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.
Inside, Jimmy’s tent has space for a full-size mattress covered with a green blanket and a large, pink cage, which houses his gray-and-white cat, Meana — a word, Jimmy says, that in Arabic roughly means something one wishes for. Green shamrocks hang from everywhere inside the tent, as do little, tree-shaped car fresheners in green, blue, orange, yellow and red. On one wall, Jimmy has hung a sonnet from William Shakespeare, which famously begins, “Shall I compare thee/To a summer’s day?/You are more lovely/And more temperate.” Small crosses and American flags add to the décor in and out of his home. Jimmy, raised as both a Muslim and a Catholic, says he’s “bound” by the Ten Commandments.
“I’m religious,” he says. “I’d rather die hungry than steal anything to eat.”
The interior of the welcoming tent is stacked with his belongings and toiletries. He shaves every day and, for a shower, Jimmy places water inside a 1.44-gallon, clean, plastic gas can, hitches the can to a bar inside the tent, and opens the downturned spout halfway, which lets the water cascade out as if it’s coming from a household shower. He collects and dispenses with his wastewater, rather than letting it flow across the small, concrete bridge on which his tent is pitched, and into Aliso Creek — today a narrow flood-control channel that flows below the span Jimmy has staked out as his home.
He says he doesn’t drink or take drugs. He smokes the cheapest cigarettes on sale, for which he’s created a homemade, double filter out of a small piece of a plastic straw and used cigarette filters. Jimmy’s been smoking since he was a youngster in Jordan, which sometimes brought the wrath of his father, who Jimmy describes as “abusive.”
Jimmy was the fourth child of 11, with a father who was Muslim and a mother who was Catholic. The household practiced both religions. “When we were young,” Jimmy says, “we were confused, because we would go to the church and the mosque.” In 1967, when he was 8, the family fled their village on the West Bank for Jordan after the Six-Day War broke out between the Israeli army and the armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria.
“The bullets were flying,” Jimmy says. “That’s the only thing I remember. The tanks and helicopters were shooting at everyone. Everybody was fleeing.”
In Jordan, Jimmy learned to read and write English in school, but he didn’t care much for studying and his father wanted him to work. He left school as a boy with a seventh-grade education and worked as a cement mixer, earning $6 or $7 a week.
“We needed to help out the father,” Jimmy says. “Support the family. The money we made we gave to the father. He gave us 60 cents, and he took the rest. But that 60 cents would last a week.”
It was the early 1970s, an era of global political catharsis. But Jimmy was a kid with a kid’s concerns. He would buy a Pepsi for 3 cents and a pack of cigarettes for the same. But if his father, who died a few years ago, caught him smoking, Jimmy was beaten and kicked out of the house; he’d meet other kids who were also banished from their homes in northwest Jordan. “Most of the town’s fathers abused them,” Jimmy says.
This crew of abused kids would then team up, find places to sleep together, and sometimes sneak back into their homes at night to gather food for their buddies. “And money,” Jimmy says. “Some kids used to go through their father’s pants pockets. Then we’d go to the store and buy packs of cigarettes and smoke all night long.”
When Jimmy was 18 and dealing with his abusive father — he describes his mother, who’s still alive, as “good-hearted” and a “good believer in God,” who often fed stray cats — one of his brothers met an American girl in Germany. They married and moved to New Jersey. By 1976, the brother sent for Jimmy, who jumped at the chance.
“The world was so different back then,” Jimmy says. “This country was Heaven. America was America back then.”
Jimmy got his hack license to drive a taxi in New York City. But, after more than a decade of that life, in 1987, he realized the fast-paced city life was not for him. He bought a $45 ticket for a Greyhound bus ride to California; he ended up in Riverside and soon found work as an overnight clerk at a local 7-Eleven; Jimmy stayed for several years. But the store attracted sketchy customers, who would sometimes walk in, pull out a case of beer, and stroll out. He was also held up by thieves a few times.
“I didn’t feel safe anymore,” Jimmy says, “so I quit.”
In 1996, he moved to Santa Monica, but he’s only had part-time jobs since then. “It’s so hard to find a job in California,” Jimmy says. “I didn’t know that, otherwise I would have stayed at 7-Eleven. It’s not like New York or New Jersey, where you can find a job with no problem.”
Jimmy was one of the hordes of single, homeless men on the streets of Santa Monica. He was commuting from his $9-an-hour, part-time job at a local mattress store on Tampa Avenue in the Valley, not far from where he now lives. But the MTA bus trips from the Westside to the Valley took forever, and the cost was a big bite from his salary — after taxes, Jimmy says, he was only making $200 or $230 a week. The city of Santa Monica was cracking down on homeless folks, so in 2006, he decided live on the streets in Northridge, a quiet, low-slung community with little crime and relatively few homeless. Sometime in 2007, after sleeping on the streets for a year, he was laid off from the mattress store — one of the early, invisible victims of the coming mass recession that was just gaining steam. That’s when Jimmy erected his current home.
“I was first on a corner with a sleeping bag,” he explains. “Then I started feeding the stray cats and building them homes and I decided to build myself a home — a tent.”
Jimmy never fed stray cats in Santa Monica because he says he couldn’t find them. But when he arrived in Northridge, he often found them prowling the streets at night. “The cats don’t come out during the day. Nobody knows where they go during the day. They disappear.”
After a while, as Jimmy traveled his route, he bumped into an entire community of people in Northridge, who help out feral cats, or “homeless” cats, as some of the most ardent feral-cat activists like to call them. Edward Muzika, for example, became one of Jimmy’s friends, one of several people who often donates cat food to Jimmy so he can maintain his nocturnal feeding routine.
“There are a lot of people who feed homeless cats,” Muzika says during a phone interview, “and we get to know each other.” Muzika, an editor of medical reports used in lawsuits, who says he annually spends thousands of dollars tending to stray cats, now meets Jimmy every night and they chat about things. Through those conversations, Muzika says he’s found Jimmy to be “very kind-hearted toward animals and people who don’t have much.”
It was when Jimmy was ticketed by Union Pacific for trespassing on private property — the big cement swath where Jimmy pitched his tent — Muzika says, that he became “outraged.”
“It’s an emphasis on property and not life,” says Muzika. “There’s a kind of greed and power grab going on there.”
Which, for a railroad company, would be nothing new.
In 1910, the Southern Pacific railroad, which was bought decades later by Union Pacific, founded Northridge as a depot town originally called Zelzah Station. There’s even a long and well-used Zelzah Avenue today. Southern Pacific was a major player in railroad transportation in California, running the first “through” train, from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 1876. It also became a major villain in the state, when a dispute over property rights in Hanford, California, turned into a bloody battle. Coined the “Mussel Slough Tragedy,” a California Historical Landmark monument sits on the site of the violence today.
Settlers in the Hanford area of Central California in 1880 were angry about Southern Pacific’s strong-arm tactics of removing people, sometimes with force, from land the railroad believed it owned. Newspaper reporters and settlers felt the railroad company’s controversial policies, backed by powerful politicians, were another glaring example of corporate greed and political corruption taking over California and the rest of the country. At a May 11, 1880, picnic, settlers clashed with Southern Pacific men who showed up to begin evictions; two men associated with the railroad were shot dead, as were six settlers.
Newspaper reporters and pulp novelists ran with the story, citing it as an ugly example of American capitalism run amok. The incident is even credited for informing the anti-monopoly policies of President Theodore Roosevelt. Much later, such stories of railroad companies running herd over settlers were used as material for Hollywood Westerns, such as Sergio Leone’s masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West. In Jimmy’s fight with Union Pacific, it appears that this time, the railroad company may be doing the bidding of someone else, and the action is playing out in a quiet courtroom in the upper reaches of the Valley.
“Poor man wanna be rich/ Rich man wanna be king/And a king ain’t satisfied/ Till he rules everything ...”
A few months ago, in mid-March, Union Pacific sent Alan Shinn, a Union Pacific police officer, to Jimmy’s tent — the railroad company’s police officers, according to Union Pacific spokesman Tom Lange, are “fully commissioned and work with local, state and federal agencies.” Shinn visited Jimmy, according to Lange, after “we were informed by area businesses and citizens” of his presence near the railroad tracks.
“While we certainly sympathize with anyone who is homeless,” Lange writes in an e-mail, “Union Pacific also is concerned for the safety of the general public, as well as the safety of our employees and customers. The presence of someone trespassing on any of Union Pacific’s properties poses a danger for everyone.”
In one of his journals, Jimmy, who is a good writer with a nice flair for the language, describes the scene this way: “This police officer was not listening, noncompromising, and he appeared to be a poor-people hater. I was explaining what I was doing here, and he never paid attention to what I was saying.”
By the end of the meeting, which Jimmy says grew contentious, he received a citation from Shinn. Lange says Union Pacific police first gave him a three-day notice to pack up and leave or else he would be ticketed for trespassing. According to Frank Mateljan, a spokesman for the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, “a three-count criminal case [was] filed against Mr. Nasralla for lodging without permission of the property owner, trespass on rail property and a general trespassing count.
“Our office has jurisdiction to prosecute all misdemeanor crimes within the city of Los Angeles,” Mateljan writes in an e-mail. “Our office believes there are public-safety issues relating to an individual living in a makeshift shelter near a railroad line, which need to be addressed in this case.”
Mateljan also writes in an e-mail that the City Attorney’s Office has been in “constant contact” with L.A. Councilman Greig Smith’s office. Smith lives in Granada Hills, with his district field office right around the corner on the north side of Nordhoff Avenue, just a short walk from Jimmy’s tent. Matt Myerhoff, a spokesman for Smith, says the council office received calls from business owners and citizens, reporting a homeless man living in a tent. Myerhoff wouldn’t say who made those calls since those things are kept “confidential.”
Then at some point, somebody from Smith’s 17-employee staff visited Jimmy. Myerhoff wasn’t sure when that occurred, and eventually answered a list of e-mailed follow-up questions with an official “no comment” given by Smith’s chief of staff, Mitch Englander, and by the councilman himself. Over the course of the undated visit by Smith’s staff, Myerhoff says, the staffer offered to refer Jimmy to services that might help him. The unnamed staffer also concluded that Jimmy’s situation was a “safety issue” for both Jimmy and the public, according to Myerhoff.
But Smith’s office came to an additional, and quite interesting, conclusion: According to Myerhoff, Jimmy, in fact, resides on “county property.” The spokesman explains that even though he is inside the Los Angeles city limits it’s a “county issue.” Smith’s office now considers Jimmy’s fight to be “out of our hands.”
Mary Cummins, a longtime real estate assessor, has independently deduced that he is, indeed, on county-owned land. But she questions whether or not Union Pacific issued a valid citation for trespassing. If Jimmy is living on county-owned property edging the railroad spur, Cummins’ logic goes, then the railroad company may not be able to charge him with “trespassing” on the railroad’s “private property” or of “lodging without [their] permission.”
As an expert real estate assessor for more than 25 years in the Los Angeles area, Cummins knows how to read tract maps. Just recently, for example, she was hired to testify in court over a major real estate dispute at the Ambassador Hotel. Feral-cat activist Muzika started looking into Jimmy’s case, and he asked Cummins, a friend from animal-rights circles, to help.
Cummins, who normally charges $100 per hour for her expertise, took up Jimmy’s cause for free. She looked up Jimmy’s location on Google Earth, found an L.A. County Assessor’s map, and placed the Google map on top of the county’s map. “You can clearly see Jimmy’s on the L.A. County flood-control channel” land, Cummins says. She is also “absolutely certain,” and would testify in court, that Jimmy is on county-owned property, not the railroad’s.
Cummins sent her findings to Muzika, who e-mailed the maps information to Councilman Smith’s office, and alerted the city attorney at Jimmy’s court hearing on July 1 in the Los Angeles Superior Court in the small town of San Fernando, in the far northeast Valley.
In court that day, the prosecutor handling the case, Apraham Atteukenian, looked surprised when Muzika, with Jimmy near his side, offered up the disputed land-ownership evidence. It’s clearly very basic land-ownership homework that Los Angeles city prosecutors should have done before hauling a man into court for trespassing on railroad property. The prosecutor promised to “make some calls.” Jimmy is defending himself pro per, having dumped a Los Angeles County public defender who advised him to plead guilty to trespassing against Union Pacific. Jimmy is now facing trial August 3, yet, Cummins says, even now, the city attorney and Smith’s office have not responded to her finding that Jimmy is not on railroad land.
If Jimmy does reside on county-owned land, Mark Rosenbaum, legal director of the ACLU-Southern California, says the City Attorney’s Office, now overseen by newly elected Carmen Trutanich, has no case. “If the citation is based on private property,” and he’s in fact on public property, the attorney says, “then it doesn’t have any validity.” Bizarrely, after a year of back and forth, the city and county of Los Angeles still have no certainty who has jurisdiction over Jimmy and the concrete span on which his encampment sits. Until somebody can prove who owns the little bridge, there’s a good chance Jimmy is free to live in his well-tended tent.
Few people know how Union Pacific was drawn into this uncomfortable dispute against a lone, unemployed man. Smith and Union Pacific spokesman Tom Lange won’t say. Smith’s office and Lange say businesses complained, which may have gotten Union Pacific moving. But when contacted by L.A. Weekly, employees at several chain stores in the small shopping center just a few dozen yards north of Jimmy’s tent, known as Nordhoff Plaza, said they have “no problems” with Jimmy. Asking to remain anonymous, these employees also said that neither customers nor fellow employees have complained about Jimmy. Most never realized he was in back of the stores, his tent pitched on a cement bridge that crosses a small flood-control channel.
Yet one employee, who asked for anonymity, says that when his store negotiated a contract with Nordhoff Plaza, the corporate honchos asked the owners to clean up trash and make improvements. One improvement, according to the employee, was getting rid of Jimmy, and the owners agreed to handle it. Pat Murphy, project manager for Nordhoff Way LCC, a principal owner of the shopping center, says he wasn’t sure what was discussed in those negotiations, but he determined that Jimmy was not on Nordhoff Plaza property, so the owners could not take legal action. He said he was “sorry for (Jimmy’s) plight,” but that local laws should be enforced.
Jimmy says that ever since Best Buy, Office Max and Jersey Mike’s moved into Nordhoff Plaza, he’s had visits from the Los Angeles Police Department and shopping-center security guards, as well as passersby, who throw cups of coffee or soda at his tent, and, in one case, three people who flashed fake police badges, told him to leave, and messed with his belongings. Jimmy says he filed a crime report with the LAPD at the Devonshire station, but the police never responded.
LAPD Captain David Hanczuk, patrol commanding officer at Devonshire Division, says the incident is part of an ongoing investigation, noting that it’s a “good possibility” that the people who bothered Jimmy were “impersonating police officers.”
Interestingly, Hanczuk says, LAPD is reluctant to act since it still doesn’t know who has jurisdiction. “We don’t step on the Sheriff’s toes,” Hanczuk says, “and they don’t step on ours.” If dealings with Jimmy are the city’s responsibility, then the police will “develop a plan” with Councilman Smith’s office and decide what to charge him with. Hanczuk says that LAPD Senior Lead Officer Kathy Bennett, who works in Jimmy’s neighborhood, is “very much aware of Jimmy” and has met with him several times, with no problems. Bennett has offered city services to Jimmy, the captain says, but Jimmy continually refuses.
LAPD Officer Darryl Williams finds Jimmy to be “different from most transients” because Jimmy takes care of himself and appears to want to stay permanently — Jimmy often says he can’t move because his cats would suffer. But Hanczuk says LAPD has received “several complaints” about Jimmy, and the feral cats that come around. No one, according to Hanczuk, has complained about Jimmy’s personal behavior.
In homeless expert Joel John Roberts’ mind, people are failing to respond to Jimmy in a way that works. “The community has to figure out how to get Jimmy housing,” says Roberts, chief executive officer of People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), a nonprofit, homeless-advocacy group in Los Angeles. “Fighting over where he is [located] is not the issue.”
Roberts says that whenever an authority figure, like a cop, approaches someone like Jimmy, they should bring along a homeless-outreach expert who knows how to talk to longtime homeless people who may be stubborn. Union Pacific did not take that approach, nor did the LAPD. “Writing him a ticket isn’t going to do much,” Roberts says. “Whether Jimmy wins or loses in court, he’ll still be back on the street. A ticket is not going to help with housing. The longer people are on the street and survive,” he says, “the more they feel they can handle it.”
During his nighttime run to feed the cats in the lonely back alleys near the Aliso Creek flood channel, Jimmy and I stop at a McDonald’s, just off Tampa Avenue, for dinner. He doesn’t order anything but still asks if he can pay for my food. I decline, and we sit near a window. Jimmy talks of his father.
“He was like Michael Jackson’s father,” Jimmy says. “That’s why I became like this. When someone gets abused, he feels worthless. Most people in the streets — their father abused them. Even if it was a small thing, he would come up with the stick. He thought I was lazy.”
Jimmy’s quiet for a moment.
“I can’t shake it,” he says. “It’s just the way it is.”
Every now and then, Jimmy’s mother sends word that she’ll give him money or has in mind a woman who would make a good wife. But he doesn’t want anything from his father’s will, and he wants to remain a bachelor.
“I don’t want to be like my father toward my kids,” he says, “and I don’t want my kids to be like me.”
We get up to leave, and Bruce Springsteen seems to be following us. The restaurant’s speakers softly play “Hungry Heart.”
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“Everybody needs a place to rest/ Everybody wants to have a home/Don’t make no difference what nobody says/Ain’t nobody like to be alone.”
Jimmy, who admires Springsteen because he’s a “peace lover,” likes that song, too.
Corrections: This article originally misreported that Councilman Greig Smith lives in Northridge and has a staff of 20, and misspelled Matt Myerhoff as Meyerhoff. This is the corrected version.
Contact Patrick Range McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org.