One of my favorite parts of being at Harvard (and away from home) was that I was in a neighborhood where walking was often the easiest mode of travel between destinations. Accordingly, there was a great mix of businesses in Harvard Square and Cambridge that catered to the college crowd with late business hours. There were times I was out in the street at three or four in the morning and did not worry for my safety. It’s the feature of college life that I’ve most missed in my time away from Harvard.
I rarely ventured out of South Gate and there were weeks where I only traveled between work and home. Since most of my ties with high school acquaintances were broken by the time I returned to South Gate, I had few people with whom to talk, spend time and escape from daily life. South Gate, being the residential working-class city that it is, closes down by 9 pm. I had really no venue to make new friends. Other than some mariachi friends and a good friend from Harvard, I did not spend considerable time with anyone outside my family.
I never felt bored of South Gate, but I did feel constrained. I knew the lack of contacts in South Gate and late business hours kept me home to frivolously spend many days and nights wishing I had somewhere to go with someone. There were a few nights about a year ago I stayed up until four in the morning because I had a spurt of energy and a desire to go outside. Some nights I was in street clothes with car keys in hand, ready to drive for a few hours, but something in my head stopped me from going out and I resigned myself to my bed.
It was in this frame of mind that I made the first of two nighttime forays to Los Feliz. The first time was in June. It was a weekday evening; my brother had a meeting nearby and I went into Umami Burger nearby. The moment I stepped in I was transported to Harvard Square. I felt strange being inside. I felt underdressed with my cheap dress shirt and pants that I purchased only because I needed something for work, not because it was something I was comfortable wearing. I ate alone at the bar, while almost everyone was a professional and with a group of friends. When I sat down at the bar, the bartender asked me what I wanted to order to drink and I unknowingly asked for a glass of water. I felt like a small child, asking for a glass of water while the adults around me drank alcohol and enjoyed the company of friends.
It reminded me too much of all the times I ate alone at Harvard, surrounded by social circles I had no idea how to enter. Memories of loneliness returned for the first time in a year and I eagerly wanted to leave. I overheard the people to my left and they spoke about their jobs, their life, and I heard in their voices the strains of complete strangers who felt familiar, as they seemed no different than many of the people I saw and heard at Harvard.
I left for a coffee shop after eating. While I read, I spent a considerable amount of time looking at the people who came and went to the coffee shop. Their presence reminded me once again of being at Harvard, though this time I felt like I was a part of them. When we left Los Feliz that night, I was troubled by the opposing emotions.
I found myself in Los Feliz again in late July, this time on a Friday evening as a volunteer for a small event. The first few hours I felt out of place; I was the youngest person in the crowd, still an undergraduate while the others were professionals, dressed in business suits while I wore the same cheap dress clothes from JC Penney. I was even confused for a valet a number of times. As the event neared its end and the crowd began to mingle amongst themselves, I left to walk along Vermont up to Franklin.
I saw restaurants, coffee shops, bars, and the assorted liquor store open, though it was almost 10 pm, teeming with young people and professionals coming for dinner, enjoying themselves and their company. I felt a sudden pang of jealousy because I wanted to be a participant, not an observer. As I continued walking, someone offered me a cigarette if I had a light for his; I didn’t have one and wished him the best. I walked into Skylight Books and perused the offerings while a book signing went on in the main store.
As I walked up and down Vermont, I saw a vision of what I sought. I wanted to be back in a similar neighborhood, where I can indulge a number of my interests and desires easily with people of my age and similar lifestyle. I wanted to return to Harvard. This is the life I want to live now and in the immediate future, one where I can go out at night without worrying about children, where people of my age and similar educational backgrounds surround me.
This was the life I knew I would work towards when I applied to colleges and was admitted by some of the “elite” schools of the United States. I saw this lifestyle firsthand at Harvard and I know that this is what I ultimately seek, the financial security that comes with being a professional with academic degrees. I wonder when the day will come when I can lead that sort of lifestyle without feeling like a middle-class pretender, someone invited to the party only so he can see what he has not experienced.