My photographer friend, Bridget, and I had gone into Los Angeles on a photo shoot. Our intended location was Rodeo Drive, but our free-spirited attitude easily side-tracked us. Since we were driving west on Wilshire Blvd. we decided to stop at the Peterson Auto Museum to see the new, talk of the town sensational red and white façade that covered the museum. Snap and more snaps around the building and across the street to document the block of 1940’s shops that would be torn down to make way for the new Purple Line Station. Someday, if I lived long enough, I would be able to drive to a station in Long Beach, board the Blue Line and go to the Los Angeles Art Museum with only two transfers.
We got back on Wilshire and drove west. It was near Christmas. The climate was California crisp with a clear atmosphere. The sharpness of the blue sky filled me with joy and the hope that the light later in the afternoon would float on the mannequins in the store windows. We found our secret parking place on (well, I won’t name the street because you might park there and a secret parking is power in Beverly Hills) and strolled to Rodeo, laughing, gasping, wondering about the high fashion on the faceless, pencil thin mannequins in the store windows (when I use the word high, I mean high in price and the buyer must be high to spend a $1,000 on a Coach purse. Well, being a man, what do I know)? Wilshire was festive, the lyrics from “White Christmas” floated over the mix of tourists and locals. The tourists could be recognized because they looked like they came from Nebraska and the locals, well; only on Rodeo Drive can one find that finely tuned, ordinary looking California casual: leather slip-ons, tailored shorts and shirt with a cashmere sweater hanging around the neck. Just kidding. The locals can only be identified by the fact that they don’t look like they are from Nebraska. The locals look like assemblages. And the truly rich, the celebrities, will not be seen on the street; they simply rent the store for a time and shop. And so we walked: past Saint Laurent, past Prada, past Gucci, past Vera Wang. I made my usual comments about the fashions reminding me of gunny sacks.
After walking for a couple of hours, my feet were tired and I set down on a bench in front of Louis Vuitton. Bridget began to shoot images of a store window filled with silver colored objects: shoes, belts, purses, and a central abstract, silver figure that reminded me of a go-go dancer mixed with the form of Shiva. Shoot on, Bridget. And then the homeless man sat down on the bench just a couple of feet away. I was watching the overburdened with shopping bags patrons walk in and out of the store and didn’t see him. Then I smelled urine, the smell that often identifies a homeless person. I turned toward him.
There we were, two men sitting on a bench as if we were waiting for Godot. I was in blue jeans, pull-over black shirt, and tennis shoes. He had by far, the more interesting uniform, the dress of the down and out, the disposed, the Salvation Army store. The grey hoddie crusted with street dirt was pulled tight around his head. His knees stuck through tears. Even on a December day, the black flip-flops mustn’t have kept his feet warm. His facial skin was cracked and wrinkled by the dry air and dehydration. Unshaven, with bits of food clinging to his whiskers, when his mouth opened, I saw teeth stubs, some gone completely. He pulled out a brown, plastic sack from under his sweat shirt and reached into it, pulling out pieces of torn chicken, dirty celery, dry bread that I imagine he found in a trash can. He stuffed the food into his mouth with his swollen, bony hands. He ate ravishingly as if a wild animal. He looked at me. I looked at him and asked, perhaps foolishly, if I could take his portrait. He leaned forward, pausing, and in a guttural voice mumbled “Yes.” I took the portrait. He rose and walked off, searching, I think, for his Godot.
I sat on the bench, searching for mine. I wondered why, why this moment with this homeless man, why this. I know for a variety of reasons that I will never have another moment of transcendence that I experienced the first time I saw the Yosemite Valley. I was frustrated by the winding road, the snake-like curves in the miles before entering the tunnel, the long tunnel that passes through darkness into light, the light of the late-afternoon sun that transmutes the valley floor and the roaring whiteness of the falls into a transcendent moment. So what am I to say about the man on the bench? The experience with him was a moment, not transcendental, certainly, but in ways that I cannot explain, deeper, richer, connected, a Godot moment.
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