Mammoth

— Nancy Jooyoun Kim

The first time I had walked any significant distance as an adult in Los Angeles was with my dog—a black-and-white Havanese mix—who greets almost anyone on his hind legs with high jumps and kisses to the face with a rawness, an enthusiasm, that belongs to children and grandmothers.

I had been in my mid-twenties, living in Seattle and visiting my mom in LA for the holidays. I brought my dog—still a puppy—with me on the plane, crammed in a soft carrier underneath the seat in front, from which, at one point in our travels, he chewed his way out, birthing himself from my bag.

While visiting my mother, I found myself with an entire afternoon to myself, which left me itchy, antsy as the teenager I had once been without a car. My mother lives on the border of Mid-Wilshire and Koreatown, a largely residential area, and, if I didn’t get out of our dim but temperate house and into the soft haze of December, I’d watch television all day, as I often did growing up, as children and teenagers—from suburbs to inner cities all over America—do.

Those formative years had been a traffic of hormones and feelings, jammed with a dull longing to be a part of some televised world—universes of cartoon ducks who dived into swimming pools full of gold and white kids who could agonize over their personal problems, celebrate their accomplishments in the safety, comfort, and privacy of their own spaces (schools, homes, playgrounds, restaurants).

White people seemed to have so much room, dappled with an affection, an eye on their interior lives. It was as if every week, the audience asked these characters, complete strangers, with genuine concern, “How are you doing? What do you feel?”

But sometimes—as a Korean American kid with absent parents, whose mother worked to the bone during graveyard shifts or, later, at her swap meet store, whose father ran off to be in the San Fernando Valley by himself, whose extended family mostly lived abroad, where we could never afford to visit, both financially and spiritually, our sadness entwined with the shame of our various failures—I needed to get out. I needed to move.

Angelenos all know the buses are terrible (slow, late, or stuck in traffic) and often as an adolescent, because I had no money at all, when I wasn’t watching television or reading or writing, I just walked for hours with a sort of aimless direction, down dusty streets, gutters full of trash. The cars passing would deposit in my mouth and eyes particulates, small pieces of dried leaves, and who knows what else, the detritus of a city where no one has time to stop and clean—flattened Slurpee cups, mangled straws, scratcher tickets, cigarette butts.

Walking long distances is in some ways an experience that only the poor know in a city as hot and wide as Los Angeles. Walking forces the mind and the heart to notice the things and the people that could only be grasped at the speed of one’s feet. In Koreatown, a halmeoni, back-hunched, steadily planting shoe after shoe, the beat of her own drum in a city of wheeled extremes—traffic jams and car chases. Latinos on bikes with Dodger caps, eyes fixed forward, careening to jobs or homes. Dusty, muscular mothers, soft children in tow, gripping hands, digits braided, a family.

On foot, one could stop and wonder easily at your own rate, in your own shape. While cars force us to go at the speed of everyone else’s dreams.

But on this December day, as an adult who had “escaped” my Los Angeles for Seattle, my Los Angeles of working long days and hours, of not having money for anything besides bills and food, no internet, no cable, just family fights in tight spaces, I craved the holidays of my television set—the holidays of middle- and upper-class America, the holidays of decorated trees and lights, fake snow, and Christmas music.

The closest place I could walk with my dog to was west, the opposite of Koreatown—The Grove—an opulent outdoor shopping and entertainment complex in the Fairfax District, built over what was once an orchard and then part of the historic Farmers Market—less than three miles from my home. I remember in the early 2000s, construction of The Grove had been controversial—not only would the goliath increase the area’s traffic, but also decimate the history and cultural charm of the Farmers Market landmark opened in 1934.

But in Los Angeles, memories are short, and desires long. And what we had all been skeptical of, now in my mind, became a beacon or oasis for me, as I stubbornly clung foot after foot to the dream of walking to The Grove down Wilshire Boulevard’s Miracle Mile. My dog and I collected soot and dust on our bodies, in our mouths and eyes, as we strolled past some of the city’s most beautiful architecture, bottom floors populated with lonesome-looking restaurants and beauty supply shops. A city, where people’s eyes are always gazing, straining upward, rarely puts much effort into the ground floor.

Besides the ordinary, the seemingly mundane down Wilshire Boulevard, one may stop and stare at one of the most iconic, yet underappreciated landmarks of the city—the La Brea Tar Pits—a relic of what the earth once was, the seepage of tens of thousands of years, collected in a smelly pool, a nightmare of David Hockney. Next door to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Tar Pits radiate with a kind of unsophisticated, yet lovable ’70s kitsch. Faded colored statues of mammoths—one trapped in the bubbling black pit—could be a metaphor for many things. The mess of ambition, or life’s utter meaningless, perhaps, who knows?

At The Grove, my dog and I arrived in a wash of soot. My dog, whose body is mostly white, transformed to a greyish beige color, and I could only imagine the look on my sweat-covered face as I navigated the crowd of shoppers, charmed by the holiday colors and lights. I felt out-of-place, a sweaty interloper in this alien landscape of powdered noses, cold-pressed juices, and Victoria’s Secret.

I sat on a bench in my exhaustion, and a woman unexpectedly asked, “What kind of dog is that?”

A stranger’s words can sometimes be uncomfortable, but my body relaxed, my muscles unwound as I watched the water dance, as I forgot my sorrows, as I forgot the stench of the tar pit we had left behind.

“He’s a Havanese mix.”

“Oh, really? I’ve never heard of that before.” She smiled, reaching down to pet him.

People here are kind, I thought. People are friendly.

But for whom, and how long?

Parking is paid for in increments, measurements of the hour.

My dog, whose presence in my life had, in some ways, been the result of an impulse decision, and in others, a carefully-constructed internet purchase by a woman in her mid-twenties, was the ticket, an entry into people seeing me, perhaps for the first time. An animal can sometimes have that force, that power in a country built on the idea that individuals have the agency to change their lives, that they are never trapped in or without opportunities based on the intersections of race, sex and sexuality, disability, economic class. An animal with a leash clipped to the collar around its neck has no real or perceived agency, and so he deserves that second loving glance, that reach of the hand to touch his head.

While Americans seem trained to despise one another, strangers, threatened by a shared humanity, by the mirrors our bodies might be or become. Maybe this is why Americans love private property—shopping malls, home ownership, automobiles, gated communities—so much. Because property is just another way of managing identity, containing images and language, controlling borders.

Once on a Downtown Seattle street, a homeless woman yelled at me: “Your dog makes me sick.”

A mile away, a mammoth trapped in the muck reached to his family on the shore of a dark pit. If we could hear its desperate sound, the image would be absolutely unmanageable. People might turn their heads. People might cry.


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