He sits on the sidewalk on a raggedy blanket, and I buy him spaghetti. A market employee helps heat it and we sit on the pavement and eat together. Garry is from the South and loves rock music from the '70s and '80s. The radio on his shopping cart starts playing Miley Cyrus. He enthusiastically sings along, "I came in like a rainbow..." I smile and correct him. "She is actually singing I came in like a wrecking ball." Garry laughs, thinks I'm joking. He places his hand on my shoulder and prays a blessing over me. "I don't like talking to people much, but I like talking to you."
She has been living on the streets long enough to know everyone -- who to trust and who to stay away from. Like an older sister, she watches over me. She becomes my shield, my guiding angel. Being homeless for so long has given her a hardened exterior, but the way she takes me under her wing shows her softer side. As soon as she is sure I am safe she disappears into the night. Donna Monique, the self appointed "Hood Patrol."
He stands on the street corner, mumbling incoherent words, longing for connection. People walk by, ignoring him. There is an intensity in his eyes; perhaps scary to some. I get him what he wants to eat: a big bag of Cheetos, two energy drinks and Skittles. I learn his "secret:" He is a ninja in training. He roams the city at night to fight crime and bring justice. Then he whispers in my ear "I am schizophrenic." I reply, "Every superhero has his kryptonite."
"I want to die!" she screams. I met "Angel" in Little Tokyo, where she was begging for change. She walks with a limp and her hands are curled into balls. When she asks me for change, I ask what she needs the money for and she says that she is not a druggie, that she needs medication. I volunteer to go with her to the pharmacy and she starts screaming. "Why does no one believe me? I told you I am not a druggie!" I've never seen such angry tears and such hopelessness. When she finally calms down I say, "You see, I am still here." Then I buy her something to eat and we take a walk. She tells me that she is originally from Indiana. She never knew her parents and was raised by her grandma, who died when she was a teenager. She married at 15 and had three kids. Her husband beat her, once so badly she ended up in a coma. The brain damage caused her to have paralysis in both her arms and legs.
"Excuse me, can you spare 50 cents?" he asks. "Why not ask for more?" I say. He says he thought $1 would be asking for too much. So I take him out to dinner. Sean grew up in St. George, Utah. Six months ago, he came out to California with a promise of a job. The job fell through, and he wound up on Skid Row, sleeping on a cardboard box. He's been mainly eating from the dollar menu at McDonald's, so I take him to this nice pizza place. He says it is the best food he's had since he's been here. We sit and share life stories. We talka lot about skateboarding since I used to be a skater. Sean grew up Mormon but wasn't too involved in church. He's close to his family and keeps in touch by calling them regularly from one of the demo phones at the T-Mobile store. His mom urges him to come home, but he says that he's not ready yet. It seems like he is looking for something, but he's not sure what.
I compliment Danny on his gorgeous hazel eyes and he says, "My mom told me when I was a kid, that my eyes will get me into trouble." Danny was 19 when he came to Los Angeles from his native Arkansas to get into fashion design. He met a man who was a costume designer for Michael Jackson and Prince. They were lovers for many years, living the Hollywood Dream. But the dream eventually faded. As we walk through Skid Row, he says, "There's a lot of people here because of mental illness, addictions, and some because they're trying to hide from someone." So I ask him, "Why are you here, Danny?" He says, "Because of drugs and loneliness." I ask Danny, "How do you keep yourself from getting down, especially out here on Skid Row?" He smiles and says, "Because I know there's always someone worse off than me."
"Take a shower! You stink man!" the gang of kids would yell, sometimes throwing rocks at him as they sped by on their skateboards. Even worse was the time he woke up to someone urinating on him. Quinn deals with humiliation, along with loneliness, hunger and despair. Yet he strives to meet each day with a smile. He holds onto his integrity and self-respect by refusing to beg or panhandle. When the streets empty at night, he searches for recyclables. He prefers not to be seen. During the day, he never crosses north of 3rd Street because that is where the well-to-do live. He stays within the confines of Skid Row where he won't be looked down on.
Nothing came easy to Amber. Her mother was an alcoholic, and Amber was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. When she was 12, she was diagnosed with major depression. Since then, her life has been a cycle of drug addiction, abusive relationships and suicide attempts. Billy grew up in Texas. His mother had terminal cancer and after she died, his father abandoned him. Billy was 14. "I grew up really lonely," he says. He got in trouble with the law, came to California and checked into rehab. He's sober now, and working as a janitor. Amber was his neighbor in a low-income apartment building. They quickly became friends. "Billy was the only one that made me feel safe," she says. He started taking her to his rehab meetings to get her off drugs. For the first time in their lives, they were both in a loving and supportive relationship. "She is the reason I live; she is my world. We may not have much money, but we are rich when it comes to love."
Tracey has been homeless for seven years and lives in a tent along the L.A. River. He has AIDS and cancer. He sings in the tunnel leading to the river because the acoustics are better. He says he once was a singer. Now he survives by finding food in the Dumpsters of restaurants, markets and produce vendors. He also cares for other homeless people, helping feed them. We walk around downtown, have dinner together and an amazing conversation about life.
J. has been living on the streets for 18 years. He suffers from major depression and suicidal thoughts, most likely because he was sexually molested for years by his mother's boyfriend. He shows me the scars on his wrists from past suicide attempts. J. copes with the constant pain by getting high. As I watch him smoke crack cocaine, I can see his mind slowly go to another place where he is numb to past hurts. He begins to recite poems he has written. Hopeful melodies. One place untouched by his demons is his imagination. Wonderful and positive words flow out of his mouth as his eyes glaze over. As he sits quietly, I reach over and hold his hand. I whisper a simple prayer.