Friday, January 16, 2015

Washing the Feet of Lepers

Friends, foes, and psychotherapists kept telling me over the years that volunteer work is a reliable antidote to the numbing boredom to which I am prone, but would I believe them? Well, yes, eventually, as in late 2013, the year I returned to the city of my celebrated youth after 28 years’ self-exile. Feeling ever so noble, I volunteered to help serve lunch to recovering substance abusers and wash the feet of lepers — or maybe I’m just making up the lepers part — at a place called the Dream Center, which had taken over a gigantic old hospital near downtown LA. It was a little Jesusy for my taste. Actually, it was a lot Jesusy for my taste. I lasted one shift.

I volunteered to do graphic design and videography for a succession of organizations like Special Olympics and the Alzheimer’s Association. It’s maddening when paying clients, having no discernible design sense or taste, capriciously ask a designer to ruin his or her work. It might be slightly more maddening when your only payoff is the satisfaction of having done something beautiful for somebody, only to find out that, for instance, they fail to recognize the unfilled/negative/white portion of a composition as integral to the whole’s things balance. In a couple of cases, I would spend days designing a quite snazzy brochure for an organization that then wouldn’t trouble itself even to acknowledge the work I’d done.

I signed up with Taproot, the big national organization that matches Advertising Professionals and Worthy Charities. Self-infatuated imbeciles! It took me months to get through their heads than I'm a creative director/graphic designer/copywriter, rather than a photographer. Finally, I got interviewed on the phone by a Project Manager who deemed me unsuitable for his…ahem…creative team when I wondered aloud how he projected it taking six months to produce a little brochure that I, working alone, could have done, and done well, in four hours. Meetings, you see. Lots of 'em.

But then I volunteered to tutor in the LA Public Library’s adult literacy program, and loved it — loved it! — from my first five minutes with my first student, a 22-year-old busboy from Oaxaca. Spending that first hour with him, it occurred to me that if I’d seen him on the bus (LA buses have a very significant Oaxacan ridership), I’d never have guessed how very smart he was, and how very sweet. As we became friends, he came to confide in me, telling me how his childhood had been one long uninterrupted nightmare owing to his apparently mentally ill father’s religious obsessions. I began seeing my fellow bus passengers in an entirely new, much richer, way.

I took another of my students, one of the most buoyant people it’s ever been my privilege to know, to lunch the other day. The day we met, he was so shy as to be barely able to speak to me. Yet here he was several months later telling me how, when he came to California from Central America at 17, he was in a gang, in which he secured membership by stealing a shotgun out of a LAPD patrol car in a donut shop parking lot. He’s now a very committed Christian, and an altogether wonderful man. “Whatever gets you through the night, mister,” I tease him about the Jesusy stuff. He’s an exemplarily good sport about it, as he is about everything else in life.

I have three Korean women students too. One is a proctologist’s wife, and one a diplomat’s. At the beginning, I found the former hopelessly inscrutable, and not much fun to work with. I can’t begin to express how gratifying it’s been for us to develop an actual friendship, one in which we confide in each other. When she returns to teaching middle school in Korea next month, I will miss her terribly, though she’s happily accepted my invitation to invite me into her classroom via Skype. I’m thrilled by the thought of being able to converse with her students in real time.

Yesterday I told the diplomat’s wife how beautiful she is, and what a wonderful moment that was, as she never hears it from her husband. Apparently that sort of thing just isn’t done in Korea.

Late this afternoon, I will conduct my first Conversational English class at a venerable, slightly grubby library in Koreatown, in which a great many Latinos live too. I haven't the faintest doubt that my life is going to be immeasurably enriched by the new friends I’ll make.

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