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Where I Live by Heather King

Amid the isolation, cacophony

In Koreatown, a brisk stroll breaks the solitude as garlic and Beethoven waft by.

August 05, 2004|Heather King


own little pieces of personal L.A. history, and one of mine is in Koreatown, at the corner of Oxford Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard. It's the office building where I worked as a lawyer in 1992 and, walking around the neighborhood on my lunch hour, found the apartment in which I still live: a 1 1/2 -bedroom with high ceilings, French windows and hardwood floors for $675 a month. I've been walking ever since.

"Great problems are in the street," Nietzsche said, and as a writer, living alone, I not only need to get out and see that other folks are struggling too, I need to get out, period. Koreatown is nothing if not a melting pot, and walking out one's door into this mixture of the mundane and the exotic is stimulating stuff: the Armenian cobbler, the Cuban cigar store (for panatelas to send to my ex-husband back East), the Vietnamese salon in a mini-mall just off Arlington Avenue, where Mai gives soothing pedicures.

As a white person, I'm a minority in Koreatown, and if that gives me the solitude I need for my work, it also makes the moments of community seem that much more precious. I stop in so often at the Pio Pico-Koreatown branch library to pick up reserved books that the security guard once asked if I worked there; Crystal, the junkie who begs change outside the 7-Eleven, asks if I've had anything published lately.

Everything's within walking distance: one mango, two eggs, an eggplant at the corner produce truck, $2.99 bags of frozen pork dumplings at the Assi Supermarket, the strange little bazaar off Western Avenue, where, every June for a week or so, I buy a pound of cherries a day. Food -- comfort, color, connection -- is a big thing in Koreatown. A stone's throw from the nondescript copy centers and anonymous dentist offices of the Wilshire Corridor, there's Vim's for chow foon with shrimp and Chinese broccoli, La Plancha for 99-cent pupusas, Kobawoo House for mung bean pancakes and kimchi. At the local 24-Hour Fitness, the air is thick with the smell of garlic.

One thing I've noticed from walking is that the poor, the weary, the marginalized always have a kind word or a smile for me. This is something to be grateful for when, as happens so frequently in the press of urban life, I am feeling particularly poor and weary myself. Waiting for the light to change at the corner of Wilton Place and 8th Street one recent afternoon, for instance, I found myself standing next to a guy from the nearby board-and-care, cigarette with an inch ash. He looked me over and took a long drag on his cigarette.

"So what else have you been doing besides building log cabins?" he asked.

"Nothin' much," I replied. "Just wandering around looking at the flowers."

He nodded approvingly -- it was as if we'd taken up a conversation we'd begun years ago and would take up again 20 years hence -- and we continued in that vein for several blocks, parting as friends.

Just when I think I know the neighborhood inside out, I discover someplace new: Liborio's Market, for a can of coconut in heavy syrup; the First Congregational Church thrift store at Commonwealth and 6th, where I find a copy of "Onions in the Stew," by one of my favorite writers: the late Betty MacDonald.

There are adventures: the Sunday morning that Eloise, my friend Clam's 8-year-old daughter, drags me around the K'town Plaza and the K'town Galleria on a quest for a bubblegum cellphone.

There are surprises: the morning I walk to the corner and find that overnight, the name of the closest cross street has been changed from 9th Street to James M. Wood Boulevard.

There is serendipity: a chamber music concert at St. Thomas the Apostle from which I walk the dark streets home wrapped safe in the closing bars of Mozart's Flute Quartet in D major.

Friday morning I walk to St. Basil's, where my friend Father Terry says the 8 o'clock Mass: I get the Filipino Eucharistic minister who says "the body of Chrissssss" (no T), which drives me nuts but also makes me glad all over again I'm a Catholic, as Jesus liked nothing better than hanging out with broken-down prostitutes and homeless people and folks who didn't have perfect diction.

Sipping a coffee outside the Serrano Avenue Starbucks afterward, I watch the passing parade: tens of thousands of lives intersecting, then going off in their own directions; colliding, picking themselves up and gathering themselves to begin anew; the smallest act -- the chance smile, the random act of rudeness -- rippling out to our fellows in unseen ways.

I think of the parallel life that haunts us all, the baffling suspicion that things would be better in some other place, if only we could find it. "Always you will arrive in this city," Constantine Cavafy wrote of his native Alexandria. "Do not hope for any other...."

For a minute I forget I have responsibilities, work, a life. If I sit here all day I'll be able to look west on Wilshire and, half a mile down, watch the Romanesque tower of the United Methodist Church catch the rays of the setting sun.

I can never quite tell whether I'm losing myself or finding myself in Koreatown, and I remember the exact day when I realized perhaps it didn't matter. It was the afternoon I left my apartment to walk down San Marino Street and, through the window of a rundown tract house, heard the halting strains of the same Beethoven sonata I'd just played on my own piano.

Heather King is a commentator for NPR's "All Things Considered" and the author of "Parched," a memoir forthcoming from Putnam Penguin.

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