By Ryan Duggan

Exiting Union Station in the early morning rush can be quite an adventure. I’ve never flown any helicopter missions or been a part of any real political intrigue, but, shuffling in and out of thousands of people on a Thursday morning in Los Angeles can feel every bit as dangerous. Weaving your way through crowds of intense faces, strolling under the portico of that unbelievable architecture and taking in the smell of brewing coffee, fresh bagels and various human scents, while departure times are yelled out of a loud speaker is enough to shake even the most meditative soul out of any sweetened slumber. It’s a difficult time to stop and smell the proverbial roses.

As I finally emerged this morning into the great Angelino January chill outside of Union Station, I took a walk around the streets of Los Angeles and I started to feel just as overwhelmed as I was navigating through the train station maze of people. Gazing up at the cold glass windows of skyscrapers, looking across at the brightly colored ground level cafes, the obscenity of the filthy rich living and working directly above the streets of suffering, where thousands live with the indignity of having to beg and plead for a helping hand, I started to feel out of balance. This juxtaposition is an odd one, as the unfolding human comedy tends to prefer sharp contrasts and drastic discrepancies within the same scene, as if to clearly articulate the strange inequality of life on Planet L.A.

As the cars honked, swerved and hollered, they all seemed to be impatiently, often angrily, racing to some temporary destination, apparently convinced that this is all some kind of an elaborate competition. In these situations, I try to combat this, in my own way, by offering a smile to anyone and everyone, hoping to make a sincere momentary human connection, hoping that someone will make break out of this dream of separation and experience a minute of collective realization with me. I am convinced that those in the street and those in the glass structures both have something to teach myself and all of us. It would become very evident this morning.

As I shuffled across the busy crosswalk at Alameda, two men started yelling at one another out of their car windows. One of the gentlemen apparently cut the other one off a few seconds earlier in traffic. Whoever was the offender, I didn’t notice. Both men, however, seemed quite intent on verbally inserting their own particular right to be first in line. Again, it seemed to be some sort of elaborate competition unfolding before my eyes.

I don’t really blame my motorist friends or the people shuffling through the train terminal. Who could? In 21st century America, we are inundated, daily, with an intricate tapestry of commercial yawping that supports this theory of competition. Various electronic advertisements are geared to remind us, in some cases even to shame us into believing that we’re somehow lacking something or other and that our soul will not feel complete and authentic until we have as much or more of that particular something or other than the next guy.

When we take all of this into account, the larger fuzzy picture begins to take a clearer shape. Thousands of my fellow Angelinos racing around, every day, trying to keep pace and maybe even get more than those around them, perpetuating that strange human comedy, starts to feel like an obvious response to that advertising circus. We know we are going truly mad when we can justify the madness. The reality of the game at play can be isolating and cold, even for a naïve little bodhisattva like myself.

Then, just as I started to feel shackled to sadness and the trappings of egoself, something miraculous occurred. Just as these images started to compound in my brain and break my spiritual stride, just as I started to slink and feel a little bit of sadness at all of this unfair human business , this blatant disconnect and isolating individualism unfolding around me, I saw the most beautiful thing I’ve seen since the birth of my son. I saw a homeless man smelling the roses lined up against the fence on Olvera Street. He was dressed almost in rags, with a torn brown coat, virtually clothed in dirt and yet, he patiently closed his eyes and slowly took in the fragrance. Deep, sincere breaths seemed to fill his soul with profundity and his eyes with gratitude.

As I started to visually pan out, I could see the entire human story unfolding around him, just as it was in the moments before. Cars were still honking, lights were still flickering and people were still racing to countless destinations, seemingly afraid or unwilling to look at or engage one another.

I started to walk toward this gentleman of the street, not really knowing what I was going to say or do, only knowing I was grateful for the lesson he was bestowing upon me. I wanted to look in his eyes and acknowledge the God in him, maybe offer him a dollar or two to nourish his hunger.

As I crossed the street and stood a few feet behind him, he suddenly seemed to become aware of my presence. In a broken voice, he asked if I had smelled the roses there before. I told him I hadn’t and he motioned for me to take my turn.

I turned around and saw that the man was now standing a few paces away from me, waiting for his turn to once again take a whiff of these magnificent roses. “God is Good,” he told me, in a manner generally bestowed upon saints and those who have spent lifetimes understanding the human condition. “Seems like some of these people might be too busy to realize it,” I responded.

And, just then, my displaced brother, in his infinite wisdom, empathetically declared, “They will, once they figure out how to wait.”

I’m 31 years old. Though I am fascinated by most of the world, I must admit that I’ve never experienced Machu Picchu. I’ve never seen the sun set over Stonehenge. I’ve never barreled across the moonlit Atlantic on a luxury steamer, but what I saw this morning was just as profound.

In the shadow of corporate luxury and the cruel reality of indifferent decadence cohabitating with horrific hunger and displaced bodies on the mean streets of Los Angeles, I saw morning dew drops on red and yellow roses. And I saw God, on Olvera Street.