this page will have some previously unpublished work
each story will have two parts
“this is what i saw”
“this is what i learned”
Here is my first story from my back yard ~
this is what i saw
I would like all of you to meet my friend, Ray. I met Ray in my back yard…actually we met in the parking lot of our apartment building…in Costa Mesa, California. Deb was managing the apartments where we lived and would see him going through our trash bins for cans, toys, food, anything he thought was useful. We would watch him and were actually glad to see him because when he finished he would always put what he didn’t want back in the bins and then he’d cruise around the parking lot, pick up trash that he did not put there and throw that in the bins too. Ray was a good man and I wonder about him often and how he is doing now. I have not seen him in a very long time.
Ray lived…at least he slept and got a little privacy…behind a nearby dry cleaner. The machines to do the work inside the dry cleaner were set up outside in a fenced off area. The owner of the dry cleaner was kind and let Ray put up a cot behind the fence, hang a few clothes and call it home. Southern California usually has good enough weather, but he was exposed to the weather and more. Sometimes he’d get drenched…sometimes local hoodlums would roll him for whatever he had. They could not have gotten much for their trouble so that was mostly to show how ________ they were. Fill in the blank with whatever you like, but they should have considered themselves fortunate. Ray was an honorably discharged vet from two wars. Korea and Vietnam. He told me once that in the wars he had killed better men than them. I believed him.
I decided to ask Ray if he would mind if I hung out with him, take some pictures and learn a little bit about him. There wasn’t much discussion about it and he said sure. So for a few weeks I would meet him at his place around 4:30 in the morning and walk with him as he walked his routes. Most days would start at a nearby bar. He would clean their parking lot then he’d go inside for breakfast…a bloody mary. Then he would wander in a loop through streets and alleys around the southern part of the neighborhood. Along the way searching trash cans and bins. By mid day he would be at Zubies Gilded Cage…For all you punk lovers this used to be known as The Cuckoos Nest; the same place the Vandals wrote about and many punk bands like Iggy Pop, Social Distortion, D.I., TSOL, the Adolescents, Circle Jerks and Agent Orange played at… He would clean up the parking lot at Zubies and they would get him lunch. Usually just a beer or two. They would offer him a sandwich and sometimes he’d accept, but usually the only solid food he would eat was at a soup kitchen. He didn’t take hand outs either. I asked him about not having any money and he told me he did not want it. Actually, because he was a vet he did get a check every month for his service. He never wanted them so he had the checks sent to his daughter somewhere in Arizona. Not that she needed them. He simply didn’t want the temptation to drink it all away.
Zubies was just a block and a half from our apartments and we were in his route on his way back to his place. So we would usually see him in our parking lot and trash bins in mid afternoon. This was how he spent every other day of the week. The other days he would work the neighborhood to the north of his place. And he knew pretty much most of what went on in our neighborhood. One day I got a frantic call from Deb saying that our two-year-old daughter, Hannah, was missing. I flew home in record time…you’d be surprised how fast a VW bus can go even on SoCal freeways…and we frantically searched. Our fears were relieved when we found that she had been invited to go shopping with a family and they had all just gone without saying anything to Deb. A couple of days later Ray came up to Deb and said, “I hear you found your daughter OK.” We had not seen him for a few days…he just knew. He knew what was going on and he knew what things he could find in the trash that would be valued by others. He would find toys…some that worked and others that he would fix…and would know which kids in the neighborhood would like to have it. And he’d take it to them.
The one thing that sticks in my memory of Ray the most is that he told me he chose to live the way he did. He could get a room somewhere…he did have access to a trailer if the weather got really bad…if he wanted to. He simply did not want to. I could not get to the reasons he had for that, but I knew that it really was not so important that I knew about it. I just hung out, spent some time, shot some images and learned a story to tell others.
this is what i learned
...that you can find a lot of interesting stuff in trash cans, but most of it really is trash
…not to be too quick to look past anyone because every person has a story to tell
…the best thing you can do for yourself is spending time with someone to get to know them
…be ready to help others when they are ready to receive help
…if you can genuinely like…and love…other people you will be surprised who loves you back
Welcome to Porterville
aka Sam’s Place
this is what i saw
It looks like a third world scene. You wouldn’t know it to look at it, but this place is nestled right in the back yard of some of Orange County’s most prime real estate. This is Porterville. It is the namesake of Sam Porter who was the owner and defender of this property and the day workers who lived here. I never got to know Sam very well, yet I was still saddened to hear about his passing. My story about this OC back yard happened before Sam left us.
One day while working at the South County Offices of The Orange County Register I went with a reporter to cover an ongoing story. Sam Porter was a long-time resident of an area of OC that once upon a time was miles away from any main stream development. The story goes that one day a day-laborer asked Sam if he could camp out on the property. Sam thought that was OK and pretty soon the word got out with a lot of the day-laborers around the area that there was a good place to hang out between jobs. At one point there were about 100 day-laborers at Porterville and some of them had their entire families with them. That didn’t sit too well with county officials and later the neighbors that sprang up around him. The story angle that we went out to cover was that a local church had collected groceries and household items to take over to the day-laborers and their families. The reporter and I met up with the delivery guy from the church…a clandestine meeting in a parking lot…and we went with him to make his drop. Up until this little trip…it was literally only a few miles from my house…I didn’t even know this place existed.
While I was there with the reporter I saw this guy shaving using just a blade and looking at his face in a broken mirror. I knew right then that I was coming back here. When I did get back I brought a bag of Bic razors.
Sam brought in some utilities for them and did have the trash picked up. He cared that these people had a place to stay and would argue a blue streak with just about anyone who cared to go toe to toe with him that he could and would provide that place.
There were no tents here. There were trucks with campers on them and there were, of all things, train box cars. I never found out how they got up there in the Saddleback foothills, but there they were and not a train track in sight.
On the inside they had beds to sleep on, a place to cook and keep their bottled water…a place to stay.
I wouldn’t call it home and I don’t think they did either…I really need to learn to speak Spanish…but they were gracious and kind to this gawking photographer. It was clear that they knew there was discontent with some of the general public. I could only imagine the stories they could tell me from their back yard.
this is what i learned
I stopped working on this story a few weeks ago because I have been wondering about what I learned from this. Did I learn anything? I think so. A thought that strikes me about the residents at Porterville is that it is worth taking up a fight for others. Sam Porter stood up for these folks and I am not the one to say it was good or bad. I am just impressed that he had strong feelings for their needs and would not back down. I could talk about the tenacity and hard work of these people…that’s a little too obvious…or how they simply do what they have to do…again obvious. It seems that I was most surprised to find this fairly large encampment of workers right under my nose and that leads me to two important things I learned. First, that given the opportunity to do what they need to do, most people do not want to draw attention to themselves. They will go on from day to day and the majority of people on the outside will not ever notice them. Second is that if you do not look, you will not find. One of the things I have been pondering and asking myself for the past few weeks is, “Why do this? Why record what is happening and report it?” That thought has been leading me to realize my own personal convictions for photojournalism. For me, photojournalism is a social responsibility to give a voice to someone else’s story. My role is to seek out those who have a story they want to share…all I need is to be curious enough to find them and care enough to share them. Spending the time to learn their story becomes a joy for me…a joy that does not always make me smile, but a joy in knowing that this person or group will not be ignored or forgotten. We are all worth hearing and learning about…sometimes I get to be the one to share.