"Flash me a smile." "Go for all the gusto you can in life.” These are the words of a 68-year-old man I met on the outside edge of skid row. Flash is one of the many familiar faces I’ve seen on the street for the past year of volunteering on the row. He’s not always in the same spot, but he’s in the same vicinity. He’s small, upbeat, full of energy, and has plenty to say. Born and raised in south central LA he’s just got to save up a "little bit of money to get out of here". He moves through the crowds easily recognizing and conversing with almost everyone he sees. He’s outgoing, personable, and from my perspective, Flash is very comfortable on the street. That's not to say that objectively living on the streets is a comfortable experience, but he wears it well. He doesn’t have nice tent, or even much by way of a sleeping bag or blankets, but almost every time I’ve seen him he has been wearing different clothes (a rarity on skid row).
I stopped to talk to Flash on one of my trips in with the camera. He didn’t recognize me as a volunteer, but I remembered him well enough. As I passed by he spoke out to me, “don’t forget to smile, now” he said. I stopped and said,”Every time I walk by I’ve heard you say that. Can I interview you on camera?” He obliged and I started setting up. Next to him were a few personal effects and a broken down cardboard box with a woman sitting in it. He and the woman seemed to know each other and I thought they both might be planning to spend the night right there up against then now closed store-front. She spoke to herself a lot and never really engaged with much of what I said to her. If I asked her a question she might mumble a response, but it never seemed to be directed at me. The whole time Flash and I spoke, she sat there talking to no one in particular. (Although sometimes Flash responded, the conversations rarely made sense)
As Flash and I had our conversation I couldn't help feeling that there was something familiar about him beyond the fact that I had seen him before when volunteering. As I listened to his stories I started to realize that he might be the fist homeless person I encountered when I started exploring Skid Row over a year ago. Let’s see if the puzzle pieces fit.
I started my volunteer experience on a Monday night in October, 2017 at about 7pm. I had directions to a corner downtown where the volunteer organization Share-a-Meal meets to make the vegan burritos they hand out on skid row. I saw the truck, but couldn’t find parking on that block, so I rounded the corer right off 3rd and pulled up to a metered parking spot on San Pedro. I hopped out of the Jeep and walked up to the meeter with my credit card to pay for a couple hours of parking. Behind me a man came walking up. He says, “hold on hold on, now. I’ll cover that for you if you can give me a couple bucks”. I was taken off guard and very confused by the proposal, “hu? No, I’ve got it”, I said kind-of trying to end the encounter. Without hesitation he reached for the meter with a green stick extended and sliped it into the coin slot repeatedly, very fast. The counter on the meter started to go up. :15, :30, :45… “how much time you want?” Before I could answer he says,”Never mind I’ll just give you all of it." The meter stoped at 2 hours and he pulled out the stick - a starbucks lid topper with a dime taped to the end. I was absolutely delighted! This was like seeing a relic from the days-of-old, a novelty strait from a bugs bunny cartoon, something right out of the “hobo-playbook”. At that moment I wouldn’t have been surprised if he slung a polkadot “bindle stick” over his shoulder and whistled his way down the street Charlie Chaplin style. He put his hand out expecting the money that I was going use in the meter in return for the the parking “credits” he gave me. I ran back around to the Jeep and grabbed a couple bucks out of the center console “Sorry I don’t have any more. I was going to use my credit card.” He snatched the money and took off with a brief “no-probelm-this-is-great-thanks!” And I never saw that man again. Or did I?
The reason I approached Flash today was because I remember him from volunteering. When he received some water or food from us he always said, ”Thanks and keep on smile’n!” So I stopped to talk to him this evening with a camera. He rattled off a few other catch phrases for me when I asked him about life. Then, when I asked him what he does during the day to get money, he said “some times I help those Chinese lady’s lift boxes off of the trucks” pointing to one of the many shops down the road, “and,” he said, "I use my meter stick.” As soon as he said that I knew exactly what he was talking about. He pulled out a Starbucks coffee lid topper and showed it to me. Just a regular green plastic stick from Starbucks that customers can use to stop their coffee from splashing around while they drive or carry the cups up and down stairs. It had the little Starbucks logo on the top then dropped down to a rounded point at the other end. “It doesn’t have the dime”, he said “but I can just get a dime, then plop”, he mimicked the motion of putting the stick into the coin slot,” it cost them 4 dollars to park for 2 hours, I charge them $2. 2 for 4! It’s good deal. I can make 60 dollars if I go up to Spring street…on a weekend.”
By this point I knew this was the man that I met almost a year before when I had parked for the first time on the edge of Skid Row. I didn’t say anything or ask if he remember me, because why would he? How many people has he done this for? And if he didn’t recognize me from handing out burritos, then he sure wouldn’t remember that night 12 months prior. So we just continued.
Now looking at him talking about how he used his ‘meter stick’, I decided that I absolutely had to see him make it. I asked, “ Can you make one and show the camera how it works?” He pulled out a dime and showed me that they go together then gestured at the meter that was near by while explaining, “see like that..plop” He still wasn’t actually doing it, just demonstrating the theory. "I want to see you do it for real, though”, I said. He gave in and said, “ Okay hold on”. He looked around for some tape in his pocket, and his belongings in a small cart behind him and then on the ground. There was all sorts of trash and empty cardboard boxes surrounding us from the business that had left them there at the end of the day. He tried to take the tape off of a few boxes, but the cardboard just came off still attached rendering the tape useless. He ran over there and over here. I even tried to help by finding some extra strands of tape on the ground around me, but eventually he just picked up and took off down the street. He’s 68 and he moved quick. If we were in a race, I would have trouble confidently telling you that I could win.
When Flash came back he had his stick and dime ready to go. I set the camera up closer to the meter and had him walk me through the process. He put the dime end of the stick into the coin slot, then pulled it out. Then quickly did it again. He said as he continued to deposit the coin, “They try to stop us by changing the meters, but we just change the sticks. Can’t beat the street. They try, but you just can’t beat the street!”
He turned to the woman sitting in the box next to us, “I gotta get her something to eat.” So I offered,”I brought some food with me if you want it. I’ve got Chex mix, cliff bars, dried fruit, beef jer….” he cut me off. “ No, No, I’l get her some tacos from the lady around the corner.” I offered some water, but he also turned that down. Flash can take care of himself, I guess. And the woman sitting next to us, it seems as well.
He flashed me a smile and I headed out of Skid Row with a full memory card and an drained battery. Before I looked at the footage, before I can put a story together based off of what Flash said and what the camera recorded, I process what I saw and heard and felt. Flash, with his ‘meter stick’ and his happy-go-lucky attitude struck me as a Charlie Chaplin type "Tramp". I could imagine him at the end of Modern Times, sitting by the side of the road with the orphan girl saying, “Buck up - Never say die! We’ll get along”, then waddling his way down the street to the rising sun and an orchestral swell. I wanted to believe that this could be some romantic version of being homeless. The Tramp, the hobo, the happy bum that has been painted in our minds through cinema, but another look at it proves otherwise. Scrimping, stealing, scamming just enough to buy some tacos. Sleeping with no tent on a side walk with rats running by your feet and your face as you sleep. The woman who sat next to us the whole time, obviously lost in her mind, talking to no one about nothing. I want to say that poor Flash has the burden of taking care of her. I want to say that the poor girl might be lost if she didn’t have Flash. But something inside me says, this isn’t an altruistic arrangement. The two of them holding each other close on cold nights, them against the world. It isn’t The Tramp and The Orphan Girl from Modern Times determined to take on the new day heading into the sunrise with a gallant stride. No, this is what it is on face value. Maybe Flash will make it off the streets, maybe they won’t need to scrounge around for a little strand of tape and a dime, maybe one day I’ll go down there and I won’t see either of them sleeping on a flattened out cardboard box…or maybe Flash was right - You just can’t beat the street.
Take a look at the 360 interview with Flash.
It’s funny what adventures come upon you when you wander through Skid Row. Zaydee and I set out on a Thursday evening with the simple goal of filming by the Skid Row sign (something I’ve been trying to do and still have yet to accomplish). It’s a mural on the back side of one of the missions in skid row - it looks like a street sign stating the city limits with population and elevation. Except population says “too many” and the elevation says “2008” - meaning the problem of skid row elevated in the financial crisis of 2008. It’s right in the middle of skid row and since I always park my car on the outskirts its a couple blocks walk to the sign. It’s not easy to get there because there are so many stories to find along the way.
On this day we walked about a block and immediately landed on a scene of an a man passed out in the street protected from traffic by a single ambulance. Two paramedics approached the man who’s body lay next to a small pile of vomit that drained down the street towards the gutter. His shirt was filthy, pants drop down below his waist, and he was completely out. The paramedics dragged him to the side walk. Zaydee and I cautiously approached and started taking pictures and filming. With the VR camera I have to get as close as I can, so across the street doesn’t cut it. I carefully walked to the corner the paramedics were on and set the camera down, leaving them enough room to do their work. They shot us a couple questioning glances, but my instincts tell me they’ve dealt with cameras before and don’t particularly care about their presence. The EMTs shouted at the man, “José! José!”. They found a small white vile laying next to the him. They showed it to each other then started shouting his name louder and rolling him over on his back. “José! José!”Their urgency increased and one of the paramedics administered what I assume was naloxone (commonly used to combat opiod ODs). With a belabored yell/grunt José came to. One of the paramedic lifted him up so he was in the sitting position then spoke loudly to him in order to cut through the fog that must have occupied his head, “José you overdosed on heroine.” He repeated himself a little louder and more directly, "José! You overdosed on heroine, man. We gave you something to wake you up.” José protested and showed the men his arms to prove that there was no track marks form needles. The paramedics weren’t buying it. “Yeah you did man. You must have smoked it.” José continued to argue, but the paramedics didn’t seem to agree with what he was saying. “Get some rest José, and no more heroine! You hear me? No more. If we have to come back for you we will have to take you to the hospital. Get some rest.” “And water” the other chimes in. José, a little grouchy, sauntered off to a spot along the wall, next to all the other make shift tents and homes. The paramedics packed up and drove away.
Zaydee and I continued down the street, but again didn’t make it far before stopping again to talk to another man, then another. Eventually Zaydee found a man who called himself Repeat, but I never heard him speak twice as his name would suggest. Instead he was very direct with us. “I do drug deals, but i’m fair. I don’t beat them, cheat them, or rob them. I don’t walk them into a trap. This place isn’t safe", he told me, "you have to keep her near you, don’t ever let her behind you.” he said referring to Zaydee "Especially at night.” While we were talking to Repeat a man interrupted us, “ya’ll paying?” Asking me if I was paying for interviews on camera. I briefly told him “no man,” trying to ignore him and make him go away. But Repeat didn’t try to ignore him, he did the opposite and directly confronted the man. He steeped right up and gave this guy all kinds of grief, “What’er you doing coming over here talking to us like that. Go back over there. Get out here with all that”. Dude didn’t budge at all he just kept looking at me trying to ignore Repeat and intimidate me. Repeat stepped right in between me and this guy and told him off until the man walked back across the street. And Repeat didn’t stop talking shit until the guy sat back down on the bus stop across the street.
At this point we hadn’t been doing an interview on camera partly because I was out of batteries for my audio recorder. So I ask repeat, “is there a store near by where I can get batteries?” He thinks for a second and says, “hell, just get some from one of them”, he gestures to a line of people who have laid out blankets on the sidewalk with an assortment of products on them. The Skid Row market. Zadyee and I share a look, “Alright”. He takes us over and starts asking around for AA batteries. We stopped about at three or four people who had blankets or towels laid out on the sidewalk with everything from Bic lighters to cheap head phones you can get from gas stations. None of them had any AA batteries. Repeat wasn’t ready to give up though. So I gave him $5 to see if he could get some batteries from somewhere else. He ended up slipping it to a man that went in the back door of one of the missions on Skid Row. It’s a little strange because I’ve been to this mission and talked to those that run it. They don’t have a convince store inside. I just assumed that someone was raiding the supply closet then keeping my 5 dollars. But I needed batteries because I was missing some good dialogue between Repeat, Zaydee and I. Eventually the man came back down and handed me a huge pack of AAA batteries. Wrong kind. He notices his mistake and then headed back in. Another 10 minutes pass before he came back out, this time empty handed. "Sorry, no AA.” He gave the 5 back to Repeat and we take off to the corner store (that I asked for in the first place).
Repeat goes into the market and Zaydee gets sucked into a conversation with a woman sitting on a bike next to the front door, “have you heard what’s happening with FEMA and the government vans down here?” Zaydee engages in some light conspiracy theory conversation and I slip away looking for a good place to set up an interview with Repeat. He came back out with a bag of snacks, a water, a soda, the AA batteries, and 2 bucks. I didn’t ask for the snacks or the drinks, but I guess he deserves them. I plop the batteries in and we start recording. It’s a beautiful sunset and Repeat launches into his personal stories, the heads he’s punched, the fist that have connected with his head, his time in the military, jumping out of planes, sailing on navy ships, his time in jail (31 years), his life on the streets (2 years), and finally his 12 movie scripts. Everything he said was completely original, not one was a repeat.
For about a year now, I’ve been volunteering with a group that takes food and water into skid row and hands it out to people sleeping on the streets. It’s called Share-A-Meal and it’s based on the Sikh principle of sharing meals with the less fortunate. Pretty consistently the group follows a route that winds it’s way through 2 blocks of skid row streets where we call out “Burritos! Water!” into the dark and quiet alleys. Heads poke out of tents, card board boxes, and out from under blankets. We ask “spicy or mild burritos” or sometimes “picante o no picante” then hand the appropriate burrito to the often dirty and storied hands.
There is this one block early in the route that I am particularly attracted to as a filmmaker. It’s incredibly cinematic in a dystopian sort of way. It’s a long street with shops running up both sides, all the doors are shut and barred at this time of night, but under the signs are tents, tarps, sleeping bags, boxes, huddled blankets, and lots of trash from the days dealings. The street crooks just a little about halfway up as it intersects with another before it shoots off just a little to the north and ends on a spectacular backdrop of the LA city skyline. The US Bank building sits squarely at the end of the street like the Eye of Sauron from Lord of the Rings, looking down at it’s subjects. Ever watching.
At the end of the block, the burrito group often stops to talk to a trio of men on the south side of the street. It’s not a regular occurrence that people will spend any time talking to a person on skid row, so these men are filled with all sorts of things to say - even one man who had his vocal chords removed will mouth out his whole life to you if you’re patient enough to guess what he’s trying to say.
On the nights that I lead the group (some of the “senior" members take turns), I often find myself staying away from these men, and instead watch over the flock of volunteers - many of whom are USC students and young adults. This way after a few minutes I can call out to everyone “it’s time to go” and move us down the street. Honestly we’d be stuck there forever if someone didn’t call on the heard to move. However when we reach this corner, I noticed that the north side of the street, the less inhabited side, doesn't get much love. And on the furthest corner in the darkest part of the street there was always a huddled lump of blankets that would go unnoticed and sometimes not even get a burrito. So I made it a point, Monday after Monday to personally deliver a burrito and some water to this man who’s whole body and all of his possessions were covered by a single large, but not very thick, blanket. Although his face would barley poke through to where I could only see his eyes and down to his nose, I pick up on his very kind demeanor. Not like the men across the street who would talk and laugh and cary on, and not like others who would take a bite or two of their burrito then toss it into the gutter, not like those that poked out for the food, said thank you, then disappeared into their tent, this was a man who had a kind heart and instantly could connect with you. Every week for months, this is all that we had. I made sure he got his burrito and he gave me a kind nod. So when I decided that I wanted to do this documentary, I knew I had to hear from him.
It’s not easy to walk around skid row with a camera. Let alone a 360 VR camera standing on a long tripod. It’s calls in all sorts of attention. It looks expensive and it looks like an alien prying into the already scarce privacy of those that live on skid row. But there is a double edge sword with this camera, in a good way. Privacy is desired, but obscurity is feared. When you’re on skid row, it’s hard not to notice the world and the people that inhabit it. It’s loud. It smells very bad. The sidewalks are unwalk-able due to tents and makeshift homes, trash, feces, and traffic. But outside of the boundaries of skid row, it is completely forgotten and so are the people.
When filming I try not to steal a shot. Pointing a camera at someone can be very offensive, especially when you imply that their lives are weird or gross. Often times the phrase “taking a picture” is in it’s best use here or in places like skid row. If done incorrectly it’s theft. I don’t want to take anything from people who have so little left to give.
So I took my time with James. I introduced myself on the burrito route, then showed up the next day and just talked with him. He was hungrily finishing up a small bowl of rice that had been wrapped in tinfoil. I didn’t stay long and I asked him if I came back tomorrow with a camera could I film an interview with him. He thought about it for a second and said, “you know I thought about writing a book about my life, but then I realized - everyone’s got a story, what makes mine so special? I don’t know if I have anything worth saying”. Maybe you feel this way about yourself, I know I’ve thought the same thing before about my story, but with James (as with many who are homeless) there was a deeper feeling of worthlessness. The whole world has rejected him in almost every way that matters. He’s 70 years old this February, worked his whole life, his family won’t talk to him, and he lives on the street. Of course he thinks his story doesn’t matter.
So I came back the next day and started filming as I walked up to him. I didn’t want to miss a thing. I set my bag down and we began talking. The shops had all just closed on the street, the sun was dropping behind the US Bank building, and James had just settled in for the evening. No dinner in his lap tonight. The men across the street were setting up their tents, but James sat in a small beach chair with a cart full of bags, blankets and a small walking cane next to him - no shelter. I set the alien 360 camera in-front of him and I squatted beside the tripod pointing a microphone at him while he spoke.
He wasn’t hard to talk to. It was like poking a water balloon with a pin, pretty soon it all started gushing out. He took me from his home in the Bahamas to his College in Florida. He moved to Los Angeles in ’84 where he learned that because he wasn’t a US citizen he couldn’t work just anywhere. He eventually got the right paperwork and even a tax ID number, which he used to pay into Social Security, he married 2 times and fathered 5 kids, got hooked on crack, and lost touch with everyone. He got clean and he kept working. He lived in an apartment not far from downtown for years until he could no longer work at the age of 65. When he applied for Social Security, they denied him. He says he’s seen socials workers and lawyers and each of them say as it is now, he can’t receive Social Security benefits because he is an immigrant (personally I think there is something either more he can do or more to this story that he’s not able to share). Either way, he ended up on the street. He stayed in a mission for a while before being discharged. He then moved around skid row, but after being jumped, beat, and generally harassed, he settled on this block just at the edge of skid row.
He says he wouldn’t change a thing. He loves the life he lived, he’s learned a lot, and it makes him a better person he thinks. He still plans on moving on, getting money and maybe going back to the Bahamas. But he left over 40 years ago, and doesn’t really know anyone there anymore. For now though, LA is his home.
For me, I’m sad that the American Dream failed him or maybe that he failed it. I didn’t like seeing the helplessness of his situation nor the despair of a man that worked his whole life and at 70 years old can’t even afford a tent to set up on the sidewalk in a city who’s streets literally sparkle and shimmer.
But when we wrapped up the interview James had a huge smile on his face. He said in his Bahamian accent “that felt great! I’m so happy I shared my story with you. Now it’s out there, maybe someone will see it!”
I’m happy too. It made me feel better to know that simply being a conduit for someone like James could actually make a difference. I don’t have any delusions that his story will change the world, but sharing it certainly changed his outlook on life, I could see the healing power that gettin your story out has. He may not ever get off the street, but at least his story is off his chest.
James is 69 years old. He’s been on the streets for 4 years. And if he could buy 4 things from the corner store it would be Jerky, Fruit, water, and “maybe some chips”.
I brought Zaydee along on a trip downtown to skid row last week. Zaydee is a professional photographer taking shots for actors, models, couples and much more. She’s volunteered on skid row for over two years and has passion for helping people in need and has made many connections with those that live on the streets where I’ve been filming.
We went by a spot with some of the guys that she knows and as we made out way up the street at about 6:15 while the sun was setting Zaydee said,” it’s weird coming down here at this time.. and with out any food to hand out”. Together we walked by familiar faces, most of which didn’t recognize her or me out of context. Although as we approached the end of the block where some of these guys set up their tents, they recognized her immediately. “Zaydee!" rang out from two of the three men.
We were there to talk to Gerry, one of the men that Zaydee has a good relationship with. But as we were setting up someone stopped by and asked if he was coming to get his tent from it's storage spot. Most of these guys stay in tents at night and sleep on nice cut up cardboard boxes. But they don’t carry them around all day, they hide them in strategic places so they can come by in the evening and safely get the ingredients to their camps. So Gerry took off to get his stuff with the promise that he would be back soon and we could talk to him.
While we waited I went down the block and across the street to talk to James, a man who i've talked to regularly and even posted about on here. I wanted to see how he was doing and to catch up on what things have been happening with me. After about 15 minutes of talking with James, Gerry still wasn’t back, but Zaydee had sat down next to another man, Ricardo, who she also knows pretty well. Ricardo doesn’t have a voice box. Almost no sound comes from his mouth as he tries to talk to you, but does a very good job communicating by mouthing to you what he is trying to say - and he has a lot to say. So I started setting my camera up in front of him, and pointing the mic, not at him (because that didn’t do much good) but at myself and Zaydee. The fun part is that he speaks spanish and english and switches back and forth, so it can be hard to follow when no sound comes out.
Ricardo, like many people didn’t want to be recorded at first, but after a little reassurance he conceded that we could film for one little bit. He told zaydee to look up a song on her phone and after she hit play, he held his arm up at an angle and wrapped his other hand’s fingers around his wrist. The guitar in the song kicked on and his fingers started to mimic a guitar player holding down the strings of each chord as they played over the speaker, and when the lyrics came up he sang right along.
After the song was over he went on to tell us all about his life before coming to LA 25 years ago, how he lost his vocal chords 9 years ago due to infection from smoking cigars and ultimately lost his construction job because of the surgery to remove his infected vocal chords. He talked about Pueblo, and showed us on the map his home town. He went on about his love for music, how his father played the violin and the saxophone for the Pueblo philharmonic and he picked up his first guitar in 1966.
Eventually Gerry came back after the sun had set, which meant it was too dark to shoot. I was also running low on battery anyway after talking to Ricardo. We promised we’d come back another time to talk to Gerry. Then Zaydee and I walked back to our cars. On the way we talked about how special Ricardo is and how much fun it was to hear his story. He told us that he wants to go back to Pueblo, but he has a doctor’s appointment that he can’t miss coming up and then after that, he wants to head home. However, he’s 66 and that’s a long trip for someone that doesn’t have a car or money to make the journey.
He had us laughing the whole time we were with him and I asked him why he was so funny, why not sad. He said to us, because that’s not how you relate to people. The best way to connect with someone is to laugh.
Look at our conversation with Ricardo in this 360 video.