Monday, January 9, 2012

It's alive!

My movie is out on iTunes! Please tell your friends, like me on Facebook, upvote me on Reddit. Oh, and rent the movie too. You can be the first to write an official review!

UPDATE: The film is apparently available only in the U.S. iTunes store. I'm not sure why. I'm going to try to get that changed but unfortunately the distribution is not under my control.

Friday, January 6, 2012

I am Super Danny

[Sorry for the long gap between posts. The holidays were a bigger distraction than I had anticipated.]

So there I was, in Santa Monica, camera in hand, and the person who was going to be the subject of my film was nowhere to be found. But I had this rented this big honking video camera so I figured I might as well get a little practice shooting.

I should give you a little bit more background: At this point I was greener than Kermit the frog. I had absolutely zero experience. I had never shot a video before. I had never owned a video camera. I had never conducted an interview. I had absolutely no clue what I was doing. So I'm juggling the video camera in one hand while sneaking surreptitious peeks at the manual every now and then, and trying to discretely shoot background images of the various homeless people hanging out on benches on the Third Street Promenade .

It's hard to be discrete with a camera the size of a basketball. So this is what happened. Keep in mind as you watch this unedited clip that although I may sound calm, inside I am about as scared as I have ever been in my life. (Yes, I've led a sheltered life.)

That interaction was a revelation. Danny, of course, is about as floridly a schizophrenic person as you could ever hope to encounter outside of an institution, but the instant I overcame my fear and started to treat him with even the tiniest bit of respect, the gruff, scary facade just melted away and what was left was just a plain old crazy guy. Over the course of the next few years I would meet a lot of schizophrenics (mental illness is a major underlying cause of homelessness) but none as far gone as Danny. He always insisted that he was several billion years old and had no idea where he was born or who his parents were. He didn't like being questioned about his past, and so I didn't push very hard. I didn't get to know him very well, but I did know him well enough to know that at least this much was the truth: he was a very nice, peaceful, loving man. Or at least he wanted to be. The world did not meet him halfway.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Plenum (guest post by Yavx)

I've been in correspondence with a (now formerly) homeless person who has asked to write some guest posts for this blog. This person wants to remain anonymous, so I'll refer to him (or maybe her) as Yavx. That is obviously not this person's real name, and no, I'm not going to tell you how we arrived at that pseudonym. Suffice it to say that if this person's identity becomes known it could place them in actual danger.

Without further ado then I present Yavx's first post.



As human beings each and every one of us creates our own reality. Our own magically tinted view of the world with beautiful inconsistencies and imperfections. What makes our realities even more magical is that we can share them. Our realities are shared realities. To be human means sharing our weird little worlds with others. It can be in tiny fragments with the guys at work or in huge chunks with ones we love. We thrive by defining our realities with respect to one another. That is the glue that binds all of us together in so many complicated ways. It's so intrinsic to us that we can't imagine life without it, but what if one day it just disappears? What if there is no one at the other end?

That's what stung the most during my stint on the streets.

You can try to forget about the impending sense of doom. You quickly get over the physical discomfort, but that emptiness stays with you. Even though I've been off the streets for quite some time, the emptiness is still there. It fuels my worst fears. In a strange way it fuels me. I strive. I get things done no matter what, because I know that if I slip up I'll be back out in the vacuum with that formless, shapeless, tasteless, and terrifying emptiness.

I want to fill this vacuum and that's what I'll be blogging about; finding ways to fill this vacuum inside of me and helping others do the same.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

It's all my dog's fault

"But for the Grace of God?" would never have been made but for my dog Mobo (who, sadly, didn't live to see the premiere). He didn't share my trepidation about approaching homeless people. He was an equal-opportunity sniffer who did not discriminate on the basis of race, socioeconomic status, or even species. As long as you smelled interesting he was your friend. So naturally he was very friendly to the panhandlers.

They weren't always friendly to him though. A surprisingly large number of panhandlers were afraid of him even though he was never aggressive (except occasionally to other dogs). I suppose they had encountered a few too many unfriendly dogs to give anything bigger than a chihuahua the benefit of the doubt. But there were exceptions.

One of the exceptions was Walter.

If you've watched the trailer then you've seen Walter. He is a solidly built black man with a goatee, dreadlocks, and an ever present black stocking cap, the kind of person that one might wish not to meet in a dark alley. He was sitting on a blanket in the park overlooking the Pacific ocean. There were a lot of homeless people to choose from that day, but for some reason Mobo made a beeline for Walter.

There was always a tense moment when Mobo approached a stranger, not so much because I worried that he would be aggressive -- he never was with people -- but because so many people seemed to be afraid of him regardless. But Walter took to him immediately, so I relaxed and watched them bond. They played around for a minute or two, and then Walter looked me in the eye and said nine words that would change the course of my life.

"Thank you, sir, for letting me pet your dog."

That floored me. It was unusual for a panhandler to be unafraid of Mobo, let alone enjoy his company. But no one had ever thanked me for letting them pet him! I fumbled for words, and I think I managed a "no problem" or something like that.

But something about this person at the very bottom of the social ladder conducting himself with a level of civility that seems to elude many people (myself sadly among them at times) caused a seismic shift in my brain, and I found myself following up with something that ten seconds earlier I would not have thought myself capable of.

"I'm Ron. What's your name?"


"Hi Walter, nice to meet you. Do you mind if I ask you a question?"


And so I asked him. And he told me. And it broke my heart.

No, I'm not gong to tell you Walter's story here. You'll have to see the movie for that :-) But I will say that in the span of five minutes my image of homeless people was changed forever. And I thought to myself: this story has to be told.

So the next day I rented a video camera and came back to the spot where Walter had been the day before. There was no sign of him.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The question everyone asks

I suppose I didn't make it clear at the end of the previous installment, but I was convinced at the time that this guy never wanted a food, he wanted money to buy drugs, and the reason that he intentionally took a long time making up his mind about what to put on his sandwich in the hopes that I would just give up and hand him a dollar. So I wasn't discouraged because he wasted a sandwich (though that bothered me to) but because it torpedoed my entire strategy of insuring that I would only be helping truly needy people and not drug addicts. It was many years before I realized that the problem was not with the world, but with the premise: "truly needy" and "drug addicts" are not disjoint groups. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The question everyone asks, and which I have always had the devil of a time answering, is: why did you make this movie? Of course there are a lot of reasons. I wanted to learn how films were made. I thought it would be cool. I wanted to win the Oscar. But OK, those are reasons to make a film in general, why homelessness? I think it actually goes back to that day at the Subway. From that day on the question gnawed at me: if buying them sandwiches doesn't work, then what will? I'm an engineer by both training and temperament, and at the core of the engineer's soul is the conviction that every problem has a solution. Here was a problem writ large and small: in the heart of Hollywood, the most glamorous city in the richest country on earth, you can't walk down the street without being overwhelmed by the stench of stale urine and the never ending refrain, "Got any spare change?"

A friend of mine just sent me this comment on my previous post: "[Y]ou lost your faith in humanity because an addict was addicted and trying to feed his habit rather than his nutritional needs?" Well, yeah, pretty much, though of course I didn't see it that way at the time. At the time I didn't understand addiction. I had been raised by tea-totaling parents to believe that taking drugs was a moral failure, and so by extension enabling someone to take drugs was a moral failure too. In retrospect I can see what a colossal mistake this is (I'll have a lot more to say about that in later posts). But at the time I just accepted it as an axiom, and I think a lot of people still do: helping someone buy drugs is a Bad Thing To Do (tm). Given how destructive addiction can be it's not a completely unreasonable point of view.

I remained impaled on the horns of this dilemma for over ten years. During that time the idea of trying to learn more about homelessness by making a documentary crossed my mind a number of times. It's a natural thing to contemplate when you're in LA because everyone and their second cousin is making a movie. (I would sometimes joke that the reason I made the film is that if you stay in LA too long without making a movie they will kick you out.) But I never did anything about it, in part because in those days making a movie was still pretty hard. People were starting to make films with video cameras, but the quality was poor, and besides I had other fish to fry. I was working on my first startup while trying to keep a day job. My personal life was in turmoil and would ultimately result in a divorce. But that's not what this story is about.

So fast forward to 2006. The Google IPO has just happened and suddenly I am financially independent. I have quit my job at JPL. I have time. I have resources. And I have an apartment in Santa Monica, which is chock-full of homeless people (Santa Monica, not the apartment). There is nothing standing in my way of tackling this project.

It seems that you sometimes don't really get to know yourself until all the external obstacles have been cleared away and you have nothing left to blame your failures on. In my case I suddenly realized that it wasn't time or money that was really standing in my way, it was fear. I started looking at the bums and the panhandlers and realized that the prospect of approaching them was absolutely terrifying. How do you do it? Can you just walk up to a homeless person and say, "Excuse me, can you please tell me how you ended up on the street?" The question itself seemed inescapably judgmental. I mean, you wouldn't walk up to a homeful person and say, "Excuse me, can you please tell me how you ended up in your house?"

So I was stuck again.

My rescue came from a most unexpected quarter: my dog. Tune in next time for that story.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Chapter 3, in which Ron loses his faith in humanity

I don't remember how many times I used my I'll-buy-you-a-burger ploy, but I do remember how many times someone took me up on it: three. Most of the time the offer was declined, sometimes politely, sometimes not.

The second time someone took me up on it I was in Santa Barbara with my wife and we ended up having a very interesting chat with this fellow who turned out to be nice enough but a bit, er, loopy. He was wearing homemade rings fabricated from discarded wire and broken bits of glass. He very matter-of-factly explained to us how these were his gods, and every week he would worship a different color of glass. 'This week I'm worshiping green" he explained proudly as he showed us his green glass ring and munched on his cheeseburger and fries.

The third time there was no McDonalds nearby and we ended up at a Subway instead. This turned out to be problematic because there are lot more choices to make. What kind of sandwich. What kind of bread. Lettuce? Onions? Mayo? Mustard? Salt? Pepperoncinis? It goes on and on. It took us fully fifteen minutes to get through the line, and by the time we got to the register my patience was starting to wear a bit thin.

I paid. We left. He walked away without a word, not even "thank you." And as I watched him go, he walked up to a trash can and threw away the unopened sandwich.

I was stunned. I briefly contemplated going after him and saying something, but decided against it. Instead I vowed that I would never buy another sandwich for a panhandler.

I kept that vow for nearly ten years. And as it happens, I probably should have kept it longer. But that story will have to wait until the next installment.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Before the beginning

I don't really know how far back my -- let's call it morbid curiosity for lack of a better term -- about homelessness goes. I can't remember a time when I didn't wonder how someone ends up on the street. But I do remember very clearly my first encounter with a homeless person. It did not go well.

In 1988 I moved to Glendale, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. Since I was ten years old I had been living in towns of less than 30,000 people, so this was a big change. I had visited LA a few years earlier, but most of my time was spent in the San Fernando valley, which is not the city's main draw. Those were the days before the 101 was widened and emission controls were really prevalent, so the traffic and the smog were nightmarish. My central impression from that visit went something like: what a horrible place, I would hate to have to live here. And yet, here I was. Bob Seeger's song "Hollywood Nights" really resonated (and still does):

She stood there bright as the sun on that california coast
He was a midwestern boy on his own
She looked at him with those soft eyes,
So innocent and blue
He knew right then he was too far from home

Except for being a southern boy and not from the midwest, that was me: too far from home.

Not to leave you with the wrong impression, over the 22 years that I lived there I really came to love LA. The town has a lot to offer. But it takes practice. Most of LA's gems are well hidden, and that includes ways to get around. LA's traffic is legendary, but there are a few secret routes that let you zip from A to B pretty fast, at least most of the time. One of these secret routes is (or at least was) Los Feliz Boulevard. Los Feliz starts in a lower-middle-class part of Glendale, cuts a laser-straight path through Los Feliz (imagine that!), a very swanky enclave of Los Angeles, past the southern boundary of Griffith Park to the campus of the American Film Institute. There it makes a sharp left turn, goes down a hill, and dumps you in the heart of Hollywood. That part of town has been gentrified since then, but in those days one of the most dramatic and abrupt transitions between socioeconomic strata that you could imagine. One minute you're among mansions, then you round the bend, and not fifteen seconds later you are among drug dealers and bag ladies. Don Henley really nailed it:

Let's go down to the Sunset Grill
We can watch the working girls go by
Watch the basket people walk around and mumble
And stare out at the auburn sky

Back then if you spent any time at all at ground level you had no choice but to decide on a strategy for dealing with panhandlers. Most people just ignored them, but I found that I just couldn't harden my heart enough for that to work for me. Still, I knew full well that most of the time "a dollar for a cheeseburger" really meant "a dollar for a hit" and so just giving them money didn't seem like the right answer either. So one day I decided to try an experiment: the next panhandler who asked me for a dollar-for-a-cheeseburger I would say no, you can't have a dollar, but I'll buy you a cheeseburger.

The next panhandler turned out to be an old black woman. She eyed me with some suspicion when I made my offer, but ultimately accepted. So we walked across the street to the Hollywood Boulevard McDonalds, where we encountered a problem.

"I can't eat here," she said in a conspiratorial voice. "There's ay-rabs behind the counter."

"I don't understand."

"Ay-rabs! Right there!" She pointed at the counter employees.

"Um, I'm pretty sure those aren't Arabs," I opined.

"Them's ay-rabs, and they want to kill me. I can't eat no meat here. They're gonna put poison in it. We gotta go somewhere else."

At this point I was starting to think that, notwithstanding this woman's unfortunate circumstances, she was being a little presumptuous.

"How about if I get you something without meat? A milkshake perhaps?" (No, I didn't really say "perhaps." I'm reconstructing events from a long time ago and taking some literary license with the details. But she really did say that the ay-rabs were trying to poison her.)

She thought about it, then finally allowed as to how she might be able to drink a milkshake without fearing for her life. As we waited in line, she continued muttering about ay-rabs. A minute later she decided that the ay-rabs were going to poison her milkshake too, and we absolutely had to go somewhere else. I said no, sorry, I'll get you whatever you want here, but I don't have time to go anywhere else. So she turned around and walked out the door.

Oh well, I said to myself, at least I tried. I'll try again. Maybe it will go better next time.

(To be continued...)