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A Skid Row Christmas: Haven for Those in Need of Giving?

December 25, 1987|LLOYD BAILER JR. | Bailer has lived on Skid Row off and on for three years. He has recently joined a program managed by the Red Cross that provides housing and job counseling

I moved uncomfortably on my seat in the Union Rescue Mission near 2nd and Main streets in downtown Los Angeles. Chairs were arranged in condensed rows like a confused chess board, and overhanging fans circulated the odor throughout the room.

A large pulpit stood facing the indigent men waiting patiently, sometimes indignantly, for their supper. Forty-five minutes before the evening meal would be served, a sermon would beckon them to consider God's calling.

I looked up and saw an older, husky, bearded man approaching. His demeanor was sluggish and there were cakes of dirt hanging from his hair and coat. He sat down beside me with the putrid force of a rotting animal. I abruptly moved my chair, attempting to preserve my private stench and then the hypocrisy hit me: "He's just like me." As a tear filled my right eye and fell, I wondered about its significance. As a drug user, I knew that tears often come with withdrawal from heavy use, but I'd only used drugs twice this week.

Two men, one tall, one short, both black, drifted in front of me quarreling about the nature of things. For some reason, my eye fell on a miniature Santa fastened to the short guy's lapel. At first I thought "what an idiot," but was struck by the bright red and white colors; it's the only time of year when subtlety isn't fashionable.

The memories began to pour forth as I tried unsuccessfully to suppress them, and I caught an unwilling glimpse of what Christmas once was. I pictured the New York City suburb where I grew up. I was 10 or maybe 11 years old and playing and laughing in the snow with my friends. My mother was in the house making oatmeal and hot chocolate and my life was the best I've known. Yet, even then, I didn't feel fully accepted by my family. I had begun to weave a web of deceit and distrust because I didn't feel worthy of their company. I found it necessary to try to create another "Lloyd," one who was intelligent and good.

I couldn't understand the assignments in the advanced school I attended and consequently acted lazy so they wouldn't find out. I wanted so badly to be a part of my surroundings but something was missing, I'm not sure what, but it wasn't there.

My father was an intense, exacting man, while my mother was kind and loving. I have four sisters and one brother and we were all given a European education, with the exception of my youngest sister who is now a lawyer. My brother and sisters became successful, I didn't. As I grew older--I am now 38 years old--my fabrications became more sophisticated, but the fear of being revealed intensified and I eventually turned to drugs.

But as I sat there reminiscing, I didn't see the detachments of my past. I only remembered the glowing warmth and closeness I once experienced with my family. I saw the unrestrained joy of living and wanted to reach out and wish someone I love "Merry Christmas," but I knew my appearance would only spoil theirs. My abusive, up and down (clean and not clean, good and bad) life style has left me by myself and to myself: a fair sentence, self-imposed as it is.

As I trudge these rancid streets in this holiday season, searching for trucks giving away food, sporadic thoughts of more substantial handouts, maybe even some money, bring superficial glee. But it is only Skid Row's infectious complacency that brings me solace. I find it necessary to numb myself psychologically or physically in order to endure the complete and utter degradation I feel when standing on these food lines. In that sense, drugs and alcohol are not a luxury on Skid Row.

The fact is that I, and most people I know on Skid Row, got there from taking the easy way out. And the sad irony is that in a place where one merely has to wait on a food line, as opposed to working for that food, I, for one, find it hard to generate the motivation to live a constructive, self-satisfying life.

For me this is the ugliest part of Skid Row. It is not the filth or stench or attitude that is projected toward me by outsiders bringing gifts, rather it is the contrast I feel when I see your smiling faces confronting me with my lowly existence. Who do you come down here for? If you don't truly care, find other ways to reaffirm yourselves. After three days without food, hunger dissipates; I'd rather go that way. If you do care let me be of use, give me the opportunity to achieve at least a semblance of dignity; let me help load or drive your trucks. There are people on Skid Row with professional skills; some of the money currently being spent on food giveaways could be used for job programs to match them with potential employers. I know there are those whose altruism is beyond question, but it seems we on Skid Row serve as a haven for those in need of giving and I ask myself, "Who are the needy?" in this perpetual cycle.

The essence of Christmas is "giving" in which I can't partake. Let's be clear, this holiday is for you. But don't feel sorry for me. I've created my private hell and freedom is a "terrible gift" with which I'm not burdened--and yet I can't think of anything more precious.

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