I had to eat. My stomach hurt. It was better to put some hot grub in my belly before heading over to the hotel and dealing with whatever weirdness that would entail.
I stood on the corner by the general relief office and glanced over the list of soup kitchens given to me by the social worker. The nearest was located near San Pedro Blvd. and 3rd. I looked at my watch. They would start to feed in about an hour. I began the short trek.
Hidden down in the shadowy canyons of steel, glass, and concrete on a side alley, I noticed a multitude of meandering people. It was a carnival. Hundreds of people milled about. The vast amount waited in a long line which weaved through dumpsters and trash cans out into the street proper and halfway down the block.
All disreputable types of hobos, tramps, junkies, and the mentally deranged stood coughing, yakking, shouting at nothing or one another. Garbage fluttered in the hot breeze and circled a long row of filthy shopping carts bloated with possessions and discarded junk. The smoke of a million rolled cigarettes wafted up toward that bright Los Angeles sky mixed with the smells of marijuana, unwashed ass, and sour feet. A colorless mass of citizens in grubby baseball caps, frayed backpacks and bedrolls, dirty and stiff denim jeans. All outfitted in that unmistakable uniform of the destitute in a vain attempt to appear inconspicuous.
As I passed the entrance of the alley to make my way towards the end of the line, my nostrils were assaulted with an overpowering reek of burnt rice, pepper, and cooking grease. Shabby derelicts waited silently behind shaggy, grimy manes of facial hair and inspected me as I passed with apathetic curiosity.
I strode with purpose, picking up snatches of dialog from the cacophony around me:
“Nigga better get me my money! Bitch best never ask for any again!”
“Joey fucks like a faggot. Quick and fast.”
“Damn this line’s long. Hope they don’t run out before I get mine!”
“I hear ya. I’m starvin’ like Marvin’!”
“What the fuck you lookin’ at? Don’t look at me!”
“Damn! I gotta take a shit!”
I reached the end of the long line and casually stood in an attempt to remain unnoticed. I nonchalantly removed a crumpled pack of cigarettes from my pocket and lit one. I took a puff and felt a light tap on my arm. I turned to see a wizened, little man gazing back at me in colorless clothes and sparking blue eyes. His clothes were grimy, shiny over the dirt.
“Hey, buddy, can you spare a smoke?” The man asked softly.
“Yeah.” I said absently as I fished one out and handed it to the tramp who took it in long, dirty fingers.
“Thanks.” The old hobo said, smiling from discolored teeth.
A young, Latino thug approached and asked from behind wrap-around sunglasses, “Hey, homie, spot me a smoke.”
I sighed and handed the cholo a cigarette.
“Good lookin’ out, homie.” The cholo said as he walked back to his knot of friends.
At that moment, a lanky black man walked up, “Hey, man, gimme a cigarette.”
“What?” I said in exasperation. “These things cost money. I can’t just keep handing them out.”
The tall junkie’s face twisted into a scowl, “You gonna be like that, white boy? Gimme a fuckin’ smoke!”
“You need to go and bum from someone else, bro.”
“I ain’t your fuckin’ bro!”
The junkie stepped forward and stood toe to toe with me.
He put his face in close, barking halitosis and spittle, “Your fuckin’ honky ass needs to get the fuck outta here, white boy! I should just steal your shit instead of askin’ for it! Gimme your fuckin’ cigarettes, motherfucker!”
This was too much. People stood and gawked at the confrontation. Without realizing it, I swung a fist and landed a hit across the man’s jaw. The junkie spun and tumbled out towards the curb. He then reeled around and glared in absolute hatred at me.
“Aw, hell no! This motherfucker did not just hit me!” The junkie roared.
“What the fuck did you expect?” I shot back. “I was going to take your shit like a good white boy?”
“I’m gonna kick your motherfuckin’ ass, motherfucker!” The junkie shrieked as he dashed towards me.
As we ducked and swung at each other, people nearby in line made a wide girth in lieu of the scuffle. Several began to shout, “Stop that shit or they ain’t gonna feed us!” “Yeah, cut that shit out!”
I jabbed and landed a few licks as the junkie punched and swung his boney knuckles at my face. We wildly grabbed each other in an effort to fling one another onto the trash littered sidewalk. The junkie was strong, but not strong enough to be tripped up. The lanky man hit the pavement with his back. I then lept over him and began to pommel his bristled face.
“Gentlemen, cease this fighting at once or we’ll shut the kitchen down and no one will be fed!” Called a squat man in a baseball cap and white polo shirt. He stood at the entrance of the alley. The shirt bore the word STAFF emblazoned in blue across the back. I caught a glimpse of him as he held up a cellphone. “The police have been notified! I suggest you both leave now!”
The wizened hobo who had first asked for a cigarette called over to me, “Hey man, you best get out of here before the pigs arrive! Then you really fucked!”
During this, I continued to punch the junkie as the downed man clawed and yelled, “Someone get this fucking bitch offa me!”
The thought of reason flashed across my mind, Cops are already after your ass! No need to hand yourself over on a silver platter!
Huffing in pain and anger, I released the junkie, snatched up my duffel bag and quickly darted down to the corner. I could hear the junkie taunt, “That’s right! Run, motherfucker! Get your white ass outta here!”
I quickly strode two blocks away. My paranoia intensified as a squad car roared by. I dodged into another alley. There was a line of people waiting to be fed. At the front of the line stood an elderly man banging on a steel pot with a metal spoon.
“Stop this! Stop this right now!” He yelled.
There was a group of black men encircling an Asian man who lay on the pavement. The small Asian was curled in a fetal position in a futile attempt to dodge kicks and stomps by his attackers.
“Fuckin’ chink-ass faggot!”
“Take your ugly, yellow ass back to China, motherfucker!”
Fuck! What is wrong with these goddamn animals? I thought.
I quickly turned and rushed three blocks for another location I remembered from the list.
Along a stretch of sweltering sidewalk, there was a dusty storefront with a few hobo’s who congregated outside. Splashed in an amateur paint job above a steel door were the words God’s Extended Hand. There was a mix-matched mural of a hand extending from a cloud grasping down to a silhouetted group of people.
I approached an elderly, humpbacked man struggling to side his shopping cart against the mission’s wall.
“Excuse me.” I asked. “They still feeding here?”
The old man looked at me with canceled eyes. “What? Yeah. Just go on in and sit down.”
I entered the dark doorway. When my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I noticed the low-ceilinged room was covered in a matted, red carpet. Placed sporadically about were rickety sofas and mismatched chairs. Some metal, others plastic. Towards the back of the medium sized room lay a small, carpeted stage with a podium in the middle.
An elderly woman with gray hair and thick glasses called over to me, “Sir? Is it your first time here? I need you to sign in before you can eat. We will be serving momentarily.”
I walked over and took the clipboard that she held out to me. “Thank you, ma’am.” I said as I scribbled the name Waldorf Butterbean onto the roster.
The elderly woman retrieved the board and pointed with it towards the chairs, “Go ahead and have a seat, young man. There is coffee on the table over there. Help yourself.”
I made my way to the small, coffee stained table. There was a stack of tiny Styrofoam cups and a pile of sugar packets. No creamer. I took the canter and filled a cup with the jet-black liquid. Sipping it, I attempted to hide a distasteful grimace. The coffee tasted as if it was drained down the ass-crack of a thirty-year homeless veteran. I tossed the remaining coffee into a small, plastic trash bin.
An old man who was waiting behind me chuckled as he poured himself a cup, “That bad, huh? Well, it’s free. What do you expect?”
I grinned back, “There are limits.”
“Sometimes when you got nothin’, you take what you can get.”
Pure, hobo logic, I thought. “You got that right. When do they serve chow?”
“After church service.” The old man said as he took loud slurps of his coffee. “Hope the food don’t offend ya.”
“I’ll try not to be so critical next time.” I smiled.
“It’s hot and it’s free.” The man stated with an open palm before shuffling into the murk.
I glanced at the seats to find an empty space. The room was largely void of people. There were three derelict elderly, a middle aged woman with two, dirty children, a few colorless tramps. A black man leaned against the wall scratching at a dry arm. All sat silent save the occasional hacking cough or snort of mucus filled nostrils.
As I settled into a plastic chair, an aging man with a metal walker made his way up onto the podium. He coughed politely into a waded handkerchief and opened a well-worn bible. Adjusting his thick and dusty, black rimmed glasses; he addressed the few who sat in the room, “Before we eat, ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to say a few words about our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ…”
The sermon went on for an hour and fifteen minutes. Most of the congregation remained silent. There were a few “Praise Him’s” and “Hallelujah’s” uttered intermittently. My stomach rumbled loudly during the last three hymns. It did not help that the waft of cooked food filtered into the room. It smelled delicious. With mouthwatering, I could care less about the afterlife or my eternal damnation if I didn’t halt my wicked ways. I glanced up at the podium where the old man gesticulated and ranted with face crimson and a hand furiously grasping air.
His type is always going on about God. Yet, they’re never in a hurry to meet him. I thought bitterly in rising hunger. Come on, preacher man, wrap it up!
With the mercy from the good Lord above, the pastor finally led the room into final prayer.
Afterwards, as if by habitual instinct, all rose and shuffled quietly towards an open door next to the stage. I stood in the back of the line as the que jerked forward. Each person was handed a large Styrofoam cup and a hard bread roll by the smiling, elderly woman who I had met at the entrance with the clipboard. At the opposite end of the small room was an exit door where, on the way out, a sulking, little boy dispensed a plastic spoon wrapped in a paper napkin.
“Thank you.” I said as he grabbed his cup.
“Enjoy the food that the Lord, Our Father, has provided for you today.” Smiled the woman.
The door exited into an alley where several of the people from inside stood apart from each other and silently ate. Others wandered off into the nightmare of skid row. I opened the lid of my cup and gawked despairingly down into the thick, yellowish-pink goop. It looked repulsively like coagulated vomit.
I placed a small spoonful into my mouth. Not bad. Some sort of gravy with chicken chunks and vegetables. With uncontrolled voracity, I wolfed down the contents of the cup and sopped up the remnants with my roll.
When you are hungry, I thought, you will eat anything.
When done, I tossed the cup behind a dumpster and made my way over to the Hotel Cecil.
- Los Angeles, 2002