Because I was almost broke when the COVID pandemic forced me out of Vietnam, I figured I’d just rent a car at LAX and spend my two-week quarantine period driving around in the desert. Ten days into this plan, I talked to my Mom and she let me know that what I was doing didn’t count. I’d have to check into a hotel and not leave the room for two weeks in order to make it official.
If I was already on the brink of madness, this thought pushed me over the edge. In my condition there was no way I could survive being locked up in a room for fourteen days. Still, I’d reached the point where I either had to do the next thing or die, and since I couldn’t just wish myself to death, did a search for cheap hotel rooms in the Los Angeles area and found a place in Buena Park, a block from Knott’s Berry Farm. What was once modest family accommodations with easy access to the amusement parks in Orange County, has morphed into the sleazy hotels that line Beach Boulevard. I’d spent a month in one of them ten years earlier and knew that the screams all come from the roller-coasters by day. By night they come from the parking lots.
Trying to postpone the inevitable, I made an excursion out of the trip back to Los Angeles from Lone Pine, taking the 172 into the hills of Kernville, then following the Kern River to Bakersfield. Even out in the mountains the atmosphere was thick with paranoia, however, and the river seemed to have taken on a cold, metallic sheen.
Most of the vehicles on the 5 heading south were trucks, still delivering goods and supplies to the stores, while everyone else was either out hording toilet paper or hiding at home. I passed through Los Angeles without slowing down once, and soon recognized the skyline of Knott’s. The hotel was just off the freeway, one of the most sinister looking dumps I’d ever laid eyes on. The room, with its lime-green shag carpet and mysterious splatter patterns on the wall, looked like the setting for a porn shoot that had gone terribly wrong.
The plan was to return the car to the airport the next day and take an Uber back. Before doing so, I drove up to the closest grocery store and hit up the liquor section, stocking up on enough box wine and rum to appease a small army of pirates. I also bought two jars of peanuts and three cans of sardines in case I got hungry, but that didn’t seem likely. My stomach was twisted in knots.
The hotel came to life that night. The parking lot started seeing more traffic than a fast-food drive through. My room was on the ground floor and people kept shouting out to the rooms above, their car stereos thumping loud enough to rattle the walls. At one point I heard a loud beeping, and throwing back a corner of the curtain, saw an ambulance backing into the narrow lot, its red lights flashing. They stopped right outside my room and called up to someone. A few minutes later a homeboy came staggering down the stairway unassisted and sat down on the stretcher by himself. They rolled him into the back of the ambulance and off they went. All I could think was that he must’ve been exhibiting the symptoms of COVID. He certainly hadn’t been shot or stabbed.
I barely slept that night, and in the morning, got up and drove the car back to LAX, on an empty 5 freeway and an empty 10 west, the oddest sights imaginable if you’ve ever spent any time in Los Angles. It was what freeways were built to do, whisk you from one location to the next, and had rarely accomplished, instead becoming breeding grounds for raw anger. After returning the car to Fox, I took an Uber back, and the driver and I, both wearing our masks, marveled at how quickly you could get from the airport to Buena Park when there weren’t any other cars on the road.
Back at the hotel, I looked around one last time before sealing myself into my crypt for the next few weeks. What a fabulous place for nightmares. You didn’t even have to fall asleep to have them. They would manifest themselves outside the door or appear whenever you turned the television on. There were constant news conferences and updates, all amplifying the same grim message. The sky was falling and no one had a plan to stop it. If anyone breathed on you, you would probably be dead within hours. Your only hope was to bury your head in the sand.