Skid Row & The Long Lost Daughter

I had the pleasure of meeting a man named Michael during my time on Skid Row…and helped him meet his daughter for the first time.

Never thought I’d ever say that.

Michael working in the volunteer office, a photo of him with his daughter moments after they met for the first time. Taken from the back seat of my car in the airport parking lot. 

Michael was born in Ireland and came to California by way of Canada. Therefore, as you might guess (or not), his sense of humor is pretty on-point. He's always cracking some sort of joke as he’s doing something super helpful for you. He loves astronomy like me. He loves cats like me. Which are essentially the two things you need to love to be friends with me, so we have a blast.

Michael came to live in the mission while I was working there and quickly moved through the men’s program, coming down and helping us in the volunteer department whenever he could. He also worked in the learning center as part of his program, and would come share his “experiences” with us everyday and have a laugh.

One day, Michael brought a newspaper clipping into my office. It was about a chef in Vancouver and her restaurant. Her image was included in the article - she smiled from behind the kitchen counter.

Michael explained that some distant relative sent him this clipping a few years ago without a note, just the clipping. It took him just a few months to realize that the chef featured in the article was his biological daughter, whom he had never met.

He knew for a few months now that he needed to reach out to his daughter, and part of his program was to reconcile with someone from the past. It was time, but he wasn’t sure how.

He knew what he wanted to say, but didn’t know how to say it.

He came in my office one afternoon and decided that “today was the day.” My coworker Erin and I went over possible scenarios – what his daughter might say, what she might not say, if she would even respond at all. He didn’t want to knock her life around, but we explained that something like this would inevitably have an effect on her that will change her life.

We found her on Facebook, and we whipped out a message as I typed. He approved, and I let him click “send.”

I didn’t know it at the moment, but I was linking myself to such a massive event in the history of these two people’s lives.

As I was writing, I was thinking about what I was doing, but the full impact did not hit me until later.

Silence.

Two months went by, and I had quit working at the mission. I had kept in touch through Erin; she said that Michael wasn’t doing well since he hadn’t heard a response.

And then, a message.

[I was recently able to sit down with Michael and talk with him about this experience and how his life has changed over the past year since he first made contact with his daughter. I have included parts of our time together below, chatting in the volunteer office where we met.]

Bethany: Explain this decision to reach out to your daughter…

Michael: Well there were a couple of young ladies that worked in this place that helped me do it [you and Erin]. This was one of those things that I knew I always had to do: make these kinds of connections. I’m getting older and starting to feel it a little bit. I talk to people from time to time about this and everyone said, “you should contact your daughter--what’s the worst thing that could happen?”

Well I don’t know what the worst thing that could have happened was but I just still couldn’t get up the nerve to do it. So you and Erin helped me. You wrote the letter that I couldn’t write myself. I just pressed the send button. I didn’t hear anything for two months and I was very, very disappointed.

And what actually happened, [my daughter] told me afterwards, that we sent the letter to a part of her Facebook that she never goes to and she found on accident.

So she didn’t know where I was, but she knew I had a connection in the past with a different mission, so she started calling over there, they referred her to here, and then I got the email.

And I just was absolutely blown out of the water. And so we emailed for a couple of days and after that she says, “I’m coming to see you. I’ll be there on Tuesday morning.”

Before she came, he explained where he lived on Skid Row and she had no problem with it, as there was a similar area in Vancouver. After exchanging several emails over a few days, she bought a plane ticket from Vancouver to LAX. Erin asked if I could pick up Michael and take him to the airport to pick up his daughter.

I, of course, said yes and went to pick him up at 9AM on Tuesday. It was late-October and it was only starting to get chillier. I drove him on surface streets to LAX, partially to avoid traffic and partially to give him some time to soak up his thoughts at stoplights.

He didn’t want to talk about what he was about to do – he was so incredibly nervous, that he forgot his wallet and we had to circle back to the mission to get it before we picked her up.

Michael: Bethany was kind enough to get me a ride to the airport because I never would have made it myself. *Laughs* I wouldn’t have known what to do. And ya, that was one of the highlights of my life and in many ways I can give credit to the people here: to my chaplain, different people who encouraged me, but especially you and Erin who encouraged me to do it because otherwise I’d still be procrastinating.

It all came down very, very fast when it did come down. And it took me a long time to get over the initial shock.

We pulled into LAX and I parked in the terminal outside Air Canada.

We waited just outside customs, hoping that she would be able to see us and recognize us. Neither of us had her phone number, so it would be difficult to get a hold of one another.

As we walked around, she suddenly turned a corner and knew instantly. I was watching as her eyes met her biological father’s for the first time, and their eyes looked exactly the same. There was so much emotion in that look: hers was of relief, shock, and a third emotion that can only be physically expressed. There are no words, but it was warm. He was filled with excitement, and he, in true Michael fashion, went in for a hug. They both sat in the backseat of my car as I drove them back to downtown. 

Michael on the rooftop garden at the mission where he currently lives and works. 

Bethany: So when you first checked your email and you saw her name what was the first thought that went through your mind?

Michael Besides almost having a heart attack…you know, I was excited. I was excited at that point--after two months it didn’t particularly much matter how it went. If she didn’t want to have anything to do with me that was fine too…I had pretty well come to terms with that and if she wanted to see me, then we’d work something out and she’d come see me. I couldn’t keep her from coming. I did try to discourage her because I didn’t want her to see what kind of a situation I was in living in here and seeing Skid Row. I was not comfortable with that but she insisted. And she wasn’t as horrified as I thought she might be.

Bethany: When all that came to fruition and she said, “Ok I’m coming, I’m buying a plane ticket” what went through your mind?

Michael: I was excited. This is pathetic: all I could think about was how to dress… or do I have a hair out of place? Completely self obsessed *laughs* and when we were standing in the airport, well you were there at the time, if you hadn’t been there I don’t know what I would have done to tell you the God-honest truth. I would have probably tried to hide and spied the place out and got arrested or something like that, but we recognized each other right away.

I had a lot of amazement that it was actually going to happen because in my heart of hearts I didn’t expect it to. I knew that even if I did get past the procrastination and I was able to make contact, I still didn’t think she would respond positively.

To be honest one of my characteristics is: I hope for the best but try to prepare for the worst. And I was in that shape-- like I’m going to shake and dissolve on the floor like a bowl of Jello…and the moment we met that disappeared.

But I certainly have not had that level of anxiety in a long, long time *laughs* And it was good because even though I was very anxious, the anxiety was of a…if anxiety can be called positive. It was not a bad thing...not a bad feeling. It’s not like I’m being walked to the gas chamber, not that kind, but anxiety nonetheless.

Once we met, we hit it off very well, very quickly.

Bethany: So once she was actually a person in front of you, how did your perspective of her change? “Oh she kind of looks like me” or…what kind of presence did she give off?

Michael: I think she was just as excited as I was, but she seems to be a very low-key person--she doesn’t show it too much. But just at a glance she reminded me of her mother and then a little bit of me in like the mouth and things like that…you know I’m not a great analyst of photographs or anything but you saw the photograph that you took – there is a lot of resemblance. But I didn’t notice a lot of that until later. Until I started to look at the picture.

Michael peeks out the window from the 5th floor where he lives with others that have completed the men's program and are transitioning out of the mission. Below, San Pedro, one of the main roads on Skid Row. 

I took them to the mission, and introduced her to my old office. We discovered that cats were a love of hers as she shared pictures of her little feline friend with us.

Michael: And when she was here, she was here for four days. We didn’t do anything spectacular we just took the bus and went to Santa Monica or Venice Beach and basically just talked. I guess the most exciting thing we did while she was here was go to Halloween at Hollywood and Highland just so she could see what that was like and eat pizza.

Bethany: I didn’t know you went to that! Right, she was here over Halloween…

Michael: Yeah she was… Well I’ve never been to Hollywood and Highland on Halloween, and it was really kind of crazy. Not insane, but crazy. Naturally, a huge police presence, and we just moseyed on around in the crowds and enjoyed the ambiance...all the weird places up there –everything was open. There was an inordinate amount of men running around in their underwear, I don’t know what that was all about, if it was a Halloween costume or what. I know the police weren’t impressed *laugh.*

So we still keep in touch. Initially I was writing six-page letters, but I found that too stressful. And who wants to know if I sneezed right after lunch today, so I’ve cut it down to once every few weeks or so to say hey what are you doing? Hoping that they’ll have a chance to come down again…maybe not this year but in the spring perhaps [His daughter's boyfriend came to join her the day after she met her father in LA]. 

Bethany: Is it weird to think that it’s been pretty much…

Michael: …a year, yeah. Exactly a year. That makes this kind of significant the fact that I’m even talking about it.

Bethany: How did you feel in that space between your letter and her response?

Once I wrote the letter, even though I didn’t hear right away, I still kind of had hope, but I was losing it and so when she actually came, you can imagine, I was already slipping into … as a matter of fact I had a very serious depressive episode during that time. But again I got help through here [the mission] and when she came I was able to handle it, and when she left I was able to deal with it pretty well without too many problems either. I feel like I’m ordinary, normal, maybe part of the human race. As you know I do isolate, everyone says it, and I know it myself and I hate doing that.

So when she left, I came back here to the mission – it was like starting over. With a different perspective. Much less anger. Much less depression. Not so much fear, I kind of sound like I’m talking to a psychiatrist. I didn’t have the feeling that I was at a dead end, on a road to nowhere quickly.

And having her here, and seeing her, and communicating with her, hit me at a time when I was looking for a reason to stay living. I was never suicidal but my life was so miserable internally that I was lucky to be able to get through it. Like I said, the chaplain here was a huge help. He gave me a lot of encouragement.

Between meal times in the cafeteria, Michael checks on volunteers whom he's been working with that week as part of his new job in the Volunteer Department. 

[We are sitting in the Volunteer Department manager’s office. We can hear the security staff next door talking into their walkie-talkies…volunteers and guests walking in and talking with the staff, cracking jokes.]

Bethany: If you could talk to yourself back then with today’s perspective, what would you say?

Michael: *Long pause*

Well one of the things I would say is that all that worrying and fretting and depression wasn’t worth the pain. I put myself through all that pain because I’m aware that I do that to myself, I’m not blaming anyone but myself, but the fact that she didn’t respond had a serious effect on me. I’m repeating myself to a certain degree, but after she left it’s like having a new perspective. And this is where faith comes in. Big time.

Now with her back in my life, I had at least one reason to keep on going. My faith told me if that miracle could have happened then other miracles could happen, and they have… like this job [Michael is currently employed in the Volunteer Department, as he needed only 90 days on a payroll to qualify for social security in the United States]. After she left, for the most part I didn’t spend too much time musing about the future and what’s going to happen to me. I knew that the Lord would take care of everything. Why worry? I know it sounds like a cliché, because there’s nothing you can do about it anyway.

I don’t know what direction its going to come from but I know that I don’t have to worry about it or try to figure it out, just be ready for whatever the outcome. This job is great for my self-confidence…I struggle with it, my basic lack of computer skills drives me up the wall but I’m getting better.

So that’s how I’m doing today, I’m still living on the 5th floor and am better with my roommates. I’m compassionate towards them. I wish I could honestly say that I’m more compassionate for the people on the street. That’s something I pray for everyday in fact. That I show some compassion. I find it very hard to do…I don’t know why. So that’s something I have to work on.

Bethany: I knew that being able to meet your daughter would have an effect on your life, but now I feel like I know more about you and what’s been going on as your friend.

Michael and I continued our conversation over coffee in the Arts District at Blue Bottle. 

Michael: Ya and you know me I don’t usually talk about how I’m feeling. I’m not comfortable with that. And actually, I should change that a little bit. I’m not comfortable talking about myself and how I’m feeling to people that I know. I can do it to perfect strangers. One of the reasons I like the volunteer job is that I can tell those people anything without feeling the slightest bit embarrassed. I can talk about it to those people because I can switch on like an actor’s persona.

When I’m with all you guys around here I’m my usual nervous shaky self. When you put me in front of a bunch of strangers, then it’s like I take on a different personality and I’ll talk about all the garbage in my life I have no problem. One of the reasons is because I know I’ll never have to face these people again. But I’m less likely to share with my friends and associates and that’s gotten me into a lot of trouble over the years.

Bethany: I’m glad you could share with me today--you’ve given me new perspective. You never know, what you share might put a new thought in someone’s head.

Michael: I won’t share because I’m too afraid to and I don’t believe they’ll believe me. Strangers I can tell cause everything that comes out of my mouth is new to them. They don’t know how I behave around here, they just see me for 20 minutes on the day of a tour…it might be the first and last time they see me. And that Michael they see that day is considerably different from the Michael who’s sitting in this office or upstairs watching the news or shopping--that Michael is always alone. So at this age, loneliness is a huge issue. Huge huge huge huge. I have some friends here who arrived last week from Sweden and they came last Thursday night and we went to a movie on Friday. And that’s the first time I’ve been to a movie in at least 15 years.

Bethany: What did you see?

Michael: That vampire movie.

Bethany: What vampire movie?

Michael: Before there was Dracula or something, don’t waste your money. I couldn’t figure out the story.

So I hooked up with these friends and went to a movie, which is considerably different from how I used to go to movies. I would take a pint or half pint with me, which was the way I did it for many years in my disease in my alcoholism. That’s the only way I could tolerate sitting still for so long.

Again I don’t normally share this kind of stuff with other people. I know we all have similar stories though. My life how it is today, it’s on the upswing. I don’t know what’s happening. I’ve got some fears and anxiety but they don’t have me, if you can understand that. I know what they are, and they haven’t taken control over my existence like they have before. It’s a matter of faith – I know everything will turn out okay. And what ever happens its okay. It was meant to happen…that’s really where I am Bethany. I can’t guarantee tomorrow will be better but it will be different.

 

I was able to visit Michael’s daughter at her restaurant earlier this year in Vancouver while I was there for a conference.

When I saw her, I was reminded of the bond I had with them -- the piece of their history that I was somehow intricately woven into.

 It’s very hard to describe the whole experience of helping them meet, but I feel very intertwined in their life stories. I was in awe of how I could be used to connect these people, and then totally stoked when I was able to connect in her hometown! Turns out, Michael went to school just across the street from where his daughter opened her restaurant in Vancouver.

I would like to thank Michael for being willing to talk about this major life event with me. And for schooling me in astronomy, and doing so many tours and orientations with me while I worked in the volunteer office (even though he didn't have to and would sometimes miss his lunch window), and for being generally one of the most supportive and caring people I know. I'm so proud of him for persevering through the men's program and landing this job that will grant him new freedoms in life.

Watching his life encourages me to challenge myself and perspective, to always keep my faith alive, and my eyes on the bright side. 

SweetWater Letterpress & The Great Nation of LA

The smell of ink fills my nose as I lean against the counter, shooting Wilcz carve a linoleum cut for his most recent “for the heck of it” creation. “I decided that with all the deadlines, the customized orders, I needed to get creative again and make our custom annual print.” A Dia De Los Muertos poster.

I had the pleasure of spending two very inspiring (and very warm) days at SweetWater Letterpress in Downtown Culver City. A small shop that cranks out some of the most intricately crafted letterpress items I’ve ever seen.

Though the whole SweetWater family is not captured in the moments below, it is a "three peeps and a dog" operation as Wilcz puts it -- and head up: they are looking for an intern in the near future! 

Below are conversations with the shop owner (Wilcz) and his right hand printer (Julie). Wilcz has lived and worked in the creative filed everywhere from Buffalo to Boston, Warsaw to Colorado. His enthusiasm for his projects is infectious – he pours knowledge into his customers and they always leave with a sense of creativity and awe at his work. 

My laptop is the newest piece of machinery in the print shop by about 60 years, propped up on a stool in front of the large windows, which drink in all the sun the day has to offer. The temperature conducive to exactly what the materials need – HOT. I hear the humidifier cranking in the stock room.

On press with the Day of the Dead prints

On press with the Day of the Dead prints

B = Me

W = Wilcz

J = Julie

Linoleum cut Wilcz finishes carving as we chat. 

Linoleum cut Wilcz finishes carving as we chat. 

B: So, where are you from?

W: Born in Buffalo NY, and I lived pretty much everywhere *laughs. Playing hockey brought me all over the country and all over Canada, but after all of that was done I decided to go to college at the University of Buffalo. I worked at an ad agency in Buffalo, and then moved to Boston to a design studio where we did mostly annual reports (which are gone now…*chuckles).

I came out to LA and worked for an ad agency then went to work for the LA Kings. I started as a designer and then moved to creative director...then to a company that was LA-based but had an office in Poland as well. I moved to Colorado and then back to LA for a house job in art direction, but realistically I was planning this (SweetWater).

I wanted to get back to the roots of design, working with your hands, not with sitting in a cubicle and dealing with ego and politics -- being able to be creative and do really good things. That’s my background. I’ve been everywhere.

Glow in the dark Halloween letterpress cards -- how cool is that!? 

Glow in the dark Halloween letterpress cards -- how cool is that!? 

B: You talked about work taking you to LA… is that how you landed here?

W: Los Angeles? No absolutely not.

The 1980s: Everyone was into BMX freestyle and skateboarding, so you had your GTs and Haros... I got into that when I was a kid. I had a GT and it was from Huntington Beach, California, and I looked at all those guys (doing freestyle) and said “that’s where I belong.”

Growing up in Buffalo, everybody would say, “You don’t fit in here at all. You’re way too relaxed and loosey goosey.” I always felt like I belonged in California. One day I said, “I have nothing keeping me here and I’ve always wanted to be there (California),” so I literally grabbed a map (I had never been here before) and said “Pacific Beach sounds wonderful!”

I packed my car up with everything I owned. I took out all $2000 I had in my bank and threw it in the glove compartment (there were no banks on the east and west coasts that communicated at the time), got in the car, and drove.

I went into the Recycler and found two girls living in La Jolla on the beach and they needed a roommate. So I’m like life is good, I’m in California and living on the beach. And I was only there for a couple months till I landed a job up here (in LA).

But the vibe of LA is amazing the weather is great. Buffalo is snowy a lot. Being here is what I like, that’s what brought me to LA.

*He dusts away the pieces of linoleum he carved out and pauses to examine his piece.

B: What is your craft?

W: That’s tough to say -- it is design. I love printmaking. I love starting with just this idea in your head of, “this is cool I like this.” And coming out with solutions and realistic designs that communicate well and look nice. Then taking that concept and drawing it, and taking it to the computer, which is really a tool – it’s not supposed to be used for creativity.

This job is super unique because: there was a sketch, and that turned into an illustrator file, that turned into a template, and I carved it out at the kitchen table.

 

B: I like that process…

W: That’s what I love most about artists, but the problem I see is a lot of creative work is money driven and a lot of people make things very vanilla, so it appeals to a mass audience.

There’s no loving or loathing it, it’s just there. People will watch it because we made it. People will buy it because it’s there.

When you are able to take the risks and try things and create things, you have a chance of failure but if you succeed, it’s so far beyond “we made something,” because we made something great. Every single thing that comes out of this shop has to be great. We treat this like it’s gold *points to his current project, we treat stationary with one person’s name like its gold.

Anything you see that’s been done needs to be a stand-alone piece. Then people say, “that’s fantastic, who did that?” We’re not perfectionists, each piece is different and unique, but we absolutely alter, change, shift things the way we want them to be and treat every piece like it’s the most important.

Right now, this is *nods at his work. When Julie is on press with the backs of our business cards, which is just our signature, she’ll spend an hour setting it up so it’s perfect. And when I say perfect, it’s perfect to the way that we want it, not perfect to perfection. If you chase perfection you’re in big trouble.

 B: Why did you decide to open up shop in LA what did that look like?

W: Opportunity. I see some amazing letterpress shops throughout the country, but they don’t get the type of jobs we get because Sony is not across the street, the Getty is not down the street, you know? *Laughs We can collaborate with musicians, executive producers…If you’re in Denver, you’d probably make a great living and do a lot of great stuff but you have to work to get the big jobs, whereas here, they’re in our backyard.

I also try to purchase all our stuff in LA by family owned businesses in LA. We do a lot of business in LA not only with our customers but by supporting other small businesses. We pay a bit more because it’s local and owned by a family business, but I’d rather support the economy in our local city than get it from wherever else cheaper.  

And weather doesn’t play as much of a factor in LA—we can do business all the time. In places like Buffalo you can’t work Tuesday/Wednesday because there’s a blizzard. And when you’re off, you can play really, really hard here. In December…when you can go surfing…pretty spectacular.

 *A bell goes off and Wilcz looks over his shoulder to see who came through the door, Julie’s conversation with an existing customer hums on in the front room. “Excuse me for a sec…hello!...”

 

Why did you pick this spot?

Accidentally.

We looked where other letterpress and stationery shops were -- we don’t want to be a direct competition, but we don’t feel as if we are – we don’t consider anyone competition really. There are12 million people here in our city, and there are very few letterpress shops.

We were originally looking for a place in Redondo and El Segundo with a little more space and an old fashioned feel. Then we got off the wrong exit on the freeway and saw this place. I stopped and looked in and said, “that’s the smallest shop I’ve ever seen in my life…I don’t know if we could do it!”

Then I turned around and looked at Sony and thought, “the 405’s right there, from north, east, south, west I can get here, and this is a wonderful neighborhood.” I literally got out of my car and started walking around and seeing that it really is a neighborhood. The thing we didn’t want to be was another shop on the main street.

We wanted to be part of the community – we wanted to be part of a neighborhood. We have people who jog their routes, we say hi to them on a first name basis. We’ve never done business with them but they’re part of the community, and so are we.

So we looked at this place and my wife goes “there’s no chance you can do this in this place.” So I took out the tape measure, measured the doors and thought, “I can get the presses in here!”

Originally we really wanted to have the presses in front of a window so people can see us working, wherever we were.

Married to an apartment complex, Sweetwater rests in the bottom right corner of the building. 

Married to an apartment complex, Sweetwater rests in the bottom right corner of the building. 

B: That’s how I found you! One night, I was walking through the neighborhood and saw you guys on the presses…

W: We thought that was more artisan --- we have so many people that stop here and just watch. They may turn and go “alright we’re going in,” and they buy cards because that girl right there made them and they get to watch it happen. Those cards will be on sale tomorrow in the shop and that’s really cool.

So that was the goal, get in front of the windows and get into a neighborhood where we can be a part of the community and that’s how Culver City happened.

B: I like that, that’s a cool business model and idea.

W: It’s different.

*Dusts bits of linoleum off his cut.

Every machine is numbered and this tells the printer when and where the machine was made. Two of the machines in SweetWater were made in the same place around the same time and by happenstance convened in the same room later in life. 

Every machine is numbered and this tells the printer when and where the machine was made. Two of the machines in SweetWater were made in the same place around the same time and by happenstance convened in the same room later in life. 

B: I know you don’t really have this, but what’s your 9-5 look like?

W: What does that mean?

B: A day in the life of you!

W: *Laughs There’s no such thing as a 9-5, but I live in LA for a reason, right? I live in Hermosa. My day is: get up in the morning and go for a run on the beach. Go for a swim, a boogie board, or a surf. After that, that’s my meditation – relax, enjoy, start your day out with some sunshine and some salt water.

Then I start working at home from 8-11AM usually doing admin stuff. Then I come in and we’re here from 11:30 usually until about 9 o’clock. Then we clean up and I’m usually home by 10. That’s an average day, but when we get to November-February that day turns into 11PM-12AM…or 1AM-2AM, so it becomes a 13 or more hour day. Just because those are the busy times and it takes time to do this.

On top of that we clean this place constantly. Every little speck of dirt is an issue – it can alter our prints. It’s never clean enough. These presses get cleaned twice a day. Everything gets cleaned and oiled – they don’t make parts for these presses, the manuals are vague and half the stuff they ask for they don’t make anymore – we’re maintaining, oiling, making sure they work…cause if they break, that’s it. We have to find the part or make it somehow. Were always looking for new presses. When I say new, I mean old presses. Those are hard to come by.

Clamping the paper just right is key before running the print. 

Clamping the paper just right is key before running the print. 

 

B: I can’t imagine what the industry looks like when it comes to machinery.

W: Yes that’s a big issue. We’re working on things and all of a sudden instead of  “whoop whoop whoosh” you hear “woop woop BINK.” And you’re like, what the heck was that? Or, why did it just work perfectly the first 150 times and all of a sudden something doesn’t work? And we have to figure it out.

The counter ticks away as each piece is pressed. 

The counter ticks away as each piece is pressed. 

B: So is that the part of your job you could live without?

W: No, I love that actually. I love that you can come in and it may not work right. I love that we get to touch machinery that’s from the 50s and 60s and 20s. And the stories that they have behind them...

*It’s rush hour, and the light just outside turns green, cars whoosh by.

I say good morning to the presses, because they are their own pieces and they may not work how you want them, but when you sit on a press for six hours straight running one piece at a time, they become part of your life. And you get to know these presses so well that the littlest sound that changes you think “oh no I don’t want you to go down” because it becomes your baby and your best friend.

I love that about this job. The fact that you come in and today’s not going to be like tomorrow, and it’s not like yesterday.

B: I know we talked a bit about this, but I didn’t have my recording on: What are you working on right now?

W: This is Dia De Los Muertos – “Day of the Dead” -- linoleum cut, based off a wood cut.

This is a little faster and easier and you get a similar result. Especially when you’re only running 60 with 5 proof prints (each hand numbered 1-60). With wood cuts, you can get cleaner and a little more precise, but the design of this we don’t want perfect, so all these little nooks and crannies in this text – most of them are done on purpose. There are some obviously “ah, we couldn’t hold it quite straight!” pieces but that’s part of this process.

This looked super scary at first—a little more Haitian voodoo, which was what was in my mind. I think this really started from coming in one Saturday to do some work and deciding that it had been too busy and commercial for too long.

So I decided to not do any work and instead, I took out some wood type and just started playing with it. The door was closed, no one was coming in – it was a day where I just got to play around. I want to make things where there isn’t a customer or client or someone directing it – making it because its cool and I would want it in my house. Instead of mass-producing them, we like to do small runs and make them a little more special. And that’s how this started.

B: Well I always love hearing about your process and what you’re doing and working on. I just walk over and stop in and see wants going on…

W: You’d be shocked, we have quite a few people that do that. People in creative office jobs around here just stop by and smell the ink and see that we’re working with our hands… they hear the machines. And it inspires you. It inspires them. And it would have inspired me…it did. You know when I was at that place in life I would have done the same thing. I would have gone down to a place like this and got creative. I understand.

B: I know it’s a bit warm in here, but as I recall there’s no AC right?

W: We have AC…we can’t use it. AC in general will dry out our shop. And therefore dry out our stock.

So we want optimally 60-65% humidity in here. Days were its really hot and super dry, and we turn that AC on you will see humidity drop 10% in a matter of 10 minutes. We’re a lot cooler, but we can’t print. Oftentimes we just suffer. *Laughs If we had a deadline and we had to do it, we’d be closing the doors and turning up the humidifier. You’d see people in here just dripping sweat. But we need our stock to be that way. We have the humidors we keep our stock in so we can control it. But you know to us every little thing matters. Oftentimes we spray it and wet them all down, just to get the optimal amount of ink on the print.

B: Switching gears a bit: in your opinion, what is LA’s best feature?

W: Oh boy, that’s really tough – I think the best feature to me is what I talked about earlier. Opportunity is everywhere. LA is full of super interesting people with similar stories to what I have. They picked up, they drove here, because they wanted to be here. And that’s LA. When we lived in Venice you could walk down Abbott Kinney and you could hear 5 different languages in 100 yards being spoken.

You know, you can be anything you want in LA. You can be a cowboy and the next day you’re a designer, and a surfer, and then hitting the sand dunes. The thing I love the most about LA is the diversity. The people here are hard working and hard playing. Typically creative -- even if you’re talking about lawyers -- they’re still creative. And when you’re, you know, stand up paddling with them on a Saturday, you don’t even know what they do and it doesn’t matter.

When I talk to people you’ll never hear me ask what they do, because it doesn’t matter what you do for work. I had a lot of jobs and I have friends who have been pool cleaners and were living on someone’s couch, and that didn’t make them any of a different person today now that they landed the big deal in 3D rendering in movies and live in a very large house.

This is a place where things are invented and created, they’re not all made here anymore, I wish they would, but there’s that feeling that anything can happen and that’s what I really like. Saturday morning you can wake up with an intention to go surfing and you end up that evening on Catalina… And that’s LA. You don’t often see that in other places. At least not that I’ve noticed. Diversity and entrepreneurship.

 

B: How do you describe LA to people who don’t live here?

W: “It’s awful stay away…it’s the worst place don’t come here!” *Laughing No, I have a lot of friends who have never been here and their perception of LA is totally different. A lot of people think Downtown is on the water and it’s not. LA gets a bad rap from movies. It’s so geographically diverse: you could be in the mountains skiing and technically same day you could be on an island. I try to explain that it’s more than just Hollywood…its more than a cement playground, there’s beaches and parks and a lot of great things.

California is huge. It’s so big and diverse that, you know, it’s hard to tell people one thing about it. So that would be the thing I’d say: it’s vast. You can’t do it in a day.

 

*Julie finished up her work in the office and steps into the workspace. We chat for a moment about her “condition” as they call it: she has perfect pitch. She taps the space bar on the typewriters in the shop until it bings… “G sharp!” she announces.

B: Did you grow up in LA?

J: I am from Iowa originally. I grew up a product of corn and heartland. I have a lot of relatives who are farmers.

I went to music school I studied film scoring in Boston, and moved to LA after college. I lived here for a year, kind of tried to get into music editing, which is a bit more technical, but it was the exact wrong time. It was 2002, so it was right after 9/11 and the entertainment industry tanked.

They cut post production budgets so I decided to do something else and moved to Chicago and lived there for 10 years, working for a non-profit -- a small arts organization. I was also teaching and running a small business there that was based around music teaching and coaching workshops, as well as career development for musicians.

 

B: So that’s how you kept music in your life?

J: Yes and I sang in various professional choirs in Chicago. I came back to LA because my husband, who I met in Chicago, is a lawyer and he went in-house with a video game company out here…so it was his dream job – he loves games and this particular game. They make one game right now, but it’s the most popular game in the world so that’s what they do. So we moved here for that and he does intellectual property law for them.

I never thought I’d live in LA again after I lived here the first time! *Laughs But I love it now and I’m so glad we came out here.

B: Why were you okay with moving back? Did you think “okay LA has this…or LA is this..”

J: I didn’t know it at the time, but we love the weather. We were over winter! Even though neither of us are from here – he grew up in New Jersey and New York so we’re used to the cold. But we love the weather and spending time outdoors getting to go hiking year-round. It’s awesome, and we both have friends out here, so we’ve had fun reconnecting with people here. There are a lot of great opportunities so we just said, “well lets go see what this is like!” We were both ready for a change.

B: What neighborhood do you live in?

J: We just moved a couple months ago to mid city –Fairfax and Pico.

When I lived here the first time, I lived on Faris in the Palms, so just down the street from you! Back before there was any of this *points around city out the window.

Like, you would come past Sony and there were no restaurants, people out and about, none of that.

They had just opened the movie theater before I left, and that Greek place, and that was it. Starbucks was down here in the middle of nowhere. It’s so trippy to be back. In this area in particular.

B: So you’ve been back for 10 years?

J: Yes, and a lot happens in 10 years. We couldn’t go out to eat right here… it was just like, well I went to a movie with my student ID! That’s it for the week!

B: What brought you to Sweetwater?

J: Serendipity. A friend of a friend shared Wilcz’s posting on Facebook saying they were looking for an intern and I was like, this is nuts, and makes no sense but I have to apply. And here I am.

*Wilcz looks up from his carving

W: “I don’t know how to print, and I don’t have a design background!”

B: …and I’m sure you said “perfect!”

W: I’m not a paper person, so I don’t look at the resume and say well she has this this and this. She seemed like a smart person…she has some great experience in a lot of different things, which carried over. You know, music background has tons of creativity to it, she’s worked for non-profits, she’s ran businesses, so here’s a person that may not have the exact experiences but she can translate. On top of that all, she has a passion for letterpress. Now she’s one of the best printers I know. It was a very lucky thing…we are lucky to have her with us.

J: I had no idea what I was doing but I was always interested in crafts and making things since I was tiny. Through working with one of my non-profit partners in Chicago, they did a lot of letterpress work with one of the printers there. I said “this is so awesome I love this so much I have to know how to do this!” but I had no time in my previous job…I had stupid hours and never learned.

And then after I lived here I looked for places that did classes, or invitations. After Wilcz posted and was like “must love music and dogs, no prior experience needed,” I was like oh my gosh! I have to apply!

 

Sony Studios just across the street. 

Sony Studios just across the street. 

 

Walking into SweetWater Letterpress is an experience that will make you feel more creative, no matter your profession. The two-man operation is so infected by a love for their craft that you can’t help but pick up on while you’re there. I guarantee you’ll leave inspired.

If you’re nearby, go talk to them and get infected by the joy they find in doing what they love passionately, everyday. Click HERE or on any photo above for a link to their site. The Day of the Dead prints are currently on sale while supplies last, and mine is proudly displayed in my apartment.

 

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.