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
“I won a couple of volunteer awards, and I feel pretty good about that,” she says, smiling widely. “It makes me feel like I’m needed in some way. When I first came here nobody wanted me to help. All young people and all that. It was terrible. It caused me to drink. Having nothing to do in the morning caused me to go to the booze place in the morning and get a bottle and drink. When I got on to this making the coffee, it was about 10 years ago and it was the perfect answer. I like the feeling of being needed by someone.”
Luck is also in season a few blocks away in the form of a 61-year-old joy bomb called Spanky, who lives over at the Midnight Mission. The Midnight Mission is one of the oldest continuously operating human-services organizations in the Los Angeles region. Founded by Tom “Father of the Poor” Liddecoat in 1914, it currently houses more than 238 people in its live-in program and shelters about 80 in a temporary emergency capacity nightly. The Mission serves roughly 2,700 meals daily.
Let’s hope you won’t find yourself at its door in your 70s looking for a place to sleep and something to eat, or mental health services for yourself or your family for that matter. If you do, I’m sure they’ll be waiting for you, as will the people at the Union Rescue Mission, St. Vincent’s Cardinal Manning Center for the Homeless, the L.A. Mission, the Volunteers of America, LAMP Community, the Downtown Women’s Center, the Salvation Army Harbor Light Mission, SRO Housing Corp. and Skid Row Housing Trust or any of the many other nonprofit service providers on Skid Row quietly offering practical compassion in a multitude of ways.
If you’re lucky, you’ll end up like Spanky. Spanky lived on the streets for 35 years. With one good eye, a gentle, melodic, smoky-velvet voice that sounds like a benevolent patriarch in a Disney classic, his magic makes you want to get as close as you can. Although I’ve never heard him play his tenor sax, I can tell he’s a genius. Born in New Orleans, he came to California when he was 7 or 8 years old and he’s been here since.
“I fell off a barbed-wire fence,” Spanky jokes, pulling up his sleeves to reveal a set of tracks that you could drive a freight train on. He served in Vietnam and had his spleen removed after bleeding internally from a mortar round. After that he started playing sax in the All Army Band. Presently he’s the happiest man on Skid Row.
Spanky is level four in the program at the squeaky clean, almost brand-new Midnight Mission, where he lives in a dorm on the second floor. There are five levels in the program. Coming in is level one. Staying 30 days gets you to level two, 90 days to three, and after 180 you’re at level four. When you complete a year, you’re at level five and theoretically ready to re-enter society, though some still aren’t. Spanky will be level five soon.
“I’ll be moving upstairs soon, to a new little apartment,” he coos. “My own little apartment. They are really nice. I’m happier than I’ve ever been. Not chasing drugs. Not worrying about getting up and having a wakeup. Not lyin' and cheatin’ and stealin’.
“My whole life has changed. Mission has been absolutely beautiful. All I had to do was get to a place like this and give myself a break. Took me 40 years.” He smiles at his own joke.
Spanky’s a handsome man. Naturally, I inquire about the ladies.
“I got a couple of girls, but no commitments. You know what I’m saying? Exactly the way I like it. I see a couple ladies every now and again when I choose.”
That’s right, player. You call the shots. I ask Spanky if he’s seen the 70-year-old dope-fiend lady who’s bent over at the waist.
“Hasn’t found her way out yet? That’s pathetic. When you hold that other side, you think there’s no way out. Can’t anybody convince you that you can clean up and have another life. But if something happens in your life and you get on this side, you see how stupid you were. How crazy you were. I ask myself what was I thinking all those years. Man, I feel so sorry for her just to hear that. She don’t even understand. You don’t even know nothin’ about the other side unless you go over there.
“Who knew it would get so good for me? Not me, that’s for sure. Other night I came in and it was raining like a son of a gun. I came in here and pulled my clothes off and got in bed. And tears started coming down my eyes. Cuz I remember so well when I was out there in that rain. Rain . . . I don’t care what it is. If I had to have me some dope, I had to go in the rain. I had to go in all kind weather. All seasons. Now I say, ‘God, thank you so much that I understand my blessings.’ I know what I’m saying when I say it. Man, there was a time that I didn’t even think about something like this.