A toddler makes a mad dash across the playground, heading for the shiny handcuffs on a pregnant, homeless addict on the other side of a green iron fence. The addict is trying to convince eight cops not to cart her off to Central Division Police Station for booking.
On the toddler's side of the fence, the occasion is the annual L.A. City Parks and Recreation Department's holiday kids party at Gladys Park. While a chorus of jingle bells cross-fades into a symphony of police sirens, across the street, a Skid Row septuagenarian perched in a doorway rants from inside his own personal psychopharmaceutical matrix.
HAPPY HOLIDAYS, in big red tinsel letters, announces the season. Christmas and the relentless stench of piss are in the air. Everybody's here: cardboard Santa, Rudolf, candy canes and sleigh bells all taped to a brick wall (not the nice ones — the cheap thin ones where you can see the dried glue through the glitter).
Wiggly, giggly 8-year-olds DJ and his best friend, Edgar, are in constant motion on the portable bleachers of the basketball court waiting for Santa to show. Eating fruit roll-ups, they are absolutely spring-loaded, a well-practiced Christmas wish list chambered and ready to fire. They've both memorized their top five toys and have no doubt that they'll get what they came for.
"I want Transformers, a DS, Hot Wheels, a scooter and a flat-screen TV," pudgy young DJ offers, unprovoked.
When asked, the boys admit that they voted for Obama, but when pressed for their reaction to the recent extension of the Bush-era tax cuts for wealthy Americans, the communication suddenly becomes cryptic. A calculating DJ plays it close to the vest: "Well, I mean, I don't know, but ... you know," he says.
"Yeah," Edgar says, inserting himself into the conversation, obviously trying to confuse the issue. "We love Transformers."
Another partygoing pretween sophisticate who tries to stay out of the political conversation is Edgar's girlfriend, Clarisse. Though she acknowledges their relationship, she declines to sit next to him in public. Ever. Clarisse refuses to engage on any subject other than Santa, toys or boys. "I love presents," she says with a deceptive smile.
Santa soon hits his mark right on cue with a big bag of gifts wrapped in red and green shiny paper (not the good kind — the really thin kind that rips when you're trying to wrap presents). Though not exactly what's on DJ's wish list — no PlayStation or DS here — they will do the trick.
It's a considerably lower-merchandising Skid-kids Christmas situation: Hasbro's Martian Matter Alien Maker Mega Set, Milton Bradley's Guess Who? (Littlest Pet Shop Edition), a Family Feud electronic game (for two) and a bunch of other less pricey toys — not list-toppers by any means.
These Christmas giveaways are more underfinanced than ever these days. Still, little hearts pound so hard it seems like they could crack a small rib when Santa gets down to business.
In the end, everyone gets a present and walks away smiling. In fact, the party's a big success. People seem to have set their problems aside and embraced the holiday spirit. Outside the big green fence, a couple of 40s, a few holiday rocks and everybody's in the mood for Christmas, too ... everybody except Chris, that is.
"To get out of here, that's all I want for Christmas pretty much," Chris says. "That's all I can do right now is just pray to get out of here. This is bullshit."
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The Skid Row veteran, age 13, wears giant basketball shorts, Air Jordans, a black hoodie and dyed-yellow hair under a white baseball cap. He lets it rip: "It's fucked up when you see a baby around here. Most of these kids here shouldn't be here. They shouldn't be in this fucking place right now. In this fucking Skid Row. They should have their own fucking house with a family. What the fuck is going on with this country?
"They're letting these kids starve? They're letting these kids live in the URM (Union Rescue Mission)? It's not a fucking good place to live. It's hard to get out. [Christmas is] retarded. The richer-class people ... they don't care. They just give us some scraps. Then they start judging stuff and us. They judge all the homeless people like they're crackheads and stuff."
By way of a solution, Chris offers: "Maybe everybody should have the same apartment. Maybe everybody should have the same car. People don't need these great cars. People don't need 75 rooms in their house. People just need one room. It'd be better so everybody has one. Instead of all these programs, honestly, it'd be better if they'd just build the homeless homes."
Yeah, homes for everyone! That's a fucking great idea. I'm definitely gonna put that at the top of my list for next year.