He pulled himself out of a skid row gutter, but never even tried to disguise his past. He embraced it as the caldron that had shaped him, that had given him new life. And he made it part of his name.
Richard "5th Street Dick" Fulton rose from skid row to open a landmark jazz coffeehouse in Los Angeles' Leimert Park arts community. His logo was a homeless man pushing a shopping cart, and he adopted "5th Street," the name of skid row's main drag.
On Saturday, Fulton, 56, lost his long battle with throat cancer. As he lay dying that morning with trumpeter Lee Morgan's music playing in his room, he declined a morphine shot, instead telling nurses in a note: "Turn the music up."
When he opened 5th Street Dick's Coffee Co. on West 43rd Place eight years ago, Fulton brought cohesion and a center to a struggling arts community.
"You could go to 5th Street Dick's at 2 a.m. and see Japanese tourists catching a jazz set inside, and outside see white chess players peeking over the shoulders of black chess players," said poet Kamau Daaood, a seminal figure in the Leimert Park arts movement.
Fulton opened his coffeehouse two days before Los Angeles' 1992 riots. Leimert Park residents came into the streets to stand guard through the night over the area's galleries and shops, and their paintings, sculpture and black memorabilia.
The coffeehouse was a regular stop on the Jazz Caravan sponsored by KLON-FM (88.1), and it was a virtual home for musicians like the late pianist Horace Tapscott, the pillar of Leimert Park jazz, the Ron Muldrow Quartet and the late trumpeter Dan Bagasoul, among scores of others.
At 5th Street Dick's and the nearby World Stage, Leimert Park gave birth to groups such as B Sharp and Columbia and Impulse recording artists Black/Note, which recorded "5th Street" on one of its albums, a tribute to Fulton.
Fulton's coffeehouse, also an important venue for poets and comedians, started with pieces of scrap lumber. He had helped build the small theater in what was then Marla Gibbs' Vision Complex in Leimert Park. With scraps left over from that job, he went to work on his own vision. When he was finished, Los Angeles had a coffeehouse like no other in town.
A native of Pittsburgh, Fulton never forgot that there was a time when he had to panhandle just to buy a cup of coffee--a long way from serving up cappuccino and African blends in paper cups to tourists from around the world.
He had spent three years on skid row, a time when, as he once put it, "I had no caring, no will left in me.
"All I could do was watch the life spill out of me. When you're down like I was, you die on a daily basis. I aspired to absolutely nothing."
His descent into dereliction began after he was discharged from the Army in 1974, he told The Times in a 1992 interview.
He had struggled with a drinking problem most of his adult life, and he wound up on skid row in 1977, three years after landing in Los Angeles.
"All my life, I felt I was a click behind things," he said. "I really never wanted to achieve anything. The military gave me a structure, some meaning. But it all came apart."
He lived what he called an "animal existence," stumbling through a thickening haze from one drink to the next. But that incoherence began to change when an Alcoholics Anonymous recovery wagon picked him up in 1978.
"Suddenly, there was no more horrendous pressure to just survive," he said. "Slowly, they gave me back my ability to love. I mean, I was raggedy, smelly, funky--but they loved me back into existence."
He became a mainstay in the Crenshaw Al-Anon organization, helping to return nearly 100 homeless people in Leimert Park to sobriety.
He worked a variety of jobs until he opened his coffeehouse and made it one of the few places in Los Angeles where night owls could go to hear music long after midnight. Any attempts at conversation in the small performance space were futile, but the chess players outside talked trash until sunrise over intensely competitive games.
Fulton's body will be cremated, and plans for a memorial are pending.