A.J. Martin is taking a break. “I love it when it’s like this,” he says, cigarette in one hand, standing outside against the back door to the Ellis Hotel. It’s a breezy early summer afternoon in Gladys Park — a small patch of downtown greenery at the corner of Gladys and 6th streets — and the neighborhood has shown up in force. The chess club and the dominos club have each claimed one of the concrete game tables. Across the way, another group has gathered to play cards; out on the court a few guys languidly shoot baskets. The din of voices rises and falls.
Which is a minor miracle. For a minute there, it looked like Gladys Park was going to be silenced. Two years ago, when Governor Brown dissolved community redevelopment agencies to help address the state’s budget crisis, Gladys and neighboring San Julian Park — the only two such open spaces in in the 50-odd block area known as L.A.’s Skid Row, both managed with CRA funds — abruptly faced imminent closure. The city of L.A. stepped in to provide the funding that keeps the parks physically maintained and operational. Community involvement helps keep Gladys functional.
A.J. claims to be in his sixties, but despite his bushy greying beard, he looks at least a decade younger and gives off a hippy-ish vibe. Beneath his oversized t-shirt, a beaded necklace pokes out and both his forearms are adorned with a loose phalanx of bracelets. He sips constantly from a large Starbucks cup and his speech spills forth in rapid fire torrents characterized by a loopy sort of poetics and punctuated by a husky laugh. Tonight around 8:30 p.m., A.J. will lock shut the gates at Gladys Park before he heads out to sleep out on the sidewalk near the corner of 4th Street and Crocker. He is one of the more than 4,000 homeless people who live down on Skid Row.
“You’re not allowed to stay here overnight,” he says, eyeing me like I’ve proposed we egg the mayor’s house. “It’s city property. I respect that.”
It’s also a complicated symbol in a neighborhood more likely to enter the public imagination as a policy conundrum or a redevelopment headache than an evolving community. On any given day, locals report seeing drug deals go down over by the portable toilets crowded into the back corner and addicts passed out in the shade. But it's also home to an annual two-day art festival, health fairs for people and free clinics for pets. On Saturdays, the 3-on-3 Streetball League brings together various residents and team members from different gang affiliations to play nice at Gladys. (League rule number four: “A winner sees an answer for every problem; a loser sees a problem for every answer.”) It’s where religious groups come to offer decent meals and ministry and where the Skid Row Drifters, a long-running AA group, preach sobriety every night and twice on Sundays. In 2008, the city allocated over $100,000 of infrastructure improvements here, but among some neighborhood advocates, there remains a lingering feeling that over the years, the city has done very little for this park.
Cigarette break over, A.J. figures it’s time to check on the condition of the toilets. As we cross the lawn, a man rushes us. Spying my notebook, he wants to know what we’re up to. A.J. introduces him as New York, one of his fellow volunteer caretakers of the park. It takes about two seconds to get the impression New York is under the influence of something. Yet for the rest of the afternoon, every time I spot him, he’s emptying trash cans and sweeping up. Later I hear that New York was recently arrested, and though he can’t account for all the possessions he went in with, he made sure he came out still hanging onto the key to Gladys Park.
It’s a bit of a mystery as to how A.J. and New York got keys to Gladys Park. The City of L.A. Department of Parks and Recreation doesn’t have a policy of handing them out to community members, and Ron White, the Ellis’ chipper manager, says however it happened, it happened long before he arrived. “I inherited A.J.,” he says happily, a perk he didn’t question. “Things run smoothly with him around.”
Time away from the park is less smooth for A.J. “I’m pretty crazy,” A.J. says at one point. “I’m not one of those people who are a social butterfly...I like that loneliness which is not loneliness, because it gives me all that time to meditate and talk to God.”
He’s apt to feel scattered and frustrated and unmoored. His gig at the park allows him “to give, to help, to be a part of something,” he explains. “It’s helping me stay solid, it’s helping me stay firm, it’s helping me personally stay secure instead of lost in a lot of misery and a lot of torture and a lot of pain."
Still, isn’t there another part of the city where he’d prefer to donate his time? He thinks the question over for a long moment. “No.” Another long pause passes while he mulls it further. “No, not really. That has any kind of interest or value to me, that helps me be functional and a part of a society I can tolerate and be giving and helpful and caring about — no, not really.”
It gets tricky to elicit any more specific information than that. Asked about his personal life, about how he ended up on the row, he launches into a baroque story involving kidnapping, war crimes, sci-fi medical procedures, his family’s tobacco plantation in Argentina and international legal battles. It’s all a little hard to follow, but listen carefully and an underlying emotional truth emerges from his strange tales, one that no doubt speaks not only to A.J.’s real life experience, but also those of many people down on the row — physical trauma, alienation, insurmountable bureaucracies, the redemptive power of just showing up for your community everyday.
A.J. commands a measure of respect around these parts. When six o’clock rolls around and he marches out into the yard, announcing the park’s closure, the crowd begins an unhurried but quiet and quasi-orderly shuffle towards the gates.
A.J., meanwhile, scurries around readying things for the Skid Row Drifters, who are allowed to come during off hours. After sitting up rows of folding chairs and putting out the coffee and fixings, he starts to worry that there aren’t enough utensils to serve the anniversary cake honoring a woman celebrating 17 years of sobriety tonight. “Such a beautiful cake,” he says, eyes alight with childlike delight. “What a sunshine, summery cake.”
At 7 p.m., A.J. opens the gates again and the Drifters and their fellow travelers file in, like a walking Bukowski poem. Some show up just for a hot drink, some talk to themselves in loud voices, and some come from as far as Malibu, Orange County and Whittier to remind themselves where they came from or where they could end up. As they take turns testifying at the podium, the sun does a long slow fade behind the Ellis. On the opposite side of a nearly deserted 6th Street, a man’s silhouette appears on the Hotel Regan’s first floor fire escape, and the whole scene begins to take on the quality of an Edward Hopper painting.
“It’s amazing how consistent and dedicated A.J. is,” Eddie, one of the guys who helps run the Drifters meeting, stage whispers to me, his voice tinged with admiration. (Despite AA’s policy that service to the organization be freely given, the Drifters kick in a $5 nightly stipend for A.J — $10 on Sunday.) Pushing 72, Eddie was born in El Paso and moved to L.A. in 1957. He got his first job at Clifton’s Cafeteria, saw the Rat Pack in Vegas, and ended up sleeping on a bed of cardboard beneath a Bunker Hill bridge like a John Fante character. But that almost makes it sound as if there’s something romantic about Skid Row. There isn’t. Just something very human.
Like A.J. says, “Even though you’re raised to make something of yourself, to work to become something, some times it doesn’t always work out that way. And this is also a chapter.”
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