The Poet of Skid Row

Yesterday, I had a truly inspiring experience. A couple of friends and I went to LA to visit a Ramen shop and also to visit my friend Jerry’s startup office, which was located smack dab in the middle of Skid Row (A neighborhood in LA with one of the highest rates of homelessness in the nation). While on the way back to Jerry’s car, we stopped by The Last Bookstore to check it out.

On the way out, we met this middle aged black man who offered us to listen to his spoken word poetry. He was wearing ragged clothes, had a graying beard, and was missing a fair number of teeth. He had a clipboard, pen, paper, and a cardboard sign saying “Spoken word. Free”. He was drinking out of a bottle that contained liquid that was clearly not water.

We said, “hey why not?” and listened to him speak. He recited a poem he wrote called “When”. It was about the systematic oppression of young black men on the streets. He talked about the cycle of abuse, oppression, and violence felt by young black men. He talked about how people grow up friendless, leaderless. He talked about he feels, as a black man. His voice, thunderous yet smooth and calming, resounded through the streets, and set in motion. His eyes glinted, and sparkled.

When he finished, we applauded. We contributed whatever bills we had left in our wallets after a night of gorging on ramen, gelato, and crepes. We asked for an encore, so he launched into a second poem Titled “Like a Caged Animal”. This poem was about the penitentiary, and how the system keeps people in prison. He talked about how in prison, you cannot have friends, because if you show that you have friends, its a weakness to be exploited. He talked about how prison dehumanizes people, and how people there are treated simply like a number. But he also spoke of solutions, and how to get out. He talked about how his brothers continue to commit crime and do and sell drugs. He talked about the reason why they still do so is because “If I’m not out there selling drugs, someone else will”.

I’m going to have to say that these pieces of poetry were the greatest pieces of poetry I have ever listen to. No Poe or Shakespeare that I grueled over in Mr. Schmittgens’ AP English was capable of touching my heart like this Skid Row Poet. For a moment, he made me feel what it feels to be a young black man living in the streets. For a moment, I felt like a Caged Animal, trapped by system meant to keep me in it’s place. And yet, I know that I’ll never truly understand what it is like to be in that place, having spent most of my teenage and young adult years in the Ivory castles of private schools.

Skid Row is the last place where I would expect to find Art, yet after listening to Poet’s verses, I found myself surrounded by words and images and the unheard stories of thousands living there: murals spread across aluminum shop covers, a street pastor bringing a crowd of people together for God, and a street beggar singing her heart out. What I’ve learned from this experience that everyone, no matter how poor, or how remote they are from you, has a story to tell. Sometimes this story comes in the form of a conversation, sometimes through poetry, sometimes through paintings and construction and building. These stories are important, and we need to make sure that those trying to tell their stories are heard.

Next time you walk down the streets of Skid Row, take a moment to stop and listen. Listen to the street pastor attempting to inspire hope to those on the street. Listen to the man asking for change in the corner. These people all have stories to tell, and something to say. And if you ever meet Black man named Ian Thomas in his late 40s/early 50s with a sign that says “Spoken Word, Free,” give him a listen. I guarantee you wont regret it.

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