November 15, 2007, Skid Row, Los Angeles

InvalidsFeces, a half-eaten plate of golden rice and green peas next to a puddle of what appears like urine and a badly soiled menstrual pad.

Smeared shit and tons of discarded everything.

Sitting on one of the several circular concrete seats with names of benefactors carved into them. I ask a young Latino woman to my left about Sherri, she barely acknowledges my presence with a bored and silent look, all the time hand under her chin. She looks away. I’m not sure if the young man to the other side of her is her man. I’d hate to start something by attempting to strike up a conversation.

I’ve walked all the suspect streets and did not see anyone I recognize; not one. I asked around about Sherri and no one I spoke to ever heard of her. One man offered I’d need a photograph. I forgot to pack one I had intended to bring. I will print one tomorrow.

I think I have grown sick of this place. There is nothing good about it.

She is with him – he just brought her water. He walked away and I asked her if she’s with him, she shook her head. I can’t quite figure out if they are together. She is a fairly pleasing girl to look at; I can’t imagine she is here alone. I’ll guess her age at 18 to 22.

Mental illness and drug abuse, perhaps one from the other. Everyone appears insane, almost everyone. Hopeless. End of the road. I can’t imagine anywhere else to go. I am tired. I do not want to be here anymore.

Flies, cigarettes and urine. Almost everyone is seated with a suitcase by their feet; entire worldly belongings? All that mattered from a previous life? Clothes? Maybe a photo or two. A book. Those without suitcases have nothing but the clothes they wear and, if they are lucky, a bundle of clothes rolled up in a ball and held under an arm.

There is a lot of sitting around, waiting for nothing in particular.

Madness. Insanity. Aimlessness. Shifting around occasionally. Maybe stand, then sit back down or risk losing your place to someone else. Finders- keepers. There isn’t much you can do about it; a fight, or any disturbance of any kind, is likely to get you ejected from the relative sanity and safety, and cleanliness of the courtyard, into the street where anything really does go.

Alone in the midst of many.

She laughs occasionally. I look in the direction of her gaze and see nothing in particular that is funny. She yawns and looks down again at my notebook full of chicken-scratched handwriting. She mutters something incomprehensible to me, they both laugh. I wonder if they are together.

It is hot. The sun has shifted since I sat and I am now mostly in its haze. Soon it will catch up to her. Her head is already in it. She covers it with a torn blanket decorated with faded images of pine trees and brown log cabins, and brown bears. Vermont? There is snow – white snow on the roofs of the cabins.

I do not think they came here together. He has that look of a young man falling in love – the way he looks at her; or a young man hoping to claim a pleasing and unaccompanied young woman.

They get in a line. Food line? I’m not sure. She is actually beautiful. About 5 foot 4 inches. Long dark hair held loosely at the back with a rubber band. A blue hoodie with red and white bands just above the elbows. A pair of fashionable jeans with shiny metal button-like material running along the outer leg seams. A pink blouse peeks out an inch at the base of her hoodie. An olive green tee hooked into the back of her belt, much of it covering her back from the buttocks to her ankles. She looks vaguely Indian – Native American, maybe Mexican. She has a very lovely smile and a furrowed forehead when she appears serious.

It is a food line.

I am dying to know her story but she has not said much to me but ask what I am writing. I read the beginnings of it to her, certain it was my in to a conversation, maybe even a friendship. It ended there. She would offer no answer to any of my simple questions.

What’s your name? Have you been here long? Are you alone? Is he your man? Did you two come here together?

Fire trucks and an ambulance; a member of the wheelchair brigade.

Dried leaves from young trees planted in the center of each circular seat sparsely cover the ground around the base of the seats.

Flies.

A young man, white or Latino, is wheeled out of the mission and into a waiting ambulance. He is awake and does not appear in pain; shirtless, at least, and covered by a white sheet on his stretcher.

Old age and no family. Or a family in too dire a situation to offer much help.

She should be a pensioner. I assume she collects social security benefits. All that appears left of her worldly belongings is a black suitcase made by AMSCO, with a paper name tag with no name or address. She moves it around in a wire, wheeled carriage from which hangs a semi-clear plastic trash bag – within which I see a box of Scotties tissues. A pair of Tailwind sneakers is stuffed in a gap between the suitcase and the cage of her wheeled carriage. Two ripe peaches, pale red with traces of yellow, with small blue semi-circular brand stickers on each. A new book of crossword puzzles and another white plastic bag stuffed with clothes sit atop the black suitcase.

They return – the boy and the girl, and sit as though they never left.

What’s for lunch? I’m not sure she heard me.

If they were not together, they are now. Out here she needs someone to look after her. She cannot afford to be alone.

They barely speak. The occasional look at one another, a shared laugh at an inside joke, but mostly sitting and nothing. When there are words they come mostly from him. She barely looks in my direction, most often in his.

She leaves with her bag.

His name is Mark. We talk for a long time. They are not together but I hope they will be in not too long; he’d like that. It took a while to get him to admit he’d like that. He had told me he wanted nothing, everything he needs he already had, here. Everyone wants something they don’t have. He’d laugh and insist he wanted nothing more. A cabin in the woods with her for his wife; maybe a child. He dared not dream, but the possibility – the thought of it was tantalizingly good. He does not dream, but he allowed himself that little glimpse, and it was good.

A long time passed and she returned. She sat down at her place between us and says nothing. Then, without warning, she looks at me and says: “Sophia.”

I say “thank you.”