“Shine your windows while you shop?” Lawrence Harvey asks, holding a white cloth in one hand, windex in the other. “I’ll be fast, I promise. Have your vee-hicle done by the time you get out.” Stretching out the ‘e’ in vehicle, Harvey hooks the spray bottle to his belt, pulls at the rim of his ten gallon cowboy hat. A regular gunslinger. Boots and a plaid shirt tucked in with little care to dirty khakis.
“My wife was just telling me the car needs washed,” I say.
Harvey saunters over to the car as if he planned to do the job with or without my permission. “I’ll be done in two shakes.”
“Take your time, friend. What’s your name?”
“Folks call me Harvey.”
We stand in a crowded grocery store parking lot at the corner of Melrose and Vine. Shopping carts crash by us, horns blaring in battle over empty spaces. I ask Harvey how business is today.
“I’ll keep a roof over my head one more day. Gotta work harder now. Because I’ll tell you what. I was on the street before. Now I got my own apartment in Korea Town.” Harvey pauses at the end of every sentence, looks me in the eye like he’s making sure I’ve heard him. “I keep me a little bit of food in the fridge… Some coffee in the cupboard… And a couple of cigarettes… I smoke cigarettes. I don’t drink though.”
“Everybody’s got a vice. How’d you get off the streets?”
“I got sick and tired or being sick and tired.” He picks dirt off my windshield with his fingernail.
“Is this how you make your living?” I ask.
He says no. That this is just part time. When Harvey isn’t washing windows, he’s on a ranch outside of the city, shoeing horses.
“Shooing?” I ask, picturing an old man and a broom.
What he means, I learn, is farrier. He cares for a horses hooves, and puts on their shoes. A trade that not only involves blacksmith and veterinarian skills, but a unique ability to speak to the horse, calm the horse.
“When I ain’t with the horses, I’m out here. You know how you got hobbies?”
“Yeah, I’ve got hobbies.”
“Shoeing horses is my hobby.” He stops cleaning the passenger side window to smile at me. He’s missing the right front tooth and the two teeth that are supposed to be next to it. This gap in his smile releases a small spray of spit on his S’s and T’s.
I ask Harvey if he’s ever been kicked or injured.
He laughs. “Son, if a horse kicked me now, I’d kick it back.”
When Harvey is fourteen, a horse backs up on him. He throws his arms into the air – a natural reaction to the surprise – and the animal kicks. Its hooves break Harvey’s wrist and arm. A fellow rancher will ask if he’s okay. Harvey will reply, “I’ll live. It was a long way from the heart.”
Harvey asks if I know who Charles Sampson is.
Sampson is the first African American bull rider to win the world championship. A black kid who saw bull riding as a way to ride out of the ghetto. As a young man he took a job at a riding stable in Gardena, CA to avoid the violence that surrounded him. Standing at just 5 feet 4 inches, Sampson was one of only six black men in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association back in 1983. He was quoted in the New York Times having said of his profession, “I haven’t encountered discrimination as much as ignorance. Some people still don’t realize that something like a quarter of all the cowboys back in the Old West were black.” Just because Sampson had dark skin didn’t mean he couldn’t ride.
Harvey says he knows Charles Sampson. They ride together as young boys. Until Harvey is hooked in the neck by a bull. “This is back in the late 60’s,” he says, “when they didn’t cut the horns on the cows… I was bowin’ down to him. He lifted his head, fast and with purpose, hooked me the neck. I came to, I said, ‘No more cows.'” Harvey then begins riding bucking horses for the next twenty years. “I got on my last bucking horse in 1986,” he says. “I was thrown off, busted both my knees. Didn’t walk for quite some time. Those bucking horses, they full of grain and fire.”
Born in Los Angeles, Harvey grows up with the horses in the family. Says he also grows up singing. Whenever he is out with the horses as a boy, he sings country western while he rides. “Like a real cowboy,” he says. “You know what Yodelin’ is? I learned it out in Perris, California in 1970. It goes like this….”
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“Yessiree,” he shouts over my applause. “Yessir. I sung gospel when I was downtown on Skid Row. I joined a group to keep me out of trouble. We sang the Gospel. A cappella. You know what that is? It means with no instruments. I’m a baritone. First and second baritone. First tenor. Second tenor. And bass. I do bass too. The guy doing bass, I could beat him. But I didn’t trip on that. I was just happy to be singing. We were singing all over Skid Row. For free. For free! Two, three years. I don’t care about who leads what. I don’t trip. I just want to sound good in front of people. We changed people’s lives. We changed our own lives. One by one we got off Skid Row. They wanted to keep singing, but I got back with them horses. I said, ‘This is what I love, messin’ ‘dem horses.'”
Skid Row is a makeshift neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles, home to one of the cities largest concentration of homelessness.
Harvey touches my shoulder, laughs, gets my face wet. “They probably still looking’ for me right now!”
I don’t want to be rude but I put some distance between us, casually wiping my brow. I ask him how he ended up on Skid Row what with all his work on the ranch.
“I used to be a jockey when I was fifteen, fourteen, thirteen,” he says. “I rode the Victorville track in ’69. Got beat by a photo-finish. By a nose, brother. By a nose. Guy seen me ride that race, he said, ‘You wanna come live on my ranch? Care for my horses. I’ll pay you twenty-five dollars a week. Give you room and board and food.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ That was the most money I’d ever heard of a young boy making. Left home when I was fifteen. I ain’t been back since.”
The ranch is in Perris, California where Harvey will stay and work until he is seventeen. He will attend Paris High School, taking the D’s and F’s he received in Compton, and turn them into A’s and B’s. He will walk the proverbial three miles to and from the bus stop every single day, and claim to have never missed not even an hour of school in those three years. Not one. “I went home, did my homework, trained the horses, cleaned the stalls. I was doing what I loved. It was that easy to succeed. I see all these youngsters here today, see them with the wrong fellas just like I was back in Compton. Breaks my heart.”
After graduation Harvey tells his boss it’s time to move on. He’s been living there for three years. Now seventeen, Harvey feels it is time to go and see the world. His first stop and his first mistake will be returning to LA where he falls right back in with his old crowd. They treat him as though he never left. It will only be a matter of time before Harvey starts doing drugs again after three years sober. “You get caught up in that circle. It’s like a tornado. And when that tornado cuts you loose, it’s up to you to brace for impact.”
Harvey scrapes month-old bird shirt off the hood of my car with his thumb.
“A lot of these people out here on the streets, they out here because they wanna be. They gotta get sick and tired of being sick and tired. That’s the only way. No institution, jail, or death is gonna stop them until they make up their own mind. You can help the homeless all you want, but if they ain’t gonna help themselves… well, you lead the horse to the water but you can’t make him drink. If you try, he’s gonna kick the shit outta you.”
Harvey talks about seeing the negative of the negative on the street. “You at the lost stop when you get that low. And the way I see it, you gots two options: you either gotta get up or say, ‘this is how I’m goin out.'”
Harvey wants to be clear it was not just the drugs and the wrong crowd that lead him to the streets. It took a lot of bad decisions to get there. Including his marriage. “I was married one time. Caught a man in my bed. I only knew her for six months, my wife. I didn’t really want to marry her. But I was infatuated. Caught up. She was young. Nineteen. I was twenty-four. Her father was a gangster out of New Orleans. I was scared. I had no game. She had better game.” Harvey hooks the spray bottle back to his belt, puts his thumb through a loop. “She was bad from the beginning to the end. I came home one afternoon, she had a negligé on. Nothing else. Then there’s this guy in my bed. Wearing shorts and nothing else. Smoking a joint. I said, ‘You know we got a pile of guns in this house, don’t you? But I’m gonna give you the benefit of the doubt. Because you see, this ain’t your home. Which means my wife here, it’s only obvious she had to let you in. Now I recommend it’s time for both of you to leave.’ I shook his hand, changed my clothes, and left before he did. Never did go back. And eventually found my way to the streets from there.”
When he filed for divorce, his lawyer asked why he didn’t just kill them both and plead insanity.
“I said to him, ‘I’m just gonna let this one ride. She’s someone else’s problem now. I’m gonna do something better. I’m gonna get a divorce.’ I ain’t been married since. I don’t care how long it takes. You gotta learn each other from the inside. Understanding is the best thing in the world. And that comes with being open with each other.”
He wants me to know anyone can end up on the streets. He says no one chooses to end up there, but they do choose to stay.
Back on Santa Monica and Vine in the late 80’s, Harvey works at a down-out-joint called the Three of Clubs. In the back of the bar is a boxing gym. And above the boxing gym is a recording studio. “So I’m back there taking care of the cars, cleaning windows for everyone there. Everyone there has money. And the guys in the recording studio, they heard me sing. Cause I sing when I clean cars. And Big D, he says, ‘Can you come up here to the studio?’ So they bust out the acoustic and they play and I’m singing, put some words to their music. They made money. Paid me $150 in cash. While they made millions, they were paying me scraps. So I started saying no. Not unless there’s a contract. Well, they never invited me back up to sing.”
In 2002, Harvey gets himself a bed at a homeless shelter downtown. The Union Rescue Mission. “Guy in the bed next to me, Big D. I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘What happened?’ He said, ‘I was on that heroine.’ He was smart, intelligent. He lost everything.”
Harvey sighs, watches the bearded man in a skull cap and overcoat digging through the trashcan a few feet away.
“Skid Row is the last shot. They got help for you , but it’s a trap at the same time. Outside the shelters they got drugs and alcohol and hookers. Whatever you need. It’s designed for you to be down. I ain’t strong. So I don’t go downtown. It’s the last stop. Anything goes on Skid Row.”
He grabs my shoulder again. “I ain’t trying to do nothing wrong anymore. I already done enough wrong.” He laughs deep from with his guts. “If you ain’t with God,” he shouts, “where you gonna be? Hey, spell God backwards.”
“Dog! That’s right! There ain’t no in-between.”
We share a laugh.
I thank him for the windows. “This looks great. Let me see how much cash I’ve got…”
“I take credit card and check.” He winks.
I hand Harvey whatever cash is in my pocket. We shake. He thanks me for listening, for caring about his story.
“If I ever see you again,” he says, “and you don’t have no money, I’m gonna hook you up. Clean windows for life. I ain’t never forget a face or a car, and you ain’t never gonna have dirty windows again. Not as long as I’m around.”
copyright 2013, Max Andrew Dubinsky, All Rights Reserved