“Can you spare any…oh my. Is that there a kitten?”
I’ve seen this man before. I’ve given him Gatorade, turkey sandwiches, spare change. I’ve also ignored him, looked away, crossed the street, or pretended to be speaking to my wife when he’s held out his grande Starbucks cup with the chewed rim, emptied of coffee and now filled with dollar bills or loose quarters.
“It is,” I say. I lift the pet carrier to eye level so he can see the tiny, snow-shoe, Siamese kitten inside. He squints, holds up an index finger and pets the air, smiles. He’s missing all but four teeth on the bottom row so what he says next I can’t understand.
“Excuse me?” I lower the pet carrier.
“Did. You. Rescue. Her?” He enunciates like a man who’s used to being asked, “Excuse me?”
“I did. Just a few weeks back.”
“I had a cat once. He had SIX. TOES.”
“Six toes? That’s rare.”
“That cat lady down the street…” he points to where I just came from. “She gave my cat shots once.”
I point to the kitten I am holding. “This little one just got shots from her.”
He likes this, smiling approvingly. “I’m Valentino,” he says, holding out a gloved hand to shake mine.
“Valentino. Pleasure to meet you. I’m Max.”
“Max, you gots to get that cat outta here. She don’t want to be locked up.” Valentino speaks like he’s been drinking since 9 a.m. He puts inflections on all the wrong syllables.
“We’re on our way home now,” I say.
“Yours did what?”
“Yours is dead?”
Valentino nods. Then shakes his head. “No. My wife’s dead. My cat, I don’t know where it is. He gone after my wife’s did. Don’t know where.”
“Oh, Valentino, I’m so sorry.”
He tells me her name was Jacklyn and that, “It’s a story. But it’s too long to tell.” He says, “How old do you thinks I am?”
I’m careful here. “Forty?”
“Come on. I am sixty-three.”
“Sixty-three!? Well, you look good.”
“Yeah. Right. I’m homeless now cause I been payin’ for bills since she di-ed.”
I ask how long it’s been since his wife’s passing.
He interupts and shouts, “DI-ED,” thinking I was about to ask him to repeat himself again. When he realizes what I actually asked, he says, “It’s been a year. A year ago this month.”
I’m thinking, This story is almost too sad to be true, and Valentino takes my hand in his. He says, “But God gives me strength through people. People like you. I’m all right.” He lets go.
“Did you and your wife live out here in Hollywood?”
“You know somethin’ man, we lived everywhere.”
“You lived everywhere? What was your favorite place?”
“My favorite place? Right here in LA.”
I ask how long he’s been here.
He laughs. “Since before yous was born.” His red and swollen gums are on full display. “I ain’t tryin’ to be funny! You just questionable. Askin’ a lot.” He reaches into his jacket, removes a half-smoked cigarette. He places the smoke between his lips, but doesn’t light it. “I been here since I was three. Came from Texas.”
“Texas. I’ve been to Texas. It’s way better out here than it is in Texas, huh?”
“Too much bigo-try. I was next door to Louisian-a. Thirteen-years-old I was in the Martin Luther King March.” Valentino removes the glove from his right hand, slips it in his pocket for a lighter. His palm and fingers are wrapped in dirty brown bandages.
“What happened to your hand?”
“Oh, yeah. I had to use it.”
“On somebody else. When you’re out here on the curb, sleeping on the curb, like I’m out here on the curb, you know. Be strong or be a coward. You got to do what you got to do.”
“Is your hand okay now?”
“Oh yeah. I’m ’bout ready to take them bandages off. I’m just out here now tryin’ to get a room and wash my ass.” He holds up the Starbucks cup and makes sure we can both hear the change inside. “You don’t know nothin’ ’bout the streets. You have any idea? No, you ain’t got no idea. You know how hard it is for me to just wash my hands?” Valentino shakes his head, looks down at the sidewalk, tries to light the cigarette, but the wind won’t allow it.
“You need soap?”
He looks up from the task at hand. “Oh. Man. I could use soap. You have some soap?”
“I don’t have any soap, but I can go get you some.”
“Oh. No. You don’t have to do that.” He expresses concern for my cat.
“It’ll only take a moment. She’ll be okay.”
“Sprite,” I think he says.
“Sprite? You want some Sprite?”
“No. Soap. And a ham sandwich.”
“You want some water too?”
“Oh no.” He laughs. “I am goooood with ‘da water. I gots more water than I’ll ever drink.”
“People give you water all the time, huh?”
“All. The. Time.”
“I’ll be back, Valentino. Stay right there.”
When I return, I hand him a bag full of soap. “They were out of sandwiches. But I got you some ham and some cheese.”
“Okay. That’s cool. That’s pretty good. Yeah. All right. Well. God bless you.”
“It was good to meet you, Valentino. You’re usually out here every week, yeah? We’ve seen each other a few times before, I believe.”
“Every. Day.” Valentino tells me he wrote a poem about it, and recites it from memory. I record it against the wind and the last-minute holiday shoppers crowding the sidewalks, pushing against us.
“I’m walkin’ the streets,
all day long,
tryin’ to find me a job,
and a home.
I am campin’ out in Hollywood Park,
gettin’ good and cold in the dark.
Where I go from here,
I don’t know,
I guess I’ll spend the night,
In a Hollywood show.
There are many people here without a place to go,
but none of them can get into the picture show.
That is the city of the Lost Angels,
That’s my LA.
Now I’m livin’ out here
on these streets,
Doin’ my time until I return to custody.
What I do from here,
I don’t know, but I don’t care.
If you ask for a dime,
You’ll be fine,
But the police will kick you ass,
and you will do some time.
But I love LA,
I can’t do right
for doin’ wrong,
in this corrupt town,
I got to be strong.
I’m lookin’ up, I’m lookin’ down, I’m searchin’ all around
But you don’t hear me though,
I love LA.
And what do I love about it right now?
We both laugh. “That was pretty good.”
Valentino disagrees. “It wasn’t that good. I missed a few lines. I’ve been drinkin’. I’m sure you can smell it.” He puts his head down again as if he’s embarrassed.
“That’s okay. I’m not mad at you. Sometimes I drink in the mornings too. Don’t worry about it.” I touch his shoulder. I ask if he’s got that poem written down anywhere.
“Nah. I’m not a good speller.”
I get this. “I’m not a good speller either,” I tell him. “What do you call that poem?”
Valentino smiles, puts that smoke back in his mouth. This time he gets it lit. “The Poorest Angel,” he says, he winks, he smokes.