Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Letter from Los Angeles: Public Life and Death in Koreatown

from Jason in Los Angeles:

When I was on the phone with my mom a few Sundays back, I walked past a homeless man that I see quite regularly in my neighborhood.

He would sit silently in front of empty storefronts or on short retaining walls of apartment buildings. He didn't ask for anything. He just sat there, with his chin sunk into his chest, which was often stained with vomit and flies buzzing around. Although he's a white man, his face, hands and bare feet were charcoal-black, glazed with the grime of the city. When he walked, he did so slowly, dragging a train of ripped urine- and shit-saturated pants. His odor was so potent that I could smell him from almost two blocks away, and I would cross the street to avoid gagging on the stench. Walking through the neighborhood, I could watch unsuspecting passers-by to see at which point they would either cover their faces or stop suddenly and cross the street once they caught the odor. Occasionally he'd disappear for a few weeks, and return cleaned up, if only for a short while. But most of the time, he was in the foulest condition of any human I'd ever seen.

After describing his condition to my mom on the phone after passing him, she gasped, "Jason! For God's sake buy that man some socks! How can you just walk past? Do something…" I told my mom that she didn't understand. That there are 90,000 homeless people in Los Angeles people here, the most in the country. Most of whom are mentally ill and who were turned onto the street mercilessly in the 1980s by our Reagan-led government. There are entire encampments that crowd sidewalks with old tents and cardboard boxes, homes for tens of thousands here that live he in plain view but somehow simultaneously in the in the margins.

At about 9:30pm last Thursday, this stinking mystery man was slumped on an empty storefront on 3rd street, a bustling working class Latino commercial area, when two young men hopped out of a car, doused him in gasoline, and set him afire. He died upon arrival at the hospital.

To be brutally honest, I wasn't that surprised at such a gruesome, violent fate for this innocent man. As the nation's "homeless capital" Los Angeles is home to familiar stories of hospitals—even highly-regarded ones—"dumping" people without health insurance into the gutters on the streets of Skid Row, including patients in hospital gowns with colostomy bags still attached. And having lived my pre-Los Angeles life in New Orleans, where I had roommates shot in the face by teenagers over possessions valued at less than $40, bricks and glass bottles thrown at me while riding my bike, and where days with 3 or more murders were commonplace, I wasn't especially sensitive anymore to senseless, appalling violence.

At the spot on 3rd street that the man, John McGraham, was burned alive, residents of Koreatown had set up a memorial that I visited last night. Although Koreatown is of course home to many Koreans, many parts of the district are almost entirely Latino. A man walks into the alley of my 7-story apartment building each morning hollering "tamales!" for sale, and I get my produce from a cucaracha—a small grocery operating out of a small white moving van parked on Catlina street.

In this part of Koreatown, life is lived quite publicly—all the more interesting and teeming since there is very little public space at all in Los Angeles. The sidewalks, stoops, parked cars, corners, and parking lots become places of public life—people selling pastries and bacon-wrapped hotdogs out of converted baby strollers, children playing, adults conversing, and, every so often, public memorials.

The memorial on 3rd street was tended mostly by the Latino residents and nearby merchants, with dozens of Virgin Mary candles, flowers, and loving notes from the neighbors, including one by a teenage boy and his girlfriend about the time they offered John three tacos, but he only wanted two, and condiments on the side please. John's family, who lived elsewhere in Los Angeles, taped posters with photos of him as a child on the wall, partially covering up the charred wall where he was set ablaze. "This man was a child" I thought. A simple thought that, sadly, seemed so profound. Neighbors gathered, stories were told, mostly in Spanish. A woman laughed when she read a note on the wall that said, "To John: the coolest black white man in Los Angeles. We'll miss you."

The memorial for John on 3rd street was an event that became shared by the community, and in doing so, helped maintain and perpetuate this community itself. That sidewalk, narrowed over time by excessive street-widening to allow more car lanes, could barely fit two people shoulder-to-shoulder. But it wasn't too small to host a sprawling, potent memorial to someone that, although abject by nearly every conceivable standard, was a familiar part of a neighborhood—and, as it turned out, a quite beloved part of the neighborhood too. It reminded me of another kind of public memorial, the jazz funeral, and the parade of family members, friends, neighbors and strangers ambling the streets of the deceased person's neighborhood, with little distinction between participant and observer. Likewise, there was no voyeurism in participating in the remembrance outside the charred and shuttered dentist's office on 3rd Street in Koreatown; it was welcome to those that knew him, those that didn't, and even people like me that knew him in a very limited—and perhaps quite distorted—way.

As I walked home, I realized that somehow I was more shocked by the humanizing effects of this public memorial, than of the cruel, horrific cause of it. In Los Angeles, this city of private spaces and brutal contradictions, the public life of immigrant neighborhoods can be an especially powerful force. It helped me remember, for a moment, what I was like before I was desensitized to such brutal violence. And it finally, if briefly, imparted one of thousands of strangers the love and deference that they deserve, but were so frequently denied, even by otherwise decent people like me.

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