The Tom Wait's song In The Neighborhood no doubt was inspired by one of the many colorful places he has inhabited. He once called the infamous Tropicana Motel in Los Angeles home. So did writer Raymond Chandler. The much revered (and sometimes reviled) Chelsea Hotel in New York has had its share of famous writers take up residence there. Of course what gives these particular places their unique flavor is the rich cast of characters who live there. Writers can't help but be influenced by these colorful characters. They seep into their writing whether they like it or not.
I often think of my own neighborhood as one of those truly unique places. It's a place where the affluent, the poor, and the very poor mingle. There are also the homeless, the helpless, and the crazed all within a few blocks of one another. It is a lot of things but what it is not is one of those boring subdivisions where all the houses look alike ruled by a ruthless neighborhood association. Here if a person wants to paint their house pink (there is such a house) then they can damn well do it. There are group homes for the mentally challenged and those plagued by various addictions/afflictions. There are grand, stately homes in disrepair. There are people held in ill repute. It's a strange dichotomy.
On my morning commute to my son's school, I am sometimes greeted by a bow legged man on a bicycle spewing out all sorts of obscenities. It turns out his profanity laced tirades are aimed at anyone that crosses his path. I just know when he tells me to screw myself it's going to be a good day. I start humming the theme to Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. Before the bicycle, Tourette's syndrome man used to run through the area with garbage bags wrapped around his feet. Now he's moving up. You gotta love a guy with ambition. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there is" waving" man. I haven't seen him in a long time and hope he is ok. He would stand at various street corners and smile and wave to anyone who passed by for hours on end. He didn't give a political speech, he didn't run for office. He just wanted you to have a good day. Now that's a gift.
Then there are the homeless. There are several churches (one which trains missionaries), charities, and a Habitat for Humanity office nearby all geared to address the needs of such folk. Because of this concentration of helping hand organizations, it's no secret why the needy drift into the neighborhood. One such agency offers up a "poverty simulation" workshop for those inclined to "feel the pain" for a weekend. That's right; folks come from all parts of the country to this neighborhood to "learn" how to be poor. Isn't that special? How to best address the needs of the homeless can touch off a fierce debate. "Brad" (not his real name) has been perpetually homeless. A few years back, he was sleeping in an abandoned downtown warehouse which caught fire and had to be gutted. Of course rightly or wrongly Brad was blamed for the fire and the reputation of the homeless took another blow. As far as I know, Brad comes from a good family, went to the right schools and then…who knows what happened. So far he has resisted help from those who could make his plight easier. "Red" is another guy who the Census Bureau won't find. He has also drifted in and out of the neighborhood over the years. He rides a bike and can be found hanging out at a convenience store at night. He used to haunt the local Burger King until the management kicked him out. He would hole up there drinking coffee and reading a newspaper someone left behind or an old yellowed, frayed paperback novel. An old pair of reading glasses I'm sure he found on one of his scavenger hunts adorns his haggard face. All of his earthly possessions are bungee strapped to that bicycle. He's had a pet cat on a leash. I've seen people give him money for cat food. I've seen people give him food. Red never asks for handouts. I give him one anyway. It suddenly occurs to me that Red and Brad are homeless because they choose to be. To them a permanent shelter is like a cage. Accepting help from one of the established charities means that you have to adhere to rules and regulations, curfews perhaps, restrictions, having another person telling you what you can and cannot do. And then when they get you "back on your own two feet", you're free to pursue the rat race all over again. So much for the American Dream. Something tells me Red and Brad won't be pursuing the rat race anytime soon. And while I don't want to make light of their troubles, I must admit a part of me is a little envious of their freedom. If and when the apocalypse hits, they will survive it. They will ride it out.
Could you spare some change? Could you give me some money for gas? Could you help a brother out? Do you have…? Can you get? How about a favor? These are questions I hear every week. Recently, a guy offered to sell me for a pittance a bag of goods he received from a neighborhood church which disperses food to the needy once a week. His route would take him in the direction of the nearest liquor store. For man cannot live on bread alone. Sometimes he really does need a stiff drink. "Wanda" is a frequent visitor to this wonderful place we call home. She has gone from out and out panhandling to ingenious ruses to collect money. Her latest attempt involved asking me If I had various sized wrench sockets. Maybe she needed to work on her car (She doesn't have one). When I told her I didn't have the requested wrench sockets (my tool kit has dwindled down to a screwdriver, pliers, and some duct tape), she then asked me for money to go buy them. "Leon", who I see stumbling through the neighborhood at least once or twice a month, always has the same query for me: "Still here, huh?" he asks as he shakes his drunken head. "Yep, Leon. Still here", I reply.
The neighborhood is also full of quaint little businesses such as a grocery store which caters to the large Hispanic community. The fresh fruit and vegetables are delicious. The nopolitas and poblano peppers are outstanding. The neighborhood is also home to numerous used tire shops. Rivera was the first. The large mural on the side of his building pictures him juggling several tires. Not to be outdone, Chaco has opened up a shop on the next block with his own mural. There are also a couple of more tire shops within two blocks of each other. It's Rivera though that gets my business. He's amused by my "spanglish" and I'm amused by his amusement. The neighborhood laundromat contains no change machines, no laundry baskets, no air conditioning in the summer and no heat in the winter. There is a restroom but there is no door. It has been removed. If you lose your money in one of the machines, you must call a 1-800 number in order to get a refund. Have you ever received a check for 50 cents? Try taking that to the bank. There are a couple of bullet holes in the window. Why the glass did not shatter, I'll never know. So much for convenience. On your way back from washing clothes you might grab a paleta (a Mexican version of the popsicle, but so much better!) from the friendly neighborhood paleta man. Take a break from your troubles.
And what's a neighborhood without a red light district? Well, there's not much of one, but I've noticed prostitutes trickling in recently. You see when they're run out of one neighborhood, they move to the next one. Lucky us. To look upon their faces is to see the ravages that makeup can't hide and time can't erase. Juxtapose this scene with the scene of young mothers pushing baby strollers down the street fully alive with an optimism that's hard to fathom at times. Such is the neighborhood. I could give out my exact location, but people would just come and destroy paradise. Look what happened to Haight Ashbury. Look what happened to Woodstock, NY. The sightseers destroyed a good thing. Before you know it, those poverty simulators will be selling I SURVIVED POVERTY t-shirts at $50 a pop. The homeless will star in their own reality series. The pink house will be turned into a museum. That's enough to make a man retreat to his badland ranch.