This story is part of Image issue 7, “Survival,” a collective vision for the L.A. of our dreams. See the full package here.
When I found you, I was at a secondhand store doing what you now probably realize is my thing: perusing the aisles and expecting to find nothing at all. When I’m happy, bored or sad — mostly when I’m sad — I return to the place where we met, or at least to a place like where we met, and I thrift.
It had been a minute since my glory years of secondhand shopping, when ’90s Steve Madden platforms and Betsey Johnson slip dresses hadn’t yet been hijacked by Depop resellers and replaced with endless amounts of Shein and Fashion Nova. I hadn’t had a truly lucky secondhand store day in months. But it didn’t matter; that wasn’t why I was there. This ritual had been ingrained in me since childhood by my mom, who did the same thing when she was happy or bored or sad. (Mostly sad.) It was less about outcome than the action itself: Walking, looking, taking it all in, losing myself in a sea of other people’s old stuff and hoping the entire experience would somehow help me feel like myself again.
Letters to the L.A. of our dreams
These letters are part of Image issue 7, “Survival,” a collective vision for the L.A. of our dreams.
Imagine my surprise then when I found you while scanning the wall of bags: Buttery black leather, broken in but still perfect; you looked unassuming, which is probably why no one had noticed you yet. On closer inspection, I saw an almost-invisible label indented into the top flap, then on your inner lining: Prada. Prada?! I felt like I’d seen something I shouldn’t have. I snatched you up quickly and held you close like a secret, mouthing “Ohhhhh my Goddd” silently so no one would suspect anything. I paid the $7.99 and walked out like I’d just gotten away with a crime.
I’ve never been someone obsessed with labels or luxury items. But I am someone who likes things that last, and I have an affinity for small black backpacks. Years ago, I was at Ross when someone in the next aisle said: “I don’t understand why grown people use backpacks as purses.” Meanwhile there I was, wearing a backpack as a purse. This person didn’t get it. They didn’t see you as I do. Your longevity, your versatility, your tactile nature. You’re sleek and small but carry everything I need without burden. At least two lipsticks, one a grungey brick color and one a nude brown, and one Chapstick. My wallet, which holds expired IDs of years past, small reminders of who I was. A lighter (just in case). My bulky set of keys. An emerald green Damascus rose body oil that rubs its smell off on you. A pen and reporter’s notebook. A recording device for interviews.
Inside Issue 7: Survival
Writer Rembert Browne investigates the mysterious ailments that just showed up one day
Writer Zinzi Clemmons wants you to be able to stay in the city as long as you want
Artist Muna Malik recycles the emblem of a failed democracy
Journalist Cerise Castle pays tribute to the city’s forgotten site of refuge and devastation
Actor Marque Richardson lets us in on the only 20-year-plan that matters
You hide my messiness and bad habits too in a beautiful shell: the growing stash of straw wrappers from too many iced coffees, receipts from too many impulse purchases. Random business cards that I can’t seem to throw away. I take you with me everywhere. You’ve seen me suited up at work events on the weekdays, casual while getting drinks with friends on the weekends. You’re not always perfect, but you do your best. Sure, that left strap comes undone almost without fail when I’m dancing at sweaty warehouses on Saturday nights, but I strap you up again without missing a beat.
It’s these quirks and imperfections that are part of your charm. They prove that you’ve had a long life, with experiences and bumps along the way. I think that’s why I’m so attached to you. Why I’ll have you forever: You’re supposed to be put together — you’re a Prada backpack, after all — but you’re flawed. And still, no less worthy of a second chance, no less worthy of love, no less beautiful.
I’m trying to think of future versions of myself that way too.
Yours in thrift store dust,
In the L.A. of my dreams the city shouldn’t be this hard to live in
In the L.A. of my dreams we will finally honor the living memory of the Sunken City
In the L.A. of my dreams quintessential Angeleno housing will be livable and communal
Julissa James has been with the Los Angeles Times since 2019, where she’s written about culture, style and L.A. for the Calendar, Features and Metro sections. Her interests include covering subcultures and niche communities in California and beyond. She’s a graduate of Cal State Dominguez Hills and was editor of its school paper, the Bulletin. Caffeine sustains her.
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