It's just over two miles from skid row to USC. It took Daniel Rodriguez a decade to complete the journey.
An odyssey that began in a skid row mission has ended, for now, at a USC graduation ceremony, where the 43-year-old Rodriguez, a high school dropout and former penniless street fighter, received a bachelor's degree in history with honors.
Next will come a master's degree--he has been accepted to graduate school at USC--and then a law degree. He promises.
But no achievement is likely to mean as much as this one.
Wearing a cap and gown Thursday marked the fulfillment of a goal Rodriguez has pursued with the intensity of a man obsessed.
It took nerve, talent and monk-like austerity to make this climb that led from the public library to Los Angeles Trade Tech to USC. That, and many helping hands along the way.
"The miracle," is what he calls his nine-year quest for an education. "God has been so good to me."
In the two years he has been at USC, Rodriguez has earned a 3.5 grade-point average. He won scholarships to pay for his education, and he has landed two other awards for service and scholarship.
Even as Rodriguez collected accolades, he let few people know of his past, not even his senior thesis advisor, history professor and State Librarian Kevin Starr. Few knew he had been homeless, that he was still living on skid row when he started at USC.
There is nothing in Rodriguez's appearance today to suggest his years on the margins. He is slight and extremely youthful-looking. He has an amiable, intelligent air, and wins friends easily. At Los Angeles Trade Tech, the community college he attended while on skid row, he was elected student body president.
But at USC, he is distinguished by a kind of separateness, and an all-consuming commitment to his studies.
An Intense, Scholarly Life
USC is no longer as white as it once was. One in six students today is Latino. But Rodriguez feels ill at ease among younger, whiter, richer students--hordes of them hanging out in Bermuda shorts and bikinis, blasting stereos on fraternity lawns near his home.
He beams intensity from every pore. Always in a hurry, and completely overloaded, it is as if he needs to remain in constant motion to sustain his trajectory.
"I don't have a social life," he said with particular emphasis, implying that it's not just a byproduct of his schedule; it's a principle.
His small, furnished room near the campus is nearly bare except for books. In a closet are his notebooks from all his years of college and university--eight total, six of them at Trade Tech.
Those early notebooks from his Trade Tech classes are yellowed now. Their content seems almost fantastically low-level: There are pages full of simple arithmetic, past and present perfect verb tenses: "Mike saw the bus. Mike has seen the bus."
On top of these is a recent USC paper on the Byzantine Empire in the 12th century. It is written crisply, academically, the prose of an advanced history student at a top university.
It seems impossible that the same person could have done both it and the notebooks. "Looking at them, sometimes I want to cry," he said.
The apartment also contains photos of his graduations and one of his adult daughter, from a relationship long ago, and a 5-year-old grandson.
Rodriguez admits that his daughter grew up without him. "But she has forgiven me," he said.
There is a faded photo of his grandmother in the Dominican Republic. She is sitting on the grass, perhaps at a picnic, gazing unsmilingly into the camera. Rodriguez contemplates it with affection: "That's what you call tough love," he said.
There is one more photo: It's of him as a young child at his first Communion in the Dominican Republic. In it, he stands ramrod straight in a white shirt. Something in it recalls the man today, not the one in those many grim years in between. "This is me," he said. The skid row years "were not me."
In the Dominican Republic, Rodriguez had excelled in Catholic school. After immigrating with his family at the age of 15 to New York's Washington Heights neighborhood, he excelled in fighting.
"We went to school to fight," he said. "We didn't go there to learn."
After dropping out in the 11th grade, he earned a high school equivalency diploma and went to work in a series of dead-end jobs. He picked up trash. He washed dishes. He came to Los Angeles and groomed horses at Hollywood Park. He drifted.
He had big dreams of fancy cars and nice clothes. What he got instead was skid row. He landed there in desperation in 1989. He would remain eight years.
In 1990, his world changed. His grandmother died.
Unschooled, yet literate and devoted to her grandson's education, Mela Castillo had been possessed of an iron will and a keen moral sense. She had been convinced that he would shine someday.
"It all came back," he said. "All those years. My parents. That's why they came here, to make me someone important." He had to make it right. He had to go to college.