A Workaway Fail in LA
Los Angeles is arguably one of the world’s most famous cities, and for good reason. It buzzes with energy: a manic mix of creativity and filth. Every turn offers a new contrast; you can walk down the glamorous Rodeo Drive, only to turn a corner and encounter a pile of trash. Multiculturalism furthers these contrasts — in 15 minutes you can go from Tokyo to Ethiopia, then back to the good ol’ USA. It’s the land of showbiz, variety, creativity, and individuality, the entire globe encapsulated in 503 square miles.
I touched down at LAX with a dream and my cardig– nah, this isn’t a cute Miley Cyrus song. I actually touched down at LAX with $4000 to my name and a three-week turnaround flight. From the moment I arrived at my Mid-Wilshire Airbnb I knew I wanted to extend my stay. Being from a relatively small (population-wise) and geographically isolated country (Australia), I felt like I had anonymity and energy here.
I’d travelled to Europe and Asia, but something about the city felt different to those places; no one cared who you were or what you’re doing. As corny as it sounds, I felt exactly what America touts on the world stage — freedom — so without thinking, I decided to extend my flight to the full three months my ESTA visa waiver allowed.
Anxiety began to settle in. But, I’m nothing if not resourceful, so checked out of my Mid-Wilshire digs the next day and hauled it to a fairly seedy hotel on San Vicente Boulevard for $22 a night. After checking in, I opened my laptop and began researching. My first stop was finding a place to stay.
This was the biggest hurdle. When it comes to accommodation, LA is not cheap, so I had to get thrifty. I’d used cultural exchange sites like Workaway — where you exchange work for food and accommodation — in the past, so logged on and listed my skills. Over the next day, I received multiple messages, but had to be discerning.
Some were downright creepy, one guy asking for daily ‘bodyweight massages’, others asking to watch me shower for one hour a day, but I found one guy in the Hollywood Hills, just at the top of Runyon Canyon. He was a celebrity photographer — ‘NOT A PAPARAZZI!’ he claimed in all caps on his profile — and needed help building a Balinese Hut. I had the skills so agreed, and the next night, went over to meet him and make sure he was who he said he was.
I got out of my Uber Pool and was greeted by high walls and security cameras. I rang the doorbell and a short, chunky man approached. He introduced himself as TJ and swept me through to an outdoor lounge, where two other workawayers were sitting. He produced a round of margaritas and loudly exclaimed in his abrasive but feminine voice, “Alexa!” He paused for a moment, thinking of his next words, “Play Pink Martini!”
Cocktail lounge music began echoing out across the pool as TJ told us stories of his celebrity friends, his direct influence on Elviera’s — The Goddess of the Night — rise to fame and how he went to acting school with Brad Pitt (the age gap was huge, but he claims they’re the same age, so take that with a grain of salt). The other two workaways had glazed looks in their eyes, but TJ was a character, so I figured, if nothing else, staying here would be an experience.
I agreed to stay and the next day moved in. This was when red flags began to fly.
In the blazing hot light of day, it was clear this man was a hoarder. Piles and piles of semi-valuable trash littered the yard. In some spots, you had to inch past the edges of the pool to avoid falling in, and as he led me around his property (which, if clean, would have been very impressive) I began wondering about his mental state.
He continually acknowledged the trash and would tell me stories about any given pile — “That’s a shell chandelier from Dolly Parton’s house!” or “These are Elvis Presley’s pool pavers!” — and how, once the Balinese Hut was built, he would finally have a place to store everything. This was not realistic by any means as the hut was not going to be large, but I bit my tongue and nodded eagerly.
After all, I needed a place to stay.
I got to work straight away, rearranging piles of items while he pottered around, nattering at me with stories while I worked. The deal with workaways, and what was explicit on his profile, was that I would work for four hours a day, five days a week. But, being the hard worker I am, decided to put in a full day’s work and really prove my worth.
As the day began to draw to a close, I realised I hadn’t actually seen the inside of his house, nor where I’d be sleeping. He had an outdoor bathroom so I hadn’t needed to go inside. The house was big, so I figured I would have a room and a bathroom to use.
One other strange thing I noticed was that TJ would never leave me and the other workawayers on our own. They were both French, and quiet (not related to being French), so I figured they may not speak any English.
That night as I waited to be shown my room, TJ approached me and asked if I would go to Hollywood with him for a bite to eat. The French guys declined and I figured why not, but asked to shower first. He gestured towards the pool and said, “Just jump in and have a rinse off! There’s no time to shower!” Not wanting to complain or act like a shower-hungry diva, I did exactly that, got dressed and drove down the hill for dinner.
Over dinner, TJ continued barraging me with stories about his celebrity friends: the people whose rise to fame he had been instrumental in — “Miley Cyrus! Liam Hemsworth! Jennifer Lawrence! They all came through ME and MY CAMERA!” By the end of the meal, when it was time to pay, he realised he’d forgot his wallet, so I covered the bill, expecting to be paid back when we got to the house (after all, I’d put in a full day’s work, as per the arrangement).
When we arrived back at the house, it was quiet. The French guys were nowhere to be found outside. Noticing this, TJ rushed inside. I heard a squeal and he rushed out, leaving the door open behind him. I caught a peek of the interior and while it would have once been a tasteful home, like the yard, was littered with piles of trash. TJ looked outraged and screamed, “They’ve left! They fucking left!” He then turned around and slammed the door behind him.
Over the next few hours, I meekly knocked on the door a few times, hoping to be told where I’d sleep, or shown to my room. Slowly I realised that was wishful thinking, so, being the middle of summer, I curled up on the outdoor lounge suite with his two dogs — pitbulls, that were absolutely lovely despite their owner — and fell asleep.
The next day at 6:30am, I was awakened by TJ loudly yelling, “IT’S TIME TO WORK! GET UP! GET UP! GET UP!”
I shot up off of the wicker lounge suite with imprints across my face and arms as he thrust a cup of coffee and a plate of sloppy poached eggs at me. I ate as he told me my itinerary for the day. Plot spoiler: I was to work alone on setting concrete pylons for the hut, a task he described as “easy”. He lamented the departure of the French guys before slapping his hands on his thighs and exclaiming, “Oh well! I have another French boy coming in five days! You’ll have to put in another full few days of work so we stay on schedule and you have somewhere to sleep!”
So not only was the hut solving his hoarding problem; it was also supposed to be the workawayers’ “room”.
This seemed like my only choice — after all, I didn’t want to have to give massages for a place to stay — so I got to work, and the days flew by, TJ nattering at me as I set about setting concrete pylons in the ground and erecting the base of the hut.
Over those next few days, the long hours of work and lack of shower and adequate sleeping time (or quarters) began taking a toll on me. My skin was blotchy, I was developing a deep, red rash over my back and shoulders, and I was beginning to tire of TJ’s constant chatter and empty promises. I figured when the new guy got there, things would be easier for me.
The night of his arrival, at about 8pm, the doorbell rang. Exhausted, filthy me answered it to find a young man, about 19, waiting with his bags. I let him in as TJ swept out into the pool area wearing a silk kimono. “Welcome!” he exclaimed, taking him along to the outdoor lounge suite, which he’d prepared earlier with candles. I joined them as TJ brought out a round of margaritas. This is familiar, I thought, as TJ called out, “Alexa… play Pink Martini!”
Realisation set in. This guy was likely a psychopath. The pieces fit: the carbon copy of first interactions, the veil of hospitality falling rather quickly, the ‘help’ style of treatment, the neglect of the conditions outlined on his Workaway profile, the lack of actual sleeping and showering accommodations. The list was stacking up.
So, that night, after everyone else went to bed — the new French guy sharing my outdoor lounge — I packed my bags, wrote a note that said, “I’m leaving – thanks!” and hopped in my Uber Pool, back to what seemed like palatial accommodations: the dingy hostel on Sepulveda Boulevard, where I began the search for my next homestay host.
Cover by Dillon Shook; inset by Jermmel Galloway