(The following post originally ran Nov. 21, 2007, and has become a holiday tradition of sorts. For those who have read it before, please pardon the repetition — and for those who are reading it for the first time, I hope it serves as a reminder of what this holiday, and being human, is all about.)
LOS ANGELES IS A CITY of fragments, pieces loosely joined yet bound as if against nature. Most people only see L.A. through a windshield – the observer protected behind glass, the observed seen in glimpses if at all. Los Angeles is a place apart and in parts, where everyone lives but no one is from.
It is into this concrete dichotomy I drive several days a week. I’ve done this for nearly a year with no regret, save for the occasional Sigalert that slows traffic even more than the usual crawl. Once this happened by the Staples Center, forcing me to watch the video ad for “American Idols on Tour” more times than should be considered humane.
Almost every day, before joining my fellow commuters on Interstate 10 and 5 for the long slog to Orange County, I see a homeless man by the freeway entrance. Always smiling, always pleasant, and always with a hand out, as if he’s the operator of an imaginary toll booth. I give when I can, when the stoplight cooperates. This means lowering the window, a risky proposition in a place where people lock their car doors while they are still driving.
For months I saw this man – and then, a few weeks ago, he was gone. Maybe it was the weather, both turning slightly cooler and for a long while heavy with smoke and its unhealthy remnants.
He could be anywhere, doing just fine, but nevertheless I worry and wonder – whether he is safe, whether he found a better onramp, or whether he melted back into the jigsaw world of Greater L.A., another face in another windshield. This is the time of Thanksgiving after all, a time for holidays and families and desires for human connections. So I wonder, I worry, and wait.
The Day after Christmas
This man – and next time I see him, I promise to ask his name – reminds me of another man I met in Atlanta, exactly 17 years ago Friday. He, too, was (at least to me) homeless and nameless, a regular character at the CNN Center. I wrote about him in my book, and the following passage tells the story of our brief encounter:
“Where are you from?” The question came out of nowhere, as did the man. He looked 40ish, wearing a purple long-sleeved shirt, a green jacket-vest, a black hat, and a beard grown from neglect rather than purpose. As we talked, he would continuously sip from an empty Styrofoam cup. I wanted to tell him there was nothing in there, though I’m sure he knew. I just stared at the cup rising and falling from the man’s lips with mechanical precision.
I don’t know what was in the cup before, but based on our conversation, I got the feeling it was more likely vodka than coffee. We talked about life on the streets, and how being homeless is a lot like being in prison – except that in prison you get three meals a day and a warm place to sleep. But that wasn’t the worst part.
“It’s the loneliness,’ he said, taking another imaginary sip. “All the time, loneliness. All of my friends are either dead or gone.”
I was going to tell him how lonely I felt that Thanksgiving, but decided against it. Here was a guy who has endured the same ugly feeling for six years, and I was depressed about one day spent in a warm hotel room with the people I love a phone call away. His cup was empty; mine runneth over.
“The day after Christmas,” he said. “A business is made or broken by how well it is the day after Christmas. Everything is defined by where you are the day after Christmas.”
We had been talking about Thanksgiving, but I wasn’t going to argue. This was his conversation. I was just along for the ride.
I gave him some money as I got up to take my tour, which he accepted but don’t think expected. When I came back downstairs an hour later, I spotted my friend talking to a couple of other street people, and he waved to me as I passed.
He still had his cup and it was still empty. And I felt bad, really bad, because I knew that on the day after Christmas, he would still be there.
I never looked at people or a place the same after that. Everywhere is home for someone – every place has its own ecosystem that functions often despite itself. No matter where we live, we can connect.
Yes, Los Angeles is a city of fragments, the people fragmented. But while the pieces don’t always fit, they do, eventually, come together.