Around the corner from the needle exchange we settled down for an extended period one afternoon in March. It was a half grey, half sunny day that was oddly chilly for Los Angeles. I had seen Christine on my way to meet someone else, and as often happens to me, I changed course and forgot completely about my previous intentions and focused all of my attention on this most ephemeral being named Christine. I am learning more and more that I must exercise great care and learn to read carefully the most minor outward indications that may serve as warning that I must tread very, very carefully.
Christine at 6th And Los Angeles Street, Los Angeles
So pale, I had trouble exposing for her skin tone on this bright, harshly lit day. A strangely hazy afternoon, one that was not atmospherically suited to taking great pictures.
Baudelaire Is Everywhere
Christine At 4th And Crocker
Baudelaire is everywhere. And why should anybody be surprised to find an earnest purveyor of his works in this place? I was not.
One Saturday afternoon on Los Angeles street I saw a long, thin woman hunkered down at the corner of 6th and Los Angeles Street. She had a small suitcase and a lot of makeup and was intensely focused on her public grooming ritual on this busy Saturday corner, surrounded by families from the nearby barrios doing their weekend shopping. I don’t generally like to sneak these kinds of candid pictures….I can get what I want by making a conversation happen, and will always seek to do so when I feel that special pull, enticed by a hard to define sense of personal eccentricity in combination with innocence and tragedy that never fails to attract my attention.
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.