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By David Fallon

________

In 2012 I was hired as part of a program to provide outreach services to the homeless of Hollywood. It was our job to find the most vulnerable individuals on the street and to work to get them into housing. Not long after we began, we found a panhandler at a gas station near Griffith Park.

Dean was a wiry guy with tangled hair sticking out from under a grimy baseball cap. He had a long, grizzled beard and striking blue eyes that hid a fast wit. When he talked, he grew animated, with arms waving and face twisting. He was a storyteller who loved having an audience. He was also a drug addict who used just about anything he could get his hands on. Let’s be real, I need beer! his cardboard sign read.

“Go find Buddy up on the hill!” he told us because he wanted us to talk to his friend. He was also eager to get back to his hustling. In the early days of our work, people on the streets regarded us with a detached bemusement. They had been promised housing in the past by many other organizations. None of these panned out, so they had good reason to doubt us. We told Dean that we would come back to see him in a few days and went up the hill to find Buddy.

Buddy was tucked away on the top of a small hill amid untrimmed bushes. He was passed out on a towel, his body covered in sweat and smelling of urine. An empty fifth of vodka lay just out of arm’s reach. We tried to get his attention, but he could not be stirred.

“We’ll have to come back,” the team leader said.

Several days later, we met with Dean on the same street corner. He signed the paperwork to join our program and asked a bunch of questions: When can I get some money? You got any lawyers I can talk to? Where’s this so called housing going to be? How long is this gonna take?

Dean said he was a dishonorably discharged Green Beret on the run from the law in Texas. From what, he would not say. He told us his family had disowned him from a large inheritance. Dean also responded to internal voices and seemed to see things that were not there. It was often difficult to tell what was real and what was not with Dean.

“My own mother wants to take my money from me,” he said. “The bitch.” He had been on the streets for 20 years. To survive, he had taken to running drugs for gang members in exchange for free passage in their territory as well as free drugs. We made plans for him to come to our office to discuss the next steps, then left him alone to panhandle.

“Don’t forget Buddy!” Dean reminded us. This time when we climbed the hill, Buddy was wide awake and waiting for us.

“Hey y’all!”

Turns out Dean had told him about our program.

Buddy was tall and lanky with a big smile and hearty laugh. He was older than Dean by at least 10 years. His hands were massive, and he had once been a boxer. His body slumped from decades of alcohol abuse. He could not remember much of the last 20 years and would tearfully tell the same story over and over.

“I use to live in Vegas,” he said. “Life on the streets there is pretty tough. I ended up killing a guy because he was going to kill me. There was nothing else I could do. It was him or me.…” And by this time, he was in tears. The judge had let him off on self-defense, and he came back to Los Angeles, where he had grown up. None of his family wanted to have anything to do with him, so he started drinking.

“And never stopped,” was how the story usually ended.

Homelessness is a constant fight for survival and allies can mean the difference between life and death. Buddy and Dean were more than just allies. They shared their stories with each other, which is something you did not do on the streets, where information can be used against you. They talked about the things they wanted. For Buddy, it was a house and a car and a decent job. For Dean, it was women and motorcycles.  Buddy seemed like the kind of guy who’d share his last drink with a friend. Dean was the kind of guy who would take that drink.

One day when we went to visit, we met them at a nearby bus stop. Dean had his arm around Buddy and they were laughing hysterically. “We was just shootin’ the shit,” Dean said, pulling his hand away as we walked up. He was embarrassed by our witnessing this moment. While Dean constantly worked to portray the tough street thug, it was clear he had a tender side. And a soft spot for Buddy.

Because he was often drunk, Buddy was particularly vulnerable. Every time he got something new, like clothes or a pillow, he would wake up from his stupor to find it gone.

“I can’t do this anymore,” he told us after someone had taken a radio he found. “I can’t spent the rest of my life drunk on this goddamn hill!” he yelled with tears streaming from his eyes as he pounded his fist into the grass.

Soon after, we sent him to a detox center in Pomona. He assaulted one of the staff. They kicked him out. We had no idea if we would ever see him again.

A few days later, it was Dean who brought Buddy back to our office. Somehow Buddy had made his way back to the hill where Dean had found him. He had no memory of attacking the staff member. In his mind, they had let him go because he had gotten a job at a nearby Burger King.

“I was doing my job, washing the windows, when the police rolled up on me,” he said in an incredulous tone. “I tried to tell them I was just doing my job, but they wouldn’t listen. They hauled my ass off to jail!” Pomona PD released him a few days later and told him to get out of town, so he made his way back to Hollywood.

“This guy keeps saving my life,” he smiled at Dean.

“You’re like a brother to me, man,” Dean said with affection.

Despite their differences, Buddy and Dean cared about each other. You could see it in the way they patted each other on the back, the way they shared their food with each other, the way they talked and laughed together. It was an unusual relationship to see on the streets. Most people are consumed with self-preservation to the point of open hostility toward others. It was not uncommon to hear about women of the street being raped by gangs of homeless men. In order to survive, most women on the street found a “husband” to take care of them. The price was often non-consensual sex or even beatings, but at least it was by one man instead of many. Buddy and Dean’s friendship on the street was based as much on the desire to connect as it was for self-preservation.

By this time, our team had cut a deal with a local motel. Its carpet was worn to the concrete, and the peeling walls were smeared with decades of unattended filth. But they rarely turned away a potential customer. We put both Buddy and Dean in this motel temporarily in order to help them work toward the next step.

Buddy stayed sober long enough to complete the process to get into rehab. Dean was another story. He agreed to take an injection of an antipsychotic in order to soothe the voices that plagued him, but he continued to smoke marijuana in his motel room. Bringing in a couple of hookers one night was the last straw for the manager, who called me directly.

“Get him out!” he yelled.

Before I could get there, Dean had an altercation with another motel guest, then cleared out. As he was leaving, he found Buddy sleeping in his room and took his clothes, his blankets, and what little money he had. When Buddy awoke to confront him, Dean slashed his face with a penknife and ran off. The manager called the police. Buddy told them where to find Dean. The police immediately knew who he was. They were more than happy to take him in.

When we later asked Dean why he had done this to Buddy, he only shrugged his shoulders and said, “That’s life on the street.”

That was about right. We never heard another reason for why he’d turned on his friend so suddenly.

“If I ever see that piece of shit, I’ll kill ’im,” Buddy said. “Can’t believe he would do this to me.…”

Soon after, Buddy was taken to rehab, where he worked a 60-day program of recovery groups morning, noon and night. The program was a 12-step group, with a substance abuse counselor who met with each person one on one. Buddy made changes in his thinking and behavior with the goal of never taking another drink. Simply being away from it seemed to give him clarity. He focused on never going back to that hill. In his mind, just one drink would be catastrophic. “I know where it can take me,” he said.

While Buddy was in rehab, the housing coordinator prepared the paperwork for his housing placement. When he got out, Buddy was moved into a studio apartment in the heart of Hollywood. His recovery was remarkable in both its speed and depth. In fact, of the 65 people we housed, Buddy was one of two who had totally turned away from his old habits.

After the assault, Dean spent a couple of months at Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles, with the plan that he would come to our office as soon as he was released. When that day came, he was the most clear-headed I had ever seen him. He insisted that he was ready to be housed and that he would never bother Buddy again.

But Dean disappeared soon after he got out of jail. I searched his spots a couple of times a week but didn’t find him. A few months later, he appeared covered in a layer of black muck, sputtering manic stories of his drug adventures: how he exchanged sex with a old lady who allowed him to sleep in her car at night, how he befriended a local important gang member who treated him like a mascot, giving him free drugs because “he thinks I’m so fucking funny.”

Later, Dean appeared with an older woman. Her name was Beth. She was homeless as well but had a steady source of income. She wanted us to take Dean off her hands

A few weeks later, Beth showed up to tell me that Dean had drank himself to death.

“I tried and tried to revive him,” she said tearfully. “But he just stopped moving.”

The next day, I knocked on Buddy’s door. He was doing well in his apartment. He had set up a table, a few chairs and a lamp. Everything was kept neat and clean. He was attending meetings and talking about maybe going back to school or getting a part-time job.

I told him about Dean.

We sat together for a long time in silence. Buddy shook his head.

“Jesus,” he said.

________

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CaliforniaFeature Section 1Home Page SliderLos Angeles

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By Cristian Vasquez

____

We had a clear shot on the 110 South after Downtown L.A.

At the Century Boulevard exit, Dad’s white Chevy Cavalier station wagon idled at the red light when the song playing on K-LOVE was interrupted by Pepe Barreto’s voice:

“Breaking news: the four Los Angeles Police Department officers accused of police brutality against Rodney King have been found not guilty.”

As dad turned east to make our way home, Uncle Heli, who hadn’t said a word from the passenger seat during the ride home from work, blurted out “No way! That’s bull.”

Dad, not one to trust authority figures, took a drag of his Marlboro red and shook his head.

“We’re screwed.”

* * *

Uncle Heli is the third-youngest in a family with 13 siblings and was one of two who finished high school back home in Michoacán, Mexico. My dad, Rafael, is the oldest male in the family. When my dad was 15, Grandpa fell ill. So my dad made his way to America.

For a few years, half of Dad’s income was wired home to his parents and siblings. My parents met at a soccer league trophy ceremony that each was pressured into attending. They were both immigrants from Michoacán, Mom from the state capital of Morelia and dad from a small town named Pajacuaran. It didn’t take long for Mom to ditch her senior year in high school and leave behind her sheltered life in Culver City.

She was the youngest daughter and overprotected. My great grandmother raised my mom and her siblings in Michoacán while my grandmother made her way in the United States. My great grandmother was rigid. On the rare occasion that it was allowed, socializing with boys outside of school required chaperones.

At the dance where she met Dad, mom and her youngest brother were shadowing my aunt and her boyfriend, making sure they behaved. Mom left the safety of Culver City to bunker down with Dad in South-Central Los Angeles. It was 1980 and they lived on 49th Street and Compton Avenue, one of three Mexican families in an African-American neighborhood. I was born there. We lived there until 1984: just the three of us.

I was in first grade the first time I met an uncle from Dad’s side of the family. I came home from school one day and there was a guy sitting on the couch.

“That’s my brother Juan. He’s your uncle. Shake his hand.”

After that, my dad’s family began making its way north. It became normal to come home from school and find a new uncle, cousin or family friend on the couch. Eventually that two-bedroom apartment became overcrowded: My mom, dad, newborn-brother Jorge and I crammed into the master bedroom. The bed took up the southeast corner of the room, leaving just enough space for the door to open on the west wall. At the foot of the bed, cornered on the northern wall, was a dresser where the television sat. Sleeping in the living room were four of my uncles and three of their friends. In the back of the apartment, next to the bathroom, was a small room where my uncle and his friend, who shared a car and worked the same 2 a.m. schedule in Downtown Los Angeles’ produce district, decided to make their room.

The landlord took care of this overcrowding with an eviction notice. After three relocations in less than two years, Mom found a two-bedroom house in Watts. The house was on the back end of the property and included a garage but shared a yard with the front unit. Rent was $750 a month and the owner didn’t care that 15 people crammed into their property.

In 1992 Watts was a mixture of African-American and Mexican families, each group representing half the population. Our family lived next to an apartment building on the corner of Lou Dillon Avenue and 105th Street. Toward 103rd Street were the projects, but in between, the street was sprinkled with black and brown families of all ages. The language barrier kept my parents from being closer to the older African-American neighbors, but there was a mutual respect and a genuine liking in their interactions. The same goodwill didn’t exist between each group’s youth. Alliances to control turf, drugs and money were defined by race and geography, and disagreements were solved with violence. So when I was on vacation from school, Dad refused to leave me home alone; at 11 years old, it was time I learned what it was like to work for a living and he took me to his construction job.

* * *

Our drive home from the freeway usually took 10 minutes, but that afternoon the streets overflowed with angry people armed with rocks, bottles and milk crates. The red light at Main Street and Century Boulevard was the first to trap us. The mob hurled bottles, rocks and any heavy object at our car. An uncoordinated “No justice, no peace!” chant pierced our closed windows. Dad and Uncle Heli looked in every direction, scanning for anyone trying to approach the car. A rioter tried opening the door to the car in front of us.

“Lock your doors. Cristian, get us the hammers,” Dad barked, with a cigarette pinched between his lips.

I jumped off my seat, crawled over the back seat, flipped over Dad’s tool bucket and pulled out two hammers. Dad took the wooden-handled one while Uncle Heli took the metal-neck concrete hammer with the blue grip. I moved from the window seat to the middle and snapped on my seatbelt.

Dad raced through the intersection when the light turned; bottles smashed at the station wagon’s side panels, rocks skipped across the hood of our car and kicks and punches landed from every direction.

We caught another red light at Century and Avalon Boulevard. An RTD bus was stopped to our right next to the curb. Nobody was getting off and no one was attempting to board. An angry mob unleashed its rage on the bus. A handful of teenagers beat the bus windows and headlights with sticks. The bus pressed forward, and the teens gave chase, swinging their frustration at it. With the bus out of reach, the mob turned its anger on us and, as we sped off, it punched, kicked and launched debris at us.

“How’s Andrea getting home?” asked my uncle.

“Have to go get her. She took the bus today.”

Panic set in. Mom wasn’t home and Dad had to go back out.

Central Avenue and Century gave us a green light. Dad turned right, drove one block down to 103rd Street and turned east. No lights for a while and the streets were clear. Another green light took us across Compton Avenue, past the Food4Less shopping center, over the Blue Line tracks and into clear streets. Lou Dillon Avenue was only blocks away; we were almost home. Wilmington Avenue was another green light, but traffic was stopped by a sea of angry people. Fists and spit landed on the windshield as Dad inched the car through the mob, forcing it back onto the sidewalk from where they hammered it with more rocks, trashcans and tires.

Dad slammed the brakes. “Shit.” He cut right through an alley that came out on 105th Street: clear, not a soul in sight. He went east a few blocks and made a left into the dirt alley behind our house. I opened the door to get the gate; it was always my job to open the gate.

“NO! Don’t open the door.”

There was fear in Dad’s eyes. We ran into the house. Dad rushed into the bedroom, where my 4-year-old brother Jorge was watching “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” In the living room, three uncles and two cousins hung on the television’s every word.

“Protesters are gathering at different points in the city after the Rodney King verdict,” a woman said. It was happening along Florence Avenue, down Manchester Avenue and all the way down Imperial Highway.

“Nobody leaves the house,” Dad yelled, tucking something into the back of his pants. “Carlos, come with me to get Andrea.” He pulled me away from the television. “Don’t go anywhere unless your uncles say so. Understand?”

I wanted to go with him but just said, “Okay.”

“Not guilty?” Uncle Carlos said. “I expect this in Mexico but not in the United States. Governments are trash everywhere.”

Uncle Carlos and Dad left. We were hungry but there wasn’t any food and nobody was going to disobey my dad, so we watched the news and waited. The mobs became more destructive and the violence began to spread. Rioters destroyed storefronts and looted businesses; when the stores had nothing left to take, the hordes began targeting people. Pedestrians were beaten; drivers were dragged out of their cars and kicked on the ground even after being knocked unconscious. The phone rang.

“He’s on his way. He left a little while ago with Carlos,” cousin Jose said.

“I want to talk to her.” The phone still to his ear, Jose brushed me off.

“He’s okay. Don’t worry. Be safe. Bye. Your mom said don’t worry.”

Nobody was trying to stop the violence; the fires raged, the looting grew and the beatings continued.

“Where are the cops?” Uncle Heli blurted as he took a drag from his cigarette. “Haven’t seen one damn patrol car.”

The television cut to an aerial shot. A big rig pulled up to the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues. A group of four men approached the rig, opened the door and dragged out a man. His hair flailed as he was kicked, punched, dragged on the asphalt and beaten some more. The driver crawled, inch by inch, back to his rig when, from the right side of the screen, a rioter in a white T-shirt and a baseball cap rushed in and hurled a rock to the side of the man’s head, then celebrated his feat. The driver stopped moving.

“Animals.”

Uncle Heli was watching from the doorframe of the kitchen. The living room was filled with cigarette smoke. He walked to the front door, looking back and forth between the street and the alley. Nobody in sight. Uncle Heli made his way to the front house. Our neighbors were also locked inside, watching Univision.

“They’ll watch the front and we’ll watch the alley,” he told us.

From the alley we heard two voices: “Hey, amigo!”

It was the neighborhood twins. They were drug addicts who fed their addiction by selling stolen items. We never knew their names; everyone just called them the twins and, despite the language barrier, these two African-American men befriended my uncles. One of the twins had a birthmark on his left cheek, right below his eye, making it easy to tell them apart. For drug addicts, they were pretty well kept and had a change of clothing every day.

“Can we have a cigarette?”

“Wait here,” said Uncle Heli as he walked toward the back gate. He lit their cigarettes, and after brief exchange he walked back to the porch. Cousin Jose was standing behind me.

“What they want?” Jose asked.

“They asked if we wanted beer. That they would bring us some and we just pay them later,” Uncle Heli replied.

“Where’s he getting beer from?” I asked.

“I don’t know. We’ll see.” He took a seat on the top step of the porch.

It was getting dark when the back gate rattled again. Dad and Mom hurried inside.

“It’s a mess out there. Lock the doors.” Mom was panicked. Uncle Carlos ran to the garage and grabbed a machete.

“They’re burning stores, beating people. You’re not going to school tomorrow,” Mom said in a broken voice. “What if they start coming into houses. Should we leave?”

“Where? We have to stand watch,” Dad said. “We didn’t see one fuckin’ cop. Everyone takes a two-hour shift by the doors and windows, and then we switch. If anyone pokes their head in, smash it.”

We took two sledgehammers, an ax, the two hammers and a steel rod from the station wagon. From the garage my cousin brought a monkey wrench the length of a baseball bat. As everyone scavenged for tools to use as weapons, I noticed flames in the dark sky. To the west, on 105th and Hickory was the liquor store my cousin worked at on weekends. The owners, Middle Easterners, would let me hang. If I swept or took out trash, I’d get a bag of Cheetos Puffs or a Springfield soda. Any other day we could see the store from our porch; all we saw that night were flames.

Looking north, across the street from the Jordan Downs Housing Projects, was another liquor store. The Korean owner saw my dad enough to extend him a line of credit on smokes and beer; the owner would let me have one item of my choosing. He always told Dad I wasn’t his kid; “He has Korean eyes. You not Korean” and would let out a boisterous laugh. That liquor store, too, was engulfed in flames.

“Get inside!” Mom said. She dragged me to the house.

“If there aren’t any police, what’s going to happen?”

“For tonight, we’ll stay here. We’ll figure something else tomorrow,” Mom said as she locked me in the room.

From the window I could see the flames that destroyed the nice Korean man’s store. In the distance came shouting and random gunshots. From behind me, Mom’s voice told me not to worry. We sat and leaned against the headboard of her bed, Dad settled at the foot of window. We watched television. The panic faded to uneasiness once the grownups took a position defending the house. I’d seen my uncles fight before, so I felt reassured.

“I want to watch the movie,” Jorge whined. His 4-year-old brain was scared but bored with the news.

“Yes. Both of you stay in here and watch the movie.” She fed the VHS to the VCR and walked out of the room. I followed.

The cloud of cigarette smoke hung over the living room as everyone was glued to the television. Usually our refrigerator was empty and when we got home everyone would pitch in for a food run. Curled up next to Mom, I whispered that I was hungry. She got up, told me to go to the room with Jorge and wait.

Jorge was stuck on his movie. Mom walked in, took her purse out of the closet and pulled out two Nabisco Swiss cookie packs.

“There’s no milk but have this. Eat them in here; if I see either of you outside with these, I’m spanking both of you.”

I sat on my parent’s bed. From the bottom bunk to my right Jorge mouthed the lines to “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” Outside, the flames destroying the liquor store on 103rd Street lit the sky. I wondered if the nice Korean owner was watching his store burn.

I awoke to a dark room and Dad by the window. I couldn’t see any more flames and it was finally silent: no outside noise, no news updates and no adult voices.

“Dad.”

“Go to sleep.”

“Can I watch TV?”

“No. The electricity went out. Just go back to sleep.”

“Why is the electricity out? Did you forget to pay the bill?”

He chuckled cigarette smoke from his nose. “No, son. These assholes made the whole street black out. Nobody has electricity. Don’t worry. Sleep.”

The next morning Mom and Dad had to go to work in the morning, but they weren’t leaving us home. As we piled into the station wagon, Dad checked in with the neighbors in the front house; none of them was leaving. They would guard the front and my uncles the back.

The sky was lit but the sun still hid in the horizon. The chop of helicopters cut through the quiet morning. The Chevy bounced through the dirt alley, on to 103rd Street, west to Avalon Boulevard and then north. Avalon is a wide corridor connecting Downtown L.A. to South-Central. That morning Avalon was littered with broken glass, trash and charred vehicles on their sides blocking the road; burning businesses and smoldered buildings lined the street. Dad snaked through the debris.

We sat in silence, moving past the ashes, as KLOVE chattered in the background.

________
Cristian Vasquez was born in Los Angeles in 1981 and was raised in a Mexican-immigrant family. He grew up in South-Central and Watts until his parents settled in Inglewood in 1993. During the last eight years, Cristian has been a reporter for community newspapers in Inglewood, Hawthorne, and Torrance. Contact him at cristian.vasquez81@gmail.com.

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