‘You know, I’m not gonna turn crooked, I’m not gonna sell drugs. I’m gonna bust my butt.’
The Hotel Glenmore will never make anyone’s list of five-star accommodations, unless points are awarded for the most down-and-out clientele. The drab three-story on Compton’s Palmer Street is a popular place, if bookings are a measure. But the people who usually call it home spend too much time coping with unemployment lines--and sometimes, police lineups--to care about the minor inconvenience of having to use a hall bath.
It was in the Glenmore that Stephen Salim awoke at 6 a.m. one day in April, as the sunrise sifted through the bent screen clinging to the window of his second-story room. For $280 a month, he gets a double bed, a lavatory, a chest of drawers, a small closet and space enough to take a few steps before bumping the door.
None of that seems to matter to the 28-year-old Salim, who has come west to what he calls “the land of milk and honey” in search of a success that somehow eluded him back in Brooklyn and New Jersey. On Jan. 9, he stepped off the bus in downtown Los Angeles. Five months later, he’s still looking.
“I just wanted to do something different, you know. You get tired of the same place. I don’t think people were born to die where they were born at.” Here, the weather is great and, to an Eastern city dweller, the scenery a surprise. “Watts is beautiful--no 14-, 15-story projects. It’s a little rough, you could get killed. But you be careful, you know. It’s pleasing to the eye out here, that’s what California is, real pleasing to the eye.”
As Salim talks about himself and what it’s like moving 3,000 miles to an uncertain future, he sounds determined not to be defeated by frustration, like the kind he found on that day last month.
The day began as Salim pulled his lean, six-foot frame from between the sheets and dropped to the floor for 30 sit-ups, then 60 push-ups, knuckles pressed against the dusty hardwood. It is a routine left from his high school basketball days. He was good enough to play a year at Essex County College in Newark, N.J., but never kidded himself about making the pros. When he fell out with his coach one day and walked, he thought it just as well.
“All I was doin’ was messing with girls anyway, to tell you the truth. . . . Wouldn’t go to class, you know, go enough to get by. But I was meetin’ girls. I met my kids’ mother down there, you know. Once we hooked up and started gettin’ serious, I said, ‘I better make some money ‘cause I’m gonna have a few kids.’ ”
After two children the marriage failed. And what money he made came from jobs easy to forget, but for that glorious time he spent as a temporary file clerk in Manhattan. “It was like a musical. You get up in the morning, you’re on Wall Street, nobody’s out there. . . . I loved that job.”
That morning, Salim had no job to love or hate. Still, he arose with a purpose because it was the first of the month--a day general relief checks flow into thousands of Compton pockets. Salim doesn’t take welfare, but has learned to profit from the dreams of those who do. To stay reasonably fed, he has turned to peddling vials of homemade fragrance oil, labeled in ballpoint with names like Obsession, Opium and Oscar de la Renta. On a good day he can sell about seven.
“I try to get $5 a bottle, but I’m dealing with poor people, so $4, two for $8, whatever. . . . See, the thing is, I couldn’t find a job. So I tried to be creative and make a job. It’s a long way from home to be gettin’ in trouble.”
But trouble somehow kept finding Salim.
He pulled on blue jeans, a shirt, a pair of Puma high-tops and struck off to work the swap meets and storefronts. “I’m goin’, hittin’ spots, you know, sellin’ my stuff, gettin’ money. Every place I went I was gettin’ hassled,” he recalled in a recent interview.
In front of a check-cashing store on Compton Boulevard, security guards asked him to move along. “I thought I was gonna have to fight with those guys. They didn’t say a word to me until they saw me making a sale, then they came and interrupted it. . . . One thing led to another and I said, ‘Let me get out of here, I don’t need no trouble from you knuckleheads.’
“And then I ended up at Boys (Market) and they hassled me over there in a similar fashion.”
Finally, that night, he showed up at the City Council meeting to speak in support of a financial aid request made by AmeriCola Beverage Co., a soft-drink bottler trying to start up across the street from the Glenmore. But there, too, he was hustled from the podium after complaining that officials weren’t doing enough to help create jobs.
“Where I come from, you go to get a job, they say, ‘OK, you got a job, come in tomorrow.’. . . None of this ‘come back in two weeks.’ My needs are immediate.” So are the needs of others in the city--witness the daily pilgrimage paid to the rear of a local burger stand where people “eat out of the garbage can. Yeah, early in the morning you can go over there and catch them, around 9 or 10 o'clock.
“You know, I’m not gonna turn crooked, I’m not gonna sell drugs. I’m gonna bust my butt. But when you’re looking and you’ve got strong intentions and you get frustrated, it can break you down. You’ve got to really be strong.”
While others around him lose their grip, Salim proudly vows to keep his.
“I just got here; I don’t want to leave yet. When I go back home, they’re gonna say, ‘Yeah, he went to California and did pretty good for his self.’ I know it’s gonna be a struggle, but that’s how it is.”