Every night, I worry a little bit more about my friend Antonio.
On a fenced-in vacant lot in Watts, not far from the east-side intersection of the 105 and 110 Freeways, Antonio tries to go to sleep each night and wake up when the sun comes up in what he calls his “cave” — basically, a old burgundy-painted van that no longer runs, with a tarp drapped over the two side doors facing a brick wall that provides some shade in the heat and very little protection when there’s rain.
He won’t refer to himself as homeless. I try not to, either. Fact is, for the time being, he just doesn’t have an address. He’s temporarily inconvenienced.
He uses a shower at a nearby friends house to dress each morning; otherwise he takes what he calls a “cowboy shower” with the water available on the lot. He has a cell phone. He has two German Shepherds that attempt to protect him; one of them, Princess, prefers to roam the rutted concrete landscape with a large chunk of rock in her mouth, as if to prove to the collection of people who sit on the nearby sidewalk getting high or drinking out of a paper bag that she means business.
With all of that, you won’t find someone without a roof over his head have a more positive outlook, without a complaint. He worries, too, but he just doesn’t want me to worry as well.
I’m blessed to know Antonio because of the work he volunteers to do monthly with a group of us who drive over to a church in Watts, about a mile from his temporary residence, to deliver lunches and clothing. Out of the blue, he showed up one day – not so much to see how many shirts and sandwiches he could carry away, but to help set up and clean up, and act as an interpreter to the Spanish-speaking families who’d been waiting patiently, and thankfully, for whatever they’d received.
Antonio finally admitted to me, after several months of showing up, that he lived in a car, sleeping in the reclined passenger seat. He was somewhat relieved when another friend eventually got him the van, which had been running but neededsome engine work. At the very least, it provided more room for what sparce belongings he felt he needed to get by.
Another man gives him some cash to stay on the piece of property, in a neighborhood dotted with more prostitution and drug use, with once-nice homes now with bars on the window. The man has some expensive machinery he uses to decontaminate underground properties, and Antonio is a de facto caretaker of the place. Still, no one’s really taking care of him. People around there try to steal things him when he’s not around. A few months ago, two jumped the side fence, attacked his dogs with sticks, and made off with Antonio’s bicycle.
“They must have needed it more than me,” he said. “I wasn’t going to fight them for it.”
How all this connects in some way to sports — Antonio and I use soccer as an uncommon bond. He seems to have an affection for the game, as do many of his friends. I really don’t but I’ll pretend if it helps the conversation. So we talk about it.
Since he’s from the Guadalajara area of Mexico, he knows about the Chivas soccer club.
“Chiva is a goat in Spanish,” I told him, as if he didn’t already know. He laughs at my high-school level Spanish, encouraging me to try more. Since Chivas USA was playing the Galaxy in the first round of the MLS playoffs, I figured it was about time he’d get a chance to see this Americanized version of his home-town team in action.
I’m not trying to pull a “Soloist” here; there’s nothing to be compared to Steve Lopez stumbling upon a homeless man who once played the violin at Juillard but struggles with a horrible mental illness, leading him to a life on the streets of L.A. Home Depot Center for a soccer game is not the Disney Concert Hall to listen to the L.A. Philharmonic. It’s just a place for Antonio and his friend to escape a few hours and enjoy a sport that is music to their eyes.
Chivas officials were generous with making tickets available for me to take Antonio, and his friend, Sotero, to Sunday’s game at Home Depot Center. Another friend, Lalo, would have been good to take as well, but Antonio couldn’t find him.
Once in the stadium, Antonio proudly took off the long-sleeved blue-striped shirt and put on the free red-striped T-shirt given to fans as they entered. He took the aisle seat of section 115, and as the game unfolded, he took it all in.
He respectfully refused an offer for a beer, agreeing only to a bottled water and a bag of chips during the contest. He had to get back to a job later that day — two hours as a security guard for a small discount corner market. He would not chance coming to work in any bad condition. The job was too important. He was concerned the game wouldn’t end in time and he’d be shirking his responsibilities.
After the 2-2 tie played itself out, and as we walked back to the car to leave, I felt tied as well. Tongue tied. I couldn’t find the words to express how nice it was just to have Antonio and Sotero join me for a game. We didn’t have to talk about it. I was on the receiving end of watching their enjoyment of the fall afternoon of fans just being fans.
“You know, I appreciate this,” Antonio said softly, without having to say it. “It’s much nicer to spend an afternoon here instead of on my corner.”
The last time he’d been to a stadium?
“I don’t know … maybe 1986. I went to Dodger Stadium. You remember Tommy Lasorda? Do you ever talk to him?”
I asked how he watches sports.
“Only if I’m at the park, watching the guys play,” he said, referring to some of the people in the neighborhood who play regularily at Ted Watkins Park in Watts. Games start at 7 a.m. every Saturday and Sunday and go on the dusty, grass-less fields until dark.
Antonio has a TV set in his van, and an extension cord running out the back to a primative power source, but he’s without a converter box just to get the basic channels that used to be free over the air. If he wants to see a game on TV, he says he has to search it out a local restaurant. But then, how can he buy a couple of hours of table space if he’s not really able to afford to stay and eat?
When I dropped Antonio and Sotero off on the corner as darkness started to set in, it was difficult to pull the car away and just leave them there. I felt as if I was abandoning them. But that, they said, is where they live. Don’t worry. They’ll be fine.
If only the opportunity to allow soccer to be a nice diversion on a fall Sunday afternoon, it was worth it not to have to worry about what kind of trouble Antonio might be facing.
“You see the full moon?” Antonio said on the ride home down the 105 freeway as we headed East. “Everytime I look at it, I see a face in the moon. Do you see it?”
I told him that I did as well.
As it got later Sunday night, while trying to drift off to sleep still thinking about what a nice day of soccer we experienced, I could only hope that face in the moon was at least watching over Antonio. Even if that moon, somewhere off in the non-Chivas galaxy, really did look more like a giant soccer ball.