Between sleazy plastic shrimp confectionaries and stately buildings full of headless anorexic models, there is a barrier known as Palisades Park. A sole railing stops children and dogs from tumbling off the rugged cliffs into the Malibu-bound traffic below. Food trucks line the pavement at the opposite border, preventing such delicate monstrosities as the Oyster Bar or the Historic Georgian Hotel from encroaching on the picnic scene. Here in the Park, swift-speaking Japanese tourists navigate between shoals of meditating elderly folk and narrowly avoid being run over by overly muscled bikers or caught up in intense games of mommy-and-me frisbee.
At the time I was there, the sun was splashing white light on the sea as it wavered like a long cotton skirt. Not quite day or night, the Park was filled with humans of both eras.
Having just escaped the deafening zone of the blasting stereo accompanying a rowdy dance performance, I was ready to whiz through all this mess and get to somewhere quiet. The sight and sound of a rather forested electric violin stopped me. The stereo playing the beat of “Stand By Me” was quiet enough, so I waited to hear what would happen. Was he a virtuoso? Was she just someone’s mom who took herself a little too seriously?
What with the straightforward lines of the body as it bent under the waves of progressing chords, I decided the violinist was a guy, although his delicate facial features and the spun-gold hair that grapevined over his forehead and rained in a sunset ponytail down his neck had suggested otherwise upon first glance. It didn’t matter. It was street music, the real stuff, or as close as it gets in Santa Monica. The flying top notes melted into pointed pizzicato like a butterfly tasting a secret garden before taking off once more, running up the scale and diving into dusk-dark sounds usually only produced by a viola or cello.
After listening for a while, I wondered if I should put a little money in the guy’s cardboard box. Several passersby did so: coins, bills, a smile and a nod for each. I decided he didn’t need my money.
I listened longer. The crowd thinned. I unsheathed three quarters from my wallet, waiting for another swell of generous patrons to disappear into, but none came. The music did, though, still. Finally I forced my legs to walk close enough to drop the coins in the box. A bill fluttered. No smile nor nod for me. I walked away. That’s where the story should have ended.
As soon as I turned away from the still-soaring coups-d’archet of the redheaded performer, I came upon a small, white-haired man, sitting with scrambled legs on a dirty towel in the grass. The bald crown of his head gleamed like the white sunset behind us as he stared at the ground, stared deep enough I thought perhaps he was digging with the spades inside his mind’s eye. Gathered around him was a typical homeless man’s entourage: plastic garbage bags with dusty clothes spilling out, an empty leash, a cardboard rectangle that might have been a sign. “Anything Helps.” Or “God Bless.” Or “Need money for food.” But since he was no longer holding his sign up, I couldn’t see the words, so he said nothing specific to me. At the same time he said everything to me, but only a scrambled version of the puzzle that was already roiling in my head. The pieces were already hopelessly intermingled, but now the mess sprawled to overtake the whole path in front of me and I could not move. I had to run.
I brushed past teenage couples and bachelor parties. Three quarters loomed like asteroids in my conscience, ready to explode onto my life’s earth and break everything I’d built. There was nothing I could do to prevent it: the vacuum-sealed front door, the trudging one-way bus, the empty spot on the sidewalk where feet who have somewhere to go leave a little space for the faceless, cross-legged piles of bones and dirt that hang out in front of stores too low-end to erase these uncalled sentries. If not me, it was another person, and to that person it was me. I have always been a selfish human, but this realization brought me nearly to tears: one was born with flying fingers, another with a rocket brain that launched too high or hit a rock wall. Birds don’t grow back their wings after such a blow. Paralyzed, their feathers hardly fluttering in the breeze, flight becomes a legend, and they cannot melt into the earth, so like the alto dirge they are caught between two blisses and stay and listen to the wind tell them what their own ears whisper day and night, so much it becomes a cascading waterfall to erode their mind until all they can think is: You’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re wrong.
Three quarters in the talons of a white dove, bound across the sea for some new island full of cactus flowers. The last three drops of moonlight that I wrung from the night of some unseen night-bird, the last three silver pools of somethingness that I took away, so neither of us could see the other as I walked right past the wordless homeless man. I could simply switch the pronouns.
Image credits in order of appearance:
By Btburke – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28595715
By Btburke – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28595712
By InSapphoWeTrust from Los Angeles, California, USA – Third Street Promenade, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24269061
By Macerich – Macerich, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26451600