As I try to write about this “new normal” we are living in, I realize it's hard to remember what the old normal was like, even though it was just months ago. While it seems people are getting used to the situation, the human mind looks for a certain predictable stability in which to center itself. But the biggest part of our current situation is the total disorientation. There is nothing you can hold onto as being true.
In the beginning, one of the world’s most renowned, respected scientists described how dire the crisis was, and how it could worsen. Then, another equally respected scientist said how quickly it was going to pass — solid empirical evidence that it wasn’t as bad as it seemed, and equally solid proof that it was worse than what we were seeing.
And that was just the beginning! The opinions rapidly multiplied with every day that passed, with every person you had a conversation with. Before, the opposing thoughts would be between groups of people. But now it was between each and every individual, in each and every group.
“Disintegration far outpacing integration.” The paranoia is increasingly fragmenting the American mind. And, if it doesn't stop (there's no sign that it will stop, but that this is just the beginning) the only conclusion is a collective schizophrenia. That's not hyperbole. I know what schizophrenia looks like. Living on the streets for decades I've seen people who were fairly cognitive, who over various amounts of time became schizophrenic right in front of me. I know the signs of inevitable insanity. And this, America, is it.
One of those signs is questioning the reality that is presented to you. This is always a very healthy beginning, but then the road ahead of you becomes divided down the middle, by the thin line between enlightenment and insanity. Which side someone veers off into is the question. The paranoid and insane insist that they are enlightened, and the enlightened don’t care if they are thought of as insane.
It's not just that one knows, it's that no one trusts anyone who may know. This is the first time in my lifetime when there has been no general consensus that people agree on. Before, even if you didn't agree with the general consensus, or were rebelling against it, at least you knew what you were disagreeing with and rebelling against. Now there are no coordinates by which you can orient yourself. This can be exciting to the point of exhilaration, or frightening to the point of handicap.
Flight pilots call this phenomenon “spatial disorientation.” I was at a lecture years ago when I first heard the concept described by a speaker:
If you’ve ever flown as a pilot across the ocean, you know how easy it is to become spatially disoriented. The blue ocean and the blue sky are often indistinguishable from each other. Some pilots look out and think, “I'm flying upside down!” But when they look at the console, all their navigational instruments are telling them that they are indeed flying right-side up. But when they look out in front of them they say to themselves, “I'm flying upside down!” This is when some of them trust what they are seeing more than their instruments, and turn themselves around and crash right into the sea.
As a result, in flight training they drill into you the importance of trusting your instruments, and to not do a Luke Skywalker and “trust the force.”
Personal principles are like your navigation instruments, that tell you exactly where you are in life when nothing else does. Sometimes you don't know what is happening; you have no real idea what to do, you are just reacting to what you think you see happening in your immediate environment. That's when you need personal principles that you can coordinate yourself with. When you become confused by circumstances around you, those principles are your compass that tell you where you are...what you should be doing...and how to get where you want to go.
I have always considered myself to be a fairly perceptive person compared to most. I can usually feel out when someone is telling me the truth, or when they’re just saying what they want me to believe. I used to dismiss paranoid people out of hand. But time has taught me the mistake of this prejudice as the crazy conspiracy theories that I laughed at in my youth have proved to be shockingly true as the years rolled by. All those silly, paranoid “Twilight Zone” science fiction predictions of future dystopian nightmares, of a world run by sociopaths and morons determined to destroy the planet, aren’t so funny anymore as I’m currently watching it all materialize right in front of me.
As far as the paranoid I've come to realize that just because a person is crazy, doesn't mean they aren't right. And just because they are right, DOESN'T MEAN THEY’RE NOT CRAZY!
On the one hand, if I trust people, I can get led down every rabbit hole there is. If I don't trust people, I have to attack everything that moves in a constant state of defensive paranoia. Is that the sky above me? Or below me? The only thing I can rely on are my own personal principles to guide me through...through...through God only knows what the future will bring next.
One of the principles that guides me is creating. In my darkest of times it’s the only thing that gives me a sliver of space to breathe. It's both my survival instinct and my true north. Every once in a while, when I’m able to put my rather pedestrian writing and visuals skills to use, that’s when I’m most confident, most assured, most happy. That’s when I don’t need to know what’s gonna happen next — as long as I am creating NOW.
And so here it is:
I tried to wake Scotty up, but when I couldn't I snapped this photo of him and gave him five bucks later.
From what I've seen, the communities hardest hit by the coronavirus are those of Blacks and Latinos. On the surface of it, the only explanation I can see is that they seem to be the most “essential workers'' in food, medical and construction. Although what I don't understand is why construction is deemed so “essential.” In some areas of West L.A., on what seems like almost every block, some construction or renovation is happening. Tearing down some beautiful 1920s art deco house and putting up a horrifying two-story plywood storage container in its place. While the workers are all wearing masks, there's usually more than 10 of them, and they are all Latinos, making quarantining in the Latino community almost pointless.
Pablo in front of a mural in the alley behind Fairfax Boulevard.
Friends who initially warned me “not to touch anything” and to “constantly wash [my] hands,” or I would get the coronavirus, were basically telling me I was gonna get it no matter what. Living out in the streets, there was simply no way I could see myself not coming in contact with it. So I mentally prepared myself for it with lots of garlic, Airborne, herbal tea and Louise L. Hays’ “How to Heal Your Body” ready to reference on my iPhone.
Albert in front of WE GOT THIS❤️LA❤️mural.
People ask me how hard COVID-19 has been in the homeless community. It’s made things difficult, but to be honest not any more difficult than what I see other people deal with. I know several homeless people who have had it, but no one who has actually died from it. I don’t even know anyone who knows anyone on the streets who has died from it. But I do know many Blacks and Latinos not living on the streets who have known people who have died of it.
Callahan in front of WE GOT THIS❤️LA❤️mural.
I met Ray in Hollywood while he was panhandling on Sunset Boulevard. I asked him if I could take a photo of him for five bucks. He said, “What’s it for?” I replied it was my hustle. He said, “Say no more.”
“Freedom.” I saw him in front of In-N-Out Burger on Sunset with a sign that read, “DON'T FORGET TO SMILE.”
A simple “OPEN” sign doesn't do anymore. It has to be “YES WE ARE DEFINITELY OPEN.” Here is Ray in front of one of those signs at Oki Dogs on Fairfax.
A street vendor in front of Trader Joe’s on La Brea."
Reggie is a screenwriter with several credits to his name. He isn’t really homeless. He lives with his wife in the Miracle Mile neighborhood.
However, they fight a lot, and when it gets to a certain point Reggie cusses her out, leaves and sleeps in the park for a couple weeks until he cools down. But since the lockdown he hasn’t been able to leave when they fight. He says now he just stays there and they keep fighting.
“It’s like living in a prison. Although I’m just assuming. I’ve never been to prison myself. Prison might be better, I don't know.”
Janice is an international singer. The coronavirus, however, ended all of her bookings abroad. But she is still thankful for her health, and takes special precautions as she frequently visits her mother who is in strict quarantine because of her age and health. She is not homeless but her brother is. He lives in a tent on the side of a Ralph’s grocery store. Here she is checking in on him with some food and money. But she refuses to get within six feet of him, because she keeps accusing him of spitting while he talks.
Long before the coronavirus, I often heard ridiculous numbers on what the city was spending to help the homeless. Sometimes, it was said they were spending $2-4 billion a year on the homeless. I knew that was bulls**t. Either that number is an out and out lie, or the money is getting siphoned off somewhere before it gets to the streets because of poor, or nonexistent oversight. Because, despite all the big talk I’ve heard in the five years I've been back in L.A. on the streets, I have seen virtually nothing done to address homelessness. And even less to even begin to stem the flow of people that find themselves newly homeless, that everyday flood the streets at a rate unprecedented since it became a real issue back in the 80s.
Doug Smith, a reporter for the L.A. Times, has written several articles on the homeless in the Fairfax District. I emailed him asking what the actual number was. He wrote back:
There's no simple answer to your question. The city and county both put in money. Under Measure H, the county has been putting around $350 million of sales tax revenue annually into homeless services since 2017. The city is spending $1.2 billion of borrowed money on housing over several years.
Both the city and county have commited other funds to homeless services through their budgets and council and supervisor office funds. I think the city is spending about $100 million on Mayor Garcetti’s Bridge Home shelters, most of it coming from the state. I don't have a good accounting of all these. The number is probably in the ballpark of $100 million a year. To some extent the city has gamed the numbers by including the value of city-owned land that was offered for homeless housing.
In addition, there are indirect costs, such as paramedic and police response, jail costs and hospital care. There have been efforts to quantify these, but those are, at best, hypothetical. Nobody knows for sure how much would be saved if there weren't homeless people.
Overall, I'd say the estimate of $2 to $4 billion a year is high unless it includes an estimate of those indirect costs. It would be hard to add up all the known sources to more than $1 billion.
Well, whether it's been hundreds of millions or billions, I'd never seen a dime of it manifested on the streets before the pandemic. On the other hand, since COVID hit, they have been opening up shelters left and right, setting up much-needed porta potties on the streets, and hand washing stations at places where the homeless congregate. The state, county and Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) came together to start Project Roomkey to get people off the streets and into hotels. It was amazing to see more done for the homeless in one month than the previous five years combined.
This mobile shower program is one of the more visible results. Like the porta potties, it became a true blessing when the lockdown closed all public restrooms and gyms, where many homeless took their showers. In the summer heat and humidity, when you see one of the shower units in front of you, you know there is a God.
In fact, there have been many good things to come about for people because of the pandemic. Shae and Rock were both living in their car, but because of the coronavirus stimulus checks and the unemployment benefits they received, they have been able to move back to Florida and into an apartment.
Bo volunteers to help the homeless, driving around in a van passing out food, toiletries and clothing.
I started chatting with this youngster in front of 7-Eleven, and then asked him if I could take a shot of him. I usually ask people to take off their masks before I shoot them. But this happened really quickly. His name is Cavino.
The coronavirus has also opened up some opportunities for me as well. First and foremost are the photo essays I’ve produced for LAist, like the one you are reading right now. When the lockdown first went into effect, I contacted LAist out of desperation, hoping to give myself something to do. Now, having these projects to work on is what's been keeping me sane through the exponential madness that's spreading throughout the country.
However, there is a Catch-22. Because of the coronavirus I’ve been able to work on these photo essays. But because of the coronavirus I haven't been able to work on these photo essays. Before the pandemic, I would work on projects in coffee houses or the library. Because of the lockdown all the libraries and coffee shops like Starbucks, Coffee Bean and the like were no longer allowing patrons to sit inside. Inside is where I could plug in my laptop, get free WiFi and edit my photos, video and writing, all day if I liked, as long as I kept buying something.
But now with COVID I have no place to do that. Not even restaurants allow people inside anymore. There are certain places where I can hijack some WiFi sitting outside, and others where there are exterior outlets that I can use to charge my stuff, but there is no place where I can do both at the same time and work.
Today when I have a backlog of photos to edit, I have to rent a hotel room. This is the only place where I can have electricity and WiFi simultaneously, as well as the time I need. People ask me if it's worth losing all that money for a hotel just to do a photo essay. Like I said, these projects help me keep sane. I'd rather lose money than lose my mind. In fact I'm in the hotel as I type this out, not only finishing up this essay but getting out of the 95 degree furnace outside.
The room is $85 a night. When I'm working on an essay that I haven't completed yet, but run out of money for the room, I'll beg one of my friends for enough money for another day or two until I'm finished.
Right now I would like to express my deepest and most sincere gratitude to those friends, without whose generosity I would not have been able to create (stay sane): Avi, Stacy, Bill, Naomi, John, Xotchilt, Daniel and Jen and Buster, Evangeline, Asher, Mark, Tirzah, Ana, Jeanine, Mark, Nancy Blanchette, Itai, Felix, Ernie and JT.
Before COVID, Currently COVID
It's interesting for me to see photos I've taken of people before COVID, and then photographs of them afterward with their masks on. In and out of COVID mode so to speak.
One wonders how children perceive this whole pandemic apocalypse. Here is Adair Angel having no respect for my request for six feet of social distance.
“Betty in Wonderland.” Betty Angel looking through her grandfather’s edition of “Alice in Wonderland.”
Adair Angel giving Elisabeth Angel a big sister hug.
All three of the Angel sisters in their STRAIGHT OUTTA COVID wear.
Steven Arroyo is often mistaken for being of Middle Eastern descent. He is actually an old school Chicano. He owns the Escuela Taqueria and Totem Poultry restaurants on Beverly Boulevard. Here he is pre-COVID, hanging out outside one of his restaurants. He is known for being a warm, approachable guy.
Here is the same man in COVID-19 mode, establishing a safe social distance between himself and his customers.
When the lockdown went into effect, he lost 50% of his customers. Now the majority of his business comes from deliveries. And delivery services take out a sizable commission fee for every order.
“I'm basically in partnership with Postmates now.”
Like many other businesses, he has used this downtime constructively by renovating the interior of his restaurant.
This is Jaime Gregory, the shower attendant at the Saban Free Clinic. A Big Mellow/High Yellow Fellow, he is one of those characters that takes it slow and goes with the flow. However, he is also a former street gangster from Watts. He lets guys get by with a lot, but if they start talking too much sh*t, he will very slowly raise up all of his 6’3” 300 pounds, right into their faces with: “What’d you say? Say it again.”
That’s usually enough to end any further rebellion against his authority.
I’ve been going to the Los Angeles Free Clinic since the 90s. It was one of the best services not just for the homeless, but for the medical needs of the low-income in general. Checkups, tests, minor dentistry; they even help you fill out health insurance. It was one of the most helpful organizations in the city as far as low-cost medical services.
But a couple years ago the clinic administration changed hands and the neighborhood started complaining about the amount of homeless people in the area (as if the increase in homelessness wasn't a citywide problem). As a result, the new administration cut back on the services to the homeless, down to the bare minimum that they were required by law to give and still qualify for city funding. They made it subtly but openly known the homeless were no longer welcome at the clinic.
While top city officials have finally cut through their bureaucracy to extend necessary services to the homeless during the pandemic, the Saban Free Clinic used the COVID-19 crisis to increase their bureaucracy as an excuse to slash their homeless services in half. The shower program for instance, used to run for 7.5 hours per day. With the shower time capped at 15 minutes per person, they served 30 people a day. Now the operating hours have been cut to two hours. So instead of 30 people being able to shower in one day, only eight spots are available. Several fights have broken out when more than a dozen people come from miles around in the 90 degree summer heat to find out there are only eight spots available. And then there are days when they arbitrarily decide not to open at all. Those days are truly maddening.
“My paparazzi is sexier than your paparazzi.” Here is my photographer friend, Jessica Sherman taking some photos of me (while I am taking some photos of her) in an alley behind Third Street. She is a professional portrait and entertainment photographer.
She caught me on the street one day and said, “This is great lighting. Would you be willing to let me photograph you now?” I said, “Sure.”
Once the lockdown went into effect, all the movie screenings that she would usually be hired to shoot were canceled. She only leaves her apartment to walk her dogs, and even then, always fully masked and gloved. She will leap out the way of anyone she sees without a mask.
”My, Grandma, what a long lens you have.”
“All the better to stay at least 12 feet away from you, my dear.”
With coffee shops no longer allowing people to sit inside in the air conditioning, it's been a travail just to find a cool place to sit. I found this executive chair in the alley and pushed it against the corner of a building for shade. I was sitting there reading Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States” when Jessica came walking by with her dogs.
She said, “Hold tight right there. I'm going to go get my camera!” She came back and shot the photo below.
A Quarantined Life
Mischa has terminal cancer, among other ailments. He has to stay in extreme quarantine. The only people he gets close to are his family and his dog.
Family portrait: Pam works as a substitute teacher at home. She teaches through Zoom and also homeschools her two children, who have been at home with her for the last five months. Just before this photo was taken, her husband was furloughed from his job in a law office. The whole family are now ALL together, ALL the time.
The fact that the homeless community has not had more deaths from the epidemic has been a miracle. However, the Orthodox Jewish community is even more of a mystery to me. I live in the Fairfax District which has one of the largest concentrations of religious Orthodox Jews in the country. Even though I'm homeless, I've known many of the members of the community for years, some of them since they were teenageers.
The Orthodox Jewish community is one of the most physically close communities that you can imagine. They all go to synagogue twice a day. On the Sabbath and high holidays they don't use cars; instead, they walk and interact with each other on the street far more communally than their non-orthodox neighbors. And when the coronavirus started to spread more widely, it was just around the large gatherings of the Purim holiday, where many of them said they were exposed to the virus. A large swath of the community became ill. They've told me they know people who have died of it back in New York, but amazingly, in L.A.’s whole Jewish Orthodox community, not just Fairfax but Pico/Robertson and the Valley, there have only been a handful of known COVID deaths. Many of them have said to me, “It is G-d that is looking over us.” I don't know about that, but something is protecting them.
Below, a Chassidic group of related males enjoys a lunch outing at one of the popular local Kosher restaurants, Dr. Sandwich.
Carolyn with family outside her house. Several of Carolyn’s children go to school out of state, but because of the COVID-19 shutdown, they are staying with her. She says even though they are all grown up, once they come back home they revert back to teenagers, and she regains all the joys that come with dealing with a house full of teenagers.
However, having her grandson around all the time more than makes up for it.
Yossi lives in Israel, but came to be with his family in Los Angeles for Passover back in March. When the coronavirus spread, Israel closed its borders to non-citizens, and Yossi was “stuck” in L.A. He was planning on returning in a couple months, as soon as Israel lifted the ban, but after an increasing number of COVID cases, Israel announced it had no immediate plans to reopen the borders. Here is Yossi with his brother, Mendi, and sister, Channah, after hearing the happy news they will all be together as a family indefinitely.
Couture wedding dress designer, Claire Pettibone. With the coronavirus lockdown and subsequent gathering restrictions, most weddings were canceled and the bridal shop had to close. However, she and her husband, Guy, began to make masks instead of dresses in order to keep their workers employed, and themselves busy. Here they are with their young daughter, Lorelei. They bring Lorelei to work with them where she takes her classes online.
Daniel Alfonso Men's Salon is one of the more famous hair salons in L.A. However, since the lockdown most people, famous and otherwise, have been famously putting personal hair styling farther down their “to-do” list. But Alfonso’s reputation is such that he still gets enough business to get by better than many. Here are customers Mace and Ryan outside the salon eagerly waiting for their appointment, after what they both say has been several months of neglected hair care.
I myself took a hit business-wise with the coronavirus. With everything locked down, the streets were empty. No point posting up somewhere and selling my DVDs, T-shirts or photos because no one wanted to touch anything. My hustle was dead in the water. Then I saw one of the guys who prints my shirts making masks. I asked him if he could make masks for me with my logo on it. He said sure, so I had a bunch printed up.
Below, Dovi was the first to buy one of my masks in Hebrew.
Tommy wanted one in silver. When I told him I only had pink left, but I could print out some more for him, he said, “F**k it, I'll take the pink one.”
Here's Louis with the original black and white.
Ryan wanted one in L.A. Dodger blue and white.
I’m gonna end this essay on the “new normal” with a few photos of what apparently the future normal of this country is gonna look like.
Protesters of George Floyd’s killing heading towards Pan Pacific Park on May 30.
Protests signs, the National Guard, armored military vehicles and a woman walking around with hand sanitizer. This was easily the most sanitary protest in history.
On my way to buy a Coke at the store, when I ran into these fellows hanging out on the corner.