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Cold comfort on the street

Raymond Byrnes is homeless, but he follows a strict routine. Church twice a day, lots of coffee and caring for a friend help fill the long days and nights.

January 07, 2007|Brady MacDonald | Times Staff Writer

Raymond Byrnes awakens on the cold sidewalk, grips his rosary beads tight and prays for strength -- thankful to have made it through another night on Los Angeles' skid row.

At 61, he has been homeless for nearly a decade, spending most of his nights at the corner of 5th Street and Gladys Avenue.

At the top of 5th Street, the downtown drug corridor known as "The Nickel," the crown of the 1,000-foot-tall US Bank Tower glimmers in the black sky. Around the corner on Gladys, a tent city renders both sidewalks impassable. The smell of urine, vomit, feces and garbage hangs in the air.

Each night, Byrnes sleeps in the same spot against a windowless, cinder-block wholesale liquor store -- under a sign that warns "no person shall sit, lie or sleep in or upon any street, sidewalk or other public way." There's a homeless shelter two blocks away and others within walking distance, but Byrnes prefers the familiarity of his skid row corner -- no matter how dangerous or difficult it is.

By day, he falls into a routine of military precision that would have made his Army colonel/ police chief/prison warden Irish American father proud.

Today, like most of Byrnes' days, starts at 5 a.m. Over the next 24 hours he can count on one meal, two church services and a dozen cups of coffee -- all the sustenance he'll need to survive.

"My philosophy is you find what you need," he says.

Byrnes rolls up his handmade sleeping bag and packs his lone knapsack with a tattered cardigan sweater, a stocking cap embroidered with "L.A." and a patched jacket. Everything has a place and everything is in its place.

In an outside pocket, he stuffs his own personal concoction of spicy lemonade: a blend of lemon, lime, grapefruit and jalapeno in an old soda bottle. The juice doubles as a drink and holy water.

In another pocket, he stores seven rosaries -- one for each day of the week. Blue for Monday, red for Tuesday, yellow for Wednesday. He swaps out yesterday's rosary for today's and begins the Apostles' Creed.

Finally, he folds up a blue plastic tarp that serves as his mattress, revealing a faintly smudged cross on the sidewalk: an X marking his spot.

His ragamuffin wardrobe rarely changes: scavenged Rockport sandals, threadbare socks, high-water khaki pants and an oversized Lakers T-shirt. He pulls his thinning hair into a short ponytail. His defining characteristic: an unruly gray Santa Claus beard that stretches to the top of his round belly.

Careful to avoid the drug dealers and drug-addled of skid row, Byrnes walks with a slight waddle across downtown to Olvera Street. Always following the same route, he passes the cold storage warehouses along Central Avenue and slips through relatively tame and tidy Little Tokyo.

By 6 a.m., he's in his pew -- row 10, left side, against the adobe wall -- at La Placita Church, a Catholic chapel adjacent to the city's historic center. He bows his head toward the impressive gold leaf altar and prays until the Mass begins.

Up to a quarter of the 50 or so regular attendees are homeless. From memory, he sings along and recites the prayers -- all in Spanish. It's a language he studied in high school and college but mastered only in church. The holy Eucharist is his first food of the day.

As soon as the Mass ends, the homeless and near-homeless quickly file out to form a line for free coffee and sweets -- a big draw for the predawn service. Byrnes takes two of each.

After church (and a refill of coffee), Byrnes walks the few blocks to Philippe's, a Los Angeles institution known equally for its French dip sandwiches and 9-cent cups of coffee. The waitress recognizes him and pours his usual: two cups of coffee for 18 cents.

It's his first and often only expense of the day. Sometimes he visits Grand Central Market to stock up on spicy lemonade supplies or a fabric store for needle and thread. But not today.

A handful of the homeless gather in a side room of Philippe's to kibitz about the past night and the day ahead. Byrnes knows them all but keeps to himself. He has work to do.

He spreads out his project at his favorite table next to a window overlooking Alameda Street. Fifty pages, hand-bound with needle and thread, of pencil sketches and schematic drawings. He's been toiling at the task -- what he calls his personal obsession -- for seven years now. He says he's half-finished.

The intricate and meticulous diagrams detail the inner workings of the boiler controls for a ship's steam turbine. It's the same project he was working on when he lost his job in 1975. His great hope is to pitch the proposal to an energy company.

"This is just an extension of the work I was doing 30 years ago," Byrnes says.

*

The oldest of three Army brats, Raymond Joseph Byrnes spent his childhood hopping from base to base in Japan, Germany and elsewhere around the globe before returning to California during his high school years.

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