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A resident of L.A.'s skid row finds comic relief

Elzie Alexander, who's lived on L.A.'s skid row 12 years, leaves his legacy as a comedian by sharing the repertoire of jokes he's collected all his life.

August 26, 2012|By Weston Phippen, Los Angeles Times

The feeling in his stomach wasn't butterflies. He was sure of that. He had prepared. He had his favorite 50 jokes memorized for the show, even practiced them on his friends.

It was the waiting to get onstage, he said, the wanting to get on with it that produced a guttural rumbling, like engines firing up for a rocket launch.

"I'm at the end of my life now," he warned, "and it's time to make something happen. I've been rehearsing for this very moment."

PHOTOS: Comedian Elzie Alexander

At 54, Elzie Alexander appeared to be one of the oldest people at the Last Bookstore's open mic night in downtown Los Angeles. Because he lives in a tent on skid row, he'd showered and shaved that day at a friend's apartment, his curly black hair parted down the side. He wore new socks and even his black, special-occasion shoes, which he's maybe worn 10 times in two years.

For all his life he'd built a repertoire of jokes so he could be a successful comedian. But if the right people didn't hear them, his life's work would amount to a few beaten belongings, what was left from 12 years on the streets.

"I know I'm not going to be around for that long," he said, "so this is like my legacy."

The host called Alexander's name, and the crowd of about 30 watched him adjust the microphone to fit his tall stature.

"Hey. What's up, Last Bookstore?" he called out, his voice full of energy.


Alexander grew up in Dayton, Ohio, graduated from high school and got a job as a rubber mixer at a General Motors factory.

"They replaced me with robots," he said.

He had some jobs, lost some jobs, but always dreamed of the day he'd be a comedian in Los Angeles.

He had moved to New Orleans; Akron, Ohio; and San Diego, living where he could, signing up to perform where he could, keeping faith that even if he had only $12 in his pocket, God would guide him, he said. Alexander wound up on L.A.'s skid row, near a corner where dealers whisper "cavi, cavi" — short for caviar — looking to sell crack cocaine.

"Is the cup half empty or is the cup half full?" Alexander asked, sitting near his friends on skid row. "Well, that depends if the cup was full or not to begin with. My cup started empty, so I would say now it's half full."

In the dozen years he's lived on the streets he's had intermittent work but said now he's lost the feeling in his hands. He gets $200 a month in general relief from Los Angeles County and has been convicted twice in the last six years for possession of drugs with intent to distribute.

"You're going to do stuff you're not proud of," he said of his rough past. "But there's no inherent respect in starving to death, either. Sometimes you have to do it."

On the corner where he passes his afternoons, the ground smells of sweat and urine. On this day, two police officers make an arrest nearby while on another part of the sidewalk a woman staggers by like a zombie — her head down and eyes fixed on her bare feet. A few feet away, a 32-year-old man yells and writhes on the pavement. Heroin withdrawal, Alexander said, adding, "The trick is to respect the guy no matter what he's going through."

Alexander and his friends sit on the sidewalk near 5th and San Julian streets, smoking cigarettes smuggled in from Mexico that they buy for a quarter each, chatting about one day opening a center for homeless artists.

If Hollywood is where dreams are made, then this is where dreams get run over, and down here Alexander is guru, shrink and comic relief for those in agony.

"He's been waiting to live that dream for a while," his friend Israil Abdulbarri said. "A lot of people gravitate toward him."

"He sticks to his guns. And that's rare out here," said another friend, Howard Bee, who carries a bass guitar everywhere.

None of Alexander's friends from skid row made it to his stand-up act, though — he figured they were probably pushing their carts down the sidewalk to settle in for the night. He didn't blame them. At least they'd watch his belongings.


At the stand-up show this month, the crowd laughed at nearly all his jokes and some turned around in their seat looking behind them with expressions on their faces like, "Did he really just say that?"

He'd almost lost them with the joke about a sandwich. But he got them back with the joke about his wife (though he doesn't have one). Then there was the one about being sent to prison.

"Did you ever notice that if you get in trouble and they lock you up, that the place they lock you up is always named after what you did?" he asked, amid some laughter. "For example, if they catch you forging checks, you go to the pen" — more laughter — "but if they catch you trafficking marijuana, they send you to the joint." He had the crowd now.

He wrapped it all up with a poem he sang to a pretty woman he called onto the stage. On the street after the show, a smile threatened to split his face in two. "There wasn't a person who wasn't laughing," he said.

There it was. That feeling he so loved.

Later he would set up his tent like he did every night:

He unloaded the cardboard and laid it on the cold concrete under a street lamp that buzzed like a wasp, casting a jaundiced light. His tent is in good shape, save for the holes in its bottom, burned from fallen cigarettes. He placed two long pieces of foam cushioning inside. He set a door mat at the entrance to his home. Then he prayed.

"There's nothing wrong with not having anything," he said. "A lot of people don't have anything. But if you don't have anything planned, then that's when depression sets in. If you don't have a light at the end of the tunnel, then you got nothing."

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