Wednesday, May 21, 2008


For days, I have been thinking about different people and what I have learned from and experienced with them while I have lived on Skid Row.

I walked out of the building after taking notes from my conversation with Aaron. Aaron is my boss and he said I could share his story. I walked across the street to get some coffee in the mom and pop community story when I saw Sammy. I really did not want to talk to him but he spotted me from the distance.

"Maybe I could get a favor returned to me now" was his opening gambit, a Skid Row sales strategy that has been in practice forever. You present an image to the person that what you did was incredibly valuable to extract a favor from the person. Invariably that strategy is used when the person is up to no good-when the person is on a mission- when the person is on a search and consume mission--for drugs.

I met Sammy at the Transition House. He moved in there a couple of months after I did. He worked in the kitchen and he had a job at Farmer Johns. He would stop by the Guard Shack every day on his way home. I was in there every day when he came by, writing on long hand my observations on Skid Row.

Sammy was a man on a mission. He was saving money and was going into the music business. He started out at the Union Rescue Mission and for some reason tranferred to the Transition House. He wore jeans and a T shirt that appeared to be bursting at the seams as Sammy was a body builder. Whenever you talked to Sammy, no matter where you were in the Transition House complex, he would suddenly drop to the floor and do twenty pushups. All day long, you would see him going up and down, up and down.

He was in great shape and he had the skin tone and bone structure of a man who was from East Africa--perhaps Kenya, Ethiopia or Somalia. He spoke about health and always carried with him a large plastic bag of fruit.

A few weeks ago I saw him and he looked like a ghost. He was walking up and down 5th street looking for somebody. Anybody who has seen that behavior knows what it means. It is not that he was looking for somebody. It is not that he was looking for drugs that made him stand out. It was that he had to see someone that owed him some drugs, a fellow user, or someone that pledged to advance him something that was disconcerting. It was clear that he slid down the hill of life quickly.

Today, his face was gaunt. His hands were black, fifty shades darker than his carmel complexion and he is a shell of his former body building self. He no longer carries large bags of fruit. He hand grip tightly the little plastic bags of crack, holding the bags so tight that it seems like his life depended on what was in his hands because he was not going to let go of it for anything in the world.

"When are you going to stop doing this Sammy? Aren't you tired of this?" were the first two sentences out of my mouth.

"Next week. On Monday."

"That is what you told me last time".

"But this time I have no choice. If I do not go to a program I will go to prison."
" Sammy, a program does not mean you will stop. You know that. A program can not make you stop doing drugs. You have to want to stop. "

" I know. I know. You are right. "

He was taking a folding chair out of its case, one of those that you purchase at a sporting goods store and take to the park or tailgating parties at football games.
He automatically assumed that I knew what was going on. I did not even notice what
he was doing until he told me I was right.

"What is the favor that you need? You want me to buy this thing?", I inquired, knowing the answer before he asked, but I asked anyway saving him the embarrassment of having to start his "cold call". His could not look at me in the eye and he kept polishing the metal leg stands so he could avoid looking me in the eyes.
I wondered If I should buy the chair. It was the exact replica of one I purchased before I came to Skid Row. I remember my mother sitting in it watching television with me in my bedroom one night.

It was new. It was five dollars and I had only five dollars in my wallet. I did not want to give the money to him as I knew he was going to purchase some drugs with it.

On the other hand, I am guilty of making that assumption. I am guilty of drawing that conclusion before I communicate and receive that information. I am wrong for doing that. What a dilemna. No matter how I look at it, I know I am enabling him to purchase the drugs.

Someone walked up to us on the sidewalk while I was deciding what to do.

Sammy was talking to him. He was sincere in what he was saying. " I am so proud of this guy. I am not a hater. When he and I were in the shelter together, I was in the position he is in now. I was in the position to help him and now he is in the postion to help me. I am glad for him. I do not hate him for it."

"Hating" and "hater" are terms created in the inner city that describes people who are jealous of others that are making progress in their lives and who appear to be doing more or having more than the person who is doing the hating. The person doing the "hating" usually makes negative comments about the person who is progressing.
The "hater" will backstab the "progressor".

It could be construed that he was trying to butter me up but I know he was not.
In the end, I went inside the store and took out the five one dollar bills that I had in my wallet and handed them to him.

I remembered the man who brought fruit to me while I sat in that guard shack every day. It was this time last year when I was struggling with being alone and detached from my family and everything that I knew. His daily gifts to me, along with his conversation kept me going.

He was one of the many men whom I met that took the time and extended to me the generosity of their hearts. They gave me the will to continue to fight my loneliness and broken heart for another day. One day at a time. One minute at a time. One second at a time.

I remember when Sammy moved out of the Transition House. I felt another person was leaving and moving onward in the world and that I was being left behind. I experienced that sickening, lonely feeling each time someone left. Yes, how can I forget those feelings. How could I deny Sammy? I could not. I would not. He knew it when he saw me.

His opening sales approach, " maybe I can get a favor returned", was forgotten.
Sammy did do something that was invaluable and even vital for me. You know, as I sit here, in the room, in the dark, at 4 in the morning, I remember a war movie where a man kept an orange wrapped up for two weeks. He was in a prisoner of war camp. Nobody had any fruit. Other POWs offered him cigarettes.
The key cigarette trader offered him a blank check of cigarettes so he could have the orange. However, the soldier would not yield. He kept the orange and, finally, one day, he set the orange on a table and everyone circled around him. They watched wided eyed as he unwrapped the priceless piece of fruit from the newspaper that encased it and removed the paper from the table. He pealed it slowly and divided the orange into sections. Everyone's mouth was drooling, and they all believed that that was the closest they would get to that fruit.

The soldier picked up the first slice and handed it to the closest man next to him. He continued that process until each man had a slice. A couple of the men assumed the soldier was going to eat the orange by himself. It was his to do what he wanted.

What the soldier did was an act from the heart. He gave from his heart. He did not have much but he gave each man more than a slice of an orange. He gave them the gift of hope.

Sammy, like many others, gave me that gift of hope, the first time he gave me that orange on a hot day in May of last year. The Transition House was MY version of a POW camp. Sammy was just like that soldier in the movie. He gave me the orange and something a great deal more. He gave me hope. He gave me the will to search inside of myself and understand the beauty of what was taking place.

Sammy walked in the store and as I stood in line to get my coffee, Sammy went to an aisle and grabbed a couple of items to eat. He pulled out 2 dollars and paid for them. Most people on a search and consume mission would not spend two dollars to buy food if they were selling goods. The five extra dollars that they would receive would go towards what was needed to get the drugs.

I had no right to draw conclusions without asking. I remember posting a blog about that very same concept. A friend of mine assumed that what he heard was true regarding certain things without talking to me at all. I have not spoken to him since I came down here and most likely never will.

I will debate later if I enabled Sammy to use drugs. I just know that he needed me. That is what I KNOW. I know I could not deny him. He played a part in my being here right now. Please be careful out there Sammy. Please go to that program. Please complete it so you do not have to go to prison. Please stop using cocaine.

Good night Sammy. I love you.

1 comment:

philpalm said...

Many a night I was on a mission. I walked all the way from Western to MacArthur park to cash in my cans and bottles to get cash for crack and also to break out the thrown away pizza from Dominos to give to the hungry there in the middle of the night....

Yes there were a lot of crack users who were not solely out for themselves. Many a time I remember that the other folks would give me an extra piece of clothing to keep warm or loan me a lighter or other things.

People who aren't on crack would not understand what we wrote, but basically as humans we still retain a shred of humanity after all....