L.A. Story: Poems from Laila Halaby

15 February, 2022
Cityscape by Amman artist Reem Mouasher (courtesy of the artist).


Laila Halaby


Morning Coffee

crack, crack
wakes me up
at five AM
followed by
police cars
just outside my walls

one man
got himself shot
across the street
from The Guest Home
where valium-soaked seniors
sit on white plastic chairs
stare at the street that could take them
to Sony Studios
if they just kept going
but they never do
and quite often
I see a resident or two
lying face down on the lawn

the victim
unidentified by the policeman
who points his flashlight at me—
Ma’am, you’ll have to come to this side
of the street.  Some guy got shot down there—
dragged his dying self
three hundred yards
to Oh Thank Heaven
where he collapsed and died
the intersection is cordoned off
7-11’s whole self is yellow taped
two employees stand outside and watch
exiled twice

that intersection will be closed
until eleven AM due to police activity
says the traffic report
helicopters shake our windows
too long after the incident
for me not to lock the doors

there is an LA ending to this story:
a resident of The Guest Home
crosses the usually busy intersection
passes police car after police car
counting change from his pocket
as he walks
is not stopped
until he ducks under
the yellow tape
sir, you can’t go in there

the man, hunched and gray
looks up at the policeman
glances with longing
at the coffee machines
sequestered by those giant windows
turns around
and walks back home

The Lady with Scarves on the #6 Bus

I see her every morning.
Today she wears bright yellow stockings
sits in front of me
folds and unfolds stacks
of silky scarves.

She rubs a plastic ball against her head.
Seven stops before her own
she takes the brown net scarf
off her drab brown hair
and begins to brush and brush.

Once on a bus in Jordan
an Indian woman sat near the front
brushed her silky black hair
oblivious to the angry stares behind her
the disapproving clicks of tongues.

I turn to see if anyone is watching
no one pays attention – this is Los Angeles —
long dark blond hairs drop into my lap
in small heaps.  I click my tongue
                                                            just once.



The Kindness of Art

for Ginette Mizraki


glorious LA Saturday
in my dreary neighborhood
sends me to the other side
of my nearest cross streets
in pursuit of quarters
to fill the hungry
washing machine
and dryer in my

the man at the Duck Pond Liquor Store
smiles very nicely
refuses to change
even one of my dollars

the Coin Laundry change machine
eats one dollar
spews out four quarters
before the lumpy woman
sweeping lint off the floor
chases me out
because that machine
is only for OUR customers

I stomp out
at the grumpy world
with all its pettiness and self-serving meanness
when my eyes snag on paintings
displayed behind gleaming windows
a few doors down

I step off of the grit of Overland
onto shiny parquetted floors
girded by the whitest dry wall
lit by soft soft track lighting
fall into another world
of European lines
twists and faces
like France
like Chagall

further into this magical gallery
body parts are more vivid
images less gentle
colors deeper
more on the pulse of the actors
than the observers
less France
more America

I glide
from tiny room
to tiny room
filling up
on images
my method of feeding my addiction
not to take it slowly
but to slam the colors
into my eyes
my veins
my soul
let the high carry me
for days

the artist appears
she is a petite woman
who reminds me
of an Armenian friend
we speak briefly/warmly
about her Turkish/Rhodesian/Sephardic/Jewish/English/French background
we skirt politics
like artists
not diplomats
wish each other luck

back outside
past a stooped man
clenching a forty
pictures in my head
I re-cross one street
to the Indian-run 7-11
buy a newspaper
beg for change
in quarters

I hand a five to the cheery clerk
who always wears sunglasses
ask for a dollar in quarters
Is that all you want?
I ask for two dollars.
Sure.  You want more?
he grins.  this is a game!
I nod.
How about I give it to you ALL in quarters?
his laugh is smooth, happy
like honey in tea on a cold morning

I return home
pockets heavy
soul light
but for the art of kindness
or that kind of art
I do not know

Proud Daddy


I don’t notice if his child
is a boy or girl
or what magazine he has grabbed
off the shelf – something architectural, I think

Here it is, he says
to the occupant of the
tiny stroller.  Here’s Daddy’s name,
he points to tiny red letters on a black page

I smile
too loudly
the man looks up
but his moment is ruined


flash flood warning for Ventura and west Los Angeles counties


I cower under rain
coming down like waves
trying to break
into my car
the wipers at full speed

a thin woman
in rubber boots
a raincoat
and umbrella
stands on the corner

clutching the hand
of a little girl
in yellow boots
a yellow raincoat
and a yellow umbrella

she tugs at her arm
when the signal
changes for them
to cross the street
under the heaviest rain in fourteen years

they both are smiling
the girl takes
two steps
into the street
kicks up her left foot

two more steps
kicks up her right foot
she and the woman
smile at each other
as they dance in front of my car

where I sit smiling
in dry yellow peace



though it has just started to be February
the days taste of summer: a certain kind of hot
salty lips, nights filled with longing
shaken up by the neighbor’s music
that I don’t mind, really,
because it brings back other summers
in other places

at the bottom of the pile
my first fifteen years
June through August
in the big white house
that stared down
the Atlantic Ocean

in the middle
peaches, watermelon, sour cheese, grapes
fill my mouth
artichokes with my mother
then further up beer
dancing with friends
furious talks with my father
all different years
now one giant summer
remembered in February

at the beach — the Pacific this time —
I watch the sun paint my baby’s dark face red
wear him out
collapse him into a heap
delighted with exhaustion
the kind that comes only to children
only in summertime
except in LA
where it comes on February 7th.

Apartment 10

Be A Hero, Save A Whale/Save A Baby, Go To Jail


shattering glass
wakes me up
sends me to the window
young black man
big dark coat
walks out
of the garage
too late for the police
he’ll be gone
before I pick up the phone
I return to bed

Thinking Women Vote Republican


next day
the owner
of the green Metro
covered in stickers
stops me
my car
was broken into
your window
is just over the garage
did you hear anything?
I act surprised
tell him no
really? he asks
I sleep deeply
I say

Don’t Shoot!  I Didn’t Vote for Clinton

a week later
I am outside
with the kids
he drives out
of the garage
frowns at two men
sitting on the curb


Work Harder.  Millions On Welfare Are Depending On You

the neighbor
drives off
comes back
just after
the two men have left
were they okay?  I wonder
if they are casing the area
ever since my window
got smashed
and my radio stolen
I am suspicious
when I see someone
just hanging around


Cat Meat: The Other White Meat


one lives next door
the other works
around the corner
they were speaking
in Spanish
about a car for sale
I don’t tell him this
just say they were fine
neighbors in fact
he smiles sweetly
I’ve heard
he wants to be an actor

Clinton Doesn’t Inhale; He Sucks

when he leaves
walks back
down the street
to where he left
his stickered little car
I giggle just a little

Smile! God Loves You



bumper sticker lady


Keep Abortion Legal
screams the side window
of a Honda Accord
waiting next to me

a few blocks later
the same car
is behind me
red light
blind spot
we both want
to turn right

would you fucking go!
shouts the woman
from her liberal Japanese car


turn right
turn right
turn right

I cannot see
if there are cars
coming or not
she leans out her window and yells
you can turn now

I sit back
don’t even pretend
to look
light turns green
I let a pedestrian
move slowly
once he’s gone
just to piss her off

she grabs
her chance
in a haze
of liberal epithets:

Pro Child/Pro Choice

Keep Life Free

Practice Random Acts of Kindness

when we are side by side
at the next red light
I ask her if the previous display
was a random act of kindness

you can turn on a red light
you know

I couldn’t see
I tell her sweetly
surely you wouldn’t want me
just to go

oh, okay
she smiles
bye now
drives off
at a leisurely pace

Laila Halaby was born in Beirut, Lebanon, to a Jordanian father and an American mother.  She is the author of two novels, West of the Jordan (winner of a PEN Beyond Margins Award) and Once in a Promised Land. She lives in Tucson, Arizona. Her second collection of poetry, due out April 2022 from 2Leaf Press, why an author writes to a guy holding a fish [sic], is a story in verse chronicling the misadventures of a recently divorced woman dating in America.

AmericanLos AngelespoetrypoliceSephardicTurkish

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