The farther one gets from L.A.’s downtown district, the smaller and more unkempt the buildings and surrounding streets become. It is as though the designers of the city just got too lazy to build any buildings taller than three stories. It’s safe to say that I was not the only one who was having a minor nervous breakdown on the day my team visited Skid Row. In fact, everyone besides the supervisors were freaking out a bit.
I was on a trip to South Central Los Angeles with my youth group to go and work with the Sierra Service Project. The Sierra Service Project looks for those in certain areas who need repairs done on their homes or businesses, and then sends multiple church groups at a time for a week to work on these sites. In order to work most efficiently, we are divided into teams of no more than eight and sent to our own specific sites every day.
There we were, each of us fully equipped with five water bottles to give out with notes saying things like “You Are Independent” or “You Are Beautiful” taped to them, ready for whatever happened to come our way. The notes were a way for us to reach out to the Skid Row residents through meaningful words.
As we got out of our cars and walked around the corner, we got our first glimpse of the area itself. I was surprised. What I first noticed was that, aside from the urban, somewhat fishlike smell lingering in the air, the place looked . . . clean. No huge mounds of trash littering the streets. No filth stuck to sides of the gutter. Just your average everyday city street. The only thing that really resided on the sidewalks were the tents and/or sleeping bags of Skid Row’s residents. One in particular belonged to a man who simply preferred to be called “J.” We decided to start our day with him, so we walked over and asked if we could sit down for a while. We handed him a water bottle and each took a seat around him on the sidewalk.
J’s home was just a sleeping bag with all of his belongings scattered around him, and the air smelled strongly of urine. It soon became clear that this man had a great sense of humor. He also mentioned that he was a Vietnam War veteran. While he was telling his story, we asked him how he ended up on Skid Row. He said that it didn’t matter how he got there, but he was there now and even though it didn’t look like much, he was happy. He then told us that he was a poet.
A poet! I don’t know why I was so shocked, but I guess with all the stereotypes, I never thought I would run into a poet here. He handed a few of us a printed packet of his work that he’d made at the local library. I took one, scanned my eyes over the cover, and delicately opened it to the first page.
Have you ever had your breath taken away? Been so awestruck that you want to run through the streets singing at the top of your lungs so all the world can hear? Just like Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain? I can honestly say that doesn’t even come close to how I was feeling. His poems, all about his memories from the war, were the most beautiful things I had ever read. His words just kept me completely enthralled. I read them over and over, taking in each word, watching as each one formed together with the rest into a beautifully intense piece of art. The more I read, the more I fell in love with his writing. I was so transfixed that I barely noticed he was still talking.
Soon we had to go so we could hand out the rest of our water bottles. As we stood, one of our supervisors asked J if we could take his picture. J began to laugh and said, “How do I know that that picture ain’t gonna end up in some government office with a bunch of guys lookin’ for me so they can kill me?” We all laughed, and I thanked him for letting me read his beautiful poetry.
I looked down at the water bottle we’d given him and noticed there was no note. Carefully looking through the ones I held in my arms, I found the note I was looking for. The one in particular was inscribed with my favorite word that I keep in my head when I get stuck writing: “Inspire.” I removed the note from the bottle in my arms and attached it to his. Then we said our goodbyes and continued on our way.
I’ve thought a lot about J since we met him. I’m not sure if the word I gave him will ever mean as much to him as it does to me, but I’d like to think that sometimes he looks at that small piece of paper and smiles. My life and perspective were changed that day. I learned that sometimes the most brilliant people you will ever meet can be found in the most unlikely of places. Even those who don’t have anything at all can be happy. You just have to sit down and ask them their stories. You just might be surprised at what you find, and sometimes, you just might get inspired.
Sofie Gehrs is a senior at Montgomery High School, currently enrolled in the Green Academy Pathway.