They call Los Angeles the City of Dreams but they never specify whether they’re shattered or shining.
It’s a city that sparkles with images you’ll recognize from movie scenes and that definitive larger than life white sign then bewilders as you saunter into a Starbucks one early morning looking for a plug.
A middle aged white man at a large shared table is directing everyone to them as if it’s his day job.
He sips on a big plastic cup of water and punctuates each rush of air from an opening door with:
“Need a plug? There’s a plug. Hey brother, do you need a plug?”
The man – brown-haired, balding, neat blue shirt – looks like somebody’s dentist but he has all the plugs mapped out. A cluster of white squares in the left corner. A few more on the right somewhat hidden behind the table to which he directs a black academic type.
I wonder how Mister Plug knows who has sauntered into the LA heat in search of electricity.
He asks some people, ignores others and seems to look through various people completely.
I need a plug too but I’m one of the invisibles.
I sit across the table from him after ordering a cappuccino and a chorizo and cheese sandwich and I might as well not exist.
I’m not sure if he hears my deep sigh when I turn away from the two people using the plug I was hoping to use that day but as I drum my fingers on my laptop patiently waiting for somebody to leave, he gifts the last one to the black academic.
A hidden treasure for members of a Voltage Club I’m clearly not a part of.
When a young man skateboards by, past the sparkling glass and enters the busy Starbucks only to be immediately directed to one more of the hard-to-see plugs in the middle of the room and practically hidden behind a table leg, I clear my throat pointedly.
Mister Plug doesn’t see me but it’s clear that he’s heard me when I notice his prominent Adam’s apple bobbing nervously as he begins to clean up a small splash of water he’s spilled on the table top.
I look at him but he continues reading his newspaper.
Everyone whose plug access he’s enthusiastically brokered is all set and I sit there waiting for one of them to leave.
At some point during my light and friendly finger drumming, I realize that nobody in the Starbucks is charging a laptop.
I’ve come to work and for a second that seems infinitely more important than the people I see using the plugs.
Every last one of them is charging a phone. Checking messages, scrolling, using the Wi-Fi.
An old black man who sat in the exact same spot the day before.
A blonde woman seated opposite him drinking water.
The skateboarder not drinking coffee or water just plugged in and checking his texts.
The black academic reading a book, refueling his Samsung and sipping glacially on a coffee.
I’m missing something and it takes a while for it to come together.
Cast in the light of walking along Saint Monica Boulevard in West LA and encountering more indigent people than I have ever seen within a similar radius anywhere I’ve ever been, I link the Voltage Club with the outside world where they’re often doing something else.
Mumbling, beseeching, pushing trolleys filled with the day’s collection of soft drinks cans and grimy glass bottles or simply talking to thin air.
Average looking, relatively clean but homeless.
Scorched by life in the City of Dreams that never specifies whether those dreams are shattered or shining, the people plugged in at Starbucks come in various incarnations. Failed or aspiring actors, actresses, musicians, poets, performers, drug addicts or those who’ve merely sworn off a certain kind of life.
Mister Plug leaves and confirms my suspicions.
Behind him and out of sight is the backpack I’ve come to know so well.
That dilapidated carry-all into which whole lives and what’s left of dreams are stuffed as the homeless walk around aimlessly each day.
Mister Plug sees me but he sees other people more clearly.
Those talking to concerned friends or relatives, scanning online employment ads and coming in from the elements to charge their phone.
The Starbucks baristas don’t seem to mind and even if they did, the homeless would have Mister Plug.
Directing them, noticing them, making those often invisible visible.