Seth Tom Davis realized how serious the coronavirus outbreak was when he went to buy lunch at the Earl of Sandwich at the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX.
He sat down and laid his jacket on the seat beside him. Poppy, his seizure-alert dog, jumped up and made herself comfortable. Then the Jack Russell terrier-Dalmatian mix sneezed a very big sneeze for a very little dog. The woman beside him, Davis said, “freaked out.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom had yet to order Californians to stay at home in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus. People were still going to work and traveling. The airport was still bustling; the grocery stores, more or less stocked. But “people got really scared,” the 30-year-old said. “They were scared of my dog. They were afraid because she sneezed.”
Davis and Poppy have had a rare view of the pandemic’s impact on Southern California air travel. They had been living in Terminal 6 at Los Angeles International Airport since Christmas Eve, when Davis fell asleep during a long layover between Seattle and his home in North Dakota.
Davis had been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome and epilepsy. He had been in foster care or adult protective services for most of his three decades. He survived on Social Security and food stamps. As Christmas Eve turned into Christmas Day, his wallet was stolen. Then his identity was hijacked and his bank account plundered.
What was already a precarious life began to spin out of control.
Davis and Poppy were not sick, yet the coronavirus hit them hard. The agencies that could help them, he said, had been mostly overwhelmed or closed in recent weeks. On Tuesday evening he had $5 and change. Poppy was out of dog food.
They were homeless and alone.
“I have to find a way to pay for her food,” Davis said. “I have to plan things out.”
He sat on the floor of Terminal 6, legs crossed, Poppy on his lap, his arms wrapped around her slight frame. The black swans tattooed on the backs of his hands peeked out from his plaid jacket sleeves.
“I don’t know what to do.”
On a normal day in Terminal 6 — that is, of course, if being stranded for three months in the world’s fourth-busiest airport is the norm — Davis rose from his makeshift bed at around 8 a.m. He slept beside a tall metal pillar on the ticketing level between Alaska and United airlines.
Davis wasn’t the only person who called LAX home. He had become friendly with Paul Conley, 35, who generally slept a pillar or two away. They watched each others’ bags and backs. Conley said he had slept at the airport for about eight months. He was not inclined to discuss his circumstances further.
The noise was a constant, even with stay-at-home orders meant to halt the virus’s spread imposed in more than half of U.S. states. Arrival and departure boards were lit up with canceled flights. Airline and airport workers appeared to outnumber travelers. Yet machines still whirred, cell phones buzzed, and announcements rang out over the public address systems.
“Smoking is permitted in designated areas only.” “Please take a moment to ensure that the bag you claim is yours.” “Hello, this is Allison Janney,” boomed the Oscar-winner’s recorded voice. “I want to be the first to welcome you to LAX and the city of Los Angeles.”
A new message had been added to the din, instructing travelers how to sneeze without infecting others, how to wash their hands and avoid touching their faces, how to keep their distance. No hugs, no handshakes. Davis called this message “the long one.” It interrupted conversation and sleep. It warned that “we all have a responsibility to reduce the spread of germs.”
The first thing Davis did upon waking was head to the nearby restroom to brush his teeth and wash his hair. Hygiene is important, he said: “I don’t like to look bad or smell bad.” When he had money, he and Poppy took the shuttle to the airport employee parking lot and walked to the nearby Ralphs supermarket. He’d buy ramen. It was cheap, and the baristas at Starbucks gave him hot water for free.
Many days, he and Poppy also headed to the Westchester Family YMCA. He’d shower there, maybe wash some clothes in the sink and put them through the swimsuit dryer. But then Mayor Eric Garcetti on March 15 ordered all bars, nightclubs, gyms and other Los Angeles venues closed. No more showers.
That same week, President Trump announced he was suspending all travel from Europe to the U.S. for 30 days beginning March 13.
“In the beginning, it didn’t empty out so much” at the airport, Davis said. “That was later on … In the beginning, it was panic to get back home. Now you can’t get back home.”
The creased yellow police report was painfully spare. “Report of: Theft —Petty. Victim: Davis, Seth Tom. Occupation: Unemployed. Type of Property Stolen/Lost/Damaged: Headphone, Wallet, U.S. Currency. Stolen/Lost: $450. Recovered: 0.”
There was a mistake on the terse form, which the investigating officer filled out at the airport at 3:40 a.m. on Christmas Day. The officer checked the box next to “no serious injury to victim.”
By reporting the crime to police, Davis missed his flight back to North Dakota, and he could not afford to pay for the next one. He was supposed to fly to Fargo, then take the bus to Jamestown, population 15,226 , where he lived in a two-story house with rent subsidized by the federal Section 8 program.
Section 8 housing is hard to come by. Davis’ North Dakota lease was up on Jan. 1. The only reason he was living in the Peace Garden State, he said, was because he could afford it. His family was not there. He was adopted at birth. His adoptive parents divorced when he was 6 or 7.
His adoptive mother died in 2016 in Aurora, Colo., where he spent much of his life. His adoptive father, he said, molested him when he was a child. They are estranged, although Davis receives some Social Security benefits through him.
“Because I never came back home, I lost my [Section 8] voucher,” he said. He also lost everything in that cozy North Dakota house, which he’d filled with thrift-store furniture and books. “I didn’t do anything wrong. All I have to do is reassign to a new voucher wherever I’m at.”
But California is expensive. Vouchers do not often cover housing costs. Cheap rent is hard to find. “So I can’t afford it,” he said.
Because of his epilepsy, Davis said, he has trouble remembering things. So he’d written his bank account PIN on a sticky note. It was in the bag that was stolen, along with his wallet. The thief used Davis’ ATM card twice in February, according to the claim form he filed with Current bank.
The $353.21 in charges made by the person who stole his wallet wiped Davis out. The bank, Davis said, refused to refund the money, even though he filled out the proper forms in the proper time frame and attached a copy of his police report. Then the bank closed his account, which is where his Social Security checks are deposited.
A spokesperson for Current bank, Erin Bruehl, declined via email to comment on Davis’ case.
The thief, Davis said, also used his identification to waylay his Social Security payments for three months. Before the world was shut down, Davis took the bus to a Social Security office in Norwalk to try to straighten the debacle out. Now federal offices are closed because of the pandemic. He had been working online and via phone to get things resolved.
A January letter from the Social Security Administration described his situation this way:
“Claimant has just moved back to California and is in dire need. He has no money due to financial institution issues.”
Davis had been counting on getting his lost money back from Current bank. He’d found a long-term-stay motel in Albuquerque, where he thought he could find Section 8 housing. He reserved a seat on an Amtrak train leaving Union Station on March 31. He had to pay for the ticket by Tuesday or lose it.
But on Tuesday, he got the bad news from Current. He wouldn’t get his money, so he couldn’t pay for the Albuquerque trip.
On Wednesday night, he and Poppy curled up yet again beside the pillar on the cold, hard airport floor. Poppy shivered. Davis hugged her, trying to keep her warm. He could not sleep.
He was down to a little more than a dollar.
Thursday his luck began to change. Some of his prayed-for Social Security money arrived in his new bank account: $334.04. It was the most money he’d had since his wallet was stolen three months earlier. A friend he’d made in adult protective services in Colorado called and invited him to stay.
So he bought the cheapest ticket he could find, $73.40 on Delta flight 2942 to Denver. The plane took off at 10:45 a.m.
On the day confirmed coronavirus cases in Los Angeles County reached 1,200, Davis and Poppy exchanged one kind of uncertainty for another.
“I made a promise when I got Poppy that I would protect her with my entire life,” Davis said on a darker day earlier in the week. “I just want her to be happy, more than anything in this world. I just want her to be OK.”
Maybe now, she will be.
Times staff photographer Francine Orr contributed to this story.