"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.