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Jesus of Echo Park

I first saw the fliers in March. I had parked my car on Bonnie Brae near MacArthur Park, and there it was, folded beneath my wiper, handwritten in English and Spanish and Xeroxed on white copy paper. “Jesus is coming,” the flier announced, “July 7, 2005 to Echo Park 8:00 PM Coming Down to Save Us.” Three thousand birds would precede him. Jesus would lower the rent for the poor, it claimed.

A few weeks later, the fliers were on every windshield in the Rite Aid parking lot on Glendale Boulevard. These promised more — degrees for students, papers for the undocumented, gifts for all. They were more specific: The birds would be “seagulls from the beach.” Near the bottom of the page in neat, bold capitals, they carried an edge of menace: “Jesus coming because flat form L.A. going down Aug. 2005 to ocean down.”

Over the next two months, I saw them more and more. By June, they were affixed with packing tape to every palm tree and streetlamp in the park, taped even to the chainlink fence at the south end of the lake. They grew more exuberant as the day came closer, and said nothing more about L.A. going down.

I walked to the park at a little before 6 last Thursday. In preparation for the Lotus Festival, tentlike plastic canopies had been set up across the park, and a shimmering silver-and-red dragon float was already docked beside the island in the lake. I could find no preachers, no throngs of weeping pilgrims, just a heart-shaped wreath of roses and a Magic Markered cardboard sign near one of the picnic tables at the north end of the park. The sign read, “Jesus Echo Park July 7 8 pm.” A dozen or so people sat around it, drinking and barbecuing chicken, but none seemed particularly ecstatic. I was early, I decided, so I walked around the park.

It was still hot. Men in paint-spattered clothes lay sleeping on the grass. Lovers embraced beneath the palm trees. A woman washed her feet in a water fountain. A few drunks sat laughing in the shade. If anything, there seemed to be fewer birds than usual: a smattering of ducks, pigeons, geese, coots, all of them slow and haggard in the heat. Small black birds (grackles?) chased each other between the giant lotus leaves. A few gulls lazed on the island, 10 or 20 at most.

By 6, the air had cooled and the light had softened. Helicopters buzzed through the sky. An occasional leftover firecracker exploded somewhere in the distance. After-work joggers panted down the paths. Heavy metal kids kicked around a soccer ball. Mothers pushed carriages and fishermen cast and reeled. Yuppies chatted to their cell phones. A family sat at the edge of the lake, eating mangoes and tossing potato chips to the waiting ducks. Sure, I thought, Jesus. Why not here?

At 7:30, a half-dozen men and one woman sat around the picnic table beside the cardboard Jesus sign. The men were tattooed old Echo Park regulars. I approached one whom I’d seen around the neighborhood for years, a sleepy-looking guy with a wide mustache sipping from a red plastic cup and holding a miniature Doberman on a leash. I tried making small talk about the dog, but he clearly didn’t want to talk to me.

“Is this where Jesus is coming?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he muttered. “Should be anytime now.”

“Are all of you waiting for him?”

“Yeah,” he nodded, looking around. Then one of his friends walked over and whispered something about cops being nearby, and he wandered off to fill his cup with juice.

I sat down at one of the picnic tables. The table in front of me was crowded with young Mexican men in soiled work clothes. One was trying, unsuccessfully, to interest the others in a set of wrenches wrapped in newspaper. Beside me a half-dozen men played dominoes, jovially cursing one another in Spanish. I had envisioned crowds, masses of the pious poor, holding hands, singing hymns, eyes to the sky, shivering with millennial expectation. But it was a breezy Thursday evening in the park, and the poor had more pressing concerns.

At 7:50, two young men wandered over, both carrying cameras and dressed in the standard uniforms of the urban arty hip. They stood, arms shyly crossed, and waited. Three more young white kids ambled by, also wearing jeans and thrift-store pullovers. They sat down on the grass a safe distance away, whispering with nervous giggles as if guarding some huge and hilarious secret. Another, with a video camera slung over his shoulder, stared into his cell phone and paced.

The church bells rang. It was 8 o’clock. No birds appeared. No Jesus. The dominoes players clacked their pieces against the table. The laborers joked and laughed. Four more hipsters cautiously approached. They stood with the others behind the cement boundary separating the picnic area from the lawn. Then another group of four arrived, and another.

About 25 had gathered when the author of the fliers presented herself at last. A tiny middle-aged woman with curly reddish hair walked over from the table beside the barbecue. She wore gold earrings and a big white T-shirt. Her name was Olga, she said, and Jesus didn’t come “because he’s sad.” The small, assembled crowd listened with amused detachment. She explained: Jesus had wanted 4,000 people to come. It was her brother’s birthday, so she’d thrown a party for him and his friends while they waited, “but still He didn’t show up.” Olga was cheerful, despite the disappointment. The hipsters arrayed themselves in a semicircle around her and asked questions with polite, tittering condescension. Olga answered eagerly. Jesus had been talking to her since she was 7, she said. If the birds had come, she was supposed to feed them.

“How much birdseed did you bring?” asked a baseball-capped young fop with an ironic mustache.

“I spent $40 for nothing,” Olga lamented. “Now I have to come every day till Saturday.”

An earthquake will hit L.A. in August, she said, a big one. “The ocean’s coming in and we’ll all die.” Jesus had planned to “lift the platform of L.A. But he said to me he wanted 4,000 people,” or he wouldn’t save the city.

That’s why she put up so many fliers: $2,000 worth over nine months.

Jesus still might come on Saturday, she said. “I hope that he shows up, because I don’t want nobody to die.” When she had answered everybody’s questions, Olga returned to her brother and his friends. The hipsters clapped, and slowly dispersed.


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