After ringing in the New Year with family in Phoenix, on Sunday we began the drive home. That night we arrived in Marina del Rey, to an LA spooked by a series of New Year's weekend car burnings. While we were sleeping police arrested and charged 24 year old Harry Burkhart with lighting the blazes. Apparently Burkhart's arson was in response to the legal troubles of his mother, who is in the process of being deported to Germany by US authorities. Burkhart is also a German national, and his first words upon his arrest were, "I hate America."
We knew none of these details when we awoke Monday morning. Our first order of business was to watch the Rose Bowl parade on TV, which was taking place over in Pasadena. Eventually we walked around the inlets of Marina del Rey, before heading over to the funky stretch of shops along Abbot Kinney Blvd. in Venice. This was our last stop before heading home.
When we arrived it was lunchtime. After exploring a few places we entered the Abbot's Habit. It was a cafe/coffee shop, buzzing with activity around noontime. We struggled to find a place to sit, but eventually landed in some church pews near the back of the shop. Next to us was a 50 year old white man, reading a book with some concentration. He was slightly ragged but far from disheveled. We asked if we could sit there and if the LA Times on the next table was his. He said we could sit down and joked that we could have the paper "for a small fee."
And so we sat. At first Pi Wen and I were minding our own business, figuring out how long to stay in Venice before we hit the road. Suddenly our neighbor remarked that Occupy LA was planning to have a float in that day's Rose Bowl parade, "which is what I really want to see." I'd seen a bit about this on TV the night before. The occupiers had indeed put together a float, which was not officially part of the parade and would go last. They had worked with police to ensure no violence, and also coordinated an interdenominational New Year's day meeting with various Christian clergy. The occupier's cry for economic justice tracks closely with the words of Jesus, so this seemed to be an inevitable development.
I didn't say most of this to our neighbor. I did say, "Yeah, they have a float that will march last." From there the neighbor became more chatty, talking about how the handcuffs used to arrest the occupiers were sharper than those used to arrest traders at "Goldman Sucks." Supposedly the handcuffs for the occupiers had pinched nerves and left people without sensation in their palms one month later.
This may be true, I do not know. At this juncture I was at risk of tuning out. For it looked like we were headed deep into rhetorical trails I'd traveled hundreds of times before, to the point of becoming numb. Our neighbor was not Harry Burkhart, proclaiming his hatred of the US. That said, his comments were on the same wavelength. This wavelength has value; we do need activists and protesters. But I'm just as skeptical of the critics as of the system they critique.
Just when things were looking grim, the conversation took a surreal turn. Our neighbor started talking about his "daughter." Sure, it was possible for him to have a child. Given his politics and comportment this did not seem likely. A few minutes later the truth was revealed; our neighbor was the sperm donor who had been featured in the documentary Donor Unknown. More than that, his tale had "made the front page of the New York Times twice." He showed me a text from one of the children he'd fathered, in which she wished him a happy new year and called him "dad." The documentary tracks the efforts of several of these children to find each other and their father.
This all seemed legit to me; maybe I wouldn't have been so sure without seeing the text message. Later, after a few moments alone with Google, I confirmed that it all was true and that his name is Jeffrey Harrison. Until recently he'd lived alone in a broken down RV with four pigeons and a dog; this may still be the case.
By now this was a positively fascinating encounter. Pi Wen had been quietly eating and observing this whole time, soaking in the scene. Before we left I asked what he was reading. Turns out it was a treatise by Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi, which appeared to be very well read and annotated. Our neighbor (I didn't yet know his name) noted that Carl Jung had called Maharshi "the whitest spot on a white canvas," and said that Gandhi had sent his people to study with him. Here, then, was the ur-text of non-violent resistance.
Apparently Jung had wanted to study with Maharshi, but decided not to. Jung feared that he would lose all interest in his work in recognition of its cosmic insignificance. If he had made a different decision, we might not have Man and His Symbols today. So I'm glad Jung stuck with it in the face of his own doubt.
Sure, we all die and in the grand scheme our transitory efforts do not matter. But they at least make this world interesting. Jeffrey Harrison was tickled pink that someone out there called him "dad," although this doesn't matter either. But who can blame him?