A Bittersweet Season

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In Room 105 of the Dewey Hotel, Denise Williams struggled to string the window with flashing lights--a touch of Christmas vibrancy on the faded edge of skid row.

"I want a bike," said her 4-year-old, Dionedrick.

Williams shook her head. "Santa Claus run out of bikes."

Holiday magic goes only so far at the Dewey, one of the 65 low-rent hotels clustered in downtown Los Angeles. To many of the nearly 7,000 people living in cramped rooms in a district plagued by drug abuse and homelessness, Christmas is a time of emotional torment--wistful dreams, bittersweet memories and grinding hardships.

The few who put up trees, wreaths and lights are far outnumbered by those marking the season in less conspicuous ways: by praying, watching a holiday special on television, or pausing to count their modest blessings--if they do anything at all.

"For a lot of people it's a time of regret," said Alice Callaghan, a longtime homeless advocate who directs the Las Familias del Pueblo Community Center downtown. "It's at a time of the month when people don't have money. The $212 general relief checks are long gone. People are cold, hungry and lonely. It's not a happy time."

At the Dewey, a five-story walk-up on South Main Street, the Christmas spirit glows dimly for impoverished men and women who are fortunate enough to have a roof overhead--but not much else.

In the narrow lobby of the 82-year-old building, a plastic snowman glows atop the Coke machine, garlands hang on the walls and a decorated tree stands beside the sagging couch. But those touches inspire only a few of the cocaine addicts, prostitutes and blue-collar workers who come and go, renting some of the tiniest rooms in the city for $19 a night or about $400 a month.

"I'm like a child. I can't wait 'til Christmas comes," said Lathsia Hicks, 32, who stood out front in a scoop-neck mini-dress, eyeing the passing cars. "Christmas is love. Christmas is a time of loving, giving."

Hicks, whose six young children live with her parents in Compton, values the holiday's religious significance. She prays every day, she said. Out on the dangerous streets, she recites the 23rd Psalm: "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. . . ."

Her children are getting mostly practical gifts--clothes, books, a computer--but Hicks was planning to indulge herself this year with the one present she never got: an Easy-Bake oven.

"I said, 'I'm going to get that E-Z Bake oven, no matter what.' "

Most other residents of the Dewey are far less enthusiastic about Christmas.

"Humbug," said one man who hurried out.

Darryl, 34, an unemployed meat cutter and truck driver, talked about buying a $5 tree on the street and hauling it upstairs to Room 401, where his friend Wanda strung colored lights.

But Darryl, who declined to give his last name, said it made him sad.

"When I put up the tree," he said, "I wished I never got the Christmas spirit, because my family's not here, and I didn't get my kids what they wanted."

His three children--ages 5, 12 and 16--are living with their mothers, Darryl said. He rarely sees them.

"I call them, but don't tell them where I am," he said. "I'm drifting, trying to find myself. The longer you stay here, the harder it is to get away. I always say I'm going to be gone in a couple of days, but I'm still here."

The loneliness becomes much more intense during Christmas.

"It's the giving season, and you have nothing to give," said Mike Neely, whose Homeless Outreach Program helps counsel many of the thousands who spill out of the hotels and into the streets and missions. "It's the time you receive gifts, and there are no gifts."

Richard Jones, 40, who took up residence in the Dewey a month ago, gave a stuffed tiger last year to his 13-year-old daughter in South-Central. But Jones has not seen the girl since January, and this year he has bought her nothing in spite of the money he brings in unloading trucks. All his income goes to daily living expenses, he said.

"It's all economics . . . people trying to get that ultimate gift," Jones said. "I don't get caught up in the hype. That's what makes people go out and spend and get deeper in debt."

James Leever, 76, a retired Army medic who lives at the end of one of the Dewey's long, dim hallways, said his only plans for Christmas are to watch a holiday movie on TV and walk to Clifton's Cafeteria for dinner alone.

He has no family nearby, no close friends.

"Not too many come around me any more," Leever said, poking his head warily out his door.

One floor up, Freddie Milton Brooks Jr., 51, lay across his bed next to his 3-month-old grandson. A TV screen rolled with a fuzzy black-and-white movie. Brooks was thinking he would take the baby and board a bus for Inglewood for Christmas at his mother's house; every year, his four brothers, two sisters and various nieces and nephews meet there for a feast of ham, eggnog, pie--the works.

But Brooks feels ashamed to go. His brothers and sisters draw names and exchange gifts, and Brooks has nothing to bring. He lost his job as a gang counselor three years ago.

With wet eyes, he said it bothers him.

"I don't have nothing to wear," he said, "just what I have on"--faded jeans, a green T-shirt, a flannel shirt.

Brooks moved into the Dewey two weeks ago to help care for the baby, who is named after him--Freddie. The baby's mother is Denise Williams, the woman who hung Christmas lights in Room 105. She is a single mother raising five children, living on welfare--"not for long"--and taking classes in trade school to be a licensed vocational nurse.

Williams moved into the Dewey four months ago after a falling out with her mother, who lives a few miles away. Room 105 contains a mattress that lies flush on the painted wood floor, a stereo, a TV atop a small dresser, a plastic bin for dishes stashed under a small sink, two battered chairs and a standing lamp.

The older children range from 4 to 10 years old. Their crayon artwork--fashioned at a skid row day care center--decorates the walls. At night they play basketball out in the hall, using a small plastic ball and a hydraulic doorstop as a hoop.

Williams is determined to give them the best Christmas she can. Although there won't be any bikes, she has decorated well--the lights, plus a pair of glass vases sprouting pine branches and tinsel.

On a recent evening, she decided to go buy a tree--a plan that fell through when no one was able to give her a ride. Williams waited a while in the lobby, then went shopping instead, taking the two boys with her.

They roamed the darkening downtown streets, ducking in and out of toy stores. What the children wanted most was a Sega video game, and Williams had saved her money for months. She found the game at a cluttered electronics shop, but the manager quoted her a price of $99.

Williams said she could only afford $75. They haggled for a few minutes and Williams finally paid $80 for it. Her 10-year-old, Tyrone, happily carried the bag home.

Up in the room, she and the children spread out the presents, looking them over before Williams set them aside to wrap later. It was a modest haul--several dolls, toy race cars, hand puppets and the Sega game--but it was enough.

There would be smiles on Christmas morning at the Dewey.

"It's the best I can do," Williams said, looking tired. "We might not be as fortunate as other people, but we're doing OK."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The Beat

Here are three organizations that assist the needy in downtown Los Angeles:

* Homeless Outreach Program, 333 S. Central Ave., L.A. 90013 (213) 621-2800.

* Las Familias del Pueblo, 307 E. 7th St., L.A. 90014 (213) 614-1745.

* Los Angeles Catholic Worker, 632 N. Brittania St., L.A. 90033 (213) 267-8789.

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