Christmas On Skid Row.
It was 1997 and it was my assignment to cover Christmas on skid row for a project that would become a book. Christmas day started slowly with a trip to Venice Beach at 6:00 AM. It was a beautiful morning as is typical for southern California near Christmas. The sun was bright, warm, and played off the surface of the ocean with a sparkling greeting.
Three homeless men sat on a bench near the boardwalk area. One man held a small Christmas tree he'd pulled from behind a closed store. One of the men tried to take the tree from the other, the original scavenger. The original scavenger of the tree reached into his bag beside him on the bench and pull a stripped handled hunting knife. He brandished it at the other man who attempted to take the tree and told him to get the f*** away from his tree or he'd be a dead man. The good will towards men message was still asleep near the boardwalk.
That's how that Christmas Day started but, it was only the beginning and would ultimately get better. I went to the Rescue Mission for lunch and found a family who'd come to California from Washington DC. Work had proven elusive and the money had run out. They now lived in their car with an 18 month old son. They young boy was ill and coughing almost continuously. I was so bothered by the sound of the cough that I offered to put the family up for a few days in the Holiday Inn on Ocean in Santa Monica. The father accepted and we took off for the motel about 3:00 PM that afternoon.
The father was effucively thankful and as I was leaving he told me that there was a place down town where several families got together around 6:30 PM each evening to cook for their kids and be with other families during the holidays. I thanked him profusely and took off to find the location.
I arrived at the place my homeless friend had described and good to his word, there were 3 families sitting around a fire made from 2 x 4s with a pot of beans cooking on a mesh grating. I introduced myself and told them that Michael had told me to come over. They offered me dinner and as we talk a group of five young men came by. These men proceeded to take offense to my photographing the families and the scene became ugly.
I told the families that I would leave and return later when the seemingly drug affected guys had gone. I was about a block away when the loudest male realized I had left and he shouted to one homeless father, "where the f**** did that photographer go?" They spotted me just as I turned the corner for my car and the chase was on.
These young guys were much younger and faster than I and I realized if I didn't figure out something quick I'd really be in trouble. I beat them around two block corners and dove into a large trash dumpster in an alley way. I was breathing so hard that it sounded like a tornado in that box. I thought for sure I'd be caught. I heard the men run by yelling at the top of their lungs, " we gotta get that f***ker." I listened carefully as they ran by. I knew that if they found me I was in real trouble.
As I lay trying desperately to slow my heart rate and breathing I began to realize that I was lying in some horribly gushy and smelly stuff. I reached down to my pocket and pulled out my small Swiss Army knife as I heard foot steps rushing by the dumpster again. In some misguided way I thought the tiny knife might help fend off the five angry guys if I was found.
After what seemed to be a decade of time, with no sign or sound of the men, I mustered the courage to peek out of that dumpster. I must have closely resembled the little Kilroy figure that showed up in WWII. My wide eyes and totally dishevelled hair and completely slimed clothing must have been a sight. As I climbed into the night air again I began to smell and see the oily black and green slime that was now castcading from my clothing and photo vest. I reached up and ran a had through my hair which was covered in the gooh. It had the consistancy of runny chocolate pudding and smelled of sewage.
As my hand came down from my hair I saw my watch and paniced. It was now 8:51 and my mother was coming to visit on Southwest Airlines. The plane would land at 9:00 PM. It was at least a half hour ride to the airport. I ran to the car, careened madly to LAX, left my car at the pick-up curb with some nice looking elderly guy I'd never met before and went running into the terminal to find my mother. As I ran into the terminal, I noticed people giving me wide a berth and incredulous stares. I saw my mother seated on one of the benches and as I approached her eyes became saucerlike. "My God Rick. What's happened to you?" she said in a rattled voice. I reached to hug her, forgetting the slime on my clothing. She jumped back and said, "later with the hugs buddy!" We got back to my car to find the nice persian man and a policeman discussing what to do with my vehicle. The officer wrote me a ticket and sent me on my way. We drove back to Orange County with the windows open to reduce the toxic smell and me appreciating how interesting Christmas can be.