Despite Talks of a Gloomy Future

“No human being has the moral right to gamble with the fate of other human beings.”

Hope you remember The Colonel and Antoinette from the Laundromat? Meeting them an event in itself. Especially in getting to know the Colonel. Yet on that night, we were not alone. There was another encounter that carried a deep story that deserved its own time.
 

To get us going: An excerpt from my interview with The Colonel:

“The last lesson in military respect came as we concluded our evening. A man walked up, as he took pause from his laundry duties. “Are you a veteran?” he directed to The Colonel. “Vietnam” The Colonel replied.

The man went on to state his service, and even though he did not see the front line, he shared, “I was scared shitless.” The Lieutenant Colonel immediately reached out his hand, and over a firm handshake, said, “Welcome home!” They both welled up, but quickly hid their emotion.”

That man who walked up–we did speak for a short time; and although stating his fear of the front line, he was bravely engaged in another long and ongoing battle. One that forwarded a very timely and important message, a message that deserved focused time.

I meet with George at his home, wherefrom the moment I was greeted at the door, he opened his life in a most welcoming and engaging way. A generous host, he offered me tea as we sat for an hour of uninterrupted conversation. All I could do was take notes as he expressed more than I could write. His points were bold and clear and I knew there was no way I could accurately translate what he had to say. So I asked him if he would be willing to write a short paragraph or two for publication.

But before we get to that, I have a quick note to share: I have the greatest regard for all who voice their opinion and remind you that the messages forwarded through my stories are inspired by each individual I meet. I do have my opinions, however, to be true to all who have contributed to Sidewalk Ghosts, my aim is to remain neutral per the topics and viewpoints that are shared with me. To not endorse or debate any one singular political, religious, cultural, or spiritual agenda; but rather, to do my part in authoring content that facilitates empathetic discussion on many diverse perspectives.

George’s words:

“No human being has the moral right to gamble with the fate of other human beings.

“Despite the talks of gloomy future, and there are lots of depressing events to support that view, I believe our future is a lot brighter than supposed. I have been fortunate to be able to read between the lines as the events unfold right before our eyes. There is an incredible change coming, a change that is spearheaded by the youth of all Islamic nations. The smart young boys and girls with the use of cell phones, Facebook, Twitter, and often sacrificing their own lives in what they strongly believe.

“Although they cry for democracy and freedom, in reality, they are showing their contempt for their religion. Islam, a religion that has awakened the young Muslims to realities they never probed before and caused them to take a critical look at a religion that their spirit has never digested. They are asking for transparency, accountability in government, and an end to the oppressive Islamic leaders with their radical fundamental ideology, their cagy and perilous philosophy. The philosophy that has caused irreparable injury not just to the Muslims, but also to the universal rules and laws on which civilized and successful societies are based. The tradition, the religion, that in order for them to live a normal life among the people of the world, they must live outside of that tradition, and that absolute Arab Islam.

“Richard, I am an Iranian American, a U.S. veteran. I was born in Iran and grew up as a Shiite Muslim. As a Shiite, I have read most if not all Shiite doctrine page-by-page and have read Koran and done all my daily duty. I grew up with and understand the mentality of today’s Shiite elite.”

“I believe it is time for the world’s Muslims to do some soul searching and for Islam to look into the mirror. And I am holding up that mirror to Islam.”

 

The Tinkerer

“Find something you love to do, and, if you can make a living at it, good for you!”

Smart is an understatement for describing entrepreneur, Curt. A master mechanical engineer, with the credentials to prove it: Cisco Systems, Lockheed Martin Space Systems, and a who’s who list of contracted clients he was a tireless tinkerer and inventor. He was also an amazing artist, something that instantly came to my attention as he showed me a file folder after file folder containing the most amazing product sketches I’d ever seen, some of which I’d been sworn to secrecy.

Of Curt’s childhood, “I spent my time not playing with my toys, but taking them apart.” He remembered, “wanting to know how they worked, I took apart my Transformers and Millennium Falcon. What was I thinking? I lately saw a similar toy, now collectible, selling for $7,000.”

Seems, the $7,000 loss had paid off for Curt. So parents, neighbors, and friends, if your kids are tearing their toys apart, there is hope. Buy more toys, give them tools, and watch them rip away. Perhaps your kid is a future mechanical master. For me, my girl loves to dance, I simply buy more pointe shoes and tutus.

Curt had great integrity, “My Uncle and Grandfather were machinists, I loved what they did, and I’ll never forget them. I’m a family business and am grateful for our growth.”

What he did not harp on were his business smarts. The shop was run well. Incredibly well by a tight team of four: Curt, his Mother, Father, and Brother. Being a small business owner myself, and operating with the aid of my wife, I was linked by a common thread, knowing what it takes to keep a small business afloat, and Curt’s operation rocked.

Curt’s Words of Wisdom: “Find something you love to do, and, if you can make a living at it, good for you!”

A Power Beyond Our Own

“Stay honest and don’t lie. It’s always easier to remember the truth.”

The start-up of this story may seem a bit vain, but trust me; it weaves into an interesting encounter.

Not sure if I have told you this: I was raised in Las VegasBest not to play cards with me, it’s a losing proposition. I’ve got the Sin City luck of the draw. Even had a business there, way back in the late eighties. “Here I go again, dating myself!” Ended up there after my family migrated to LV from England in 1961. Father was a tailor turned produce king (supplied most of the hotels deep into the nineties)–personal history that explains my occasional use of British grammar and my twitchy fear of Vegas buffets.

Also, I have two sisters; one born nine years before me, and the other eleven years older than myself.

“Hey, Radstone! Why are you telling us this? We want to read about your new friends. You’re becoming old news.”

Ouch!

Alright! Here is why.

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I was driving past a small obscure building, and for whatever reason, I was undeniably drawn to it. Almost to the point of rubber-necking as I passed by it. The magnetism of the place was impossible to dismiss, and even though I was very behind in my day’s schedule and responsibilities, I knew I had to visit.

Finding a nearby parking lot, I walked an easy block to the address that had so smitten me. Outside it was a most eclectic set of artifacts: A vintage baby stroller, some funky art, yard furniture, a rusty hand truck, and a few other items of equal eccentricity.

 It was my kind of joint. Turned out to be a wonderful little haunt of an antique shop. “Ah, that must be it? I dig vintage stuff!” I settled in my mind.

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Entering the door I realized I’d stumbled upon a holy grail of local culture. The shop was packed with customers, a we are all family vibe heavy in the air.

I had no idea who was running the place. My first inclination being a blond lady, who near the center of the shop, was closely checking a very cool piece of old luggage. My mind was made up (well sort of), for I knew something was not right. But still, I readied myself to throw her an invite in seeing what would happen.

I set my approach pattern, my fact-finding radar engaged, target sighted, I began an internal countdown. Ten feet, eight feet, six feet, her eyes still locked on the luggage, she did not see me coming. A few steps away I took my breath, mentally rehearsing my words as her head suddenly popped up. I was stopped in my track when she looked over my shoulder and said, “How much is this case?”

“Huh? Me?” I stared that embarrassed I’ve been put on the spot expression. Trapped in my tracks as I worked to choke up a word or two; when all of a sudden I was saved by a voice that traveled over my shoulder. Seemed the real shop owner was standing behind me the whole time. I was way off in my assessment of the situation. Felt pretty stupid with my hand already extended with an introductory handshake that was intended for the lady checking the luggage. It was one of those caught-with-my-pants-down moments, but I followed through with grace by redirecting my body movement. In perfect you’re an idiot form I converted my movement to appear as if I was reaching for a statue. Luckily my blunder went unnoticed. Still, it left me a little unsure. The pull was so strong and caught off guard as to the reason why I was there, I was a little stupefied. But at least I knew who ran the joint.

There was no option other than to move forward. I was there, had my camera kit, a statue in hand, and a potential for a new friend for the day. Yet, I’d be lying if I said I was not jittery after my above-referenced clumsiness, but again, I was there.

Ron, the owner, photographer, director, and actor, greeted me as he silently listened to my pitch. Even though my delivery was not as eloquent as past invites (still felt a tad stupid for my earlier confusion). Luckily for me, he accepted.

We talked in generalities at first. What do you shoot? How many films have you been in? How did you start this business? Expected conversation starters that did lead to some enlightening stories, but my gut told me there was more.

Store customers were watching, and with the endorsement of Ron, I handed out a bunch of business cards; and as I did, I noticed Ron studying one intensely. It was a simple card, just had my last name on the front of it, RADSTONE, and on the back, contact info.

Ron’s tone shifted. A questioning smile grew on his face as he hammered me with a series of questions: “Radstone?”

Me: “Yes.”

Ron: “Do you have a sister named Tammy?”

Me (now shaky): “Yes.”

Ron: “Are you from Las Vegas?”

Me (now overwhelmed), “Yes.”

Ron: “Was your father a tailor?”

Me (now freaked out): “Yes.”

Ron: “Did you live on El Cedral in the seventies?”

Me (now losing it): “Are you Satan reading my mind!”

Ron burst into laughter. Now, remember, Ron and I had never met; the two of us standing raw in introduction at a little hidden antique shop in Canoga Park, California. A place that for some unknown reason had beckoned to me, and I could not stop self-questioning how he knew very personal facts about me. I was speechless by his queries.

His laughter began to quite as, with a smile still on his face, he explained, “I lived up the street from you and I used to date your sister. Is she still a tiny thing?”

I was staggered, and at that moment, I knew why I was there.

It happened again, the still-small voice had directed me to where I needed to be, and we were both dumbfounded. Here is the crazy part. Ron told me he was wondering what had come of my sister at the very moment I was driving by his store. I’m just going to leave it at that.

Happily married with grandchildren, Ron showed me photos of his family as he revealed a feeling he had been carrying for years, “I thought I broke your sister’s heart when I got drafted to Vietnam.” Then he asked, “How is Tammy?”

“She is doing great, married, and with her own children and grandchildren,” I responded.

Pleased to hear the news, “I always wondered what happened to her; great to hear she is doing well?” Ron smiled again as he advised, “Ask her about the green Plymouth Duster?”

I called my sister later that evening, and per Ron’s request, “Do you remember a green Plymouth Duster?”

The phone fell silent. I knew she was on the other end, her breaths noticeable as I waited for a response. Then she replied, a shaky, “Yes.”

No, Ron was not Satan. Frankly, he was at the total other end of the spectrum. Not that he was a spiritual saint in any way, just another person doing his best to live a good life. But whatever the reason, I knew the draw to meet him that day was inspired from somewhere, from something, or someone greater than either of us.

As I continually state, I am not spouting the spiritual or metaphysical. That is not my intent in any way. But at times I think it appropriate to acknowledge that some things are more than coincidence. Aren’t they?

“I Want To Write My Own Words”

“Not many people are very rich by definition and that sometimes will bring more problems than it solves. Just doing well by your own standards is a worthy goal and is challenging enough. I would think of myself as the low-end of middle class and yet I’m relatively happy.”

The place was buzzing, Flash equipment all around, and repair orders everywhere I looked. But even with the list of equipment to repair, my new friends from day seven, Andrea and Silvino, were as gracious as they were professional. With Silvino, as per my previous visit calmly working at his counter, Andrea asked me if I had yet photographed anyone for the day. “Nope, my bag’s right here, I’m always with it, and I am looking as we speak.” Then she told me about Larry Light; a man who had been making custom flash units for over thirty years. “He is very colorful. If you catch him on a good day, I’m sure he’ll do it,” she suggested; even gave him a phone call to inquire for me.

How could I pass on someone with a name like “Larry Light.” And to top it off, nothing ever came easy in meeting a new stranger, so the prospect of an introduction was something that I was very ready to accept. Yet, luck was not on my side that day; when as rapidly as the referral appeared, it dissolved before my eyes. With Andrea’s call heavily screened by his secretary, it seemed a bad day for Larry. “Crud, denied again!”

“No worries,” I told her, “I’ve got my bag and will hit the streets.” She would not let it go, “then you have to interview Jim, he always has interesting things to say.”

Who was Jim? Basically, the backbone who kept the work moving at Silvino’s. Not noticing the back room where he was diligently working, I overlooked him on first arrival. The guy was way mellow and a little apprehensive toward me upon Andrea’s introduction. So I didn’t pressure him. Just showed him a few past interviews on my iPad. He agreed, but with one condition, “I want to write my own words.”

The skies had opened and, literally, manna was falling upon me. After sixty-four days of taking heavy notes and interpreting them into honest entries, it looked like I was getting a hall-pass. Even before I saw his words, I was digging Jim!

Words of Wisdom: “With the economy the way it is, my advice to younger people would be: find a smaller niche to work in and don’t chase after work that seems to be what the larger groups in society are going after. That will change with time, and retraining is harder than fine-tuning what you do.

“Not many people are very rich by definition and that sometimes will bring more problems than it solves. Just doing well by your own standards is a worthy goal and is challenging enough. I would think of myself as the low-end of middle class and yet I’m relatively happy.

“Repair work is needed when times are good, and when times are bad, it’s still needed, although margins are tighter.

“Goals next ten to twenty years: Try to set-up low-maintenance retirement while still having an enjoyable existence for me and my wife.”

Jim as I said then, you are a balanced man and look like you have found your niche. Thanks for your words.

After two months of daily essays (less the one written by Michealbrent), I had been given a mini-vacation. A Friday night that, although loving the journey, allowed me a little relaxing time with my family.

Funny, how this re-author of meeting Jim again falls on a Friday with family. The spirit is still listening.

With Peace and Power

“Learning. Making more things, and not being intimidated to show my work.”

Pointing to a shopping center studio, my daughter pushed, “we have to go in, there is your person to interview.” I’m telling you, out of the mouth of children does inspiration flow.

The windows were covered with artwork and partitions blocked our view of who was manning the shop. But as we inquisitively walked in, we were greeted by a most charming and beautiful artist and teacher, Betsy.

She was spectacular in the way she engaged with my little girl. Got right into art talk as she told her about what they did at the studio. Even signed us up for a free lesson. Now, I’m not one to impulse buy or commit to a demo, but Betsy’s offering was intoxicating and to the point. We were sold.

This was not the reason we were pushed into the shop, I explained as I invited her to be interviewed. She was instantly intrigued and shared a few other one-year blogs that she knew of. One of which, that just the week before, was recommended to me by Matthew, the guy with the Gestalt theory reference: An edgy site called Skulladay by Noah Scalin.

Betsy was all in, telling me, “I’ll support anything that is about 365.”

How cool it was as she went on to tell me about another one of Noah’s project: Makesomething365. It was my first realization of a community dedicated to the world of 365 challenges. A society I was not even aware of, and the genesis to announcing what has now grown as a call to action within Sidewalk Ghosts, 365’rs of the world, it time to unite!

But what about Betsy?

As I said, She was simply charming. Betsy was an artist to the core. I knew this because I could relate to the stories she shared. There was a common thread that many of us right-brainers have. First, is an equally strong left brain, after all, in taking all the rejection the career offers, one needs to be equally yoked. It’s a very difficult business and we artists have to be focused, patient, and tenacious in life. Being a good person is also a plus; and in a flash, I knew Betsy possessed all these qualities. We talked of creative vulnerability, linked it back to the stiff competitive culture fostered through the art departments of higher education. “You have to be so independent. Art schools are very critical. It’s not like sports, where you get rewards for winning. In art the is no winning, it’s all personal and no trophies are given for best work.” Betsy framed this experience in a very positive way, used it to help herself and her students feel good about what they created.

How? you may ask. I love this! “We remove the competitive comparison of our students and award them for their uniqueness with trophies for best personal vision and things like that.” What a fun way to help emerging artists own a point-of-view, especially for children and youth who are so impressionable; and I bet the people coming out of her program had a healthy balance of self-worth and artistic ownership. Great stuff!

Betsy listened to her own advice. “After years of working in East coast theatre, doing wigs and wardrobe, I realized that I was not growing. Not happy with what I was doing, I left and moved to Los Angeles. I’m happier now and rediscovering my passions.” Let’s just say, Betsy was finally rewarding herself.

Picking up and relocating to chase a dream was a very brave thing to do, and at only four months into her journey, Betsy looked like she was on the right path.

Not quite ready to show her work to the world (and I understood why), I asked her about her future.

Her response, “Learning. Making more things, and not being intimidated to show my work.”

Betsy expressed these thoughts with peace and power. No longer worried about how people perceived her work, it was obvious that she was in the midst of rediscovery, and I was whole-heartedly inspired.

Keep Truckin!

“Too many people turn a blind eye to the negative. There is a lot of messed up stuff in the world. People can do more that just watch the news or be fans of organizations helping others. They can get up and do something about it. I’m not saying they have to give a ton of money. I certainly can’t. But they need to at least realize, not everyone has the opportunity or courage to share a voice. So don’t choose to be silent, make your voice heard.”

“Persevere, don’t accept anything less than what you want.” Words right out of the mouth of musician and manager of a prominent Los Angeles rehearsal stage, Brian.

What hit me like a ton of bricks about Brian: He was all about balanced living. A message he consistently shared throughout our time together; which, by the way, happened fairly quickly as we hung out at said rehearsal facility.

It all began as he checked rehearsal room schedules from behind the front counter, where in less than three minutes, we took a few photos. An experience that not only showcased to me just how chill Brian was but as we casually chatted, also opened my eyes to how much he had to say about life and society.

I dropped my walls, “For the last week I have had a feeling that I needed to visit this studio. So tonight, I’ve listened to it and that’s why I’m here. I have an intuition that is telling me, you have things to say that are in sync with the message other people have shared thus far.” He nodded his approval.

_L2R4134I started our interview by asking Brian about his tats. “They are a tribute to Johnny Cash, he inspires me. I can relate to the man in black.” Further noting how he respected Cash’s life and the obstacles the man had overcome. “For me, black is the color of hope.”

“A lot of people look at black as a negative, but I look at it as a beginning. You have to appreciate that no matter what is happening, good or bad, things will always get better. To me, black is a starting point.”

Brian was tremendously optimistic, a real contrast against his use of black as a banner color. With an extremely positive outlook on some pretty tough circumstances, he gave me a brief history of his challenges and wishes for the world. “Two years ago I lost my job, my band and my place of living, all at the same time. I reacted, asking myself, “What the hell do I do now!” It hit him hard, but only for a minute.

“But as I calmed, there was really only one thing I could do: Keep Truckin!

Brian was incredibly interesting to talk with, his tone was calm and comfortingly dark (I know, comfortingly dark? how can that be? It just was) and his messages were meaningful– even evangelic in a really good way.

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“Too many people turn a blind eye to the negative. There is a lot of messed up stuff in the world. People can do more than just watch the news or be fans of organizations helping others. They can get up and do something about it. I’m not saying they have to give a ton of money. I certainly can’t. But they need to at least realize, not everyone has the opportunity or courage to share a voice. So don’t choose to be silent, make your voice heard.”

Brian was not a radical. He was just concerned. Concerned for the future of society and wanted to do his part in making the world a better place for the coming generations. I knew he was honest and passionate in his plea when he went on to tell me of where he wanted to be in ten years. “Happy and with a family.”

Brian was not motivated by the quest for musical fame, or riches, or popularity. “In my music, if I can get anyone to escape from a daily grind for a minute, I’ve done my job,” He quoted.

“What’s important to me are my personal freedoms and I’ll tell anyone this, don’t accept anyone influencing what you can say, how you should feel, and most definitely what you want.”

Radical words? Maybe for some. But again, Brian was no radical, just a creative guy working two jobs to stand true in using his talents for good.

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“Persevere, don’t accept anything less than what you want.” A call to action presented by a very humble author, Brian. Who with no quest for wealth, power, influence or popularity, had given an extremely relevant one-liner. An anthem with the depth to propel a very healthy life perspective, as elaborated by him, “Be who you are, follow the path that brings you joy and be strong enough to figure out how to support yourself in going for it.”

My translation, Share what you have, work hard to provide, and in all you do, strive to inspire others to do the same.

He quoted, “At the end of the day, the only one you let down is yourself.”

Brian, all I can say is, Keep Truckin!

I Met A Stranger, A Friend Departed

“Plans don’t always turn out the exact way you plan. You have to be open to change, and here is the best part. THINGS TURN OUT BETTER.”

By the side of my good friend and photographer Elizabeth (not pictured) she was. Studio manager to Elizabeth, and in Los Angeles from New York, they had stopped by to chat and borrow some photo equipment.

Normally I would have dismissed an interview, telling myself, “Your cheating in finding an absolute stranger.” But Gina’s energy was much too lovely to pass and accepting it was the first time either of us had met, and knowing nothing about each other, she surely qualified as a stranger.

Gina moved with the ease and comfort of a long time friend as I welcomed her and Elizabeth into my home. It was like we had hung out before as she flopped herself down to completely recline across my office couch. Normally, that type of casual behavior at first meeting would have put me off, especially in my own space. But it was not that way with Gina. There was just something about her that was uniquely electric and peaceful at the same time. Even though she was quite bold, she had no ego. It was easy to see she was a people person who meant no contempt.

Midway into our conversation, my daughter entered the room. The fireworks started. Now, my girl is a great judge of character. Eight years old at the time, she already possessed an amazing gift for the discernment of people. A character trait that I never dismiss whenever I observe her withdrawing from a person. For every time she has, a proven reason for her withdrawal came to surface. And in regard to Gina, the second they met it was all fun and games. Like having two teen girls on the loose, they were all over the place.

From that point on, Gina was part of my family. I was smitten by her spirit and resolute that I had to share her spirit in my writing. But first, I sat back to let the girls run down their energy.

All settled; Gina accepted the interview. Quickly opened up with “Never trust anyone.” Words that hung in the air for a minute in what seemed like a test of me. But then she cracked the awkwardness with a huge laugh. She was kidding, but the proclamation did leave me to wonder why someone with her ability to connect with people would make a statement like that?

They say in every joke can be found the truth, and in her jest, what I saw was a person who was using a negative to break down my barriers. A creative she was, and as we chatted, I began to see past her sarcastic remark in seeing the real Gina: She was purely a free spirit.

Gina had the innate ability to literally suck you in with her charm, vitality, and humor. I saw it in the way she played with my daughter and it was confirmed by the way she spoke to me. But where did her personality originate?

“’My father pushed for perfection, ‘you have to always get A’s,’” she laughingly exposed as she revealed a most vulnerable side of herself, “I don’t love myself. We can go there if you really want to get deep.” Again a short moment of silence, although this time it was not awkward. It was moving and human.

I bounced back, If you’re talking about self-esteem, many of us feel that way.

We smiled as my daughter crunched up to Gina’s side. All the while in her eyes a countenance that simply made you want to hug her. I decided not to delve fully into her psyche. Impressed enough with her self-awareness and courage to share something so very personal. The subtext to her cautious message grew a little clearer to me. My guess? Gina had a lot of pressure put on her throughout her life–maybe contributor to her guarded answer: Never trust anyone?

However, the actuality was the polar opposite, for Gina was trusting and well-grounded. It was evident in the level of detail and excitement she put forth in articulating her thoughts. “I love life, open space, air, and everyone. I’ve learned to compartmentalize anger and to open my mind to go outside of my comfort zone. I’m always looking for new things, experiences or people.”

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Gina had found balance in life.

She talked to me about pace and how she coped with the energy of Manhattan. “Life moves too fast, you have to slow down and look around.” Perspective Gina had learned from living on both sides of the coin. Admittedly, she had experienced New York’s clubbing scene but said that was in her past.

“I don’t drink or party anymore, there is nothing in it.” It is just trying to escape a mundane life, and that is tragic. Plus, the people you at clubs are not that cool.”

Gina offered wise counsel for us to ponder.

“Before emerging into this artificial world, consider living in the real world.” Another quite pause, then, “I’m happier than ever, living in the real world.”

I asked her, where do you want to be in ten years?

“That is a stupid and annoying question. Let me explain why” she retorted. Her explanation was simple and profound, “Plans don’t always turn out the exact way you plan. You have to be open to change, and here is the best part. THINGS TURN OUT BETTER.”

Like I said, Gina was a free spirit, but the best kind of free spirit, one who looked toward the future with hope and applied that same effort to moving forward.

Gina was not the kind of person who sat back to let life happen. She was part of it. More than an observer, she had an uncanny ability to find the good in it. And not only was she in touch with the world around her, but she was also a participant who took no side path in choosing her works as she advised, “Open your mind, break the cage to structure, explore and be you.

Gina, Even though you did trust me, you are welcome in my home anytime, and please, keep exploring!

My Story Of Fairness

“I don’t lie, I don’t cheat, I don’t steal. If there is anybody who needs help, I’ll help them, even if I have to give the last possession I have, I will, if it helps someone else in greater need than myself. That’s the way I am.”

As I drove home from dropping my daughter to her drama class, I spied a worn motor home centered in an open Big Lots parking area. A light pole illuminated sighting that had caught my eye with an unshakable question: Whom did it belong to?

I had to investigate.

A few course adjustments, a couple minutes of backtracking, and instantly I made contact with one of its residents: Teresa.

Without hesitation, she told me a tale of twelve years on the street and of meeting her fiancé, Rex (soon to be introduced), some twenty-one months earlier. Little did I know that I was at the beginning of a course of conversation that would enlighten me to the trials of many a homeless, a message brought to me alá Rex.

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With Rex not yet in the scene, Teresa prompted a prologue, “He is the man you want to speak with, he has a lot to say.”

So we waited, and as we did I found out a little about Teresa. As per most new conversations, we started out with a quite normal set of general questions. You know, getting to know each other stuff. But then it shifted to the supernatural as Teresa moved to her dealings with the spirit world. Stories of visitations and encounters with entities. Events like being thrown by the unseen while taking a shower. As creepy as it was, my curiosity was perked by the soberness of her explanation. Not to be the judge in assessing fiction or not, I empathized. Shared with her a bizarre experience or two that I had. Nothing like being thrown in a shower, but non-the-less, strange and unexplainable they were. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not into the pursuit of evil beings or proclaiming to be a ghost chaser. And by the way, things looked, perhaps medication was the cause of Teresa’s sightings, but it was not my place to draw conclusions as to her sanity or not. That was not my job or responsibility. My task was to write it as I saw it.

We were starting to run out of steam when, with a distinct limp, up walked Rex. In complete disclosure, he confirmed he had been homeless for the majority of his life. To further break the ice, I told him why I was interviewing strangers, and how, for some unknown reason, I was drawn to his mobile residence. He was very articulate as he chimed right in. Teresa smiled at me, “I told you he would be into it!” And boy was he!

Over the next three hours, I got a Ph.D. crash course that reflected the many real challenges of living on the streets. Not so much the why we are here stuff, but the how we survive and what we do to support each other realities. To note, many may discard or choose to look away from the plight of the homeless, and at times, I’m sure that may be appropriate, but Rex sparked my activism and understanding as to whom I needed to direct my attention.

He began by exposing his history, seven brothers and sisters, all of whom had chosen to no longer associate with him. Even though he, as the oldest, and having lost their father, spent his early years helping his mother raise them, they still turned their backs. I had no idea why they decided to do so, and surely there was more to the story than met my eye, but still?

“My youngest brother is very wealthy and will not speak with me and I have lost contact with the rest of my family.” Even Rex’s two children were estranged; both lived in Florida. My gut told me he was truthful and that was good enough for me. I did not press him any further for details.

A little more about his past, “Many years ago I refed youth basketball and football and worked as a team portrait photographer.” I bought it, as he spoke well enough of camera technique to gain my faith in his claim.

There was one topic, however, that dominated our conversation: His passion to educate the public as to how law enforcement treated the homeless.

Many times I myself had witnessed officers interacting with the homeless in a pretty fair way. And balancing that, I also understood neighborhood concern for keeping the streets safe. So at the beginning of his dialogue, I was compassionate but did sit a bit on the fence. To up it another level, I had a little exposure per homelessness, and first impression, from several past interviews. Incidents like: the looks I witnessed Victor (Music is Your Friend) receiving as he entered Applebee’s, and the earful The Colonel (You’ve Got To Have Respect For Other People) gave me at the Laundromat. But Rex shared a more personal and darker side of the topic.

Rex was very sober. He was not a simple man or someone who had given up on the system. My take. He was where he was through one simple fact. He was just one of the people whom life has dealt a series of hard blows. All of which he bore as part of the reason for his existence. Rex was a survivor, not a martyr or a victim. Just a man doing what he could to make the world a better place.

At seventy-two years of age, he was quite an educated man. Both in formal terms (seven credits away from a bachelor’s degree in legal studies), and regarding the world of street smarts, he had a formidable pedigree from the school of hard knocks. Rex was not a freeloader, did not look for handouts, and sincerely cared for others. An attitude I witnessed while standing with him at a local Kinko’s. A destination I followed him in assisting him to make signs for his non-profit project (I’ll get to that in a second).  Coherent he was as he consistently expressed kind gestures to all those around him, even the customers who were obviously wary of his appearance. Rex was a man of humility and forgiveness.

So why was he still on the streets? “I have a reason for being here, I’m doing something about the injustice we receive.” He carried on to tell me a bit more of his character, “I don’t lie, I don’t cheat, I don’t steal. If there is anybody who needs help, I’ll help them, even if I have to give the last possession I have, I will if it helps someone else in greater need than myself. That’s the way I am.”

So what was Rex’s cause? “I’ve been beaten too many times to count by our local police, and I’m not scared to talk about it. They use us as test dummies for training.” He was very passionate about this point. “Many are too intimidated or crazy to speak up, but I am not. People need to know how we are treated. Many of us do not choose to be out here. Some are here by choice, but many more are here because of illness or bad fortune. It’s that simple. It’s terrible how we are singled out and brutalized in the name of the law.”

So what was Rex doing about it? For two years he had been putting any cent he could into legally pursuing his cause. “Yesterday I received my letter of incorporation.” Seemed he had set up a non-profit with a mission, To educate the public and support the homeless. Perhaps the reason I was drawn to approach him and Teresa.

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“The Coalition of Disabled and Homeless, Inc.” Rex titled it. Spelled out to me with the intelligence of a seasoned business mind, his plan was to set up its board of directors from people on the street. I searched to find to website. Sadly it did not exist, but I found this, in it an obvious confirmation to the claims he made. Click here to check it out.

What did Rex mean by, “They use us as test dummies for training.” Simply, “We are beaten in the name of training the law. They tell rookies: It’s breaking the cherry.” I did not know the facts, and I know I was just reporting one side of the coin. But again, my job is to share the words of those I meet, and per Rex, I was honoring his right to be heard.

Rex told me of many personal experiences, but one was very intriguing and fairly open-minded toward the police force. First, I asked him, “Are all officers bad?” He said, “No,” as he expanded on a few positive experiences of fair and respectful treatment. “But that does not cure the overall problem” he lobbied. Recalling a story of one particular test dummy situation. “Here I am, at gunpoint of an obvious rookie in training. I look at his senior and ask, ‘Tell this guy to put the gun down, he is going to hurt someone.” The senior officer complied. The offense? Being visible in the right place at the right time for a hassling. I’m telling you, Rex was lucid, or I was very gullible (now dismissed by the link to the case above).

There were many other stories of life on the streets Rex imparted to me that evening. To write them all would be a run-on, and I’m sure that is not the message Rex, and I, want to publish. His request was minimal. “Tell my story of fairness,” for that was all he campaigned for, just fairness. Not handout, not turn the other cheek, not even poor homeless, only fairness.

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What about Teresa you might be asking? In Rex’s words, “I’ve got to marry her soon!”

Never Judge A Man By His Looks?

Day Of The Dead, Dia De Los Muertos: A holiday focused on praying for, and remembering, friends and family members who have died. It’s a big deal in Mexican culture and a huge day of celebration.

It was on that particular day I decided to explore a busy festivity in my nearby Canoga Park. Six city blocks of food, music, and street vendors, that regardless of sporadic rain, ware overrun with a multitude of people, many covered in costume and face paint. From partying groups to calm families, and everything in between, they all congregated. Each a potential prospect to interview, but for some reason, I was not drawn to approach anyone. It was very strange to be in a place with so many people, and yet, not pulled to a single person. I looped the neighborhood several times, no one was I inspired to reach out to. My ears were beginning to ring from the volume of the stage band performing. A full volume deluge flying over my shoulder, I readied to find a new path. But as quick as I made that decision my stride was broken as I was drawn to a man of great stature. Wandering beneath the blast of loudspeakers, I invited him to be interviewed. At first, he was not interested, but as his wife, who standing by his side encouraged him, he embarrassingly accepted.

IMG_0109The music was screaming, which made it very difficult for us to communicate. We dug into our voice boxes to raise our volume and managed to exchange a few words. My new friend Wence was another fellow photographer (two days in a row I had spoken to other shooters). Made me think about the Gestalt conversation with Matthew only a few days earlier.

It was growing uncomfortably loud, a distraction that totally disrupted any attempt at casual conversation, so I moved right to the questions:

What words, council or wisdom do you want to share with the world?

Simple and to the point, Wence replied. “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?”

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Initially, I viewed Wince as a huge presence, even intimidating. But as I spoke with him I came to see he was a man contrary to my indirect assessment. He was a man of sensitivity and artistic vision. But what struck me deeper was the relationship he had with his wife (she had chosen not to be photographed). She was close by his side the whole time and I could fully sense the connection they had with each other. At that moment, Wince was still the huge man I first saw, but above that shone a light I did not see at first. The light of a man of great humility, a man for whom family was priority and art was in his heart.

Wence, my brother, you taught me again, Never judge a man by his looks?

Interview over, and escaping the fall less than sporadic raindrops, we exchanged our final farewells. I retreated curbside in path back to my parked car. Then he hit me from out of view, “What’s up?”

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His name was Mat, who watching the whole exchange between Wence, his wife, and I had grown curious as to what we were doing. And to top it off, Matt was not alone. Leaning against a wall, taking in all, was his band of friends, Armando, Benny, Arnold, and Junior. Guys that, whom on any other day, most likely would have alarmed me. Thinking, who in their right mind would voluntarily stop to be surrounded by a gang of people they did not know. Especially when it looked like any singular one of them had the ability to inflict harm.

I turned the question back to Mat, are enjoying a celebration day?

Turned out that I had stumbled into a reunion of sorts. Friends, who standing outside of a local hangout, Henri’s, had gathered to catch up. The same place where only a few weeks prior I had met Nikki and a destination where San Fernando Valley dwellers had come for home-style food, drink, and evening music. It was no surprise that these ambassadors of the Valley (you’ll see why as you read on) had chosen to base themselves there on Dia De Los Muertos.

Matt took the lead in the conversation. My eyes were opened to history not only of the Valley but also of his background and determination to overcome a sketchy past. The guy had heavy roots and told me stories of the area tracing back to the early seventies. I’d seen many photographs and read countless articles about San Fernando Valley, but Matt brought them to full color, as with the eloquence of a schooled master, he gave me accounts of a troubled past. His stories were real, unpublished, and revealed the trials of a youth emerging out of unsettled streets. He openly expressed, “In seventy-eight, I was a gangster, a hoodlum. But those times are passed me now.” There was a calm in his eyes as he made this claim, and I could see he was lobbying for a better future–an ambassador proclaiming his example of how to restart life.

He brought me up-to-speed on the challenges he was facing and revealed notes about a book he was writing, its working title: Amazing Grace.

Now living in Oregon, he was enjoying a fishing vacation in California. “I come here to see my friends and to get whatever work I can find. ”He told me of his construction ability, work ethic, and of his zero desire to return to his past. Explained the walls he had to climb in overcoming a system he identified as unfair. “We go to prison to make restitution for our mistakes, to be reformed, and to be given skills to re-enter society. The problem is, with two felony convictions, and in this economy, it is almost impossible to find employment. I have no intention to return to my past life, but it is hard.” He concluded, “It is easy to rob, but the higher path is to work.”

Equally as involved with me was Matt’s buddy, Armando; better identified as a man of great smiles. Armando was a grand figure indeed. I felt a little unsure standing by his side and dwarfed by his scale, I must have appeared apprehensive. A feeling that perhaps noticed by Armando, was diminished by the welcoming handshake he greeted me with. With warmth emitted, he shared, “COME TO CANOGA PARK, IT’S A NICE COMMUNITY, WE’RE LOOKING UP!”

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With Armando, it was all about positive energy. His outgoing personality unblemished as endless faces walked by, a majority of whom looked questionably at our gathering. But no sooner than they could look away, they each received the same response from his gigantic and very real smile. A simple, “Hello,” or at times taking a stab at me, “Want your photo taken by a famous photographer?” I dismissed the ego stroke and suggested that he might have been better to offer, “Want your photo taken next to a celebrity?”

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For in my eyes, these men were celebrities. Not the kind we see on TV, but real stars of the community. Men who had firsthand knowledge of dark streets, lived lives of adversity, and had proven that in all, they had the ability to overcome. By the way, they postured themselves against the walls of Henri’s it was understandable why some might have viewed them as a threat, yet the truth was much brighter. A revelation that, as I got to know them, grew into view a significant conclusion: They were watching out for the community and, in doing so, had nothing but good intention to contribute to its growth.

I felt honored and humbled to be in their company–to have been side-by-side with honest men. So there I was, Mat and Armando firing off Valley history and you can overcome anything statements faster than I could record, and as we chatted, I was getting buried with new faces. Armando’s in command attitude was relentless, as during every moment of our time together, his smiling invitation to the world never ceased. These guys had a vast network of mates. Proven as others kept emerging from within Henri’s. Men who, admittedly, had known each other from grade school and through life’s challenges. They were too many to name and, in good conscience, I stayed clear of getting too direct with my inquiries. I did not want to push anyone too heavily for pasts details. Especially, guessing that the majority of them must have had similar histories. Not everyone was as open as Matt and Armando, so I respected there right to privacy. But one thing was noticeably evident; they were all working to better the community.

I had spent thirty minutes with Valley royalty, seen them in action with the community, watched them encourage strangers and youth as I absorbed their message. Loud and sure it was:

COME TO CANOGA PARK, IT IS A NICE COMMUNITY AND THINGS TRULY ARE LOOKING UP!

Gentlemen of growth, I salute you!

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“Is The World Better Because I Was In It?”

“I was young; part of the reason I have so many tattoos.”

I’ve come to know a few great boxers. All with interesting stories and background. Even past Olympic champions and pro-contenders, and at the gym where I taught cycling, there was one that always grabbed my attention. His name was Chris. At sixty years of age, he was not only lean, in condition, and a man of great character; he walked with the humility of Job. Now don’t get too hung up on Chris. We were very familiar with each other, and for that reason, he was exempt from my stranger meeting challenge. However, he did, in a vicarious way, introduce me to a man I never knew.

So there I was. Relaxing and mentally preparing for the list of things I had to get done that day. It was a moment of peace as I found a calm zone, reviewing notes for the day on my iPad. Sitting in the only chair in front of the gym space was wholly mine. Lost in thought I was when Chris’s voice merged into my thoughts. In signature form, and with his uniquely calm and vibrant accent, he was giving boxing council to one of the club’s patrons. With ring fighting a sport so far from my camp, I was taken in. Like a fly in a spider’s web, I felt trapped to hear their word. Their volume and enthusiasm were just that overwhelming. So I respectfully listened. Perhaps there were hints I could adapt to my training, yet the talk was not about exercise, it was about psychology and strategy. I was fascinated.

I did my best to give them their privacy, but I could not take my ears and eyes away from them. The conversation fast and precise, their exact words were mostly blurred by their body position. Like a seasoned coach Chris was deeply focused as, what seemed to be his student, intently took his advice. I caught myself leaning forward to hear more as their discussion started to go way over my head. Perhaps, if they were talking about endurance or cycling, I would have been on the same page. But as their topics were out of my league, I shifted to visual mode.

What struck me at first was the mass and intensity of Chris’s boxing friend. The guy was in incredible condition, and as he focused on absorbing Chris’ input, I could not help but profile. Thinking that if I approached him, I would definitely get a story on the world of prizefighting.

Their session ended. The image of the moment burned into my imagination, I simply could not let go of it. So much so, that after they separated, I searched the weight room to find that mountain of a man. Readers, please meet John.

Admittedly, I had assumed John was a professional fighter, a notion that was far from the case. He sparred for conditioning as he informed me, “At fifty I have to be careful.” I had no idea the dude was fifty. A point that further inspired me as to what can be physically accomplished with dedicated training.

Like myself, John was a photographer, but his subject matter was polar opposite to that of mine. His specialty: Adult films.

We talked about lighting and camera technique as I shared a few tips with him. Then he dropped his walls, told me, “This is not the only photography that I want to do, but I’m in the network and making a living.”

You see, John’s roots were deep in adult film, a past performer he spoke of transferable skill sets. The reason he had taken up photography? Honest and open about his past he slumped a little as he revealed a vulnerable self, “I was young; part of the reason I have so many tattoos.”

My heart was touched as his eyes watered ever so slightly. An emotion that was heartwarming had entered our interaction, and at the center of it was my new friend for the day, John.

Once again I was being instructed. Not about boxing. Nowhere near athletic consultation, stripped of judgment, and most profoundly distant from that of perceived perception of another person. For at that moment, the human connection was all so pure. I had met a man with a beating feeling human heart, and a person who had true empathy for the world around him.

Our time was very short, his girlfriend a little anxious to stay on time with their day. What I did take away was this: John was a man of emotional maturity.

He talked of accountability and not blaming others for our paths. With the clarity and articulation of an MBA, he shared thoughts of career and life. Even though he had spent many of his years in an industry that is dark to many, he did not recriminate himself and looked forward to new horizons. “I’m growing with photography and videography and am striving to expand the work I do to other areas of the profession.”

I showed John’s girlfriend some of the previous stories I had published. She was straight forward and to the point as I gave her the pitch, “For one year I am photographing one stranger a day and blogging the experience.” She skeptically asked, “Why do you want to do that?” I paused; then responded, “I’ve been in advertising for thirty years. This is a way for me to get outside of what I do and explore the world.” I went on, “and after fifty-eight days it has become part of my life. I’m not sure where it is going, but it’s attached to me. It is sort of giving back to its readers and I have to finish it.” She seemed content with the answer and was reaffirmed to my commitment to her challenge.

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In parting, John shared his words of council in the form of a self-question, “Is the world a better place because I was in it?

It’s been years since I interviewed John, yet his story is one that I have held deep in my heart. Namely his parting council, “Is the world a better place because I was in it? His answer to an outward question that I asked, and continue to ask, all I interview: “Looking ahead one to hundreds of years. As far or near as you wish to look. What do you think we should be doing today for the future ahead.”

“Is the world a better place because I was in it? His answer was, and revealing it is.

I’ll never know of John’s real inner demons or his deepest joys, but what I do know is this. John was a very good person. A man who some might reason had gotten into a questionable trade. But this is my take on it. In all we do, opportunity to uplift, even save our co-human is in front of us. So here is my fantasy. John was in the right place, at the right time, with the right perspective.

Let me elaborate. In a later story, I will be introducing an amazing woman who is in the trenches of the fight against human trafficking—an industry that sells the virtue and lives of many a child, teen, and youth into prostitution and pornography. I’m even choking a deep breath as I write this paragraph, my stomach turning at the fact.

I close my eyes, imagining (no a nightmare) of a moment where an innocent child is, against their will, being placed on a pornography set. Forced to do things that break her or him to a product to be exploited, used, destroyed, and discarded. Yet on set is a savior of sorts; a man who has the mass and heart to do something about it; to do something good, something noble, and something all so very redeeming.

“Is the world a better place because I was in it?

I sort of have a feeling that John might be the very man who saves a child that day. I tear up as I write this, thinking of the abused children and shattered families broken by a most evil trade. A multi-billion-dollar blemish prospering via the selling of human lives and souls.

For as I reflect upon the spirit of John, and per his internalized answer to an outward question, I saw a man who had baggage and triumph just as all of us do. A man who perhaps, was working in the right place at the right time. In absolute sincerity and soberness, he revealed the person who I feel he truly was. Again, “Is the world a better place because I was in it?”