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

AmericanLos AngelespoetrypoliceSephardicTurkish

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.


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