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Few Knew Much About Rosie Smith but Everyone Will Miss Her

October 24, 1985|MATHIS CHAZANOV | Times Staff Writer

Nobody has a picture of Rosie Smith. Nobody knows where she came from when she showed up on the beach 20 years ago, black-haired, stocky, proud of her Indian blood. She liked her wine and made a living cleaning apartments and picking up aluminium cans.

It was the cans that killed Rosie Smith, in a way. The roar of a street-sweeping machine distracted her attention from the dump truck that was backing up on Navy Street near Speedway in Venice on Monday morning.

She looked to see where the noise came from, decided it was safe, and stepped out into the street, wheeling the little cart full of empty cans that she would trade in for 16 cents a pound at the recycling center.

The dump truck driver did not see her as she bent over to pick up a discarded can, his vision blocked by an overhanging hood on the cab of his towering vehicle.

Only when it was over did he realize that his double rear wheels had beheaded the 68-year-old woman, witnesses said. It was nobody's fault, police said.

Just another bag lady, perhaps, one of a thousand hard-luck cases. Yet Rosie Smith was remembered fondly this week as a unique character--fiercely independent but willing to share a drink on a shaky morning, happy to mend an indigent's ripped shirt as long as he would wash it first.

"The only picture of her I've got is in my mind," said Mel Sundahl, manager of the 24-unit apartment building at 15 Rose Ave. where Rosie Smith lived for 11 years in a one-room, ground-floor apartment at the back.

"She was a nice looking woman for her age," he said. Average height, regular features, deeply tanned with the leathery look people get from decades in the sun. She liked to wear red dresses.

In all those years she did not get a letter, Sundahl said, except for an infrequent government check to pay for a cleaning job at the home of someone on disability payments.

Well over the minimum age, she never applied for Social Security benefits, although she had a card with a number indicating that it had been issued in the mid-1930s.

She did not go to the doctor. She never spoke of a family, if there was one. She did not speak of home, except to say a few times that she loved the Mission District of San Francisco.

As she was slowed by the infirmities of increasing age, her cleaning jobs were coming less frequently and she left the Rose Avenue apartment in May because she could not pay the rent.

There were a few nights spent on the beach, and an unhappy time as a live-in maid at a house near the Santa Monica Airport. But things were getting better toward the end.

She moved in with a 90-year-old woman who needed a companion. She had her own room and her own television set.

"Just last week, two or three people told me Rosie's got it made," Sundahl said. "She'd lost weight. She was dressing better."

But she kept collecting cans. A day's haul could net as much as $7, sometimes more, according to a fellow collector known as Wolfie, who would go along with her to the recycling center to cash in on their day's pickings.

"No problem, it's easy work," Wolfie said. "It's something like prospecting."

One of those who knew her best was Sandy Hand, a retired worker at the Santa Monica Pier who lived across the hall at 15 Rose Ave. The two women shared a fondness for cats, dogs and the swing music of the 1940s.

"She was a beautiful person," Hand said Tuesday. "I'm going to light a candle for her tonight. I'm going to light a candle for all of us."

According to Hand, Smith said she was part Cherokee. "She talked about her parents sometimes. Her father was a chief, she'd say, and she was like a princess."

But there were hints of a darker past. She spoke of beatings, and of a tradition-bound family that turned its back.

"They told her to go on her own . . . she was the black sheep," Hand said. "She told me a lot that I'd rather not divulge. There were a lot of hurts. But she didn't get bitter."

By the time Rosie Smith got to Venice, she may not have been totally of sound mind, although Police Sgt. Dave Kalish, chief of the beach patrol, said she never caused any trouble.

"One buck short of a $10 bill," is how Sundahl put it. "That's a tough thing to say about her, but it's true."

That may have explained her reluctance to get involved with doctors when she burned her hand, or to ask for Social Security benefits.

But she was determined to get by on her own, friends said. "She'd do anything as long as it was honest," said Charles Lewis, a familiar figure on the beach who knew her for years.

"You'd see her from morning till night, collecting those cans," he said.

He said she told him once that she had worked as a taxi-dancer in the dime-a-dance halls downtown.

When she died, the word went up and down the beach in minutes.

"She was a nice person--she never bothered nobody," said Edgar Chavez, who works at the L & A Market on Ocean Front Walk. "People are saying, 'Why do the nice people have to die?' "

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