SideWalk Ghosts / Interview 59: “Things Are Looking Up!”

Wence, man of humility, family concern and artistic vision

Mat and Armando, Canoga Park historians and ambassadors of the Valley

Day Of The Dead, Dia De Los Muertos: The holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died. It’s a big deal in Mexican culture and a huge day of celebration.

Every year streets close and open up to crowds of people, many of whom are covered in costume and face paint. This particular Sunday is such a day, and one that I have chosen to explore.

I’m in Canoga Park again, strolling six city blocks of food, music and street vendors. By my side, once again, is Dan, my 365 conspirator.  Thanks to him we get the behind-the-scenes photographs.

We’re walking, overwhelmed by the multitude of people out on this rainy day. I’m approached by a man campaigning with some sort of death penalty petition. Not signing it (it’s an issue with far too many levels to quickly sign a street paper), I  decide to ask him if he wants to share his message on 365. After all, it’s purpose is not to judge or be selective; it’s growing mission is to be a speaking board for all who are featured in it. Though he would take the opportunity, he declined. Oh well, move on.

All around us are face painted people, partying groups to calm families, and everything in between. For some reason I’m not drawn to approach any of the usual suspects, passing on the face paint, vendors and crowds. I find myself looking for the isolated or out of place individuals. Very strange to be in a place with so many people and not seeing a single person to approach. We loop the streets several times, not a 365 tug anywhere. I’m ready to find a new path, ears ringing from the volume of the stage band performing full volume just over my shoulder, when I’m drawn to a man of great stature. Under the blast of loud speakers I invite him to 365. He is unsure at first, but his wife, standing at side, encourages him on.

The music is screaming now, making it very difficult for us to communicate. We dig deep into our voice boxes to raise our volume and manage to exchange a few words. My new friend is Wence, another fellow photographer (two days in a row I have spoken to other shooters). Makes me think about my Gestalt conversation with Matthew only a few days ago.

It’s really loud where we are standing, totally disrupting our interview, so I move on to 365 questions:

What words, council or wisdom do you want to share with my readers?

“Treat everyone the way you want to be treated, and never judge a man by his looks?

Where do you see yourself in five to ten years?

“Somewhere better in making my mark in the world as an individual?”

This far into 365, I am learning a thing or two about observation. At first sight I view Wince as a huge presence. But as I speak with him I come to see he is much more than that, he is a man of sensitivity and artistic vision. And what  strikes me even stronger is the relationship he has with his wife (she has chosen not to be photographed). She is close by his side as we speak and I can fully sense the connection they have with each other. At this moment, Wince is still the huge man I first saw, but in a new light, that of a man of humility, family concern and artistic vision.

Wence you are right, “Never judge a man by his looks?

Interview over, we exchange our final farewells and resume route in our original direction. With enough time spent center crowd in the sporadic raindrops, Dan and I decide to retreat curbside in heading back to our parked car. As we do so we are caught by a, “Whats up?” Entering is yet another friend of the day, Mat.

Well, Mat at first, then Armando, Benny, Arnold, Junior and more than I can count. All are enjoying a celebration day, a reunion of sorts at the local hangout, Henri’s. It was only a few weeks ago when I met Nikki at this joint. It is a local destination and somewhere those of us living in the Valley have come to view it as an evening landmark music, drinking and breakfast joint. It’s no surprise that these ambassadors of the Valley have chosen to base themselves there on this Dia De Los Muertos.

Mat takes the lead in conversation. My eyes are opened to a history not only of the Valley, but of his background and determination to overcome a sketchy past. The guy has deep roots and tells me stories of the area tracing back to the early 70s. I’ve seen many photographs and read countless articles of the past San Fernando Valley, but Mat brings them in full color and with the eloquence of a schooled master. His stories are real, unpublished and reveal the trials of a youth emerging out of troubled streets. He openly expresses, “In 78 I was a gangster, a hoodlum… but those times are passed me now.” There is a calm in his eyes as he make this claim, and I can see he is an ambassador – proclaiming his example of what it takes to restart life on a positive path.

He brings me up-to-speed on the challenges he is facing and shares notes about a book he is writing, its working title: “Amazing Grace.”

Now living in Oregon, he is enjoying a fishing vacation while visiting friends in California. “I come here to see my friends and to get whatever work I can find.” He tell me of his construction ability and work ethic. With no desire to return to his past, he goes on to talk of the unfairness of the system. “We go to prison to make restitution for our mistakes, to be reformed and to be given skills to reenter society. The problem is, with two felony convictions, and in this economy, it is almost impossible to find employment. I have no intentions to return to my past life, but it is hard.”

“It is easy to rob, but the higher path is to work.” And working is the path Mat is on. Hang tough, Mat, and I’ll be looking for your book.

Equally as involved with me is Mat’s buddy, Armando, I just call him man of great smiles. Armando is a grand figure and I feel dwarfed standing next to him. Yet there is a welcoming warmth that emits from him. Armando has one major statement to share, “COME TO CANOGA PARK, IT’S A NICE COMMUNITY, WE’RE LOOKING UP!”

With Armando its all about positive energy. As we talk, endless faces walk by all receiving the same response from his gigantic and very real smile and a simple, “Hello,” or at times, “Want your photo taken by a famous photographer?” I dismiss the stroke and tell him next time to say, “Want your photo taken next to a celebrity?”

In my eyes, these men are celebrities. Not the kind we see on TV, but real stars of the community. Men who have first-hand knowledge of the streets, adversity and personal growth. As they stand street-side it is evident that they are watching-out for the community and have all good intention to contributing to its growth. I feel honored and humbled to be in their company. Rather be here with honest men, than to hang with closed-off posers any day of the week.

So here I am, Mat and Armando firing off Valley history and you can overcome anything statements faster than I can record and I am getting buried with new faces. Remember, as we are taking, Armando’s smile is inviting the world to join us. These guys have a vast network of mates, who keep emerging from within Henri’s. Men who, admittedly, have know each other from grade school and through life’s challenges. I stay clear of getting too direct in my inquiries, not wanting to push anyone too heavily for pasts details. But one thing is evident, they are all working to better the community.

I have spent 30 minutes with Valley royalty, seen them in action with the community, watched them encourage strangers and youth and have absorbed their message.


Gentlemen of growth, I salute you!