Monday, March 7, 2011

A HERMIT IN THE CITY

LOS ANGELES CENTRAL LIBRARY
Don’t ask me why, with my hermit tendencies, I’ve chosen to live in a city of nine, or maybe it's ten now, million.  I’m constantly looking for places to hide: secluded gardens, deserted parks. Nothing makes me happier than spotting some tiny leaf-covered niche tucked away beneath a shedding, camouflage-like tree. A bench is good, trickling water is good, trees or flowers are good, but the essentials are coffee, solitude and a book.

Recently I made a real find. I was gazing out a third-floor window of the downtown Central library when I spotted a narrow, patio-like area sandwiched in between two towering buildings to the south. I could make out an alienating modern steel sculpture, a metal waste receptacle and, best of all, but a single person, staring into space in an abstracted posture I knew well. I flew downstairs, checked out my books, grabbed a grande drip and ran across to investigate. Heaven, heaven, I chanted to myself as I settled in on an aluminum bench, took a sip, and opened Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground.

BĀSHO
(1644 (?)-1694), JAPANESE HAIKU POET
One Saturday night soon after, my friend Glenn and I were leaving a downtown gallery opening when I decided to share my find. “I’ll show you this really cool place,” I told him as we walked down Olive. “I'll bet hardly a hundred people in the whole city know about it.” At the library we cut in, stepped over a drunk passed out on the sidewalk, and made our way to the narrow walkway back. As we drew near, I tenderly took Glenn’s hand, as if approaching a shrine. “Check it out,” I breathed, gazing into the grotto-like darkness. “In the middle of the day you can go in there and it’s…quiet.” A couple of days later I overheard him reporting to a mutual friend, “My God, the poor woman has managed to find the only sunless spot in all of L.A. Apparently she goes in there and drinks coffee…”

The next week, I drove up to the thousands of acres of urban wilderness known as Griffith Park and hiked to another of my hideouts. Hunkered beneath a patch of fennel, I opened a volume of Japanese haiku. “When in Kyoto…I long for Kyoto,” Bāsho had written. I put down my book, inhaled the smell of eucalyptus, and gazed off into the middle distance, thinking how I am always longing to be some place I’m not, for things to be different than the way I myself make them: to both live in a major city and enjoy the quiet of the country, to drink coffee and yet be calm, to be by myself and yet connect with other people.

DANTE'S VIEW, GRIFFITH PARK
PHOTO DAWN MEREDITH, VIA DONNABARSTOW.COM
On the way home I stopped off at my neighborhood church. St Basil’s is a big melting-pot parish, with five Masses a day. It’s on Wilshire Boulevard, across from Golf World and Budget Rent-a-Car and Tofu House, and there are always people in there--sitting quietly, praying--even in the middle of the day. I found a pew near the back and knelt. I didn’t think about much. I didn’t look much at the other people but I knew and was glad they were there. High above the altar, Christ hung on the cross: symbol of the fact that no matter how far we run, how hard we try to hide, we can never hide from our own conflicted selves. He looked a little sad up there, as if he could use some company. So for awhile I was in Kyoto without longing to be in Kyoto; I was alone but I wasn’t alone; for awhile we all sat together: them, Him, me.

INTERIOR ST. BASIL'S
PHOTO
(I wrote and aired this piece, still highly apropos, several years ago for "All Things Considered." Here's the link if you'd like to listen).

4 comments:

  1. I'm going to look for that spot at the central library the next time I go there. I hope it is still in the state you discovered it.

    In the right frame of mind L.A. can be a liveable place but it is not what it should have and could have been.

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  2. Los Angeles is full of people who can't quite understand what we're doing here.
    I have a few spots off trail in Griffith Park, but inevitably I can't read without feeling the need to pick up trash.
    I think I understand the "Kyoto..Kyoto" sentiment. I call it "nostalgia for the present."

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  3. St Basil's looks super-modern, but I think I would like it!

    And your library has escalators! I am envious, even though my library has elevators. There's something elegant about an escalator.

    I listened to a bit of the NPR broadcast. You have a gentle voice.

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  4. Have you heard Jonathan Richman's song City vs. Country? It's on the album You Must Ask the Heart.
    Here's the lyrics:
    I want to live close to downtown to be near my friends
    I want to be close to them,
    And still be out by the trees and the wind
    Havin' both will be hard to find I'm sure,
    But then ain't that the way of the world,
    I want the city but I want the country too.

    I want to be with my friends by the fire and the starlight
    But I want music, music in my life
    Yes, I want a bar hoppin' music scene
    And I want to pick from ten or fifteen
    I want the city but I want the country too.

    (Guitar)

    My mind is quiet, when my thoughts are slow
    I stop to learn what I been wantin' to know
    I need to live in the ancient world
    If I'm gonna do what I want to do
    I want the city but I want the country too

    I'll never have both moon and sun
    But one never knows, does one?
    I want the city but I want the country too.

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