It was the same series of self imposed thoughts that brought me back to asking the ultimate question: Why was it that some people didn’t have any struggles whatsoever and lead perfectly happy lives, while others suffered miserably? Who or what decided each person’s fate? I thought maybe it was God who decided, but I didn’t know who, where, or what God was, outside the fact that my mother was a Catholic-atheist.
We didn’t grow up going to church and Mom said, “All religion is bullshit.” When I asked her questions about God and why she had us baptized as babies she got annoyed, so I stopped asking.
I reasoned that I must have been a bad person, or God wouldn’t have sent me to this life; it wouldn’t be logical to send a good person to be beaten, poor, and helpless unless they deserved it, so I must have deserved it. The confusing part was that I didn’t know what I had done.
The thing is, deep down inside I didn’t feel that I was a bad person and, when considering my brothers and sister who shared the same fate, it really didn’t make sense because I knew for a fact they were exceptionally good people.
So maybe God, if he existed, made mistakes; nothing and no one is perfect and that had to include God as well. But it didn’t matter: it was my life, and if God didn’t like me and my mom didn’t like me, I would just have to accept the fact that I was on my own.
I made friends with most of my deficits; the only thing that made me feel horrible when I thought about it too much was the last report card that I brought home before dropping out of school. It had straight F’s on it. I felt so ashamed of myself that I used whiteout to remove the F’s and took a black pen and hand wrote A’s in their places. Before doing so, I shared the report card with Anna and Justin.
Justin asked, “How did you manage to get an F in P.E.? That should be an easy A!” I said, “I don’t like changing in front of everyone—I don’t feel comfortable taking my clothes off. The teacher said he was going to flunk me because I was never there, and when I did show up I didn’t get my P.E. clothes on or participate.”
As school faded out of the picture entirely and months passed while living in Hollywood, I drew further into myself through reading and writing. I liked being alone because it allowed me to think and dream in quiet.
In the beginning, my dream was fairly simple. I wanted to become a model, make a lot of money, and then go to the grocery store and buy whatever we wanted to eat. I thought about cupcakes, candy, cookies, hamburgers, potato chips, pizza, fruit punch, Top Ramen, and steak. That was basically it, and of course, a safe neighborhood to live in was included.
As my dream list refined itself, over time, I started to write things into the plan that I had never thought about before, which came out spontaneously.
The first of which was that I wasn’t going to love anyone except my sister and brothers.
I wasn’t going to get married or have kids–I wanted total freedom. I wrote that I would never put myself in a position to want or need anyone or let anyone want or need me.
I wrote it all out on paper and thought it was odd how certain it felt and that it wasn’t a decision that I had made so much as it was a decision that had chosen me.
Having a childhood was something that had apparently been omitted from this life, and whatever hopes I had of a parent helping me dissipated with finality, as my future began to consume more and more of my thinking.
It was as though one world had to fall away so the next one could emerge. In my mind, I could see where I was going to end up–it was as clear as a picture. I didn’t have any doubts that success as a model was my future, even though I didn’t know how it would unfold yet.
However, until my dream showed itself, I worked for my brother at The Cultured Cow in Century City, continued looking for an agent, and read as many books as I could get my hands on.
Becoming a model didn’t seem like it was going to be half as difficult to accomplish as my brother Justin giving me a job, which took quite a bit of begging on my part.
Justin was the assistant manager and he worked his shifts from 3pm to 11pm. He took the bus from Hollywood to Century City and back 5 nights a week. He worked the night shift to accommodate his school schedule.
I pleaded with Justin to give me a job, but his reluctance was due to the fact that I had to come home on the bus late at night. He said that The Cultured Cow closed at 11:00 pm and by the time he cleaned up and closed out the receipts, he didn’t get home until 1:00 or 1:30 pm and there was no way I should be on the bus that late in Los Angeles because there were dangerous weirdos on the streets, and he added the fact that I had to be 16 years old to work and I was barely 15 years old.
After endless begging on my part, he finally caved and agreed to give me a job, but said I had to pass the scrutiny of Mark, his boss, and that if he brought me to Century City all the way from Hollywood to have the interview, I was going to have to sit and wait for his shift to be over because I couldn’t go back home on the bus myself. I agreed to all the conditions he put forth.
Century City was a combination of entertainment and business— it was clean, modern, and beautiful. The Cultured Cow was located in between The Shubert Theater, restaurants, private clubs, and The Twin Towers, which were filled with law firms, Hollywood production companies, and corporate businesses.
The employees poured into the restaurants at lunchtime and at night it was theatergoers. Everyone was well dressed, the men wore suits, the ladies dressed for business during the day and elegantly at night. It was my first exposure to being around so many smart, busy, and cultured people.
The excitement, energy, and happiness that I felt from being near a world I had never seen before, was eclipsed by thinking about how educated and important everyone was, and wondering if they could tell I was neither.
When we arrived at our destination for the interview, Justin introduced me to the people he worked with, who were all very nice. Mark wasn’t ready to meet with me when we got there, so Justin fed me pizza and let me have a coke and a frozen yogurt for dessert.
Justin told me that the employees ate for free. I could hardly believe my ears. In disbelief, I said, “Are you serious? Everyone that works here gets to eat for free? Why haven’t you been bringing food home?” Justin said, “I can only eat on my shift; if anyone gets caught taking food home they’ll be fired.”
I thought the first part of my dream was coming to me. I promised myself I would get the job and then I’d be able to eat all of the pizza, salad, chips, candy, and frozen yogurt that I wanted over the course of an eight hour shift.
Then it was time for us to go into Mark’s office, which happened to be the size of a small closet. Justin introduced us and then went to get ready for his shift. Mark stayed seated at his desk and started by saying, “Justin told me he had a sister that wanted to be a model. So that’s you, huh?” As soon as the words came out of his mouth, a feeling came over me, that he was a bad person. When Mark continued by saying, “So tell me about yourself”, the feeling came through again.
Nervously, I replied, “I’m 16, but I don’t have any I.D. and I would like to have a job here.” Smiling, Mark asked, “Are you sure you’re 16?” I said, “Well, I’m almost 16. I’ll be 16 in 14 months.” He laughed and said, “So you’re not 15 yet?” I said, “I will be soon.” I added that I really needed to work, at which point he asked about my school schedule. His question hung in the air, waiting for me to answer, but I didn’t because I thought he might report me to a truancy officer or have me taken by CPS, and I already knew not to trust him.
I looked at Mark’s photos on his desk and trusted the feeling that he was bad, but I didn’t know why yet and understood not to give him any information. Looking at me, he broke the silence by saying, “Does everyone say that you look 21? I mean seriously, you could easily pass for a 21 year old. How tall are you, 5’10?”
I really wanted the job because I wanted to have access to food, so I tried to be nice and talkative, but it was hard. I didn’t know what to say. Mark asked me what kind of experience I had. I paused, thinking about the cigarette shack and feeding Clyde’s pit bulls and cocks in Banning, and responded by saying, “I don’t have any experience but I will work very hard, I promise.”
Mark stood up from his desk, held out his hand, said, “You’re just the kind of young lady I need around here”, and gave me the job on the spot. I asked when I could start and he said, “You can start now. Work this shift with your brother and I’ll have a couple of my people behind the counter start training you and on your break you can fill out the paperwork.”
I was thrilled that I had my first official job and was going to get a paycheck, plus all the food I wanted to eat. I felt that life was going my way.
As I stood up to thank Mark and shake his hand, I remembered my lack of ID. Apprehensively, I asked, “Is it a problem that I’m not old enough?”
He smiled warmly and said, “Don’t you worry about that, I’m the boss here; I’ll take care of everything.”
The work was strenuous, but I liked being in Century City. The hardest part was mopping up at night—the mop felt like it weighed 30 lbs and the restaurant had a big floor to clean.
It was also a part of my job to clean the pizza ovens, which were quite hot after cooking pizzas at 500 degrees all day.
Justin showed me how to take the big metal scraper and reach all the way to the back of the ovens to scrape off all of the charred leftovers that were stuck to the oven walls.
The first day on the job ended at 12:30 am, we were done and ready to lock up. I was exhausted and in pain. We made our way to the bus stop just off, Avenue of the Stars, back to Hollywood. Justin put his arm around me and asked, “Are you tired?” I said, “I didn’t think this would be such hard work, but I love being around all the people and activity– everyone is extremely nice. I wish we could live here.”
Our bus pulled up, we got on, and Justin reminded me to put my sweatshirt on and to cover my head with the hood, and when I told him I didn’t want to put it on he said, “You have to, especially as we get closer to Hollywood.” I reluctantly replied, “I can’t because I hurt my arms.” “What do you mean you hurt your arms?” Justin asked.
I said, “I burned them cleaning the ovens.” He took my arms in his hands to examine them and said, “How did you do this?” In pain, I responded, “I wanted to do a good job so you would be happy that you hired me, but the ovens are so deep and narrow that I kept hitting the sides as I scraped all the junk off.”
He said, “Why didn’t you come and get me? I would’ve cleaned the ovens!” In misery, I replied, “It’s not fair if you have to do my share of the work, especially after working on you so hard to give me the job in the first place. I didn’t want you to think you had made a mistake by appearing weak or complaining.”
Justin said, “I knew I shouldn’t have given you the job, but you’re relentless! You shouldn’t be on the bus this late, it’s dangerous and now, on top of it, your arms are burned. You can’t tell Mom or let her see the burns or she’ll kick me out. It’s my fault, I knew I should never have helped you get a job, you’re too young.”
The bus was approaching a stop and we could see a bunch of teenage hoodlums waiting to get on; Sharply, Justin said, “Put on your sweatshirt and get that hood over your head!”
Whining, I said, “I can’t, my arms are killing me.” Justin said, “I don’t care, put your hood on now!” I did as I was told and it was agony. The sleeves of my sweatshirt rubbing on my burns were torture—I kept my head down and didn’t make eye contact with the guys that got on the bus. There were four of them and they were cussing, listening to music, and talking really loud.
Justin had on a look that I never saw before; his jaw was clenched and his eyes looked mean and dead—he just looked straight the whole time, ready with his hand on a switchblade in the pocket of his jacket.
I was exhausted, in pain, and scared of the guys on the bus and worried that Justin was going to make me quit working at The Cultured Cow. I leaned my head against the window and watched the promise, hope, and ambition of Century City fade as the bus continued to head East on Sunset Boulevard towards Hollywood.
I liked the people in Century City and didn’t like the people in Hollywood. The dread of going back into Hollywood after being on the West side of town was partly due to the buildings. The demeanor and tone of the buildings in Hollywood reflected their own history and time spent standing. They stood back in jaded cynicism—jaded by so many people just like Justin and me who had come to the city with hopes and dreams for a better life.
I couldn’t help but feel the unarticulated questions they posed, such as, “Who do you think you are and why do you think you’ll be any different from all the other failures that walked and dreamed on these streets?”
So many had come before us, only to fail or be sidetracked with drugs, the wrong people, bad choices, and ultimately chased by their dream right over the edge of a building or into a seedy hotel room, working in prostitution.
I promised myself one day this life would feel like a distant memory, a bad one that I would bury and never think about or speak of again. This part of my life would remain an ugly, well kept secret that would never be shared with anyone.
When we arrived back to our one bedroom apartment, Mom was asleep in her bed next to the refrigerator where a table should have been, Anna was in her bed, I took the other, and Justin unrolled his sleeping bag on the floor. I slept in my clothes because my burns hurt, and I didn’t have the courage to attempt removing my sweatshirt.
Dawn of a New Day
I woke up the next morning to the smell of mold and brown sunlight trying to make its way into the dilapidated atrium of our apartment building. My arms still hurt, and I was hungry. Mom, Anna, and Justin had already left for the day.
I heard the old Yugoslavian man next door yell at his wife, slam the door, and exit the building. Then came the weeping. I went to the paper thin wall in the living room, put my ear against it, and listened to his wife cry. I felt sorry for her and hoped that she wasn’t crying because he hit her.
Our apartment doors almost touched and, while I only greeted her in passing, I liked her. I decided to knock on her to door to see if she was ok.
As I knocked, I heard a frail female voice ask, “Who is it?” I put my mouth as close to her door as I could without touching it and replied with a whisper, “It’s Elena, your neighbor.” After a long pause she cracked the door and peeked out with one eye. “Are you ok?” I asked.
With a thick Yugoslavian accent and tear filled eyes, she whispered, “Yes.” I stood there for a few minutes, hoping she would invite me in because I smelled toast and coffee. In an attempt to give her some time to check me out and decide to open the door I just stood there. She asked, “Why are you not in school?” I answered, “Because.”, and turned to walk away, when she opened the door all the way and invited me in…