Friday, August 24, 2012

Gehenna (Part I)

Photo courtesy of LMU: Magazine of Loyola Marymount University

Gehenna:  a valley below Jerusalem where children were sacrificed in fire to the Ammonite god, Moloch; a place or state of pain and torment.

At dawn, the temp is already in the high 70s with equal humidity as the Skid Row ghosts begin to stir.  This is grit-blasted Los Angeles.  The lost and forsaken crawl from dirty sleeping bags, cardboard boxes, portable toilets, cracks in the sidewalk, every alley and doorway.  Take 6th Street down from the 110 and watch the landscape shift from old masonry buildings to dead brown blight, and there the ghosts come out.  They shuffle into the street, they ignore traffic lights, they mumble their prayers, they search for food or smack or a bottle.  Seven a.m. is never too early to get fucked up on Skid Row.

There is a circuit, a grand master plan for most of the people on the street in that fifty square block hell in the middle of the city of angels:  find relief, even if it’s temporary.  The human inhabitants know which soup kitchen is serving today.  They know where to find alcohol and drugs.  They have their haunts and their fixes, and as the heat and humidity climb, the misery can only be relieved in small increments.

The Catholic Worker Hospitality Kitchen, or Hippy Kitchen, as it is sometimes called, sits on the corner of Gladys and 6th.  I had to circle the block twice because I kept missing it.  There are trees and fresh paint on the walls; therefore, the place looks more like an oasis in a desert, but I was too distracted by the people roaming around with their carts and detritus.  I had to avoid inadvertently running someone over, because they did not care that a car was coming.  On my second go-round, I pulled to the curb outside a nursery school.  A nursery school!—who would leave their children here?  People were lined up like logs on the sidewalk, most of them unconscious, although a few were rubbing their eyes and staring at me.  I walked a half block back and crossed Gladys.  A woman was washing down the courtyard outside the kitchen.  “Hey,” I called out to her.  “Where’s the entrance to the Catholic Worker?”

“Down there by the open gate,” she said, gesturing down Gladys.  Two black guys with their carts blocked the sidewalk between me and the open chain-link gate.

“Hey, dude,” one of them called out to me.  “You gotta go in there.”  He pointed toward the same opening.  I thanked him and tried to squeeze between the two carts loaded with bedding and junk.

Once inside, I met up with Mike who was handing out assignments for the day.  When he noticed me, I stuck out my hand and told him my name.  “Yeah, I need you to start buttering some bread,” he said.  I noticed he had hearing aids.  The other volunteers had already started chopping onions, and large pots were lined up on the stove.  Mike took me to the prep area of the kitchen and showed me boxes and bags of bread.  It looked like the bread restaurants serve on their tables.  Now I knew what happened to whatever the customers did not eat.  Other bags contained whole loaves.  Mike handed me off to a woman named Anne who explained the process.  She set up my workstation with a brick of room-temperature margarine, a dull knife, and a laundry basket.  Bread gets buttered and then stacked in the basket.  When the basket is jammed to the top, put a plastic bag over it and tie it up.  Wear a hair net and a set of gloves made of Saran wrap.  I donned my gear and began slathering.

Almost immediately, my back started raising hell.  I saw a wooden stool nearby and pulled it over to sit.  I’ve never had any problem buttering bread, but the heat was rising and the margarine smelled like rancid fat.  My shirt was already greasy with margarine, coated with crumbs, and soaked with sweat.  My Saran Wrap fingers poked holes through the thin sheeting, so I had to keep re-gloving.  The margarine and the plastic also made my hands slippery, so I could not get a grip on the knife.  The other volunteers around me seemed to move about their business effortlessly, with the finely honed skills of people who did this three times a week.  I felt like a lightweight with my aching back and my useless, clumsy fingers.  However, in quick time my workmates and I had three laundry baskets full of bread, and we had utilized five bricks of margarine.  I also noticed the other volunteers ate constantly, grabbing a piece of buttered bread here, or a meatball from a tray over against the wall.  I had no appetite whatsoever, but the regulars seemed to relish eating.  They encouraged one another to try one dish or spoon from a pot.  They sampled like family members gathered in a kitchen at Thanksgiving, while I tried to fight the flip-flops in my stomach.

The bread was stored on a wire shelf to await distribution.  Next came the bell peppers, great trays of them, which I had to dice up with one of the most profoundly dull knives I have ever used.  And the peppers were rotted, for the most part.  Mike told me to cut off the bad bits and salvage what I could, then dice what I had left and transfer the pieces to another large tray.  I kept cutting my gloves, requiring frequent re-gloving.  My fingers were safe; I could not have cut skin if I wanted to.  The rot on the outside of the peppers often extended into the flesh of the interior, and some of it looked like pus.  I’d cut into the bad and a white-green oily fluid would seep out.  I tried to seed them as well, but the tiny grains kept sticking to my plastic-wrapped fingers.  The woman next to me hacked her way through several trays of zucchinis, which were rubbery and covered in dark spots.  These vegetables were the throwaways from supermarket produce sections.  There was enough good vegetable material to feed an army, but with the rotted parts, no paying customer would buy produce in this condition.

Mike called all of us to put down our knives and utensils and gather around the table in the main kitchen area.  We formed a circle and held hands, praying aloud for the homeless we would soon be serving, for justice in the world and on the streets, for changes in government policy to remedy the suffering and misery of so many people.  Mike asked the volunteers for petitions, and a big, bearded man shouted out, “How about for Gary Kasparov.”  His request threw me for a minute.  “He got hauled in for questioning by the Russian police.”  I realized he meant the chess player.  I found out later that the petitioner was a big chess fan and often played matches with some of the homeless diners out on the patio once serving was done for the day.

“And let’s not forget the Pussy Riot girls,” Jeff, the leader of the organization shouted.  Again, it took me a minute to realize he was referring to the arrests of a protesting punk rock group in Russia for criticizing the Putin government.  We closed with the Lord’s Prayer and returned to our kitchen jobs.

Back chopping my vegetables, I heard volunteers around me talk about “actions,” as in, “We have an action scheduled for next week at the nuclear power plant.”  The goal of these actions was to get arrested.  That, for the volunteers, was the Holy Grail, and a source of pride.  Jeff Dietrich, both in print and in public, speaks of getting arrested and going to prison as a badge of honor.  He rails against LAPD violence and brutality on the streets of Skid Row.  Jeff does not like authority.  Listening to the other volunteers talk about getting arrested or dragged away to a holding cell, it was evident that rebellion and even anarchy are goals considered admirable in the Catholic Worker world.  Over the years, Jeff and his band have chained themselves to bulldozers to protest the new cathedral built by the L.A. Archdiocese; they have encroached on the grounds of nuclear testing sites; and they have poured blood and oil on the steps of the federal building in Westwood while praying the rosary.  Feeding the poor and offering them medical and other assistance are a necessary part of Catholic Worker action, but protesting against all forms of human abuse and degradation, including war, violence, and weaponry, is also high on the volunteers’ priority list.

With the cooking nearly complete, we gathered once more around the main kitchen table for prayer and serving assignments.  Today’s main course was tuna noodles.  The smell of onions was still so overpowering in the kitchen that my eyes were burning, even with fans running to blow out the fumes.  I was assigned to “water the tables,” which meant drawing pitchers of water from large trash barrels.  Big bowling ball-sized chunks of ice floated in the water.  The heat and humidity required that we keep up the hydration of the clients, since they could become sick from their day on the streets.  After everyone had an assignment, the doors were opened to the line that stretched down the block.  I had only a second to glance at the shambling ghosts waiting patiently for their bread and noodles.  They were people of color, mainly, and they had the faraway stares of soldiers who had been in the theater of war too long with death and destruction.  The words from Allen Ginsberg fire-flashed in my mind:  “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.”  Many looked down and away, but in the eyes of the ones who stared back at me, I saw bleak emptiness, “with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies…”

I grabbed my pitcher and a stack of paper cups and began to “water the tables.”

Gehenna (Part II) will be posted here soon and will deal with the rest of the day at the Catholic Worker Hospitality Kitchen on Skid Row, Los Angeles.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Upon These Streets

Growing up in a suburb of Los Angeles, we had only one homeless person who wandered our streets.  He was an elderly man who moved about with the aid of a walker and always carried a Samsonite suitcase.  He was white and wore a black suit.  Years later, I saw the Katherine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy film, Desk Set (Twentieth Century Fox, 1957) and realized the Old Man With the Suitcase (as my family called him) looked just like Spencer Tracy, same white hair, same sharp blue eyes.  We passed this man on our way to school each morning, on our way home in the afternoon, and when we went to church on Sunday.  Mysteriously, we never saw him after the sun went down, which made all of us wonder where he slept each night.  I did see him once very early in the morning on my way to serve 6:30 mass.  I flew past him on my bike, almost without seeing him.  He was sitting in a vacant shopping center carefully wrapping his swollen, red legs with Ace bandages.  Another time, I saw him through the shelves at the local public library, nodding off over a thick book spread on the table before him.

The library actually was the vehicle by which some of the Old Man’s mystery was revealed to me.  I was a teenager, already with a driver’s license, and I had to return some library books to the night slot late one evening.  I parked with my headlights pointed out over the dirt lot next door and ran to the double glass doors to stuff my books in the metal slot.  When I returned to my car, I was startled by a creature who rose up from the dirt lot directly in my headlights.  It was the Old Man wearing a long, dirty night shirt.  Pooled around his feet was his bed roll; he was sleeping in the lot and my headlights disturbed him.  He had a look of fear and confusion in his blue eyes.  I quickly got in the car and drove away.  From that moment on, I rarely passed the dirt lot next to the library at night, in cold rain or humid heat of summer, without thinking of him there, hidden just beyond the asphalt, sleeping the restless sleep of someone never out of danger.

These days, so many more people drift through life upon the streets of our cities, and Los Angeles is no exception.  In fact, more homeless congregate here because of the mild temperatures in winter and summer, especially by the beach in Santa Monica.  Back in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan and his administration repealed the Mental Health Systems Act that President Carter had worked so hard to pass.  Not to let it go at that, Reagan then changed the eligibility criteria for disability insurance, creating an environment on the street where survival for the mentally ill would be nearly impossible.  We are seeing the consequences play out daily on our streets.

Last winter, former Marine Itzcoatl Ocampo stabbed several homeless people to death in Anaheim.  According to prosecutors, Ocampo was a serial killer on a “thrill-kill spree.”  He allegedly modeled his attacks on previous murders, including Marine Charles Whitman who shot 13 people to death from the University of Texas tower in 1966.  Ocampo claimed that his experiences as a soldier in Iraq made him do the killings.

Fullerton police beat an unarmed homeless man to death last summer.  According to surveillance camera footage and audio recordings of the incident, Kelly Thomas cried out over and over again both that he could not breathe and for his father as officers restrained and beat him.  Thomas was schizophrenic who walked the streets picking up cigarette butts to smoke.  Someone erroneously reported him breaking into vehicles in the area leading to the police response that resulted in his death.

Homeless people are often victims of alcoholism and drug abuse.  Instead of treating them, we throw them into prisons.  It is shameful that people must live in such conditions, but the stories these people tell are often even more disconcerting.  Many of them are veterans who served our country with distinction in the military.  As the number of returning vets increases, we can expect the homeless population to soar.  These former soldiers often suffer from mental and physical ailments that go untreated.

I recently started studying the religious response to poverty and social injustice.  The Jewish Old Testament clearly dictates that people must be responsible for those less fortunate, the widow, the orphan, the alien.  The Old Testament writers take great pains to remind people that as God created human beings in his image and likeness, and led the Jewish people out of captivity and slavery, it is a solemn obligation to return the favor to those who are suffering poverty and alienation.  The Christian New Testament gives the example of Jesus, who time after time put himself in harm’s way for prostitutes, tax collectors, and other marginalized human beings in his short time on earth.  Repeatedly in sermons and parables, he warns early Christians to be responsible for others, thus continuing the mandate of the prophets to observe the covenant and care for those less fortunate.

In the Catholic church of my childhood, no one every addressed the predicament of the Old Man With the Suitcase who walked the streets of my suburban neighborhood.  The priest each Sunday never mentioned him, nor did I hear a request to assist him from my Catholic school teachers.  We did get our mission boxes during lent to collect money to send the word of Christ to Africa, but nothing focused on those in need locally.  Today, so many more are in trouble, each with a story of addiction, traumatic service in war, loss of livelihood, home, and savings in the declining economy; even more suffer from mental and physical illness.  The situation is dire, and there is little hope on the horizon.  The poor and homeless wander these streets desperate to recover their dignity and sense of self-worth.  If empires can be judged on how the most vulnerable among its citizens are treated, what does that say about America?  In a first world nation, how is it that some people live a third world existence in the streets and alleys of our richest cities?  Do we not have an obligation, a moral imperative, to help?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Illusive Star

Over the summer when I took a break for lunch, I’d pull up a slice of childhood on the computer.  The website Hulu has full episodes of Adam-12, the police procedural that ran on NBC from September, 1968 through May of 1975.  As a child, the irony was lost on me that in the midst of an unpopular war and major cultural upheaval, there was a show on television that celebrated law and order as well as conservative values.  Many of the perpetrators of crime on the series each week were portrayed as long-haired hippies bent on free love and helping themselves to a homeowner’s hi-fi.  Jack Webb, the most conservative of television producers, created Adam-12 as a sort of spinoff of his original LAPD detective procedural, Dragnet, where Webb himself played Sergeant Joe Friday.  Webb was an original L.A. baby, born in Santa Monica and raised in Bunker Hill and Echo Park.  Arguably, Webb broke new ground in television; his shows were the first to take America inside the LAPD culture, a milieu that was responding to the Watts riots of 1965, and would lead directly to the civil unrest after the Rodney King verdict twenty years later.  Adam-12 starred Martin Milner and Kent McCord as the two uniform patrol officers, Pete Malloy and Jim Reed, out in the big city keeping the world safe for democracy.

As each episode unfolds, I recognize streets in Los Angeles, especially those in the San Fernando Valley.  The division patrolled by the two officers is never clearly identified, but the streets are, both visually and over the police radio when the unit received calls.  The stories in each episode mix whimsical comedy and serious crime drama.  The officers might be called to rescue a kid with his head stuck between the bars of a wrought iron fence followed by a “2-11 in progress,” radio parlance for an armed robbery.  Webb tried to stoke the fire of his stories with realism, and enlisted the help of several police advisors as well as the police chiefs in office during the run of the show.  Watching Adam-12 in 2012, I am struck by the wooden dialogue and the acting.  However, back in the day, I was riveted to the screen each week, and my elementary school dream was to be a policeman.  What does catch my attention now is the fact that I have rarely seen L.A. captured truthfully on screen.  Adam-12 does to some extent.  Other shows come close, but few hit it dead on.

Los Angeles lacks neighborhoods with visual identifiers.  There are no boroughs, or distinctive landmarks other than the Hollywood sign, a visual clichĂ© if there ever was one.  L.A. can be any city, and if there were distinguishing features, the studios would be unable to film here.  Shows like E.R., Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, CSI New York and Miami, and NYPD Blue were all shot in their day right here in Los Angeles.  The city of angels played all the parts:  Chicago, Boston, New York, and Miami.  For a major metropolis, Los Angeles is a great actor; its portrayal was always convincing, even when blanketed with movie magic snow.  So this means that although L.A. can act the part of other cities, it cannot be itself convincingly.  Okay, maybe L.A. was L.A. in LA Law, but that was the rarified, wealthy Los Angeles, a place few of the working class people who drive the streets to work each day ever see, much less inhabit.

Los Angeles is the theatre that must house every kind of set of every possible play, otherwise the Hollywood crowd would go elsewhere, as they have done in the past when things got too expensive here.  Toronto, Vancouver, somewhere in Europe—they all want to be the actor L.A. is, but the weather is too cold, the infrastructure too unstable.  When it comes to playing itself, though, L.A. lacks the defining character traits like the Golden Gate Bridge or the Empire State Building.  Its uniqueness comes from its mix of people, its juxtapositions, its—dare I say it?—subtleties.  That is one term you never hear coupled with Los Angeles—subtlety.  Los Angeles does have a subtle character beneath the garish grease paint and pancake makeup.

As for Pete Malloy and Jim Reed on Adam-12, speeding through the streets of L.A. to another call, the series got old for me very quickly on those lunch breaks.  After Rodney King, the Christopher Commission, the Rampart Scandal, no one believes in Jack Webb’s version of the LAPD anymore.  It’s a fantasy.  And maybe that is more realism than even Sergeant Friday could tolerate.