THE SUNDAY PROFILE : Mollie Lowery’s Tug of War : She dreams of a quiet life in the Sierra. But for now, she hikes among the Skid Row sanctuaries where she offers refuge to the mentally ill.
Sometimes Eric Stolp’s head fills with voices. They squawk and yammer and scream this warning: Los Angeles’ angels are bad angels, evil angels, the fallen angels of Satan.
Watch his intense eyes scanning the grubby Skid Row skyline and you can almost see vulture-winged creatures hovering in the shadows, waiting for night to fall. Even in broad daylight, it’s not hard to understand why Stolp itches to flee this Hieronymus Bosch landscape by catching a Greyhound for Maine.
“The green! The trees!” he’ll say, tugging at a strand of beard, stroking his mad-scientist mop of hair. “It’s so much more life-giving.”
But Mollie Lowery knows that nature alone can’t deliver Stolp from his demons. So here they sit, looking straight into each other’s eyes.
If she is thinking about the time he assaulted her, it doesn’t show.
As he sits on a cot covered with clean, threadbare blankets in this well-lighted refuge that Lowery helped to create, Stolp says what he’s thinking:
“I trust you, Mollie.”
And trust isn’t easy for someone like Stolp, who sometimes puts more faith in the voices in his head than those spoken by human lips. That becomes particularly problematic when he hits the road, as Lowery gently reminds him.
Not that she is immune to the call of the wild.
Truth be told, Lowery had hoped to be living now on her own 47-acre swatch of paradise, preparing for what she calls her “third major production"--leading llama packing tours into the electroshock beauty of the Eastern Sierra.
Plans changed, though. Her highly touted programs for homeless people with mental illness--LAMP, LAMP Village and LAMP Lodge--still need her. The merry band of activists who have sworn allegiance to her unusual vision still struggle to make it their own.
So, for now, Lowery still hikes among the Skid Row sanctuaries, through streets decorated with graffiti and razor wire, where pandemonium hammers the ears and the smell of urine hits high in the sinuses.
For now, she remains cheerful in her self-imposed limbo.
As they sit in this remote meadow, a six-hour drive from L.A., it’s easy to envision the scenes Lowery and Virginia Orenos paint of their adventures in the mountains behind them: hauling backpacks into bear-scarred trees, fording swollen rivers with climbing ropes, crossing High Sierra passes where lungs grasp for wisps of oxygen.
When they pause between stories, return to their tuna sandwiches, Witcher Creek chuckles . . . a scrub jay squawks . . . the aroma of sun-baked pine duff mixes with the tranquilizing scent of sage.
They have hiked out to this secret spot on a Saturday morning, on one of Lowery’s rare escapes from the city. Now, on the three-mile stroll back to “the property,” Lowery’s long legs promptly haul her into the lead.
After 18 years as Lowery’s backpacking partner and frequent accomplice in altruism, Orenos says she is used to scrambling to keep pace.
She recalls, for instance, the trip that planted the seed for Lowery’s latest project. One afternoon, the pair lay on the bank of Lake Sabrina, alone in the wilderness. Orenos dreamily offered: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a house near here?”
Orenos grins. “Two months later, Mollie called. She had returned and taken photographs of several properties. She said, ‘Want to go in on a place?’ ”
Orenos, a Guatemala-born special-education teacher, didn’t have the money, so Lowery used an inheritance to purchase a pink cinder-block house on 15 acres, on a gentle slope far below Sierra peaks and high above the Owens Valley. When an adjacent 32 acres came on the market, she and a friend managed to buy them, too. Then, characteristically, Lowery began cooking up plans to let others in on her good fortune.
Eastern Sierra locals put Lowery’s chances of realizing her latest vision--of getting the permits to raise llamas and to lead pack trips into the Sierra wilderness--at slim to none.
But none of them has seen what she does on Skid Row.
Paul Koegel, a Rand Corp. anthropologist, spent two years studying Downtown’s mentally ill population--the most difficult group for care-givers and policy-makers. Ditching his behavioral scientist’s reserve, Koegel confides: “I’m slightly in awe of Mollie.”
In 1989, after numerous squabbles and setbacks, Lowery and crew launched LAMP Village, a transitional housing facility for the homeless mentally ill. County supervisor Ed Edelman called it “a beacon in bleakness.”
At the opening ceremonies, Mayor Tom Bradley leaned to Lowery and said, “This is true grit.” Then, uncharacteristically, he gave her a big public hug.
Now, Bradley adds: “Her low-key approach sort of catches you off guard. But before you know it, she’s like a whirling dervish, getting things done, and you don’t know how it happened.”
Lowery was born Mollie Ellen Raddatz in August, 1945. A middle child amid six brothers and sisters, she grew up on the border of Panorama City and Van Nuys, in a stucco tract house on a pepper-tree-lined dirt road.
She attended Our Lady of Peace elementary school. But the weeks she and her siblings spent each summer at Bass Lake Sierra Camp, just outside Yosemite, had a disproportionate influence. Subsidized by wealthy great aunt Irene, the trips plunged Lowery into the outdoors.
The highlight of each summer, Lowery says, came at 3 a.m. on some clear morning, when counselors quietly roused volunteers and led them to the shore. In the pre-dawn chill, she and her fellow campers sloshed into the water. With canoes and rowboats keeping space, they swam several miles across the lake, stroking steadily as the sun came up over the trees.
Lowery also discovered backpacking at camp, but it was the horseback riding that would inspire the first major test of her resolve. Back in the Valley, she persuaded a neighborhood carpenter to help her build a stable, and by the time she was 12, she spent afternoons galloping up a nearby wash on Crackerjack, a palomino purchased with baby-sitting money.
In the late 1950s, though, exuberant self-confidence was not a girl’s best friend.
The girl’s mother, a nurse, was “strapped with seven kids and trying to make it all work,” Lowery says. Her father, a writer for television’s Ralph Edwards Productions, and later TV Guide, watched his daughter blossom with concern. “I stood out in a crowd,” Lowery says. “I was too tall and had buckteeth. My father didn’t think I was so pretty.”
As she hit adolescence, he figured he could ease his daughter out of her tomboy phase by sending her to the Carolyn Leonetti Modeling School in Hollywood. Even now, Lowery’s blue eyes moisten as she recalls that year of painful Saturday mornings.
Feelings were not something her family could discuss, she says. So, confronted with a society that seemed oddly intent on limiting a girl’s options, she set out “to find my own way to have my own life.”
On the basketball court, on the softball field, at the volleyball net, her size served her well. Other girls admired her talent, and that respect helped Lowery as she matured into a campus leader and activist.
Immersing herself in books, she grew fascinated with novelist Ayn Rand’s rugged individualist heroes. But even as she devoured the cranky libertarian’s sermons on self-interest, Sister Constance and other teachers nurtured her compassion.
By graduation in 1963, Lowery thought she knew which path to take. She applied to the Carondelet religious order. The sisters rejected her. “They thought I was too independent,” Lowery says.
Shaken, she enrolled in the University of Portland, a Catholic school with little in the way of women’s athletics to bolster her confidence. Friendships failed to materialize. Dating tormented. “That year was the most disheartening in my life,” she says. “I was physically long. Awkward. I could have been real damaged.”
She saved herself by drawing on those long dawn swims and basketball practices. “I had learned at some point that pain is part of achievement,” she says. “If pain is something you feel shouldn’t be a part of your life, you’re not going to be a good athlete.”
That realization led to another: “At some juncture you decide whether you’re going to be a victim or a survivor.”
Decision made, Lowery returned to Los Angeles. For the next two summers, she directed summer camps. But she heard echoes of another calling.
When the Medical Missionary Sisters in Philadelphia accepted Lowery into their order, she figured she had found her way. She moved into a small room in the convent, where a steady flow of nuns--all doctors and nurses--congregated between assignments in Vietnam, Africa, the Philippines.
Inspired by such “incredible, dynamic women,” Lowery threw herself into a nun’s life: Pulling on her habit, she headed each day into Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods.
But after a year of social work and hard meditation, Lowery realized that she had become fixated on the train tracks running past her window. Fishing out a $20 bill she had hidden under her bed, she at last confronted her ambivalence.
“I didn’t like the facade,” she says. “Even in the barrio, everyone came to me as if there were a veil between us. I realized that I had always looked at nuns as somehow other than human. . . . Now people were looking at me the same way. I didn’t want to be separate from real life. “
The lanky young woman began testing a variety of trails, moving back and forth between Los Angeles and far-flung places, between individual accomplishment and a compelling need to connect.
She earned a psychology degree from USC; marched for civil rights in Mississippi; bicycled and hitchhiked across Europe; got typhoid; picked up a master’s in rehabilitation counseling from USC; went to work for the state; became disenchanted with the inability of “rigid bureaucracy” to nurture a person’s individual strengths.
In 1974, Lowery left her government job to begin what she calls, in the vernacular of her father’s trade, her “first major production”: working with homeless people at the nonprofit Ocean Park Community Center in Santa Monica. Over the next few years, she and like-minded activists created a patchwork of programs to help people get a grip on life. But Lowery saw that one group frustrated even the best care-givers: the estimated 45,000 people with mental or emotional illness, whom budget cuts, and new laws, had sprung from state institutions.
As her dedication to the city’s homeless intensified, she found balance in backpacking. On a Sierra Club trip to Olympic National Forest in Washington, she met Chuck Lowery, a computer programmer. They fell in love.
When their marriage ended amiably a few years later, Mollie Lowery was drawn closer to the activists who had clustered around Ocean Park Center. Ariana Manov, a radical feminist who looks like everyone’s favorite aunt, stood out among them. Fat and unapologetic, Manov put subtle twists on Lowery’s non-judgmental approach to activism, reinforcing her belief that social change accelerates when individual differences are openly acknowledged and embraced, Lowery says.
Lowery and Manov chipped in and bought a small stucco house in Venice. They shared it with Manov’s mother, who slowly lost her mind to an Alzheimer’s-like illness, before her death a few years back. Lowery’s domestic life began to assume shape: a garden bloomed; a big mutt moved in, to be joined by a lop-eared rabbit, two cats and four doves.
Still, Lowery wasn’t sure she’d found her path. When her aspirations to be a doctor rekindled, she spent a year in a Guadalajara medical school. That wasn’t quite it.
She photographed refugees and villagers in Central America. She managed the eclectically left-leaning radio station KPFK-FM.
Again: “I missed reality,” Lowery says.
Along the way, Frank Rice, now the publisher of the San Marino Tribune, had floated the idea of starting a shelter for the mentally ill men flooding into Los Angeles’ Skid Row. So, in 1985, Lowery became executive director of Los Angeles Men’s Place--LAMP.
Her dilemma, she says: “How do you operate a ‘nuthouse’ without creating stigma?”
A pleasant man, with a deep voice that’s all business, Billy “Blade” sits by the door of LAMP’s drop-in center, answering the phone and keeping an eye on the folks who wander in.
Before the center opened, he had slept in the old Brew 102 factory, in parking structures or at construction sites. On the day he showed up at LAMP, he refused to speak. “I was in street survival mode,” he says.
But when a LAMP employee pointed to a cardboard box and told him to check any weapons, Blade complied. Bending forward, he drew a dagger from his right boot and set it in the box, he says. Then he deposited the dagger stashed in his left boot. He reached into his baggy coat and pulled a large “butterfly” sword from a holster. He fished out the nunchakus in his waistband and pulled razor-sharp throwing stars from a vest pocket. Out came spikes and pocket knives and an array of smaller blades.
When he had finished frisking himself, Blade says, the box brimmed with weaponry.
Once inside LAMP, his paranoia began to subside. With mental illness dating back to childhood, and only a seventh-grade education, Blade had been told not to expect much from life, that he would never be more than a dishwasher.
Even then, though, “I didn’t want to go by what they said.”
Just the sort of person Lowery was looking for.
For the past seven years, Blade has worked 39 hours a week as the drop-in center’s receptionist.
Under Lowery’s guidance, LAMP--which soon expanded its services to women--tapped into city and county funding and grew. In 1988, LAMP Village, a 30,000-square-foot transitional living center, opened in a remodeled, city-owned warehouse in the heart of Skid Row.
By now, Lowery and the staff knew their path.
The Village added art, creative writing and drug recovery workshops. It added a clean market with reasonably priced food, and an orderly coin self-service laundry in the building bustles with street people washing what is often their only set of clothes.
The staff also launched a commercial laundry that washes the bedding for most of Skid Row’s SRO hotels, adding jobs for more of the 300 people who make use of LAMP services each day.
As she walks through the Village, Lowery points to the man who supervises its 35-cent public showers. He used to stand on street corners wildly flailing at the giant cockroaches he saw falling from the sky. Now, he is employed by LAMP.
“He still swats the roaches. But he’s also a productive member of the LAMP community,” Lowery says.
LAMP was trying, in effect, to create the antithesis of the repressive, dehumanizing institution in Ken Kesey’s classic novel, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” But the people who blow into the gritty corners of Los Angeles’ Skid Row tend not to resemble the lovable loonies Kesey romanticized. Most of the folks who find their way to LAMP, Lowery says, represent at least a couple of the problems that often leave society impotent with rage and frustration: chronic mental illness, drug addiction, alcoholism and serious disease--increasingly, AIDS.
“Guests have to make a decision to leave the streets behind,” Lowery says. “Most LAMP guests come from dysfunctional families. They have no sense of permanency or friendships. The things we rely on for stability in our lives? With the first symptoms of mental illness, all of that went away.”
There is no undercurrent of euphemism in Lowery’s voice when she refers to guests and staff--and herself--as the “LAMP community,” or “the LAMP family.”
The Village patio, just outside the main dining room, offers two views of the city. In one direction, the logo-riddled corporate skyline sparkles in the smoggy light. On the other side, just beyond the wrought-iron gate, an encampment of cardboard and blue plastic lean-tos clutter a sidewalk smeared with odoriferous stains. As a scratchy boom box blares, a shirtless man dances a wobbly hula. A woman sucks vapors from a tiny pipe. People with the fogged eyes of dead deer howl and yelp.
Inside the spick-and-span Village, that chaos fades away. Near the open-beamed sleeping areas, one wall has become a gallery of artwork by and photos of LAMP guests. The several dozen color portraits reflect an unsettling spectrum of emotions, from the subdued rage of a man who has hiked up his shirt to reveal the grotesque scars of a street stabbing, to men and women whose eyes suggest they have edged tenuously toward . . . (the concept is so complicated) . . . happiness ?
It was Lowery who captured those souls.
“When you look in Mollie’s face,” says Alice Seebach, an attorney with White & Case law firm and the chair of LAMP’s board of directors, “you can see that she has absorbed the grief of the people she treats. In the business she’s in, you can either put up a shield so the unhappiness doesn’t touch you, or you can be open to it and absorb it yourself.
“What makes Mollie so interesting is that she has absorbed it, and . . . how can I say this . . . she has grown strong from it.”
Says Rand researcher Koegel: “She has this ability to see through all the fluff surrounding a person and to cut right to what lies at the heart of that person. . . . Mollie has the ability to see that mental illness is one characteristic of an individual, the same as eye color or hair color. She can see the person’s intelligence, humor--all the human qualities that exist there. People respond to her in a special way because of that.”
“Mollie is smart, strong, capable, a visionary,” Seebach says. “She could have been the captain of any industry she wanted. She chose a different path.”
It is the Thursday staff meeting at LAMP Lodge, and Lowery scrunches down in a folding chair lest her physical stature unbalance the gathering’s egalitarian ideal.
LAMP philosophy dictates a diverse staff, and so it is here, as two African Americans, a white woman with professional credentials and a Latino--a former guest--sit in the office of LAMP’s apartment complex, discussing the lives of the current guests--those who have made it off the streets and through the drop-in center and Village.
There’s plenty of good news. Staff member Carl Stanard has helped the guests start four new clubs: The video club will collect movies to rent; the cooking club will offer classes and gourmet potlucks; the discovery club will attend concerts and plays, and the explorer club is hammering out the details for an autumn trip to the Grand Canyon.
On the serious side, the complement of medications most of the guests take is always a concern. Lowery offers expert guidance to important clues. In her years on the Row, she has developed an uncanny talent for mimicking the medicated. With her voice picking up steam or slipping into a slur, her face growing taut or slack, she imitates how guests respond as chemical layers goose or fetter their personality.
As the staff talks, Stolp, an off-and-on Lodge resident for several years, paces the hallway outside. Catching a glimpse, a staff member mentions that Stolp seems agitated lately. His voices are getting more insistent.
Lowery has lots of experience with those voices. Three years ago, she stopped by to talk to him about the theft of his radio. She told him that the loss upset her, too.
“But you left it on the table, and to do that here is a mistake,” she told him. Stolp’s voices, at that moment, were in a frenzy. “He heard my comment as entering this whole sound system in his head, this cacophony saying what a sinful, horrible person he is. . . .”
Stolp grabbed Lowery and violently shook her.
She remained calm, she says. Other guests and staff heard the commotion and intervened.
“He left right after that,” Lowery says.
He later apologized, and LAMP invited him to return as soon as he was ready.
Stolp’s room at LAMP Lodge is clean and airy. His shelf is filled with books on Vincent Van Gogh and great composers, and classical music tapes. He is clearly a man who thinks a lot--particularly about the nature of intellect and its relation to accomplishment.
“Albert Einstein,” Stolp says, “made the statement, ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge.’ Mollie is a person of tremendous imagination. She can envision things and make them come to pass. . . .”
The demons that sometimes torment Stolp have retreated into some deep fissure. As he talks, his eyes are clear. His voice firm. “Mollie has so little to work with, and she uses it so well,” he says. “If you were going to write her biography, you’d call it ‘The Intuitive Genius of Mollie Lowery.”
Stolp’s view of the city is darkening, though. Heaps of books about angels cover his kitchen table. His walls display hand-scrawled messages and verses to hold the bad angels at bay.
Even when Stolp knows that his angels are hallucinations, another inferno remains.
“You know where we’re at, Brother?” he’ll ask. “This is Skid Row. The minute you step out that door you encounter murderers, robbers, rapists, drug abusers. . . .
“That’s why I go to Maine. When I come back to L.A., I get all sad again. It would kill me with sadness if I had to live here for too long.”
Highway 395 heads out of Bishop and climbs slowly into the hills, carrying an endless exodus of Angelenos in ski-laden Ford Explorers, Suburbans topped with mountain bikes and BMW’s toting fly rods.
From the lowlands, the lights high on the flank of the Sierra are faint and mysterious.
From Lowery’s property along Wheeler Crest, the string of headlights below is dimmer than the Big Dipper overhead.
It’s Saturday night and, in a rare escape from the city, members of the LAMP family have gathered around a fire to feast on heaps of barbecued chicken, boiled shrimp in garlic butter, salads, beans, rice.
Paul Gonzales, a Salvadoran carpenter and Jack-of-all-trades at LAMP, plays guitar and sings folk songs from Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala, accompanied now and then by his wife and 6-year-old daughter. LAMP Assistant Director Edna Williams, originally from St. Kitts, pounds a conga drum, and Orenos and Manov--who, among myriad other tasks, now co-hosts the “morning magazine” show at KPFK-FM--shake African rattles and sing along.
The next day, as the crew packs up the motor home for the drive back, a snow squall blows out of the Sierra. Lowery retreats to the house. With her renters’ gremlin-like Chihuahua shivering inside her down vest, she takes a moment to wax reflective about her tug of war.
Lowery thrives on Los Angeles’ cultural and ethnic diversity, on the reggae and African concerts, the agitprop plays, she says. But there’s that other path.
“In a way, backpacking, coming to the mountains as I do, has been a way of rekindling over the years. The city wears me out. I enjoy my work, but I don’t like the rush, rush, rush, the alienation from nature. I don’t have all the answers. But I don’t want to live out my whole life without this really important part of me being explored,” she says.
Beyond that, though, she believes other LAMP family members--including those who feel stuck in an urban inferno, imagined or real--might also get something out of seeing a wilderness waterfall or watching deer leap a creek.
Lowery would never compare LAMP guests or staff to children, she says. But she does get a parent’s satisfaction from their growth. “It’s the same kind of thing, watching that life force come, watching people explore and try new things.”
As she talks, members of Lowery’s unlikely guerrilla band storm in laughing and chattering to wash the last few dishes.
“Ready to head back?” someone asks.
Lowery snaps her answer: “Hell no!”
Three-hundred miles away, across the desert and over the mountains, you can almost hear Los Angeles’ bad angels scurrying out to celebrate.
Then Lowery sighs, smiles, and adds: “But I will.”
Mollie Raddatz Lowery Age: 48.
Native: Yes; lives primarily in Venice.
Passions: Helping mentally ill homeless people.
Immediate Family: Divorced; no children.
Extended Family: Supporters, staff and guests of the homeless centers she oversees.
Interests: Backpacking, photography.
On being turned down on her first application to become a nun: “They thought I was too independent.”
On deciding to quit medical school, among other pursuits: “I missed reality.”
On creating a community for mentally ill homeless people: “They have no sense of permanency or friendships. The things we rely on for stability in our lives? With the first symptoms of mental illness, all of that went away.”
On establishing a mountain retreat: “The city wears me out. . . . I don’t like the rush, rush, rush, the alienation from nature.”