Friday, May 2, 2008


Friday morning on the nickel. I was stressed out from an email I was told about- a problem at work. I have been wanting to return to my jogging and training and it it just so happens that that idea was reinforced just last night as I read where someone jogged when they were under pressure. Commonality and timing and the mutual timing of their convergence are fabulous ingredients for profound etheral bonding. That benchmark moment came from such a subtle lesson of communication that it would be months before I can appreiciate the the all of the components that go into it.

I havent done my jog this morning. I decided last night that the night is not the time on Skid Row to do it. Not because of the potential for crime. It is because of the smell. The fumes from a plethora of toxics assault ones nostrils every few feet.

I paid particular attention to it the other day when I walked home from work. My bike was inoperable and I decided to finish a blog instead of getting it fixed. Usually I glide through the streets of Skid Row with tunnel vision and the narrow goal of getting home and going to sleep. I decided to relax and smell the they are.

I knew from experience that when you walk you see more. As I have grown older, I have learned that seeing is just one sense and probably not the best. If used properly, it can stimulate the integration of the others to reach new levels of understanding and accentuate blends of clarity.

With that in mind, I headed home the other night. I was not only going to see, but I was going to hear, going to listen, going to FEEL. I wanted to also feel myself listen, and listen to my heartbeat and understand what it was telling me in response to the stimuli.

I am glad I did it early in the week before the first of the month came. In the album psychedelic shack by the tempations, there is a song, in which, a famous line among my friends says, "Take a stroll through your mind. you will be surprised what you might find." "The eagle flies on Friday and so do I." The eagle flies on the first of the month.

I got a prelude of things on the day night I walked home. I walked out of my job at 11:30pm. Intially the air seems fresh and cool-a stark difference from what I breathe in the confines of my caged office. I feel like a person in a liquor store who is behind protective glass. Only I work in a residential building in Skid Row. The atmosphere reminds me of a setting in a novel written by Irwin Shaw, called Nightwatch. The novel begins with the protagonist working as a desk clerk in a flop house in a big city.

I turned west and headed home. In the distance were the twinkling lights of office towers and residential lofts, Mirages of sanity and societal order that are far beyond the reach of those that live in this bastion of human decay called Skid Row.

Between where I started my walk and the first oasis of civilized humanity were districts of human deserts and and endless variations and examples of human mutation, physical, emotional, psychological. Take your pick. You can't loose. Whichever straw of human example you will pick will be unique in its own right. You do not have to worry about knock offs here. Duplication is probably impossible.

Traffic was heard speeding through the area or suddenly stopping to acquire what they need.

Pedestrians walk the street and eye you from top to bottom. Their eyes are glazed and they remind you of what you see on television--coyotes walking through a desert or a neighborhood searching for food. What type of food is the question. Their is a craziness and a predatory feel in their eyes. They are searching. They do not know what they are searching for but they know when they find it--drugs, liguor, a cigarette butt on the ground or a vagina, penis or combination of both as the transgender population in Skid Row is very strong. To be honest with you, the transgender population appears to be the most at peace in this environment. I will touch on that in a later blog. My hat goes out to them.

I hit San Pedro and glad I turned north. The buildings block the breeze that comes from the ocean and protect my nostrils from further abuse from the endless blends of urine fragrance that I encounter. Occasionally, they are peppered with a splash of human defecation. Some of it is fresh and strong. Other piles are old and smell like fertilizer as it slowly transforms itself into it.

I passed a long row of tents that are set up on the east side of the street. They are all alike, shaped like an igloo with olive green or Skid Row camouflouge colors.
Across the street, on the western side is a brand new low income, mental residential facility. It rests next door to a construction site of the same. I doubt if any of these homeless people will see the inside of either place--the one in operation or the one being built. They are far beyond the reach of case managers, phone calls, administrative procedures. In short, they are off the radar and in a world that few understand, though many see.

I walked from 7th to 6th stret and by now my senses are over loaded. My nose is offended from the smells. My eyes are stinging from seeing the different flavors of human misery. I avoid their eyes but feel them penetrating me. They wonder where I am going. They know I am "rich". I have on shoes that fit. The shoes have laces.
I have on clean pants and I look like I HAVE SOMEWHERE TO GO.

A few months ago, there were not these great numbers of tents on this Skid Row street. What does it tell me. It tells me that the numbers are increasing. In the daytime, if you were to drive through here, no one would ever think that the side walk is crowded with people living in tents. There are also people that live in between the tents that use the tent walls as a shield against the elements. If a social worker or someone who counts the skid row progress were to come by during the day, it would be misleading because that same stretch of sidewalk is clean and bare of tents.

But at night it is filled up. It reminds me of a night when I was in New York City.
It is amazing that I am thinking of New York today. I am feeling very close to the east coast these days. Very close.

One night I was leaving New York. I had just left Ron Claiborne. Ron was one of the few black students who was at Harvard School with me. I ran into him beneath Madison Square Garden one night, in the Penn Station corridor. It is a long tunnel. It was at 2 in the morning. Only one person walked toward me in that long stretch of corridor that was lined with closed coffee shops and gift stores. As we headed toward eachother and became closer, I felt the tension in each of us increase as the threat of the unknown from an unknown increased. When we got close. We smiled. Ron was coming from work. He worked at that time with Associated Press. He read the wires that came in at night. During the day, he was a graduate student at Columbia School of Jounalism. Currently, Ron is the Saturday morning anchor during the weekends on ABC's Good Morning America. It is interesting that I always look at Associated Press for employment opportunities to begin my career.

Anyway, at that hour in the middle of the night stood two black men who were alumni of the Harvard School for Boys. I guess the two of us comprised approximately 40 to 60% of the black student body of six different class levels at the school, depending on what year you picked.

Ron went to Yale for his undergraduate work and in that tunnel, in the middle of the night he asked me to hang out with him for a few days. He asked me to drive to Yale with him. I enjoyed that time immensely. Those times are special for me.

There were only a few of us and for two us to see eachother 3000 miles away from home was a special moment that lives in my heart.

That special ness was not limited to just encounters with black alums.

One night I ran into Ron and also Doug Wick at Cafe Central in New York's westside.

Cafe Central often reminds me of the setting I see on the tv show of "friends" and I wonder if there is a connection. Anyway, as funny as it is. Doug is a Yale Alumnus as well. Doug graduated from Harvard School as well. Doug was in my class and took me to get my California Driver License on my 16th Birthday. That driver license on that birthday is regarded, by california teenagers, as a rite of passage.

Doug's father, CZ Wick, was a big producer of movies. He was also one of the insiders of Ronald Reagan's Kitchen Cabinet. He was the head of the United states Information Agency during the Reagan years. Many times I would be with doug on a Friday when Ronald Reagan was in his house. At that time, he was the governor of California. Doug used to have screenings at this house in Bel Air on Fridays. I used to love it. Doug and I tutored together kids at an inner city school during our senior year. Doug Wick is so slick that he could out talk the best street hustler in Skid Row or any other inner city community anywhere in the country.

He amazes me. Doug Wick became a big time producer and also co Chairman of Sony Entertainment Pictures. I love Doug Wick.

Anyway, Doug, Ron Claiborne and one other person from harvard school were together at Cafe Central. Four of us from harvard school. two black, two white. 1% of the student body in New York. Very Special. I always think those times are special.
There is such connection and reinforcement of those connections in those chance meetings. You have to understand that we went to school together for 6 years at that place. We had to learn to love eachother and get along in that stretch of time. There were only a few of us--400. I remember every one. That , to me, is what makes the prep school experience special.

although, that night, I was surrounded by Yale guys. I was from Penn and did not have any help when it came to debating which school was best in sports which always occurs when guys from those schools get together. the nostalgia keeps us grounded and bonded in a world where there is increasing aloneness in a vast sea of humanity.
It is no surprise to me that social networks are on the rise.

Anyway, I was sitting outside of Madison Square Garden that night before I went back inside and ran into Ron Claiborne. I was waiting for a train back to Philly.

I was sitting on the wall that rings the perimeter of the Garden. I was alone. The usual sounds of car horns honking in the distance in Manhattan could be heard. Across the street I could see the US Post Office. To the east I could see a brick residential hotel that much reminds me of the buildings of Skid Row.

I was relaxed and thinking, pondering the ever changing and never ending evolvement of New York City. and the strangest thing happened. It was 12:30 AM. I know this because I looked down at my watch to see how long I would have to wait for a train. suddenly, as if on cue, one homeless man after another, as if they were following eachother in a parade, appeared and took up their positions along the wall. It was amazing as well as frightening. Where as on Skid Row no one is there in the morning because of the laws, and they disappeared. Here, in Manhattan at Madison Square Garden, nobody was there, and then suddenly, everyone appeared.

I have never seen anything like it in my life. It seemed like they were hypnotized as if in a trance that guided them automatically to there destination of desperation.
East coast homeless are different than west coast homeless. They have many more layers of clothing and heavy clothing at that. They learn to sit on steaming grates at night to keep warm. The hot air opens their pores and dirt fills up the spaces and over times. MOuntains of puss build up on their bodies that look like anthills.

So there I was sitting, and one after one I saw this parade of homeless, trancelike men, take up there places along the wall of Madison Square Garden.

I have never seen anything like it since that night. It unnerved me and I was not a stranger to seeing homeless people. AT Penn there were a few homeless legends that lived on campus. Vent man is well known to anyone that ever went to Penn in the 70's as well as the duck lady. Vent man would sit shirtless on the vents to keep warm. He never wore a shirt. He had no shoes. He stayed warm. He lived underground as well. One night I saw a manhole move. Vent man came out of it.

It was on Walnut STreet and 34th streets. He hung out there alot. There and on Samson STreet Where the Penn Law School sat across the street from La Terrasse restaurant was. That was my "office". If you wanted to find me, you would find me there. Everybody at Penn knew to find me there. My mother would call the bar and leave a message there for me from Los Angeles. The female bartenders would not serve me a drink until I called my mother. WOMEN STICK TOGETHER.

A Leon Higgombotham, the late federal district appeals judge and I had weekly dinners there at la terasse. that was where I had my real classes about consatitutional law. Let me give you an example.

One night after teaching "the JUdge", "Higgy" tennis, we were at la terrasse for our weekly dinner. "Higgy" was my nick name for the judge. No one dared call him "Higgy" but me. I would yell it at him some times when he was on the tennis court. If anyone else had called him that they would get bannished from anything connected to him, at best, or face an admonishment of such great creativity, that he would never want to hear it again in 5 lifetimes.

Anyway, Higgy's secretary, left me a message. Her name was Mrs. Rose. Funny how I am seeing that name alot. Higgonbotham went to Yale Law School by the way. funny that I am surrounded by Yale today. It is a very warm feeling.

Anyway, Mrs Rose called the restaurant to give the judge a message. However, she did not like to call for him. So she left the message for me, knowing that Higgy and I would be toether.

She did not want us to leave before a guest came and met us for a drink. I was used to these guests. Judges, law professors. everyone would stop by and pay homage to the judge. It was great. He would shue them away because this was his special time where he could have a respite away from being Judge Higgonbotham. He was with walter. His friend and confidant. He would let me know, if someone sat down, by a look in the eye, that it was my job to create a scnenario that would rid him of the intrusion. People knew they were dismissed, no matter how subtle the message was sent. After all, these were very smart people. They made some type of living reading between the lines. They would always get up with a glare at me. "Who is this guy who can sit here and talk to Higgonbotham and not me? After all, I am such and such." I would just look at the arrogant jackasses and let them know that there were areas of social stratification that he knew nothing about. and the bonding of such was based on genuine human need and understanding, through shared understood experiences, usually silently expressed and appreciated=--at least the more advanced profound aspects.

On this night, Mrs Rose called to tell us that Leroy Irvis was coming to dinner.

Well, I knew about Mr Irvis. God, How I knew about Mr Irvis. I was grilled by JUdge Higgonbotham about Mr. Irvis. I was grilled for thirty minutes by the judge to cite the case. Boy, how I learned to cite a case. He made sure of that.
He would grill me on the tennis court to avoid chasing balls. We were the best of friends, the judge and I. I am starting now to begin the path of fulfilling the faith he had in me. My tears are flowing.

Leroy Irvis is the main player in a case that is in every constitutional law book writen. Leroy Irvis was the complaintant in the famous MOOSELODGE case, a landmark case that was decided in the United States Supreme Court. Mr. Irvis was a Pennsylvania state legislator.

He came to the table and we sat and talked for hours. He was fascinated by my background. I think young black men who were at those institutions and were fun gave men like Higgonbotham and Irvis the chance to laugh and smile and see in us the fruit of their labor.

They were able to see that their sacrifice and commitment to champion causes and civil rights were not in vain. We kept them going, not only in that way but could provide them moments of recreation away from the awesome pressures they faced. There in was the beauty of my tennis background.

That background gave many men and women who are icons in this nation a chance to have fun. They knew they could call me and I would be there and we could play tennis and they could have fun because they knew they would be able to hit many balls and I would make sure the balls were hit in such a way so that they could master the shots and feel competent and they could strike the ball with authority and get rid of the stress and frustration from fighting whatever manifestation of machine that they fought that day.

They knew I would understand whatever social phenomenon and scenario that they would present to me for my opinion because I had most likely experienced it. However, I experienced at a different time with different consequences or benefits from what they knew were common if experienced by them in their era and by those of their generation. Do not assume that these people were only black. If you do, you would be wrong. They were from all races. That was the beauty of having transcending social economic, cultural and generational boundaries everyday of my life.

I sat there and listened to Mr Irvis after he questioned me about my tennis path. He knew I knew about his case. I was Higgy's man so he knew I knew. And after all of the grilling in class, there, at the table, in the dining room of La Terrasse restaurant, with classical music playing in the background of a candlelight room, where feet could be heard, on wooden floors by waiters rushing to keep the philadephia intelligencia satisfied, was where the real constitutional law lesson was given. They were always given there, for me, alone. My own personal tutor and no one can have a better tutor than the Honorable A. Leon Higgonotham. and he felt the same about me and tennis and my travels around the country and the world at a different time that he pioneered for me to experience.

This one was so different because, across the table was not only the judge, but, a man whose case was not only decided in the supreme court but became a famous case, a landmark case. I was able to hear about the back room late night strategy sessions. about the phone calls from certain attorneys that would call with discoveries of case law that was discovered earlier in the day. Famous attorneys.

I could sit back and listen to two great advocates and warrior recall the old days, the old battles and savor them retasting the sweetness of success.

STeven Carter, the author, gave birth, to those memories that I have shared. I think about them every day but I added and expanded with adjectival description areas that I have not done before, because, before now, I had not understood them to that level of detail before. The sweet reward of an etheral connection and subliminal socratic instruction and direction.

By the way, Vent man is rumored to be one of the Biddles of the Biddle Law School at Penn. I think that is why Vent man lived outside around the Penn LAw
School . He felt comfortable there. ONce I escorted John Kerry to the train station from there. that is another story as well as the time I walked in a parade along the gold coast of Washington DC with Bill Clinton. He asked me if he could walk with me. A funny story by the way. They all are. I am learning to free myself up to tell them. in a room with a friend I have always been able, with aplomb, to entertain the person with these stories but writing in public, I must watch my language.

So, a great deal has happened between 7th street and 6th street on Skid Row. But I did arrive at 6th and San one

It was clear that I was getting close to the heart of Skid Row. MOre tents and more people standing around, having nothing to do and so much that they needed to be done.

The Midnight Mission is on the South side of 6th, and people have setup camp in their courtyard. On the north side, and I forgot to avoid it, people sit on the side walk and stand around waiting to shoot their next heroin fix. Why do I avoid that side? Simple. When I ride my bike in the middle of the street, I receive unbelievablly strong whiffs of urine and defecation. It never changes. It is always there. I avoid the northern side of 6th street, between San pedro and san julian as if I can catch something in the air. Something secondary but primary in its lethal capacity like legionaires disease. And of course, I remember when that hit the Bellview STratford Hotel in Philadelphia. I would always avoid walking on that side of Broad STreet on my way to see a friend whose office was on that street.

I know now that I am in the heart of Skid Row, not by the street names but by the strong odors that linger in the air like a toxic invisible cloud that never moves but grabs and poisons everyone.

I turn down San Julian. My street. the worse street on Skid Row. I turn right, north and head home. I do not have my bicycle so I am forced to see and experience every detail of human self mutilation and destruction that exists. Crack pipes, heroin needles are sold in the open. People advertise that they will wrap the rubber hose perfectly so somebody can find the vein quickly. The fee, the backs, or seconds--the remains of what their client does not shoot into their arms. Of course they share the needles. Of course it is like taking a bath in a tub filled with HIV blood but they do not care.

The western side of San Julian is unlike any other time that I have seen it.

Someone mentioned to me recently the concept of HOPE. I think of the hope that US soldiers saw and felt in the eyes of Jews that were liberated from the prison camps. They were emaciated, the bodies had no nourishment and they were down to, not skin and bones, but bones and skin--if you grab the difference.

Many news reels show the fence line of prisoners standing there wide eyed as their liberators drove past in jeeps and trucks. Some of them, if they could, showed in their eyes, the hope that God had just sent to them.

Imagine what I felt when I walked down San Julian. The stench was strong. A man was urinating in the middle of the street. A white woman, with 4 months of grime on her bear feet was standing in the urine as she scratched her bear breasts, pleading for a hit of crack. On both sides of the street, it was like a shark frenzy when the smell or site of blood was present, only this time it was the smell and sight of cocaine and heroin.

Those humans who had already been chewed up by the more aggressive sharks that were near them sat like ghosts on the ground. They only thing you could see was the eyes with that far off gaze in them. In Vietnam it was called the thousand mile stare.

They sit there, their souls frozen with death, rigamortus has set in too such a degree that their bodies only move to "crack". They see nothing else. They feel nothing else. they know nothing else. I wondered if they understood english or if they only understood sign language, and then, only the language that signaled another hit was on the pipe.

There were no liberators for them. They would not let any come liberate them like the soldiers did at Auschwitz and others. They were doomed to death at the legendary Camp San Julian.

I made it home. Dam. And I wanted to FEEL. I must have been crazy. And that was earlier in the week. Believe me, that was a tame, civilized show. Tonight, is the first of the month. The eagle flies HIGH on the first of every month. Cocaine street party. Shooters Gallery Gala. Life on the Nickel for some tonight,will lead to death in a wooden case for some, tonight.

Future subjects:Return to the Game of Chess
Sonny Rollins

1 comment:

carolinarnj said...

Incredible story with awesome detail. Totally captivating.