With a fanciful nod to magical realism, Tess Sullivan beckons us to join her on a provocative and imaginative journey. From her overcrowded street in Hollywood, she walks a short distance to a steep set of stairs, where she looks up at a beautiful world of hillside mansions that she reimagines as modern Narnia. She wonders what it would be like if she weren’t newly jobless and the wealthy had to gaze down at her neighborhood.
My apartment in Hollywood is situated on an invisible border between the mansions of the wealthy and lower-income, one-bedroom apartments. In the slums down below the border, we have no sprawling lawns separated by hedges and sporting a lush variety of flora and fauna. We have a shared, fat street that on an average day hosts 15 vehicles too many. They idle along the shores, unable to dock on the overcrowded curb.
However, once you cross the imaginary border to the north (just one street up) you will find that you are not in the depths of the Sea of the Apartment Complex anymore. You are on the shoreline of the other world passing between a short row of actual houses-the kind that would comfortably fit the average family with 2.5 children. If your feet carried you farther up this path, at the end of the street-and it’s not known to many people-you’d find something resembling a portal nestled in between two very large and abrasive Mediterranean villa and Spanish Colonial-style estates. The portal is disguised as a set of stairs that rise up three stories into the hillside. Judging from the formidability of the bordering properties you might wonder if you’re allowed to enter. You’re not. But you go anyway.
In a modern adaptation of a C.S Lewis novel these stairs would be the wardrobe and Narnia the Hollywood Hills. For just as quickly as Lucy finds the old room and its fur coats fading behind her, you would find the poverty of East Hollywood and its homeless population of cart-pushing pedestrians fading into the background until, once out of sight, you can hardly remember them ever being there at all.
Suddenly there are flowing elms and crape myrtles on either side of the stairway that hide the grandiose pools and landscaping on the other side. The steps incline sharply, as if to deter the weak from entering the sanctuary of the powerful, but your limbs press on. They lead you to a bench surrounded by a small, ornate pillar railing halfway up. You may choose to sit and turn to see what you’ve left behind.
Should you decide to press on, you’ll notice a new lightness in the air. The greenery folds in further around the surrounding fence and the purple orchid and golden Tipu flowers burst from their branches in a thrilling and colorful bloom. A lizard scampers across the step in front of you and to your left you catch a glimpse of a ground squirrel scurrying amongst the leaves. Butterflies flit carelessly over your head. Do you remember the last time you saw a butterfly? They don’t often make it so far down below.
You climb up and up until, at last, you crest the final step. Pushing past the pampas grass and the pink blossoms, you find yourself emerging at the base of a castle; its large, stone wall jutting straight into the sky with many balconies and open windows from which to see the world. A castle on top of a hill. Just as medieval as it sounds. It makes you wonder if the people who live there wear crowns when they look out on us, the peasants below. Can they even see the peasants from up there? Can they see the graffiti-stained buildings and trash-laden curbs from so far away?
You wonder: Do they feel like gods up there?
Do they feel holier than thou? Do they feel righteous in everything they have? Do they think the peasants deserve less? Do we work less than they, dream less than they, strive less than they? Would they be as happy if we all had a castle on the hill? Would they feel that we are less worthy?
Would we be like them if we had a castle on the hill?
I know that the castle gods are still mortal and suffer similarly the way we do. I know that they aren’t untouched by tragedy and are not completely sheltered from the state of the world and the chaos that it brings. But then I read about the most expensive house ever bought in Los Angeles and how it was bought only a month before lockdown by none other than Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. It took a man who is worth $120 billion dollars, who makes $9 million dollars every hour, a month to make a charitable donation to Feeding America in the midst of the pandemic. The timing is peculiar as well because it was made just after he started receiving bad press about the Coronavirus problems at his Amazon warehouses. This is, however, an extraordinarily generous donation that only cost him $65 million less than his newest $165 million house.
I think about those unfathomable numbers sometimes when I walk up the stairs that carry me into the world of sweeping estates and idyllic butterflies. I go up there as an escape from the world below, believing as a child believes in a dreamcatcher, that this other world will eradicate the fears that I have brought with me.
Sometimes wandering around the magnificent estates makes me happy. It inspires me. I use the stairs as a metaphor because I believe that just as I rose up those steep stairs to get there, I can really, truly be there. I too will someday have my castle. And I will sit there in my beautiful garden, refreshed by the gentle mist from the fountain, and I will sip my coffee with a satisfied smile of victory.
Then there are other times. I lost my job after the start of the pandemic. I’m worrying about how I’m going to pay my rent next month. I wonder how they feel, the people who live in castles. How can they possibly feel, knowing that more that 10 million people have entered my same predicament in the last two weeks alone? Ten million.
How can they stand in their castles amidst their lush oasis just up the hill from where people are locked inside day after day with no end in sight? Where we worry about what we’re going to do to survive? When we’re going to be able to work again?
Do they think that we deserve this now?
Or do they not think about us at all. We’re so far down below that maybe they can’t see us well enough to even glimpse us in the corner-eye of their mind. They would never go searching for their own wardrobe to enter our world. Maybe the world below with the one-bedroom apartments and trash-littered streets doesn’t exist for the castle-dwellers. Maybe it exists only from the opposite perspective. The view is not for them to look down below, but for us to gaze up and see what we will never have.
Tess Sullivan is a peasant from Alaska who lives and writes beneath the Hollywood Hills. She has gotten into the terrible habit of chronicling her thoughts onto paper and forcing friends and family and weary Op-Ed readers to indulge at her mercy. This is her first published essay. Tess can be found on Instagram at tessa_lations.