A Call to Alms

5 minute read
Joel Stein

I thought we’d all agreed that when someone on Facebook or Twitter asks us to do something, we do only the part we can do from our computer. Instead of stopping Joseph Kony, we tell our friends to watch videos about Kony. When Facebook suggests you observe my birthday, it doesn’t mean you should bother me with a call; it wants you to post on my wall so people can see how popular I am.

So I was shocked that on the Tuesday after the George Zimmerman verdict, one day after people looted a Walmart in the Crenshaw area of Los Angeles, someone wrote on Twitter and Facebook, according to the L.A. Times, “Take the riot to Hollywood,” and people actually did it. About 50 teenagers gathered less than 2 miles from my house and ran in and out of traffic, punching people at bus stops, robbing stores and stealing cell phones. Similar bash mobs appeared earlier this year in Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington. One minute you’re liking Adele and playing Words With Friends, and then you see an invitation to beat the crap out of strangers and think, Well, that sounds like a better use of my time. When I was a kid, if you wanted to destroy stuff, you had to do the hard work of going to a music festival with bands that suck.

To save my neighborhood’s damaged reputation, I asked the more than 1 million people who follow me on Twitter and Facebook to meet at 4 p.m. Sunday in front of the Chinese Theatre to give out water and directions. It turns out that violent people are way more spontaneous than do-gooders. Instead of 50 teenagers, my mob consisted of Dr. Sean Ravaei, a podiatrist. Ravaei saw my tweet and came straight from his office in Beverly Hills, still in his blue scrubs. And he had to be at a wedding in less than two hours. If anyone had the passion to run around helping tourists, it was Ravaei.

Unfortunately it’s much easier to punch people and run away than ask strangers if they need help. As if all the rejection weren’t bad enough, Ravaei made me feel worse, continually saying things like, “I can’t believe no one else showed up! I thought you were famous!”

I offered to take a photo for a Filipino gentleman, Larry Cabe, who was taking a picture of his sister, but he said no. He did, however, accept a bottle of Aquahydrate water once I told him the company was owned by celebrities. But in my nervousness, I said one of its celebrity owners was Justin Timberlake instead of Mark Wahlberg. Cabe, a big Timberlake fan, told me his kids were professional singers, and he had just been to Pharrell Williams’ house, which he said has an elevator. I nodded, all the while knowing that our relationship was built on a lie.

Cabe, who has lived in L.A. for about 30 years, warned me that we weren’t going to have any luck helping people: “This is L.A. People stay in their clans.” But then I looked over his shoulder and saw a black woman dressed like Catwoman and a white woman dressed like Catwoman team up to take a photo with an Asian male tourist for $2. Filled with hope, I walked away from Cabe to offer them water, which they pretty rudely turned down. Even supervillains, I learned, get scared of strangers after a bash mob hits their street.

Eventually Ravaei, who grew up in Iran, tried to assure me it wasn’t my fault. “It’s L.A. When you approach people, they’re thinking, What does he want?” he said. “I’ve been here long enough where I’m kind of like that. It’s a shame.” I knew, however, that Ravaei was a very good man. Not because he accepted my call to help people but because he’s willing to touch strangers’ feet.

In desperation, Ravaei and I decided to go to Crumbs and pay for people’s cupcakes. Shana Weber, a mom visiting from Madison, Wis., with her husband and two kids, accepted our offer and said we indeed improved her attitude about our town. “L.A. gets a bad rap,” she said. To explain our pastry largesse, I told her about the violent teenage bash mobs, which, I realized, more than erased all the positive public relations work the cupcakes had done.

Did Ravaei and I solve the problem of disenfranchised people feeling so hopeless after the Zimmerman verdict that they felt they had to go to Hollywood and take whatever they could by force? No. But we prevented a very attractive family from Wisconsin from paying for cupcakes. We also took a lot of photos of foreigners standing in front of Muhammad Ali’s star. When people look at those photos, they’ll think about all those people coming together: black, white and Iranian podiatrist. And just maybe, they’ll write about that at the bottom of the photo when they post it on Facebook. That might not change the world, but there’s no way I’m asking people to meet up in person again.

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