Social distancing on Hollywood Blvd in the heart of Los Angeles has been easier than many might think. Gone are the smiling families, the roving packs of males and the bands of giggling girlfriends all searching for their favorite stars on the Walk of Fame. With the tourists gone, gone too are the costumed characters, the street performers, the hustlers and the tour salesmen. Among the last hold-outs was one of the CD-guys. These guys are notorious on the Boulevard for their aggressive hustles. Their hustle generally starts with them thrusting a CD towards their mark’s chest causing most people to flinch and take hold of the CD. Once it’s in their mark’s hand, the CD-guys start their sales pitch. You can say, “no” all you want, but once the CD is in your hand, they shake you down for the sale. For those who aren’t snared by this tactic, the CD-guys will still try and work you over, most notably using a technique that Gavin de Becker calls, “typecasting”. This is where they try to shame you by calling you racist, sexist, too old, too young, too skinny, too fat, too American, too European or whatever they think will guilt you into buying from them. The CD-guys are relentless. But the last time I saw the Last Holdout, he stood alone, dazed and drained of all ambition. He silently and half-heartedly gestured to passersby with his CDs at a distance. His new-found passivity is just one social marker of the change in the neighborhood. Now, only the occasional tourists are spotted on the Boulevard. They wander aimlessly past the shuttered souvenir shops, wax museums and historic landmarks. I haven’t seen the Last Holdout in several days.
It’s just us locals, and the folks who call the streets home, left. I’ve lived one and a half blocks off of Hollywood Boulevard for nearly ten years. I was drawn by the electricity, vitality and grit of the neighborhood. Now only the grit remains.
The destitution of people living on the streets stands in sharp contrast with happy tourists no longer here to fill the empty space in between. Though the city has opened more homeless shelters during this crisis, the streets are as filled as ever with desperate people. There’s a corner at the end of my block that frequently gets a homeless camp that lasts up to a few weeks before the inhabitants move on. Usually it’s occupied by men in their 20’s getting high, passing out in their kit, but otherwise keeping to themselves. But right around the time Mayor Garcetti called for Los Angeles to shut down, a new group set up camp. They are different than the usual crowd – older, in their 40’s to 50’s. Initially they kept to themselves. But after a week or so, they began to actively look for ways to engage passersby. From the standard, “Do you know what time it is?” to attempts at lame dad-jokes, “You dropped your smile back there” while pointing to the ground behind me. I don’t begrudge them their efforts to reel me in – I get that they are desperate. But then all the more reason that I’ve changed my habits and routines to keep them at bay. It was their “friendly” behavior that initially got me thinking about how much more desperate life is on the streets now.
The most startling clue of desperation came just a few days ago. It was the perfect spring day, sunny with blue skies. Too gorgeous to pass up a quick walk after being cooped up in the apartment all morning.
People were out and about and mostly respectful of keeping distance. For those who were oblivious to the new norm of social distancing, three basic street dodges, pie-ing corners, walking the curb and expanding my field of vision have become more critical than ever in navigating the city.
Crossing Orange Drive on the south-side of Hollywood Boulevard I marveled at the emptiness of the Chinese Theatre’s famous forecourt across the street. Looking ahead twenty feet or so I spotted a trio of tourists headed in my direction. In usual tourist fashion they walked stretched across the width of the sidewalk, ambling more slowly than usual as nothing was open.
As the distance between us began to close I starting running options on how to maintain the recommended six feet from them when we passed. My usual go-to of walking the curb was not an option – just feet behind them in the empty street I spotted a disheveled man moving erratically as he stalked closer in our direction. Then suddenly the decision was made for me. The disheveled man let out a primal, animal scream. The sounds he made were unrecognizable as words. My eyes darted to him. He looked straight at me and screeched, “BITCH!!!”
Our eyes locked as I studied his face in those brief seconds. I recognized him as from the neighborhood. He was in his 20’s, his white skin browned and leathery from the sun. The do-it-yourself tattoos on his face and around his eyes added to the savagery of his presence. There was fury in his face. He quickened his pace in a direct line for me. My greatest advantage in that moment was the three tourists who were still positioned between us for just a few remaining seconds. Before Primal stepped up on the curb I darted to the far side of the tourists and asked, “Can I walk with you?”. To my great relief, without hesitation they said, “yes”. The two larger men bookended our group while the third man and I made small talk in the middle. Primal was now stalking all of us. I had one improvised weapon on me, a hefty padlock on an eleven inch rope along with my keys. In all cases of self-defense, distance is our best friend. But now with the added threat of the highly contagious COVID-19 virus, I was even more desperate to maintain distance. Primal circled the group. His movements made it clear I was his target and he was locked and loaded on me. As he maneuvered, I dodged to the other side of my new found pack. While keeping Primal in sight, I maintained light conversation with my new friends, stranded tourists from the U.K. Putting on airs of light conversation while unstable maniacs menace is a skill I’ve honed as a health-care clinic escort. Dodging Primal while being mindful of not getting too close to my new friends added an extra layer of complexity. I had to choose between the immediate threat posed by Primal and the unseen, but less immediate threat, of COVID-19. I was relieved when he pulled ahead of our group. I kept my eye on him making sure he wouldn’t double back. When he was far enough ahead I thanked my kind knights-in-shining-armor and wished them well on their journey home.
I am often asked in Asphalt Anthropology about the best way to respond when someone is being targeted. From my research on violence and my own experience, I've learned that there is no best way. Though I have been in similar situations before, each played out in it's own unique way based on my current frame-of-mind and assessment of the threat and the environment:
I've snarled at a threat coming at me fast across a parking lot to “BACK THE FUCK OFF!”. Despite my fear I was able to channel enough fury in my voice that he turned on his heels and ran off.
I've momentarily stunned a mentally disturbed man with a simple, “Hey man, we’re cool”. It stopped him in his tracks, giving me just enough time to get away.
Each unique experience calls for a different answer. You may need to ask for help, yell, be willing to go hands-on, use humor, use your environment to conceal or use an improvised weapon. The only “best response” is to be adaptable because the variables in play will always be different. Reflecting on my range of experience of managing violence, I cannot say with my conscious mind why I react the way I do. For all of us, our reactions are done at the level of the instinctive hindbrain. It is that part of the brain that is wired for survival. Trust it. Cultivate it. It knows what to do. I was rattled by my run-in with Primal for quite a few days. It wasn’t the usual street dodge that I have done countless times thanks to my passion for urban exploration. This one was different. On top of my new fear of an airborne illness, I had to contend with the immediate threat of how determined he was to come after me. Primal is a regular in the neighborhood. Though never stable, I’ve never seen him this unhinged. I can’t say for sure that his behavior was triggered by the crisis, but my gut feeling tells me that whatever illness, high or desperation he felt has been exacerbated by it.
This experience has made me more mindful of noticing changes in street culture starting with the new camp down the street. Another startling observation is other Hollywood Boulevard regulars who routinely walk up and down the street gathering food from the trashcans. I don’t see them fishing around in the trashcans anymore. Now they pass by with only a glance into emptiness. With the tourists gone and the restaurants closed, the trashcans are now bare and are no longer an informal “food” source.
As the neighborhood changes, I am changing my own behavior and habits. New routines to throw off the campers down the street and keeping a can of pepper spray handy. I’ve never bothered with pepper spray before because I have always been good at spotting and dodging threats. But I am dodging two new threats now, airborne disease and desperation. For now anyway. Be adaptable, be safe, be well.