They gathered in a back room of the Midnight Mission, looking for all the world like successful businessmen. There were 10 of them seated around a table, some in coats and ties, others in open-collared shirts. Each told a story of self-destruction, survival and redemption, and their narratives were hymns of salvation.
These are guys who climbed out of gutters of despair after years of addiction to drugs and alcohol. They were there that night to thank the man who helped them do it. His name is Clancy Imislund. To a man, they said they owed him their lives. Some said it with tears in their eyes.
The Midnight Mission is a downtown gathering point for those who've given up on themselves. They cluster like cattle around its doorway, waiting for food in the daytime and hoping for beds at night. Food they get, but there aren't enough beds for everyone, so they set up tents across the street or just lie on the sidewalk, too removed from humanity to connect with the world around them.
The 10 who gathered for dinner in the back room had been among them once, including Clancy, the canny old lion of skid row. He was a family man and an advertising executive before booze drove him into a hazy kind of hell. He came to the mission to save himself and ended up as its managing director for more than 25 years.
Semiretired at 75, he's emeritus now but remains the undisputed voice of L.A.'s down and out, bringing energy and tough love to the dark side of the city.
Clancy hosted the dinner, obviously proud of those he helped to reclaim their dignity. Quick smiles passed over his craggy face as he listened to the stories the men told. They were Thomas, Gregg, Larry, Vince, Paul, Mark, Angelo, Jeff, Orlando, Harvey. No last names, please. It was all too personal and sometimes too painful to share.
Orlando graduated from Stanford with a degree in marketing. He worked hard and partied hard, but though work ended, the party went on. Booze and crack drove him down to the row, where he awoke one morning sprawled in a doorway with a rat gnawing at his arm.
Vince graduated from Cornell with a degree in biochemistry. He discovered alcohol in high school and drugs when he worked in a hospital emergency room. Addiction cost him his future and almost his life. "I was a loser," he said. "Clancy made me face myself." He's been sober for 20 years.
At 33, Gregg was the youngest there. He began drinking as a teenager and his parents disowned him. His high school graduation present was a set of luggage. The message was clear, so he left Cleveland for L.A., looking for tomorrow. Drugs and alcohol. The old story. Clancy threw him out of the mission once. He had to help himself, the old lion said. He did, and he's been sober since 1993.
Some came from alcoholic families. Some did time. Thomas was wanted for the sale, possession and use of drugs. Clancy talked him into turning himself in. He was granted probation and straightened himself out at the mission. Now he's a corporate vice president of a private banking firm.
In many ways, the mission represented a last chance for all of them. Clancy taught them to look at themselves, to ask for help, to take hold of their lives.
He knew what dark shadows they were walking through, because he'd walked through them and had lost everything. It took five years of sobriety to get his family back.
"You have to develop coping skills to deal with addiction," one man said, tears filling his eyes, "and Clancy gave me those skills." Another called him "the patron saint of hopeless men." Others: "Clancy saw something good in me." "This place changed my life." "No one else wanted me until I came here."
I kept thinking as I listened, why them? Why do some rise to great heights and others sink to such terrible depths? What does it take, what kind of insight or raw determination, to rise again? Who wins? Who loses?
There aren't too many standing ovations on Skid Row, but if there were, Clancy would sure get one. After dinner, I watched as he walked shirt-sleeved and self-assured past the men still out there, still not ready to save themselves.
There was a kind of animal royalty about the way he walked and held his head and seemed unafraid amid the darkness that surrounded him. It didn't take long for anyone to realize that a lion was in the street.
Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He's at email@example.com.