Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa serves food at a traditional Thanksgiving… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)
It was a makeshift banquet hall on asphalt. Tables were decked with yellow and orange paper and an arrangement of dried flowers. Hundreds of volunteers scurried around, offering plates laden with turkey, ham, stuffing and gravy. Onstage, a band played a mix of jazz and funk.
Thanksgiving at the Midnight Mission on skid row was underway.
Volunteers were prepared to serve a free hot meal to about 4,000 people, many of them homeless, on a cordoned-off section of 6th Street. On hand was a staggering amount of food, including 4,000 pounds of turkey, 3,000 rolls, 700 pounds of candied yams, 400 pies and 15 gallons of gravy.
But what was most impressive to some diners was the festive environment and the chance to experience holiday cheer with others.
"The atmosphere, the people, the way they treat you, the music — you don't always get this," said Oliver Taylor, 65, after he was handed a red velvet cupcake and a plate that included green beans and candied yams.
Larry Adamson, president and chief executive of the mission, said the organization aims to go big when it comes to its annual Thanksgiving meal.
"I want them to experience what perhaps you and I get to experience when we go home — that sense of community and family," he said. "Making this more special than a normal day is, I think, our obligation."
Guests appeared to enjoy the ambience and the chance to be served as if in a restaurant. Some requested seconds and thirds.
"The turkey, wooo!" said Toni Freeman, 56, with a grin. "And that dressing? That was smokin'." She had made sure to bring along a roll of aluminum foil for her leftovers.
Beside her sat Pat Loken, who kept her cart of blankets, clothes and toiletries beside her. When she finished eating, the 60-year-old grabbed her cart and went to stand in a long line to grab another meal to go.
Loken lost her job as a janitor at a warehouse this year. She lived for a while at a motel and then moved to her car. She got a bed at the Midnight Mission a week ago.
"Don't lose your job," she said. "You'll end up like me."
Holidays make Loken think of her husband, who died of cancer four years ago. She has no children and hasn't kept in touch with other family members. She was grateful for the Thanksgiving celebration to keep her mind busy.
"Even though I'm not with family, at least I'm not alone," Loken said. "This is helping me keep my spirits somewhat up so I don't cry my eyes out. I was just about to start crying standing here in this line."
Just then a familiar white-haired man making his way down the line appeared by Loken's side. "Wanna spoil your appetite?" he asked, holding up a basket filled with bags of M&Ms.
Loken gasped and cracked a broad smile. "Hey, Dick Van Dyke! I used to watch your show! Hey, buddy!"
She reached out and gave him a hearty hug. "That was Dick Van Dyke!" she said as the famous actor continued with his volunteer duties.
Then she stepped back in line, a smile still on her face.