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SCOTT HARRIS

A Street Perspective on Prop. 187

November 10, 1994|SCOTT HARRIS

It's been very worth it. All of us are on this planet to do good for somebody. --Mike Huffington, on spending $28 million of his own money in his unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate She was bundled up against the night chill, a familiar figure waiting strategically between Times Mirror Square and the biggest employee parking garage. She wore a white baseball cap and a friendly smile. She extended her hand. Her voice was a raspy whisper, but it was impossible to make out the words.

I used to be a soft touch for panhandlers, but the years have made me more circumspect. These days, I'm more wary that my loose change supports a crack or liquor habit. Trial and error has taught me that to ignore a beggar, to walk past this woman as if she didn't exist, would insult both her dignity and mine. So I usually say no, or at least shake my head.

This time I reached into my pocket. Why I'm not sure, but a few minutes earlier, I watched Gov. Wilson on TV, aglow with victory as he praised California's generosity of spirit.

I gave the woman a few coins. Felt like two quarters and a dime.

"God bless you," she rasped, giving a tiny bow of her head. "God bless you."

*

Her name is Jamilah. She is 46 years old and black. In Downtown L.A., most street people are African Americans, the descendants of the only group of immigrants who came to this land against their will.

I was nearly to my car when it occurred to me that, especially on Election Day, everybody has a certain expertise. Some spin doctors get paid big money to talk on TV. It seemed fair that Jamilah's was entitled an extra dollar.

We exchanged names and pleasantries. Jamilah said she lived in San Francisco for years before and owned "a bead store" before coming south for a change of scenery. She arrived in Los Angeles two years ago, and on her first night in town, somebody broke into her room down by the Greyhound station and took everything she had. Jamilah said she's been homeless ever since, relying on strangers she regards as friends.

"Six thousand people work here," she said, looking up at the edifice of Times Mirror Square. "Everybody here knows Jamilah. Everybody likes Jamilah. They're real nice to me."

She said she doesn't collect welfare, but gets by on handouts.

"Sometimes I sleep around the corner, in the alley with the rest of my comrades," she said, still smiling. "Sometimes I get enough money to get a room." A girlfriend, she explained, lives at the St. George Hotel. For $7, the manager lets Jamilah stay with her friend.

Her eyes were watery. There was no tell-tale smell on her breath, but it was still my duty to ask the pertinent questions. Jamilah assured me that, no, she doesn't have a problem with liquor or drugs. Her only medication, she said, is for asthma. Jamilah laughed when asked whether she had a history of mental problems. "You're talking to me. Does it seem like I do?"

No, it didn't. In this superficial encounter, Jamilah just seemed eccentric. In any case, I just wanted her insights, her opinions, on Tuesday's ballot.

Jamilah didn't vote, but she was glad to hear that Proposition 187 was winning big. "There are a lot of people here that need medical help and schooling," she said. "I feel they should vote yes and send them back."

Like many people, Jamilah equated "illegal immigrants" with Mexicans, and she blamed them for taking jobs from African Americans. Mexicans, she said, are willing to work for lower wages. But even at equal pay, she said, employers would prefer to hire Mexicans "because they're a lighter color."

Jamilah's platform, not unlike President Clinton's, calls for welfare reform too. That way, she explained, "people would get jobs and the women would stop having so many babies."

We weren't going to solve all of America's problem this night, but Jamilah had a suggestion on how to start:

"Treat everybody equal."

*

Fate, of course, doesn't treat everybody equal. Nobody gets to pick their parents. Some are blessed by accident of birth and some are not. Some have $28 million to pursue their own ambitions and some scrounge for $7 to buy a roof each night.

Jamilah didn't know much about Mike Huffington, perhaps because she doesn't see much TV. She was rooting for Kathleen Brown and especially Dianne Feinstein. "She was a good mayor of San Francisco when I was there."

It was at this point that Jamilah spotted an intruder. He was about 25 years old, able-bodied and black. He said he needed 75 cents for the bus. Jamilah lit into him.

"Oh, you are really disrespectful!" she scolded. "I'm begging here myself! I'm begging here!"

The young man shrugged and went on his way. She didn't ask, but I gave Jamilah another dollar.

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