How to Keep the Magic Alive: My First Summer in Los Angeles

A girl poses for her quinceanera photos outside LACMA.

Before I moved here, I rarely described things as being “magical.”

Lately, though, I’ve been using that word a lot.

“Magical” is the way the sun rises behind the beach, above the towering palms and squat rooftops, shooting glances towards the ocean’s horizon. The “marine layer” — what West Coasters call fog — glows lavender and rose, like warm cotton candy. While the morning haze heats up, I dig my toes into the frigid sand. It takes my feet hours to thaw afterwards. I sit on the beach, confused which direction is east, where I’m from.

“Magical” is the way Fourth of July fireworks erupt, like tiny battle zones across the skyline. The countless popping kernels of light can only be seen in their totality from way way way above, where I can finally comprehend the dimension of sprawl, as I look down and out. The fireworks follow me on my drive east-west across the interstate, as welcoming as a receiving line for a new bride.

“Magical” is dolphins appearing as mirages, playing in the crests of waves, closer to shore than most surfers. They are always what I think they are not. They could be mermaids or sirens or sharks.

“Magical” is a three-year-old boy chasing bubbles endlessly in the park, only stopping to tell his daddy, “I’m so glad you’re here,” latching his little body onto the trunk of his father’s leg. That little boy’s boundless energy is only surpassed by his love.

“Magical” is that seal at Marina del Rey, who dives under my kayak. I am both overjoyed and afraid of his underwater taunts. Is he teasing or threatening me?

What a bummer that all this novelty wears off. All this new nature and light and architecture. All these new experiences and strangers and animals.

They become part of the well-worn terrain after a while. The newness gets boring at best and frustrating at worst.

Like the goddamn coin laundry that eats 13 of my quarters to do one load but never makes my clothes smell fresh. I swear I saw a bed bug. Just one. Just once. Not enough to panic, but enough to make me throw everything in the washer again. I’m on a never-ending hunt for quarters, my new currency, which are impossible to find in my cashless online economy.

The newness also rots into the smell of piss and weed in Pershing Square, which looks grassy and green on a map but turns out to be concrete and purple in person. It’s a place where the scent of human shit is more prevalent than dogs. And that’s bullshit.

The newness of my life includes the ever-present soot that covers all the surfaces of my tiny ass apartment, no matter how many times I swiff and sweep. My soles turn black in my own living room because of the smog from the street.

The newness unexpectedly brings these fucking Argentine ants, marching one by one into my bathroom. They creep and crawl along the vintage tile, looking for coolness and moisture from the dry summer heat. I thought I’d only find bugs in the desert, which is why I moved closer to the beach.

The newness cannot hide the little girl I meet on the public bus, wearing plastic bags for shoes, while her obese mother sits next to her, snacking on Cheetos — the orange powder plastering her tattered shirt. And on another bus: the meth head who can’t locate his stash under my seat, no matter how hard he looks, staring me dead in the eye to shout, “Where did they put it?!” as he scratches the lesions on his paper-thin skin. Newness does not heal poverty or addiction.

Not everything is magical nor should be.

But I guess that’s by definition. Magic must be fleeting to be real. It must be elusive. Hard to believe. Harder to grasp.

Certainty, for sure, is never magical. Neither is indifference.

They say gratitude is the antidote to apathy, so as long as you’re thankful, you can find magic everywhere, I think.

And so I thank my bundle of coins for giving me clean sheets on my bed. I can dream here.

I thank public spaces for being open to everyone, including myself.

I thank the dirt and the ants — only visible to me because I’m able to keep my windows open 24/7 to enjoy a luxurious cross-breeze.

I thank the bus for giving me places to go. I’ve chosen to live in Los Angeles without a car because I have the privilege of making that choice.

I thank this place for keeping me safe and bringing me adventure.

It is a place that is both magical and terrifying.

And even for an explorer like me, it is a place I can call home.