Monthly Archives: October 2011

Day 19: 148.5 Hours Remaining

A client approached me today and said, “This must be quite a culture shock for you.”

I explain that I have now been here enough hours that the culture shock occurs on the drive HOME. I find the formality of white Orange County stifling and strange. And the wealth and detail obsession of West LA is off-putting. I question the motives of everyone white because their speech is so cloaked in hidden motive. I’ve grown used to the loud outward expressiveness of the shelter. I don’t feel like I fit in anywhere. I no longer know how to communicate with anyone in person.

The day began with a woman cussing someone out on her cell phone while waiting in line to check her bag in for 24 hours. Somehow a man in uniform that was holding an American flag standing behind her got dragged into it and before we knew it there was a fight brewing. I hid just out of sight and took in the movement of the staff with interest. They circled, unsure if it would pass the tipping point of expulsion. A couple times one of them would hollar, “knock it out or you both’ll be outta here.” Eventually the argument simmered, like a pot discovered just before it boils over.

I’ve taken notice to the expanding number of deaf clients. Wendy thinks some state public assistance program must’ve been cut. They travel in groups and try to communicate with us. Nobody here knows sign language. If they keep me here long term, I’d like to learn.

After lunch, a woman came in the gate that wore nothing but a mini skirt, flip flops and a bra. One of her nipples half showed over the top edge of her “shirt.” I laughed while watching every male head turn. The clients didn’t even pretend to not stare. And the more they stared, the louder and more energetic she showed herself. Eventually she sat and ate the lunch brought by The Dream Center.

“Thas a man ova there.” One of the clients thought he was helping me out as he pointed to the scantily clad breasts.

“I know it is.” I informed him.

“Oh! You got a good sense then!”

“I used to work with women. That is not a woman under that skirt.”

I’m actually shocked with how few women there are, actually. The ones who are in the shelter are typically there for only a short while and very attached to a male addict.

“You coming to the Halloween party?” asked Eric.

“When is it?”

“On Halloween.” He couldn’t help but crack a sarcastic grin.

Yes. Yes, I think I will. Even though it’s not during my court ordered hours. There will be a talent show and I wouldn’t want to miss any of the fun.


Day 18: 156.5 Hours Remaining

Today started off with a bang. I was offered a part in a movie, given another fellah’s phone number and serenaded by a third (“When I think of you… it makes me think of all the things I want to… doooo… toooo… you…”). All before lunchtime. And no. I was not wearing pigtails.

The movie director was later escorted out by Eric and his band of thugs-turned-holy men. The not yet discovered academy award winner was aparently attempting to cut someone with a fake knife. Or at least that’s the rumor I heard.

As I watched the four broad shouldered black men walk behind the dilusional filmmaker I somehow felt I was watching four angels in progress. All four of them–two in bomber jackets– walked with a street swagger. They followed up behind him slowly as they deepened their voices and told the man to “move on outta here.” They were like sheepdogs moving a lone sheep into the pen with expert skill.

Once he stepped outside the property, he continued to jeer at Eric from behind the gate. His demeanor begged a beating from a man of lesser self-control. But Eric simply deepened his voice even more and told him to “move on out” as he brushed him away. “I know where you’re at. You know where I been.”

I am genuinely in awe of the staff at the shelter. I feel like I am in the presence of the most wretched sinners turned saints I could ever know. The depths of hell they have survived to tell (or not tell) about makes me shudder. The light in their eyes and the shroud of wisdom mingled with meekness around their shoulders gives me a hope like no other. They have that spark of revolution that only freedom from bondage can give and a genuine brutal honesty that spits in the face of fear. They are set free to live for a purpose higher than themselves with no credit or recognition from anyone. There is One alone who acknowledges their one day at a time surrender.

“The pastor at church pulled me aside to tell me that he wants me ta preach my first sermon in April.” Jim announces to Wendy and I. “I has six months to prepare. I’m gonna give you twelve minutes, he tells me.”

Wendy and I listen with full attention as Jim excitedly tells us more. He begins to sing in the usual inner-city church style: “The same Jesus who was with Paul the apostle is the same Jesus who was with the three Hebrew brothahs, Shadrack, Mishack and A-Baaad-Negro.”

I promise to come hear him preach and bring my children with me. We are all family now, these folks and I.

Later, Paul joins in the conversation and I overhear the three of them talking more about preaching while I’m cleaning the men’s bathroom. I must admit, I’ve grown fond of cleaning the men’s bathroom because it means I get to listen in on some of the best conversations about theology I’ve ever been privy to. And my husband went to seminary. But the classrooms my husband visited were very different. This seminary of the streets has love, life and guts.

“You best repent or God will send yo ass to hell!” says Paul, illustrating how he heard a preacher cuss from the pulpit once.

They begin to discuss how preaching is a high calling that is worthy of a greater judgement. They talk about how easy it is for preachers to prey on the weak and rip off the church.

Jim shows great wisdom here and interjects, “Thas right, but that kinda preacher will be judged by the world if he’s found out and by God who sees everything when it is time that we be goin home ta heaven.”

“Unless he repent!” Interjects Wendy. Jim continues on.

“Ah, yes. But even if he repents, I’m sho for sho that God be takin a big ol rod to his backside when he arrives home. God’ll be like, ‘You, preacher there. C’mon ova here and bend ova!”

Most church goers I have been raised around would brand this kind of talk as “carnal.” But as I leave skid row and drive back to Orange County… as the cars grow bigger and the people grow fatter… as the roads widen and things become shinier. As the materialism begins to fill in around the edges everywhere… I begin to wonder. Perhaps the church untouched by the edges of hell is the one that is more carnal after all.

As Charles Studd once wrote, “Some want to live within the sound of church or chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.”

These unsuspecting heroes live out faith and courage with less than a yard to spare sometimes.


Day 17: 164.5 Hours Remaining

I’m feeling a bit down in the mouth today.

The sky was spitting as I walked skid row this morning. Little smudges of humanity skidded muddily all up and down the sidewalk and into the gutters. Their faces were like muddied watercolors on a grey piece of parchment.

Rain actually means less work to do at the shelter. The gate was locked to all but those who secured beds. The shelter discourages sitting in the rain. I can’t imagine the clients want to sit in the rain anyway.

When the rain subsided I tried to make up things to do since I had been left idle most of the morning. I scooped up fallen leaves and swept water into rain gutters. Perhaps this is what led to my sadness… the insufferable idleness. I have never been able to just sit.

I am reduced to two dimensions at the shelter by most folks. I’m either praised for my beauty, sexually preyed upon, asked out on a date… OR… I’m viewed as too good to include. References to Lindsey Lohan, my “parking tickets” (how everyone seems to assume I got here), my home in West L.A. (don’t I wish!), and today: my BMW, abound.

There are so few people who understand where I’m coming from. The word “felony” pre-supposes something. Wait a minute. It IS something. Innocent until proven guilty. I was proven at this point. There is no more demand for absolution. It doesn’t exist. I am a felon. Period.

And that thought propels me into trying to find other felons. Someplace I “belong.”

Rejected by the people of California. Paying my dues to the nameless, faceless victims who were saved from my midwifery practice. Being told I need to prove that I have been reformed. Reformed from what? From thinking for myself? From honoring someone’s rights? From protecting someone in danger? From trying to do my best?

The only person at the shelter I seem to see my reflection in appears too frightened to open up to me since he has a son my age. There are some life experiences that remove the barriers of age, race, gender, personality. There are certain depths that bond people together to the point that you recognize your own pain in them without saying a word.

My old roommate once said he could recognize someone who had been institutionalized by just seeing them from a distance. I didn’t believe him. Now I do.

I can see the ones whose best was not enough.


Day 16: 172 Hours Remaining

I’m subjected to quite a cultural groin pull between life on skid row and life in West LA or Orange County (where I spend the bulk of the rest of my days). For one thing, I’ve noticed that affluent folks say “Have fun!” when you leave and folks on skid row say “Don’t work too hard!” Skid row folks are loud. Really loud. Sometimes I’m thinking they are fighting and then notice the smirks on every face. They put my sarcasm to shame… and if you knew me, you’d see that was near impossible. My sarcasm is bullet proof.

Paul had to escort a man in a wheelchair off the property who was threatening to kill him and trying to start a fight. From a wheelchair. At least the self-confidence is intact. And Paul is a real soft spoken, God fearing person. I mean, the guy in the chair would’ve literally killed anyone else. The cops came to get him.

The cops came to get a lot of people today. They walked on the property even. They were out in force on the street, arresting people. Had a woman pushed up against the fence in handcuffs for what I can only assume was prostitution. At least women have an asset to sell and fund their addiction. Maybe that’s why there are so many transvestites?

One woman came in and got all dressed up in a donation dress that was mostly see through, but alas, no slip was donated with it. She told Wendy she was going to go look for a job and asked if the shelter had any hair products for her to fix herself up with. At first Wendy told her no, but then pulled her aside and said,

“I can give you a little baby oil fo yo hair. But you gots to promise me you won’t be thinkin all highly of yerself and go out there an knowin no man out there for pay, you hear me?”

The woman agreed and so Wendy helped her do her hair.

Later, in the laundry room, Charlie and I were folding sheets when one of the female clients stopped in the doorway. She turned sideways and smoothed her hips with her hands. Her chin lowered submissively and her eyeslashes batted at twice their normal repitition. She asked Charlie if he had fun the night before.

Charlie looked a little flustered and began to drone on about how he is from the south and in the south folks don’t go out and have fun. They keep to their work and like to stay keeping to themselves at home.

She asked if he had a phone and told him she wanted his number so she could call him.

He stammered and said, “I’ll give it to ya later.”

As she walked away, he turned to me with a very familiar frustrated look. “That woman be coming afta me. But I don’t want her. I has a woman I be chasin and she don’t want the distraction. I don’t know what to do. She won’t be taking no from me. But I don’t want her. I don’t lay down with just anybody.”

I told him about the few southern gentlemen I’ve known and how much trouble they have convincing a woman that they really aren’t interested.

“Thas right. They got that southen flava. They know the way of a gentleman. The women out here, they be sorely mistreated. They be thinkin just cus you be bein nice to them, that you want to lay down with them.”

As I was getting ready to leave, I caught sight of two white faces. They looked so incredibly white that they seemed to glow. I don’t think I’ve seen a white person that is not a client the entire time I’ve been here. Turns out the two white folk came with a group from The Dream Center to feed the clients. They do so every Friday afternoon. Funny, The Dream Center is still the only church I’ve seen active in the darkest parts of Los Angeles. They used to clean trash from my street when I lived in Echo Park. The kids and I walked past their building on the way to school every morning.

It was good to see some sort of outside touch within the walls of the courtyard. Interstingly, most of the clients being served lunch were people I didn’t recognize. It seemed like our normal clients left and people in the neighborhood who know there’s a weekly free meal lined up.

I am appreciating the day to day interaction I’m getting doing the work I do. One of the staff from inside the office saw me sweeping and said “Are we having fun yet?” I was able to honestly say, yes.

I’m going to miss the staff and their brutal honesty when the time comes to hang up my scrub brush and broom.


Day 15: 179.5 Hours Remaining

A rat ran AT me as I got out of my car. I said “goodmorning sunshine” to him. Thankfully, he is the only thing that has tried to attack me so far. The street is becoming less threatening and the people are becoming less foreign.  But I still have biases, which surprises someone like me who prides herself in thinking outside the box and being open to the varied experiences of culture in the city of lost angels.

One small bias was put to shame as I walked with Eric to the shelter. Turns out he is a marine. I hang my head in shame for thinking any differently. Of course, I now assume that if I prodded enough I would find that playfulness I expect of the proud few. I just have to dig beneath his coat of street armor. Hoorah.

I was asked out on a date today. Twice. I’m telling you, forget the online dating sites, if a girl wants a date a shelter is the place to be! As long as you are attracted to men twice your age who are currently unemployed, you’ll be in heaven. Of course, I hear 20% of folks in this city are unemployed, so you probably get that on dating sites too.

The first gentleman wore a fedora hat so he was my favorite. Granted, I think he was very near my grandfather’s age– which was a little creepy– but a felon can’t be picky, right? He offered to take me out to a steakhouse. I can’t even remember the last time I had a juicy steak. He asked me in the polite manner you would expect from the greatest generation. Sadly, I declined, since it wouldn’t be polite to bring my two children with me on a first date. Although, I had a feeling that if I said as much, he might have actually invited them to join us. He was very sweet and very, well, childlike himself.

The second fellah was the one who asked me if I was looking for a hard working man the day I wore pigtails. He was apparently not a big spender because he asked me if I would like to come home with him and cook him a nice meal. I avoided pointing out the obvious– that he had no home– and focused more on the principle of the issue. I reminded him kindly that I had already told him I was not taking any applications. He smiled politely and winked and reminded me to keep him informed whenever I was.

There was a third guy. But he didn’t ask me out on a date. He asked me, demandingly, “give me a boy. I have two daughters. If you carry a boy for me I’ll pay you ten thousand dollars.” I placed this in the “offer of work” category instead of the “date offer” category because he offered to pay me. And I DO need ten thousand dollars to pay off my restitution. But I declined because a pregnant belly would get in the way of my mop and broom down here. I think he was disappointed because he told his budies who kept trying to ask me for him. I know sons are important, but I’m just too busy right now. Classy.

When I asked for a good man, I think I forgot to specify in my prayers that I was looking for a good man who is not currently homeless. Although, that also isn’t saying much since I’m technically homeless and unemployed myself. And a single mother. God has a sense of humor. I’m going to redact that prayer and ask the God just give me Himself in loving measure instead.

If another person compares me to Lindsey Lohan, I just might scream as loud as someone out of her mind on Skid Row. Because I would be.

Perhaps it’s because I’m white and doing community service at a shelter. But that is right where the comparisons end. And Dr. Konrad Murray is not a midwife. He doesn’t even catch babies. We have nothing at all in common.

At the end of the day Charlie and I talked about what it was like for him to be there for Katrina. Babies ripped from mothers’ arms and never seen again, why people didn’t leave beforehand, why there was no aid for over a month. Heavy stuff. Apocalyptic sounding from one who experienced it firsthand. Glad he survived.

I’m almost halfway done and I’m starting to regret the end. I will miss these people when the time comes to leave here. I awake in the morning excited to see them, dirty bathrooms and all. Some punishment.


Day 14: 187 Hours Remaining

Be careful what you wish for. I was blessed to have BOTH Wendy and Eric to walk the street to the shelter this morning at 5:30. I think I’m going to go a little earlier and wait in my car for one of them to walk with in the future. I felt far less anxious with them by my side. Wendy’s love is amazing. She lights up like sunshine and stares fear in the face. She politely smiled and wished a good morning to people we walked past. So different from my stiff avoidance. My fear intensifies when someone looks at me.

“Well, this is my home. These are my people.” She told me later. “I have a purpose here and it’s not jes ta work.”

“I see that. I watch you.” I acknowledged that her position on the front lines of this battlefield is clearly ordered by a higher calling. Her faithfulness to her post convicts me to the core.

The entire staff shows this grit. They are like warriors with years of experience, standing watch and reaching out to those who truly want what they have. But they have the wisdom to know who is manipulating them, too. There are no pearls being thrown for trampling.

Tucked next to Wendy throughout the day are her weapons: a well worn Bible, a Big Book with a crumpled dust jacket and a Daily Bread. She slips me a little baggie of instant coffee and gives me a cup of hot water. I praise Jesus for my own weapon of choice.

So much of my midwifery training comes in handy here. Coffee has empowered many a midwife to push through the long nights of sweaty hurrying up and waiting.

While taking the laundry across the courtyard today, a gruff, chubby man hollared at me, “You a hard workin woman! You got a hard workin man?”

“No.” And then, with a quick second thought, I added, “Do they make those?”

He laughed.

On my way back, he prodded more deeply, “You lookin for a hard workin man?”

I held back my knee jerk reaction to say that, yes, I am, but that he was clearly not that man. Instead I laughed and told him, “No sir. I’m looking OUT for my children right now.”

He nodded approvingly. “Thas a good woman right there. Well you let me know if you ever back on tha market.”

I will give this culture one thing. It is a direct one. You know what you’re dealing with. It’s on the surface and in your face. Sometimes more than you know what to do with.

I prefer this to the backbiting, secret, whispering slander that my case was spawned in. I’ll gladly spend a day on Skid Row with it’s abrupt, angry, misfits of society. I’ll happily embrace it’s in your face people standing alongside the staff heroes that shine like brilliant, strong giants of experience. I’ll spend a lifetime here over a day being slandered by my sisters in birth ANY day.

A man with an accent that tickles my ear with a hint of Bangalore is singing Milli Vanilli while a man with turretts belts out his ticks and a transvestite brushes his hair. The absurd nature is overshadowed by the pain of a movement of healers who stab each other to get ahead. The insanity is far less dangerous here.

 


Day 13: 192 Hours Remaining

I will not wear pigtails to the shelter again. That sentence has been written a hundred times on my mental chalkboard today.

In the laundry room I got a smile, an air blown kiss and a borderline gesture. The 72 year old fellah who gave me these gifts got a loud “no, sir” and a head shake. In return he laughed and gave me a thumbs up. Apparently, not only am I cute, I am also entertaining today. And that was my warning. I should have pulled my pigtails out right there.

I got a wink and a sign language something or other from another man, this time more my age, when he picked up his laundry. Behind his back, one of the staff ladies was yelling at him, irritated. Then she yelled over at me, “That man could at LEAST turn around and answer me when I call him!” She was a little flustered when I told her he couldn’t hear her because he is deaf. “I could write a book about this place” she muttered.

I almost told her I could too.

While carrying a sheet by the corners that was filled with ten tons of sheets and towels across the courtyard, a very large man said “You are the prettiest doctor I’ve ever seen.” To which I replied, “Good thing I’m not a doctor.” What kinds of rumors are spreading about me in this courtyard? Why must all babies be caught by doctors, even in the rhealm of homeless men’s theories?

And then, a debate with another community service worker (who swears he’s just a volunteer, even though I’ve seen him sign into the community service log book) about politics. He a socialist, me a libertarian. Leave it to a socialist to lie. He angered me by his constant referral to me as a wealthy, entitled white woman.

After a while I just got tired of it and went and hid by Wendy to escape the stereotypes and everyone’s seeming interest in turning me into something inanimate and alien. Interesting to be the minority.

Eric was counting vets in the same room with us and at one point, his head lifted briskly and his eyes scanned the courtyard. Almost immediately, Wendy did the same. The action was a bit like seeing your dogs lift their heads and turn towards the back door for some unknown reason. It leaves you wondering what they heard and you stand, frozen for a moment in time, because you know that they could either start barking an alarm or they could lay their heads back down and drift back off to sleep.

Eric and Wendy chuckled at each other and then resumed their tasks.

“If I had Wendy on one shoulder and Eric on the other, I would be the safest woman in Los Angeles.” I told them. I really did secretly wish this was so. I knew that Wendy would yell at the greasy old man and Eric would punch anyone who tried any moves.

 

Wendy awwwed and gushed at the compliment but Eric seemed to not hear, though I thought I caught just the edge of delight at the corner of his mouth. Eric is one of those men who stands like a stone covering a well of water.

 

A woman came in wearing a towel around her waste and Wendy told her she has to put clothes on. She unwound the towel to show she had shorts on underneath, to everyone’s relief. But as she did, she dropped a crack pipe. Oops. Crack pipe went in the trash and crack addict was ejected out of the gate and back onto the street.

On my way back to my car at the end of the day, a man asked me if I needed a place to sleep. I brushed past him hoping he wouldn’t make me. I clutched the mace in my purse tightly. 

A half a block further I was hollared at by two men in suits from a convertable BMW.

“Hey, honey… are you looking for a job?” One of them asked.

My pimp alarm went off and I declined their offer. Johns must be getting desperate in these economic times.

Five seconds later my pigtails were tied up in a messy bun. I will not wear pigtails to the shelter again.