There is a hummingbird’s nest in the strawberry tree outside the kitchen window. It was my dad who saw it first—a little mesh of twigs and pine needles and other birds’ feathers. He came to get me from the living room; told me he had something to show me outside. I pulled on my mum’s rain boots and stepped, shivering, out into the drizzle. “Just up there.” He pointed. “See her?” It was dark and the light coming from the kitchen windows did little to illuminate the leaves.
“Just there, see the tiny nest? She’s looking at us.” I followed his finger, saw a little rustle of movement as the hummingbird poked her head out over the lip of the nest. She regarded us first from one little beady eye, and then from the other.
I’d never seen a hummingbird so still. Never actually seen one with folded wings. She was beautiful, her little golden-green back shimmering in the kitchen lights and the fairy feathers atop her head slightly raised as she looked down at us. She seemed so perfect, so unafraid—I could see a tremor in her chest where her heart must have been going at twice its normal rate, but she gave no outward sign of fear as she stared cooly back at me. I wanted to reach up and touch her, hold her in my hand and rub my thumb along her minuscule, gem-like feathers. She was close enough to touch—I need only have stretched up on tip-toe to break the moment and send her into paroxysms of fright. But to do that would have been to rob her of her significance. Here was this little creature staring back at me with all the imperiousness of a queen; this miraculous little creature with the heart that beat ten times a second, the heart one five hundredth the size of mine, the heart that would cease to beat years and years and years before mine even began to falter.
And she is outside my house; in my neighborhood; in my city. And she and I live here; we are supported here; we thrive here. She, the miracle in miniature, evidence of a life and beauty miraculous irrespective of place, lives alongside me in a one-hundred-year-old tree beside our one-hundred-year-old house on a little hill in the heart of a young metropolis. And that she can exist in the center of this, the second most populated city in the United States, is miracle enough.
But this, the City of Angels, is a city of miracles, too.
Many people do not understand Los Angeles. Titles like “the gang capital of America,” helped along by a myriad of cop shows starting with Dragnet, tend to dominate people’s perception of the city—and I must admit that sometimes even I am nearly convinced of it when I’m late to school because the S.W.A.T. team shut down Olympic, and it wasn’t for a movie. But yet, in how many other places in the world can you leave your window open at night and hear not only the sounds of traffic which are, to a city kid, as good as any lullaby, but also the rare strains of an operatic suite borne down to you on the wind from the Hollywood Bowl? In how many other cities can you stare out your bedroom window listening to the birds that sing at night while spotlights dance across the sky? In how many other cities in the world can you live in a community where your closest neighbors are Korean, Latino, African-American, and Italian and it doesn’t make a difference? In how many other cities can there be, in a five-block radius, a Meher-Baba institute, a Mormon church, a crumbling Catholic church used both by an Ethiopian congregation and a Korean one, and a synagogue all at once? Name me one other, and perhaps this city will lose some of its luster for me, but as things stand, I’ve only awe for its intricacies.
Admittedly, it was not always this way. I used to dream about moving somewhere where it rained from the sky and not from the sprinklers. Somewhere I could say I lived without people automatically assuming that I either surfed, gang-banged, or knew Matt Damon personally.
But Los Angeles grows on you slowly and then, suddenly, one day, bam! You’re in love. For me it happened the day I returned from a three month absence during which I had not—even for one day—missed my hometown. But as my plane circled and I saw below me the lights of LA (slightly blurred by pollution—or was it fog?) I suddenly realized the brilliance of the city which I had been yearning to get out of all my life. This city which could at once hold the nest of a tiny, perfect hummingbird, and at the same time, thirteen million people.
Driving home from the airport at three in the morning, I examined every crack in the tarmac, every thrift shop, neon sign, palm tree, dilapidated Victorian house and abandoned mid-century gas station (of which there are more than you’d think) with a new appreciation. Los Angeles may be known for her stars, but they’re not the things that shape the city. The people are. And there is far less beauty in staring at a bit of star-shaped terazzo in the pavement, than there is in a glimpse of a simple cast-iron lamppost on a street corner (though, I guess I’m not the only person in LA who appreciates the old lampposts now that Chris Burden has relocated two-hundred-and-two of them to an installation at LACMA).
Los Angeles, to an outsider, is an amalgamation of movie studios and celebrities, wide streets and red carpets—nothing more. Outsiders don’t realize that LA’s population is not comprised of millions of movie extras, hired by media execs to fill up the shot. People are born, live, work, and die here. This is their home. And do you think anyone who lives here, anyone one of us, defines our home by stars on a sidewalk or letters on a hill? No. Our world is one of perfect hummingbirds, favorite coffee shops, and the man at the park selling the most delicious papusas you have ever tasted. Our world is even one in which we watch fires ravage the slopes of our mountains from our front porches.
I know hardly anyone whose parents were born in Los Angeles. Most people here have roots far away and have come to Los Angeles for some version or another of a dream. And it is this unsevered allegiance to the rest of the world that creates the largely unprejudiced diversity of Los Angeles. No one has a real right to call this their home and so everyone does and no one questions it. Los Angeles’s great unifying feature is that we have no defining feature. We come from every part of the spectrum, every corner of the world.
I’m growing up in one of the most historically diverse neighborhoods in the city and as a result, I take LA’s variety largely for granted. Not everywhere can you knock on fifteen doors and get fifteen or more countries represented. But I am lucky enough that, for me, diversity is a fact of life. At an LA redistricting hearing I listened as people got up and praised Los Angeles’s diversity, but was surprised to hear a good number actually advocate for neighborhoods based more on race than geography. In the midst of it all, I heard our neighbor, an African-American woman, turn and ask under her breath “Are you from the black neighborhood or the white neighborhood? ‘Cause I’m from the people neighborhood.” She was right. What it boiled down to wasn’t district lines, or ethnic ones, but the small very mixed historic communities which define Los Angeles and which, from the standpoint of all those city officials, now seemed beyond unimportant.
And it set me thinking that really, whether they like it or not, everyone in LA is from “the people neighborhood.” Of course there are the attempts at demarcation like “Korea Town” and “Little Ethiopia,” but in Los Angeles these are sometimes arbitrary, even commercial names and as one city official pointed out during the hearing, seventy-six percent of Korea Town is Latino anyway.
Maybe in Los Angeles, it’s not about race or affluence; it’s about mindset. Maybe, there are really three LAs: the city of the tourist, the city of dreamer, and the city of the long-time resident. The tourist who comes to Los Angeles is no dreamer himself, but merely a voyeur, eager to watch the dream happen. This tourist’s stay in LA is most likely to be disappointing: a tour in an open-roofed bus means an endless succession of celebrities’ hedges; the Hollywood sign turns out to be surrounded by a chain-link fence; and the water at those famous Californian beaches is actually less than pacific. And so the tourist leaves the city of dreams, the victim of a painful reality check.
The second Los Angeles is that of the dreamer who knows that any second he will turn the corner and bump into one of the Weinstein Brothers (or both of them if he’s lucky), be invited to lunch where he will divulge his plans for Hollywood’s next greatest hit, and two weeks later he’ll be shouting orders at Leonardo DiCaprio through a megaphone. The Los Angeles of the dreamer is a perpetually sunny place whose import is measured by its proximity to fame. To have an office in the building from which John Wayne used to drop billiard balls on the passers-by is considered the last word in chic in the dreamer’s world. They, too, need a reality check.
The third Los Angeles is different. And it is real. And this one, my Los Angeles, could be a model for the world, thanks to the diversity of its people and their success at living together. This Los Angeles belongs to the life-time and long-time residents; it belongs to me. This is the Los Angeles to raise your children in; take them to the park, the movies, and the theater in. In this LA you might go to school with Miranda Cosgrove or Dakota Fanning, but it doesn’t matter. They’re fixtures of life and only important to those who aren’t in the know, to those on the outside who are distracted by the shiny tip of the iceberg. But the real Angelenos know what Los Angeles really has to offer: infinite variety and genuine people. The real Angelenos know that somewhere in all that chaos there’s a tiny hummingbird in a tiny nest staring right back at them.