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Los Angeles and the ‘Bird Man’

Learning to seek the welfare of the city, from the greatest to the least

Los Angeles and the ‘Bird Man’

A woman walks on a bridge as heavy traffic moves along the 110 Freeway in Los Angeles (Jae C. Hong/AP)

If there was ever a city people love to hate, it’s Los Angeles. After living in this sprawling, dusty, smoggy, freeway-gutted, billboard-asphyxiated city for nine years, I’m convinced that we Angelenos love LA as much as we hate it.

I once took a college course on LA in which we compiled a list of famous quotes about the city—and they aren’t very complimentary. People make fun of LA’s superficial glamor: “It’s like paradise with a lobotomy.” They deride its attractiveness, or lack thereof: “Los Angeles is the most beautiful city in the world, as long as it’s seen at night and from a distance.”

People love comparing it with other cities: “There are 6 million interesting people in New York, and only 72 in Los Angeles.” Here’s a cruder comparison: “Los Angeles is like San Diego’s older, uglier sister with herpes.” Some flat-out condemn LA: “God curse this antiseptic, heartless, hateful neon mirage of a city! May its swimming pools be dried up. May all its lights go out forever.” And here’s my favorite: “Tip the world over on its side, and everything loose will land in Los Angeles.”

I’m one of those who landed in LA because they simply didn’t belong elsewhere. I wanted to move as far away as possible from my past in the East Coast, and Los Angeles sounded far. People from all over the world come here to chew, chew, chew off what they need and then spit the city out when they’re done with it. But that also means this city can get very lonely. “LA is the loneliest and most brutal of American cities,” wrote novelist Jack Kerouac, and many of us Angelenos feel it. That sense of loneliness is like the smog that hangs over LA, yellowing the blue skies with its harsh particles, a toxic presence with subtle health effects.

Yet every year, tens of thousands of people move to LA seeking a dream, craving milder temperatures, or escaping from something. I’ve met numerous Christians who tell me they “felt a calling” to the City of Angels. But as they stress out over meeting their $1,500 studio rent payment, struggle to find genuine community and committed dates, and spend a third of their day stuck inside automobiles, they wonder if they heard God right. I’ve never met anyone who declared they loved LA without following up with a “but.” They say, “I love LA, but …” But … the traffic is horrible. But ... the homelessness is terrible. But ... even the public beaches and parks are segregated by race and class. But ... everything here is so ugly and plastic and transient.

Take that street in my neighborhood, for example, where Little Central America meets Historic Filipinotown. I dread that spot, the gateway into the worst freeway in LA, a concrete jungle where loud honks, screeching tires, and waved fists express more rage than verbal swearing. As you inch toward the congested freeway entrance, you can feel your temper rising to meet the ambience. That street also passes under a bridge where transient homeless encampments lie side by side with hills of trash, and the stench of urine and unwashed bodies creeps through car windows. It’s the epitome of all things ugly and disgusting in LA.

Then I started noticing a homeless man who always stands on the sidewalk with his arm out. Birds flutter around him, some perching on his outstretched arm. He’s like Sleeping Beauty singing with the birds, except he’s got a raggedy gray beard and scruffy shoes. I don’t know how many people notice him, but the birds sure do. I began looking out for Bird Man every time I passed that street, chuckling in amusement at the whole scenario.

Then one Sunday, a friend and I were stuck in traffic again at that spot, waiting for our turn to enter the freeway, when Bird Man strolled in between the car lanes, carrying a blue plastic cup jingling with coins. He paused beside our car, and my friend mouthed, “Sorry, no change.” But the man started saying something, so we rolled down the car window. I was expecting him to ask for money, but instead, he told us it was a beautiful day, that we had beautiful smiles. Then he said, “God bless you,” and he waved goodbye as we left.

We exchanged only a few sentences, yet that brief moment was the first time we met eyes. I learned that Bird Man has a voice, a deep raspy one, and a grin revealing teeth that probably haven’t seen a dentist in a while, and crinkly gray eyes. I wondered about his story, how he ended up on the streets in LA—and does anyone care for him besides the birds?

An actor once said, “You’re really nobody in LA unless you live in a house with a really big door.” If that’s true, there are more Nobodys in LA than Somebodys, and that’s not for a lack of trying. We all flock to LA to be Somebody, to catch a glimpse of Somebody, perhaps hoping by proximity we’ll feel like Somebody for a few seconds. That means LA is a city teeming with frustrated, disappointed, envious Nobodys who’ll probably always be a Nobody. No wonder there’s such a love-hate relationship with this City of Stars.

I once read that the best way to change how you feel about your enemy is to regularly pray for that person. That wisdom applies to places as well. A common syndrome I see among fellow Christians who move to LA is that they spend way more energy trying to survive or defeat the city than praying for it.

Instead of constantly complaining about the faults of this city, what if we regularly prayed for its renewal and redemption? What if we lived out Jeremiah 29:7—“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare”—in daily actions both big and small? What if we lived like we already belong to a more glorious, heavenly city, spreading the values of “the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14) rather than living by this world’s values? What if we noticed people like Bird Man—not as another amusing, Instagram-worthy, “That’s so LA” snapshot—but really noticed him, the way he noticed my friend and me enough to tell us we had nice smiles?

Well, I suppose the first thing I can do is find out Bird Man’s real name.