A youngish woman in a sedan tried to slip me a box of chocolates. An older woman in a Mercedes aggressively shook a bag of cookies in my face, as though the Ziploc was weaponized. One afternoon, a man in a pickup truck tried to hand me a Vitamin Water. The bottle was half empty. I figured he wanted me to throw it away. “Sorry, I just wanted to give you something,” he said, flustered.
Historically, Southern California is often on fire, submerged underwater, or threatening to crack in half. Social upheaval is constant. Precarity feels domestic. There’s a great Joan Didion line, there is something uneasy in the Los Angeles air this afternoon, and it remains ever true – if not understated – and yet that sense of impermanence has a way of fostering not just fear, but benevolence. Decency. Over the last year and a half, no trait stood out to me more around the city, seeing people being kind to one another.
It was sometimes plainest to see, of all places, at Dodgers Stadium. Prior to lockdown, I’d been there once for a game. Since August, it was my home nearly every Saturday – not the stadium so much as the rolling cement of Chavez Ravine, the hills of parking lots that were transformed a little over a year ago into one of the country’s largest sites for drive-through coronavirus testing and vaccination.
The infrastructure was thrown together by the city, the Los Angeles Fire Department, several testing and vaccination companies, and CORE, the nonprofit group for whom I volunteered. I started last summer because my friend Victor said they were giving out free hats. (I am a sucker for free merch.) The bigger, more meaningful reason was that I felt powerless. Covid was ubiquitous, my parents had gotten it, a physician friend in New York was hooked up to an oxygen tank. I wanted to do something in the face of the surreal.
Volunteers came from every corner of Greater Los Angeles, many quickly became full-time staff. Single moms from East L.A., just out of high school. Divorced dads in their fifties from Mar Vista. There were so many professional musicians on staff, they started a house band and jammed during breaks, and eventually other bands started to visit, they’d perform in a space carved out between the six lanes of cars. Anytime a song finished, the parking lots would boom with honking horns.
To live in Los Angeles is to exist in a selfish place full of self-helping people: the cliché persists partly because it’s true. But the Southland is also so vast, so diverse, it repels single stories. I asked one staff member, a woman who’d risen to become one of the managers, what she did prior to working at Dodgers. “I lunched,” she said flatly. “I’m a lady who lunches. I mean, I used to be.” My reasons to volunteer were selfish and self-serving: I needed to get out of the house, I enjoyed making new friends. It’s weird. For several years, I’d been crisscrossing L.A. for my new book, interviewing dozens of people from the county’s many communities to grasp at some idea of its soul. The Armenian nation state of Glendale. The Vietnamese community in Garden Grove. Suddenly, Saturday mornings, everyone was coming to see me.
Working on-site, seeing the resolute faces pass through, I sometimes wondered if Angelenos possess a psychological edge in facing disaster, given how many other pandemics were already gnawing at our brains. Our homelessness catastrophe. Our ballooning inequality. The climate crisis’s rolling arson machine
The vaccination site at Dodgers Stadium closed last week. There’s been a decline in demand for vaccines and the city is focused on targeted distribution. A sendoff was organized for staff and volunteers; I was on the road for work and missed it. But a friend just offered me a ticket for a Dodgers game this week, and I’ll have a chance to say goodbye. Goodbye to surgical gowns and face shields. Goodbye to tiny coolers full of vaccine. Goodbye to twenty-thousand traffic cones, protesters at the gates, and farewell to the man who tried to PCR-test his anus. But also goodbye to one of the highlights of a terrible year.
My new nonfiction book, Everything Now, is available for pre-order from Amazon, Bookshop, or your local store. And! If you pre-ordered, email me a copy of your receipt and I’ll send you an inscribed bookplate from Farrar, Straus and Giroux to stick inside the book.
Forward your receipt (or send a photo of it) to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Include your name, mailing address, and the name of whomever you’d like it inscribed to, and I’ll put a personalized bookplate in the mail.
The book reaches stores on June 15. It’s gotten really nice early reviews in New York Magazine, Wallpaper*, and Publishers Weekly. Publishing books during lockdown is pretty weird, but I’m finding it really gratifying to connect with readers in any way possible. Also, I’ll have more news soon about upcoming events, including, I’m told, a contest for readers to win an Everything Now-themed skateboard deck (!).
Thank you, thank you for your support.
What the what? A weekly newsletter by novelist Rosecrans Baldwin of (very) short essays about things he finds beautiful.