El Dorado originally appeared in a slightly different form in The Carolina Quarterly
From birth until the sixth grade, home was a room on the tenth floor of the Hotel El Dorado in downtown Los Angeles. During its heyday in the 1910s and the 1920s, the hotel stood at the foot of the Spring Street Financial District—the Wall Street of the West—amidst the Braly Building (at twelve stories tall, the city’s first skyscraper), the Hotel Alexandria (frequented by the stars of the Golden Age of cinema, Humphrey Bogart and Greta Garbo), and, just blocks away, City Hall, all regal and white, looming over the blooming metropolis. The El Dorado flourished with all in its proximity and even lay claim to its own celebrity resident in Charlie Chaplin, but by the 1960s the financial institutions fled west to Wilshire and Figueroa, and the burgeoning quarter was rendered hollow. Its splendor laid to waste.
By the eighties, the El Dorado imbued the squalor of a haunted house with its rats and roaches and jumpy elevator, at once lurching, and then remaining painfully still. And the dispirited hallways cast in the dingy, unsaturated hues of seventies film stock, hallways Mom would never let my siblings and I venture alone, apprehensive of those on the other side of our thumping walls. And the creaky fire escape, the rumbling footsteps of anonymous neighbors, the rats with their tiny pink feet scurrying along our walls. And the midnight sirens wailing their songs of anger and sorrow. And the occasional neighbor free falling to earth, which may have been a story concocted by my father before he up and left.
Beyond the doors of the El Dorado lay a barren wasteland, full of the living dead and other marginalized people. The perpetually unemployed, destitute and resigned to ruin, stumbled about aimlessly like tumbleweeds. The wayward vagabonds and semi-functional drunks and hopheads staggered along Spring Street and Los Angeles Street and every parallel and perpendicular street east through skid row into Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles, and south down Broadway Boulevard and Main Street into South Central. The journeys of the undead were singular, but they contained a communal vision of a shared fall.
This was my neighborhood.
As a kid, the eighties were a decade of fear. If it wasn’t my haunted house or the undead parading through the streets rendering me fearful of the city, the ghost of Adam Walsh, the poster child of abducted children, made me fearful of every department store, school, and park. Every open space with people. Everywhere. For these were the places you could be taken. Parents, teachers, police, and after school specials conveyed this, and they tried to inoculate us children against kidnap with knowledge about the boogeymen out to get us, luring us with candy, puppies, and fictitious messages from ailing parents. Be aware of your surroundings and your peers. Be on the lookout for strange men hanging out by themselves or cruising up and down the streets, possibly with a small animal in tow. Remember the names of streets and your parents’ phone numbers. Remember what your friends are wearing. Remember colors, fabrics, and logos. Remember, in case you or your friends are snatched up and hauled into the hinterlands, where children are rendered invisible. A bit of sartorial minutiae could be the key to preventing you from being raped, decapitated, and dumped into the ocean, like Adam Walsh himself.
The message of all this was simple: children aren’t safe. Adults can’t be trusted. The outside world is dangerous. I am not safe.
In the heart of downtown was the Grand Central Market, an open-air bazaar between Broadway Boulevard and Hill Street, host to various fruit and vegetable vendors, carnecerías and counter-top taquerías. A bakery with all things Van de Kamp’s, especially single-serving pies (lemon and cherry) set in miniature pie tins. A street-front liquor store with drunks within earshot and bottles crammed into shelves eight feet high. The whole place dressed to the nines with neon signage, swinging scales around every bend, sawdust on the floor, the faint miasma of stale piss and beer breath, rats the size of dachshunds. It was the place for the undead to roam.
I hated going there.
None of the major supermarket chains existed downtown in the eighties, so the Grand Central Market was the closest thing we had. Mom did most of her shopping in the market beneath the ground floor. There you could buy household cleaning products, canned goods, cereal—things you couldn’t find upstairs, but far from what you’d get at a Ralphs or Stater Brothers. However, walking down the stairway leading to the market was like walking into a near death experience. The railing faded into a deep black oblivion typically reserved for space, bottomless pits, and bogeymen. I tried to tune that darkness out, like a tightrope walker ignores the ground below, and focused instead on the light of the market. Of course, I knew they would eventually come for me.
On one of the Garcia family trips to the Grand Central Market, an old man, with a sudden blithe movement, as if he was swatting away a fly, kicked my little brother and knocked him to his knees. This wasn’t some enfeebled old man with a cane, glaucoma in the eyes, and an arthritic hip. He was tall, broad shouldered, his back straighter than mine. With purpose he strolled through the market in his baby blue Members Only jacket. Silver hair slicked back. A scowl fixed on his face, the putrid scent of the undead trailing in his wake. My brother started to cry. Mom brought him to his feet and brushed the sawdust off his pants, and we continued shopping. What else could she do? At five foot four, Mom was a gnome to the ogre that was my brother’s attacker. For the rest of that trip, I was on guard, as I’m sure Mom was, scoping out every turn and passageway, terrified of running into the man again.
By the time we finished shopping, the Grand Central Market crowd had swelled. The place packed to the brim. Throngs of people shuffled around with tortas and burritos, plastic bags filled with rainbows of fruit, and slabs of meat tucked away in pink butcher paper. Some carried conspicuously wrapped cans of beer. While making our way out, we spotted the old man amidst the crowd, walking just ahead of us. I froze. My brother and sister were silent, stiff, the lot of us now moving slowly with the current of the Grand Central crowd. But Mom didn’t take our lead. She snuck up behind the old man and kicked the crook of his leg. Hard. The old fuck bent at the knee and gritted his teeth. And before he could do anything, we were gone. Mom ushered us into the throng of passersby, out of Grand Central, and away from the mien of despair.
Like the sailor kissing a stranger at the V-J Day parade, Buzz Aldrin hop-scotching on the moon, or the Escapist punching Hitler in the face on the cover of the first issue of Amazing Midget Radio Comics, Mom’s kick steered our lives to an alternate chronology. She found a way to cling to that faint trail of hope, to that ever elusive X on the tattered map our hearts follow.
In the days and years that followed, the undead continued to roam, as did the ghost of Adam Walsh. The bogeymen still lurked under stairways, one of many evils we refused to acknowledge. But on that day I stopped being scared.
Michael Leal García teaches and writes in Los Angeles, CA. His work has been featured in Your Impossible Voice, Apogee Journal, and The Carolina Quarterly. He is currently writing his first novel.