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”.