Thursday, February 26, 2009

Extreme Do Over; Box Edition

As you may recall, I live in a box in the Fish Offal District of downtown Los Angeles. This district boarders on the area commonly known as Skid Row. Wikipedia describes the area thusly:
"The area is home to one of the largest stable populations of homeless persons in the United States. Informal population estimates range from 7,000 to 8,000. People passing through this area immediately used to see cardboard box and camping tents lining the sidewalks. According to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the official boundaries of skid row are Third and Seventh Streets to the north and south and Alameda and Main Streets to the east and west, respectively. Now, because of heavy involvement with the missions downtown, LAPD, and the Mayor's office, the landscape has dramatically changed from mid-2006 to current."
Currently my box resides outside of the boundaries described above. But only by about 20 feet. For all intents and purposes, I'm a homeless person living in an area in which one of the largest homeless populations in the country reside. At one time, not too many years ago, I lived smack dab in the middle of Skid Row, and became very familiar with the long time residents of the area. The following is one of the first stories I wrote concerning the Row and its colorful inhabitants, but it's not about them. Rather, it concerns the hypocrisy of certain media programs, pretending to help those who need help, without really helping them.

Extreme Do-Over; Box Edition

By Richard Joyce

“The answer to homelessness is simple. It’s a home.”
-Wade Killefer, Killefer Flammang Architects

“How’s my hair?”
“Looks good.”
“Twenty seconds, Brian.”
“My nose isn’t shiny, is it? It was shiny last week.”
“Looks good, Brian. No detectable shine.”
“Ten seconds.”
“And my hair’s okay?”
“It’s great.”
“Five seconds. Four, three, two…”
“Good morning America,” Brian whispered, mugging to the hand held television camera. “Brian Skycrest here, for “Extreme Do-Over; Box Edition.” We’re at Sixth Street and San Julian, in beautiful downtown Los Angeles, to help make the dreams of one… Rodney McQueen, self-proclaimed reformed; thief, brigand, con-man, felon, inveigler, prevaricator, rogue, and all around instigator, come true.”
“I’m joined once again by our very own Do-Over team of experts; Montana La Rue, electrical engineer and former Penthouse Pet…”
Miss La Rue, a stunning 5’4” blonde with deep, penetrating blue eyes, smiled for the camera, batting her long, graceful lashes. “Hi,” she said.
“And Jeff Dingus, our structural expert and Shopping/Style coordinator. Say hello Jeff.”
“Also we have Lt. Jack Over, of the Los Angeles Police Department, who has kindly agreed to come with us and, uh… distract Rodney, while our refurbishing team gets to work providing Rodney with a bright new home and hearth, where he can enjoy his new drug and crime free lifestyle which he has so wholeheartedly embraced, allowing him the opportunity to rejoin society as an active, useful member yet once again. Isn’t that right, Lieutenant?
“Everybody deserves a second chance, Brian.”
“They sure do. Alright team, are we ready to surprise Rodney?”
“Ready when you are B.S.”
“Let’s go then. Boy, he sure should be surprised.”
Brian and the camera/sound crew quietly moved in on a lone set of cardboard boxes set apart from the many others lining the dusty, trash strewn street. A small, but dedicated crowd of indigents looked on from the periphery, making sure to keep a respectful distance, owing greatly from the presence of Lt. Over, and the eight uniformed police officers accompanying him.
The particular brown box upon which was their target looked as if it was once used to ship a medium sized refrigerator, but lying horizontally on the narrow sidewalk, almost completely blocking pedestrian passage. A drab, olive-green blanket was drawn down over the opening near the curb, and a pair of large, booted feet extended a good nine inches outside, toes pointing blithely toward the slightly overcast skies above. Brian and his company stopped their march several feet away. He pulled his trusty electric bullhorn out from its holster, and brought it to his mouth.
As soon as the first amplified syllable left Mr. Skycrest’s lips, the feet of the occupant noticeably stiffened, and a rather large indentation appeared at the opposite end when Rodney bolted upright as if electrocuted.
Skycrest lowered his bullhorn. “Come on out Rodney. Let’s get a look at you!”
“What the…? Do-over… is that you, Brian?” came meekly from deep within the box.
“It sure is, Rodney. You’re this week’s “Do-Over” winner!”
Rodney’s big feet disappeared, to quickly be replaced by his shaggy head. “Brian?” he said, sleepily.
Two of the uniformed police officers expertly helped Rodney out from his box by grabbing him tightly about the shoulders and pulling mightily until he was fully extricated and wobbling next to Skycrest. Rodney, a tall Caucasian man in his late forties, with long, unkempt blonde hair, wearing worn and torn, dirty jeans and T-shirt, blinked stupidly at the camera, slightly blinded by the bright lights pointed directly at his weathered, pock-marked face. He raised his left hand to his eyes in a failed attempt to see what was going on around him.
“Rodney,” Skycrest confided, “your application tape stood out among the thousands we receive each week as being truly deserving. Why, you had Montana in tears after watching it. Isn’t that right, Montana?”
“I’m still misty thinking about it,” said Ms. La Rue, ruefully. “You’re one sorry individual, sir.” “Ah, thanks,” Rodney lamely replied.
“To think,” Skycrest added, “a decorated war hero… which war was that, by the way?”
“Uh, …Civil?”
“Ha! Ha! Ha! What a kidder. A decorated war hero reduced to a life of drug addiction and destitution, having to beg for pocket change and sabotage parking meters… nowhere to call your own except this dilapidated, worn out box. I’m afraid that it’s a situation that happens to all too many of us if we’re not careful. Isn’t that right, Rodney.”
“I guess.”
“And you certainly weren’t careful, were you.”
“How long have you been living in this box, Rodney?”
“Ah, going on thirteen years now, Brian.”
“Well, all that’s going to change as of today! We’re going to give you a brand new box to live in! What do you think about that!?”
“Wow! Really?”
“Yes, Rodney, we are. And while we’re busy getting that new box ready for you, we’re going to send you on a fully expense paid vacation!”
The crowd cheered. Everyone, that is, except the squad of police who quietly moved in around Rodney.
“Vacation!” Rodney exclaimed. “Gee, I never thought…”
“Yes, Rodney. Lt. Over, of the L.A.P.D., has been kind enough to help us out…
(Rodney’s smile, joy, and mirth, vanished at the mention of the well-known initials)
…and has luckily found a four year old outstanding warrant for you immediate arrest! Rodney. Lieutenant Over is willing to escort you right over to the beautiful new Twin Tower County Jail facility. Isn’t that right, Lieutenant.?”
“Yes it is. We were fortunate to notice it in time before the statute of limitations went into effect. That was a close one.”
“You devil, Rodney! You’ve been getting away with this one for a long, long, time. What was the charge on that, Lt.?”
“Compulsive Mongering.”
“Right. And by the time you get out, counting on “Good Behavior,” of course, we’ll be ready for you to see your brand new box! What do you think about that, Rod?”
“Jail? I’m going to jail?”
“Yes you are! Take him away, boys.”
The police moved in, picking Rodney bodily up, kicking and screaming (he did not seem pleased at all), and dumping him, without ceremony, into a waiting paddy wagon. This immediately raced off, sirens wailing, into the distance.
Brian Skycrest looked deeply into the lens of the camera.
“Okay folks. Time to get busy.”

“My nose isn’t shiny, is it?”
“Nope. Looks good.”
“Ten seconds.”
“Hair is great. Sprayed down, Blow dried, slightly balding.”
“Five, four, three, two…”
“Welcome back, America. Brian Skycrest again with Montana La Rue and Jeff Dingus, here at Rodney McQueen’s brand new, done over, residential box. We’ve all spent the last 10 days working real hard while Rodney’s been… away, to get it ready in time for his arrival.”
“Yeah,” Jeff Dingus’s ruggedly handsome features forced their way into the camera frame. “It sure was great to have those extra 3 days.”
“Yes it was,” Brian continued. “Seems good old Rodney had a teensy weensy problem mustering up that “Good Behavior Time”, but what the heck, we all have our bad days, and it was time well spent. Right Montana?”
The camera pulled back to reveal Miss La Rue (not her real name) adorned in her standard bikini/denim coveralls, with her carpenter’s utility belt strapped around her slim waist.
“Gee Brian,” she bubbled, “it just made all the difference in the world. I’m positive Rodney will appreciate all the little touches we had the time for.” She smiled at the camera and winked. “Speaking of time, folks. We’ve got about 2 minutes before Rodney gets here.” Skycrest applied his bullhorn. “2 minutes! 2 minute warning!”
Approximately 37 construction workers, dust covered and sweating, popped out from the tent now covering the spot where Rodney’s box had once been, and arranged themselves on either side. An extra large garbage truck pulled in front of the tent obscuring it from view.
A Los Angeles County Sheriff’s cruiser came to an abrupt stop in front of the assembled crowd, and a disheveled Rodney McQueen wearily emerged from the “guest seat” in back.
“Rodney! Rodney! Rodney!” the crowd jumped and cheered. Rodney rubbed his tired eyes and smiled sheepishly.
“Welcome home, Rodney!” Brian Skycrest smiled, placing his arm around Rodney’s slumped shoulders. “How was your vacation?”
“Yeah, thanks a lot you son of …”
“I think you’ve got the surprise of your life waiting for you,” Skycrest interrupted. “Are you ready to see your new box?!
“Uh… I guess so.”
“Okay,” Skycrest shouted. “Rodney McQueen, here is your new home! Move the truck!”
The garbage truck rumbled off to reveal Rodney’s new box, which resembled a miniature country cottage, or a large extravagant doghouse, depending on your frame of reference. It was painted white, with red trimming about the edges, about three feet wide, five long, and standing four high. The roof was slanted as to not accumulate snow during the harsh L.A. winters, and even had a well-manicured lawn a foot from the arched doorway, which surrounded the entire structure. A Lawn Elf poked up from the artificial grass on the right. The only oddities that differentiated it from customary living quarters were the lack of windows, and the flashing “HAPPY COLA” sign (product placement) revolving on top of the red-bricked chimney.
“Oh my God!” Rodney squealed, jumping for joy. “Not in my wildest dreams…”
“Rodney,” Brian went on, clearly pleased by the reaction, “your new box is constructed of waterproof, super tough and allergenic cardboard, secretly developed by the Halleburton Company for use as body armor for our soldiers fighting overseas. Guaranteed bullet proof for 3 days, or the second RPG, whichever comes first.”
“And able to withstand any and all types of weather. No more searching for dry boxes after a rain storm.”
“This is great! I can’t thank you enough.”
“Oh, we’re not done yet, Rod. I can call you Rod, can’t I?”
“You can call me anything you want, Brian.”
“Rodney, we noticed that your old box was, well, rather confining, so we had our team of experts work on making a little extra space for you to move around in.”
“You did?!”
“We sure did! We had to dig a little underground to do it, but we think you’ll like the results. Rodney McQueen, are you ready to take a walk through your new box!?
“Let’s go!” Skycrest smiled and nodded for the camera to follow.

Astonishingly, the camera and sound crew beat Brian and Rodney to the underground reception grotto, and were able to televise the duo as they stepped off the velvet lined “down” escalator, which deposited them just left of the Kai filled wading pool with the statue of Cupid spitting eternal spring water from his frosty, marble lips.
“Welcome to your new home, Rodney!” Brian beamed.
“Oh my God! I don’t believe it!” Rodney jumped up and down like an eight-year-old girl on her first trip to Disneyland.
“Yes Rodney, It’s all yours.” Brian waved expansively toward Rodney’s new living room, and beyond. The camera followed and panned over the interior, focusing briefly on the Veggie Juice bar, Jacuzzi, plasma T.V., and state-of-the-art entertainment and computer center. The subterranean cavern was amply furnished in Modern-Suburban-Tacky, matching Rose-red couches, love seats, and easy chairs evenly spaced throughout. A green beanbag filling one recessed corner was balanced by the yellow futon on the opposite side. A large, crystal-topped coffee table served as the decretive central structure, and the subdued lighting gave approximately the same impression one might receive upon entering an Argentinean brothel. Blooms of vased, colorful, flowers were placed here and there, perfume scented and elegantly arranged.
“We’ve tried to decorate according to what we know about your personal tastes, Rodney. All those pictorial magazines you left in your box were a great help.”
“Good job, Brian! This is all for me!?”
“Of course, Rodney! Our only hope is that we can ease, just a fraction, of the pain and difficulty you must be facing on a daily basis in your continuing struggle to form a brand new alcohol, crime, drug free life. Do you think we may have succeeded, Rodney? Just a little bit? Rodney…?”
Rodney was momentarily transfixed, starring blankly at the gold-framed painting of Montana La Rue dressed as a Catholic schoolgirl, which hung on the wall just above the trampoline. A long string of saliva decorously draped down his left jowl.
“Rodney?” Skycrest snapped his fingers, “Rod!”
Rodney regained consciousness and faced Skycrest. “What?”
“Do you think we’ve helped, just a little bit?”
“Oh, you sure have, Brian,” Rodney beamed idiotically. “Helped with what?”
“Ease the pain and stress related to your ongoing efforts to lead an alcohol, crime, and drug free life. Have we in any way been able to help you maintain your status as a useful, law abiding citizen, allowing you to cease your past nefariousness?”
Rodney looked somewhat uncertain. “Sure,” he said.
“Good Rodney. That makes us very happy and all this worthwhile. How long have you been alcohol, crime, and drug free, by the way?”
“Ummm, let’see, …, 10 days at least, Brian.”
Brian Skycrest looked earnestly and directly into the camera, and the television audience at home watching. “10 days at least, ladies and gentleman. 10 glorious days. Truly a miracle. And I should know.”
“Rodney!” Skycrest shouted. “There’s more to see! Come my friend.”
“More! Oh, this is all too much…”
Rodney, Skycrest, cameraman and crew, continued the tour, passing over the moat, through the living and dinning area, into the ultra modern and well stocked kitchen and pantry (“A toaster! My very own toaster!” Rodney blurted. “Microwave too!,” Brain added), finally coming to the master bedroom, also following the basic red motif. All eyes gravitated to Rodney’s new hart-shaped waterbed, richly covered in shag blankets and satin pillows. Brian invited Rodney to lie upon it, wherein he exclaimed, “Rodney, we knew that we needed one more item to make this all complete. Do you know what that item is, Rodney?”
“Don’t tell me,” he sat up with a look of great expectation and unbelief.
“That’s right, Rodney!” Skycrest deftly flipped a small switch on the mahogany nightstand. “MAGIC FINGERS!!!” he shouted. Rodney began vibrating incessantly, ecstasy shinning from his rapt features, warming the hearts of the millions at home watching from far, far away.

Back on the sidewalk, Skycrest and Rodney stood before his new box.
“Rodney,” Brian began, “least we forget, we’ve invited Lt. Over once again to make a short statement (Rodney’s exuberance disappeared instantly, like a dust molecule zapped into a giant vacuum cleaner). Lt. Over…”
“Mr. McQueen. To help you maintain your new way of life as an active, contributing member of society, and in accordance with the contract we’ve signed with the UPEE Television Network, the dedicated officers of the Los Angeles Police Department, from this moment on, will stop harassing you on a daily basis.”
“Oh my God… really?”
“Yes, really. From now on we’re gonna make it every other day, for a full and complete 3 weeks!”
“Wow! Not in my wildest dreams. How can I ever thank you guys.”
“You deserve every bit of it, Rodney,” Skycrest continued, then belted, “and we’re not done yet!”
“Oh no. No more. You’ve done too much… what is it?”
“To help with your new and increased property taxes, we’re going to give to you, a cool… clear… one hundred dollars in cold hard cash!!!”
To prove his point, Skycrest held in his left hand one hundred dollars in fives, fanned out like a deck of playing cards.
The money vanished.
Upon closer examination back in the studio, using newly developed stop-motion techniques specifically developed by the Pentagon’s Office of Satellite Recognizance, in their ongoing efforts to combat U.S. sponsored opium production in Afghanistan, but still blurry, Rodney McQueen could just be discerned snatching the offered bills from Skycrest’s outstretched hand, while simultaneously pivoting on the ball of his right foot, then proceeding in a mad dash east on Fifth , currents and eddies of displaced air clearly visible, and following in his wake (Some likened the scene to that out of a Warner Brother’s Roadrunner cartoon).
“Wow!” Skycrest exclaimed. “I guess Rodney had an important appointment, or something.” (Unbeknownst to Brian, the camera caught a few of Rodney’s neighbors exiting from his new box, seemingly to be holding various pieces of new electronic equipment, and a toaster.)
“Well that’s it for this week,” Brain concluded. “For all of us at ‘Extreme Do-Over; Box Edition,’ we wish all of you a warm box, and a swell tomorrow! Say goodnight, Montana.”
Miss La Rue giggled, “Goodnight.”
“And so long, Jeff.”
“So long.”
“Don’t forget to listen to me, Brian Skycrest, each and every weekday morning on K.R.A.P., for the latest hits in, mega old school and Arabian polka. 157.2, on your FM dial. Until next week… bye, bye America!”
“Okay, and we’re off air. Good job, Brian.”
“How’s my hair? Was my hair okay?”

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