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Ladling Out Hope on the Streets of the City

November 15, 1998|PATT MORRISON

When it comes to the basics for living, most of us operate on autopilot. We take for granted that there's a car sitting out front, that the walls of whatever we call home meet the roof pretty squarely and that both will be standing when we get back, that we can open the refrigerator door to find something edible, and that we have a refrigerator to open.

Think of the prodigious energy we'd need to expend every day if we had none of these, if we had to reinvent each day from scratch. So it is with the homeless. They cannot assume that they'll wake up each morning and still find the clothes, the scavenged goods where they left them the night before . . . or even, come nightfall, a place to bunk down again.

In such an existence, knowing there is some fixed, unfailing event in the course of a week must be as monumentally reassuring as the North Star. On each Sunday for 11 years, then, whatever mayhem has disordered the city's routine, "Mama D" has been there for them, standing on 5th Street between Towne and San Pedro with a ladle and a song, spooning out her homemade vegetarian stew, as affable as Santa Claus and as constant as the pyramids.


Delia Saguin Javier's was a well-to-do family with a prosperous farm in the Philippines, wealthy enough for their daughter to take dancing lessons and travel the world with a Filipino troupe. She knew well the chasm between rich and poor in her country; as a grown woman, she met it again intimately when she was recruited by the art designers of "Apocalypse Now" and set about enlisting Filipino tribespeople to make bows and arrows and work as extras.

Years later, she moved to Los Angeles. She figured all that was behind her, the Third World skew of money versus misery. She worked on other films, and one of them took her to downtown L.A. It was like the Philippines all over again--profligate wealth and appalling deprivation.

She hauled in her first pots of food in 1987. It had to be January, because someone had a little TV and the homeless watched the Rose Bowl game as they waited in line. Mama D, who didn't know the Rose Bowl from Tidy Bowl, made friends by asking the score.

Most of her movie colleagues, who gazed upon downtown L.A. as some human wasteland, asked, "Why are you doing this? Why are you feeding these hopeless people?" And she told them, "That's exactly why I'm going there. There's no such thing as hopeless."


In a recent independent documentary about Mama D--made, like her cooking, with more love than money--she calls it throwing a party. Here's how the pre-party week unfolds:

On Wednesday, she assesses finances. She's an accomplished masseuse and has been getting good small-film roles lately--which helps. A year's feeding costs $8,000 to $10,000 (not counting the 7:30 a.m. breakfasts she provides "some Sundays"). Some money comes from friends or relatives, and once, a businessman in a suit pressed some bills into her hand. He had been among the "hopeless" she had fed one Sunday.

On Thursday, she may give several massages to make some fast cash, and Friday is shopping day, a roundelay of Food 4 Less, a 99 Cents Only store and Bargain Circus. She scouts for tomato paste, fresh tomatoes, her mainstays of cabbage, carrots, cucumber and celery, vegetable protein, olive and sesame and canola oils, dill, lemon herbs, cilantro, sometimes fresh basil and curry, any cheap produce in season and pasta.

(Remember what I said about the basics of living? Mama D does not have a car. She does not drive. All this shopping and schlepping--friends, volunteers. That's no steering wheel; that's a halo.)

Her meatless meals have acquired a cachet. She has overheard old-timers loftily tell newcomers, "You know, this is vegetarian." Meat always made her feel ill, and vegetables are "so cleansing." Anyway, the slaughtering on the family farm horrified her, especially that of the pigs, who "scream and scream, they're so smart, they know and they're fearful . . . all these fear vibrations go into the meat and that's what people eat--fear."

On Saturday, she chops and preps, stripping the skin off a carrot in 10 strokes of a paring knife. On Sunday, she's up at 3 a.m. to meditate--she's been a yogic devotee for decades--as she mechanically toasts bread, dozens of loaves, two slices at a time.

Then she cooks--500 servings' worth. By 11:30 a.m., she is strapping gaffer's tape over the lids of the Army surplus pots and hauling them out to whatever car and driver have volunteered this week.

People are already lining up when she arrives. A homeless little boy of 4 has been distributing her paper plates with great importance since he was 2. Mama D smiles and scoops and scoops and smiles.


the first time mama d came here, as her plane descended through the clouds, she felt she was landing in Brigadoon, the elusive village of fable. Delia, a friend said sternly, that's not fog, that's smog.

I have seen what an indefatigable optimist she is; I think she still believes it's mist.

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