Read To Me I was walking along the boardwalk, or, more accurately, what passes for one on the West Coast. Nothing at all like Wildwood or Atlantic City or Coney Island….West Coast is all concrete and lacks for me the timelessness and nostalgia of the East Coast legacy. I was in Pacific Beach when I spotted a hand painted van, cerulean blue, enameled and festooned with acrylic glitter paint and bright, high key purples, blues and pinks. Written were bible passages, psalms and hymns. Little hearts and wings and variously collaged images hand painted in the style of an outsider folk artist. An older woman sat inside the van’s driver seat, happily singing improvised, hand made religious hymns. I asked her if I could photograph her van and she nodded and kept singing. I was reminded of the first few chapters of the Stephen King novel The Stand, one of my all time favorites. A character from the days following Captain Trips….The Dark Man and The Old Woman, the innocence of Tom Cullen along with the depth of regret that characterized Larry Underwood. Some serpentine twists and turns along the neural pathways that govern logic, perception and real time separate her from these characters, but everything else is strongly reminiscent. She invited me to sit inside her floral, potpourri scented van, decorated with odds and ends, scarves and silk flowers and acrylic painted fixtures, all in the same high key colors as on the outside of the van. The scent of potpourri brought me back to my high school days of potpourri burners, dried flowers and essential oils. I felt instantly comfortable, and she began in earnest to read me as clearly as if she were reading a newspaper. Factually, and correctly. In the most unusual of places I find myself being undressed in ways I hadn’t anticipated.
Dance-Ellah I meet a lot of people who are true believers. I don’t know where I fit in with my own beliefs most days….I wish I had a guiding light but try as I might I seem to be unable to locate anything despite my best efforts. So when I meet people like Dance-Ellah I often feel very comfortable because I find that along with the tearful fervor and intense emotion is a personality unconfined by conventional emotional boundaries. Less self consciousness–none, really many times–no fear of revealing all, or almost all…an instantaneous bond that forms between me and someone else that I’ve never met before and may never see again. I don’t feel anything at all when I wander through life with people who don’t have the ability to behave aberrantly and revel in it. Aberration doesn’t always represent a negative state of being or affairs…..sometimes it’s the aberrant ones that are the most memorable and irreplaceable and original. The few minutes I have with people who, because of their own outsider status, can see through me and cut right to the heart of the matter, whether I want them to or not.
I parked on Gladys Avenue late one Saturday afternoon to check in with Bridget, a woman I did a photo essay with a few months back. Bridget is a dedicated recycling machine, toiling tirelessly throughout Skid Row to earn a few dollars a day for her heavy labor. On this day, I had taken some heat from one of the drug dealers up the street toward 6th because he didn’t like the way I had parked my car, so I decided to placate him and moved my car across the street. These guys are generally humorless in their dealings with outsiders, inhospitable and difficult to predict or relate with, even on the most superficial terms. Some of them have been seen slapping women in broad daylight in the middle of the street, women that I know personally and that I have photographed many times. I parked close by a rambling tent structure, covered by tarps and barely able to contain the miscellaneous items that I could see poking through the perimeter. There were bicycles, piles of clothing, plastic containers filled with unidentifiable objects, brooms along with other items that didn’t quite register as individual pieces, but as a general disconnected tangle of belongings, past and present. What really caught my attention was a bible, placed on a tall box that was pushed against the wall next to the tent. It seemed at the time to be a makeshift lectern….the Bible was opened , its spine softened with use. It lay, as if someone had been standing quietly reading, and likely been interrupted by a random encounter of some kind. I thought of how to frame that picture, how to include enough context to make it meaningful but not so much that the individual nature of the Bible as the subject would get lost in the composition. As I stood, the lady pictured here asked me if I was a photographer. I replied in the same way I always do when asked this question….I’m working on it. She asked for me to take her picture, with her bible. Sure…..not the picture I had in mind originally but that idea probably wouldn’t have been particularly compelling anyway. She ducked into her tent and emerged, glowing with some hastily applied makeup and a natural looking, curly wig. She looked happy and serene and radiant all of a sudden, and I realized that the prospect of having her picture taken was an exciting and unusual event, worthy of time spent with a mirror and comb. We snapped some pictures, her eyes closed partially in a few, a slight smile but full of surprising depth for such a small change in facial musculature……a smile that stood in stark contrast with the scars on her face left over from a long ago battle.
Chief, pictured on the left, has a prayer group/bible study that he leads each Wednesday at 1 pm. I’m always hoping to grab a few pictures of the earnestness and sincerity that I see and feel as I stand on the sidelines, as observer and, in some ways, a stranger. The meeting place is at a worn, downtown grill, a Skid Row version of a diner you might find in New Jersey somewhere, with outdoor seating and a little window to place your order, the menu displayed in pictures plastered on the walls around the pick up window. Lots of egg dishes, bacon, toast, burgers, Mexican food, fried platters. People sit each Wednesday with bibles in hand, taking turns, some reading aloud from their bibles with difficulty, others with fluidity and confidence. Chief gives each person a copy of his enviably legible, thoughtfully handwritten bible passages/lessons for the week. People are faithful visitors, returning most weeks to sit in peace, read the Bible, and have a lunch from the restaurant’s little kitchen paid for by a generous, anonymous donor. This anonymous donor also provides bibles for those who need them, high quality and durable, and presented to each new owner in a box.
Chief and Gloria are two of the most sincere people I’ve met in my adult life, and they will remain in my memory forever.
A year before this picture was taken, walking on this street was a fantasy walk that I would never have dared to take. It’s one of the hardest hit, most volatile streets in Skid Row…..full of life, and sounds, smells and sights hard to take in all at once. My wish was to be able to walk alone with my camera and take honest street photos without causing offense to anyone or harm to myself. I can sometimes do that at this time, but must always ask, engage and be prepared to respond on the spot to questions that can become very intense very quickly, sometimes requiring me to prove that I’m not a police officer (I’ve been patted down and searched for listening devices ) or show extensive samples of my work, stored on my iPhone. It’s understood that it’s never acceptable to try and sneak a picture….never never never or the price paid will be a dear one.
This image is of a Sunday afternoon prayer between three women. The woman in the middle, along with her companion seen in the background, occasionally walk the most dangerous streets alone, offering to pray with anyone who feels the need for some hands-on attention. That’s courageous, considering the circumstances. Religious pursuits are generally not cause for irrational outbursts from unstable residents of the street but the absolute chaos and unpredictability that occurs randomly throughout the day makes each and every foray a risk. These moments last for a minute or two, and then vanish…..swallowed up by the street and forgotten almost immediately. The two women on either side were moved to tears by the attention. These interlocks mean something, if only for a brief period before people resume their daily lives, deeply enmeshed in the drug culture that is Skid Row generally and this street in particular.
I loved the little dog sitting with her eyes closed, completely at peace and blissfully happy with her owner’s hands holding her carefully and with great love. When the couple in the background stepped in, it was perfect, a greatly contrasting, all female lineup, everyone happy down deep with each other. Love happens in different places in unexpected ways, and when it does, you count yourself lucky.
Outside one of my favorite spots in DTLA….it’s next door to The Rosslyn, an old school SRO that’s home to an assortment of people that are just endlessly fascinating to me….I could stand here for days and remain interested enough to pick up my camera again and again. And the stories I hear, the situations that pop up, the drug sales, desperate behavior, scenes that can only play out in downtown Los Angeles. But it’s changed mightily in the past year + since I’ve set foot here….so many crazy expensive lofts, trendy restaurants, more newfangled hipster stereotypes than I can count. All of it working to bore and frustrate me.