One Los Angeles stereotype is that everything is done cinematically. This stereotype often fails to match the reality which is Los Angeles, an incredibly diverse, varied place. But one place in which Los Angeles lives up to the cinematic is in its Skid Row. Los Angeles' Skid Row could live in any number of inner city and film noir movies.
Los Angeles' downtown is not a downtown in the way that Manhattan has an "uptown" and a "downtown", or a downtown of either the Financial District or even the Civic Center of San Franscisco. Wilshire Boulevard is no Michigan Avenue, and the downtown office buildings are but one of several urban centers, stretching from Santa Monica on the coast through Westwood and Beverly Hills, snaking through parts of Hollywood, the San Fernando Valley, high-tech Burbank, and even traditional Pasadena in the San Gabriel Valley. Los Angeles' downtown has civic buildings, and wonderful stores where loud ranchera music blares while items sold inexpensively are open for negotiation. In the central market, a roofed but open-air facility, one can find the best fruits on sale. Office workers and Mexican restaurants selling fried tilapia intermingle and fit together into a mural as real as the ones that decorate the Red Line train system. But on one edge of downtown, between the blue-collar retail stores, the fine office buildings and hotels on the one side, and the grace of Little Tokyo on the other, Skid Row looms.
Los Angeles' downtown Skid Row is national-class. Twelve thousand people live the life of homelessness here, including among their number many afflicted with the ravages of mental illness and many others who face the challenge of self-medication. A walk in the worst part of Skid Row is a walk among people facing the greatest challenges which alcohol, poor health, no money, crack and heroin can offer an urban population. It's all like a particularly bleak line from a Tom Waits song. This is the Los Angeles for fallen angels, where people go where the bottle or schizophrenia rob people of families, jobs, and places to live. This is the Los Angeles of pop wine and people who travel with shopping carts and beg for dollars.
This Los Angeles has a Damon Runyonesque feel to it, with places like the downtown Greyhound bus station, where men hover with eagle eyes, trying to locate and exploit the mice who step off the bus looking for fame. Teens get homelessly lost in Hollywood and can only be rescued with lifelines--they can't go "home" because they had no "home" to leave; is it home when it abuses you? When crack is more in vogue, panhandlers line the streets; heroin keeps things more pacific and a bit less aggressive. MacArthur Park, rarely afflicted with cakes melting in the rain, used to serve as the Friday drive-in for rich westsiders wanting to make a quick cocaine purchase before heading back to affluent areas--Mercedes pulling up in a line of death. Now it's a bit more low-key--you can find what you want, but it's no longer an open casting call. You can buy anything in this Los Angeles--your fake ID, for immigration or the underage, your chemical consumption needs, even, perhaps, a greater or lesser ownership interest in a human being you liberate from the sweat shops of the Garment District.
Still the city rushes on, fulfilling its duties of serving as a lapdog to the industries that make it work, only, like a lot of lapdogs,
it's sometimes long on kisses and short on pulling the cart. When I first came to visit Los Angeles, a city I loved and love, I was nonetheless struck by the incredible gulfs between rich and poor, and by the way in which economic divides and ethnic divides often co-existed. It's easier to get a film permit than to get a homeless person a place to stay. It's not all neglect--in the city of Santa Monica, a "feed the homeless" program resulted in myriads of homeless influx, a good deed mildly punished. There are no simple cookie-cutter solutions.
I worked in Los Angeles for almost a decade. I don't want to imply that I was somehow part of any solutions to the problems of homelessness and the poor. I was one of the fellows in the suits and print ties, who worked on the 31st Floor of an office building. I gave a dollar on my way to lunch to the guy named Don with the great singing voice, who always said "thank you, family", and who always claimed he was "clean", but I never believed him. I did tiny things, but I was not part of the solution. I was just a few fingers in the flood--long after the dike had broken. A dollar here, an hour voluntering for APLA there, but no real role.
I have not met many many saintly people. To me, saintliness is quite a hard thing to achieve. Biographies of really altruistic people fascinate me. I am attracted by goodness, wherever I find it. Yet goodness doesn't always have a cheery smile and the patience of Griselda. Sometimes goodness gets angry.
Alice Callaghan is an Episcopal minister who works with an immigrant aid foundation in and around Skid Row. She's not some picture-postcard saint. She is an activist, and is reputed to be a basically quite angry person. I don't know her personally, though, so I'm not going to pretend to be able to analyze what she is really like. I'm instead going to use her as a kind of metaphor.
I'm intrigued by Alice Callaghan, because Alice Callaghan is willing to say and act upon one simple principle--the neglect of people who live in poverty, while others live in wealth, appalls and angers her. Can it be saintly to be angry? I don't know. I remember the story of Jesus overturning the tables of the vendors surrounding the temple. Yet Alice Callaghan has the simple audacity to voice her anger and dismay that people could allow others to be neglected so badly.
She takes a lot of stands. I'm not sure I agree with all her stands. Some of her positions are quite straightforward. She doesn't understand why the Catholic Church can build Our Lady of the Angels, a new downtown cathedral, but cannot find the funds to help 12,000 souls on Skid Row. Ms. Callaghan cannot see why one of the homeless charities would build a playground in Skid Row, when her group has been all about helping families escape Skid Row for years and years. She posits the radical notion that addiction and crime are not the best environments for kids to experience, and that moving families in to Skid Row is not a good idea. She's not afraid to
attack other helpers. She wonders out loud about the huge endowment of the offending rescue mission. She assails some forms of bilingual education as counter-productive and contrary to the hopes of the parents whose kids take those courses.
I'm sure that others do things better than Ms. Callaghan does. Others fund raise with more charm; others play more nicely with others.Kindness is not a zero-sum game, and one need not refrain from kindness to "save up" for really important charitable acts.
Lately, though, I wonder if the reason we have Skid Rows is that people don't get angry enough. After the horrible events of 9/11,people got appropriately and usefully angry, raising money for the victims, interfacing on how New York should look and be after this tragedy. Yet nobody is angry enough to help people in the poorest parts of Bed-Stuy, or in the most thunderbird-drenched areas of the Tenderloin or Skid Row.
I don't know Alice Callaghan, and I can't tell you how much of her anger is righteous, and how much is merely counter-productive bitterness. Yet I begin to believe that anger has its place, as a motivator.
Perhaps the saints aren't the ones who sing beatifically as they race to immolate themselves in lovingkindness.
I'll take my saints brewed strong, with a liberal admixture of anger. I want people who imagine that 6,000,000 people can afford to get help for 12,000 people. I like the idea of an anger that suggests that a culture that can snap pictures in infrared one million miles in space can get people into treatment, and out from under LA underpasses.
I'm not sure I'd like Alice Callaghan, or adopt her views or methods. But I am sure that when complacency melts away, something must take its place. It may be that the "something" is not anger, but I begin to wonder if something like anger is not the first step in the grief process that lets one accept that there are things to do, and one must not deny the importance of doing them.
I don't know Alice Callaghan, but I want her determination. I can think of 12,000 reasons right off the bat why the aimless approach has not succeeded.