I realized yesterday that I’ve never written a post about my work in West and East Hollywood. But this post still isn’t about that. Yesterday I filled in for Marji in her contract area while she and her team caught up with some paperwork. I’ve shadowed her team in Downtown LA before, but this time it was just me and her outreach partner. I’m writing a post about it because it was a change that I needed; something drastically different if only for a few hours of the day. Outreach varies tremendously from West Hollywood, to East Hollywood, to Figueroa, to Downtown LA. I like doing outreach in other areas once in a while because it makes me appreciate what I’ve learned, what I’ve experienced, and the people I’ve been honored to meet. And so this post isn’t about my own, familiar outreach areas. These are snapshots from yesterday, in DTLA.
They call him the newspaper man. That’s what my outreach partner tells me, unable to recall the man’s name. And he’s been here for years and years at this very stand spending all day with the magazines and news articles, talking to people. We approach and he’s lounging on an old cushion wearing black slippers, a worn jacket, and jeans. A knit black glove is on his right hand and the other glove is stuffed in his left pocket. He’s missing the front 4 teeth on both the bottom and top of his mouth, but he smiles widely regardless. “It’s National Woman Month” he tells me and shoves a news publication about influential African American women into my hands. “National Woman Month,” he repeats for me and I flip through. He fiddles through a few more publications and hands one to my partner, and a second one to me. He visits with us for a while about the news until his brain switches gears. “The problem with their Gumbo,” he explains to us with animation, “is that it’s too salty!” He’s talking about a restaurant that makes Jambalaya and Gumbo; two dishes very dear to his heart. He recalls stories for us from when he was younger; taking a Louisville slugger with him to go frog hunting and baiting fat, muddy catfish with PB&J sandwiches in the water. “From the Bayou,” he tells us proudly. “My family is from the swamp. You know all the good Jambalaya and Gumbo comes from the Bayou. The real stuff. You know.” His whole face is lit up while he talks us through his family recipes, and then goes back to the story of frog hunting, and cracks himself up. We can’t help but laugh too, even though it’s not our story or our joke. It’s so completely full of joy for him that you can’t help but want to be part of it. “How long has he been out here?” I ask my partner as we walk away, some 20-30 minutes later. “A very, very long time,” he tells me. “This has always been his spot. He’s not homeless; he has an apartment, but for as long as I can remember, he’s been out here with the papers, just visiting with everyone walking by. And everyone knows him.”
It’s windy today and there’s rain in the forecast. The breeze is helping to chase away the warm, acrid odor of urine on the sidewalk but even so, the tangy smell always lingers. Right now the sky is bright blue and sunny, but in a couple of hours the drizzle will start. As I look up at the sky I stare at the tall buildings so shiny and metallic that the reflection of the clouds is mirrored on the sides like a painting. Moms are tightly holding the hands of their daughters in pink dresses and sparkly shoes as they cross the street, walking briskly. Men walk down the sidewalk with big dogs on chain leashes. There’s a array of suits and sweatpants; business men walking from one building to another and guys headed to the gym. While my coworker talks to one gentlemen, I continue watching the people crossing the street, and walking past us. There’s a man sitting close to where we are and he’s asking almost everyone who walks by if they will buy him a taco. Just one taco. He’s 50 feet from the stand, but no one says yes. Frustration is etched in his features; his posture is slumping. “One taco,” he calls out, “Just one taco.” Not one person has offered anything to him in the 40 minutes we’ve been in this area. Only a few have looked at him. Even fewer have even said, “Sorry, man.” My own stomach is growling, but I have my lunch in my backpack and when we get back to the office at noon, I’ll have plenty to fill the hunger. The man finally gets up and helps the friend next to him cross the street; pushing his wheelchair. His shirt hangs on him like a plastic bag flapping in the wind. I watch them move down the sidewalk as we follow a distance behind to go back to the office although stopping to talk to a few more people. In an hour the rain begins and I watch it from inside the office. A woman is fighting with her umbrella and it flips inside out. Nothing shelters her from the rain, though it couldn’t have helped much anyway against the rain blowing sideways. The trees are snapping their branches back and forth in the wind and still people press on down the street, heads bowed with jackets pulled tightly against them. I have the forecast pulled up on the computer and I hit refresh, refresh, refresh every few minutes, trapped in the office until the rain stops. It’s 3:30 now. It’s time to go home. It’s still pouring. I have no umbrella. I check the bus schedule. Refresh, refresh, refresh. It’s still raining. The bus is coming soon. The guys in the office tease me, “Rowena, are you still here?” I zip up my jacket and sling my backpack over my shoulder. I push through the doors and glance at the people huddled underneath the overhang; the air outside is shockingly crisp. I power walk down the street and around the corner; dart between people standing in doorways. I squeeze next to a small woman with a dark umbrella under a tree as my bus pulls up. I get on and tap my card, wiping drops of rain off my forehead; my nose. The bus driver smiles at me. I drop my backpack in a seat and sink next to it. The rain is cleaning the streets, washing everything away. Tomorrow will be a clear day; from the hills there will be no hazy smog line above the city. The homeless will be wringing out their tents and blankets; laying things out on any dry patches of sidewalk. The rain washes everything away, even if only for a few hours. It does not discriminate. It does not apologize, and the earth seeps it up; desperate for water. Desperate for life. By the time my bus reaches my street 40 minutes later, the sun is out and there is not a single drop of rain still falling from the sky.