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Under L.A.'s Tough Skin Beats a Heart of Gold : Samaritans: Crime, riots and quakes are what this city is best known for. But there are acts of kindness going on all the time.

November 27, 1994|CATHERINE GEWERTZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Imagine that Los Angeles hires one of its best advertising firms for an image make-over. The whiz kids crowd around a conference table in some glassy office, striving for the perfect theme to revive a battered, demoralized city.

They would see that what L.A. needs is to remind the world--and itself--of its own goodness. And they would see-- yes! --that the lady in the police station is the perfect symbol for their campaign. Because if prizes were given for restoring faith in humankind, this lady might be at the podium making an acceptance speech.

Here is what she did.

On Labor Day weekend, while at the Rampart station Downtown on business, she brushed by a weeping man with a little boy in tow. She learned that the man, his wife and two children were about to be evicted from their apartment. A self-employed photographer, the man had been unable to work for three months after falling ill with tuberculosis. Now he was broke.

The woman gave a sergeant a list of social service agencies, but they were closed for the holiday weekend or could not help. So the sergeant, Mike Diaz, called the woman at home. He'd struck out, he said.

"I'll be there in 20 minutes," she said.

She returned with an envelope. Inside was $800 cash, $100 more than the photographer needed to postpone eviction. She gave it to the sergeant and told him to keep her name a secret.

"She saved my family. I was crying," said the photographer, Martin Wilson, recalling the moment Diaz handed him the cash.

"The lady was like an angel that came to me, like she was my mother, helping me without any concern for herself. If there were more people like her, there wouldn't be so much crime and violence."

Sometimes it does seem that Los Angeles, once the good-vibe land of opportunity, has hit the skids: racism, riots, earthquakes, wildfires, bizarre murders and a lousy economy. But maybe it isn't quite so bad. Because if the tale of the nameless woman with the envelope of cash could launch the "L.A. Has a Heart" campaign, many others could serve as its billboards, TV commercials and radio spots.

Consider Louis Delgado, a City of Commerce custodian, who heard a woman scream that her purse had just been stolen. He hustled her into his car and chased the running purse-snatcher through the streets. They lost him, but police made an arrest.

Consider Stephanie Taylor, a Union Station ticket clerk who stayed for two hours after her shift ended, phoning social service agencies to keep a runaway teen-ager from spending the night on the cold floor. On another day, ticket clerks pooled their money to buy a ticket to Oakland for a young, penniless woman. "She just pulled these employees' heartstrings," recalled supervisor Dee Dee Hogan.

Consider the newlywed couple who came to the aid of a young woman who stood outside El Segundo City Hall one night, weeping because her tire had blown out and she was stranded, alone, with no money for a tow. The lovebirds changed her flat and drove off, waving.

In a city where cops evoke images of videotaped abuse, a group of officers from the Southeast division resurrected an elderly woman's faith in humankind.

Blind, alone and in her 90s, the woman had endured repeated break-ins, some by burglars brazen enough to storm the house while she was in it. Arrests were made, but Officer Franck Peter and a few of his colleagues still felt uneasy.

So one weekend last year, on their own time and with their own money, they burglar-proofed the home, boarding up a rear window, replacing a lock and installing a metal plate to prevent the front door from being kicked in again, Peter said. Before leaving, they cleaned up piles of debris inside.

Later, the officers tracked down the woman's friends and enlisted them to persuade her to move out of the neighborhood. She is now living safely in a nursing home.

And the stories of kindness go on. Ana Martinez-Holler heard a clerk tell a little girl in a City of Industry bookstore that she didn't have enough money for the book she had chosen. Martinez-Holler made up the difference, remembering how much she loved to read when she was the same age.

Teen-agers, who tend to make the news only if they shoot someone or get shot, commit their own acts of kindness. Consider the young man of about 15 who recently approached Steve LePore, executive director of My Friend's Place, a drop-in center for homeless youths in Hollywood. The teen-ager, a drug-addicted prostitute who finds his meals in Dumpsters, asked LePore for a blanket. Wordlessly, he draped it over a stranger--another boy, curled up, asleep and shivering.

Fourteen-year-old Edna Becerra stepped off the bus in her South Gate neighborhood one afternoon last summer to find a 5-year-old girl leaning against a tree, crying.

The child told Edna that she was afraid to go inside because her father was drunk.

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