First published Monday, March 2, 2009
It was bound to happen. Both sides had been in earnest negotiation for months, but talks had bogged down two weeks ago. Calls for arbitration had been vehemently rejected by City Hall, citing it would be an act of "brazen irresponsibility" to empower a third party to bargain for it, without recourse, in such an important and costly matter. The media and the mayor’s critics, maintained the refusal was just one more example of the cities insincerity in dealing with the situation in good faith, calling it a stalling maneuver. Thirty-seven percent of the public polled seemed to agree. In its own defense, the mayor’s office referred to its recent and successful resolution of similar crises involving the Bus Mechanic’s Union, and the massive Customer Service Department of Parking Enforcement.
So, the Sunday midnight deadline set by the Los Angeles Chapter of the Alliance of the Homeless Coalition, The Hopelessly Drug Addled Guild, and the 421st Division of the Prosecution Procrastinators, passed without incident. Those officials monitoring events for the mayor drew a collective sigh of relief, and went home to their warm beds. Others urged caution and kept a watchful eye.
No one really knows the exact time the Alliance leadership called for the strike to commence. The police department, also monitoring the scene and on a state of high alert, would only say there had began a noticeable decline in the number of indigent street people in the downtown, Skid Row area, beginning shortly after 2 A.M. No violent acts were reported anywhere downtown, except for several unrelated cases of domestic abuse in some of the cities new "high end" loft projects. Indeed, the change was so slight, imperceptible, and persistent, that it came as quite a shock to the residents of Los Angeles, to wake up and discover the cities streets completely devoid of it’s homeless, the Skid Row area empty, sparse, and abandoned.
Where had they gone, they asked. No one knew, and those at the headquarters for the Alliance, located within the Beverly Hilton Hotel, weren’t talking, preferring to focus on the substance of the strike, and their demands. As if sucked up into outer space in some 1960’s science fiction television show, 84,000 fellow citizens had vanished without a trace, a clue, or a whisper.
Wherever they had gone they had taken their trash, cardboard boxes, and tents with them. Skid Row was spotless, cleaner than anyone had ever remembered it. Even the portable toilets on 6th and San Pedro were bright and shiny. As workers in factories customarily take five minutes to clean up at the end of each work day, the homeless and destitute had left their place of business neat and tidy.
Who cares! Glad they’re gone! Good riddance, some exclaimed. Soon though, the ramifications of the strike were to make themselves all too apparent, and the cries of the hard liners were forever quieted.
Traffic reporters on the local morning news programs, and the California Highway Patrol were the first to become aware of snarls and jams at major thoroughfares and freeway exits. The cities commuters working in and around downtown found themselves confused and disoriented. The hoards of impecunious, bedraggled, sign carrying sots, who usually greeted them each morning, pleading for money, food, or work, were completely absent, which filled drivers with shock and dismay. Traffic on the 5, 10, and 110 freeways, backed up for miles. Windshields, usually cleaned by industrious indigents, were left filthy with the weekend’s accumulated grime, which further complicated the growing havoc. 342 accidents and fender benders were initially reported, causing roadways to the economic heart of downtown, the finance, jewelry, garment, and fish offal districts, to be severely disrupted.
Venders, whose business it was to service the hungry workers were similarly affected. Starbucks, and croissant shops throughout the area experienced an approximate 42.0983 percent decrease in revenue, on this sunny, cloudless, Monday morning. Convenience stores all along Skid Row, hugely profitable due to their practice of over charging those with the least amount of funds, were forced to close their doors.
The early editions of the Times and Daily News, had went to press before the strike had began. "Midnight Deadline Passes Without Action" one declared. "Homeless, All Bark, No Bite" the other. Television picked up were print had left off. Both, local stations and national networks became transfixed, targeting on the stunningly empty streets throughout Skid Row and the surrounding areas. The reporters covering the story didn’t have much to go on, and found themselves at a loss to explain ongoing events to their viewers, whose frantic cries for information were left unrequited.
City and State government agencies were next to feel the sting. Upon opening its doors at the usual 7 A.M., the county sheriffs deputies assigned as security agents of the Department of Public Social Services, and whose duty it was go out amongst the assembled beneficiaries and describe their eagerness to arrest anyone who caused the least amount of trouble, were taken aback to find no one there. County employees of the agency were left with nothing to do. Television reporters at the scene were surprised to find idled staff at the 4th Street office, involved in a heated game of Ping-Pong, using standard office desks as improvised playing tables. Dominoes, was another favored way to pass the time, until rattled supervisors issued instructions for all employees to update their respective files and client paperwork, or else to help the sheriffs clean up around the building. This inevitably led to a corresponding decline in morale, with associated mumblings and grumblings.
Medical clinics, needle exchanges, and outreach centers, were similarly abandoned. Many supervisors dismissed their workers for the day, sending them home until the strike’s outcome could be determined.
USC/County Hospital was unable to instruct its students due to the two-third decline in emergency room admissions. City street cleaners were left immobilized, the streets already having been cleaned by the homeless during last night’s retreat. Blood plasma centers and recycling plants throughout the entire county were overwhelmed with inactivity; their doors left open, employees anxiously looking about for business.
The usually over crowded Homeless Court, was completely empty of it’s clientele. Pershing Square, San Julian and Gladys Parks were open. No one came to sleep, play chess, basketball, or discuss stock market fluctuations. Security personnel blankly stood looking at each other, wondering what to do. The missions were vacant and inactive. Their kitchen staff were forced to eat their own food, the morning’s issue of porridge and crackers not to be wasted. Panicked administrators consoled each other over frantic phone conversations, desperately attempting to conceive of an appropriate response to the strike, but to little avail. The Central Public Library suffered a thirty-seven percent decline in business, and in a surprising discovery, the Walt Disney Music Hall, and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, both experienced the lowest record number of ticket sales for the entire year.
The police were dumbfounded. Officials at the Parker Center Station, when questioned by the increasingly ferocious media, were at a loss to explain the strike’s implementation, or where the homeless had gone. When pressed to justify their own budget, since patrol officers had no one to harass, motivate, or arrest for inconsequential crimes, became exceptionally defensive.
"There’s a lot of real crime out there, you know," one flustered police representative was quoted as saying. "Why, we’ve got plenty of stuff to do!"
City officials began to talk of importing homeless people, busing them in from neighboring counties. These desperate plans were quickly discarded, due in large part to the neighboring county official’s reluctance to give up any of their own homeless. The homeless themselves, those polled in Riverside, San Bernardino, and Orange Counties, stated their full support for their L.A. brethren, and their intention to honor the strike throughout its duration.
The most devastating aspect of the strike, touched upon by Howard Burns, the respected NPR commentator, during the evening’s broadcast of "All Stuff Rehashed," appeared to be psychological in nature.
"Irregardless of the enormous economic loss and confusion experienced on the first day of this unprecedented action, the impact on our social cast system may have been permanently ruptured. Let’s face it, without the presence of these poor homeless and displaced, the Middle Class is left with no one to look down upon to make their own lives seem vibrant and worthwhile, and are now, faced only with themselves, left bitter and despondent. The Upper Class, and society’s elite are forced to face the very same problem. Due to the Bush tax cuts, expanding war profiteering, national policy standards favoring "No-Bid, No-Tell" contracts to Defense, Energy, and Pharmaceutical concerns (not to mention the RAMJAC Corporation’s consolidation of the entire communication and entertainment industry into one entity, touted to Congress and the public as a means to guarantee lower costs to the average consumer, through the discontinuance of expenditures related to nagging market competition), and to the countries general embrace of greed and self-interest, have so shrunk the Middle Class that it hardly exists, and can no longer serve as a buffer from which the once mighty and aloof had used to separate themselves from the rest of humanity, forcing them to take careful stock of their own position within society’s framework, and frankly, not finding much there. Bulging bank accounts, oversized, empty estates to wander around and get lost in, and random trips to France and Uruguay, offer little consolation when faced with the mounting evidence of their own desperate and pitiful lack of self meaning and purpose within the universe. Sensed by the rest of society, the depression of the rich contributes to the mass hysteria, despair, and nervousness, so evident today among the working poor of this once great city.
Not since the Great Depression of the 1930’s, and the premier of "American Idol," has Los Angeles experienced such economic and moral decrepitude."
On high, deep within the bullet-like structure which houses City Hall, the Mayor of Los Angeles sat behind his large oaken desk, finishing up a lengthy telephone conversation.
"Listen John," the mayor continued, "I do appreciate your situation, believe me, but I’ve got a real mess on my hands and I need your help. Our construction friends insist on moving the reception center another mile from the terminal, and I’m having a teensy-weensy problem justifying it to the council as being an anti-terrorist maneuver and essential for national security. They didn’t even like the first mile…yeah…yes, I understand the indictment’s putting a little pressure on you, hey, everybody been under a strain lately, but I really need to sell this to the public with thirty second spots and a print campaign. Oh, which reminds me. You know the election is coming up, and… yes, yes, I know you’ve given a lot already…sure…yeah…, well, rules were made to be broken, ya know."
The intercom on his desk buzzed.
"Just a sec, John," the mayor flicked a switch on the device. "Yes?"
"Governor Schwarzenagger, on the line, sir," his secretary nasally informed.
"Just a minute," he told her. The mayor flicked off the switch on the intercom and sat thoughtfully for a moment, then remembered the man he had been speaking to.
"Hey, John. I’m going to have to call you back. Schwarzenagger’s on the line. Yes, yes, the terminator. Sure I’ll say hello for you. Okay…okay. And don’t worry; this trial thing will blow away after the election real fast, I’m sure. I’ll call back later. Bye."
The mayor sat back in his over-sized, black leather chair, gazing for a moment at his cherished autographed painting of Ronald Reagan hanging stately on the wall opposite his desk. "If its not one damn thing, its another, huh, boss?" he muttered, receiving no reply. After a prolonged sigh, he reached over and flicked on his intercom. "Put the governor on please."
"Arnie!" the mayor exclaimed, after the connection was made. "What can I do for you?"
"Jim baby," the governor boomed, in his soft Austrian accent. "I call about this strike thing I see on the T.V.. What the heck is going on down there?!"
"What strike, Arnie?"
"What strike? Am I hearing you correctly?! The bums! You know, those…those, how you say, those homeless bums peoples, there in L.A. They go on strike."
"Oh, that strike. Did that start today? I was at my tanning salon all morning and must have missed it."
"Missed it! How you miss it?! It’s on news everywhere. You got to get this thing under control right now. Those press people making a huge thing about this, and it looks bad for all Californeeia. Are you hearing what I have to say to you?!"
The mayor sighed again. "Yes governor, I’m listening. What can a few unemployed derelicts do? It will all die down in a couple of days. I guarantee it." The mayor used a remote control device to turn on the T.V. in his office, which, as it happens, was tuned onto a local newscast reporting on the strike, and focusing on a group of homeless activists, picketing the very building he was sitting in. They were carrying signs, some reading, "More Power To The Homeless!" and "Shame On You Mayor, Homeless People Need Love Too."
"You guarantee, you guarantee! I hear this all the time from you! I don’t want guarantees, I want action! Are you hearing what I say to you?! We are all very concerned about this, mayor. Very concerned."
The mayor got up from his desk and stepped over to his office window, taking the phone with him. He looked down at the mass of people converged on the street below, and continued his conversation.
"I promise governor. I’ll get right on it. But to tell you the truth, these aren’t the easiest people to deal with. To be perfectly honest, Arnie, I don’t even know what they want!"
"Want…smaunt! You fix, right away! This whole thing bad for business, bad for image. It give me such a big headache! Even the president call me about this. The president!"
"Of the United States?"
"No, the Screen Actors Guild! Of Course, the President of the United States! We both very upset about this. Bushie is worried about this spreading to other parts of the country. We can not have that! Are you hearing what I am saying to you? We both very worried."
The mayor continued looking down at the picketers and the large crowd that had gathered in their support. "You tell the president I’ll get this matter bottled up right away, and not to worry about it. I’m working on it as we speak."
"See that you do, mayor, or it’s the gulag for both of us! The president say he would fire and replace all these bums, except they don’t work for him. Heck! They don’t work for anybody! Very difficult problem. Are you hearing what I say?! You fix! Right away! Don’t be a guurlie maahn, Jim baby. Call me when fix. Auf Wiedersehen!"
"Yes sir!" Damn foreigner, he thought.
The line went dead while the mayor continued to observe the crowd. Lost in thought, he vaguely noticed one man sitting on the building’s steps, apart from the rest, apparently strumming on an old guitar.
What do I do now, he wondered. My president needs me. He looked at his Rolex, and noticed he was late for a manicure.
"Well, something’s bound to come up," he said to himself, then hurriedly left his office.
On the street below, unaffected by the excited crowd around him, an incredibly handsome man in his late forties (but not looking a day over 29), with long, shoulder length, brown hair, parted in the middle of his noble head, and dressed in old blue jeans and a corduroy shirt, leisurely picked the strings to his guitar, singing quietly. Some came over to listen, then more. The song he was singing was a familiar one, a bastardization of Pete Seeger’s immortal "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" The man had changed some of the lyrics, and many others would soon take up his version. It would shortly be known across America as the unofficial anthem of the strike, and used to champion the cause of the homeless and needy.
Serene, and at peace, a faint ironic smile upon his reserved lips, he continued his song:
"Where have all the homeless gone?
Long time begging.
Where have all the homeless gone?
No more Skid Row.
Where have all the homeless gone?
We all miss them everyone.
When will we ever learn?
When will we ever learn?"