A recent move to an industrial park upholstery shop in Ventura County from an affluent neighborhood nearby makes one writer feel a bit out of place, like when she moved abroad years ago. But there’s also familiarity as her map expands.
There is a grocer at the end of my road kitty-corner to the Bimbo Bakery, which pumps out intoxicating smells of industrially produced white bread. It is a red, barn-like building made of corrugated metal and concrete, surrounded by palms. In the evenings a taco truck plays music on a tinny radio in the parking lot and the sound wafts into the neighborhood nearby, men in Dickies jackets buy 24-packs of beer and nothing else, hoisting them onto their shoulders.
At the entrance, a security guard, whose muscles would intimidate me if the eyes behind his mask did not crinkle in such an agreeable way, greets customers. He pulls several gloves from a cardboard box. As he hands me mine they slip from his grip, and flutter like some new species of butterfly as I grab them from the air.
“Nice catch, lady,” he says against the wispy plastic crinkle.
Inside, the front of the store is lined with jewelers selling small golden hoops, charms with icons of Our Lady of Guadalupe and rings with small heart-shaped stones. I walk past them to the produce section, which is piled high with limes, tomatoes, nopales, garbanzos frescos and cherimoya. I am not here to buy produce, but the colorful blocks of vibrant fruit imbue me with a nice unknown feeling, like traveling in another country.
I live in an industrial park upholstery shop in an area surrounded by strawberry and cabbage fields, having moved here abruptly in early March, from an affluent neighborhood 10 miles away. I needed a place to live temporarily while I finished contracted work and prepared for yet another move, unaware it would soon become my whole world. I have called Ventura County home for two years, was raised less than 100 miles away and lived for a while in the San Gabriel Valley. “I’m basically in L.A.,” I’d tell friends to convince them to make the hour-long drive to me, truly believing it, thrilling at how I could live with such easy access to the city while still outside of it. But my triangulation between friends and family across Southern California is now impossible. It is very clear, I do not live in Los Angeles.
I felt a shock like this before, when I moved to Ireland at 21, and shuffled between one known place to another, wary of streets I hadn’t been down, but struck in a half-dazed wonder at ordinary things like mail slots and bus shelters. I remember this now, as the foreign eases into familiarity and my map expands. One day, I venture past the retirement home to find a neighborhood scented with jasmine, or down the back side of the area I’ve dubbed ‘Bodyshop Row’ with its Quonset huts and 70s’ adobe-style buildings painted in bright colors where the plaster has worn away. I learn to avoid the elbow-shaped road by the high school, and the men who congregate in cars with blacked-out windows.
I am foreign here, and soon this feels normal. I miss the innocence of killing an hour at a coffee shop on my drive to my night job on the edge of the city, and how what felt like an unaffordable indulgence then transformed into an unimaginable luxury. Now, I venture out to the essential places around me on foot and wonder at how staying here seemed like confinement not long ago. As I search through different varieties of instant coffee for Nescafe, I see that Bimbo roles de canela are on sale. Out of premature nostalgia for this place, I buy them.
“Have a good day, lady,” the security guard says as I leave, arms cradling my newfound treasure. I jaywalk across the street toward home. The palms wave against the distant Topa Topa mountain range laced with pinkening clouds.
Elizabeth McIntosh is a writer and printmaker from Southern California who can’t seem to settle into a conventional life despite her best attempts. Before the pandemic, she was a crossing guard and library worker in Ventura County and edited poetry for Crack the Spine. She has lived in England and Ireland and hopes to return to one of those green countries again to marry her fiancé—preferably before fire season.
*Feature image: “Produce for sale in a market in Guatemala City” by World Bank Photo Collection