Don’t ask me why, with my hermit tendencies, I’ve chosen to live in a city of nine, or maybe it’s ten now, million. I’m constantly looking for places to hide: secluded gardens, deserted parks. Nothing makes me happier than spotting some tiny leaf-covered niche tucked away beneath a shedding, camouflage-like tree. A bench is good, trickling water is good, trees or flowers are good, but the essentials are coffee, solitude and a book.
Recently I made a real find. I was gazing out a third-floor window of the downtown Central library when I spotted a narrow, patio-like area sandwiched in between two towering buildings to the south. I could make out an alienating modern steel sculpture, a metal waste receptacle and, best of all, but a single person, staring into space in an abstracted posture I knew well. I flew downstairs, checked out my books, grabbed a grande drip and ran across to investigate. Heaven, heaven, I chanted to myself as I settled in on an aluminum bench, took a sip, and opened Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground.
One Saturday night soon after, my friend Glenn and I were leaving a downtown gallery opening when I decided to share my find. “I’ll show you this really cool place,” I told him as we walked down Olive. “I’ll bet hardly a hundred people in the whole city know about it.” At the library we cut in, stepped over a drunk passed out on the sidewalk, and made our way to the narrow walkway back. As we drew near, I tenderly took Glenn’s hand, as if approaching a shrine. “Check it out,” I breathed, gazing into the grotto-like darkness. “In the middle of the day you can go in there and it’s…quiet.” A couple of days later I overheard him reporting to a mutual friend, “My God, the poor woman has managed to find the only sunless spot in all of L.A. Apparently she goes in there and drinks coffee…”
The next week, I drove up to the thousands of acres of urban wilderness known as Griffith Park and hiked to another of my hideouts. Hunkered beneath a patch of fennel, I opened a volume of Japanese haiku. “When in Kyoto…I long for Kyoto,” Bāsho had written. I put down my book, inhaled the smell of eucalyptus, and gazed off into the middle distance, thinking how I am always longing to be some place I’m not, for things to be different than the way I myself make them: to both live in a major city and enjoy the quiet of the country, to drink coffee and yet be calm, to be by myself and yet connect with other people.
On the way home I stopped off at my neighborhood church. St Basil’s is a big melting-pot parish, with five Masses a day. It’s on Wilshire Boulevard, across from Golf World and Budget Rent-a-Car and Tofu House, and there are always people in there–sitting quietly, praying–even in the middle of the day. I found a pew near the back and knelt. I didn’t think about much. I didn’t look much at the other people but I knew and was glad they were there. High above the altar, Christ hung on the cross: symbol of the fact that no matter how far we run, how hard we try to hide, we can never hide from our own conflicted selves. He looked a little sad up there, as if he could use some company. So for awhile I was in Kyoto without longing to be in Kyoto; I was alone but I wasn’t alone; for awhile we all sat together: them, Him, me.
(I wrote and aired this piece several years ago for “All Things Considered.” Here’s the link if you’d like to listen).