He grew up in Cheraw, S.C., he said, one of 16 kids, scrawny, premature, with asthma that his mother treated with marijuana. He said his stepfather, who was half white, hated the darkness of his skin and covered it with welts. He fled west, and in 1980, at the corner of 5th and San Pedro streets, he inhaled his first hit of crack cocaine: "I said, 'Damn, that's what I need.' "
"Everybody dead but me. And I was the baddest one of them. I did more than all them did," he said.
Thinking of the streets, horrible memories assailed him: alleys running with blood, bodies in trash bins, death all over. Survival in his world, he said, precluded friendship. Everybody wanted something. "I don't eat with nobody. I don't smoke with nobody. I be by myself all the time. I got no friends. I don't want no friends. I don't need no friends."
He didn't know Project 50's origins or philosophical underpinnings, but he knew that "them people sent from God," and that a woman named Miss Carrie had tried, with surprising intensity, to help him. Then a word came to mind he had already taken pains to disavow. "She my friend."
That summer, after half a year in a borrowed warehouse, Project 50 moved into a headquarters at 5th and Main streets, a quick walk from the clients' apartments. There was an office, a health clinic, and a drop-in center with second-hand armchairs and board games.
The intersection, at the heart of skid row, was known for crime and drug-dealing, and most mornings Bach arrived alone at 7, looking over her shoulder as she bent to unlock the metal gate.
Her days were a blizzard. She was lining up beds in detox, getting ID cards for clients, firing e-mails to the county brass, training staffers as they rotated quickly in and out, their nerves frayed by the work.
By mid-summer, the team had shepherded about 30 people into housing, but it was clear the goal of housing the 50 within six months would not be met. Many just couldn't be found. "We've definitely hit a wall," Bach said.
Stung by her inability to help Livingston, she brooded on whether she might have done more. The difference between success and failure, she reasoned, might lie in her ability to forge personal connections with men and women who survived in a realm of feral isolation.
No one seemed more remote, more trapped in the bleak cycles of the street, than No. 46 on the list, Cliff Butler, the Polish Man, who pedaled an old bike loaded with rags and a tub of wax.
His domain: the streets behind the fish markets on Central Avenue, where for years he slept on a bench and shined big rigs to buy crack. For long-haul truckers in search of drugs or prostitutes, he served as a conduit to L.A.'s underground.
To walk with Butler through downtown was to glimpse the streets as he learned to see them, a landscape of things to take, people to swindle. Crack cocaine had a way of focusing the attention; it supplied laser-like vision, even if it stripped away everything else.
Butler walked down Broadway toward 3rd Street, pointing: Over there was an unattended bag of aluminum cans someone had been foraging: $1. Over there was a chained-up bicycle, with a seat that could be pried off: $5. Parked at the curb was a delivery truck, at a busy hour when drivers were distracted: a possible bonanza.
Butler styled himself a Grand Spanker, a professional thief with myriad angles. He was convinced that his breed of criminal was an endangered species in a gentrifying downtown full of condos and security cameras and beefed-up police patrols.
By stroking egos, he learned to manipulate skid row's innumerable social workers and do-gooders. "You make them feel what they're trying to feel," he said.
If a church group showed up to hand out chickens, he'd induce a crack-head to make a scene that he could defuse. Suddenly God's people had a helper on the streets. Maybe he'd dispatch a junkie to run a scam on a trucker — pass off a weighted box as a computer, say — and then rush in to stop it. That's the Polish Man. You can trust him.
When he wanted something, Bach noticed, he became a stooped, shambling figure, and his voice went hoarse. Other times, his spine straightened a little and his voice cleared. He was prone to loud, up-close, hectoring monologues that frightened people, but Bach endured them patiently.
He was now living in the Sanborn Hotel, but she believed that if he had any hope of reclaiming his life, he had to steer clear of the big rigs and the fast money they promised. One day in June, she took him to the carwash on Main Street.