We exit a pair of mid-nineties sedans in a parking lot behind a loading dock. We meander for a moment, our hands stuffed into our pockets, and our gazes bring us up and out toward the river. Home again, in a way.
Across our arms we have sweatshirts, blankets, a bowl of salad, two tins of lasagna, and two bags of garlic bread. The doors click locked and we walk together across a dirt lot.
From above, Mikey, David, Alima, and Red are waiting. Mikey pulls a cigarette away from his face and stamps it into the ground. He’ll have another, but later.
“Here they come, Alima. The kids have arrived,” David says.
Mikey is walking down the paved embankment to meet us. He takes a load of blankets out of Kylie’s arms.
She says, “thank you, Mikey. You’re so sweet.”
Frank, who is holding the lasagna tins, says, “Hey Mikey, always a helper.”
“Yeah. You know,” Mikey says from behind the hairs of his overgrown mustache. “Just doing what I can.”
Half of us set up a small table and place tonight’s food on top while the rest of us spread into the crowd.
By now, there are fifteen more. They’ve heard us arrive and greet each other, so they’ve come up from the other side of the embankment that leads to the LA River. There is a bridge above which offers partial protection for their makeshift cardboard and faded nylon tent-homes. This is where they live. They have bikes. Some have plants that they water.
We are standing in line together and chatting as wait for a plate of food when James calls everyone’s attention. He says that it is Mikey’s birthday tonight. David reveals and hands him a scepter made from a long stick wrapped with cloth, fishing line, costume beads and glitter. David loves glitter.
“Gather around everyone. We want to sing for Mikey and then afterward he would like to pray for our food,” James says.
We move in. The smell of rotting fish looms above. We take each other’s hands. Our circle is too big for the bike path, so we make an oval. We sing for Mikey.
Cars are passing above and behind on the Seventh street bridge. Thousands of people barrel across it daily. Phone calls. Meetings to get to. People with homes to see. Thousands who know not of the hundreds who live beneath the bridges running throughout Long Beach.
Mikey is ecstatic. He can’t stop smiling. He is hugging everyone he can.
“Alright everyone, let’s pray a blessing over this food.” James looks to Mikey. “Your turn, brother.”
“Oh, uhh. Well, thank you Jesus for these kids, the food they’ve brought, the people they are. Who you’ve made them to be, and who you want to make us to be. Thank you. May we love you more. Amen.”
“Amen!” We respond in unison.
* * * * * * * * * *
Adrian has his camera out and he is aiming it in the direction of Red. Red notices, stops, and makes a pose. He jokes about being back in the crib. He takes a swig from his water bottle, but we all know he hasn’t had any water all day.
Melissa is deep in conversation with Susan who sits in a motorized wheelchair. Susan believes in God, and she makes sure Melissa, her adopted daughter, knows that. She always wanted her kids to know God too.
I am leaning against the graffitied wall watching our family commune together. I have no words, nor thoughts really. Only prayers. I try to whisper them.
David walks up and we start talking about his public readings.
“Always a trick, mister Aaron. And never an easy one to convince those people to let me read!” He laughs deviously.
“Why is that, David? Your ideas are great. Who wouldn’t let a guy like you come and read at their coffee shop, store, or whatever?”
“Oh you know, religious folks, and parents of small children.”
Now we both laugh.
Our crowd has melded well. Many are seated together, some are joking and singing songs together. Most are smiling. Nobody is alone.
I have been thinking about my status a great deal lately. I am privileged, and I know it. I want to give that back, but I want to be tactful and kind about it. I don’t want to give people what they don’t need, or worse, what I think they need.
David takes notice of my silence. “A penny for your thoughts, sir? Well, actually I don’t have any penny’s left. Perhaps, a rain check?”
I smile. “David, I guess I’ve been thinking. We come down here twice a week and have been for nine months.”
“Oh my, has it really been that long?”
“It has. It has.”
“Well, I was thinking. What could us kids possibly give you, our Long Beach family and friends? What is the best thing we could possibly offer to you?”
David holds his chin. He stares up at the blackened sky.
Cars boom by above, chatter fills in the gaps.
“You know,” he says. “We don’t need your food. We could get food for free on any given night in at least three different places.”
He thinks again, his mind rolling around the words he is about to say. Then:
“Your time, sir.”
“Your time. It is the greatest gift any friend could give. It is the most pregnant–excuse my imagery–with possibility.”
* * * * * * * * * *
James is talking to Mikey who is pushing bread into his mouth like it might go bad before their conversation is up. He laughs at him and Mikey smiles, crumbs and flecks drop from his mouth and into his long, white and beige beard.
Today’s piece is based on true events. Names have been swapped for fictitious ones to retain privacy. Photo courtesy of www.co-project.org