"All around me are familiar faces,
Worn out places, Worn out faces,
Bright and early for the daily races,
Going nowhere, Going nowhere,
Their tears are filling up their glasses,
No expression, No expression,
Hide my head I wanna drown my sorrow,
No tomorrow, No tomorrow,
And I find it kind of funny, I find it kind of sad,
The dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had,
I find it hard to tell you, I find it hard to take,
When people run in circles it's a very very,
Mad world, Mad world…"
- "Mad World"
I remember the first time I saw Los Angeles….or at least the hazy, gray megalopolis I thought was Los Angeles. I had been driving cross-country for over a week. Suddenly the empty desert of southeastern California gave way and in the distance...creeping closer with every mile...were the edges of what I thought was the City of Angels. A city I imagined to be the size of Philadelphia. I assumed with that level of population density so soon, I must be near the city's epicenter. I was wrong. It would take me over two hours to reach the inner belt of urban Los Angeles and every mile felt like I was falling deeper and deeper into a looming grey hole. I knew exactly one, count her…one, person in all of Southern California and she would be leaving soon after I arrived to begin my time house-sitting for she and her husband.
I was terrified. Prior to this experience, my "city" had been New York City. Brownstones, brick cobbles, Washington Square and "the Village" were easy to navigate on a summer's evening...but this place was the color of asphalt and cement, concrete and steel...and for some reason it made me feel frantic and helpless...more alone than I had ever felt before. And because I was terrified, terror was all that I could see on the faces of men, women, and children I passed on street corners and observed at bus stops. It took me weeks to discover that the hopelessness I was observing was really just a mental film over my own eyes coloring everything with a dull, gray, sad tone of despair.
I spent many lonely weeks in this gray mental fog until one afternoon when I was sitting on a concrete bench near the corner of Wilshire and Western. There I saw a young Korean mother and her toddler daughter waiting for the bus. My first thought was, "I wonder where you would go if you could afford to get out of this place?"
But then the little girl turned to me and shot a 3 million megawatt smile in my direction. It was like a strong gust of wind blowing the gray/hopelessness glasses off of my face and suddenly the world was suffused with color and charm. I scootched over on the bench to where her mother was watching her daughter…obviously as smitten as I was…and cleared my voice. She turned briefly in my direction before re-fixing her gaze on the little girl not ten inches from her side. "Hello," I said. "Oh, hello," she replied. "Do you live near here?" I asked. "Oh no," she laughed shyly, "if only we could…" Her palpable longing to live in this inner city neighborhood where dumpsters and concrete made up the "landscape" surprised me.
She went on to explain that she, her husband and four children had only just come to America from Korea and were living with relatives in another town two hours away by bus. Both she and her husband worked in the downtown neighborhood where we were sitting, but on separate shifts so that someone would be home for the children after school. She brought Lea to work at the dry cleaners each day since her husband's bus left for downtown before her bus arrived home. Lea, she explained was too much for her elderly mother to care for…in addition to the other three children…during the in between time.
"This is where I have dreamed of living since I was a little girl in Korea," she sighed.
She told me, in halting English, that her dreams were coming true everytime she and Lea rode the bus to the corner of Wilshire and Western. She then pointed to a bank of second story windows above a strip of shops where a Korean restaurant, dry cleaners, market, and insurance office stood. "Someday we will live in an apartment above our own shop," she dreamed aloud. The joy she exhaled seemed to be enough to drive my own hopelessness into exile.
Right at that moment I was sitting in someone's "dream come true". The world of urban concrete and international commerce…filled with hand-lettered signs in languages I had never even heard spoken before…made sense to me through her eyes. This was a place to come to…not a place where everyone was eager to leave…as I had imagined.
I looked around me and could find people who were smiling, purposeful, and at peace, whereas a mere hour before I saw only gray, resolute drones going from here to there and back again with robot-like mindlessness. I saw what I felt.
There is a story in the Bible from the second chapter of Kings where the prophet Elisha and his servant are on the run from the Syrians and were finally trapped, surrounded in the city of Dothan by the enemy army. Elisha's servant is "sore afraid" when he sees that they are compassed about by horses and chariots and a "great host".
Elisha first assures his servant, "Fear not, for they that be with us are more than they that be with them."
Then he prays. And his prayer, surprisingly, is not for deliverance. He doesn't hope for, or even ask God to show him a way of escaping Dothan or how to circumvent the army of Syria.
His prayer is "Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see."
And the story continues: "And the Lord opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha."
What only moments before had looked like an untenable situation that foretold sure doom, with "opened eyes" became not only a safe situation, but one where Elisha and his servant were "cared for, watched over, beloved and protected".
That day I felt like Lea and her mother "opened my eyes" and everything gray and hopeless became full of color, beauty, opportunity and awakening.
Later that week I decided that if I was going to be living in a big city with international neighbors, I would make it a time of discovery. I started exploring international film, cooking, religions, and music. Any given Saturday I could be found holed up in a Japanese cinema reading English subtitles under a classic Akira Kirowsawa film or visiting an Ethiopian restaurant for conversation, injira, and wat with a group of Rastafarians. I spent a few too many Tuesday nights at a Salsa Club downtown and, sadly, not as many Friday evenings sharing Shabbat dinner with a fellow teacher from school.
My Los Angeles chapter was filled with color, music, exploration, adventure...and yes, some mistakes that I learned a great deal from. A mother's dreams at a bus stop mid-city had opened my eyes to all that I was suddenly surrounded by. Not horses and chariots of fire, but even better, the wonders of being a global citizen in an international city. And as an invested and engaged member of the human family, there were no longer any foreign faces... all faces became "familiar faces"...
"…Children waiting for the day they feel good
Happy Birthday, Happy Birthday
Made to feel the way that every child should
Sit and listen, sit and listen…"
I'm still listening,