I’m just a wanderin’ man,
I go from town to town
Police make it hard where I may go
Ain’t got no home in this world anymore.
–A hobo song
The old black van looks like a misdirected bread truck lurching along Skid Row, stopping sometimes two or three times in a single block. But at every stop uniformed police clamber out, rustle up a drunk or two from the side-walk, shove them onto the hard benches inside, slam the doors, then move on. Twenty-four hours a day the Los Angeles “rag-pickers squad” keeps up its routine along Fifth Street, the paddy wagon veering away only for quick excursions to the city lockup.
Robert Lewis Jackson, whose trash-can-relic suit coat suffered a large tear in the journey, was among those brought in shortly before last Thanksgiving. But the next day he was released and allowed to rejoin Skid Row where a casual camaraderie and a familiar litany waited.
“Where’d you go last night?”
A wry smile. “Guess I got lost. Lucky for me, the police found me and took me home.”
When not in jail, Jackson devoted his mornings to the public libraries of the nation’s big cities. Once a halting reader, he had taught himself proficiency by studying newspapers and magazines. Now he could often be found regaling fellow hobos about the merits of tax subsidies or sexual amorality.
The Los Angeles Public Library on Fifth Street offered Jackson week-old editions of his home-town newspaper, the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Somewhere in Louisiana he had children he hadn’t seen since their mother died two decades ago. Even his friends weren’t sure why he had deserted his family; that was his private sorrow.
Jackson’s library readings while wintering in Los Angeles were usually followed by a stroll down Fifth Street to select the day’s wine, either Franzia Brothers white port or Santa Fe red port, for 60¢ a bottle, the cheapest high around. On the afternoon of November 30th, 1974, two days after Thanksgiving, Jackson purchased an extra bottle, in the mood to play host. His bottles and his opinions were the focus of a gathering that evening along Fifth Street. Decorum was observed; greedy gulps were frowned on. A measure of disagreement, without anger, kept the conversation going.
In the group was a young longhair, a tall man with muscular arms bulging from a sleeveless shirt. Everyone stayed until the port ran dry, then wandered off. Jackson retired to the library grounds, easing himself onto a grassy spot next to a stand of eugenia shrubs. Here he untied his rolled-up copies of the Los Angeles Times, an armload easily worth its weight: The Times is quadruple the size of its rival, the Herald-Examiner, even though both sell for a dime, making the Times an over-whelming favorite on Skid Row. On this night Jackson required two copies as insulation against ground moisture and a biting chill.
Some time later footsteps approached. If Jackson was still awake, he probably felt little apprehension. The intruder most likely was another hobo, perhaps someone who had shared Jackson’s port a few hours before. Men sleeping less than a hundred feet away failed to stir as the intruder bent forward, a glint of metal in his hand.
Jackson was seen one more time by the residents of Skid Row. They were summoned to the library grounds the next morning by throaty exclamations that traveled down Fifth Street. They saw the newspapers scattered about, and they saw Jackson’s rigid face, a savage gash extending across his neck.
Los Angeles wants no duds, loafers and paupers, people who have no means and trust to luck. We need workers! Hustlers! First-class men! —1886, Colonel Harrison Gray Otis, editor, Los Angeles Times
Before the 1870s tramps were numerically negligible. But the crash of 1873 delivered three million men into vagrancy, and the new transcontinental railroad turned them into bindlestiffs, nomads riding the rods. Even then, Los Angeles was a hobo mecca, a relaxed city with a friendly climate, a selection of flophouses and a parcel of Good Samaritans—despite the grumblings of Colonel Otis. The Union Rescue Mission, financed by Bible-carrying businessmen, served hot meals from a wooden cart drawn by a horse along Fifth Street.
Fifth Street is still Skid Row in Los Angeles, a midway of bars with 15¢ beers, eateries with 75¢ dinners and secondhand stores that barter porno comics, war medals, weathered hats, tinsel jewelry and old memories. Scores of men trek here each winter from across the country, meeting friends, exchanging gossip, settling in until spring. Their wine money arrives the first of each month—meager checks from the Veterans Administration, Social Security or the local welfare office. For food, they usually pick through garbage or attend the missions.
The Union Rescue Mission today is two blocks north on Main Street, an address many hobos use for their mail. It is ensconced in a three-story warehouse with a red-and-yellow marquee tattooed on its face: JESUS SAVES. By the reckoning of the eight chaplains who minister food, clothes, razors and Biblical counsel to 400 transients each day, the mission is the largest of its kind in North America. Inside is a chapel, its walls billboarded with quotations from Luke, Paul and John the Beloved; upstairs is a row of dormitory beds, a county-sanctioned delousing unit and a publicity room with boxes of pocket-sized pamphlets that champion Christianity as the only salvation from alcoholism. The odor of overcooked food lingers in the huge dining room where tin bowls and cups, some bearing a swirl of dishwater, are set out three times a day on long plank tables.
The best breakfast on Skid Row is at Gravy Joe’s, a smaller mission that doles out coffee, bread and a tender gravy made from chicken necks donated by a butcher shop. But the best suppers are dished out at the Union Rescue Mission where hobos begin queuing up by midafternoon for portions of a greasy, savory potato stew. In exchange for meals, they are asked to sit through twice-daily services. If they want to dine more than five days in a row, they must help clear tables and wash dishes.
Moses Yakanak, having long since traded his Alaskan homeland for the view from a fast freight, spent the first week of December mastering such chores at the Union Rescue Mission. He had come here, according to a friend, after squandering a summer’s wages from the salmon canneries of Washington. What he hadn’t used for a three-week hellbender, he had lost at cards. Now he was broke and looking for a regular spot on the 130-man mission work force, a position qualifying him for dinners of fried chicken and homemade apple pie.
But on the evening of December 7th, one week after Jackson’s murder, Yakanak didn’t report until eight o’clock, three hours late and barely able to totter, his manner and breath fouled by booze. The mission turned him away. Yakanak cursed his dismay through the downtown streets. A buddy would later remember that a shabbily dressed longhair seemed to be escorting Yakanak, guiding him clear of uncaring motorists and assisting him to bed on the dirty bricks of a nearby alley.
Yakanak was found there at 2:30 the next morning by another derelict who stumbled away from the bloody corpse, gesturing wildly and yelling, “Murder! Murder! God help us!”
Three days later, on the afternoon of December 10th, Arthur Dahlstedt, face cluttered with untamed beard, left the mission for a short walk. Dahlstedt, who claimed he grew up in eight different foster homes and was baptized in each one, had recently rediscovered Christ at the mission. But he never returned for a ninth baptism. About 1:30 a.m. a friend noticed Dahlstedt’s feet poking from under a blanket in an open doorway at the vacant Montana Hotel on Fifth Street. Dahlstedt’s head, like Jackson’s and Yakanak’s, lay in a puddle of blood.
From the days of Rome in its decline to Paris just before the revolution, the problem of civilization has been to [control] the unemployables… Most of those on the road are vicious and dangerous. —1935, Harry Carr, Los Angeles Times columnist
The myth is that hobos are at war with civilization. The fact is they don’t care about it. If they once had a stake in society, they have lost it. Skid Row is a life apart, with its own conventions and values and its own special tolerances. On a typical day along Fifth Street all manner of outcasts are represented: white, black, brown, longhair, shorthair, no hair. “These men are so aware of their own shortcomings,” says a chaplain at the Union Rescue Mission, “they don’t have an ego big-enough to go putting down others.”
In some parts of Los Angeles, where unemployment statistics rival those of the Great Depression, men take up guns so they can buy clothes for their kids, pay the landlord, keep their wives from walking streets. But hobos don’t require such draconian solutions; a 60 bottle can be bought with a half-hour of panhandling. Violence on Skid Row stays at a minimum — with two exceptions: drunks who brawl and thugs (usually outsiders) who prey on winos the first of each month.
The men of Skid Row are vulnerable to almost any physical abuse. They are usually mellowed out, trusting and friendly to strangers. They carry no weapons. Their bodies are pitiful specimens; tattered clothes cover undernourished bellies, flaccid muscles, lepidote skin, harsh scars from the batterings of the road. They are easy marks for bullies or muggers — or a killer.
Robert Perez, a short, scrawny man with an arthritic condition, arrived in Los Angeles for the winter solstice apparently unaware that a psychopath had infiltrated Skid Row. On previous visits he had learned that the library grounds, bordered by six-foot-tall shrubs, were a popular sanctuary from the night winds. This time he found the grounds nearly deserted, however, as they had been since Robert Jackson’s murder three weeks before. Perez must have ignored this curious solitude the night of December 21st as he curled up under the eugenia bushes. By ten o’clock the next morning homicide detectives were drawing chalk marks around Perez’s body, 50 feet from where Jackson had been killed.
Jackson, Yakanak, Dahlstedt and Perez had all died from overpowering slashes across their throats, deep lateral cuts that severed their jugulars and scraped their spinal cords. The killer, whom police called the Slasher, was a man with powerful arms, someone who apparently moved facilely among the denizens of Fifth Street.
Now Skid Row was beset by tension. Strange faces seemed to carry menace. Shadows carried knives. Winter in Los Angeles had become one long macabre night. The bonhomie in bars faltered; talk turned to gruesome recountings of the murder details, exaggerated in the telling to include castration and other mutilations. Men stayed to listen, not out of morbidity as much as from fear of the dark outdoors.
The Los Angeles media supposed that the police were in dogged pursuit of the Slasher. But the homicide investigation essentially was limited to the dusting of empty wine bottles for fingerprints. Police had no suspects.
The hobos offered a scattering of tips. Yet, for most of Fifth Street, putting trust in a badge was an unfamiliar and untested approach. Cops meant hassles and hassles often meant 30 or 60 days without access to the smallest slug of wine, a dry period that often led to the DTs—cramps, convulsions, acute mental distress and even delirium-induced injuries.
It seemed to Will Clayton that the increased police presence on Skid Row had resulted only in more arrested drunks, as if the police expected to pick up the killer by chance. Clayton, an ex-Army cook and ex-forger who twice served time in San Quentin, claimed never to have cooperated with the police. “One time I seen some goings-on between this fellow and a girl in an alley, and the police knew I seen it. So they asked me to rat on this other fellow. But I wouldn’t, and they took me off to jail for being a vagrant. A month later I got out and here they come after me again. ‘Are you ready to talk now,’ they sez. But I still wouldn’t—so back to jail I went, just ’cause I wouldn’t be a rat.”
A gangly, hollow-chested hobo with a troubling cough, Clayton had survived 15 years on the road. Now, his instincts submerged in wine, he clung stubbornly to a daily routine that involved the hopeful examination of discarded paper bags, a rendezvous at the Corner Cigar Store and a drunken snooze on any convenient doorstep. But, after the Slasher’s fourth murder, his nerves began to fray. No matter how much wine he swallowed, knife-wielding nightmares kept waking him.
“I sobered up and thought to myself, ‘I’m a prime target for that guy.’ I didn’t have no money to get me a room. But I snuck into this hotel—there was nobody at the front desk so I walks up to the third floor. I was too scared to sleep in the hallway so I starts going from room to room to see if any doors was unlocked. When somebody answered the door, I pretended I wanted a light. Finally I finds a room that was empty. There was just a mattress and a piece of carpet inside, but it sure looked good. I fixed the lock on the door real good and flopped on that bed.”
Cashimer Strawinski had exactly the same idea—to get four walls of protection. Strawinski had no illusions about his ability to defend himself; his gait was slow and stooped, a condition probably caused by the same cancer that festered in pus-filled sores over his body. He was sick, scared, broke and his monthly GI check wasn’t due until the first week of January. His only safety, he figured, lay with friends. At night he and a few others huddled together on the sidewalk, taking turns at watch.
On January 4th Strawinski’s check was delivered. He gratefully cashed it, then hunched his was over to the Pickwick Hotel where he rented a $25-a-week room with a view of traffic, debris and the bleakness of less fortunate transients. He was determined to stay there until police caught the Slasher—if the hotel manager would let him. The manager had already complained about the stink in his room from bedsheets stained with pus.
On January 8th the odor invaded the hallway outside his room; Strawinski’s door had been left ajar. A maid investigated and found his body lying on the floor inside. How the Slasher had persuaded Strawinski to open the door was a mystery.
The hobohemian has been around for 100 years. How long will the hippie last? —A hobo
All five of the Slasher’s victims had been older men, aged 46 to 57. There had been no eyewitnesses to the murders. Only one significant clue had emerged: A tall, heavily muscled white man with long dirty blond hair, maybe 25 or 30 years old, had been seen in the vicinity before the first three murders.
Longhairs on Skid Row, once a rarity, have substantially increased in recent years. According to John Paris, a Union Rescue Mission chaplain who sports wide sideburns and chromiumrimmed spectacles, as many as a quarter of those who seek help at the mission are under 30. A few are burned-out dopers who have turned to booze. But most are not the middle-class dropouts of the Sixties. Those hippies seldom related to hobo living; they were a group unto themselves, spiking their bellies with amphetamines and barbiturates, voicing a political rhetoric to justify their alienation.
Most longhairs came here, as had previous generations, from poor or working-class homes, often via Vietnam or prison. Since the recession they have been joined by many out-of-work young men whose parents can no longer afford to feed them at home.
Billy Peterson, age 25, and Gerald Gulliet, age 41, arrived in Los Angeles the day of Cashimer Strawinski’s murder. They were partners, having hitchhiked together for 18 months after meeting in the apple orchards of Washington. They had visited Reno, Chicago, Los Angeles, Baltimore and had now returned for a second winter.
Peterson grew up playing baseball on the sandlots of Trenton, New Jersey, and wanted to pitch for the Yankees. But after high school he enlisted in the Army, hoping to acquire a trade like tool and die making. Instead he gained deafness in one ear from war-shells in Vietnam. Back in the States, he says, he was busted and given probation for shoplifting a pair of sunglasses. But with his disability and an arrest record he couldn’t find a job and was soon behind bars for burglarizing a music store. Afterwards he decided to let his black curls grow and to see the country from the side of the road.
He felt shy, awkward, friendless, he says, until he met Gulliet, an ex-logger from British Columbia. Peterson’s and Gulliet’s partnership was in the hobo tradition. Younger men serve as apprentices to veteran wanderers, learning nomadic skills: which freights car be safely boarded, which towns (and which cops) to avoid, which migrant work camps pay minimum wage, where to qualify for welfare on quick notice. To Peterson, whose father died when he was a baby, Gulliet became a trusted surrogate.
But their relationship cracked apart when they were confronted by an old friend of Gulliet’s on Fifth Street. An accusing finger was pointed at Peterson, “You got long hair, maybe you’re the Slasher.” Gulliet was quickly informed that, as a precaution against the Slasher, the older hobos had ostracized the young hirsute generation. “You can take a nip from my bottle,” Gulliet was told. “But the kid cain’t. I ain’t drinkin’ with no murderer.”
Flinging out a curse, Peterson advanced on Gulliet’s friend. “You bastard — you take that back or I’ll bust your head. I ain’t no killer. I ain’t even been in Los Angeles the past month.” Gulliet tried to restrain Peterson, but the quarrel continued and Peterson finally walked off to thumb south on the Hollywood Freeway alone.
When he couldn’t catch a ride, Peterson started back toward Fifth Street, his emotions unsettled. A department store attracted his attention. In the sporting goods section he found a serrated blade, designed to cut fishing monofilament.
Gulliet was still on Skid Row, being exhorted by his friend about the lurking, grisly danger. Peterson marched up, his steps quickening to a half-run; tears welled from his eyes. Without a word he pulled the knife from his back pocket and started hacking savagely but futilely at his long curls. “You bastard, can I get a nip from your bottle now?”
Gulliet’s friend, unnerved, skittered away. Gulliet paused, then, with the shamed look of a man with fear in his bowels, followed. Peterson plunged the knife back into his pocket and wept bitterly.
A bum belongs to no one, and no one belongs to him. –Margaret M. Wood, Paths of Loneliness
For months Larry “Red” Larkin had been nagging Robert “Tex” Shannahan to submit to a haircut. Shannahan was no teenager. At 46, his hairline was edging away from his forehead. But lately he had adopted a nouveau hairstyle, a matted cinder gray dog coat falling to his shoulders—”because he was lazy,” says Larkin, “and because he wanted to be different.” Such fatuous behavior offended Larkin’s sense of propriety. So, after New Year’s, Larkin prevailed upon an itinerant barber, pressing two bucks in his hand, and persuaded Shannahan to sit for a shearing. “I wanted him to start the New Year looking respectable.”
Larkin and Shannahan belonged to a separate community of derelicts, divided from Skid Row by a thin strip of stylish restaurants, variety stores and the offices of Los Angeles’s two daily newspapers. The men of this turf, however, differed from the hobos only in that they had set up a permanent residency.
In two decades of friendship Larkin and Shannahan had not ventured outside Los Angeles except for an occasional foray to Las Vegas when they could afford to lay down some $2 bets in hopes of a big score. Red Larkin, who had acquired his moniker from the tight ruddy locks atop his squat face, worked at odd jobs, painting buildings, “pearl diving” (dishwashing) and frying undersized burgers at short-order cafes. Tex Shannahan had started as a Texas oil rigger and Korean War paratrooper and ended up a part-time trucker for a furniture upholsterer.
“Now me, I like to have a few drinks every day,” Larkin confides with a short laugh. “Tex might just as soon tinker with a car. Course, if I came by and asked him to go to Jake’s, he’d put down his wrench and that’d be the end of working on the car for that day, or maybe for that week.”
Jake’s Bar was where Larkin and Shannahan regularly communed over beers and shots with another buddy, Charles Fielding, a sleepy-faced teamster. Fielding was quiet and polite, willing to accommodate, while Shannahan was an insecure maverick, braying with false bravado as he picked fights in urinals with men a head taller; it was often left to the hard-fisted Larkin to settle such disputes and establish the requisite machismo.
On Friday, January 10th, Shannahan awoke to a stomach swilling with nausea—a virus, he guessed. “What lousy luck,” he groused later that day at Jake’s. “If this gets any worse, I’ll have to miss the Super Bowl.”
“It’ll pass,” Fielding assured him, and confirmed a date for Super Sunday in front of Jake’s color TV two days hence. Shannahan downed a couple of Cokes, his digestive system feeling too shaky for booze, then left to return to bed. It was about 6:30 p.m.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, on whom Shannahan had wagered five bucks, became world champions on Sunday. But Shannahan was not in the audience at Jake’s Bar. Fielding and Larkin dismissed his absence as a bad stomach or brooding hypochondria.
Three days later he still hadn’t reappeared at their hangout. Perhaps, they figured, he had been picked up by the rag-pickers squad. On Wednesday evening, January 15th, after only one drink at Jake’s, Fielding crossed the street to the MacDonald Apartment Hotel where he and Shannahan rented separate $77-a-month rooms. He located Betty Snyder, the tiny, crinkle-faced hotel manager known affectionately as “Mom,” and asked: “You got the key to Tex’s room? I want to see if he’s around.” Shannahan’s room, jokingly called the “penthouse,” was a rectangular box built atop the hotel roof; its windows looked out onto ventilator shafts and pigeons. The room held a thin mattress, a green rug, toilet, refrigerator and a sour staleness produced by gas-stove burners left on for heat. Its scruffy walls were festooned with a Confederate flag and a bayonet from Korea.
Fielding and Mom Snyder ascended the sagging staircase, found Shannahan’s door open and encountered a fetid stench. Fielding peered into the darkness, “Tex, Tex … are you here?” His cries grew doubtful. After a fitful search for matches he proceeded inside and crouched over something lying on the floor, then suddenly lurched backwards into Mom Snyder, vomit spilling through his fingers.
Police carefully removed Shannahan’s body, skin blistering and head swollen after five days of decomposition. A long blade, apparently Shannahan’s bayonet, protruded from his side. There were no signs of forced entry.
Presumably, the Slasher had accosted Shannahan outside the building, perhaps as he walked home from Jake’s the previous Friday, and had obtained an invitation to the penthouse. Shannahan may finally have sensed and resisted his assailant’s intent; the Slasher apparently had to stab Shannahan before performing the ritual throat cutting that left a crusted scab on the green rug.
Now do you know how a hobo feels? Life is a series of dirty deals. —A hobo song
The Slasher’s seventh victim was Samuel Suarez, a 49-year-old drifter who had borrowed $20 against his upcoming Social Security check to rent a room January 23rd at the Barclay Hotel, two blocks from the Union Rescue Mission where he previously had been bunking. At 5 a.m. on January 25th Suarez staggered downstairs, his beery voice demanding the night clerk’s attention. He was encouraged to return upstairs. Six hours later a houseman discovered Suarez’s body stretched out on the floor of his room.
Leroy, a hotel resident afraid to divulge his last name, told a Herald-Examiner reporter that he heard someone steal up the fire escape and creep into the hotel earlier that morning. “I heard this man open a window and climb through. He knocked on the door next to my room and I heard my neighbor ask, ‘Who’s there?’ The man in the hall said, ‘A friend.’ But my neighbor wouldn’t open his door. Then the man came and knocked on my door, but I didn’t answer.” Leroy said the man did not exit down the fire escape and apparently stayed in the building until finishing with Suarez.
After seven killings in seven weeks the police were still looking for leads. So far their investigation had been a failure. Two Chicanos, an Eskimo, a black and three whites were dead, but there was no public outcry for action. No citizens’ group picketed police headquarters. City officials received no irate petitions demanding the killer be apprehended.
The Fifth Street hobos, economically insignificant and thus politically powerless, could only wait helplessly, steer clear of shadows and avoid strangers.
Then on January 29th a man was found nearly decapitated in his $175-a-month apartment in Hollywood. The slash mark on his throat was identical to those of the first seven victims. He was 45-year-old George Frias, a clerk in the catering department at the L.A. Hilton Hotel, a victim from a different social register.
Only one day after Frias’s murder the police produced an artist’s sketch of the Slasher, based on descriptions from the transients of Skid Row. The sketch depicted a tall, sullen-faced white man with long, stringy hair. At the same time police released a psychological profile of the suspect, pieced together from the speculations of several psychiatrists.
The Slasher, according to the profile, harbored an unresolved rage toward his father, who probably had been an alcoholic brute. The Slasher was a loner, the psychiatrists decided, who lived like a hermit “and only creeps out of his hole to commit these horrible crimes.”
Los Angeles County Coroner Thomas T. Noguchi examined the eight cases and offered his own conclusions: The Slasher was a calm, clever planner “who must first put his victims at ease in his presence before lashing out with hatred, physical strength and determination.”
Exactly how the Slasher won the confidence of his victims seemed even more baffling after the January 31st discovery of a ninth corpse, Clyde C. Hay, a white-collar employee of the National Cash Register Co. Hay, who lived in Hollywood, a mile from Frias, apparently had also invited the killer into his apartment. One theory, inferred from reports that Hay and a couple of other victims had “homosexual tendencies,” was that the Slasher had pretended to be gay. Another theory claimed the Slasher was able to affect several nonsuspicious guises.
Regardless, the police finally seemed committed to breaking the case. A special “Slasher Task Force” was appointed. “We’re putting every available resource at our command to solve this thing,” explained Commander Peter Hagan. Dozens of suspects resembling the Slasher sketch were picked up and interrogated. One, according to a local reporter, was let go only to be handcuffed again by suburban police as he hurriedly tried to hitchhike out of town; he had to endure another round of questioning before being sent on his way. Three men also confessed to the crimes. One recanted after he sobered up and the other two were discharged as chronic guilt mongers.
Then on March 16th Police Chief Ed Davis announced the Slasher had been identified as 31-year-old Vaughn Greenwood, who had been in jail since February 3rd for assaulting two men who surprised him during a burglary attempt. The fact that there had been no slashing since Greenwood’s arrest was strong circumstantial evidence against him—even though other elements in his case did not add up. Greenwood was a short-haired black, not a long-haired white. And when caught, he’d been armed with a hatchet rather than a knife. Such discrepancies—and Greenwood’s alleged modus operandi as the Slasher–could not be discussed by the police, however, because a judge had ordered a gag on the case.
But Chief Davis, who earlier had claimed that the “social status of the victims is never a factor when this department is investigating the taking of a human life,” seemed satisfied the case was closed. All available evidence was forwarded to the district attorney’s office. The “Slasher Task Force” began to disband. At the coroner’s office, Thomas Noguchi, who had been briefly suspended in 1969 for wishing aloud that he had more bodies to examine, moved on to other autopsies.
Commander Hagan, a portly, balding cop who had been the major spokesman for the special task force, prepared to be honored as “Irishman of the Year” by the Los Angeles Ancient Order of Hibernia. Hagan had joined the department 34 years before as a patrolman assigned to the rag-pickers squad and the Slasher case had reminded him of those earlier days: “That was probably the most detested assignment in the department. If you work Skid Row … you’ll always remember that humanity has a depressing aspect to it.”
The little hobo standing under a sad street lamp with his thumb stuck our—poor forlorn man, now broken ghost of penniless wilds. —Jack Kerouac
On a warm afternoon in mid-March several hobos scurried up Fifth Street to a corner three blocks from the Union Rescue Mission. There an undercover cop was chasing two long-haired thugs through the doors of a ramshackle hotel while uniformed police kept on-lookers at a safe distance. The whole event was being recorded by cameras from Universal City to be later telecast as part of the new Baretta television series. The hobos watched silently, then returned to their drinking haunts.
For weeks now Skid Row had seemed seized by an inner gloom—as if surviving the cunning of a psychopath was too much to expect from men already brought so low. Many hobos, held here only by habit and climate, waited anxiously for the softening of winter’s austerity in the big cities north, eager to be back on the road. Long-hairs, hassled both by the police and the older transients, had moved on despite the frostbitten roads.
One exception was Billy Peterson, who crouched alone on the sidewalk staring moodily at passersby, bottle at his side, hand out for spare change or cigarettes. Peterson had decided not to cut his hair and, because of the dynamics of these winter months, had not been reunited with Gulliet. “Maybe I’ll team up with Gerry again, maybe I won’t,” he said, “but dammit, I ain’t gonna be run out of this town.” Still, Peterson was weary of his strange life of exile. He thought about going home to New Jersey. The next day, after talking the matter through with a reporter, he left Los Angeles, his life’s possessions in a ragged bag, heading east.
At Jake’s Bar, temporarily shut down by the state liquor commission, Red Larkin was brushing a pastel paint over the dingy red walls, a job for pocket money. Charles Fielding stopped by with a suggestion they convene later a block away at the South Seas. Since Shannahan’s murder, Fielding had taken in a roommate and kept his door chained and locked. Larkin, refusing to be intimidated, had not altered his lifestyle. But, he allowed, “I do miss ole Tex. I been thinking about going to Texas and looking up his folks–tell ’em what a hell of a guy he was. I guess I would like to get away from here for a while. It’s been a bitch of a winter.”
Winter, however, had not disrupted construction on a new police precinct station that will overlook Skid Row. In recent years urban renewal has been encroaching here; several flophouses have been torn down. Eventually, city officials hope, they will abolish the derelict infrastructure.
But the drabness and desolation of Skid Row will go wherever men like Will Clayton go. When last seen Clayton was walking stiffly toward a Fifth Street alley, hiding his Franzia Brothers port under a faded jacket. He had just spied the paddy wagon moving inexorably in his direction. “I best be moseying on,” he said with an ironic smile. “Got to find me a quiet place to take a few nips.”