The day at Pershing Square begins with the sky turning yellow over the buildings of the Jewelry Mart, and with a 64-year-old homeless man named Edward Reifsteck claiming his spot on one of the park's concrete benches.
By 6:30 a.m., he's packed up his tent on Los Angeles Street and walked the four blocks to the park. I found him there just after noon with "The Story of Bohemia," a book from the nearby Central Library, reading, scratching his chin and looking out across a landscape of fountains and fake snow.
"I come for the peace and quiet," he told me. And also because he and his friends on the park benches never know what they'll see there next.
They watch loft residents walk their dogs and pigeon-hunting hawks swoop down between the office buildings. They listen to people deliver monologues — usually of the schizophrenic or religious variety.
"It's a good vibe. Everyone's in the Christmas spirit," said Leon Lautalo, a park security guard from Hawaii who's spending his first holiday season in L.A. He rattled off a list of the park's holiday happenings: "jugglers, snow sleds, a train for the kids…"
People-watching, bench-sitting and Christmas-celebrating are traditions that have endured for more than a century in Pershing Square's five acres.
Until Jan. 17, you can go there to ice skate — on a rink the size of a basketball court. Daniel Rodriguez, 16, laced up skates and promptly landed on his butt as his friends laughed. "Let's see you top that," he said, chuckling.
There are lots of places in L.A. that will give you a simulated Christmas in the city, with Santas, snow and even trolley cars on cobblestone streets. But most of those places are just malls, really, pretending to be something they're not.
The temporary rink the city installed for "Downtown on Ice" sits at an authentic municipal crossroads. It's a public park in the shadow of the Biltmore Hotel — where L.A.'s most famous crime victim, the Black Dahlia, was last seen alive, in 1947.
First laid out as a park more than a century ago, Pershing Square has hosted political protests and celebrations of civic pride going back to the time of the Spanish-American War.
This week there were skaters speaking Spanish, Mandarin and more. And there was Tucker Fisher, a 20-year-old from New York who for an hour was the best skater on the ice. He glided backward and did figure-eights in the sun, wearing a backpack and rose-colored glasses.
"I used to do this in Central Park," said Fisher, a UC Davis student visiting L.A. on vacation. "It's a pretty nice vista here. It's not quite as crisp as New York, and that's nice too."
Pershing Square actually used to be called Central Park. And it's still in the center of the city, both geographically and metaphorically, tucked between U.S. Immigration Court, the Art Deco tower of the Oviatt Building, a subway station and bus lines that reach to the edges of the city.
On my visit to Pershing Square this week, I emerged from the Metro station and found three girls flipping the bird to someone inside a No. 2 bus. They laughed and walked down Hill Street, past the spot where police drop off a bag of money for Dennis Hopper in the film "Speed."
Hours later, at the opposite end of the square, I listened to the poetic language of three skateboarders. "Ollie up, one-eighty up, half-cab off," called out Travis, 25, who then tried to perform that trick on the concrete stairs. His skateboard spun in the air, struck a stair and then fell to the sidewalk, though he couldn't quite stick the landing.
The legendary L.A. writer Carey McWilliams wandered through Pershing Square in the 1930s. He listened to boys hawking newspapers with crime news — a USC football player charged with robbing a bank — and found a group of men watching a "frowsy blonde" singing a gospel hymn.
"Here, indeed, was the place for me," McWilliams wrote in a passage etched into a Pershing Square wall. "A ringside seat at the circus."
My sense is that the Pershing Square circus is tamer than it used to be. But it's still a place where the crosscurrents of many different L.A.s meet and mix.
Kathy Casper, 52, a homeless woman originally from Long Island, arrived in L.A. from Arizona a few months back, having been hit hard by illness and the recession.
"This place is more personable," she said as she sat on a bench. "I lived in New York. I couldn't be homeless in New York. This is sort of like being there but not as cold."
Leroy, the man on her left, was from Georgia. On her right was Reifsteck, who spoke of his travels — to Las Vegas, El Paso, Tennessee.
Listening to them, and reading those McWilliams lines, it occurred to me that transience has always been part of the American character, and that L.A. may still be the capital of American wanderlust. Pershing Square is still a good place to observe the comings and goings of this free-spirited city.
Just before the rink closed at 10 p.m., I found Santa Claus smoking a cigarette at the corner of 5th and Hill.
Donald Dail, 49, said he had spent the day in his Santa suit, trying to raise money for homeless kids he knows. "I was at Crenshaw and Century, and after a while people stopped paying attention to me," he said. "Then I went to Hollywood. And no one paid attention to me there."
So now he was headed back to his trailer in South L.A., waiting for the southbound 81 bus. A car sped by and the driver inside shouted "Ho! Ho! Ho!" It was more mocking than friendly, but Dail didn't seem to mind.
Many buses passed, none of them his, while the Christmas lights of Pershing Square shone on, coloring the misty night air red and green.