… tightly wound from the computer, seeking the solitude within a sea of strangers, struggling with my distrust of humanity while simultaneously trying to crank open an unconditional healer’s heart, I force myself out into the world – solo and searching for connection …
Today, I am looking for a teapot. It was approximately one year ago today that I gave up caffeine and all the sketchiness of life lived clinging to a packed to do list in lieu of less expenses, a lighter need for money, and the kind of meditation conducive to chamomile mornings and dandelion picking in the garden. I head to the North Hollywood station to take the Red Line into Little Tokyo.
As I arrive, I see a homeless man standing proudly in front of the only vacant parking meter at the tail end of a weathered curb. Firmly, erect and holding on to it as if it’s his job to guard the machine, he occasionally steals glances at his left foot where a small bag is splayed open, out from which peeks a timid Chihuahua. As I maneuver to fit into the spot between two other cars adjacent to the meter, the man guides me in with a wave of his hand, continuing to signal that I have more room when I stop. Our eyes meet through the reflection of my side door mirrors. He’s dirty blonde with a scraggly mullet, around fifty, with black plastic fake Ray Bans perched upon his bulbous nose. He could be an original member of some 1980s hair metal band. I thank him promptly while exiting my car, sounding the alarm and he yells after me to have a wonderful day. I hastily wave a silent reply before walking swiftly across the road.
Heading down the escalator, I am confronted by the hot smell of the station’s berth and jump onto my train, which is vacant at first. Choosing a seat in the back, I am mildly irritated when the middle aged Hispanic man chooses to sit next to me instead of one of all the other empty seats until I catch a whiff of his dusty, metallic breath brightened by hot pink bubble gum and am reminded of the Mexican neighborhoods of my childhood where tamales, lively music and drunken fathers meant Saturday. The ride becomes accented by these puffs of his strawberry air counteracting the stale smell of his dusty worker’s jeans that let loose tufts of dirt every time his hips jostle to the beat of the tracks.
I am acutely aware of the way people smell because of my old friend Taylor who taught me to waltz on his aged marble living room floor. In my early thirties, I would show up to his house every Tuesday to drink champagne while he whirled me around on tiptoes. “One-two-three-four” he would charmingly bark while leading my feet into an elegantly carved square between tales of his latest gay adventures in the land of man seeking man. “But have you smelled him yet?” he would ask me when hearing of my own forays into online matchmaking. “You can not possibly know if you like someone until you first inhale their scent.”
He was right. Mild revulsion mingled with childhood nostalgia lurches through me as I sit, my sunglasses allowing me to peer discreetly at the other passengers, their fragrances infiltrating my space jostling my initial appearance-based perceptions. The attractive blonde woman in the burgundy dress smells sour and old. The short man with the tense gaze exudes warmth. The old lady with the mushy bosom in the floral shirt crosses her hands over her chest for protection yet emits layers of floral-tinged perfume that beg for intimacy. All of these aromas swirl, meld and emerge as a large tuft of cotton candy throw up that subconsciously bonds us all together in the exact moment we all desire so much to be left alone.
I watch the others as they navigate space from within the seat of their own wills juxtaposed with that of the train that bumps and jostles them unwittingly into each other. An elfin red headed man steps on with a dual stroller and it is the harsh, gangster dude with the ear plugs and arm tats who starts to coo over the children while the chic teen girl in the red flannel shirt doesn’t bat an eye towards the babies but continues her rant about fashion school to a worn, turban-headed lady while simultaneously putting on mascara the duration of the ride. Some look at each other and quickly look away. Some carry on loudly unaware that we can all hear and others don’t care that we can. Some sulk silently in their seats like me, taking great pains to only occupy the slim hard pad of the space beneath them. As the loud voice booms from above that we are approaching our final destination everyone hitches their bodies upwards interrupting the cadence of the journey as they start to adjust their things back onto arms and into bags.
This is when I see the boy I hadn’t noticed before slipping out from behind a crevice of humans to stand directly in front of me. He takes a five-dollar bill out of his pants pocket and holds it, sweetly secured in one palm while gazing at a spot behind me … his eyes open wide and I sense that he is an earnest sort; clean clothes, innocent demeanor, almost gentle despite the dappled stubble on his chin and frayed beige denim jacket. He’s obviously a student according to the backpack with a ring of permit tags, ID badges and various keys hanging from its zipper loop. I watch as he hands the five-dollar bill past me and says the word “Maam.”
Before I can even turn around, a small slim hand reaches from behind my head to grab the money and I turn to see a small girl holding a baby. The girl can’t be more than sixteen with big vacant eyes devoid of emotion and dark patches of sweaty hair that stick to her cheeks. Dressed plainly in blue jeans, she continues to ask people for money in a meek voice until we stop. We are all cornered together as she goes through each one of us one by one, asking, “Will you help?” There is no feeling displayed in her expression, just those words, and I say “Sorry, no” because I have no change and others say “No” plainly and most just ignore her as she boldly confronts us. I notice her baby has on brand new tennis shoes and tiny gold stud earrings.
At Union Station I am tempted to eat some of the freshly made potato chips with blue cheese at the Traxx Bar but I recall my mission and head out through the marbled lobby into the burgeoning afternoon sunlight … past the group of handsome Chinese businessmen transmitting their day’s plans.
I walk down a few blocks on the verge of Skid Row and the two sides of the street mark an odd slice of juxtaposition. One side features lawyers hustling briskly in rigid navy blue clothes, stiff high heels, wrinkled gray slacks and stern faces towards the Stanley Mosk Courthouse; people like me down from elsewhere in search of anonymity within another culture; and Japanese residents. At this hour it’s mostly old women in elaborate chignons and polyester suit sets out for their morning shopping. The other side shows fleeting signs of temporary living spaces from last night that have been jostled up by their homeless owners to deal with the day: cardboard left hastily on a curb, last night’s bed sheets stuffed beneath an unassuming tree, a small plastic bag with a few crumbs in a gutter, a shopping cart jammed into the alley behind a fish warehouse. For now the denizens have scattered in the light of day to their social worker appointments, their begging corners downtown, and their freeway posts where they hope to get picked up for a day job. A lost white twenty year old male with no shoes walks down the street ahead of me talking loudly to himself in some sort of tourette daze, stopping to look in his filthy backpack every so often before moving on. I follow him nonchalantly as well as a woman, also barefoot, in hot pink clothes with what looks like a new haircut as she holds her hands out to the side of her to keep her gait straight and recites a series of numbers to herself as if they are the reason she’s able to manage some semblance of self control.
A man next to me I didn’t notice before in a black suit asks, “Is it drugs? Or do you think they were abused as children?”
I shrug my shoulders that I don’t know and cross the street to the Asian emporium feeling sad. Everything smells like rotten fruit now as the sun rears its stark magnifying lens and I remind myself why I am here.
The Japanese Tea Ceremony was developed as a “transformative” practice in which one would take a moment of life to prepare and serve tea and then subsequently use that time to meditatively reflect upon life using “Wabi” and Sabi” principles. Wabi represents the inner or spiritual experiences of human lives in which care is taken to be silent, to meditate upon one’s sense of self, to be discerning with and appreciate one’s possessions and surroundings via humility, restraint, simplicity, naturalism, imperfection and asymmetry. Sabi represents the external, material parts of life that erode and decay, which are inevitably impermanent. Cherishing ourselves in the here and now over the intentional ritual of taking tea thus becomes a sincere homage to the constantly morphing, unpolished selves we carry through this lifetime. I can’t help but think that the homeless people I’ve encountered today, the beggar on the train and the whacked out walking people are true warriors in both the wabi and the sabi philosophies, thrown into each by various measures of unbalanced and unplanned for circumstance.
I end up buying four cups to accompany my new teapot, made of ceramic clay in a motif of blue and green waves that reminds me of Van Gogh’s Starry Night –another erratic outpouring from a mad man who saw life on his own terms in his own scattered way. I am compelled to consider my drinking of tea as not a way to stand idly alone in the world but as a way to invite others in and I set along the sidewalk towards the train I will take home with the sincere desire to find others to drink with for the rest of my days. I am reminded of afternoons in my early twenties when my friend Sergio and I would sit in on leopard print covered bar stools at Café St. James and share one martini back and forth with each other as it was all we could afford while passing a notebook between us in a prose game of Exquisite Corpse and I realize it’s been a long time since I have enjoyed such interactions with other human beings that are nothing more than sitting, observing and documenting the simple to and fro of life.
As I hustle back through Little Tokyo it is lunchtime now and everyone races from place to place. People rarely look at me, just brush past hustling to another destination – ramen house women with hair piled high, purses held close to their waists in front of their skinny, angular hips. Teenagers spout from sweet shops licking cream puffs and mochi ice cream cones. Storefront windows glimmer with bright orange signs offering discounts on mesh herb strainers, spiced crackers, rice candies and porcelain cups.
And suddenly I stumble knee first into a giant black man who steadies me with his left hand and smells like cinnamon red-hot candies.
“I am not looking for money,” he says immediately, “I just want someone to buy me a donut.”
I am out of cash, not even pennies jangle on my person and I tell him that. I also tell him that I am pretty poor myself these days and hold up the bag with the teapot to say, “My indulgences are rare and pretty much birthed only by necessity.”
He starts to open his mouth to speak but stops himself when he realizes he’s on the verge of tears as if straining his mouth to close will cease his feelings of desperation from trembling on the surface of his face, specifically around his kind, gentle eyes.
“I am on disability,” he says, “the last time I went to cash my check at the check cashing place, I was jumped by two guys when I stepped outside. They beat me up and I had to go to the hospital. I’m an 80 year old man and now I don’t have access to any money for three more days.”
I look at the gash above his right eye and tell him I am so sorry that happened to him.
He starts to tell me the same exact story again but I am going to be late for my train. I finally feel forced to tear myself away and as I do, I say, “I have to go but I want wish you the best and love to you.”
“Thank you,” he says, still on that perpetual verge of tears, “sometimes just talking to someone positive changes my whole day, and I appreciate that.”
I gesture with my arms in front of my heart as if spreading some good energy his way before turning to go.
He reminds me of a homeless man I met once from Iran who was willingly roaming the United States, enjoying the open air and freedom and not needing much to call his own. At the time I had given this man my food from the restaurant I had been in that he was sitting in front of and we started to have a good long conversation about the differences between the Middle East and America. At the time, the person I was dining with had been a first date and she was irritated that I was talking to a homeless man and said, out loud for all three of us to hear, “It’s enough that you gave him your food, he doesn’t need you to keep talking to him.” I had left her standing in the parking lot of the restaurant after that remark to fend for her own way home.
As I continue to walk past omakase places, noodle joints, jazz clubs and bright pink toy emporiums I start to see all the homeless people that lurk in the corners, underneath the building shades, crammed into the shadows beneath the illustrated awnings – they are everywhere, living out in the open in a microscopic world of people who tend to be so closed – fully bared and exposed amongst others who wrap themselves tightly from within their own cracked smiles, hands held in front haughtily and tightly compact.
On the train home, I sit in a similar seat as my last trip although this time I smile; I spread my possessions out around me and write in my sketchbook not worrying about who will see my words, their eyeballs prying into a deep space that has been locked up for far too long. No, now I splay freely because I recognize that I want to be a singular human in this race not just a part of the mad, human dashing. I will use the four cups … it’s imperative that I do so.
Written by Kimberly NicholsNewtopia managing editor KIMBERLY NICHOLS is a Los-Angeles based artist, writer, healer and social anthropologist. She is author of the book of literary short fiction Mad Anatomy, as well as a contributing editor to 3AM Magazine where her column Naked in Front of Strangers runs regularly. She has exhibited as a conceptual artist throughout California over the past two decades. Her non-fiction articles have appeared in magazines and media internationally. She is currently at work on her novel King Neptune’s Journey. Her spare time is spent studying shamanism, plant medicine, and energetic psychology under a series of respected teachers. Follow her daily beat poetry on Twitter @LITGFOA or her arts and literature blog.