We drive down La Cienega, windows rolled down, letting the breeze tousle our hair, classic rock playing on the radio. This is some sort of teenage dream. I think back to something Sara said a few weeks ago: “Freedom is having a car.” That takes on a new meaning at this moment. Sara looks serene as she drives, and I feel lucky to be able to share in on this sense of freedom.
Sara parks on a side street just off of Melrose Ave. There’s an alleyway with a chaotic, alien mural. I look excitedly at Sara, and she knows right away that I want to do a mini photo shoot.
“Go stand in front of the wall. I’m going to take pictures of you and your outfit.”
Sara is willing enough to be my model. She’s known me for over 10 years, after all. We remember when clothes were just things our parents picked out for us, how we survived middle school years filled with khaki pants and polo shirts, and how we transitioned together into an age where fashion is fun and being fabulous is a must.
After taking enough photos, we wander around Melrose looking for a place to eat. Blu Jam Cafe is closed at this hour. I want to try Summer Buffalo, but Sara is vegetarian. Thai food and pizza aren’t appealing to us. We give up and decide to just walk around for a while.
The hipster hotspot is bustling with life. A huge party is taking place at The Parlor. Groups of friends are out boutique crawling after a late lunch. Couples are strolling through the streets, hand in hand. Waiters and waitresses are setting up for their dinner shift. The energy on Melrose is electrifying and never ceases to catch me off guard.
Sara and I grew up in this area and went to Melrose Ave. Elementary School. I lived in an apartment on Martel during kindergarten, before moving from place to place due to family drama. My elementary school was one of the few constants in my life and guided me as I grew up. I met my first crush at this school, a pretty girl who called me her “guardian angel.” I lost a loved one for the first time at this school, my fifth grade teacher Mr. L, whose memorial tree is still planted on the schoolyard. The faded rose building quickly became my second home, a place where I could feel safe and have some hope. It didn’t matter if I was living with my uncles while my mom was homeless, if the roof of my mom’s new apartment in Silverlake was leaking, or if I was transitioning into the first and only stable household I would ever know when my mom and stepfather became engaged.
The area around the school, between Fairfax and La Brea, hadn’t quite picked up yet. It was verging on hip, but it was still fairly seedy. No food truck lines and no Urban Outfitters. The cool places to hang out were usually located closer to La Cienega. There were a lot more places to buy hookah pipes and marijuana, and none of them were as high end as they are now.
Not that I ever noticed much. I was a little girl who simply knew she couldn’t wander around by herself and that certain stores were off limits, who thought Melrose Music and Comics was the coolest place on Earth, and who would rather stay on the school playground and imagine that she was playing with fairies than anything else. I had an awesome best friend name Sara and I didn’t need anything else.
Sara and I leave to get dinner in West Hollywood. We drive past Melrose Ave. Elementary School on our way. I struggle to register the school as the place where I grew up. “Remember when the building was painted that faded rose color?” I ask Sara. She nods. It’s now painted beige, with a burnt orange trim. The school seems shiny and new. I realize that most of my teachers are probably gone now, retired or employed elsewhere, and that the youngest kids at the school when I was there are now the oldest.
As we drive on, we look out our windows at an exciting but not entirely familiar place. “It’s really ironic how the area became cool right after we moved out,” Sara comments. I agree.
When I’m home, I begin to look through the photos I took earlier and I think about how much Melrose has changed as I’ve grown up. I can now enjoy all of the wonders it has to offer. I’ve gone on dates at Blu Jam Cafe. I can appreciate the range of vintage stores and chic boutiques, and I will even check out Urban Outfitters from time to time. I love exploring alleyways looking for new street art, and I frequent some of the art galleries thrown into the mix of toy and comic book stores.
However, the more I think about how the area has transformed, the more I begin to realize that I’ve transformed. I now attend a high school nine miles away from my elementary school, and I live in an apartment with a stable family. I’ve grown up. I’m different. And when it comes to Melrose, perhaps I’m just seeing it differently.
I begin to pick apart these photos of myself and what I’m wearing. My outfit says a lot. I learned how to walk in high heels and apply red lipstick and paint my nails and style my hair. I bought those obnoxiously hipster sunglasses on my first trip outside of the country, in the arts district of Beijing. I go thrift shopping for fun, celebrating $1 finds like this blouse because I’m on a teenage budget, not because my parents are struggling financially. I’ve adopted skinny jeans into my wardrobe, no longer calling them “chicken leg pants” as I did when I was a child. I look like a young woman, and I fit in with the area just fine. I seem as though I’m simply another stylish girl looking to have fun.
Melrose is no longer my home. Yet I always seem to find a way to belong there.