Into the Wild Kids

Into the Wild Kids

Since I moved to Los Angeles, I’ve seen variations of them all over from Melrose Ave to the beaches of Venice and Santa Monica. Modern-day nomads, living day to day, moving from one place to another to another, walking, hitchhiking, by whatever means available with nothing more than a backpack and the clothes on their back. Some of them have signs stating they’re trying to get to a certain destination, asking for a ride and or money to get there. This generation’s hippie kids or Into the Wild Christopher Candless wannabes.

They were two guys, early twenties, dirty and dreaded hair that could possibly be blond on better days. Normally I’d smile, say hi and keep going but it was their two dogs that caused me to stop. One looked like a cattle dog mix and the other some kind of hound pit combo. The hound mix looked exhausted. I asked permission to pet them and the guys obliged. I struck up a conversation with them. Their goal was to make it to all 50 states before they picked a place to live. They were currently hitchhiking their way to Mount Shasta, more than 500 miles from LA. As they spoke, I noticed one had a mouth full of rotting teeth while the other had a perfect smile. Both smelled like tired adventurers. They seemed like stoners but sharp, streetwise like they would have to be to survive off strangers.

The one with the nice smile owned the hound mix and I couldn’t help but notice she was either coming out of or going into heat. I steered our conversation towards her. The gist of their story, the guy got her from a rescue a few years back. She was vaccinated but not spayed at the time of adoption. Because the guy and his friend were on the move, he was unwilling to stay long enough for the dog to have surgery and recover. The rescue released the dog anyway. Don’t get me started.

I refrained from asking the dozens of questions swirling in my head and did my best to withhold my contempt. The guy confessed to her having a litter of puppies and again I refrained from asking the obvious. I told him I could get her spayed for free if he was willing but he wasn’t. He wasn’t against getting her spayed but they didn’t have the time; they were leaving the area that night. He made it sound as if they had something waiting for them in Mount Shasta and it was going to take a few weeks to get there as it was. Short of me driving him, his buddy and two dogs there myself, there was nothing I could do. I warned him about the dangers of pyometra in unspayed females and urged him to look into resources for her when he got there. He said he would and that was how I left it.

I went into the supermarket and returned to them with four bottles of water. In return, they gave me a flower made from a strip of Sunday palm. They said it was nice talking with me and I wished all of them safe passage on their travels. I understood “the calling,” the desire to see more of the world than what’s in front of you. I moved to Los Angeles on a whim. A whim that actually landed me in Arizona first because plans fell apart. I still remember the day the calling hit. It was a 24-hour road trip to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Ohio. I stood in the middle of an empty interstate while my friend peed in some bushes. I looked out at the open road leading West and thought about the sights and adventures that lay in that direction. A few years later I was driving across country.

I would have applauded these two guys for their sense of adventure and freedom if it wasn’t for their stupidity and selfishness to force two dogs into their journey.pexels-photo-313415.jpeg

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Joy to the World

It’s Thursday and I debate whether or not to go to Skid Row. I can’t find my driver’s license and recall having it the last time I went but haven’t seen it since. I spend a brief time looking for it while the chorus for Three Dog Night’s Joy to the World relentlessly rings in my head.

  • Joy to the world
  • All the boys and girls
  • Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea
  • Joy to you and me.

I need to do laundry. I need to go food shopping. I need to get a good night’s sleep. There’s a good chance of rain and I think how much that’s going to suck. I shake my head. I committed to the commitment of once a week and choose to go. I go without my driver’s license.

  • Joy to the world
  • All the boys and girls
  • Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea
  • Joy to you and me.

I get to the Burger King and hitch a ride with a regular named Chris and two other women. We’re the first to arrive at our designated section on 6th just after Wall. We park behind a new model white Mercedes SUV. Chris confirms it’s not part of our caravan as we get out and wait for the rest of the volunteers. The day was warm and the stench hits me the moment I close the car door. It’s bitter and musky and thick with layers of human excrement and decay. Subconsciously I glance around the gutter for my license.

  • Joy to the world
  • All the boys and girls
  • Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea
  • Joy to you and me.

Once again the sidewalks are packed with bodies and tents and we take to the street. The gutter is lined with Styrofoam containers and plastic bags. It’s an indication another group was on The Row handing out food. I look around. The night is quiet. The street is quiet. The residents are already full and probably stoned which is why they’re quiet, too.

  • Joy to the world
  • All the boys and girls
  • Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea
  • Joy to you and me.

We reach our spot and set up quickly. I take my preferred position at the curb to keep watch. It’s a fascination for me and I fully get the draw Garry talked about during our interviews. Back in his day, Skid Row was a mob scene. Hundreds of people took to the streets, doing drugs out in the open, having sex out in the open, brawling in knockdown dragged out fights, to the death in some cases. That hasn’t been my experience in any of the dozens of times I’ve been to The Row but I have heard stories. Not just with our group but others as well. I’m content with the low-grade action and drama of the real-life cautionary tales that present on my nights.

It’s ham on white and pb&j for the giving along with a bushel of persimmons. But the persimmons are firm and, like apples and other hard fruit, not really conducive to people with poor dental hygiene. In addition, the majority of the people in line don’t know what a persimmon is.

“It tastes a little like a melon but not as juicy, and you can eat the skin like an apple or pear,” I heard someone explain.  Most of them pass.

Mel pulls me off the watch line and has me help greet people. The idea is to say hello and make small talk while they wait their turn, to humanize the experience. I get it, I agree with the interaction and do my best, giving compliments on a cool shirt or cute top. I ask how they’re doing but that seems almost offensively naive. They’re on Skid Row, standing on a line for free food because they’re homeless and/or too poor to afford food. Some people ignore me or give me a smile and say they’re fine. I feel like an asshole and I switch to talking about the weather and what a surprisingly warm night it is. After a few dozen people the line starts to repeat. I remember some of their names and say hi again as they come back through the line.

A random woman comes through. She’s maybe in her 40’s by the looks of it but could be in her 20’s for all I know. She’s haggard and seems a little rushed. She has a dove in a small birdcage, the size appropriate for a parakeet. The bottom grate is widely askew, and the bird sits at an angle. She’s holding the cage by a loop at the very top and the body of it swings in in reaction to her collecting her water and sandwich. The dove flutters its wings with alarm. There’s no water dish but a tray of what looks like sunflower seed shells.

It’s my second night back and I realize a bunch of the people who used to come through the line back when I volunteered regularly haven’t been by. There’s an older gentleman, maybe Armenian, who would say different celebrity musicians when it was his turn to collect a bottle of water and sandwich. Jerry Lee Lewis was his staple alias but he also used Elvis and Frank Sinatra. It cracked me up every time. He wasn’t what you would think of when you think about people living on The Row. He was short, a bit stout with glasses. He always wore these button down short sleeved lightweight dress shirts with pin strips or rows of pale flowers with a white undershirt like my Italian Grandfather used to wear. He looked like he belonged behind the counter of a dry cleaners or hardware store instead of on Skid Row. There are a few women that are MIA as well and I pray they’re safe.

The line for food stops and we have a ton of sandwiches left over. It seems ham on white bread is not a hot commodity on Skid Row tonight and most of the people only come back for seconds, not third, fourth or fifths like usual. Mel decides to take us on the walk again. Mel goes over the protocol about not allowing gaps within the group, not to stop, not to leave the group and to keep moving until we’re told to stop. We load the table and other things into the back of the truck and take the water and about a hundred sandwiches around the block.

We walk past the Monday Night Mission shelter. By this time the gate is locked with no one else in or out for the night. The courtyard is packed from wall to wrought iron gate with bodies. Somewhere from within a radio blasts a vaguely familiar R&B song. As we round the corner onto San Pedro, the sidewalk is lined with tents. We take to the street and I’m on the outside perimeter. People pop their heads out of their tents and out from behind tarps to ask for water or to see what kinds of food we have. Sandwiches are handed out three at a time and even then, it doesn’t make a dent in the amount we have.

As we walk I see a volunteer drop a couple of water bottles. They roll a few feet. He bends over to pick them up and another volunteer helps him. I cringe at the thought of the contaminants on the street that transferred to the bottle and now onto their hands. We’re specifically instructed not to pick up anything we drop on the ground and for good reason.

We turn onto 7th, something we were unable to do last week because of the police tape. It’s more of the same, the same tents, the same smell, the same rancid debris in the street and gutter. I spy quite a few new model cars parked at the curb and think, damn. There’s street art amongst the corrosion, and I’m distracted by the irony. Somewhere from behind the tarps and tents I hear dogs barking.

“Kristine! Fill in the gap!” The street is quiet and Mel’s voice booms.

I’ve created a large gap between me and the person in front of me and I quicken my steps to catch up. I also still have a stack of sandwiches I haven’t handed out yet because I’m too busy looking around. We head down San Julian and White Boy, who arrived to greet us shortly after we got to The Row, is now next to me. I say hi to him with a smile and he reciprocates. As we walk I get to know a little more about him. He’s vegan, from Alabama, lived on a farm and mentioned how he and his brothers would have BBQ’s when they were younger. We talk about music and he is partial to punk. I tell him I’m a mid 80’s to mid 90’s music kid. He tells me he’s a fan of 80’s music and starts listing some of his favorite hair bands like Poison, Ratt and Def Leppard. I continue the list with Bon Jovi, Skid Row, Cinderella and The Scorpions.

“The Scorpions! I loved that band,” he says with a big and perfect smile.

White Boy has been on Skid Row for 11 years and sober for the majority of it. I listen to what he’s willing to tell me and don’t ask questions. I tell him about Garry and his circumstances of how he came to live on Skid Row, stemming back to when he was raped at 10 years of age by an older boy in the neighborhood. Garry came to Skid Row in the mid 80’s and got off it in 2001. He listens intently as I tell him the lessons Garry learned about healing from emotional trauma, about how talking about the abuse helped him deal with it and how he learned to forgive himself and his attacker.

“It was a different time down here back then. I don’t think there are any OG’s from his day left,” White Boy says. “I’d think most of them are dead by now.”

I remember that being Garry’s sentiment as well. White Boy asks me what I do for a living and I tell him I’m a writer. This piques his interest. It’s clear he has a story to tell but he’s not sure if he wants to tell it.

“Kristine! Keep up!”

I created a gap again, lost in conversation with White Boy. I dash up to the person I’m supposed to be behind with all of my sandwiches. I see a person accessible to me and I practically force him to take three sandwiches just so I can feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to. We hit 6th and we still have a whole box of sandwiches left, mostly ham on white. Mel decides to take us down the other side of San Julian.

“You’ll get to see where I live,” says White Boy to no one in particular.

Mel has us hold up on the corner of 6th and San Julian and I snap a few pictures. A pair of pink and blue angel wings are painted on a dirty white wall. The context of the wings, the backdrop and the garbage in the gutter has me mesmerized. At our feet is a pile a debris ranging from human piss and shit to newspapers, napkins, paper plates, a random shoe and God knows what else. Cockroaches the size of my thumb create movement within the pile. In the distance, I see packs of rats take to the wall and scurry into gaps and crevasses.

“Kristine! I’m not gonna tell you again!”

The words are all too familiar as I realize I’m stationary on the exterior of the group as the rest cross the street. I’m once again startled into action. Mel shakes his head at me. White Boy announces we’ve approached his house. It’s a few tarps fashioned into a rectangular hut. He asks his neighbors if they want food or water. We head further down San Julian to 5th. I see two men on the sidewalk talking next to a tent. I ask if they want sandwiches and they say yes. I dart over to them and hand off all that I have in my hands. It only took 8 seconds and I was no more than 15 feet away from the group.

“Kristine! Don’t leave the group!”

I give him a ‘wtf’ look. “I handed them sandwiches, they’re right next to us.”

Mel softens his expression. “Don’t leave the group,” he says in a more caring/cautionary tone.

I get the message. It’s sometimes easy to forget Skid Row is dangerous. I realize I’ve lulled myself into a false sense of security. Nothing eventful ever happens on the nights I volunteer and I’ve forgotten I’m not guaranteed safe passage because I have a sandwich in my hand.  We are traditional society. We are intruders. We are the enemy. We are always outnumbered on The Row.

As we approach 5th Mel has us wait. We’re standing in the center of the street. Few cars come through this part of town at night. I find myself looking into the face of a black and white pitbull. It’s tethered by a chain that disappears under the wall of a tent. It’s lean, very lean, borderline skinny. The dog is wagging its tail and whines for affection or a sandwich or both. I want to give it food and water and love. Everything in me wants to take the dog with me but all I can do is look into its eyes and feel my heartbreak.

“I get it,” White Boys says to me out of nowhere, as if he could sense my torment. “It gets lonely down here. People need to feel that love but I would never do that to an animal. If you can’t do for you how can you do for another living thing?”

I reach into the container with the remaining ham sandwiches and hand a stack off to White Boy. “Do you know the dog’s owner? Maybe he’ll give some to the dog.” White Boy takes the sandwiches and heads over to the tent. Mel has us on the move again, back towards 6th. We reach the corner and cross against the light. We’re all headed back to our cars and I’m lost in my head. I don’t remember what the car I arrived in looks like and I find myself standing alone in the street not knowing where to go. I trot up to a few cars, looking in the driver’s window for Chris. Some of them are not group volunteers. Suddenly I hear my name. One of the women from my carpool is waving me over to the SUV.

I get in and close the door. We set into motion and like a switch, the earwig is back.

  • Joy to the world
  • All the boys and girls
  • Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea
  • Joy to you and me.

Back to Skid Row

As I pull into the parking lot of the Burger King, I feel the familiar twinge of nerves kick in. It’s been a while since I last went to Skid Row, at least eight months. Even though I’ve been away, I know nothing on The Row has changed. Anything can happen, and it usually does. As I get out of my car, I can tell by the way the volunteers have clustered at the tables that I’m late. That’s not new, either. I don’t recognize anyone, and I stand off to the side of the group and briefly chat with a first time volunteer.

Mel arrives, our fearless leader and organizer, and we go through the standard pow wow of precautionary measures and full disclosure of potential exposure to diseases like TB, hepatitis and various other things. There are a lot of new volunteers, and I see some of them freeze up or look at their friends with concern. No one bails on the Skid Row excursion, and I’m a little surprised. It happens sometimes.

I hitch a ride with a guy named Kevin along with three other volunteers. Before we pull out of the parking lot one of the girls in the back seat claims her mother just sent her an alert; there was a shooting on 7th and San Julian just a few minutes ago. Three dead. Monday Night Mission takes ground on 6th and San Julian. I shrug it off thinking that if ever there was a safe time to hit Skid Row it would be now with the presence of police one block over.

It’s a quick ride down Grand and onto 6th. The differential line between the two worlds of hipster DTLA and Skid Row comes up fast. The second we cross over Los Angeles St. the degradation is immediate. The over-priced cafes and gastropubs are replaced with dirty metal roll gates and trash strewn gutters. There’s more purpose to the pedestrian activity on the far side of Los Angeles St. There’s no such thing as a leisurely stroll on the Skid Row side of town. People here are looking to buy, sell, barter, hide, find and get lost. It’s like sharks in the ocean, keep moving or die.

We cruise down 6th and the traffic lessens. We cross Wall and pull up and park behind the other cars filled with volunteers. These days, nightfall comes sooner and the temperature has dropped. The sidewalks are already lined with tents and bodies. I get out on the passenger’s side and do my best not to step on someone’s blanket. The stench isn’t as bad as I remembered it to be but that’s because of the extra layers of clothing everyone is wearing: it keeps the cold out and the smell in. My friend Garry who lived on these very streets for nearly 15 years told me of all kinds of Skid Row hacks and DIY’s long before there were hashtags and YouTube channels. In his day it was simply called survival.

 

“What you guys got tonight,” calls out an old man sitting on a broken lawn chair with a blanket over his shoulders. His skin is dark, facial hair is coarse gray and white.

“Fried rice and PB&J,” someone hollers back.

“Oh, that sounds good,” the old man says, nodding his head.

The sidewalk has too many bodies and tents to walk on and we navigate to our designated spot via the gutter, avoiding the debris and toxic pools of stagnating water. Within minutes, we’re set up and handing out food and bottles of water. I’m curbside perimeter watching the street action. There‘s a lot of activity and I’m hesitant to pull out my phone to take pictures. First, we’re not really supposed to. We’re there to do a job, provide a service. As someone on watch, I have to pay attention to potential threats. I’m looking for weapons, agitated people, someone looking for trouble. Second, there’s no rhyme or reason to the rationale of some people on The Row. Just the mere act of taking a picture of someone or something could send a drug-fueled/bipolar/schizophrenic into a psychotic rage. I snap a single frame of Mel in the street keeping watch and put my phone away for the moment.

Despite the shooting on the next block, or maybe because of it, the night is relatively quiet. There’s a black guy named White Boy who has been observing the Monday Night Mission volunteers for quite some time. He had been coming around long before I took my hiatus and back then his demeanor always teetered on the verge of volatile. He never smiled, didn’t really talk to anyone and looked at everyone with suspicion. The few times I did hear him speak I thought I detected a slight accent. Despite him being on The Row, I never thought he was homeless. He was always clean and put together and I had never seen him high. I always wondered why he was down there and what his origin was. I become even more curious when White Boy rolls up on the group on a skateboard outfitted with lighted wheels and begins chatting. I smile at him, say hello and he smiles back with a nod of his head. He’s wearing a Misfits t-shirt and says something about The Cramps. I tell him Fur Dixon used to come into the studio I work at. He goes off on a happy tangent and includes me in the conversation. I guess things do change on Skid Row, after all.

The line of people for food was relatively short tonight. It’s the beginning of the month and most people still have their GR check money. The addicts probably don’t but they’re not really interested in free food unless they can sell it. We have a lot of leftover PB&J’s despite people having come back for fourths and fifths. On a spur, Mel decides we’re “taking the walk.” The walk consists of a group trip around the block, up 6th and a right onto San Julian, a right onto 7th then down to San Pedro and back over to 6th, handing out the remaining sandwiches as we go. From there we go to our cars and head back to the Burger King for an exit pow wow. I’m excited to do this because I was never present any of the other times he did this. White Boy joins us and continues a conversation with one of the volunteers. He’s right in front of me and only now do I realize he’s quite tall.

“How tall are you,” I ask over his shoulder and into his ear.

“6’3.” He pauses to see if I have anything else to say. I do but I don’t, and he goes back to speaking with the other volunteer.

However, our around the block journey is altered because of the shooting everyone forgot about. It’s easy to see how we forgot about it. A single cop car and lines of yellow tape block our way. It doesn’t look like much of a crime scene for three people being killed. There are no flashing lights, no gathering of detectives and officers. There wasn’t even an ambulance there yet and it had happened over an hour ago. But this is the reality of Skid Row. No one rushes to help the people on The Row. Garry told me about how a woman’s body was pushed out of moving car at 3am somewhere on Gladys. She was still there when he strolled by three hours later on his way to the produce market to unload trucks for money to buy crack. I find out the only reason the one cop car is there is because they were on the next block on another call and even then they took their time getting there.

Unable to make the standard trek, we retreat on San Julian back to 6th, and I take a few quick pictures as we walk, not knowing if I got anything decent or not. We take a detour into the church on the corner where they’re holding Karaoke. How nice, dinner and a show. We hand out the rest of the sandwiches to the handful of people inside while a guy sings his song of choice. I recognize the song from my parents’ repertoire from when I was a kid. I remember a couple of the lines without out the prompter and sing along but can’t remember the name of the song.

We head out the door and back to our cars. The old man who asked what we were serving was still in his chair. He never came to get a plate. He looks at us as if our presence reminded him there was food.

“You got any of that fried rice with ya?”

“I’m sorry, all the food is gone,” someone says. “We’ll be back tomorrow.”

“You got any water?”

“Sorry,” someone else says.

The old man seems disappointed, but there’s nothing anyone can do for him now. Maybe tomorrow night he’ll make it to the line.