The volume and tone of the woman's voice made it impossible to ignore. It forced its way into my ear holes over the rumbling noise of the train. She sounded a bit like David Sedaris, but with a sharper nasal tone and a reedy, kazoo-like buzzing quality. Unlike Sedaris, she was not intentionally funny.
She told her travelling companion that she was having very good results now that she prayed before travelling.
"But I don't pray for parking spaces," she said. "Not usually anyway. I do when John is driving because he gets so mad when he can't find a spot." She continued, "I believe the universe provides for you. I don't worry I'm not going to find a spot, so there's always one there for me."
I had just boarded the 10:29 a.m. Metrolink train in Claremont for the hour-long ride to Union Station. It was especially crowded, filled to near capacity with people headed to Chinatown for the 119th Annual Golden Dragon Parade and Lunar New Year celebration. The Year of the Rooster was over. It was time to celebrate the Year of the Dog.
The Golden Dragon Parade is one of my favorite annual community events in downtown Los Angeles. Even though it is a large parade, with a sizable crowd, taking place in the shadow of downtown and its iconic City Hall, it has the feel and heart of a small town parade. It has an innocence. It's sincere.
It seems to get more popular every year, and based on this train, more people seem to be using public transportation to attend as well. This year, for the first time, I didn't find anyone to accompany me, so I was riding solo, alone in a crowd.
As I listened to the voice and the woman's thoughts on prayer and universe, it seemed absurd to suggest a higher power operated like a supernatural travel agent, smoothing people's weekend travel plans and saving parking spots.
Then again, boarding the packed train, the first and second levels were full. Up the stairs, on the top level, there was a solitary empty seat as if it had been saved for me. What are the odds? Was it destiny to sit within earshot of this woman, her piercing voice broadcasting ideas of the universe, God and parking?
Arriving at Union Station, passengers poured from trains into the crowded station. Down ramps and stairs, joining subway passengers ascending escalators. Through a long tunnel, people slowed as they emptied into the breathtaking lobby of Union Station. On the stone floors, polished to a mirror-like shine, people are doubled by their reflections, their feet touching with every step.
People are distracted, gazing all around, slowing down, drifting sideways as they walked, trying to take it all in. The parade was not starting for more than an hour, but I moved quickly anyway, weaving through people, anxious to get ahead of the crowd and into Chinatown a couple blocks to the west.
Across the street from Union Station, Olvera Street, was also packed with people, so I stayed away. The smell of rolled tacos frying at Cielito Lindo made my mouth water as I passed the Chevron Station on Cesar Chavez where gas is always expensive. It was $4.99 a gallon.
The universe definitely provided a beautiful day for the Lunar New Year celebration. The sun had mostly dissipated the morning chill. The sky was cloudless, clear and blue. However, the universe did not provide a clear path to those who drove today. Traffic intensified and slowed as cars were diverted away from the closed streets of parade route.
Arriving on North Broadway, the pedestrian traffic was still light as parade preparations were underway. Below the fierce dragons of the Chinatown Gate, crews were setting up barricades. The bandstands were empty. A sidewalk vendor approached passersby selling parasols. "Good deal," he said. "No thank you," they said.
It was about noon with an hour to go before the parade started. A family stopped and asked a traffic officer directions. Bang! Someone shot off a large party popper, a yard-long cardboard tube that launched multi-colored paper confetti into the air with a bang. The noise startled the family. They jumped. Then they laughed.
Inside Chinatown Central Plaza festivities were already underway. Confetti covered the ground and filled the air. A father set off party poppers to the delight of his little girls. They would cover their ears and squint at the noise. Pop! Then they would run to catch the falling confetti, laughing. Their dad looked on smiling, enjoying the perfection of the moment.
Back at the intersection of North Hill and Ord Street, people had started lining the sidewalks in anticipation of the parade. Activity was intensifying in the staging area, a inclined section of Hill, climbing towards downtown and Bunker Hill.
Inside a nearby plaza, long strings of firecrackers hung from a balcony and across the courtyard. A group of musicians pounded out a beat, and a troupe of lion dancers performed for a gathering crowd. Everytime the music stopped, the crowd erupted in cheers. Just before the parade, the firecrackers were set off. A machine gun-like series of explosions went off for what seemed like several minutes. Above the plaza, grey smoke roze and an acrid smell filled the air.
A group of LAPD motorcycle officers began lining up to open the parade. Sirens screaming and lights flashing, they raced up and down the street in a series of precision maneuvers. Some popped some pretty bitchin' wheelies. It was an exciting kickoff to the parade.
Many expected features of a Lunar New Year celebration soon follow: Dragons of brilliant reds, yellows and gold circle and snake on a serpentine prowl down the route, their nostrils snarling. Wild lion dancers twitch, shake and groove to the boom, boom, klang-klang-klang of cymbals and drums.
The pops of popping party poppers punctuated charging dragons. The crowd cheered as payloads of multi-colored confetti flew into the air. A group of young boys toss Pop Pop Snappers into the the street–snap! snap!–retrieving any failing to pop on impact.
Two little girls in red New Years dresses hold out offerings in red envelopes for the lion dancers. The brightly costumed dancers come over, rhythmically shaking their heads before gobbling up the envelopes in their giant mouths. They bow to thank the little girls. The girls curtsy to reciprocate. Pictures are taken.
The parade included a beautiful young queen and her court, government representatives, law enforcement and fire department officers, martial arts schools, dance troupes, a local newscaster and the Socal Golden Retriever Buddies. Many of the groups and participants were recognizable from previous years.
A few years back, Mayor Eric Garcetti walked down the route, waving to the crowd. Many years earlier, I watched his dad, L.A. District Attorney Gil Garcetti, riding the route on the back of a convertible. My friends and I marveled at his perfect, radiant skin. Its bronze glow contrasted strikingly with his perfectly quaffed white hair, making him appear young and old at the same time.
A couple years back, it was exciting to watch, "L.A Son," chef Roy Choi, piloting one of his Kogi BBQ trucks along the parade route. "We love you Roy!," people shouted from the crowd.
As the joyful, multicultural celebration unfolded, I reflected again upon that woman on the train and what she said.
I looked around and saw multiple generations of people laughing, cheering and enjoying the day together. Mothers and fathers held their children's hands. Sons and daughters sat on laps. Grandchildren slept in strollers. The sun was shining. Bands were marching. Dancers were dancing. It was lovely.
The crowd in Chinatown was lucky. I was lucky. We were lucky to celebrate New Years at least twice a year here. Everyday can be treated as the beginning of a new year, a time to reflect on the past and look forward to the future. Every new year brings opportunities and new beginnings.
As parades neared its end, I checked my phone. I had a text from a friend who I used to work with at Disneyland.
"Doug! Are you in Chinatown?" the message read. As we began to message each other, a marching band came down Hill playing "It's a Small World." Was the universe providing or was this simply coincidence? Either way, I would get to share the day downtown with some friends after all.