Episode 1 Transcript: Prologue
[Flipping through the radio]
[“California Love” song comes on]
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Do you remember this song? Summer of ‘96. I was 11. A distant, synthesized, otherworldly voice says, “California Love…” I ran to the radio to record the song on a cassette tape, every time I heard Dr. Dre’s intro: “Now let me welcome everybody to the wild wild west.”
It felt like Dre was introducing everyone to the place that we called home. And then he said: “A state that’s untouchable like Eliot Ness.” And I eventually learned who Eliot Ness was, a pretty well known Prohibition era agent. Dre’s voice eventually listed places and landmarks throughout the state and made the song feel not just flashy, and cool, but also informative. I felt like a social studies class that I always wanted, but never had.
In ‘96, my mom, and I were living in our first apartment. She was 31 and had just moved us to the Westside from Southeast L.A.. We didn’t have much, but we did have one of those tv’s with the vhs cassette player inside of them. We bought it at Circuit City the first night we moved to the Westside. I also learned what a bagel was that night. And I saw string cheese for the first time.
Man — Memories are wild.
[California Love Song]
But when Tupac’s voice came on though halfway through the song. That really did something to me. I twisted my fingers in the shape of a W -- for the Westside of course -- like I had seen Tupac do. My right arm flew high in the air like I had seen rappers do in music videos. “California Love” got me hyped up everytime I listened to it. I felt larger than I was -- and that’s exactly what the song was meant to do.
But I’m not here to just talk about that song though. I’m not.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: I eventually left L.A., twenty years later, and became a New York Times writer. And I traveled all over the world. I wanted to find how people lived outside of LA. lived. What made them different? What made them the same?
I got to see Japan, Brazil, Mexico.
I did a story about fatherhood in Madagascar and rode trains all over the country. I wrote a story about black communities in Peru. I worked on a story about multi-racial identity in Belgium. I felt like I was one of the lucky ones. Because none of my friends and family could ever join me. Sometimes — I felt a sense of deep guilt.
I was flying in airplanes — the same ones I used to look up at in the sky and dream about as a kid in southeast la. But I had to leave L.A. to learn about the world. And L.A., taught me so many things.
It taught me how to survive, how to read people, and how to spot a dangerous situation from a mile away. Like that one time in Madagascar, when a police squad robbed me at gunpoint. I somehow got out of that. Or in Peru when our bus driver abandoned us in the Andes Mountains and I had to save a clown’s life — a real clown — that’s a long story. But me and the clown — we both survived.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: As I grew, and changed, L.A., I heard, was also changing. Friends were being forced out of homes that they had lived in for years. Like my friend Robert, who had to move out of Venice because the price of rent got too high. Or like my friend José, who had to move to Arizona. My other friend Michelle — she also had to leave the Westside.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: The places that I grew up loving were all closing down. The cork in Mid-City, one of the last black owned bars in the city — closed. Cha Cha Cha in East Hollywood — closed. La Fiesta Brava in Venice — closed. The elotero man by Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park — he had to go too.
Even Mission Hospital, on Florence Boulevard, where I was born, it changed, too. It’s now a Smart and Final. And I was born on aisle six. That’s weird, right?
Now, I know this may sound privileged, but traveling really started to wear me out. Because I started living through the online and social media experiences of my family and friends. I liked and commented on their photos while I stood in TSA lines at the airport. While I sat in lonely hotel rooms. While I ate the nasty turkey sandwiches that Delta gives you on their flights.
And the food poisoning — damn — the food poisoning, I don’t miss that.You know what I really missed though?
I missed buying white tees and gold chains at the slauson swapmeet. I missed hopping on the blue line train on Florence and taking it downtown. I missed that one dude on the train. You know — the guy with the Hustler hat — who sold snacks, speakers, and bootleg iphone chargers. That nobody ever buys. I missed him.
And on top of that — The people in my family who raised me. My mom...
My tias. My tios. And my cousins. They were all getting older and their bodies were becoming more vulnerable. And one thing about me, I’m an only child. And I’m one of the first of my family to have been born here. And there’s a lot riding on my shoulders. My family didn’t have much but they gave me everything. I was expected to come back and help out my family, to be there for them because, at the end of the day, I am my family’s safety net. Some people would call this a burden, but, I don’t —
I call it responsibility. You know what though? It wasn’t just about my family, it was also about my city. I began to feel an obligation to tell real L.A. stories.
The missed birthdays, the missed family gatherings, the missed baptisms, it all became too much to bear. I had to come back home. I moved back to my Tia’s house in Huntington Park — two years ago. To take care of her mostly. The same house that I was raised in. Every time I leave this neighborhood, I feel like an outsider and like someone who doesn't belong. All the rumors that I’ve heard — I’m seeing — are now true.
The cork in Mid-City, one of the last black owned bars in the city — closed. Cha Cha Cha in East Hollywood — closed. La Fiesta Brava in Venice — closed. But I’m back now. And L.A., something happened to you while I was gone.
I try to go back to Venice every Sunday where I lived as a teenager, and the Venice that I knew full of black and brown people, beautiful black and brown people has now changed. And you know what — damn — everywhere you turn there are tech bros.
Every place I traveled to I praised you, showed you love, and spoke highly of you, L.A. You were supposed to withstand gentrification but instead you embraced it.
Your streets don’t really look like they did anymore. There’s a lot more white people and less people who look like me here. You’re really flawed. You’re not a perfect city. There’s so many things that you have to work on. Like how you treat your homeless. Access to public transportation. Providing more affordable housing. How we treat people of color in this city.
I’ll stop here. But I could go on.
I know it’s complicated but there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. And I’m not the only one who feels this way about you… Because even though you sometimes feel like a stranger to me — I still really, really, love you. I do. And I want to show everyone why.
Kathy Davis: Most of my life, I’ve lived here in Compton and I never knew this was here.
James Maley: Probably get to 800, if not over a thousand parrots here within the next ten minutes.
Angie Aguirre: I was like, you know, like, how do you dress? He's like, you know, like a casual gangster… [laughing]
Ellie Hernández: And I said, “Mijo look look. Those cowboys, they’re black cowboys.”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: I want everyone to see who you are to me. This is California Love. And I’m Walter.
A new episode drops every Thursday, this summer on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
[TAPE PLAYER CUTS OFF]
This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.