When I first arrive from Boston, LA looks to me like one giant garbage heap, a big emperor with no clothes. I can’t believe that the rich and famous drive the same featureless freeways I do; that movie stars reach the zenith of their careers in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, with its Liberace-style chandeliers; that immigrants have come here from their unspoiled homelands to build cheesy Hindu palaces and Korean barbecues inexplicably designed to resemble the Parthenon. There are some pockets of town so choked with concrete and cars, so devoid of greenery, humanity, and charm, that a near-suicidal depression engulfs me each time I pass through them.
But slowly, over the course of months, small treasures begin to reveal themselves: Lilies of the Nile rise from litter-strewn medians. Along the curbs of turn lanes, men sell garnet cherries, roses the color of old ivory, and dusty bags of peanuts.
A few years after my arrival, I move with my husband to Koreatown, a colorful neighborhood where our jewel of an apartment gleams quietly amid a cacophonous welter of Salvadoran taco vendors, alley-cruising crack-heads, and ambulance sirens wailing the news that yet another Seoul-trained driver has merrily run a red light. Though still assaulted by billboards for Disneyland, Universal Studios, and Magic Mountain, I discover Huntington Gardens, the Hollywood Farmers’ Market, the downtown library. I constantly remind myself that if the traffic is fiendish, the weather is paradisaical; that if the city is too crowded, all these people create an infectious level of creative energy; that if it is too noisy, it makes me that much more grateful for every moment of silence.
I start to discern an underground network of seemingly inconsequential acts of goodness: The guy in line ahead of me at the supermarket sees I have only three items and waves me through. My mercurial neighbor Emil pads upstairs with a bowl of minestrone in apology for his thousandth unjustified snit. When my father dies, my usually undemonstrative tennis partner brings me a copy of Jane Kenyon’s Let Evening Come. I ponder the mystery of how the smallest human touch brings comfort all out of proportion to the size of the gesture. I start going to church again and find that all around the city are quiet sanctuaries, places of prayer, oases of dark tranquillity smelling of incense and wax. Night and day — during shootouts and stabbings, mudslides and earthquakes — candles burn in red glass above the body of Christ.
I do not go to Mass to make myself “better.” I go because, in the dimmest reaches of my scattered, angst-ridden mind, there is something that wants me to get down on my knees and, in spite of my own suffering and all the suffering around me, give thanks. I go because I am beginning to believe that heaven is not in some other world, but shot through the broken world in which we live.
I notice another woman at morning Mass. She is pretty, with an angular face and short, curly hair. She carries a backpack and wears jeans, a heavy sweater, and a pair of faded blue Keds. And she is white, like me, a rarity in this neighborhood. I try to peg her. She’s not rich, but not dirt poor either. A struggling artist? A social worker? A nurse? When we greet each other during the sign of peace, her hand is like sandpaper. A sculptor? A painter? Her name is Barbara, I find out, and she’s gone to Mass daily for years. We chat now and then, and one day I ask her what she does. She pauses for a second, then says, “I dance.”
“A dancer!” I exclaim. “Jazz, or ballet, or . . . ?”
“Come to Saint Thomas the Apostle on Sunday,” she says, “and I’ll tell you all about it.”
Koreatown is bad enough, but Saint Thomas the Apostle is on the edge of Pico-Union, a Hispanic neighborhood so poor, noisy, and gang-filled that when we Anglos pass each other on the street there, we exchange sickly smiles of relief, as if to say, “Isn’t it amazing; nobody’s shot me yet either.” The fact that Barbara attends church and possibly even lives there intrigues me. I’m more curious about her than ever.
When I show up for Mass on Sunday, I spot Barbara in a pew down front, all dressed up in a gray beret, turquoise angora sweater, gray kick-pleated skirt, nylons, and spectator pumps. She’s obviously a regular, talking a mile a minute with everyone in sight. When she rises to give a reading, I notice her turned-out, dancer’s feet, the muscled calves her jeans usually hide.
“Come on. We’ll have coffee,” she says afterward, grabbing my arm. “But first, let’s go to the rummage sale.” Out back in the parking lot, she paws through heaps of used clothing and toys, greeting friends and keeping up a running commentary in her piercing New York accent. She holds up a flowered jacket (“Won’t this be pretty for spring, and only a quarter!”); picks out an armload of stuffed animals (“I have friends with children”); rejects a two-dollar bottle of skin cream (“Too expensive”). The whole time I am thinking, Where does she work? Does she have a boyfriend? How old is she — fifty? Older?
Finally, she leads me to a pastry shop down the street, where the glass case holds pans of pink-frosted cake and the air smells of sugar and stale coffee. Barbara knows the owner, the owner’s sister, and — it turns out after we settle at a table near the open door — every other person who walks down the sidewalk.
“Hey, Maverick, where are you living?” she calls out to a crew-cut gal in grease-stained fatigues, wearing a wreath of dog tags and a huge wooden cross around her neck.
“Still on the street,” Maverick admits apologetically, and Barbara slips her a handful of change.
“So, how did you end up in Pico-Union?” I ask.
In between sips of weak coffee and bites of air-filled croissants, she fills me in: She grew up in New York City, moved to LA in the seventies, and converted to Catholicism almost twenty years ago. Then God took her “out of the world” for seven years, during which time she cooked for the priests and taught dance in a former seminary in Italy. “It was cold and damp, totally medieval,” she reports cheerfully. “Stone walls four feet thick, and when you opened a door, bats might fly out.” Now she lives in an apartment down the street, with six dogs, eleven cats, and her senile Armenian landlady. She takes the bus to Studio City five days a week for ballet classes.
“I’ve had the same teacher off and on for twenty-five years. He’s always on my case,” she says, laughing. “ ‘Some people think they don’t have to work!’ he says. ‘Some people think they can just light a couple of candles in church.’ ” Her eyes are lined with black, her head cocked like a bird’s.
“So, do you dance professionally?” I ask. “I mean, do you put on shows, or what?”
“Not really,” Barbara replies. “I don’t dance for success or money or to be seen; I do it as a form of prayer. I think of it as offering up my time and pain and body to someone who needs it more than I do. I say the rosary all day, one Hail Mary for each plié.”
“You dance . . . to pray?” I say.
“On weekends I shoo away the animals and set up a barre right in my room,” she continues, while I stare at her callused hands. “When I’m really tired or lonely or discouraged, I try to think of Christ on the cross.”
There is a long silence while I attempt to digest this scenario, to envision such a life. “What do you do for money?” I finally ask.
“Oh, I don’t need much,” Barbara says vaguely. “God provides. Of course, it hasn’t been easy: for a long time I felt totally isolated and thought I was going crazy. But finally I learned how to integrate my dancing with the rest of the world, and now my life is so incredibly rich and abundant.”
I study Barbara closely. The radiant smile is missing a tooth in the lower jaw; the angora sweater is lightly matted with dog hair. She is like one of those holograms that show a mountain at sunrise and, tilted a fraction of a millimeter, the same scene at sunset. Is she a nut case, or some kind of saint? Am I even capable of judging? Does sainthood require perfection, or just a willingness to surrender our entire selves, including our imperfections, to love?
She points across the street to a man collecting bottles in a shopping cart. “Do you know what hard work that is?” she says. “I always save my glass for them.”
Then she leans in, puts a roughened hand on mine, and whispers, “Hard times are coming, and all over, God is planting seeds, preparing people — not showy people, but little people. You don’t know: it could be that raggedy old lady over there begging for change who’s going to save us all.”
Walking home, past the brown faces whose secrets are concealed from my white one, I think, How many people like Barbara can there be in LA? What are the chances of finding one of them? I peer into storefronts as I pass by and see a world parallel to mine, familiar yet alien. A lone man browses a sparsely stocked record shop. Candles gleam from the dim interior of a botanica selling magic charms and herbs. Upside-down water glasses glint atop white tablecloths in a pocket-sized restaurant. The smells of spit-roasted chicken, soapy perfume, and overripe bananas drift into the street.
On the sidewalk in front of Doti’s Bridal Shop, sandwiched between a nail salon and a video store, stands a mannequin in a satin wedding gown. From half a block away, her dress is as shiny as licked lips, so white it has blue highlights in it. The sequins along the breast sparkle like diamonds, and the billowing hem grazes two white satin high heels topped by lush bows. Her eyes are raised hopefully heavenward; one hand is lifted as if in song. In the background, the skyscrapers of downtown glow faintly green through the smog, like dollar bills.
As I come up beside her, I see the crooked garland of wax flowers, the brittle blond hair, the missing clump of fake eyelashes, the broken index finger of the raised hand clumsily glued back on at the middle joint, the satin rosettes, dingy and drooping, the flesh-colored plaster chest above the sweetheart neckline, veiled with a layer of gray grit.
And somehow the imperfection makes her more beautiful still. Because isn’t that always the way it is? And isn’t it always, in the end, somehow all right?