Archive for the ‘The Road to Skid Row’ Category

What is the road to Skid Row paved with? I’ve ruminated on this question since I decided to steal the title of Orwell’s book and change it for my own story. In asking this question several others sprang up:

What brings a person to the point of homelessness? What brings a nation to the point of accepting it? What forces send a man or woman onto the streets? Are they purely economic, social, and cultural? Or are they simply the arbitrary forces of suffering? The forces which drove Lear mad and impelled Buddha to sit under a tree?

A better question might be: what is the road to Skid Row? I see it as a personal and a societal journey; it’s a road individuals take from poverty to destitution, but it’s also a road we all take. The road to Skid Row is the economic, social and cultural force which sends vulnerable people onto the streets. From a socio-economic point of view, it is lack of affordable housing and healthcare, crippling debts, low wages and lack of (meaningful) employment. From a cultural point of view, it is intimately tied to race and economic background. From a personal point of view, it is frustration, mental illness and despair.

I will attempt to answer my original question with another question: Is the road to Skid Row paved with the fallout of the American Dream? If the American Dream is a dream of improvements for all, then yes. A place like Skid Row is incompatible with the idea of upward mobility. You can’t jerk off to success like Horatio Alger did when you sleep on the streets.

The American Dream is dead, that much is beyond doubt. The dream of social mobility – the idea that you can start poor and improve your lot – died sometime in the early 1970s when planners began what Noam Chomsky calls the “financialization of the economy” , leading to greater and greater inequality. In the absence of the American Dream we have the road to Skid Row.

Roads are man-made things. They aren’t valleys or cliffs; they are not created gradually over millions of years. The road to Skid Row is no different. People who walk down it do so for various reasons, but the road itself is built and maintained by the powers that run this country. It’s like any other highway, except it only goes in one direction and the tolls literally bankrupt you. Once you exit there’s no getting back on, and the off-ramps always catch you off-guard.

The road to Skid Row is real: it carries people from poverty to destitution. But it is also an idea, the idea that the road is just the way it is. The road to Skid Row is an extreme example of roads we all walk down, roads which are built for us by political and economic power, illuminated by money and status, and paved with fears and hopes.

All roads are channels dug in our minds which trickle our thoughts and emotions in calculated directions. They are channels which were mapped out for us, but the map was hidden so we think the channels were made my nature, like a stream forming a river, when they were actually blasted out with dynamite.

I am one of the lucky ones: I only visited Skid Row, I didn’t end up there. As such I have certain responsibility. For me, that responsibility starts in the mind. If I understand how the road to Skid Row was built in the first place, I’ll have a better idea of how to destroy it.


“These are not the droids you are looking for!” Somebody shouted.

Twenty LAPD cops marched into Pershing Square and began taking down a pair of banners which were hanging from a wall. Dozens of activists swarmed up close to them and started chanting the Imperial March from Star Wars. For a moment the air was tense, like the whole situation could turn violent at any second.

The cops eventually backed off, leaving the banners on the ground. A vocal group of activists claimed victory and the assembly resumed its discussion. This was the first incursion I had seen but I was told it was a standard police tactic. Small displays of force intended to rile activists in the hope of provoking a clash.

I was in Pershing Square for the Occupy Los Angeles ‘Free Market’ – an experiment in gift economics, where people brought unwanted items and gave them away for free. Alongside the market, the General Assembly was engaged in a discussion on alternatives to capitalism. I sat and listened as people took the floor and spoke about everything from alternative education systems to how the existing corporate infrastructure could be re-purposed for the public good.

A common criticism of Occupy is that it knows what it stands against, but not what it stands for. Occupy loves to criticise capitalism, but when it comes to suggesting systematic alternatives it falls silent. Listening at the Assembly I noticed there was truth to this. Most people who took the floor did so to criticise the current system. About a third actually spoke on theme and raised suggestions about how society could organise itself in a more humane way. A minority spoke nonsense – an inevitable consequence of true freedom of speech.

Most of the people at the assembly were surprisingly normal. They were teachers, students, veteran activists and concerned senior citizens. They held a wide of range of views – some wanted reforms, others wanted revolution. What brought them together was disgust at America’s gross inequality, corruption of politics and the enormous power of corporations, especially banks.

The assembly ended a couple hours later with a game of ‘smash the piñata’. In a twist, the piñata was not the traditional donkey but rather a life-size ATM made from cardboard. Blindfolded activists swung a baseball bat in the air, trying to hit the ATM as it hung from a tree.

This was so different from the sombre rallies I’ve been to before, where protesters have dour faces and hold mass-produced placards. This was dynamic; the lack of hierarchy meant people could be creative and spontaneous. Individuals were left to organise themselves and they did, investing their projects with idiosyncratic flair and imagination. I was witnessing what the Argentinians call horizontalidad (sometimes translated as horizontalism) – a way of organising which spreads the power of decision equally among a whole group. Participants were autonomous but they were also a collective – any proclamation or decision made by Occupy must be approved of by each individual at an assembly. As such participants are genuinely empowered, as power lies in each of them.

Occupy had fallen off the media radar, but it was still growing. A community was forming; they were spreading their roots deep, getting ready for the long ride. Numbers hadn’t returned to the glorious initial weeks in September 2011, but in a quiet way it was more impressive. September 2011 had seen a huge outburst, an enormous overflowing of anger, hope and ideas, and what I was seeing now was the gradual distillation of that outburst, Occupy’s transition from a movement of theatre to a movement of action.

Only one thing troubled me. Some of the activists had been too provocative with the cops, as if they were looking for a fight. It is possible they were agent provocateurs. In the history of social movements, it is standard practise for government authorities to try to sabotage a group from within. The FBI’s COINTELPRO program is one recent example. Occupy had already been infiltrated on some level, to think otherwise would be naïve. The challenge for activists would be to embody the ideals of Occupy – solidarity and justice – without being too callow. To be, in the words of one well known subversive figure, “as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”

Why We Occupy

Posted: December 30, 2012 in The Road to Skid Row

The receptionist at the Downtown Women’s Center (DWC) suggested I take Fourth Street to Pershing Square. “It’s safer than Fifth”, she explained. I left my sister to start her volunteer induction meeting and walked north to Fourth Street. The receptionist was right – aside from a few sleeping bags here and there, it was empty.

The DWC helped 4,300 poor and homeless women in 2011, a 71% increase from the previous year. Unsurprisingly, most of these women were black. If there was any doubt as to whether California’s recession was hurting its vulnerable citizens most, this statistic alone is enough to dispel it.

Up ahead, a group of towering high rises dominated the sky. Wells Fargo, Citigroup, U.S. Bank – their illuminated logos could be seen for miles. It was hard for me to comprehend how the banks could have their offices less than a mile away from the biggest slum on the west coast. I walked to the south west corner of Pershing Square and saw a group of people standing around, talking and smoking. As I got closer I saw what an odd assortment they were: a homeless guy with a shopping cart, a Goth-Pirate with a bright red bandanna, and a bunch of others, from Che Guevara lookalikes to neo-hippies.

For a moment I was dispirited. Trust California to turn the most radical movement for social change of our time into a stoner fest. I considered leaving – I could hang out in a café until my sister was finished with her induction at the DWC. Then I caught myself. What was I doing? I hadn’t even met these people and I had already pigeonholed them. I bit my lip and introduced myself.

“A new person! Welcome to Occupy LA!” A young woman enthused, shaking my hand.  She explained the assembly would start any minute now. I took a seat in the amphitheatre and waited. As more people showed up I realised how wrong my initial impression was. The demographic was so varied now – in age, gender, race and appearance –  it was impossible to write them off as any one group.

The assembly started with news updates. A young woman called Mary talked about Occupy LA’s efforts to stop people losing their homes. Occupy Fights Foreclosures had been working with the Rodriguez family to stop West Ridge Rentals from selling their house at a foreclosure auction. The Rodriguez story sounded like something Harriet Beecher Stowe might have written. Dilma Rodriguez took out a loan to retrofit her house for her daughter who has cerebral palsy. When she fell behind on payments Bank of America initially responded by lowering her monthly installments. Then they sold the property to a “house flipper” called West Ridge Rentals who forcefully evicted them, giving the family just five minutes to vacate the premises. Occupy Fights Foreclosures was investigating the legality of the eviction, as well as providing support for the Rodriguez family.

An older man sitting next to me lent over. “Just to warn you kid, they like newcomers to stand up and introduce themselves.” A few minutes later I was invited to take the floor. By now there were around 30 people there – a low turnout because of the big May Day march the previous week, somebody assured me. I gave them the usual spiel about being from the UK and then I remembered what I’d seen just an hour before.

“I visited Skid Row for the first time today and I was shocked by what I saw. I have never seen such destitution before.” A few people applauded.

“This is why we Occupy,” I said. “This is why the movement must carry on. We can’t let people live like this anymore. Occupy must succeed, it must reverse this imbalance.”

I stopped myself there. I wanted to say something profound but everything I said came from my gut, and my gut thinks in clichés. A middle-aged black man with a Jamaican accent welcomed me with a smile and a strong handshake.

I understood then why Occupy had seen a huge surge of interest in its early days. It was because people had the chance to talk about their fears and their hopes. All those people who felt like they were alone, like they were the only ones who were frustrated by government inaction to injustice and poverty. Suddenly they weren’t alone, there were thousands of others and everyone was willing to listen.

After a while the assembly broke up into discussion groups. By then about 50 people were there, maybe more. My sister’s induction evening at the DWC was about to finish, so I made my way back to Skid Row. Everything looked different – the skyscrapers, the illuminated logos. It all looked temporal, like some bad dream the world was about to wake up from.

Skid Row, Los Angeles

Posted: December 29, 2012 in The Road to Skid Row

Downtown Los Angeles has a rundown feel to it I like. Art Deco buildings line the streets for miles, some with faded pre-Depression advertisements painted like murals on their walls. We were walking around the charismatic part of Downtown, a neighbourhood straight out of The Great Gatsby which sits east of the characterless skyscrapers of California Plaza and west of the slums of Skid Row.

Kate was attending a volunteer induction evening at the Downtown Women’s Center, a homeless charity based in the heart of Skid Row. I didn’t like the idea of my sister going there alone, so I decided to walk with her before heading over to Pershing Square for Occupy LA’s weekly assembly.

We took a right on Spring Street and headed east down Fifth Street. Downtown LA was neglected for years before its recent gentrification. Unlike Hollywood, which can afford face lift after face lift, Downtown shows its age like an old smoker. Rumour was that Downtown was gearing up for a new Botox session, this time in Skid Row. Nip and tuck takes on a whole new meaning when you’re covering up poverty.

We crossed over Main Street and passed the Skid Row Housing Trust. We were close. I could feel the atmosphere change; fewer cars were on the road and pedestrians looked more dishevelled. We crossed Los Angeles Street, walked a hundred feet or so and the neighbourhood changed drastically. Shop fronts were boarded up and litter was spread all over the sidewalk.

Up ahead, a young Hispanic man wearing jeans and a t-shirt sobbed loudly while leaning against a wall. He jerked up and with his right arm holding his head, zig-zagged down the sidewalk. His sobbing gave way to bursts of angry shouting – I couldn’t make out what he was saying, or if he was even shouting words. He stumbled towards the road, teetering on the edge of the sidewalk and then hurtled backwards towards the wall, slamming his body against the brick. He was moaning uncontrollably now, his whole body kneeling against the wall.

I was so distracted by him that I hadn’t noticed all the people lying on the sidewalk. Dozens of people lay in sleeping bags, many oblivious to the world around them. I felt like I was entering a refugee camp, like they were casualties from some horrible war, but they were just going about their daily lives on the streets. We crossed to the north side of the street to avoid the young man who was zig-zagging again, his sobs giving way to angry shouts and animal-like moaning.

We crossed Wall Street and saw a Mission Center on the left. 15ft high railings formed a border between the sidewalk and a big playground-like space in front of the Mission. Near to a hundred men were standing there; I guessed they were waiting to be admitted for the night. The scene looked like a picture of a breadline from the 1930s, except instead of wearing caps and suits they wore tracksuits and hoodies.

We carried on down Fifth – we were close now. I fixed my eyes on the stop lights; I couldn’t look anymore. For the first time since I arrived in LA I was afraid. I had waltzed into Skid Row with the ignorant curiousity of a tourist. I knew this place was destitute but I didn’t know what destitution looked like. Now I knew. After seeing dozens of human beings lying around like discarded trash, a courtyard full of men loitering like extras on a film set, I had an idea of what real despair was.

On San Pedro we saw the Women’s Centre. We rushed off the street, relieved to enter the safety of a dark, air-conditioned interior.

Adiós, El Sueño Grande

Posted: December 26, 2012 in The Road to Skid Row

“So this is your last day then?” Dean’s question was followed with his usual nervous laugh.

It was Friday and Dean was feeling seasick. Not from the rocking of the boat – the El Sueño Grande had been docked for months. No, Dean’s nausea came from the land: from his weekly session of chemotherapy. I didn’t learn about his cancer treatment until a couple weeks into the job. Now I was saying goodbye at a time when the boat work was getting tougher and his therapy was intensifying.

Dean looked at me from through his paint speckled glasses. He was surprisingly upset. I couldn’t imagine why – compared to the other workers on board I was useless. I didn’t know how to use half the tools and I was only good at simple tasks like sanding and painting.

“Well, keep in contact, okay? Let me know when you can make it back.” I said I would and went back to vacuuming all the sawdust below deck.

Dean insisted on cleaning below deck every morning. Some of the workers thought he was crazy. “It’s only going to get dirty again, Dean!” I thought he was crazy too at first, but then I figured out why he kept things clean. Every evening the bunk rooms were full of sawdust, so much so that even with a mask you could feel your lungs clogging up. If it was left like that for long it would become a respiratory booby trap.

Until you use a power sander in a small room with very little ventilation, you don’t realise how dangerous sawdust can be. I wore a mask each time I sanded, but I still developed a cough. Dean was constantly hacking, even though he covered his mask with a t-shirt wrapped around his head.

Breathing in sawdust can cause all kinds of respiratory problems and even cancer. You would have to be crazy not to wear a mask. It’s not a surprise that Jet chose to go without, then. I didn’t know if it was bravado or nihilism, but he sucked those dust particles into his lungs nine hours a day, six days a week. It could have been worse, I guess. At least he wasn’t committing California’s foremost faux pas: at least he didn’t smoke.

I’m going to miss this boat, I thought, as I looked around for the last time. After five weeks working on the El Sueño Grande I understood why they called hard work, ‘honest work’. There was something pure about manual labour which pushes you until your muscles are spent and your whole body feels worn.

More than the work, I was going to miss the guys: Antonio with his softly spoken profanities, Norris with his Groucho Marx cigar, Bobby with his seal impersonations and primer highs, and even Jet, with his crazy conspiracy theories and childish jokes about women’s private parts.

I was going to miss Dean, too. Dean was a good man; he paid us above minimum wage and treated us with respect. He was prone to spontaneous acts of generosity, like taking me out for dinner or buying everyone lunch. He did this several times while I was there, taking us all out for pizza and an extended lunch break.

I rode the tram north from Long Beach and wondered what would happen to them: Bobby, Norris, Jet and Antonio. Without health insurance, a single accident could bankrupt any one of them. One mistake could force them onto the streets. How much longer could they dodge fate, the way they took chances? What if work dried up? What if Dean couldn’t get the El Sueño Grande going?

I got off at Willowbrook/Rosa Parks Station and waited for the Green line to LAX. The Green line platform stands right in the middle of the freeway; a deafening torrent of cars passes by every few seconds. It’s always a long wait for this connection, so I sat on a bench and gazed north to Hollywood.

As I thought about my friends on the boat I felt indignation growing inside me. They were hardworking guys, poor schmucks who did six-day weeks and could barely pay the rent. The whole thing made me feel sick. I was tired of such blatant exploitation – not by Dean, he barely broke even. No, the injustice was caused by some larger, mysterious power.

I was fed up of buying into dreams that everyone has a chance when they don’t. I had had enough of walking past sleeping bums and pretending they were palm trees. I didn’t want to pretend anymore.

With one week left in Los Angeles I wanted to do so something, anything to help stop this machine and all the suffering it caused. I had to find other people. I had to join Occupy.

“Bob, we need to speak with you about something.”

Bob picked up the serious tone in my voice and cast me a worried look. He knew something was up.

“Somebody has… poured chicken broth on my bed. There is a big brown wet patch, it stinks of… well, it stinks of chicken.”

Bob studied my sister and me for a second.

“I know what’s going on… I know who did this,” he sighed. “Maria is unhappy, I don’t know why, but she’s not happy and it looks like she lost her temper.”

“Okay, but what’s going to happen to us? I mean, if she does something like this, what is she going to do next? We don’t even have locks on our door, Bob, anybody could come in,” Kate protested.

“I’ll tell you what we do,” Bob rushed, like he’d just had hit eureka. “We pretend like this never happened. You know what a Japanese person does when they’re pissed off with their neighbour? They slash their tires in the middle of the night, and then the next morning they help their neighbour put on a fresh set of tires. How do I know this? I’ve been into this stuff since the ‘70s. So if we…”

“Bob, that’s crazy. We can’t just ignore this,” I insisted.

“That’s exactly what we do, Tom. I mean, everyone makes mistakes when they get angry. And you know, since you two moved in I’ve had endless troubles. My coffee machine breaks and then my internet stops working – I think you’ll have to hook up to your own internet soon.”

“We’re leaving Bob,” I said. Kate and I agreed beforehand that depending on how Bob dealt with our complaint, we would go. I didn’t know how he would take the news though; he was so unpredictable he could have easily started a tirade of ranting. I was surprised when he suddenly looked relieved.

“When are you going?” He asked.

“Tomorrow, Kate has a friend in Santa Monica who has a spare room.”

“Ah, I’m sad to see you guys go. And I’m really going to miss you,” Bob gushed while entrapping my sister in a bear hug.

Bob moved us to Santa Monica in his car the next day. He took the scenic route, stopping by an apartment he used to rent in Venice Beach and his old high school in Santa Monica. Talking about his childhood by the bay, he became tender and sweet. Over the course of the journey his crazy mask fell off and I saw him for what he was: obese and unkempt, a lonely man who had just lost his wife and was slowly losing his mind.

Bob once talked about how at a low point in his life he had been $200 away from pushing a shopping cart for a living. Assuming it was true, he was lucky to have all he had – a house, a car and a pension. But even then he couldn’t escape the forces which, as Raymond Carver wrote, “could cripple or bring down a man.” Loss, loneliness and age.

After settling into the new digs I got an email from a friend in England. He was getting married in two weeks – the whole thing was last-minute, but would I fly back to be MC?

“That man is a sleaze!” Kate said angrily. The situation at the house had deteriorated like a trail of thought from Bob’s mind – it went from promising to strange to nonsensical.

Kate and I had just finished speaking to Keiko, Bob’s personal assistant who visited once a week to work on his accounts. Keiko had been renting one of Bob’s outhouses – similar to the one we lived in – as an office for a business she and her friend were starting.

When they signed the contract Bob agreed to improve the look of the property, starting by cleaning up the dog shit in the yard. The three dogs, by the way, belonged to the family who rented the house. Keiko’s gripe was that, 3-months into their contract, this never happened. The yard was still full of dog shit and, on top of that, the dogs barked like crazy every time she and her partner entered the yard. She wrote Bob an email about it and he flipped. He cancelled their contract, told them to get out and refused to return their deposit.

We knew Bob was unhinged, but to terminate a rental agreement because they complained about dog shit? It didn’t make sense. Then Keiko started spilling the beans. According to Keiko, Bob rented half his house to a family from El Salvador: Maria, her husband (who Bob hated) and their two sons.

Maria had worked as a carer for Bob’s wife in the last 7 or so years of her illness. She and her family moved into Bob’s house about the time she started and Bob had moved into an outhouse in the yard. (We later learned the outhouses were built illegally, which explained their lack of insulation and uneven flooring – the interiors looked like a Gaudi imitation gone wrong.)

Keiko’s theory was that since Bob’s wife died a year ago, Maria had become a kind of substitute wife. She cooked meals a few times a week and even did his laundry, Bob gave her a great deal on the rent – apparently she and her family paid just $400 a month, but because she cooked meals he reduced it to just $200. That was $300 less than what Kate and I paid for one room.

Maria had a cosy set up. Then we all started renting rooms – Keiko, me and Kate. Suddenly the kitchen was cramped and people started complaining about the dogs. Fed up and afraid it would go on forever, Maria deliberately aggravated the situation. She stopped picking up dog shit and she poisoned Bob against Keiko and her friend, so that by the time Bob read Keiko’s email complaining about the yard he was ready to evict them both.

Keiko’s story painted Maria as the wicked witch of El Salvador, but maybe it was true. Keiko had been working for Bob for over ten years, after all. Perhaps it explained why our food was disappearing from the kitchen and why Bob was acting strange with us. That night Kate and I slept in a spare outhouse because Bob’s mother was visiting from Ventura. We moved our futons in a few hours earlier so when bedtime came around I could crash out without thinking.

I was about to fall asleep when I felt something weird. Why are my legs wet? I threw off my duvet and saw a huge, brown wet patch on my bed sheets. Somebody’s urinated on my bed! I leaned in and sniffed around. Smells like… chicken broth? Who the hell would pour chicken broth on my futon?

Twenty Five: Mucho loco

Posted: December 14, 2012 in The Road to Skid Row

“Motherfuckers,” Antonio muttered to me under his breath. “All they are doing is talking, motherfuckers. Mucho loco, all of them mucho loco.”

Antonio was a 60-year old Mexican man who hated the other workers on board almost as much as they hated him. Gruff looking with permanent stubble and a bushy moustache, he was surprisingly soft spoken, even when cursing. According to Dean and Jack – the skipper of the El Sueño Grande – he was the fastest, most skilled worker on board. According to Bobby, Norris and Jet, he was a phony.

“Have you seen the paint job Sanchez did on the top deck?” Jet asked me one day. “It’s fucking shit, man. You can see all the brushstrokes; the guy has no fucking clue how to paint. Only reason he’s working here is because he’s Jack’s friend.”

I didn’t know enough about painting boats to know whether Antonio really had done a shit job, or whether Jet was just looking for stuff to bitch about. The longer I worked on the boat the more tension built up between Antonio and the others. One time when Norris confronted Antonio about his ‘sloppy work’ – he looked edgy, like he wanted trouble. I thought it might turn physical, but it never went further than tough words.

Both camps treated me like I was on ‘their side’. I didn’t want to play Switzerland, but there wasn’t much choice. I was an outsider in this world. It’s hard to defend or attack someone on the quality of their work when you have no idea what a good job is meant to look like in the first place. Jet’s racism was hard to swallow though – when he started with the ‘Sanchez’ talk I told him straight that his name was Antonio. He didn’t pay much attention, and I tried to stay out of it. All I really cared about was getting paid so I could afford the rent – workplace bitch fits were just an annoyance I had to endure.

“Leche, tonight drink leche okay? After paint, drink leche,” Antonio advised me one day after work – apparently milk dilutes inhaled paint and helps flush it out.

Antonio took a liking to me. He shared food with me a few times while he bitched about the others. When he found out I had never slept with a Mexican girl he urged me to visit Tijuana to have sex with a prostitute. A fatherly expression came over his face when he said it, like he was taking me under his wing. He implored me to shag hookers in the same way a Dad might implore his son to travel. See the world, find yourself, contract gonorrhoea from a brothel in a dodgy border town.

For some reason Antonio treated me like I knew everything that was going on. He had worked on the boat for months and had known Dean for almost 20 years, but he always asked me for advice. One day he showed up half an hour late. He came up to me with his time sheet and a pencil.

“Now is 10.30, right? But I go to hardware store before coming, so I start at 10am, okay? Tell Dean I start at 10am today, okay? You’ll tell him?” Maybe he thought I was Dean’s little spy, hired to watch him and the others fill out their timesheets.

Another day he asked me what time I finished work. Five o’clock, I told him. “Five o’clock okay, five o’clock is good.” At 5pm that day he found me working below deck. “Vamonos, it’s five, time for home.”

He gave me a lift to the tram station after work one evening. He put a CD in and Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” started – it wasn’t so much playing as blasting out of the car speakers. Antonio liked Cyndi loud. On the way he told me about his other job at the Catalina Express ferry company. All in, the guy worked a six day week and pretty long hours too.

As he pulled over near the station I offered to give him money for the ride, but he refused. I climbed out of his pickup and waved as he drove off, Cyndi Lauper blaring on the radio.

Primer Highs

Posted: December 10, 2012 in The Road to Skid Row

“My buddy had some mushrooms growing on his floor, right? And one day we ate it… and man. I was like, ‘where the hell am I, man?’ And you know what? The next month, he blew his fucking head off! Yeah. His brother came and found me in a bar and told me. Don’t worry, I can paint and talk!”

Bobby was in the early stages of a primer high. He had been breathing in epoxy-based primer for ten minutes; in fifteen minutes he would be shouting like a maniac. If Bobby excelled at only one thing it was talking. Bobby shared tall tales from his past every day – memories from school, dead friends, drunken near-misses with the law. He went on and on, rarely pausing for more than a minute. A day on the boat passed quickly when he was around. That was why I liked him.

Tall, oafish, with a big beer belly and huge hands – that was Bobby. His brother Johnny was the skipper of a neighbouring sport fishing boat. Bobby lost his driver’s licence from a DUI, so he stayed with Johnny most nights because he couldn’t get home. There were days when Bobby showed up with bleary red eyes and I wondered if he was drunk.

He took a liking to me and gave me a burger and fries once. Before I finished working on the boat he invited me on an overnight fishing trip to Catalina. I couldn’t make it, but we agreed to go out fishing when I got back from the UK. Deep down I knew I wouldn’t be back anytime soon, and I’ll probably never see him again. But all that happened later.

One day we were working above deck together. I was sanding planks of wood – all I did was sand – and Bobby was using a blowtorch to burn the anti-slip matting off the deck. Bobby had lent me his gloves not long after I started working on the boat so he was using the blowtorch barehanded. When I noticed this I insisted he take them back.

In-between blasts of the blowtorch I heard a radio ad for Kaiser Permanente and I asked Bobby if he had health insurance. I was curious what would happen to him if he had a accident with the torch – in a gig like this, you’re bound to slip up sooner or later. “No, I can’t afford health insurance,” Bobby said. “I can barely pay my rent.”

The most remarkable thing about Bobby, aside from his stature and garrulousness, was his complete lack of teeth. Bobby did not have a single tooth in his mouth and gummed everything he ate. Come to think of it, Norris was short on teeth too– half were missing and the rest were a dark tobacco brown.

Fifteen minutes later and the high was kicking in.

“Woooo! Woooo!” Bobby screamed below deck. “Ah hahaha! Woo-girls! Woo-girls! I love the woo-girls!”

Thankfully the skipper had me painting above deck, where ocean breezes carried the vapours away. We weren’t using your average household stuff here; this was marine grade primer, the paint equivalent of mescaline.  You can’t just slap this paint straight on a surface; you have to mix it with reducer first, giving the buzz to the high.






No Exit

Posted: December 6, 2012 in The Road to Skid Row

Norris kissed the flame of a blowtorch with the tip of his fat cigar. He puffed it a few times to get it burning, then turned his DeWalt power sander to a fresh wooden surface. Norris worked with style, you couldn’t deny that.

Dean – owner of the El Sueño Grande – had gone to the hardware store leaving us to our own devices. Our own devices included a radio, three power sanders, a blow torch and – in Norris’s case – a 6-inch cigar. Three weeks after my first day I was still working on the sport fishing boat, except now I was full time. I made the trip to Long Beach on my own – two hours one way by bus, tram and car (Dean picked me up and dropped me off at the station).

Work got harder once I showed interested and started coming by myself. Dean had me sanding the interior of an entire cabin, all the bunks and walls. That was after I hammered in about two hundred stray nails from the old carpet they had pinned up.

It was tough, gruelling physical work. I stretched myself each day, worked until I was covered in sawdust and my muscles couldn’t lift a pencil let alone a power sander. But I needed money to pay the rent. Plus it was cheaper than the gym, and I felt good for the exercise.

Norris understood the gig. First day I met him he said, “It’s a shit job, but look at my office.” And what an office it was – pale blue California sky, water lapping against the hull, the great expansive port with all its cranes and container ships stretching out to the west. There was even a sea lion that swam around every afternoon. Sure beats a cardboard cubicle in that room from Sartre’s No Exit.

Norris was a comedian. He got through his working day by teasing us every opportunity he could. “What are you wearing a mask for?” Norris shouted to Bobby when they were painting primer below deck. “You’ll just take away from the high, dog!”

For all his jokes and bravado, Norris could be pretty tender. First time we worked together he told me how he blamed himself for his son – a 20-year old named Jet who also worked on the boat. He didn’t want Jet to end up working boats like him, he wanted him to get an education, make something of himself. But Jet messed around so much in school boat work is his only option now.

“I’m a fuck up, dude,” Norris sighed between bursts of the power sander.

Jet had his Dad’s tall nose, but not his brains. He was, unfortunately, a moron. He had crazy ideas he was quick to talk about, like a bizarre conspiracy theory about a new world order that would come about in December 2012. Everyone on earth would be rounded up into concentration camps by soldiers. Many would be killed. And the leader of this global totalitarian regime? Queen Elizabeth II of Britain… And I thought I didn’t like the Royal Family.

Not long after I met Jet he told me how he recently became a father because he thought he was good at “pulling out”. It turned out he wasn’t. Now his Ex won’t let him visit the kid and that hurt him badly, although he was careful not to show it. Jet was 20-years-old and he’d already messed up his life so bad he was now messing up someone else’s. When kids like Jet realise they can’t climb their way out of boredom and poverty, they try to screw their way out. But if you can’t chase the American dream then there’s something wrong with you. If you can’t climb up, you’re a fuck up. It’s like Josh Ritter sings: “All that love, all those mistakes / What else can a poor man make?”

Jet felt powerless, like he was trapped by the forces of economics and consequence. That’s the only explanation I can find for his reckless behaviour and his belief in conspiracy theories. Theories like Jet’s always emphasise how futile our choices are, how meaningless life is compared to the almighty power of some invisible authority. So Jet sought escape in sex and humour. He loved talking about Mexican women – they were so much better than American women. They weren’t bitchy or materialistic, and they didn’t care if you were poor; they were faithful, old fashioned and they cooked delicious food. Plus, Jet said, they had great panochas.

“What’s a panocha?” I asked.

Jet laughed like a school boy who just dropped a spider down a girl’s shirt.

“Pussy, dude! Me gusta panocha!”