The older man next to me in line outside the Yum! Center wears a blue sweater – “powder”. It’s too hot to wait in the sun in a sweater. But he is genuinely pleased when he speaks with me, smiles: “Have you seen the Dalai Lama before? He’s very inspiring. He’s very funny.” This feels good.
The track lighting inside the arena sets a mood of “cobalt” over our faces. Track lighting? From where I sit at the very tip-top I can see the metal catwalk and constellation of wires and bulbs and a scattering of colored gel filters to fit all kinds of moods. They chose blue for the Dalai Lama. It smells like funnel cake in here. I'm freezing. This feels wrong.
There are colors of red, too: bright Cardinal walls and tile and banners, the brick color of Buddhist robes – everything about the day the Dalai Lama gives his public talk, “Engaging Compassion”, at the KFC Yum! Center is going to feel wrong and right. hot and cold. Moving and jolting. Blue, red – watercolors in my head. Too bright, too dark. And the first thing I write in my notes under “5/19/13: Dalai Lama” is “chaos reigns.”
A man in long white robes with long blonde hair waits in line for a soft pretzel. People pass each other and look into your eyes with a certain solidifying brightness. Commemorative T-shirts for sale; wall calendars of Tibet tucked under arms.
And Section 321 Row U Seat 1 is enough to give you vertigo, I find. You climb a mountain to sit where I am sitting, and the word “sherpa” is stamped into my brain as I sing the Alphabet Song to myself, looking for “U” and step gingerly up blocks of concrete. The couple in front of me is eating orange popcorn from a plastic bag. “Engaging Compassion” colorized on the jumbotron – dissolved now into Ben Sollee’s face: “Tibetan Freedom Concert”.
This is not right. This is a spiritual sporting event.
But everything changes when the man seated next to me finally finds his spot: Section 321 Row U Seat 2. Khakis, sensible shoes, summer oxford (blue again: “baby”), wire glasses. Extremely tall. Up here he is folded like a grasshopper. He is perhaps in his 50s or 60s but I can’t quite tell and it does not matter because when he says “thank you” as I stand, grasp the railing-of-dear-life on this mountain of seats and let him pass – he has the calmest, most genuine eyes I have seen here today. Thank everyone’s god. That was a real “thank you”. And he tucks those long legs into this ridiculous aisle beside me with a patient smile. He says: “How often do you get to see the Dalai Lama?” His voice is very even, and he tells me that he is a retired military doctor. He has not bought any funnel cake; I am happy to shake his hand.