We are debating whether it would be wise to enter the chapel of Our Lady of Death and atone our sins. He wouldn’t go unless I went first and, teased by his mates in the background, we relinquish the opportunity of sitting in a garishly decorated booth, filled with sickeningly scented calla lilies.
Not particularly tall, once my new African-American pal has made a beeline for the exit, I find myself towering over staff and customers of the Farmacia y Botanica Million Dollars, wishing I hadn’t worn wedges. I am not used to feeling conspicuous in the course of my everyday life and it was apparent I was out of my depth as I cruised the rows of jars, bottles and sachets, looking for nothing in particular.
I first noticed this Botanica on a walking tour of downtown LA a couple of months ago, as it sits across from the Bradbury Building and right next to Grand Central Market. The dirty windows caught my eye, filled as they are with death memorabilia, and I erroneously assumed it was just another Day of the Dead inspired artifact store.
After some research and some prodding on the part of sofagirl, who has no interest in the occult but who, nonetheless, had me trudging around the cemeteries of New Orleans and booked us in the creepy hotel where “Angel Heart” was shot, I realized this Latin American pharmacy straddles the healthcare and the witchcraft markets. I am no strangers to Latinos’ unorthodox remedies when it comes to health issues or more mundane problems: here you will find aspirin but also supplements to boost your love life, unguents to cure all sorts of ailments, shampoo that will make your hair as a horse’s mane (would that be soft, strong, hay smelling? not sure), candles that will satisfy all your desires and, I suspect, herbs and ingredients for magic potions I wouldn’t know much about.
On Sundays, you can avail yourself of Lupita’s services, an accurate clairvoyant, or so I am told, but you better brush up on your Spanish as no English is spoken here. The diminutive and well-intentioned owner finally approaches me, after giving me enough time to scout each and every shelf. “How can I help you?” he asks me in broken English. I do not want to disappoint him and settle on a candle that will bring me riches – all I have to do is pray to Don Juan del Dinero once I light the candle, which conveniently comes with a folded praying sheet. “See, also in English. Smells good” and no, it doesn’t.
To regain my bearings as I step outside and to shake off the unusually frigid day, I wander into the market, unable to decide whether it’s a pupusa I want, a fish taco or maybe some spectacularly crispy Chinese duck. I dangle my candle, ensconced in a brown paper bag, and decide I already squandered enough money. Don Juan del Dinero wouldn’t be happy.
Do I believe in black magic? No, I don’t. But I do believe in magic because I live in a city that is steeped in it: the magic of the movies it creates, the magic of the eternal youth on offer, the magic of the sun dipping into the Pacific every night with renewed vigor, the magic of the new moon hanging from the canyons, the magic of calmly carrying on with our mundane tasks in the certainty a natural disaster will befall us when we are not paying attention. The magic of a million cultures coming together under the same cloudless sky, willing to explore each other, borrowing and pilfering as needed.
There is something about LA that gets under your skin. In a city like Rome or Paris, you are awed and slightly crushed by the beauty and it’s only six months later that the cracks and kinks of everyday living become apparent. In LA, the annoyances hit you first: the dismal traffic, the distances, the amount of time spent driving, the ugliness of the sprawl. The tradeoff is that everything that is beautiful and quirky and unique comes at you slowly and then, one day, you are hooked. And it’s impossible to ever leave.