Three Dogs and a Mexican (Part 1)
This is the story of a man you will never know.
This is the story of a man you will never see.
Yet, it’s the story of so many who live amongst us – hidden away within the crevices of all towns and cities, invisible to the contemporary consciousness.
Los Angeles’ arteries are not highways — but rather its aqueducts. They are a meandering maze of concrete vessels bringing life to millions. Mostly unseen and largely ignored, they lie burrowed amid a gigantic quilt of industrial parks and busy freeways choked with traffic and frustration, channeling clear water from the snow-packed High Sierras down to valleys, and ultimately to our sinks, bathtubs, toilets, garden hoses, swimming pools, and restaurants.
There is one man the who calls the aqueduct his “home.”
This is the story of how I came to stumble upon that man and how I became aware of the numerous challenges he faces each day. It is the story of an unintended series of personal events which reminds us that compassion and generosity are not measured by volume of deeds but rather by the simplest acts of human kindness.
Today I started running.
Running from what?
Running from my age — perhaps. Running from weight gain – most certainly. Running from the slow but inevitable decline of one’s mind, body, and spirit – absolutely.
I am running from all of these things – and I am running as fast as I can.
Running is not easy, nor is it leisurely. Running is difficult. Running is painful. The legs twinge. The joints ache. There seems no way to take in quite enough oxygen. Imagine trying to breath through a plastic bag or a straw. That’s what strenuous exercise feels like to an out-of-shape body broken by more than a decade of unintentional but insidious neglect.
Today, I am determined to do something about all that. If every journey begins with a first step, then then mental and physical commitment I have made towards getting into better health can best be described as a giant leap.
The practice of running is quite simple. It means placing one foot head of the other and moving ahead. As I began that first run at 10 am, I found the first step to be easy. So were then next 100 steps; as were the next 500 steps. But the more steps I took — many hundred steps more, perhaps a half mile on my maiden journey — I began to feel the growing invasion of ache and pain. Alas, the human body cannot be fooled for long. It cannot be tricked.
No pain, no gain – that was my new creed. So, my run continued. A mile or so down the path, I found myself in even more dire pain than before. I had to stop. I hunched over nothing in particular, staring down at the barren sun-bleached pavement, eyes drenched with salty sweat, gasping for oxygen that did not seem to exist. There simply wasn’t enough oxygen to breath nor continue the run.
My plight might have been understandable were I scaling a high mountain where the air is thinner and ogygen is difficult to come by. But, I was standing pretty much at sea level.
It was a perfectly delightful 72 degree day in Los Angeles, a city where I shall be staying over the next two weeks. And, I am running along one of its aqueducts.
On this visit, I decided to use my down time constructively. Instead of breaking in another barstool or mindlessly camping out in front of a television screen as I had done so many times and countless places before, I decided to use the time that is actually mine to try and feel better.
Such a simple but delusional concept. Where does one go and what does one do when no health clubs are nearby? How does one begin a new training program? I wasn’t staying on the piers of the Pacific Ocean nor near lush parks of Santa Monica. Where does one train when staying in Bell Gardens, at the Quality Inn?
Where should I run?
Thanks to MapQuest, I found a local park located about a mile away. It was called John Anson Ford Park, a place no doubt bestowed back when this was a White middle-class bedroom community that might as well have served as the backdrop of the 1960’s “Dragnet” television series, located a leisurely 20 minute drive south of Downtown Los Angeles.
Today, Bell Gardens is mostly a city of Hispanic people. On this sunny day, the park was full of Mexican families, many enjoying picnics. In the interim between what was once called “White flight” and what the community has become today, Bell Gardens was a virtual war zone of rival gangs and drug dealers. Now, it’s become home to a thriving Latino middle class.
And so, I ran towards a new beginning. And nearly a mile into that journey of self discovery, I am now barreled over, completely out of breath, about to pass out. I glance back from the direction from which I came. I see the park off in the distance. Here I was – barely out of the shade of trees from where I began, and I was already feeling defeated.
Nothing remarkable happened that first day, other than making a giant first step. Truth be told — it wasn’t really a “run” at all. It was more like a short burst, followed by a long rest, then a longer walk, capped by a short quarter-mile spurt to make it all look like I had just completed a decathlon. I didn’t shed a pound or even a half pound. I didn’t add any muscle. But I did begin a process.
My first run was successful for one reason above all else: It instilled in me an eagerness to venture out again the following day. In fact, I couldn’t wait.
And with that, the dominos began to fall. My second day’s run went a little longer and took me a little farther. My third run went longer and farther, still. Within a week’s time, I was beginning to build greater stamina. But I had also become bored with the same monotonous asphalt path, which jettisoned alongside the giant concrete aqueduct. Disinterested in running that same route again and again and again and again and again and again and again, on my next run I vowed to make a detour and head off in an entirely new direction.
The aqueducts deviate into a sprawling web of different tentacles. On the seventh day, for no apparent reason whatsoever, I detoured from my usual path and ran off to the right, when I could very well have continued running straight ahead just as I had done six times before. But this path was less traveled and less certain. Five minutes or so around a long curve, I suddenly came upon a fence. My pathway was blocked.
Unwilling to turn around and simply go back, I decided to scale the fence and continue. The path on the other side was no longer used by pedestrians or my fellow runners, and so the pavement was much rougher once I crossed the fence. The concrete was cracked. My run was not as easy, trying to avoid the perilous uneven surfaces which slow down a run. Minutes onto the new pathway, I had already begun to regret scaling the wall, but there seemed only one real direction to go and that was to continue straight ahead.
Fifteen more minutes into the run I began nearing the limits of my physical endurance. Then, things became even more difficult. I came upon yet another fence, this one made of thick cinder block. The second fence was a bad omen. What pathway rested on the other side, this time? Did the path continue and if so, where did it lead?
I peered over the wall and prepared to make the jump. That’s when it caught my eye.
There it was — fifty feet or so straight ahead. Overlooking the concrete channel, beneath two oak trees.
It was a blue tent. Actually, it was more of a canvass, really. But the material was pulled tightly, making it resemble a tent.
The tent was little more than a cheap plastic tarp, festooned to the ground with makeshift ropes. The sides of the tent were lined with old blankets and worn out rugs. Alongside the tent were two shopping baskets filled with aluminum cans. Old clothes were draped over a makeshift clothes line strewn from one tree to the other.
Yes, it was a tent. But whoever lived here thought of it as something much, much more. It was a home.
And that person who called this a home – whoever it was – seemed determined to make that home as livable as possible.
I could not help feed my curiosity as I waited, watched, and witnessed this odd place of which I knew so little. I did not see anyone inside the tent nor in the area. All that stood out were items most of us would have considered to be junk, that normally would have been carted off to a garbage dump. But to the person who called this place home, those items had great value. They not only had value, they had meaning. Maybe those discarded cans represented the next meal. Those dingy clothes on the rope provided some measure of dignity. That tarp strewn over a few wooden crates epitomized safety and security.
Then, there was the barking. Off to the side of the tent were three small dogs. The checkered mutts, which were clearly strays, were chained to a metal post. They were shielded away from the sun beneath the towering oak trees. The dogs had several bowls around them, partially filled with food. Some of the bowls had water. The dogs seemed relatively well fed and cared for — even happy.
With the roar of traffic from a nearby freeway mixing with a gentle breeze, the tranquility of the moment was interrupted by the barking dogs. This place may have been in the middle of a city of millions, but — at least for the time being — it was a place of peace.
Seeing no one, I scaled the cinder block fence and continued my run past the blue tent. Within minutes I was back at the park, standing at the place where the day’s run had begun. My detour had proven successful. The following day, I vowed run the same path again.
However, on the following day — I would come to meet the man who lived in the tent.
COMING NEXT: Three Dogs and a Mexican (Part 2)
Writer’s Note: This story took place in early January 2012 while I was visiting Los Angeles. The next several blog entries will be a backlog of original essays and never-before published stories from the past six months. I also expect to post several past experiences and reflections from years earlier, including my first-hand account of the 1989 Romanian Revolution, which I have never discussed. This blog will be updated daily with new material. Welcome!