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Al Martinez

He swore that he wouldn't spend his life in misery and began looking for a way out. : The Road Back

January 21, 1988|Al Martinez

Robert Messinger is a clean-cut man of 33 with a shoeshine and a smile and an easy way of dealing with customers at Beverly Hills' Santa Barbara Savings.

You'd think he was born to be doing just what he's doing, and that he'd done it forever.

Not so.

A few months ago, Messinger was living in a flop house, eating at Skid Row missions and wondering where the hell he was going next.

He weighed 400 pounds, had no friends, no money and no apparent way of changing any of it.

The highlight of his day was a free meal of eggs and beans at a Skid Row mission the street people called Gravy Joe's.

The future was bleak.

One is tempted to compare Messinger's situation then with the plight of so many of today's homeless: an already-damaged ego eroded by what seemed uncontrollable circumstance. A helplessness feeding on hopelessness.

But the difference here is that Messinger refused to wallow in self-pity. He swore he wouldn't spend his life in misery and began looking for a way out.

This isn't customary on the street. Even those who, like Messinger, could make it languish in the dream that society will make it for them, and all they've got to do is wait.

That's what intrigued me about Messinger. He wouldn't wait.

I talked to him the other day at the Santa Barbara Savings branch on Wilshire.

At 300 pounds, he's still overweight and suffers from emotional problems he won't talk about. Wire-tight tension reveals itself in compulsive monologues and a leg that never stops jiggling.

He's seeing a psychiatrist on a regular basis, but vows he'll climb out of that emotional pit too.

Raised in Glendora, Messinger left home when he was 18, eased out by a stepmother he didn't like.

He tried the Air Force but failed the enlistment test, a failure that did nothing to restore an already scarred self-image.

He tried junior college next and supported himself doing odd jobs. They barely provided enough to live on.

Messinger found lodging where he could afford it. That turned out to be a 9-foot-square walk-in freezer at the rear of an empty produce warehouse in Glendora, for which he paid $80 a month.

That lasted nine years. It took him that long to get through junior college, working when he had to, attending school when he could, finding lonely companionship in food and beer.

The weight piled on. He was at 400 pounds before he knew it, and a trap began to close.

With the excess fat, physical labor was almost impossible. Simultaneously, the city found out about the freezer "hotel" and shut it down.

With no place else to go and only four cents in his pocket, Messinger headed into downtown L.A.--and Skid Row.

He ate and slept at missions, including Emmanuel Baptist, the place they called Gravy Joe's. When he began getting $68 a week unemployment, he moved into a Skid Row hotel.

When the money ended, he went back to the missions.

Messinger shared the streets with bums and winos, and with those trapped in their own inability to walk out an open door.

"There were so many who just weren't willing to pull themselves up by their boot straps," he says. "The more I saw of that, the more I realized it had to be temporary for me. I'd never live that way permanently."

He had heard about the federal Job Training Partnership Act, which provides funds for those who want a fresh start, and tracked it down in L.A.

Because Messinger studied business administration in junior college, JTPA put him in touch with Kristin Kleppe, director of the Banking Institute, a school that trains prospective employees.

She not only accepted Messinger for training, but came up with the money to get him off the street. He ended up back in a Skid Row hotel, but even that was better than no place at all.

The training lasted four months.

"I worked like hell," Messinger says. "The institute not only taught me banking, it taught me to believe in myself, and to believe I could go out there and get a job."

He did. Santa Barbara Savings hired him last September and pays him $6.95 an hour. He's lost a hundred pounds and is working to lose a hundred more.

Messinger still lives in a downtown hotel but is saving money to get his own apartment.

Meanwhile, in his spare time he does volunteer work with Skid Row missions and donates money when he can spare it. But he won't give money to street people.

"I know they'll just use it for drugs or alcohol," he says. "I make sure they have food, though. I take them to Gravy Joe's."

He also gives them JTPA pamphlets.

"When I do, they want to know what's the use of getting trained, there are no jobs. I said the same thing once. I tell them there are jobs for those who want them."

He can't hide the pride. "I say, 'Look at me. I've got a career.' "

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