Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Skid Row stories

Eye of the beholder: John Hwang sees beauty in the most unlikely of places.

When John Hwang steps into the night and walks through Los Angeles' Skid Row neighborhood, he says a prayer. It's the same one every time. Guide me. Guide my steps. I'm open to anything. That warm August evening, he walked east toward the iconic Sixth Street Bridge. 

The city was breathtaking from his vantage point. As the sun set, the sky burned amber. Downtown LA's skyline seemed to glow. John feasted on the scene before him. But he also noticed he was all alone.

"God, what am I doing here?" he wondered. 

Downtown LA nightscape. (Photos: John Hwang)

He kept walking. For some reason, John felt like he was supposed to continue on the bridge, even though he had no idea why. He took more photos of the city when suddenly a figure appeared. Startled, John looked up and saw a scruffy, bearded man standing there. 

"What time is it?" the man asked. 

It was a curious question. Had they met at a busy intersection or a crowded Metro stop the man's inquiry would have made sense. But here? In the middle of the bridge at night with no other human being in sight?

John told the man the time. Close to 7 o'clock. Then he introduced himself. The man nodded in acknowledgement and said his name was Quinn.

"I don't want to sound weird or anything," Quinn started. "A few moments before you walked by, I felt like I had to get up. I was sleeping but something was telling me, 'Get up!' Then I saw you. I didn't want to scare you. That's why I asked you what time it was."

The circumstance was weird. But in that cool, unexplainable, cosmic kind of way. Call it kismet. Call it fate. John knew he was supposed to meet Quinn. The men exchanged easy conversation that night. As they enjoyed the view of LA from the bridge, John learned more about Quinn. How he lost his construction job after falling from a roof. How the accident left him with a shattered ankle. How he struggled daily with humiliation, hunger and despair.

Take a shower! You stink, man! the gang of kids would yell to Quinn, sometimes throwing rocks at him as they sped by on their skateboards. His tent got slashed. His things were stolen. But the worst was waking up to someone urinating on him. "Where you sleep, that's my shithole," the burly man scoffed.

So Quinn moved under the bridge. Where no one would bother him.

"I've been really down," Quinn confided. "Been thinking about jumping off this bridge. But then I saw you... I feel like God sent you here to give me hope."

As John put out his hand out to shake Quinn's, Quinn looked down in embarrassment at his hands, dirty and covered with cuts from rummaging through the trash for recyclables -- evidence of a day's work. So instead, John gave Quinn a hug. That night, the two became friends.

Quinn refuses to beg or panhandle. "It's a way to hold onto my dignity," he says.
So he collects recyclables to make a living. (Photos: John Hwang)

More to this life
Everything was going his way. Everything society says makes a man successful -- a great job, a beautiful girlfriend, a loving family and loyal friends. But John couldn't shake the feeling of boredom. He longed for something more.

"I had nothing to complain about, everything was good -- too good," he recalls. "But I thought, 'This is it? This is everything I wanted?'"

Depressed and wanting to dig deeper, John, a devout Christian, re-visited the Gospels. He devoured the Book of Matthew. 

"A lot of it is about caring for the poor, how much Jesus was reaching out to the outcasts, the most marginalized people of society," he says. "That really stuck out to me and I thought, 'That's what I want to do.'"

So he went to Skid Row. 

Containing one of the largest homeless populations in the US, Skid Row is home to thousands like Quinn. This 54-block section of downtown LA became Skid Row in the late 1800s. It was an ideal congregating spot for runaways, hobos, aimless rail riders and transient workers because it was the last stop on the train for the whole country. Today, experts estimate some 3,000 homeless people call Skid Row home.

A native Angeleno, John had always known about Skid Row. In the past, he had volunteered at homeless shelters and served meals at soup kitchens on Thanksgiving. 

"But of course it's way safer and more comfortable when you go with a group of people, when you drive in your car and drive back home," he says. "As opposed to now, when I go by myself."

Six months ago, John ventured to Skid Row for the first time solo. Every day after work (he's an Occupational Therapist at Garfield Medical Center in Monterey Park) he drove to the corner of 4th and Alameda, parked his car in the lot of a Korean supermarket and just walked. He had no plan, no agenda, no idea what would unfold and who, if anybody, he would meet. 

What am I doing here? John thought as he walked past empty lots, abandoned warehouse buildings and rows and rows of tents. The sickly sweet smell of urine punctuated the surrounding despair. Used needles. Feces. Trash. Like a foreigner in a foreign land, John looked sorely misplaced. People thought he was there to buy drugs. He refused to make eye contact with anyone. That first night was terrifying.  

But he went again the next night. And the night after that. John spent hours after work wandering Skid Row, saying prayers asking God to give him eyes to see. He became brave. Nerves gave way to a warrior-like spirit. He made eye contact. He started discerning the ones who wanted to connect.

"There are certain people, the way they look at you, there's something there," he says. "I smile. They smile. I ask, 'How are you?' and they open up."

And then he discovered stories. Fascinating, heartbreaking, wonderful stories. 

"I was like, 'Wow! I need to document this!' That's when I started taking my camera."
Images of the inner city -- poverty, drug use, homelessness -- portrayed by mainstream media are often cliche. Depicted through the lens of an outsider, these photos evoke at best, emotions of sympathy and at worst, a sense of schadenfreude. But John's work captures friendship, beauty, humanity.    

We see what he sees.

John writes eloquent captions to accompany his photos. He gives his reader a window into the many lives he encounters.

Like Walter, who has become one of his closest friends.

"When I take the time to listen, I find this gentle and beautiful man has many
intelligent and insightful things to say," John says. "Walter has become
one of my dearest friends on Skid Row." (Photos: John Hwang)

                "Walter is often the one to see me first. From far away he enthusiastically waves his 
                hands and calls my name. He hobbles over with his shopping cart and gives me a 
                hug. He calls his shopping cart his best friend because he spends all his waking 
                hours looking for recyclables, and the shopping cart also helps him keep his balance
                as he walks. He frequents all the local recycle centers, going 5-6 times a day. Sadly
                one recycling center he often goes to mistreats him. Even when he waits in line he is 
                the last to be helped. He is talked down to and treated like he is dumb or crazy. 
                When actually he is a bright, hard working and sensitive man. It hurts him deeply. 
                I can see it in his eyes. Walter grew up in rural Texas, during the time of segregation. 
                So it brings back some painful memories. But Walter refuses to feel sorry for himself. 
                He refuses to feel bitter. He knows his worth as a human being. And I am honored to 
                know him and call him my friend."

And TC.

"When TC and I walk the streets of Skid Row together, it seems like
 everyone knows him," John says. (Photo: John Hwang)

               "When TC was a small child he was crying on the street alone. His father was in 
               jail and his mother was in the hospital because his dad had beat her up so bad. 
               At that time, his sister got molested by a neighbor. He was 10 years old and the 
               man of the house. He felt powerless. Until some older guys offered to protect him 
               and his sister by beating up this neighbor. It turns out these guys belonged to the 
               Bloods, one of the most notorious street gangs of Los Angeles. They became his 
               new family. He lived a life of violence, robbery, hustling drugs and weapons. 
               Often in and out of jail, he quickly rose to become one of the highest ranking 
               members of the gang. What turned his life around was when he was shot in the 
               head by a rival gang, he had a near-death experience that led him to place his faith 
               in God. Now TC lives his life to improve the world around him." 

And Ronnie, aka Pepper.

Ronnie, who goes by the name of "Pepper," lives along the LA River. (Photos: John Hwang)

               "Pepper has a tattoo of 'Lisa' on his arm, to honor the one person who gave him 
               true love, his mother. He is HIV positive and knows that his days are numbered. 
               He told me that what keeps him going is that he wants to make people smile and 
               spread love as much as he can. He has a beautiful attitude about life despite his 
               father being a very violent and hateful man. His dad was a member of the Ku Klux 
               Klan and beat him and his mother often. There was a time when Pepper also lived 
               a life of violence and addiction. Despite losing much of his material possessions 
               and knowing that he is dying, Pepper has gained something far greater. 
               The capacity to love."

An army of light
It was especially dark that November evening. Someone had come earlier -- nobody knew exactly when -- to strip the street lamps of its copper wires. John was keeping company with a group of homeless men playing chess when suddenly a car pulled up. The driver got out and John was struck with how much the man looked like he could be the frontman of a British boy band. The kind stranger invited the group to a hot meal they were serving a few blocks away. 

When they arrived, John and his friends smelled the aromas of marinated fish, rice, fruits and cookies. As they ate, John learned more about Tyler Madsen, owner and designer of a socially-conscious clothing company called Love Nail Tree, located in the heart of Skid Row. 

That conversation sparked a small fire. John and Tyler shared about their hopes for the inner-city and talked about collaborating on future projects to help the homeless.  

 When Love Nail Tree owner Tyler Madsen and his staff close up shop for the night,
they are often busy feeding homeless residents at night. (Photo: John Hwang)

When John pounds Skid Row pavement night after night, it produces countless encounters with an army of men and women shining light throughout the dark corners of Skid Row. 

In the 90s, Stephen "Cue" Jn-Marie was part of the hip hop group College Boyz.
Part rapper part preacher, he leads a church service every Friday night on a
Skid Row street corner once notorious for drug dealers. (Photo: John Hwang)

               "Today I had lunch with Cue Jn-Marie. Absolutely amazing guy! He has spent 
               the past seven years loving the people of Skid Row; providing for their physical 
               needs, being their advocate at city council meetings, connecting them to 
               community resources and giving out hugs. Every Friday night he has a church 
               service he calls 'a church without walls.' Cue himself used to be a drug 
               dealer. He was also an up-and-coming name in the hip hop scene back in the 
               90s, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Tupac Shakur. After living the fast life 
               of fame, violence and drug abuse, he gave his life over to God. Now he provides 
               much-needed hope and love to the homeless and marginalized." 

Spread the love, lay it on thick
John keeps a virtual scrapbook of his Skid Row photos and stories on Facebook. His work has grown a loyal following. Each post receives hundreds of Likes and countless comments and positive feedback. "You really need to write a book!" "Your kindness is contagious!" "You always move me man, and I'm not that moveable...".

It makes people want to do something.

When John recently shared with Walter personal messages from Facebook readers, Walter was floored. "'People see in me things that I don't see in myself...' that's what Walter told me last night. He was referring to all the beautiful and encouraging emails he was receiving from all of you, my dear friends,'" John writes in a Facebook post. "He was excitedly telling everyone he knows on Skid Row, 'I am on Facebook and people are emailing me from all over the world!'"

One of John's friends, Giao Nguyen of San Jose, Calif., was so moved by Walter's story on Facebook that she sent him a brand new Coleman camping tent.

"When I gave it to [Walter] last night, he was in tears," John writes. "Giao, you are AMAZING!"

Rebecca Martin of Los Angeles donated her prized collection of National Geographic magazines to Richard:

A car accident left Richard disabled. Reading sets his mind free. (Photo: John Hwang)

               "His eyes lit up when I handed him the National Geographic magazine. "It takes 
               me to places I've never gone," he told me. As he gently turned each page, his 
               eyes scanned over every article and photograph. I could see how much he savored 
               each page." 

John's work changes hearts, too.

He went up to the homeless man, grabbed him by the hand
and gave him three new cigarettes. (Photo: John Hwang)

               "My dad was never a charitable man. He once gave my mom a hard time for 
               donating money to World Vision. Recently, he was in downtown LA purchasing 
               merchandise for his store. He was outside having a cigarette. He has been trying 
               to quit for years. Halfway through the cigarette, he decides to throw it away on 
               the street. Immediately he sees a homeless man pick it up and try to smoke it. 
               Then my dad did something totally uncharacteristic. He went up to the homeless 
               man, grabbed him by the hand and gave him three new cigarettes. Later on, my 
               dad told my mom that normally he wouldn't pay attention to homeless people, 
               but after reading my stories on Facebook, he had compassion for them. He said 
               that the homeless man had a look of surprise and gratitude towards him. 
               And that left an impression on my dad."

A beginning, a middle and an end

He saw her sleeping on the sidewalk across the street from the Greyhound bus station. Her sweet face, wrinkled and worn, caught John's eye. He was drawn to this elderly Asian woman. She looked like she could have been a long lost relative.

He wanted to talk to her but he was already late to his friend's party. He made a mental note to come back. The next day John found her in the same spot. He asked if she wanted to have breakfast with him. They went to McDonald's.

John bought Cam an Egg McMuffin but no matter how much he insisted she refused to eat unless he did, too. He was full, but ordered pancakes to make her happy.     

There was food around Cam's mouth. John got a napkin and gently wiped her face.
Tears began to well up in her eyes. No words were needed then.
(Photos: John Hwang)  

"She had the most amazing eyes, not just the way they looked but what was behind them," John says. "Like she was so happy to see me. Like I was visiting an aunt I hadn't seen in a long time."

He tried to make conversation. But Cam mumbled words to herself silently, as if saying a prayer. Probably dementia, John thought. He asked if she had any form of identification. Cam pulled out her senior citizen ID card. He snapped a photo of it.

He posted Cam's portrait and ID card on Facebook. "Does anyone have any connection to the Vietnamese community up in the Bay Area?" he asked on his post.

The image went viral and that night a case manager from Northern California contacted John. Cam was reported missing in San Francisco, the case manager said. She had escaped from her assisted living facility and somehow managed to travel 380 miles to Los Angeles. 

Two days later, Cam was reunited with her family.

"That was the most memorable [encounter] because most of these stories have a 'to be continued' feel to them," John says. "But Cam's story had a beginning, a middle and an end. That left me with a feeling of amazement. It had a happy ending."

The greatest rush
John's friends always tell him to be careful when he heads to Skid Row by himself every night. Something could happen to you, they say. 

"I tell God, whatever happens, if I lose my life, if this is my last moment on earth, I'm OK with it," he says. "Because every time I go to [Skid Row] I get this rush -- like a high -- from when you truly care about somebody. You go to the darkest place and you try to be a light. You try to be a glimmer of hope and you get something so beautiful in return."

That nagging feeling of emptiness has disappeared.

He's at peace. 

"Maybe I'll do this in another part of the world," John says. "I want to go to the darkest, most hopeless, most rejected places. Because even the tiniest spark can be really bright."

"The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the
utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer
and richer experiences." --Eleanor Roosevelt