In a café stuffed into the corner of a Lincoln Boulevard strip mall, a middle-aged woman stands onstage, her head shaved except for a long, pink strand of hair draped over her shoulder. On the wide end of her guitar body is a colorfully painted skeleton mermaid flanked by floating music notes. On the narrow end is a sticker proclaiming, "You are beautiful."
"This song is called 'Beautiful Day' and it's what I want everybody to have," Harriet Kilgore says into a PA system dripping with reverb at the Talking Stick's open mic night. She breaks into a harrowing minor chord progression anchoring a melodious vocal line that becomes a throaty, Joplin-like growl when she hits the heart of the chorus.
"So many people out there on the streets/And they're wondering how they'll make their ends meet," she sings. "I'm not gonna let it bother me because I know we have a choice/So I lift my heart and rejoice."
The singer-songwriter closes her set with a rendition of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt," steps off the stage to loud applause, and leaves for home.
She only has to walk 30 feet.
In the parking lot behind the venue are Harriet's bike, a small bicycle trailer, her stuffed Winnie the Pooh bear and her dog, Queenie. Once the night dies down, she lays out a beaten-up foam pad and covers herself with an old blanket.
"The owner's not so pleased, but I always clean up after myself and sweep," Kilgore explains. She doesn't have much time for rest? the police will be ticketing the homeless for sleeping on public sidewalks early the next morning.
Kilgore is an anomaly in the singer-songwriter world. "That lady has a hard life," said Audrey McNamara, the MC ofthe Talking Stick show. "She lives outside. No one else in her circle does things like this."
Kilgore spends her days playing for change on the Venice boardwalk. Now 43, she has been performing there since she was 12 - a world marked by panhandling acrobats, a pianist who plays Gershwin and Rachmaninoff outdoors on an upright, and an electric guitarist known for playing Hendrix-like licks while gliding on roller skates.
Kilgore prefers the row of busking spots at Ocean Front Walk and Ozone Avenue, where homeless artists spraypaint wooden boards, and others try to sleep in tents. Often a dreadlocked man covered in dried paint will be wandering around, playing an acoustic bass strapped to his shoulders.
Kilgore's belongings - a painted sign reading "Anything kind helps," a blue pail labeled "Tips" and, of course, Queenie - are a giveaway that she's near. So is that deep, soulful voice.
"When I hear her play, it makes me cry," says another homeless woman. "She has something special in her voice." Kilgore talks pejoratively about people who live in houses - or "boxes," as she calls them. She's had many chancesto stay in shelters. She even lived for a time above the garage at a house belonging to the current president of the Venice Community Council, Linda Lucks. "She seemed very nice, very competent," Lucks recalls.
But outdoor life is what Kilgore knows best. Born at USC Medical Center and sent to live with an adoptive Russian-Jewish family after her mother could no longer care for her, Kilgore ran away at age 12 and, she says, soon got into drugs.
As she tells it, she eventually got off the streets, moved to Washington state, got married and had six children. But then her house burned down and she split up with her husband and became homeless again.
"I did every drug I could," she says. "I just wanted to die. I was one of those people you see walking around, talking to themselves.
"Eventually she lost custody of her kids. Now ages 14 to 24, they're sprinkled around the West Coast, either adults living on their own or minors in custody of the authorities because Kilgore can't take care of them. "I'm a little at a loss. I don't know how to bring my kids back," she says.
Living on the streets, she has been hardened by violence? she has head injuries from an attempted rape. "I waskicked in the head with steeltoe boots," she says. "When the guy leaned down to kiss me, I bit his bottom lip pretty hard, grabbed my guitar and ran away."
Then, one night last June, Kilgore was sleeping in an alley by the Venice boardwalk when a man tried to force sex on her. When she said no, he kicked her so hard that he broke her hip. An ambulance came, and she spent two weeks in the hospital.
"I was terrified," she says, still clutching a walking cane. "I didn't know if I was ever going to be able to walk again. I could have laid there and felt sorry for myself. But why? What good would that do? It wouldn't help anybody, and I like helping. I can't help anybody if I'm not helping me."
Indeed, despite her tragedies, Kilgore remains an optimist. Only days after she is released from the hospital, she has already nailed down a weekly gig at a Santa Monica café, singing lyrics that aim to inspire.
"What my heart is about is helping people know they're beautiful and special," she explains after a show. "Part of what I do is to try to ignite that sparkle and help it grow."
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