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.
Dying Baby Sea Lion, La Jolla Cove Sunday March 12, 2017
I love going to La Jolla on Sundays. It’s a wealthy place, extreme privilege generally and therefore largely uninteresting to me…..except down by the ocean along the promenade, and on the beach. Lots of people of varying backgrounds come to enjoy the beauty of the area. Families show up to picnic on the lawn of the little park on the promenade, and visitors from all parts of the world feel comfortable and secure there. It’s a place to relax and enjoy the stereotype that is California, the experience that a visitor can be deeply impressed by, and one that can make you sell all of your possessions and do whatever it takes to come here to live. That’s what I did seven years ago. But that’s the superficial, deeply pleasing initial view, the one that enchants at first, almost like a soulmate would.
Every time I go to The Cove, without exception, I witness several instances of extreme cruelty to the marine life that inhabits the area and is a major draw to both the tourists and locals. I can count on getting into at least one fight on account of my (at times) unstable anger management skills being put to the test when I watch people doing inexplicably insensitive things to the animals in the tide pools and in the parks. Crushing the little crabs that live their lives in and around the little rocky pools of water along the rocks that form the tide pools, throwing them, poking them. This past Sunday I had a verbal joust with the family of a boy that took his soccer ball and threw it with all of his might into a flock of seagulls hanging out on the grassy lawn, waiting for a handout. These birds are unusually large, very substantial creatures. The ball hit the bird with force, making a sound that was similar to the way a punch on the back would sound–low and hard and deep. People stood around, silently. I got into it with the boy’s father, and not one family member of this large group stepped in to counsel the boy, and explain to him why it’s wrong to behave this way with animals.
The seals and sea lions are the ones that really need protection from verbal and physical harassment. The seals, beautiful and spotted and angelic, have their own society and a group of dedicated docents that physically create barriers to the public, especially during this time of year which is birthing season. Outside of birthing season, on many days it’s a free for all, people allowing their children to go as far as to strike the animals, throw sand at them, little rocks….I live for these moments because it feels great to step in and let one of these parents have it. These instances occur many times per hour on a crowded day. The sea lions are suffering miserably as well, in part due to harassment and insensitivity as well as El Nino style weather that has altered sea currents and destroyed the food supply that they need to thrive. As a result, the pups and juveniles are malnourished, battling internal parasites, and wasting away on the beach. Most people don’t seem to register the skeletal babies, their forms no longer sleek and supple, the hide draped over the unusual bony structure that distinguishes these marine mammals from all others. I hear laughter, photograph manic selfie sessions, listen to the animals roar and snort at the hordes who are poking, touching, taunting and at times yelling at the animals. It’s possible to call Sea World to come rescue a baby such as the one I photographed above, but late on a Sunday afternoon they’ve gone home. This baby was near death, and hardly stirred as I took close pictures with a wide angle lens. It’s not okay to get as close as I did for this one, but I felt that it was important to do so for a moment or two.
Young woman sitting on a bench with her boyfriend, gazing out at the ocean. Incredibly striking, and impossible to walk past without asking for the privilege.
Caliph sits as he waits for Magic, his next cut. When I returned the following week, this spot had changed completely, and everything pictured had either been rearranged or removed entirely by the corner’s new inhabitants. It was as if I’d never spent the time there taking pictures….no one knew me or remembered this afternoon, and it was as if the pictures I took only a few days prior had been imagined.
Magic And Razor
The dog’s name is Razor. Caliph uses plain, old school, straight razors for most of his cuts and takes great care not to cause harm to the skin as he expertly slides along, shaving faces and cutting hair, telling jokes, keeping it light and relaxed for everyone, including me.
San Pedro Street
Skid Row, Los Angeles
On San Pedro Street there are bigger, better tents. Nothing like what is commonly seen along other avenues located in the deeper recesses of Skid Row. Ceres Avenue, parts of Gladys, Stanford or Towne…..many of these areas are home to those who are unable to muster the resources or focus to construct an elaborate, comfortable living space such as M’s structure. My first meeting with M was several months ago, as I walked along San Pedro with Caliph. Caliph is a street barber who makes his living by providing barbershop style service to the guys who live along San Pedro, Crocker Avenue and Main Street. He carries his own supplies, consisting of worn, straight razor blades, a toothbrush, an old black comb and a pair of ancient scissors along with a cape. He travels by bike, visiting spots where he knows there may be a prospective client or two who may be willing to part with the few dollars to cover the cost of a cut or shave.