LIFE, like good theater, is full of surprises and unexpected twists in the plot. How satisfying it is when we can surprise ourselves, break through stereotypes, and move beyond fear to embrace more compassionate points of view. I experienced this on a recent trip to Los Angeles.
I drove into the city at sunset, into the older part of downtown where turn-of-the-century office buildings barely hold their own against the rising tide of urban decay. As the sun gilded skyscrapers, broken neon signs flickered in the windows of delicatessens and novelty shops on Spring Street. Old newspapers blew up and down the sidewalks, fluttering like wounded birds in debris-laden corners. Winos and addicts slumped against buildings or lay down on the sidewalk to catch a few moments of merciful sle ep. Drugs were being sold on the street corners. Disoriented men and women wandered listlessly about, some of them shouting, some of them just staring blankly ahead.
An old woman pushed a broken-down supermarket cart filled with faded clothes and torn shopping bags. A tired-looking man held up a sign scrawled on cardboard: "Will work for food."
Shiny BMW's and Mercedes whispered through the darkening streets, bearing tired executives home to well-watered gardens.
I was early, and the parking lot next to the theater was still almost empty. A bored-looking attendant stood by the gate to keep the homeless and the drunks from accosting the arriving theatergoers. A restless, warm wind tossed newspapers in front of my car.
An angry-looking man in a black coat three sizes too large for him shuffled by, trying to get the attention of anyone who might listen to his litany of complaints about the government.
I felt uncomfortable and looked forward to getting inside the pristine marble foyer of the theater, and then into the performance itself. There, for a few hours, we the audience would suspend our disbelief and enter into an imaginary world where we would laugh and cry and be entertained. For a few hours, we would forget our own problems and the problems of the world, which in this immediate area appeared to be a vivid reality of suffering that pressed upon one at every turn.
I drove to the back of the lot and parked, dreading the walk to the theater entrance, haunted by questions. Should I hand out dollar bills to those in need? Should I stop and try to talk if someone seemed rational? Should I carry a supply of Salvation Army meal tickets for occasions like this?
I gathered my courage and got out of the car. As I locked the door, I heard a voice calling to me. "Hey, can you spare some change?" I froze with dread and looked up. On the other side of the 10-foot chain-link fence I saw a man. His hands gripped the wire. His head was shrouded in the navy-blue hood of a stained, torn jacket.
Suddenly I was painfully aware of my glistening car and colorful clothes. I felt frightened and awkward, even with the fence separating us. Was I in danger? Did he have a gun? Was he going to shout at me, ask questions I could not answer, make me feel guilty for having so much when there are so many who have so little?
I saw in my mind's eye a sunset scene from the airport in Jakarta, where the plane I was on had stopped to refuel. There was a similar fence, but against that fence hundreds of people crowded, looking hostile, saying with their eyes and in a language I could not understand, "You are the enemy. We do not want you here. Go home."
Even with the fence as a barrier between us, I could feel the hatred, and I felt helpless to do anything about it except send back thoughts of peace, respect, and compassion.
Now I had a choice. I could turn and walk away. I could move closer, perhaps say a kind word. The man called again, "Hey, Beam!" I was startled for a moment, but then I realized that he could see my license plate, "BEAM 1." "Hey, Beam, I need to eat. Can you help me out?"
A force larger than my intellect or my sense of danger drew me toward the fence. I was painfully aware that the total cost of what I was wearing could feed this man for several months. I kept my eyes on the ground. I seemed to be moving slowly, as if in a dream, wanting to help but not knowing how, my feet feeling heavy yet moving ahead anyway.
I reached the fence and looked up. I looked first at the stained hands holding onto the fence, then I looked into the eyes. They were kind, even friendly. The man smiled a shy smile.
"What's your name?" I asked. My feet felt lighter. My fear hung in the air between us. In my imagination, I watched it evaporate, like a cloud of steam.
"Eddie," he replied.
I handed him a $10 bill. "Get yourself a good dinner, Eddie."
"Thanks, Beam. I really appreciate this."
I felt tears trembling behind my eyelids, and I turned to walk away.
"You be good, Eddie," I said over my shoulder.
In two minutes, I was in the crowded theater lobby, threading my way through well-dressed theatergoers. I was detached, remembering Eddie's kind eyes, his hands holding the fence, his playful smile. I realized, with some sadness, that it was quite possible I'd just given an addict the money for his next hit of crack or worse, and I did not feel very good about this. The play began, and for three hours I disappeared into a mythic world of illusion, transformation, and redemption. The basic message: Within
every dragon is a princess, and within every inferno there is a paradise, if we know what to look for and if we have the eyes and the heart to see.
I found myself thinking kind thoughts about Eddie, sending him kindness in the night, knowing all was well with him. As I left the theater, there was a gathering of rumpled, untidy street people at the theater entrance. Some people stopped to visit with them, give them a few dollars. Others walked by, lost in their own worlds. By the time I got to the parking lot, many of the cars had left, and the attendant was no longer there.
As I walked to the back of the lot to get my car, I noticed a man, leaning against the fence, right where Eddie had been, and my heart froze.
I stopped. The man called out: "Hey, Beam, come here a minute."
I felt as though I had no choice. My humanity, compassion, or maybe just sheer craziness would not let me turn away. I walked to the fence and looked Eddie in the eyes, those kind brown eyes. I felt my fear dissolving again, watched that imaginary cloud disappear.
"I had a great dinner. I waited around for you because I wanted to thank you. I don't need any more money. I just really appreciate your kindness. It helps. I was a medic in 'Nam."
We visited for a few moments. I began to feel badly about the fence. I was safe. There was no danger. I thought about the many kinds of fences we put up in our lives, and about how much we shut out. My fear was gone. We laughed and joked a bit. I told him I had to get on my way, as I had a long drive home. "You be good, Eddie," I said. "God loves you a lot."
"God loves you, too."
I got in my car and looked back at the place where he had been, but there was only a pool of light from the streetlamp.