UP ABOVE and the DOWN BELOW
by Linda Leigh
In April 2013, I was awarded a scholarship to SAIC (School of the Art Institute in Chicago). Unfortunately, I developed breast and lymph node cancer which I called The Blimp. School started in August, so I put off going until my treatments with chemo and radiation were complete. The school was very accommodating with this arrangement.
When 2014 rolled in I was ready to begin my life in the windy city of Chicago, and really excited about beginning a new and adventurous life. I started having large yard sales and sold most of my worldly goods and the rest went into storage. I said my goodbyes to apartment, family, friends and my cat Isabella, whom I raised from a kitten and thought was going to a good home (more about that later). After my train trip to Chicago I found a place to stay while I took care of my paper work at the school. Everything was verified that I was indeed ready to start the following week. Then a snag came the very next day. I was texted to come to the school immediately. It was discovered that my high school transcript did not have my graduation date on it and I was told without that document I could not attend. Unfortunately my high school in New York is now defunct, and the school now has an office for graduates to call and request their transcripts. At this time the school was closed and would not be open until September. Also the office would have to request info from the state to get that information for me.
Needless to say I am now homeless. Now I live in the elements. What does that mean when you don’t have immediate housing and may have to live on the streets? Actually, when I was asked by my granddaughter if I was homeless I looked at my daughter who was about to cry and said, no, I live in the elements. I then asked my daughter if this sounded better? She replied, yes. The journey will be memorable from how I got here to wherever it takes me. Family and friends do not keep in touch nor have they come to visit. Lots to think about. But I am a very resourceful person and will definitely make the most of the situation I find myself in. I will dance through these mirrors and windows and come through stronger and more informed.
• • •
A Good Day
As I listen to a young girl’s poem or spoken word about how she got over her depression, and it being a good day, I thought back to a time that I rarely talk about — the moment I had a dark day. Although I have never gone to the point of harming or killing myself, I do remember back in the fall of 2012 when I fell into a dark hole and could not climb out. I actually sought help at a facility in downtown Los Angeles that a friend had recommended. They had me do different tests and some talking and found that I was basically okay — nothing more, nothing less. But I knew it was something.
I remember it was a Tuesday in November I decided I would Love my depression, yes, I said love it like I did chocolate or a friend or a lover. When it descended upon me I told it, good to have you. I love you, thank you for being here. After taking a shower and getting dressed for class I walked to the door and could not open it to go out. I walked back into my room, got into bed and said, I love not having to go out, and I love you warm, cozy bed with my covers and sheets and pillows, thank you, I love being here.
I thanked my apartment and rejoiced in the fact I was in a dark hole loving it as much as I could. And finally one day after two months of this madness I realized it was gone almost as quickly as it came and that was a very Good Day.
• • •
Women in the Down Below settle their disputes by being overly aggressive, loud, and squabbling up in each other’s faces. They put hands on one another.
In the Up Above angry bursts are not as confrontational but are settled by nippy, hurtful and sarcastic statements.
I listened to two young women while I was waiting for my train to arrive. The women were both Asian and a Caucasian man. They started talking about a co-worker who had cut and colored her hair. Their conversation went like this “Did you see her new do?” Asked one of the women. The other replied,” Yes, and she was so proud of it.” First woman: “I know. I didn’t know what to say. So I said, you got your hair cut. I just couldn’t tell her how bad the color and cut was.” “I know,” replies second woman, “she was so enthused and happy about her hair.” They giggled and seemed to be enjoying the moment in all its dishonesty. I watched them and listened intently to them the whole time not caring if they noticed me watching them. I thought, what a sham.
In the Down Below, people are more intense, their anger is explosive but they are very honest in their opinions. They may be quick to strike out at anyone at any time. At the same time there is so much more living than I’ve ever seen clothes, food, advice to get help and services. Everyone seems to have a hustle; selling one cigarette for fifty cents, clothing they may have gotten for free goes for one dollar or more; candy and sunglasses even food … Cooking in covered and uncovered skillets. The side of buildings are used without thought for a bathroom while drugs are peddled freely on almost every corner and in front of buildings including the Police station. And trust me, no one does anything about it.
Everyone has a story, some are more horrifying than others. Like the women who’ve told me about their mothers and/or fathers that molested them as children, then put them on the street at eleven years of age for prostitution or the mother that gave her daughter up because she was too dark. All types of people live on Skid Row — educated college professors, business persons, chefs, lawyers, accountants, singers, actors, and of course the Vets, as well as the less educated or non-educated.
At the URM (Union Rescue Mission) where I now reside, I am treated with respect by the other women and the director. Actually, she did something for me she never did for anyone else. I had some boxes that needed to go into storage, and she let me leave them in her office and she personally put them in storage for me. The women who ran the storage area also made sure my things were not rummaged through, and because my hair was starting to grow back from the chemo they would call me Mrs. Cosby (because of the color). I sleep on the fourth floor. It is like a large dormitory for women, about one hundred fifty, and you are assigned a bed which you get to sleep in every night if you follow the rules. At night I had women who would ask to sit on my bed and tell me stories about how they were treated as children. Like the mothers and fathers who raped them at very young ages and then put them on the streets to sell themselves at eleven so their parents could have money for the Candy Man. This revelation was shocking for me because I grew up in a very loving neighborhood where the children were monitored and loved. So this information was new and I began to look at black people in a different awareness always thinking we as a people would never treat our children with little or no respect or regard for their welfare. Another woman revealed to me that she was given up at birth because she was born too dark to a mother that was very fair and had three children before her that were the same color as her mother. She told me how they were reunited when their mother was dying and asked her to help with the funeral cost and for her church to bury her mother. And she did even though they, her siblings never communicated with her except at this time.
This is a humorous event that took place at URM, I think so anyway. A young woman comes in and announces she is going on a date with a gentleman she just met and who is really fine, well-mannered and dresses really nice. This young woman is getting ready for her big hot date. She puts on a beautiful frock (the women here have great taste and are very fashionable) and stilettos — yes, they do wear them in The Down below. Her face is made up to perfection, as well as her hair, set in long waves that cover her back, looking like a movie star. She adds one final touch, some bling earrings that dazzle and blind the eyes, then picks up her purse and exits the room. To our amazement, and it’s only been one hour, she is back at the URM taking her shoes off. A friend of hers asks what happened? The young woman starts to tell us that this guy gave her his address, and as she is walking by the tents on Skid Row, she finds it. A Tent, she exclaims, with an address and he is there waiting for her. With a flourish, he flips open the flap and invites her in where to her amazement are two lawn chairs which she commences to sit on. She notices that he has two coolers. He asks, “would you like something to drink?” She replies, “yes.” He opens a cooler with drinks and offers her one which he opens and gives to her. He then asks her ,“are you ready for dinner?” She hesitantly says yes again, and he opens the other cooler and offers her a sandwich (I don’t know what kind because she never says.) So she eats and drinks and thanks him for a lovely evening and leaves soon after. After she has lamented about her tale of events she exclaims, at least he lives in a luxury tent and not a pup tent.
There is a white woman that lives on the streets and comes to the DWC called the Judge. She is filthy and is foul smelling and even more foul with her mouth and manners. When she enters the building the woman in charge of showers that day immediately takes her and allows her to have an emergency shower. The shower monitor then rummages through the bins of clothing donations and finds her decent clothes to put on so she is ready to have breakfast. This woman I am told was once a judge in New York and that someone had killed her whole family while she watched, and then they raped her and left. I often wonder what she had done to make someone that crazy to do that to her. I see her all the time now and she looks worse than when I first saw her, almost sickly.
Another white woman that comes in is from a very wealthy family. Being here is an eye opener to say the least, everything takes longer to get done, whether it is housing, medical, or transportation etc.
• • •
I am really tired today. I was up at four o’clock this morning. I tried to go back to sleep, but now it is five-thirty. I take a shower, which I do every morning and evening, especially down here. The filth is so appalling that I feel grimy from walking in the streets of downtown. It’s like if I don’t get that energy off of me I will drown in it.
I am dressed and skipping out the door to the Downtown Women’s Center where I volunteer cooking for over one hundred and fifty women, and I can boil three hundred eggs perfectly with a golden yolk. Actually I went through their Set to Bake program. A group of us baked the goods that went into the DWC’s café. The program got cancelled and Chef Carlos, told Miss Faye, the director of the day center, that he wanted Theresa, Briana and I to work with him. When breakfast is over I will catch the bus to The Up Above, Alhambra is where I used to live before coming down here. I will put some items in my storage so my room at the Russ won’t be overcrowded. I try to keep things minimal, so far good job.
It is November the weather is still warm on my way home from the DWC. I can’t believe how time has flown. There is a wedding taking place this evening at the San Julian Park. The cleaning crew has been here all day preparing the park for this momentous occasion. I guess when you are in a community it can become your home. My understanding is that the bride and groom met here on Skid Row.
It is seven o’clock at night, the festivities are about to start. I am watching out of the bathroom window of the second floor. A real minister is going to perform the ceremony and the guests are strutting into the park and take their seats at tables set up for this special day. The groom has arrived with his best man, and the music has started playing. It is soft and mellow. A songstress steps up to the stage to sing. She has a beautiful voice, full and rich. The song ends and a pause is felt and walking music for the bridal party begins, six bridesmaids with escorts approach, very elegant. I wish I had a camera, no one would believe this. Oh, how sweet, two flower girls with a ring bearer come forward. A long dramatic pause as the bride arrives and makes a spectacular entrance on the arm of a fine looking older gentleman. It could be her father, uncle, brother, or could be a friend. Does not matter she is glowing and exquisite — yes exquisite. It is nearing the end of the ceremony. Bride and groom exchange vows and kiss… The food is catered and smells delicious. The band is setting up, yes, a real band. The party is about to begin. I whisper to the couple, may God bless you and may your marriage be strong especially in the Down Below. All I can say is this bride has marvelous taste.
• • •
This morning I got myself ready — went to the beach. While there I studied for the Food Handling test that was to take place later this week. It is warmer than I thought it would be. I saw a beach chair by itself and took it. The owner, an older woman in her eighties, came back and claimed it. She was really miffed. I laughed to myself. I knew it was wrong to take that chair. Saw a sea lion and heard its cries. Were the waves too harsh?
• • •
It is Saturday, February 28, 2015. This is the last day of the month. This is my six month anniversary for being in the down below. Still waiting for housing I was promised to move from the Russ to the Rosslyn Hotel. Leslie, the SRO coordinator, told me that I am moving on January 23. She informed me that my background check had been lost and they have to submit a new one. I have waited three more weeks and now it is February 24. Finally, I have met with the Housing Authority and I am told everything looks good.
I cannot believe that I have been living in the Down Below for two years, so much has happened in a short span of time. People come and go like soft waves, whispering as they touch the sand on the beach, or the touch of fingertips that barely meet. Here in the Down Below life appears to be tenuous at best. I have my apartment at the Rosslyn Hotel. It was such a big deal to move in here and it turns out not so big.
Walking the downtown section of Los Angeles CA, from Fifth and Main streets to Fifth and San Pedro, can be an experience unto itself which I try to do very Monday, Wednesday and Friday on my trek to the L.A.M.P. On any given day the streets from San Julian to San Pedro can be clean or littered with garbage, urine and or excrement and the odor can knock you into space. Hell you might even see a person you thought was asleep but was really dead. Sometimes the streets are overcrowded with tents with more women and families are moving in every day and Asians soon will be the new majority in the Down Below.
• • •
This morning my sister-in-law Nellie, died from a rare form of cancer, she was sixty-four years of age. She leaves behind my brother, her husband Albert g. Leigh III, her son Albert G. Leigh IV, his wife Olga and their three children Dyanna, Albert G. Leigh V and Peter. Christina Leigh Rueckner her daughter, and her husband Franz their two children Karsten and Liezel and her youngest son Brian Leigh, his wife Charlotte and their two children Tatiana and Tyler
When my father Albert G. Leigh, Jr. made his transion, his six children realized we were now the front line — meaning, the next to go. We also speculated on what would happen if one of us made our transition. And what it would feel like. Never did Nellie cross our minds. She was not even on the radar. She being always healthy and in control. it took all of us by surprise. How appropriate (relevant) she left on Valentine’s Day with her loving family surrounding her. Good bye Nellie you are much loved and in our hearts you remain.
My heart is sad.
I missed you before you even took flight.
I knew it was inevitable,
But I prayed for a miracle.
But the heavens wanted you more.
Your job for now was through maybe a lesson or two.
You have made me wake-up to the fact that
tomorrow is now.
Living in the moment and doing what is needed for
me right now—not then, not later.
• • •
My heart is sad
I missed you, before you even took flight.
Knew it was inevitable.
I prayed for a
But the heavens wanted you
Your job, for now is through.
a lesson too.
made me wake up to the
that tomorrow is
Living in the moment
what is needed
Certainly not later.
(poem done two different ways)
For the past three weeks I have been sick with a bladder infection. The first two weeks I had no idea what I had. Week one could not get out of bed, and the mere energy of the television made me weak as if my energy was being pulled through it. My favorite shows on PBS are the mysteries and they were a no go. Very interesting those electrical currents from the television and what they can do to you. The second week I thought I had contracted African trymarosamiasis. I somehow mustered up all my strength and dragged myself to see the doctor and found out I had, a bladder and intestinal infection. Antibiotics were prescribed and the infection cleared up. I could not even visit the L.A.M.P. and work on my projects which is where I had my first attack of being sick. The second attack occurred at the Star Apartments’ art show. Interesting, in this condition I could not see anything surrounding me in this environment — not clutter, dirt, grime or the people piled up in their tents. They are all a blur on my lenses.
In my listless state of consciousness all I thought about was what is really important to me and realized I really wanted to teach meditation. o I proposed this idea to Hayk at the L.A.M.P. and to La Shalle at the Rosslyn where I live. Both classes are scheduled to start very soon. I have recovered from and have a clearer vision and more vitality to do this work. I am encouraged to move forward and to perform the Forgiveness Meditations to the Earth at the beach. I have schedule one for the 26th of June at nine o’clock in the morning. Posted it on Facebook. I’ll see what happens. I am really looking forward to this event.
• • •
Another thing that has taken place in my coma-like-state is that I realize my family has never supported me in my endeavors, although I have been there for them. I am the constant one that makes arrangements to go to everything, including things that their friends might be involved in. Well, I vowed that I would not attend my sister’s birthday party since she has not come to visit me — not one time.
Saturday, June 18, has arrived. I’m going to the party dressed and heading out the door to catch the Gold Line to Pasadena. It is somewhat overcast today but warm. I arrive in Pasadena. It is sprinkling. I’m cheered up even more. My sister sent Uber to pick me up. We make it to Altadena and it is raining. She lives next to the mountains. I walk into her house and the setup is magnificent, and my niece has catered the event. There are so many people I haven’t seen in twenty to thirty years, and they had their children and grandchildren with them. I had the best time. I am glad I did not sit this one out being stubborn and missing this glorious day. There were tents set up in case the sun was beaming on us. It turned out very useful for all this rain. A trio played music from the ‘70s and ‘80s. People danced while the children got in the pool on huge swans and flamingos floats. Close to two hundred people came to wish Gloria a happy birthday. It really shows how much love she has given over the years to so many people. Thank you for a wonderful day and evening.
• • •
Another busy day. Arrived at the doctors’ office at 7:35 this morning. I hope to be out of here by eleven I have a poetry class in the building next door. It is now 8:30. I came early because if you don’t you may never be seen by the doctor. So many people in the waiting room, which is too small for the amount that are here today. Oh, God, kids are crying and cell phones blare their crazy obnoxious sounds. There’s a sign that says, no cell phones — turn them off. Otherwise, you have loud and argumentative conversations clamoring all over the room, especially here in the Down below.
Finally, numbers are being called. Oh, yes, you are given a number in order to be checked in. Of course someone will come and get you take your vitals. Hoping my weight reflects how my clothes are fitting a lot looser. It is nine o’clock and I am still sitting, waiting, hoping I am out by eleven. I will be fine. Cheeze they have only called one person’s number and I am number 13.
• • •
On July 4, 2016, I awaken several times during the night. Damn those folks with their fireworks. Wasn’t it enough that City Hall had a big splash? I tried going back to sleep and awoke at 8:30am. I am late. wanted to leave house at 7:00am to go to the beach.
Oh well, slow start should I go or should I stay? That is the question. Go get ready open the door step into hallway. Door closes and locks. That settles it. I make way to the elevator today. It is the express, no stops to other floors. I have to get out of Down Below, it’s smothering. Up Above is cleaner and cooler. I make my way to Metro 7th street station and find I have to wait twenty-two minutes for Santa Monica train, and this is not even the weekend. It is 10:00am, and wait, oh good, they are changing the Long Beach train and changing it to Santa Monica, now all those people have to leave the train. Too Bad.
How am I feeling? Not sure I am ready for this. Great, a young black man is arguing with his sister on his cell phone … who wants to hear this crap? Not me! Who cares? He doesn’t have a car and wants someone to watch his children, and man, is he giving this person hell. Thank God, he and his girlfriend finally depart and it is QUIET!
Okay, here you are — end of the line — Santa Monica Pier. New question: Do I stay here, or catch the 534 bus to Will Rogers Beach? Okay, stay — experience something new in this part of the world. Found a spot to enjoy my time here.
Wow, it’s getting crowded already. Did I make the right choice? I am finding I do not want to be around a lot of people today, and it seems they are all in this one space near me. This is a big piece of seashore, why are they converging here? I am trying to relax and enjoy this moment, but it is busy here. A Mexican woman, brightly dressed, shouts in a sing song voice — Mango, Mango. Oh man, another vendor, this time it’s a man shouting buy his umbrellas and beach pails and small surfer boards.
What time is it — can I really stomach this? Relax and breath, that is what I tell myself. At least you are not sitting in that heavy energy in the Down Below. What’s going on with you? I have to ask. Reflect on what you are feeling. Do you feel like your space has been invaded? I chuckle. Okay, look at all the people arriving now. Wow, the waves are bigger and people are having fun and enjoying the waves thundering over them, laughing. The children’s laughter washes over me like the waves they gleefully jump into.
I notice this woman whom I saw earlier with her partner. The toddler with her is tentative going into the water. She gently leads him in and smiles. I watch. She is heavy in weight with many tattoos. Earlier I think, did I judge her? I watch her now and feeling much emotion that the people here are just in the moment not caring about what the television or other media say they should look like or be. Somewhere deep I feel a connection with humanity so profound it moves me to write, least I lose this ennui. How beautiful we are when for a few precious moments on, one is thinking about how we are big booty and bust; at this time with the waves thundering against their wonderful bodies they are in the thrill of the moment. I need to get away from the Down Below more often. The reflection they generate is not full and complete. Ha ha, my imposed deadline to leave the beach at 12:00pm has now come and gone. I am more relaxed now and not ready to leave.
I walk on the sand, happy that the sun is not bearing down and scorching the earth. I walk-on. Actually, feels kind of cool. On the train ride back I watch my thoughts and I really don’t want anyone sitting next to me, so I scoot my bag over just enough to make it uncomfortable for someone to sit. Space issue again? Finally arrive at 7th street. Why am I rushing almost like? (Need to find word).
Trying to get home out of the streets of the Down Below. Hush, hush, your minds take your time breath. I noticed the streets are cleaner; what, no urine smell? I glide, taking in my environment. Today is a good day. There is peace inside of me. Lunch is calling what should I eat.
Children run to
Their laughter and the sound of the surf
• • •
Children rush to the water
Waves washes over their
Resounding laughter mingles
Rushing sounds of the waves
children’s voices become one
there is tranquility
inside of me
Linda Leigh was born in Queens, New York. She enjoys creative writing and poetry. Ms. Leigh now resides in Los Angeles and is an accomplished artist, her works are displayed throughout California. She is also very involved in Social Justice in her community.
NEW SERIES FROM
The Skid Row Zine Writing Group
Ivy Pochoda Introduction
In 2009 I moved from my hometown of Brooklyn to Los Angeles, a city that is still both familiar and unknowable to me. Accustomed to walking or riding the subway, I found I couldn’t visualize the city’s shape even as I moved along its streets and freeways. I still can’t. But driving to and from my Echo Park apartment back then I was struck by something else that surprised me: all the ways in which people lived out of doors—the tent encampments, permanently parked camper vans, makeshift shelters of many materials all improvised for living in the elements. They made Los Angeles, amidst its evident wealth, even more mystifying, gave it a texture I hadn’t expected, a secret soul.
Two years later I moved just east of Downtown to the Arts District which was just beginning its rapid gentrification. Skid Row sits between Downtown and the Arts District. As I drove or rode my bike past its sprawling community of tents, shelters, medical and social services, murals, missions, and churches the initial impression of chaos eventually gave way to a pattern of communities each with its own character. Here were activists; here were artists; and here were the hopeless and the helpless in various associations of their own. I began to see the shape and depth of the neighborhood though I could not have imagined how much more it would mean to me one day.
One evening I emailed the Lamp Arts Program, a multi-discipline studio affiliated with The People Concern, one of Los Angeles’s largest social services agencies, and offered to give a course in creative writing. I did not know what to expect when I turned up for my first class. Would the participants be lucid, intelligent, capable? The truth is they were all of these things and more. Each of them was on a journey and they each showed up with a story to tell whether it was drawn from experience or summoned by wild inspiration. Their work is remarkable—it’s profound, smart, and quite often funny.
We meet once a week. (I am not always in charge of the sessions these days as some of the participants have stepped up to run the class.) We do warm up exercises and in class writing assignments. Some participants are working on longer projects: chapbooks, one-act plays, essays, and short stories. And out of these meetings, we formed Skid Row Zine—an independent magazine dedicated to the voices and stories of people living in and around Skid Row.
Our first piece from the Skid Row Zine writers group:
UP ABOVE and the DOWN BELOW by Linda Leigh