I noticed her even before I descended the stairs that led down to Echo Park lake. Thin as a rail, disheveled, and naked from the waist up, she was hard to miss. She was probably in her thirties, and had just emerged from a tent set up between the pedestrian path and the edge of the lake. It was still early for a Sunday, about 9:30 a.m. to be exact – and there’s a reason why I can be exact; I’ll explain that in moment.
By the time I made it down to her level and joined the first joggers and dog-walkers of the day on the path, she had sat down at one end of a park bench, an elderly retiree at the other end, and begun to rant. Would I be able to get past her without getting involved? Not today. Maybe it was the backpack (which holds my field kit for outdoor painting) that made her think I was, if not exactly homeless like her, at least a fellow traveller, member of some affiliated tribe of outsider or itinerant. She fixed me squarely with her eyes as I drew closer. “Will you get me my tee shirt?” It was an odd request, to be sure, but that wasn’t surprising coming from someone who was clearly in distress. In fact, I was relieved – she needed help and here was something I could actually do. Clearly she was having a hard time pulling things together this morning and I assumed she wanted me to retrieve the shirt from her tent nearby. “Where is it?” I asked. Without looking at him, she extended the full length of her very skinny arm toward the elderly man at the other end of the bench – “On his back.” Suddenly, I was in over my head. I looked at the old-timer who, without a trace of rancor, patiently shook his head and shrugged his shoulders to indicate that he’d been trying to reason with the woman, but it was hopeless. I began to scour my brain to remember what clothing I had in my truck. Should I take off my own shirt? Would she wait here while I dashed back to grab a hoodie or a sweater I might give her? -“Cuz if he don’t give it to me, how’m I supposed to get over to St. Paul the Apostle’s today?”
That hurt. The reason I know it was 9:30 am that morning is because I had just driven over from the 8:00 am mass at Our Lady of the Angels. It had become my Sunday routine: mass, then stop off at Echo Park on the way home to walk the dog on the one-mile or so loop around the lake. I bring a thermos and often it’s me parked right there in my Sunday best where that old guy was today, staring out over the lake with Ollie at my feet. We sit for a while, then load back into the truck and head home. But home was an empty nest now, so there was no rush to get back. I had become fond of this detour, where I could spend time in the company of strangers, enjoy the lake, people-watch, and share a public space with fellow Angelenos.
It felt like we were all in a huge backyard, like we had something in common, like we were all – for a few hours every Sunday morning – in this together. The lady at the coffee cart. The hipsters. The folks setting up their food stands. The neighborhood toughs. Everybody. White folks, Asians, brown folks, black folks, everybody. I was drawn to the mix so much, in fact, that I thought this could be the first place I would set up to paint in public. I had done landscapes in workshop settings, but that was with a group of other students on locations off the beaten track. This was different: it was urban, there were lots of people, I would be conspicuous, and that made me nervous. But that very public quality is what I liked here. The park was an emerald-green gem in a black-asphalt setting. A bucolic scene fractured by telephone lines and crowded by apartment buildings around the perimeter. Today was going to be my first try. But before I could begin, I ran into her.
By now she was holding a piece of cardboard over her breasts, and the feeling of Christian responsibility – which I take seriously – the strong desire to do something to help this person out of this jam was smothered by a complete inability to be of any use at all. Before I could offer to drop the backpack and give her my own shirt, she had scurried back into her tent. End of story; all anyone could do now was leave her alone.
I walked on. I scouted out a view to paint, a spot where I could set up along the path. I produced the view you see above of the lotus beds in water. It could be a pond on a country estate. It could be a scene in a botanical garden. It could be somewhere out in the country. It could be many beautiful places, but that is not what I wanted to paint. It is not what Echo Park looked like that day.