In the middle of Koreatown is a public "park," a patch of concrete with a net in the middle. Men gather here to play badminton just after dawn. Now and again, a flock of birds gusts restlessly into the air from a nearby tree. The men stop and watch, caught by some faint memory, perhaps.
Wander up and down the dark hills around that park--hills leveled beneath the concrete, the earth beneath the trash. Listen, above the spewing traffic, to the birds calling through 100 windows. In the oldest apartment buildings and houses live caged songbirds--reminders of a land-wise time, of distant mountains and forests, of man's very soul. So strong is the drive to touch something man cannot make, that, in the poorest room and from the barest table, crumbs will be found to share.
Birds with their magical power of flight: symbols of freedom and space. The souls of the faithful around the Tree of Life; the Phoenix rising from the ashes; the Emperor's forgotten nightingale: myth and comfort both.
On the edge of Koreatown, on Beverly Boulevard, David Ahn has his bird shop. It teems with color, movement and song, with birds of every kind--baby chickens for $1, exotic parrots for hundreds. Zebra finches, nectar-eating lorikeets, noisy conures, macaws and canaries--2,000 birds, hardly ever still, a cacophony of singing and chattering.
Most of David Ahn's customers are from Latin America. Old, old ladies who once knew color, music, life and must see something of their young selves in these tiny birds, jewel-like, inquisitive. Families in their work clothes, drab and anonymous, drawn to the birds from their country, exotically and brilliantly plumed.
A sullen janitor, bundle of keys jangling, points without a word at a finch. Tenderly, tenderly, he cradles it in his huge, rough hand. His smile is ackward, shy--what small use he must have for it.
A couple of nurses come for advice about pigeons they have saved, sick yard birds they have taken in. People are always coming to Ahn for advice. No one asks how he knows, or if he knows. They need him to be the "wise man from the East," savant and healer. Thus we label one another without even noticing. And David Ahn reaches for ointments and pills, listening intently, advising sagely, knowing only too well how delicate are the lives of caged birds meant for other lands--and of their owners held prisoner by poverty.
He has had this shop for 10 years. He thought birds would be less work than housepainting, which he tried first. Not that he knew much of either from his young life in Seoul. In Korea, he was a man of the city, an inspector in the customs house. He spent 20 years secure in government rules and regulations, a man with a straight back and clean hands.
Now he sees himself as powerless, a man who waits on the pleasure of others. When vandals stole his birds in the brazen daylight, he stood by helplessly. Sometimes, when no customers are around, he punches and kicks into the empty air, a veritable master of martial arts. But the courage and black belt are all in his imagination. When gunmen actually came, he turned his head to the wall both times and begged them to take his money.
He still keeps the door to the store wide open. He still busies himself at the back with birds and cages, as if pride arms him against caution and fear. And in the midst of all the stress, uncertainty and overcrowding, glorious songs full of innocence and beauty soar from the line of cages. Ahn keeps his own music by the till to study in odd moments for his choir practice: "Great and glorious is the name of the Lord of Hosts!" From this unlikely tenor emerges a light and pure voice, flying over the room, caressing each note, lovingly investing each word with meaning. In the darkest moments, the song survives.
In the wild, a bird hides weakness or sickness at all costs, knowing that to reveal either is to become another's prey. Birds and men alike--redeemed by the mercy of their own courage.