A short, well groomed man, dressed in jeans and a dark tank top, was combing through the dense mat of ivy that grew along a freeway off-ramp in downtown L.A., practically in the shadow of the elegant Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. He used a stick about eighteen inches long, reminiscent of a police billy-club. Kathy thought the stick was a machete, so gave him a wide berth. To me he looked harmless, and, except for the tank top, had the air of being involved in some official activity.
Kathy and I reached our destination and got fast-food snacks, then walked along the off-ramp again -- going eastward this time. The man with the stick had moved about 50 feet up the off-ramp and I realized that he was methodically looking for recyclable and salvageable items that people had thrown out of their cars. Using the stick made sense; it would keep him from being bitten by rats or cut by broken glass, while exposing anything he might want to pick up.
There was a dirt-encrusted pint liquor bottle on the sidewalk, and I commented that it looked very old. He said he had found a bottle that he thought might be even older, and asked if I wanted to see it. I waited while he pulled the bottle out of his shopping cart. It was a very clear glass and was threaded for a screw-on lid. I told him the really old bottles were closed with corks instead of screw-on lids. Then he showed me a tiny bottle he'd picked up. I offered him a dollar for it, and said I could use it to make miniature bouquets with little flowers from my garden.
Taking my dollar bill, he civilly introduced himself as Ray. His smile, though mostly toothless, was beatific. We shook hands and I introduced myself. His smile faded as he told me his sister Frances had died of lupus and that his sister-in-law was also afflicted with the disease. "I think it's a curse," he said.
Ray asked me if I were on my way to church -- a logical assumption given the proximity of the Cathedral and the way I was dressed (midi-skirted navy blue outfit, flower-trimmed hat). "No," I said, "I'm on my way to the flag raising ceremony at the monument around the corner." "Oh yes," Ray said, "the cops came around and warned all us homeless guys to stay away from that."
So we saw no homeless people at the Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial flag raising on July 4, 2011. No police either, except for a couple of helicopter flyovers.
Ray would have been very welcome as far as I was concerned, and he certainly could have used a break. If he heard the historic cannon and musket fire, he probably assumed it was just another typical day in L.A.
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NOTE: On June 5, 2010, I posted talking to strangers, which described a pleasant encounter with a Buffalo Bill impersonator on a bus. I thought of running true to form by calling today's post talking to strangers, part 2, and continuing on in a numbered series as I have with several other topics. Numbered parts, however, would not do justice to the uniqueness of these experiences or the special people I meet by talking to strangers.