At first it sounded like a celebration—singing and laughter spiked with shouts and whoops—but as I got closer to San Pedro and Fifth the words and air grew equally foul. The stench of misery and rotting garbage and burning crack and smoke spewing from metal barrels screamed lost humanity.
No more just talking about it, I kept telling myself. Time to put feet to the street and hands to work. I heard the voice again—these are my people, they need your love—a last-second encouragement to persist in what I came here to do.
Going to the Union Rescue Mission to serve meals and wash dishes now felt like the easy way out. Scores of aimless, hopeless people line this street, hanging on to the miracle of life while smoking, drinking, or shooting slow death.
Just south of Fifth I saw four men stumbling to gather around another man laying on his back with his knees bent, his left arm raised in the air as if he were offering a toast, his right arm gesturing erratically.
“C’mon Eddie," one of the men screamed. "Get up off there—you crazy, man!”
I approached the screamer. “Hey, look here fellas, we got us a new rescue man,” he said. “What you doin’ here man? Why ain’t you just walkin’ in the back door of the mission like them other guys that comes here from the Valley or Beverly Hills?”
“What’s wrong with him?” I said.
“That’s Crazy Eddie, man. He new around here, showed up just a few days ago—”
“No, he been here longer you cracked-out chump,” another man said, standing more erect while he spoke.
“Shut up Bones.”
“What’s your name?” I asked the first man.
“Jimmy. Jimmy Barnes. Been down here on The Nickel for a long time, man, just gettin’ along here with my pals.”
“Jimmy, would you and your pals mind stepping away from Eddie? I’d like to talk with him.”
“Knock yer sweet self out, man, he ain’t done nothin’ but yap to himself since he showed up. Hey, what’s yer name, rescue man?”
“Bobby. Bobby Mucceli.”
“Okay mistah Bobby Mooch, me and the fellas’l be over there by them barrels.”
Crazy Eddie … I suddenly remembered my dad and his buddies from the tool and die shop—they made airframe parts for McDonnell Douglas. They called my dad ‘Crazy Man’ when they played poker at our house and got wasted on beer and Jack Daniel’s …
I knelt down beside Eddie and tapped him on the shoulder. He kept on with his confused oratory, so I grabbed his gesturing arm. “Eddie. Eddie, can you stop a minute?”
Eddie shot me an empty look. “What do you want boy?”
“Let me help you up Eddie. How about we go sit on that bench over there?”
Eddie’s face turned grim. “I’m not goin’ anywhere with you boy.”
I ignored his clouded grumbling. As I bent down to help Eddie up, he took a wild swing at me, grazing the bottom of my chin. I felt a trickle down my neck and saw three red droplets clustered on the sidewalk. I bent down again.
“Stop it,” Eddie said, writhing frantically to elude my grasp.
“Stop what, helping you, Eddie? You can’t just lie here all night. Let me get you to a hospital.”
“No! Stop calling me Eddie. Those bums on the street call me that. Why do you want to help me anyway?”
“Alright, so what is your name?”
“I told you I’m not Eddie.” His body went limp. “I’m not Eddie. My name is Tony.”
Tony … the inflection, cadence … I looked into his eyes, cutting through his filth and oppressive odor. It can’t be … a quick memory—I pulled up his right pant leg. Birthmark! The same one?
“Huh? Who you callin’ dad?”
Fifteen years of wondering what happened to my old man—that down-on-his-luck no-account that walked out on Mom and me—is this him?
No response. Eddie—Tony—stopped moving. I stood up, hoisted him over my shoulder, and headed for my car.
“Hey, where you takin’ Eddie?” Jimmy Barnes yelled from across the street.
“He needs help, I’m taking him to the hospital.”
Whether this man is the long-lost Tony Mucceli or not, the Dad I knew is still long gone. Yes Lord, this man is hungry, thirsty, and sick. Time to put hands to work.
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