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SANDY BANKS

When Les Miserables Are in Our Cafes

November 12, 2000|SANDY BANKS

What would you do about Luther?

He started showing up a few weeks ago--filthy, unkempt, his long beard matted, his clothes reeking of garbage and urine and sweat. He took his place each morning in the coffeehouse line, amid the clean-cut college kids, suburban moms and suited businessmen queuing up for their venti lattes.

He ordered the same thing every day--a tall drip, $1.40--then shuffled outside to the patio and settled in at an empty table.

He never bothered anyone. He didn't beg for handouts or try to strike up conversations. He turned aside offers of charity from customers who tried to pay for his coffee or buy him something to eat.

When he was done, he'd make the rounds of patio tables, draining half-empty cups, downing remnants of pastries left behind. Occasionally, he'd wander off to pace in circles in the shopping center's parking lot.

He told the baristas his name, but that was the only question he'd answer. Mostly, Luther just sat in silence, buying refills of his coffee from time to time, ignoring the stares and whispers that dogged his every move.

*

My friend, call her Lynn, runs that local cafe. She's efficient and friendly, the kind of manager who makes it her business to learn the names of all her regulars, to set out pastry samples on the counter each morning, to keep the condiment bar clean and the pitchers full of cream.

Her bustling shop is a kind of community touchstone, where moms assemble after dropping their kids off at school, students stage late-night study sessions and men gather at lunchtime for Bible study.

She understands what customers want in this upscale Northridge neighborhood--a tidy, comfortable retreat from the pressures of their days. And Luther was threatening their sanctuary.

His appearance moved some customers to pity. Why, they wondered aloud, doesn't someone help that poor man? Others were repulsed, even frightened. A few stopped coming by altogether.Others eyed him disdainfully, as if his presence were a personal insult.

Lynn understood. "Their feeling is, 'I don't want to see a dirty table, I don't want to see a dirty bathroom, I don't want to see a dirty man. I don't want to pay $4 for a cup of coffee and have to sit next to a man who stinks.' "

But what was she supposed to do? Call the police? And what could they do? How do you dispatch a man whose only crime is assaulting our senses with the messy reality of his unwashed, uncooperative, unfathomable self?

Police encounter "Luthers" every day, roaming the streets, digging through dumpsters for their meals, sleeping in parks and along freeway exits. Some are hooked on drugs or alcohol, reduced by addiction to vagrancy. Others are mentally ill, veering in and out of reality. Some have simply given up, grown accustomed to the streets. Police can counsel them, point them toward churches or shelters. But they can't haul them off to jail or force them to get help. "This guy's not really doing anything," said LAPD Officer Robert Lequin, who has encountered Luther on patrol. "He's just being someplace, and folks don't like the way he looks. He makes people uncomfortable, but we can't do anything about 'uncomfortable.' . . . It's not a crime to be a bum."

*

We would be more comfortable, of course, if Luther would be a bum somewhere else . . . if he would just take the quarters and dollars we offer and go elsewhere to buy his coffee and stop stinking up our suburban lives.

Maybe that's what the shopping center manager was thinking when he came to Lynn with this solution: Just stop serving him. Then he'd have to leave, or risk arrest for loitering.

Lynn turned the idea around in her head, imagined Luther getting to the head of the line one morning and being told, "Sorry, no coffee for you today." It might be better for the bottom line, but what would it mean to the man inside?

How could she justify turning him away? Because he's dirty, he stinks, his appearance makes some customers fearful? What about those guys who stop in on their way from the gym, reeking because they haven't showered? Or those raucous teenagers covered with tattoos? The fellow with dreadlocks, the guy who looks like a skinhead, the grimy crew of construction workers . . . should she stop serving them too?

Lynn talked to her family, her friends, her boss. She thought about the risks--what if the guy flips out and hurts somebody? And she decided this was as much about principle as profit. That no matter how we dress it up with concerns about safety and sanitation, there is no disguising discrimination.

Luther would remain welcome to sit and drink his coffee, and folks who didn't like it would just have to hold their noses.

*

And then he vanished. When Lynn showed up to open the shop last Sunday, there was no Luther waiting for her. Her customers are mostly glad. Now their coffeehouse can get back to normal.

The showdown may have been averted, but we can't sidestep the quandary of how to feel about all the Luthers who wander in and out of our lives.

What still haunts Lynn is not the way he smelled or the rheumy look of his eyes, but the ring she glimpsed when he reached out for his coffee one morning--a gold band almost obscured by grime. He wasn't always some scary, homeless guy, she realized.

"I can't help wondering what brought him to this place," she said. Did his wife leave him or his business fail or his mind falter? Maybe it's not that Luther's so different that's frightening. Maybe we're scared that Luther was once just like us.

*

Sandy Banks' column runs on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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