The Rip Post                      

The more things change. . .

By Paul Weeks

“I got the Skid Row Blues in a boogie-woogie beat,
I got a belly full of booze, and there’s blisters on my feet,
Can’t go back to my mamma – there just ain’t anyplace to go,
Don’t you ever tell my mamma that her boy was on the Row,
I got the Skid Row blues,
The boozy-woozy Skid Row Blues.”

I never told my mother I was a Skid Row song writer, either, but, at 84, it’s never too late to ‘fess up, is it?

June 1955: My pal, Vernon MacPherson, and I were on the Row. Rumpled clothes. Unshaven faces. Scarred shoes desperately in need of half-soles. We tried to look bleary-eyed, hungry and forlorn. Maybe we could have mastered the masquerade if we’d have had to stay another day over the three months we were there.

Our greatest handicap? It was mostly a daytime assignment from the Los Angeles Mirror. At night we could go home to our families while denizens of the Row had to put up with a dormitory of snores and groans of drunks, with mattresses seething with bedbugs – orfor a better place, a blanket on the cold, hard sidewalk or an empty box in an alley.

Some days we left to check County records of property owners in the 40-block maze known at the Row, not much more than a stone’s throw from City Hall –owners of flophouses, owners of 57 bars and 19 package stores on eight blocks of 5th Street. The bars, with “B-girls” and, yes, “B-boys,” attracted mostly out-of-town suckers seeking sex and thrills in the Big City.

The package stores drew patrons from the street, who carried cheap wine out in bottles in paper sacks – the empties littering the curbs and the alleys. Overworked cops afoot or with the paddy wagon never ran short of duty. If it weren’t for the shortage of booze, the street people could enjoy a couple of nights in the lockup with better accommodations.

Also thriving on the street were the “soul-savers” – operators of missions that fed gospel and soup and provided some overnight dormitories. (“You sit for an ear-beatin’ and then they feed you the soup.”)We met a few who were good, honest, dedicated missionaries, but more who qualified with little paper work as churches, sending the homeless out in the better neighborhoods to beg for donations.

Mac and I tried it, with moderate success. We were promised 50 to 60 percent of our collections, We lied the opposite of most collectors, dipping into our expense accounts to fatten the take.

Our newspaper played our 10-day series big – headlines, editorials, City Councilmen vowing to clean up the mess. Stories that would wrench your heart: broken families, a man and a woman who checked in one night with only a bundle in the woman’s arm. They disappeared in hours, leaving a crying newborn babe behind.

A prostitute rushed in and swept up the baby, wanting to keep it and give it a home, dipping into her savings for gifts. But the City took the child away. It would take days for me to recite the human tragedy we encountered everywhere.

Yes, I know that the story was also selling newspapers. So popular did it become that the publisher needed dramatic “art” to tout the series on his television program. He wanted us to document the “B-girl” situation – ladies who tantalize bar customers into buying them drinks, undoubtedly watered down while the night strips the customer of his money. One lady felt so sorry for a customer she bought him a beer from her own “take” when he sadly ran out of cash.

We couldn’t persuade any B-girls to re-enact their business for the TV cameras. But – and I am embarrassed to admit it now – two prostitutes took on the assignment for $10 each – then complained when the minutes stretched into a long night of re-takes and cut the “take” they could have gotten on the street.

I don’t remember how the office described it on our expense accounts.

Did the City reform Skid Row? I have never revisited it. The Row’s population was estimated at 15,000 when we were there. I have just looked it up on the Internet. It is estimated at 30,000 now.

And the newspaper which published our story expired seven years later.

Paul Weeks is a distinguished veteran journalist who worked for the Los Angeles Daily News, Mirror, Times, and later the RAND Corporation. He lives in Oceanside and works as a freelance writer and columnist for the Stockton Record.

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