A Few Good Men: Portraits of Homelessness

A Few Good Men:  Humans of Los Angeles

 By Daniel Lichtenstein-Boris

A Salute from the Sidewalk

One morning I went to take the train to work.  A man sat across from the entrance of the Hollywood/Western Red line station.  Scrawny, in his early 30’s, he held a sign that read, “Homeless Hungry Disabled Vet.”  I had no food or cash.  All I did was tell him sheepishly, “Sorry, I don’t have anything.”  Most commuters pretended he did not exist; they looked down at their feet, walking briskly past.  “Thank you for your service,” I gave him a sheepish salute as I walked by.

Exiting the train station at my stop, walking to work on sidewalks where homeless sleep on cardboard boxes wrapped in soiled blankets covered by clear plastic that sticks to garments like shrink wrapped cellophane, I saw a man wearing a Vietnam Veterans ball cap—a white man with a full head of snow-white hair puffing out from beneath his hat.  His beard extended a foot beneath his chin, unkempt full of scraggly salt and peppered gristles growing in different directions.  The six-foot-five vet stood upright with perfect posture.  He looked destitute, and in no rush, as he meandered across the sidewalk like he had nothing to do but loiter all day.

I saluted him, and he, in return, did the same with a curt right hand quickly raised to his hat’s brim as I walked past.

Mathew

Mathew Meyers.  That was his name, he told me.  He also wore it on his right wrist—on a hospital bracelet; white plastic with the name printed in clear black type. He was pushing a wheelchair slowly down a sidewalk composed of rows of grey concrete slabs, with bits of black dirt and plastic bottle caps crammed between each crack.  A bed roll, and few clothes piled up in the wheelchair were neatly folded, stacked up slightly above the back of the chair.  His hair grey and white with a few streaks of dirty blond flowed wildly down off the back of his head, mangled in knots and large clumps.  His beard descended four inches, covering his chin.

Mathew stopped me as I walked home from work; he asked for some change. He had been homeless two weeks, he told me.  After his most recent stroke he was discharged to the Ellis Hotel, where he dutifully paid his rent.  “I gave a blank money order to the property manager,” he explained laboredly, as if defending himself on the witness stand.  The manager gave him a receipt.  Later on, while he was out, the same manager entered his room, and took that receipt—pocketing his rent money, Matthew accused in a slurred drawl.  It seemed painful for him to talk as he attempted to enunciate clearly—a side of his face dropped flaccidly from the stroke.   “I was evicted.”

This wasn’t his first stroke, he mentioned that he had one before.  A lady and her daughter, he began to relate.  They lived in Riverside, or San Bernardino—somewhere inland—they took his Social Security checks.  $1,400 a month.  He had been trying to get his benefits restored. He had been going down to the Social Security office.  “The bureaucracy…. well, it is so frustrating.  It’s almost impossible.”  Mathew is 64 years old.

He used to be a mechanic.  He worked in LA’s once thriving aerospace industry.  He built aircraft parts and machines working at a massive factory; the hanger extended multiple football fields.  They built planes and war weapons for Boeing and Lockheed Martin.  He was non-union, but made good money, $18 an hour, which was a lot back then, in the early 80’s.  He even worked on the Tomahawk cruise missiles used in Operation Desert Storm, he related with pride.

I reached into my pocket.  All I had was a dollar and eight cents.  I felt impotent to help.  “Good luck,” I said as I handed him the money.

He stuffed the dollar into his faded blue jeans.  The pants were three sizes too big and could have easily fit two of him—they were kept up by a worn cheap belt.  As I left, Mathew continued walking, pushing his wheelchair down the sidewalk.  I turned my head and looked down at my feet as I walked away.  Central American day laborers stood at the entrance of the Home Depot parking lot, running to vans and Pickup trucks hustling for work.  Office workers sat on a Starbucks’ patio sipping lattes.  In the past year Lockheed Martin made over $5.5 billion dollars in profits, beating Wall Street analysts already optimistic expectations.  Boeing, with profit margin approaching 10%, made over $17 billion off its aerospace and defense businesses.

Elroy

A white couple sat on the sidewalk outside the grocery store Food 4 Less with their pit bull, who lay panting heavily in the late afternoon heat, his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth.  The man held a sign on a piece of used cardboard, the word “Hungry” scrawled with a black magic marker.  I stopped, and offered him a banana out of my lunch bag.  He said he didn’t eat them.  I dug into the bag.  I had some walnuts and raisins, which I offered.  He ate walnuts, and his partner, well, she ate raisins.

He was in Operation Desert Shield, he told me, and was in the military before Operation Desert Storm, when the first president Bush sent troops to protect the Saudi oil pipelines back in the late 80’s and early 90’s.  He was shot by friendly fire, he continued, and lifted his shirt to display his battle scars.  He had been shot several times in the stomach, and had a piece of metal still in his chest, and a metal plate in his left hand where his wrist had been shattered.  This happened three months after being deployed to the Saudi desert.

After emerged from a coma and left the hospital, the soldier who shot him came to visit to apologize.  He was livid—and lost it.  He started beating the man with a metal pole.  The military gave him a dishonorable discharge; assault on an officer with a deadly weapon.  “I mean here I was,” he explained, “having just recovered after months in the hospital, in a coma, and the man who shot me had been promoted to an officer.”  He got no benefits. “They said I was too violent for the military.  I mean imagine that!  It’s a profession where your job is violence.”

“A few months after that,” he continued, “I was at my neighborhood bar drinking.”  The bar was near his childhood home; he had known the bartender his whole life.

“I saw a man hit the girl he was with, a tiny blond thing.  I walked over to him to tell the guy to cut it out.  The man swung at me, so I beat him, and when I turned to walk away, he broke a beer bottle off on the back of my head.  So, I turned around, and beat him again.  I turned to walk away, and this time the man swung a glass pitcher and it broke on me, glass shards sticking into my neck.  So, I beat him again, and again tried to leave.  This time, he stabbed me between the ribs with a broken off pool stick, so I beat him until he stopped moving.  Bruised and bloody, I told the bartender I was going to home.  I left the bar and started walking.  A few blocks later, the police were there waiting for me.  I ended up doing nine years for involuntary manslaughter.”

The man had a giant Fuck You tattoo on his forehead.  By this time, I dumped my bag of raisins into the bag of walnuts, and then poured half of the mixture into the empty bag, and handed it to the couple.  They began sharing.  The woman picked out the raisins, the man the walnuts.  “Be careful,” I warned him.  “Those walnuts upset my stomach earlier.”

“They don’t bother me,” he replied, “I used to eat black walnuts as a child back east.”  He passed the bag back to his other half.

“Thanks for the food,” he grinned between bites.

“You know, I once stopped a woman from getting gang raped.  It was right after we moved to California.”  He looked over at his partner; she nodded approvingly, validating his memory.  “I saw a group of guys surrounding a woman in a parking lot in San Bernardino.  One man dropped his pants, and as they closed in, she reached out to pull them back up.  I wasn’t sure hat to do.  I asked a guy we were with if he wanted to stop them, he turned to me saying…. I’m not getting involved, there are too many of them.  So, I ran towards them alone, and with the full momentum of my body and speed, walloped one guy—punching him in the face.  His eyes rolled back into his head.  She got away—I only got stabbed,” he smiled, grinning from ear to ear in a goofy grimace.  He looked over at his partner, and their eyes connected.  “He was only in the hospital a few days,” she beamed proudly. “My man.”.

“So here I am,” he turned back towards me, “Thanks for the food.”

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Elroy, but they call me Bull”

Vincent

Wheelchair bound, Vincent sat near the crowded subway train’s side entrance.  He was headed to Pershing Square to panhandle.  His fingers were short, swollen, calloused, dirty, and pudgy.  A flap of skin hung beneath his double chin, like a stork carrying a baby on a Saturday morning cartoon TV show.  He wore a black hat with the insignia of the United States Marine Corp; the western hemisphere pierced by a ship’s anchor, with an eagle perched on top.  He had a Semper Fi marine tattoo inked on his right inside forearm, and a faded red and blue tattoo of an American flag on the other, in dire need of a touch up.  Vincent told me he did nine tours of duty in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia; he received two purple hearts and one bronze star.

He served in the Marines 21 years.  “In the first Gulf War,” he explained, “We had to bury ourselves in the sand—it would rain oil.”  He had a bullet in his tail bone and ankle.  Once he was shot by friendly fire.  His buddy fired his weapon by accident, and it ricocheted off of his Sherman tank and hit the inside of his ankle.  Vincent had a stroke three years ago—that’s when he was discharged from the Army, and can’t remember a lot.  He goes to the VA for medical care, but he doesn’t get any disability pay, he told me.

Sometimes he has nightmares, he confessed.  He’s been living in a tent under the overpass on 17th and Main with his girlfriend, and when a truck thunders on the freeway overhead, a motorcycle passes by, or a car’s muffler kicks, he sometimes wakes up thinking he’s in the desert, and under attack with incoming mortar fire.  “My girlfriend has to calm me down, telling me no baby, were in LA, you are state-side, so I can get back to sleep.”  He told me they wanted to head to Santa Barbara to live with his Cousin; if only he could get the money together for a train ticket.

My stop was next.  I shook Vincent’s hand and pressed a $20-dollar bill into his palm.  He took off his hat, placed it in his lap, and clasped his hands together.  Looking up, he began to pray, mouthing some indecipherable words silently to the creator.  The train slowed, stopped, and its’ doors slid open.  I stepped off onto the station platform.

In September 2018 as the U.S. war in Afghanistan enters its 17th year, President Donald Trump signed bipartisan legislation to spend $200 Billion on Veterans Affairs, and $675 Billion for the Department of Defense next year.  The US spends more on its military than China, Russia, England, France, Japan, India, and Saudi Arabia combined.  I still haven’t seen any TV cameras at all those Presidential “Support Our Troops” rallies at military base air hangers fade to a shot of a career soldier and war hero living under a freeway overpass.

I hope Vincent made it to Santa Barbara.

George

George sat under the shade of an ancient oak tree, playing the blues in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park. He picked the strings of his guitar, which was hooked up to an amp powered by a street pole’s electrical outlet connected to a long orange extension cord.  It was a hot, sunny day, but under the tree it was nice and cool.  A breeze blew in from the southeast that caressed and gently kissed the naked skin.  George, born in 1942, was 75 years old.  A lifelong musician, he still plays now and then on Wednesdays and Sundays for a couple different congregations.  “We are blessed,” he told me, taking a break from the music, and placing his hand over the instrument’s strings to calm their vibration.  We sat quietly as birds chirped, inhaling the smell of mid-summer’s cut grass.

He had been a city bus driver, and retired when he turned 65—with both social security and a pension.  He was a truck driver before that.  Reflecting, he related how he survived a tour of duty in Vietnam, lived briefly in Chicago, and managed to make it through the crack cocaine epidemic that decimated his home town of Compton.  “Thank God.”  He was a former addict himself, but had recovered, “Praise the lord,” though he still smoked weed like most musicians, George confessed smiling.

When he retired ten years ago, he thought his pension and social security would be enough to live off of.  Sure, he made some mistakes in his life, but he had bounced back.  Even so, he never saved enough to buy a house.  But the rent south of the University of Southern California has skyrocketed with the campus’s expansion.  The influx of students has driven up the cost of housing for neighborhood residents.  “I’ve seen a lot of foreign students from Asia—Korea, Taiwan, and China.   They enroll at USC, and their families buy them a home to live in the four years they are here—it’s an investment for them.  The cost of living has skyrocketed.  I couldn’t afford the rising rent.”  George told me he has been living in his van for the past three years.  He has family; nieces, nephews, and cousins, but he doesn’t want to be a burden on them.  We talked some more, comparing notes of housing costs and way of living in southern California compared to back east.  “It’s almost impossible to live.  With the new football stadium they’re building in Inglewood, it is only going to get worse,” he mentioned.  “LA sure is nice,” he sighed, squinting at the sunlight shining through the swaying tree leaves, “but it sure is expensive.”

Hollywood

A homeless couple lay asleep on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame, wrapped in blankets and each other’s arms.  A white woman curled up in her partners’ embrace, her head resting on his side between his hip bone and rib.  His arm, a dark melanin of exposed forearm and fingers, extended over her shoulder blade.  Here they were breathing peacefully, dreaming.  I walked past the pink imprints etched with the names of movie stars and recording artists with platinum record sales, tiptoeing on the sidewalk so as not to disturb them.  Concert goers walked hurriedly past.  A nearby storefront window reflected a plasma TV facing the street, advertising Google’s Artificial Intelligence.  Not smart enough to solve California’s housing crisis, I mused cynically.

And so, we are, across the swaying silhouettes of human life—the valleys, mountains, hills, and distant cities; places where men and women live, grow, and reproduce; where they care for each other in sickness and health—places like here; where we are born, die, and wander about in between, conscious of this earth a short while.  I’ve never seen many of these places.  I’ve never been there.  But I can imagine. I think of their customs, cuisine, and the architecture of their streets; the taste of the drinks they sip at dusk while watching the sun set, sitting on verandas, balconies, front stoops, and dwelling entrances.  All I know is those people I never met, across the block, across town, and on the other side of the world, they are witnessing the same eternal rhythm as I, the swaying back and forth; the attraction, repulsion, hope, despair, desire, disgust, idealism, burnout, fulfillment, and  frustration—those human emotions—the lust, contempt, love, hate, despondency, motivation, fear, courage, indignation, and forgiveness; paired together like dusk and dawn across time and space.

I entered a bar down the street from the young lovers sleeping on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  A band played.  The drums, they say—the conga drum beat reflects the echo of past generations, conjuring the energy of all who have come before us with its sound, bringing their color, passion, their sweat and labor—the harvest of humanity’s efforts—to the present place and time.  The trumpets lifted—musicians blew their horns to summon the artistic muses from their rest.  The room began to sway, to move, and shimmer.  Feet shuffled in rhythm.  Bodies danced in a harmonious give and take, a push and pull, like ocean waves lapping the beaches of human motivation, the dimensions of compassion, the orchestra of foot traffic, and the sweat of backs and anxious brow, wrinkled in worried concentration.  Without the power generated from this friction, the tired monotony of wage labor, the basic struggle for subsistence, would crush humanity in its persistent grind.  Life’s doldrums, its infinite obstacles, the overwhelming enormity of suffering, drowning our creativity, hope, and compassion, strangles the breath; choking off our faith in each other, in our own goodness, subjugating our spirit in a daily routine of labor to pay next month’s rent; to secure a safe space to sleep content.

It’s more than the fear of falling—of being evicted, of becoming the homeless man or woman wrapped in dirty linens, sleeping on the streets amidst the fame, fortune, brass posts and cloth cordons separating adorning crowds from red carpet Oscar awardees on Hollywood Boulevard’s sidewalk of patterned pink stars that motivates us to continue.  It’s the excitement, the courageous fascination, the tension—that magical rhythmic pulse careening through our veins and arteries—jumping from one body to the next, twirling its’ captivating essence around painted nails and curved hips, satin lace, red and pink skirts, crisp white collared button shirts and black neckties—the life energy that propels forward human ingenuity and kindness; to triumph past the pain of neighbors crushed by indifference, contempt, cruelty, and carelessness—that steels our resolve to remain human through it all.

Good Samaritan

The other day I stopped to get tacos on my lunch break.  As I waited for my order to be completed, a woman inched towards the restaurant’s entrance in wheelchair, her face cut and bruised, her right arm in a sling and cast, her left leg encased in a plastic brace over another plastered cast.  She wheeled herself to the front entrance, and called for help.  Do you have any rice, or beans—she called in Spanish.  She had just been discharged from Westlake’s Good Samaritan Hospital.  She was homeless, and had been raped and beaten by a group of men while living on skid row, I overheard her relate to the restaurant’s female cashier in Spanish as customers ate their lunch.  President Trump was on TV again, calling Latin American immigrants gang members and animals.  The Telemundo news anchor continued their ongoing coverage of the latest escalation of government cruelty; detaining refugee families, and incarcerating children and parents in separate camps.  The television flashed to a picture of a dog kennel sized cage, the cell where the news broadcaster indicated immigrant children were detained, concentrated together in a sweltering Texas desert camp, made passive zombies with heavy doses of psychotropic medication.  It was taking a while to get my tacos; I kept thinking of everything I had to do that day, as I sat watching the news.

One of the cooks, a Salvadoran woman in her late 30’s or early 40’s wearing a net over her tied up hair, emerged from the kitchen with five plates of food.  She stepped outside and placed the bag, with its stacks of meals in white Styrofoam containers, in the discharged patient’s lap.  She carefully placed a small hand on the woman’s shoulder, ever so gently.  Take care of yourself.  Good luck, may you be well, she told her their native tongue.

I smiled.  My food could wait.

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