Alex, Skid Row & The Great Nation of LA

Alex was my manager when I was working in the volunteer department on Skid Row. I try to get him to write a book, and he’s written some. But the stories he has from his life could fill volumes. From his criminal days, to living on Skid Row in Downtown Los Angeles (at the very mission he now manages at), Alex has a perspective on life that no one I know really has.

He is the biggest goof ball, trickster, life guru, boxer, fitness addict, and loyal friend. But enough from me – let’s hear from him:

Alex jokingly titled our time: “Interview with a Serial Killer.” I think our dark sense of humor is why we get along so well.

B: Me 

A: Alex fo Falex 

B: When were you born or how do you describe that day?

A: It depends on which “Me” you’re talking about. I was born in 1972, but I was also born in 1983 and 1978…according to the IDs I used to carry.

B: What do you do?

A: I help people die so they can live [getting over addictions and moving on in life]. I also manage volunteers – do events, community events. I help people help people, and help people have fun.

The men's day room, where Skid Row residents can come in from the street and receive their first steps of help. Also where Alex makes most of his new friends and transforms into wonderlands on the holidays for the guests of the mission. 

B: What’s been your best day at work?

A: There’s just many – let’s see: my most current is shooting a video of someone I mentored. [Alex convinced a young man who walked into the mission a couple years ago get into the program. He mentored and watched him get clean and motivated to start his future career]. This kid, that’s way younger than me, was being interviewed and dropping nuggets of wisdom. That right there was one of those ones where I was seriously looking at him like this [tearing up]. That’s the kind of video it was. [Tilts head back] I was trying to let the tears soak back in my eyes like this while he was taking. But ya, that’s what keeps me working where I work – being a part of someone’s success. Not that I’m entirely responsible, but I got to be there to help him out.

Behind the mission, Alex is noshing on his usual sunflower seeds and chilling with Wanda -- a friend who had helped us with events while she was staying at the mission. We called her "security" because she knew everyone and wouldn't let anyone get away with anything on her watch. I was really happy we ran into her, hadn't seen her in a while. 

B: What keeps you working here?

A: People, man, the people – I mean really, truly. My honest answer is I think I am supposed to be here and then I get to do something cool to change someone’s life… I want to be a part of that. Selfish as I am, I like being part of somebody else’s success.

The main room of the volunteer office --with  leftovers of events (helium tanks) and the table he custom painted for the office. Behind him are images of Skid Row residents. 

B: What made you stay in LA?

A: I don’t think anything made me stay in LA -- I was destined to be here. For example, I believe there are people that are born in like…small towns, but they’re meant to be here. And I’m one of those. And I know other people like that. I think people go crazy figuring out where they’re supposed to be until they get here. And then you’ll go crazy while you’re here wondering why you are.

B: When did life take you to LA and why?

A: I was young…in the 80s. Actually it was because my dad paroled out of prison to find a better life.

B: So you were staying with him?

A: Yes—my dad …he wanted something different so he paroled to the Los Angeles area to make something better for us. My first big memory of LA was Richard Ramirez…the night stalker. The first book I read when I was in LA was Zodiac Killer. [Laughing] Which is kind of trippin' me out right now!

Alex on the rooftop of the mission, the view of the rest of downtown behind him -- below, the streets of Skid Row. We look over the side and watch the police try to diffuse a situation, mystified that the woman in handcuffs is still somehow smoking her cigarette. 

B: What neighborhood(s) did you live in?

A: Lets see…I lived everywhere. I never lived in one space for a long time. Lancaster, Whittier, La Puente, Lake Elsinore, Roland Heights, Chino Hills, Ontario, Lake Elsinore, Downtown LA, West Covina [He moves his hands around the table on an imaginary map as we wait for our food at Little Bear, visualizing the places he lived]. Covina, Azusa, -- man dude, my goodness…oh ya, Pomona. That was really interesting. Cause that was the beginning of the end for me.  That was right before I moved to Downtown LA.

B: What do you mean by “beginning of the end?”

A: Meaning that was the beginning of my career as a drug addict and everything else. To like, where I am today. The beginning of the end…to the beginning.

B: Do you ever think about where you’re at in relation to where you’ve been?

A: Yes, definitely. [Looks out window into Arts District ] I see these people walking by and I think, ya that was me walking by the window looking in. Thinking I’d never be able to eat somewhere like that. I have those types of thoughts a lot.


Side Note & Conversation: Alex is extremely artistic loves fashion, he's always sketching and talking to us about the tattoos he used to create on people. Sometimes we’d show up to work and our whole office would be wearing the same outfit (mostly chambray shirts and jeans). While I was interviewing him, it was brought to his attention that there was an ugly Hawaiian shirt contest going on at work. A coworker at lunch with us said he should wear that Hawaiian shirt he owns. Alex’s reaction: “ya…I have a Hawaiian shirt, but it’s not ugly.”

B: What’s your favorite thing about LA?

A: We have everything here. You don’t have to go far for anything. [Pointing in all directions] You want the desert, you go there, you want snow you go there, you want the surf you go there. You wanna ski, surf, ride your bike in the desert. Whatever. And on top of all that, we have earthquakes. Every once and a while you get a little shake.

B: Why do you like earthquakes?

A: I don’t, but as an attraction: we have earthquakes.

B: Do you have a Love/Hate relationship with LA?

A: I wouldn’t say I hate it – I love it here. Here’s one thing people complain about: traffic. But if I didn’t have the traffic, I would be bored to death. I couldn’t live in a place where I roll up in my car and say “Hey how’s it going Max?” And then it’s another 45 minutes until I see another human. I want to see the crazy people – cutting me off, me cutting them off, breaking the law, picking their nose. I love it.

B: What’s your secret spot if you’re willing to give it up?

A: [Leans back and looks around] If I was to go anywhere alone...where no one can find me…that’s a good question. My mind. I can be anywhere and take myself away. Okay, I don’t even know if I have a secret spot. Ah, sitting at the bar of the Starbucks by my house. I’m not a coffee snob. I love Starbucks.  Eight shots in the morning, get it together, and jam. It’s really not that much [everyone at the table disagrees simultaneously].

B: What’s the best place to eat in LA?

A: My favorite spot is Gill's Indian Restaurant – its hidden in a hotel  -- no one knows it’s there (or it seems like it). The best sandwich is in the bank building on Main. Cole’s as well -- my friend Mark owns that place.

B: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

A: I hate that question. Next! No really, I do know: doing the second part of this interview from my loft on the 35th floor somewhere in DTLA. I honestly didn’t see myself 10 years ago as where I would be today, so hopefully I’m 10 years better than I am today. I just want to have the same attitude about life as I do today: which is stay young, stay trendy, stay fly my friend [Dos Equis "Most Interesting Man in the World" impersonation ensues].

B: Why do you love LA?

A: I love it because you never know who you’re sitting next to. You just don’t know who you’re going to run into, you don’t know who you’re going to end up being. You can become something out of nothing on accident. Opportunities are endless but its an awful place where you can get stuck and trapped too. Also, people on the outside are always trying to come to a place that I’m at everyday. That’s what’s crazy: people say, “One thing I want to do before I die is visit LA.” When I was in Paris earlier this year, someone I was talking to from there was so excited about coming to LA on vacation. Its one of those things that made me realize that we see everyday what others dream their whole lives to see…even for one day on a trip to LA. We get to see it everyday…and this is the norm for us.

B: How do you know you’re an Angelino?

Please refer to all the pictures. You don’t get that in many places.