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...)

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