NYRican in LA : Everybody's Hustlin'

PHOTO:  We take on multiple identities as we hustle.

Mamita Mala

I always wanted to be a writer. For as long as I can remember I've kept a journal where I jotted down ideas, notes, impressions, poems and stories. But there is a long and treacherous road between the dream of what I've always wanted to be versus the reality of getting there and being there. I mean, I'm writing now, here in this space and in other online spaces, and I'm writing about things I love: politics and culture and how they work together personally and more broadly. But it hardly pays all the bills and feeds the bottomless stomachs of two growing ChileRicans. When I was planning the big move to L.A., I envisioned myself doing more writing. I imagined fleshing my book outline into an actual book. But the newly blended family and the house we live in takes a lot more time and money than I anticipated.

Hustlin' -- aka doing whatever it takes to survive -- is nothing new to me. Ever since dropping out of college when I became pregnant with the first ChileRican I've worked a number of jobs including selling clothing and furniture, temping at a too-big-to-fail investment bank, registering voters, tutoring and stripping. All the while I was involved in my passion, blogging and writing. I never have had a room of my own and I am always, in the words of my pareja, "doing four things at a time."

When I first took my non-writing "day job" here in L.A. it was a means to an end. I really wanted my daughters to go back to New York City for the Christmas holiday, but writing wasn't paying enough to afford the steep airfare costs. But being a college dropout really limits your job options, no matter how smart I am without a diploma. I was essentially limited to applying for secretary and service jobs. Since it was close to Christmas, retail won and I landed a part-time position in the men's department of a large retail chain earning just above the minimum wage, plus commission.

I'm not unique in working a day job while pursuing writing: Kurt Vonnegut sold cars; Margaret Atwood first worked as a counter girl in a coffee shop. And in L.A. especially it seems like everyone came here from somewhere else to pursue a dream. One day when coming home on the Metro Red Line (here the few subway lines are named by colors, as opposed to NYC's letters and numbers) a man asked me what I did. I told him I sold men's clothes and wrote. He worked selling computers while honing his skills as a stand-up comic.

We take on multiple identities as we hustle. Stage names and pen names compete with legally given names. None of the identities are complete pictures. It makes sense that my nametag at my day job has my name misspelled. It makes sense that, every day I go in, totaling twenty to thirty hours a week, my name is always spelled differently on the schedule. None get the vowel placement correct. I'm not quite myself at the retail gig in Downtown L.A. I'm one of the oldest sales people there. Most of my co-workers, ranging in age from barely legal to just under middle age, are hustling towards a goal or just to survive. Many are students paying their way through college. Others are those with college degrees waiting for a job that makes them happy. And yet others are juggling multiple jobs like working as a home healthcare aide or a restaurant host. Some dream of making movies, and only a few are parents like me. Most are single, born and bred in Southern California. Of the ones I have asked, none of them ever said they dreamed of growing up and working in retail.

My mother certainly didn't. She went to the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC and dreamed of going beyond her immigrant Rican seamstress tias. But when my parents separated, and my sister and I were still young, retail is what fed and clothed us. Standing on her feet for over forty hours a week till just last year when she retired is what helped raise me, my sister and my own daughters for a long while. I have a newfound appreciation for her sacrifice. I ,like her, miss putting my kids to bed sometimes. By the time I get home, my aching feet, legs and back take priority. All I want to do is zone out, not write, not think, not do housework or check homework. Sure I'm paying off debt, but I worry about my writing, my relationship with my partner, my relationship with my kids.

I almost hate to admit it, but I am good at my retail job. I don't always make my sales goal or open all the credit accounts I'm supposed to, but as one of the older employees within my department, I am efficient and reliable. I am a pleasant team player, helping customers, checking the fitting rooms, folding and hanging up clothes. While I appreciate my mother's sacrifice, I don't want to be like her. I don't want to work retail for 10, 20, 30 plus years. But once you're in it, it's hard to muster much energy to do anything else. Still, when the time comes, you sit down and write. Or you go do your stand-up show after a ten-hour workday. Or you wake up before the kids, bring your notebook to lunch breaks, and between everything else, do what you need to do: looking for gigs, applying for that dream job, writing your next column. It's what keeps you going, even when it feels like it may be killing you. Here's to the hustlers.

Follow Maegan "Mamita Mala" Ortiz as she chronicles her adventures as a Nuyorican in LA, including trying to find Puerto Rican food among Mexican and Asian cuisine, her young daughter asking if she can be Chicana when she growns up, being grateful for not having to smell her vecinos, her musings on different Spanglish accents and slang, and the story of how the self-proclaimed original "Twitterputa" fell in love and ended up here in the first place.

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