By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
photo by Robert Hale
Poet Kamau Daaood said it all in his mellifluous bass that barely needed a microphone, but that he channeled into it anyway because the focal point helped — helped him marshal his considerable thoughts and feelings, helped the capacity crowd in the stuffy Degnan Boulevard storefront marshal their own right along with him. As Daaood delivered his paean to Leimert Park, which washed repeatedly over the room like a high tide, people strained forward, half rose out of their folding chairs to offer help, support, affirmation of the testimony — or just to offer. Such was the spirit of spontaneous giving engendered by the evening’s honoree, coffeehouse proprietor Richard Fulton, who sat anonymously in a middle row, thin and wide-eyed, looking as taken by Daaood’s pronouncements as everyone else.
"The thing about Richard, you know," said Daaood, the poem over but the microphone unmoved, "was that, man, he was the first guy out here — the first one— who put out the tables and chairs. Up until that point, we all believed that this was a neighborhood of crackheads and Uzis. We didn’t believe we could do that, sit out on the sidewalk and play chess and all that. Richard came and did a tremendous thing, made a tremendous statement with those tables and chairs." He gave us all, concluded Daaood, a very important and very public somewhere to be. In the protracted applause that followed, Fulton was the only one not putting his hands together; his wide eyes instead glistened with tears.
The scene of three weeks ago is not so remarkable, because it’s all been said before; it has been documented more than once in papers and magazines, ever since 1992, when Fulton opened his Fifth Street Dick’s Coffee Company on 43rd Place mere days before the civil unrest. He was baptized by fire, but it was a good baptism because he and other business owners joined together to beat back the flames, and when the smoke cleared, the Leimert Park community of merchants, artists, dreamers and assorted impresarios was a little tighter, a little more determined to make good on Degnan. The scene last month was remarkable because Fulton is dying rapidly of cancer, and the event was staged as a kind of living tribute to him (after first refusing conventional treatment, he is now undergoing surgery at the Veterans Administration hospital in West L.A.), something his friends would rather do now than later over a casket. This sounds morbid on first thought, celebratory on the second: If there are praise songs, Fulton wants to hear them in the flesh, just as he nightly heard the jazz artists and poets and comedians — but mostly the jazz artists — at his place, the modest respite of tables and chairs and warm smells and open arms (arms that often stayed open all night) that he collectively called Fifth Street Dick’s. It is entirely not clear at this point how, or if, the establishment will carry on without Fulton at the helm. "I can’t see how," said one Fifth Street loyalist dejectedly. "It was all his. There’s no place around like his, and there’s nobody like him."
Fifth Street Dick’s was one of the very first stories I did as a green reporter for City Times, the now-defunct section begun by the L.A. Times in the wake of the riots to provide more, and more balanced, coverage of the central city. My beat was Crenshaw, and the small independent I’d come from, Accent L.A., had already profiled Fulton for its pages. Fulton was more than happy to give me a City Times redux, though he was far more impressed with the grassroots Accent, a black newsmagazine run by a handful of people out of a mid-city apartment, than he was with the mighty Times. He heartily appreciated small beginnings, starting with his own: A native of Pittsburgh and a Vietnam vet, Fulton bottomed out in the mid-’70s when a chronic drinking problem landed him on the mean streets of L.A. He spent many of his homeless years on and around Skid Row’s Fifth Street — hence the business name — but always, even in the deepest corners of his misery, nurtured a dream of some day opening a jazz coffeehouse. Eventually he was picked up by an Alcoholics Anonymous recovery wagon and, he told me, "loved back into existence," a process he became determined to duplicate in some measure in Leimert Park. He did. Fifth Street Dick’s didn’t start the artistic revolution in Leimert but it furthered it immeasurably, gave it a forum for its voice and its music and its inclination to just sit and take itself in, to reflect out in the open and so grow as a real live entity, rather than a million fractured thoughts on how to make things better in that Oz called the black community. With his tables and chairs, chess games and jazz vigils, Fulton cast his faith wholly with that community, and in so doing loved Leimert out of mere existence and into life.
After the city and county proclamations and the kind words, Fulton and a friend made it to the mike, where she read the comments he had penned; due to the advancing cancer in his throat and face, he can no longer speak intelligibly. He stood leaning slightly forward, his brown face framed by graying dreadlocks, dressed in customary loose plaid shirt and pants, listening to the last encomium — his own — with particular wonder. It was brief, more prescriptive than sentimental. "In my life, I have had good times and bad," the friend read, "and they have all been necessary." This time there was standing applause, a chorus of furious clapping that swelled to the pitch and rhythm of a rainstorm loosing all it had gathered — ecstasy, appreciation, sorrow. Fulton wrapped his arms around the friend and buried his face into her shoulder, and it was our turn for tears.