A few hours after a homeless guy named Virgil died of an overdose in the portable toilet, the blue plastic outhouse at 6th and San Julian streets was back in business. Not as a toilet, but as a house of prostitution.
Five portable toilets stand at that corner in the darkened heart of skid row. T.J. says she sometimes has a customer in each of them -- a john in every john -- and scurries from one to the next, taking care of business.
T.J., who keeps her wardrobe in one of the outhouses and changes every few hours, is wearing a sheer red top, nothing underneath, and skin-tight black pants. She's bummed a Newport and has it to her lips, but can't find a light.
As she speaks, a rat skitters up from the sewer and through a grate, past a discarded brassiere, a smooshed apple and an empty bag of Fritos. Rats run into, under and around the portable toilets with a brazen sense of entitlement, as comfortable as house pets.
Sights like this are common on L.A.'s skid row, a rock-bottom depository and national embarrassment. A place where disease, abuse, crime and hard-luck misery are on public display and have been for years, conveniently out of sight and mind for most Angelenos. No matter how many times I go in, I come out shocked all over again.
A couple walk past the 6th and Julian toilets now, pulling shirts up over their noses to block the stench. At times, the toilets are actually used for their intended purpose, and the unspeakable odor that envelops the corner is toxic enough to buckle your legs.
This is not the only place on skid row where business thrives in Porta-Potties. Prostitution, drug dealing and drug abuse are common in toilets across the eastern flank of downtown. The outhouses were put here to keep people from defecating on the street. Instead they provide a hiding place for crime, and urine still runs in the gutters.
"I've seen one prostitute and three guys in a Porta-Potty," says Los Angeles Police Department Capt. Andy Smith. "That's a record. Four people. I don't even want to think about what was going on in there."
The usual, no doubt. A cheap trick, a quick hit. The prostitutes aren't generally working for food or shelter, both of which are available, says Smith. They're working for drugs, and skid row is the bottom of the barrel for prostitutes -- a cursed landscape that makes the darkest corners of Hollywood look glamorous by comparison.
"They're getting from $5 to $10 for oral sex," Smith says. "They'll brag that they're getting more, but when one of our undercover officers goes in, it's always $5 or $10."
Five dollars buys a crack rock, and if you doubt the power of that drug, you only have to look at what the prostitutes will do to get it.
Anyone who passes the Porta-Potties at 6th and San Julian knows what's going on. It doesn't take a detective. On a balmy night, I watch from a distance at first, moving in closer when a distress call emits from one of the stalls.
Now a thin young woman in a slinky dress is trying to wrestle someone out of the portable toilet. The woman turns to me and a photographer and pleads for us to go get help.
A passerby peeks into the toilet and says the woman in distress appears to have overdone it with crack.
"It makes you hyperventilate like that," he says.
The person in trouble, it turns out, is T.J., who later swears to me she wasn't high; she was having a nervous breakdown. The slender young woman trying to yank her out of the portable toilet by her arm is her friend T.T. It stands for Tall and Tiny.
When the door opens, T.J. is wearing nothing but black underclothes. She's sitting on the lap of a man perched on the toilet, and the man's arms are wrapped around her in a bear hug. He's apparently trying to calm her down.
"She needs help!" T.T. orders, her torn corduroy dress slipping down to where it barely covers her.
STEVE LOPEZ / POINTS WEST
A Corner Where L.A. Hits Rock Bottom
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