Trump Towers

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“Well, there it is,” the older woman said in her thick European accent. “Trump Tower.”

“Well, it’s more like a hotel. Do you think it will be used for hosting foreign dignitaries?” The younger woman looked sad as she said it, snapping a shot of the building on her phone. “I didn’t realize how close it was to the White House.”

“I’m sure many diplomats will try to stay there to impress the president. But maybe he will let them stay there for free.”

Both women stood thoughtfully silent for a moment before I chimed in. I had been standing nearby, on a long walk through the streets of Washington D.C. I had taken my own photos of the Trump hotel as they had been talking.

“I don’t think he will be letting anyone stay for free,” I scoffed.

The older woman laughed. “We can pretend. I’m trying to comfort my daughter. She is college-aged and living here in America currently.”

The daughter continued staring at the building. “I just can’t believe it is happening. I keep looking at all of the states, even here in the District of Columbia, and I see how the majority supports Hillary Clinton. How could this man have won?”

“Well, speaking for a lot of Americans, we can’t believe it either.”

I introduced myself to the two women, Annaliese, attending college locally, who was showing her mother Linda around the city. Both women were from Armenia. I explained that I was a tourist to the city also. There was heaviness in the air as we became basically acquainted. They asked what I had been doing in the city, and I told them about my adventures.

“And then yesterday, I went to the Holocaust Museum. Have you been?” I asked.

Linda looked down, a sadness heavy on her face for a moment. “I have no need to go there. My mother’s generation was that of the first genocide, the Armenian genocide.”

I couldn’t think of anything to say, and there was a pregnant silence for  a moment. Then Annaliese asked me what I thought of the museum. I looked back over at the Trump hotel, and sighed.

“The first part of museum was dedicated to the political circumstances at the time. It told of Germany, struggling with political sanctions after World War I, and how the economy was slow to rebuild and the people were dissatisfied. Despite all of that, Germany had a lot of cultural things happening. It was becoming a safer place politically for homosexuals and for women, for Jews and other religious groups. It seemed to be changing, slowly, for the better. And then Hitler happened.” Both women looked at me and seemed to want me to continue. “Watching those exhibits, I saw how Hitler surrounded himself with people who admired and emulated him, and how he used the plights of the average German to propel himself into power. He used propaganda and political loopholes within the German system to seize larger and larger pieces of political influence. He exploited crises to gain sympathy and seemed to operate on a message of ‘Make Germany Great Again’, and then he took over and appointed others just like him into positions of power. And then the world watched what happened next.”

Annaliese looked at the hotel and then at me. “That sounds painfully familiar.”

I nodded twice. “Yeah, the museum was extremely uncomfortable for me. I must have had 75 moments of ‘oh my god, that sounds like America right now’. Political campaigns built on propaganda that exploit the disenfranchised. Anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-women. Fear-mongering and gas-lighting.”

Linda stuffed her hands in her pockets, avoiding the cold wind. “And the rest of the museum?”

“Well, the rest of the museum was all that happened next. I cried lots of times reading about the people killed, and how they were killed, the people experimented upon, the ones who barely escaped with their lives. It was horrible. The museum was so beautifully built, and we must remember what happened, but it was horrible. I’m sure it was similar to the stories your mother told you of the Armenian genocide.”

We stayed silent for a moment again, and I felt the need to clarify. “Look, I don’t think we are headed for genocide in America. I don’t think that would happen again. But I do worry about what comes next for us. It’s a heavy time here after things have been going so well.”

The conversation lightened up for a few minutes and we talked instead of food and music and entertainment, of aspirations and climate and family. And then the women headed along their way, after having me take a photo of them in front of the Trump hotel.

I continued my walk then, past incredible buildings full of history. I saw names emblazoned in plaques and pavement: J. Edgar Hoover, Ronald Reagan, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass. The sheer history of these streets. The sheer weight of the footfalls of the men and women here who have influenced a world’s destiny and changed billions of lives for better or worse, from right here on these streets.

I came around the bend and saw a few handsome Secret Service agents screening the credentials of four men and women dressed like Christmas carolers, admitting them to the White House grounds for some sort of event. I looked at a construction crew building a stage for the upcoming Inauguration of a new President. I watched a crowd of Americans gathered at the perimeter staring at the White House in all its grandeur, realizing, as I was, that it is just a building like any building, and a small building at that. A Muslim family stood arm in arm, the women with their heads wrapped, the men with heavy beards. A black mother held the hands of her three daughters, all in pink snow hats. A lesbian couple hugged each other tightly. An elderly father pushed a stroller while his daughter carried the child inside. We watched, all of us, the silent grounds around us, wondering in unison what the future holds.

Big man in Little Armenia

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I know nothing of Armenia.

While I consider myself a relatively well-educated person, constantly seeking to learn more, I have very little knowledge of the overall world outside my small spheres of influence.

So, when I took an impromptu four day vacation to Los Angeles, I booked a small Airbnb in an unfamiliar neighborhood, crashing on a stranger’s couch so I could have some adventures in a new city. And I wound up in a small section of LA proper, just off of Hollywood Boulevard, near a confluence of other sections of the city. Little Armenia.

Cities have a strange way of breaking up into little sections. Safe and unsafe spaces. Spots to congregate. Businesses pile up here, artists there, tourist traps in another spot. There are hidden gems in any area of any little city. And Little Armenia didn’t disappoint.

One city block was vibrant with new businesses, in a strip mall format. Asian noodles on the corner, a barbershop and nail salon next door, a “Thai massage” spot one over from there, and a cute Asian bistro next to that. I stumbled on this block my first day in the city, exploring the area, and I thought, well, why not.

I entered the haircut salon first. A middle-aged woman named Nona greeted me with a wink and a smile. With few words, she sat me in a barber’s chair and got out her scissors, prepared to give me one of the most inefficient haircuts I’ve ever received. Nona had her hair bobbed up, short and sort of curled outward, like something from America’s past. She made a few cuts, surveyed me in the mirror, and nodded. “You are a very handsome American white boy,” she said in a thick Middle Eastern accent.

As Nona cut my hair, she told scattered stories, not related to each other. I barely spoke, happy to just listen and enjoy the experience. She kvetched about her adult daughter, always wanting to use the car, and beamed about her daughter in high school, successful and going places with her future. She talked to another woman in the parlor, wondering if some of their favorite clients would be coming in today. She wondered if she had made enough dinner.

I looked up at the wall, seeing a map of Armenia, a small country whose shape reminded me of a bird, wedged tightly between Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Iran. I intuited that there were likely wars there, women’s rights issues, as exist in so many countries in that region. I looked up at Nona and wondered what she had experienced to get here. I wondered if she missed home. I wondered about her family and her life in America. She looked happy. I could have asked a hundred questions, but instead I smiled, thanked her, and gave her a five dollar tip (she called me handsome, after all).

I walked next door with my new bad haircut and found a seat at a hardwood table. A single fresh flower stood in a small glass filled with water, its petals a light purple, and I started at it, contemplating its origins, as the waiter put in my order of crispy pork over glass noodles. The meal was simple and spicy and delicious, and during it, I remained within myself. I didn’t listen to other conversations or even look around the place. I just wanted to be there, me and my food, in Little Armenia.

I planned to keep walking after that, and to think and contemplate my space in life, but as I walked by the massage parlor, a gorgeous Armenian woman stepped outside. She was small, petite, with long shiny black hair down her back. “You want a massage? I offer discount.” She was grinning. I looked inside the place and assessed it wasn’t some seedy back parlor joint with threats of police raids and extra services offered for tips. It was actually quite beautiful. “I’m Mari. You want massage? $40 for one hour.”

I nodded, smiling, and entered the parlor. That’s a great price, and who am I to turn down fate on vacation? Soon I was in a back room with a massage table. I slipped on a pair of shorts made from a material that felt like gauze, and tied a cord around my waist to fasten it since three of me would fit in the shorts. I laid down on the table and soon Mari entered.

The massage was fantastic. Relaxing and soothing at times, deep and abiding at others, with sharp shocking slaps on large muscles to release tension. When Mari climbed on my back (no really, she climbed on my back) and used her knees and elbows to work different spots, it was heaven. Toward the end, I flipped over on my back and she worked on my feet. I felt my head drop back and I fell into an immediate sleep, awakened only by my own sharp, dehydrated snores a few minutes later.

Just minutes later, I stood on a street corner, under a large palm tree. The sun was perfect, warm but through a light breeze of ocean air mixed with city air, 70 degrees out. I closed my eyes. I could smell the massage oil on my skin, the sweet spice of the nearby noodle shop, and they mixed poorly with the concrete and urine smells of the city streets. There were almost too many sounds to individually distinguish them. Buzzing of electricity, motors and horns from the nearby freeway, busses and voices, loud loud loud.

And then I looked inward. Shoulders relaxed, stomach nurtured, feet sore with blisters, breeze on my skin and in my ears, lungs full, heart steady, head clear. I felt a patch of sun on my back, and I turned toward it.

This moment right here, this moment and any moment after, this was what I needed here.

Provo to Hollywood

It’s 9 am and I’m sitting in a crowded plane on the tarmac at the Provo, Utah airport, and everyone is white. Literally, everyone on the entire plane is white. I’m not sure why things like this startle me any longer. It’s Utah, I know, but there are billions on the planet.

I’m in the middle seat toward the back of the plane, squished in between two blonde girls. The one on my right is a little bit daft. She keeps looking at me and smiling and not looking away when I do. She’s wearing shorts that literally start just above her butt crack and end where her hips meet her legs. The one on my left is a brooding soul. She has a notebook open in her lap and she’s drawing pictures in her notebook of skeletal girls with speech bubbles coming out of their mouths, saying things like “what’s the point?” and “maybe tomorrow.”

I try propping up my laptop on my lap during the flight, and I can barely open it. The seats don’t recline and my knees hit the seat in front of me. I try typing, but I have to bring my elbows up to my shoulders and bent my wrists weird. I take out a paper and pen instead. I’m sleepy, but adventure beckons.

It’s 11 am and I’m in a new time zone, now in California, and I’m in the back of an Uber car. My driver is Azer and he’s from Armenia, and I realize to myself that I know literally nothing about that country. I couldn’t even pin it on a map. We make small talk, and he tells me of his wife and two adult daughters. He tells me how he used to own a kebab restaurant in Little Armenia, a section of town near Hollywood Boulevard, for 15 years until it got too expensive to maintain, but oh how he misses it.

I got off the plane with all the other white people just a bit ago, and got lost in a sea of bustling humanity in the airport. Every shade of skin, people of every shape and size. And I have a big smile on my face because this is exactly why I needed to be here, or at least somewhere. I needed to be anonymous, to go missing in a new place, to think and to read and to write and to experience.

I close my eyes briefly as Azer talks, feeling a mix of proud of myself for taking another adventure, and a little bit lame for doing it by myself. But I’m okay with being a little bit lame when it means I get to adventure on my terms.

It’s 1 pm and I’m sitting on the couch where I’ll be sleeping for the next four nights, talking to Mazie, my Airbnb host. She’s already among my very favorite people. 5’5, beautiful black skin, hair in multiple braids. She is dressed in a gorgeous yellow summer dress adorned with flowers, and she looks incredible. She has a cute brimmed hat on her head. She is bustling about the apartment setting things up for her week. She made me a welcome basket with towels, a throw blanket, and a fresh toothbrush. She tells me she is a scientist, and when I ask what kind, she tells me how she analyzes fluid samples in the hospital and gives the doctors the results, so that the doctors can pretend they knew what was going on all along. She says this with a laugh, and I’m laughing too. I don’t know her story, but this woman is a powerhouse.

It’s 3 pm and I’m sitting in a Starbucks on the quiet end of Hollywood Boulevard, if there is such a thing. I walked over the golden-edged stars adorned with the shining names of celebrities. There are many I know. I’ve been drowning myself in LGBT history research lately, and here mixed in with the other names are Ellen DeGeneres and Rock Hudson and Montgomery Clift and dozens of others, and I’m thinking about how each of them had to pretend to be straight, publicly least, in order to get their careers going. Many of the stars are empty, waiting to have a name immortalized.

Outside the window, I see a Hispanic man holding a microphone and praying loudly, publicly calling those around him to repentance. “Dear Lord Jesus, though I be unworthy, I ask you to help me, Lord, help those around me to realize, Lord, that we, all of us, are sinners, that our time here is fleeting, Lord. Help me inspire them ot change their lives, Lord, and to find peace, Lord.” I look down and realize he is standing on the Hollywood star of Adam Sandler, and I literally laugh out loud at the deliciousness of that fact.

I make small talk with the man sharing the table with me. He’s jotting down complex notes, some sort of music set he has for an upcoming show, but I don’t ask questions. I think he’s flirting with me a bit. He asks me what my plans are while I’m in town, and I get a huge grin on my face as I reply.

“Nothing and everything. I have no concrete plans. I will see where my feet take me, and I will experience life.”

He nods respectfully, and soon packs up his things and leaves. And I open up my computer and write about my day as I sip my coffee and water, and watch the people passing by, the thousands of them, walking on the names of the famous. empty-hollywood-star-01.jpg