Seven days after his court hearing for trespassing on railroad property, Naser Nasralla, a Palestinian immigrant from Jordan known as “Jimmy” by his friends, is once again feeding the stray, skinny cats that roam his neighborhood in Northridge, a tree-lined Los Angeles suburb in the San Fernando Valley made famous by a devastating 1994 earthquake.
“Cats have no reason to be hungry,” explains Jimmy, who speaks fluent English. “Cats love life like people do.”
Only a few hours ago, just as the hot sun was setting for the night, Jimmy sat inside his tent near a lonely stretch of railroad tracks and listened to KNX 1070 — a news station that’s always blaring from his small, transistor radio — for the latest developments about Michael Jackson’s death. They were both born in 1958.
“It was too sad,” he says about Jackson’s memorial service. “It almost made me cry.”
But now, in the cool darkness, his confusing legal troubles and the passing of a favorite pop star are behind him. Jimmy, a wiry and soft-spoken man who bicycles around Los Angeles to stay fit, happily tends to his cats.
Jimmy usually walks his red mountain bike, loaded with three or four small, plastic bags of cat food, along the main thoroughfares and back streets of Northridge — a cat-feeding chore that takes six or seven hours to complete. But on this night, he’s asked me to drive him around his suburban haunts.
“It’s much easier,” he says.
Jimmy sits in the passenger’s seat of my silver Chevy HHR still dressed in the light clothes he wore during the day: blue mesh gym shorts; gray running sneakers; gray “USA” socks that come up slightly over his ankles; and a tight-fitting, purple, L.A. Lakers jersey with an “8” on the back — Kobe Bryant’s number. He wears on top of his shaved head a baseball cap designed with the stars and stripes of the American flag. Around his neck, hangs a necklace he designed and never takes off: a gold-plated chain with a crucifix and green shamrock that are fused together with Krazy Glue.
“I mix the good luck with the religious,” Jimmy explains.
After one stop, sometime around 10 p.m., we return to the car and I decide to turn on the car stereo. Bruce Springsteen’s album Darkness on the Edge of Town just happens to be in the CD player. As the song “Badlands” takes off, Jimmy stares straight ahead, listening intently. He likes Springsteen.
“Lights out tonight/Trouble in the heartland/ Got a head-on collision/Smashin’ in my guts, man/ I’m caught in a crossfire/That I don’t understand ...”
Soon after the song ends, Jimmy appears shocked and disappointed.
“Why have I never heard that song before?” he asks defiantly. “I’ve never heard it on the radio. Why is that? I’ve heard ‘Pink Cadillac.’ That’s good. ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ That’s good, too. And what’s that song? ‘Dancing in the Dark.’ But I’ve never heard that song before. Why doesn’t the radio play it?”
He’s inquisitive on the little stuff in life, but for now much bigger questions loom about his own circumstances as a homeless and unemployed man in a complex legal fight with the city of Los Angeles and the Union Pacific Railroad company, who want to kick him out of his makeshift home.
“Badlands, you gotta live it every day/ Let the broken hearts stand/ As the price you’ve gotta pay ...”
As you drive north on Tampa Avenue, toward a giant mall called the Northridge Fashion Center and the sun-scorched hills of the Santa Susana mountain range, the strip malls and shopping centers change from mom-and-pop businesses, like the Tampa Market and J & J Liquor to shiny, corporate-chain stores such as Costco and Bed Bath & Beyond, located a half block south of Nordhoff Avenue. That avenue has been a longtime demarcation between the affluent and not-so-affluent in Northridge. Jimmy lives behind Bed Bath & Beyond in the slightly more blue-collar part of the community. His neighborhood, though, looks and feels as if it’s going through an upgrade.
On another 90-degree-plus day, KNX 1070 blares from his transistor. Jimmy says that he’s already fed the seagulls and pigeons — something he does twice a day. He turns off the news and offers me cookies and fruit juice, which, as a self-described vegetarian, are his daily staples. It’s also an economical diet — Jimmy receives a monthly welfare check of $220 and a monthly food-stamps stipend of $200. “That’s what I’m living on until I find a job,” he says.
Jimmy then grabs a green plastic chair so I can stay out of the sun and sit with him inside the tent that he bought at a local Target for $130. A gray tarp spreads over the tent, which reflects the harsh brunt of the Valley’s intense summertime sun and gives him some relief. The odd little piece of land he has selected is cement in every direction, and situated close to a railroad spur used to supply goods to local businesses. There are no trees nearby to provide him shade.