December 16, 2009
Last week, I met a guy named John who moved out to Los Angeles many years ago, dreaming of Hollywood.
He found an apartment around Argyle Street, then one day he wandered into the Stella Adler Studio of Acting. He didn’t have any money, so John offered to clean toilets in exchange for classes, and the school took him up on it.
With his piercing blue eyes, sculptor’s hands and a lyrical, baritone voice, John fit right in with a young Mark Ruffalo and with Michael Richards, pre-“Seinfeld.” He worked hard and eventually won the chance to perform before Adler herself.
“She was 86 years old,” John told me. “I knew I’d never get to perform for her again, so I wanted to pick something really hard. I did a soliloquy from ‘Hamlet.’ She was kind to me, but I was really bad.”
John talked around the details, blaming health problems, botched surgeries, conditions that contributed to other conditions, but around that time, things began to fall apart.
For the past year, John has lived on a corner of Lincoln Boulevard in Venice. Every day for the last year, I’ve driven by him on my way to and from work.
It took me a full year to talk to him. The simple reason: I saw him as a problem someone else was going to take care of.
Last September, I e-mailed City Councilman Bill Rosendahl about “the homeless man at the corner.” Last week, Rosendahl called me back. He suggested I call the St. Joseph Center in Venice, which runs an outreach program.
The St. Joseph’s people didn’t return several phone calls. The first big winter rain was days away. I decided to talk to John.
John is tall, with a heavy beard. “I know I’d look better if I shaved it,” he said.
Filthy grey sweats cover his thin frame, and his feet are cracked and black: He refuses to wear shoes. His corner is sheltered from above by a plywood scaffold. He has no sleeping bag: day and night he just sits, huddled in a thin blanket. Close up, the area smells of dried urine, diarrhea, rotting food. John tells me he has battled all sorts of kidney and stomach ailments lately. There are no public restrooms for blocks.
John has a fine intellect. He said he doesn’t drink, smoke or take drugs — one of the reasons he chose Lincoln Boulevard, he said, is that he can’t abide the addicts camped out on Skid Row, or by Venice Beach.
His encampment is piled up with alternative healing elixirs. Colon Cleanse, Macro Green, Miracle Red. Within moments we were discussing the merits of raw food, alternative medicine, his acting pals, my work at a Jewish newspaper. He told me an Israeli named Udi, who worked at a nearby futon store, used to bring him some supplements, and John asked Udi to teach him Hebrew.
“Boker tov,” John said — Hebrew for “Good morning.” “Ma koreh?” he said, which means, “What’s happening?”
While we were talking, a black SUV pulled up, and a fashionable woman jumped out and handed John a Target shopping bag.
“Are you hungry?” she asked. “Here’s a peanut butter sandwich.”
John said thank you, took it, and the woman was gone. He told me someone recently gave him some blueberry scones from Ralphs, but after he read the ingredient list he wouldn’t eat them. “Why do they have to use blue food coloring?” he said. “They’re blueberries.”
I asked John what he wanted. He said his goal is to get someone to give him a car to sleep in, or a room in a garage.
“It’s the only thing that makes sense, unless somebody opens their door for me,” he said. “Then I have privacy, I have autonomy over my space. I could stay clean and keep warm. It would be helpful. I’d rather not be sitting on the corner and having people feed me.”
He said he has rejected help from the St. Joseph Center, the United Methodist Church across the street, the Tabernacle of God outreach and most social workers.
“Look, I’m the age that I am, to have people dictating to you how you’re going to do things….” he said. “I have people come up to me, social workers, and they always talk to you like you’re 9 years old.”
He turned down the Lamp Community downtown, which offers programs to stabilize and give permanent housing to the mentally ill homeless. Lamp is the organization that serves Nathaniel Ayers, the violinist made famous in a series of columns by Steve Lopez and in the movie, “The Soloist.”
John said he turned down Steve Lopez, too.
“I used to hang out near the Times building,” John said. “He tried to get a story out of me.”
In a column about Ayers, Lopez wrote, “I’ve come around to the conclusion that laws intended to protect the rights of Nathaniel and other mentally ill people are well-intended but inhumane.”
So who’s in charge of getting John off the street and into a humane living situation? Who can force him to save himself? Choose life, the Torah commands us. But what are we commanded to do for those incapable of making that choice?
I told John it was about to pour rain for three days and that a shelter had to be preferable to sitting on the street. I said everyone has to occasionally deal with rules and jerks and people who treat them like 9-year-olds to get what they need — that’s one of life’s trade-offs. He nodded.
“Sometimes your instincts run totally counter to what rationality tells you to do,” he said. “Guess I’ll find out tonight if my instincts were right.”
I left him the $7 in my wallet and said I’d be back the next day with a jar of Miracle Red.
“OK,” John said, then called out after me: “Laila tov,” which means, “Good night.”