perhaps, a woman was creating the story she would tell her daughter, about the father who’d abandoned her. And maybe that woman would be partially right. What did I know?
What I did know: There but for the grace of my birth country and the whims of its real estate markets. There but for my family.
I imagine Veselin on a plane. Time has passed, and he has gone from being a person onto whom I projected my anxieties and other fictions, to being a memory, which is even more of a fiction. I hope he would understand this. I imagine him on a plane to Bulgaria, looking out at clouds and ocean. There’s a yellow pad of paper in front of him, and a ballpoint pen. That’s what I wish for him: time and altitude. He thumbs the edge of the pad as he searches for a word, studying the clouds.
Image courtesy of HPI Film Festival.