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“All my patients have my cell phone, so I’m always reachable,” Angela says. “We deal with Uptown Pharmacy, which delivers their medication to them. If they need medical supplies, we arrange for them to get that also. Basically we try to get them a better quality of life.”
Needless to say, Angela has seen some really grim things down here.
“I’ve had to call adult protective services. I’ve seen people lying in their own fecal matter for days. I’ve seen people with major skin breakdown, where the buttock bone is shown. And what’s called sepsis, where they have fever and are truly on their deathbed. They haven’t eaten. No one’s even come to the door for days. Sometimes we’re going up and the bodies are coming down. Bodies that have been in rooms for days and someone has noticed the decomposing stench. I’ve walked in rooms where patients were totally covered up and a limb was hanging out that was getting ready to fall off. Smelled like a death camp. It’s the smell of death and poverty and ignorance and all those horrible things. I’ve walked into rooms where roaches have fallen on my head. Rooms where people are fighting with knives. I seen people eating food off the floor and killing roaches to get to it.”
Angela’s work has helped shape a wide, compassionate perspective.
“The human condition down here,” she says, “you’re gonna see the best and the worst of people — people who are spiritual, people who are ignorant, people who are on drugs who are great people who happen to have problems. You’re gonna see educated people who have Ph.D.s and all kind of degrees, and because of some catastrophic event in their lives they found themselves here. What you see beyond that is a sense of community — people who feel like they belong here. It’s a community of wounded souls, and they all are here and they understand that they’re wounded and they see that in each other and they gravitate to each other. They try to help each other. They really have a family here.”
That’s literally the case with Norma, Dorothy and Sandy. There’s something eerily familiar about them and their acceptance of these grim digs. It’s a Midwestern sensibility with its rotting roots still planted in the Great Depression.
“He works,” Sandy says of her son, Beau. “They got him a job at the regional center for people like him. He’s a little slow. He’s working now. And he does pretty good, where he can get out in the world and make his own. Without me he’d be lost.”
“She just got out of the hospital,” Dorothy continues, looking at her sister, Norma. “After the cancer, she fell and broke her hip. And so she was back in, and they got her in some kind of cast. Before that she couldn’t even walk at all, but now she can.”
Angela is busy at work, trying to take Dorothy’s blood, but the octogenarian has been poked so much she has fewer working veins than William Burroughs’ corpse.
“You see a lot of people come and go,” says Sandy. “They been here and you see ’em going down, down, down. They take ’em out in an ambulance, and if you don’t see ’em for a while, you ask and they say they died.”
Sandy tells me that it’s not bad down here at all, but bad is a subjective term in the Baltimore. Norma tells me about Herbie.
“He lived in my room, the room that I got when I first got in. He picked up the colored woman in a bar,” she remembers, and Angela pays no notice. “Brought her home and she stabbed him. There was blood all over. He didn’t die here. He died in the hospital.”
Angela finishes up her paperwork with the Golden Girls and we’re back making the rounds of the expiring elderly in the SROs, missions and welfare hotels and on the streets of downtown Los Angeles.
The Skid Row streets are crawling with saints and healers like Angela. There’s more God down here than in all of Greater Los Angeles combined. People are drawn here for many reasons: commerce, art, privacy. Some are depraved predators, some are just hiding. Sometimes simple survival draws them here. Sometimes it’s for death or some other, less final physical transformation.
Skid Row was the obvious next step for Jeanette Rowe.
Jeanette is the program manager of the Emergency Response Team for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). She combs the streets in a van with her squad, seeking out those who need help getting shelter, medical attention, benefits, Social Security — the works. She’s been downtown for nine years. Before that she did the same thing in Santa Monica for six years, followed by three in Hollywood. The response teams deal with and provide direct assistance to homeless populations throughout the county. Jeanette’s work is the work of a saint with a nose plug, rubber gloves and the immune system of a Russian soldier. Needless to say, like Angela, she’s seen some shit.