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Little Tokyo mourns a homeless man whose 'spirit would shine'

Little Tokyo mourns a homeless man whose 'spirit would shine'
Joseph Trotter and his dog, Cookie, were well-liked by employees at the federal public defender's office in Little Tokyo. (Family photo)

Michael Weinstein, a lawyer with the federal public defender's office, was working at home Dec. 18 when he got a call from a city animal shelter.

"They said, 'Mr. Weinstein, we have your dog here.'"

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Impossible, Weinstein told the caller. His two dogs, Hammy and Luz, were at his feet.

"They said, 'Well, we have this dog named Cookie here.'"

That's when Weinstein knew something must have happened to Cookie's owner, Joseph Trotter, who lived on the streets at the edge of skid row.

Trotter and Cookie, a dachshund mix, were fixtures outside the public defender's office in Little Tokyo, where Trotter chatted up anybody who came along. Trotter, who used a wheelchair and wore an eye patch, would ask attorneys how their trials were going, or he'd share pet stories with anyone who loved animals. Over the years, bonds formed, and Trotter's circle of friends brought him money, food or medicine when he needed something, though he didn't usually ask.

Weinstein noticed last fall that Cookie didn't have a name tag. He offered to have one made, in the event Cookie got lost or separated from her owner. Trotter agreed to have Weinstein's name and number on the tag, in case animal services couldn't get hold of Trotter.

The day Weinstein got the call, animal services didn't know anything about Trotter. A woman had dropped off Cookie, saying Trotter had gone to the hospital for some reason.

"I started to call hospitals to see if anyone had a record of Joseph being admitted, but no one did," Weinstein says.

Tiffany Trotter said she often visited her father, Joseph, offering help he always refused.
Tiffany Trotter said she often visited her father, Joseph, offering help he always refused. (Family photo)

One of the employees who knew Trotter best was Katrina Pereda, a legal secretary. She and Weinstein began searching for him along 3rd Street, where he had told them he lived.

"We went out on foot, and then I drove around probably about three times," said Pereda, but she found no trace of Trotter.

Weinstein circled back to the shelter and learned that Trotter had been taken to White Memorial Medical Center in Boyle Heights. He made a call, and a social worker delivered the tragic news.

Joseph Trotter had been admitted Dec. 16. He died the next day.

According to the coroner's office, Trotter was treated for severe abdominal pain caused by an incarcerated hernia. His death came two weeks short of his 67th birthday.

In mourning his passing, the staff at the public defender's office shared remembrances of Trotter. They didn't know much about how he had ended up homeless, but they saw him in broader terms, as a member of the Little Tokyo community and a man of great curiosity and humanity.

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"He loved to read, especially the Bible, and sometimes shared his books with people in our office," Pereda wrote in an email to office mates, recounting Trotter's concern for the seriously ill sister she had told him about. "When I came back to the office and he saw me, he jumped up and hugged me with tears in his eyes. He ... was so happy that my sister was alive and I was back. Someone who had his own worries and no home cared about me.... Kindness and love was what he wanted. And he gave that."

Trotter had occasionally bragged about a daughter, Tiffany, who went to Stanford and then graduate school in Chicago. After Trotter's death, the public defender's staff reached out to her in New York, where she's an administrator at a prestigious private school. Last Friday, Tiffany, her mother, and her mother's husband attended a tribute to Trotter at the defender's office.

"I can't go past that corner without thinking about him, and I wish I could have done much more for him," a tearful Loida Montemayor, an investigator, told the family.

Tiffany explained that her parents had split up when she was in middle school, and there had been gaps in her relationship with her father after that. But they wrote to each other in later years, and Tiffany visited him regularly, offering help he always refused. When her father got mugged and ended up with a smashed eye socket and difficulty walking, she gave him a cellphone so he could call if he ever needed help.

At Friday's gathering, the family filled in some blanks for Trotter's friends, and his friends did the same for the family. In the end, there was still only a partial sketch of who Joseph Donald Trotter was and why he was homeless. If mental health or substance abuse were factors, no one could say for sure.

Trotter had what was called "a presence" by Martha Scarborough, who works at the Catholic Worker Hospitality Kitchen on 6th Street, where Trotter used to go for lunch. "His spirit would shine," she said.

Trotter had once said, in an interview for a Catholic Worker story on homeless veterans, that he was stateside during Vietnam but still got a taste of war.

"They would fly all the body bags in from Okinawa," Trotter was quoted as saying, "and I would have to pick them up at the air field and drive them back to the base."

On the pavement where he lived on Crocker Street near Third, Trotter's wheelchair and other belongings were still bunched together under a blue tarp he used for cover. Vince Washington, who sleeps in the tent next door, said Trotter and Cookie slept together, often too tired to chase away the big rats that came around every night sniffing for food.

Joyce Lightbody, a rehab therapist in the neighborhood, happened to be parking her car near Trotter's stuff and told me she often chatted with him. They talked about music, art, basketball and books. She brought him a collection of Aldous Huxley essays, and he couldn't wait to tell her how much he enjoyed it.

Last month, Lightbody went to check on Trotter one night. He told her he was in terrible pain, and that he'd scheduled a hospital visit for the next morning, Dec. 16. She told him that if Cookie was left behind, she'd look after the dog.

It was Lightbody who took Cookie to the shelter. But it was Weinstein, at the public defender's office, who adopted her.

Weinstein said Cookie went through a period of adjustment after Trotter died but is now getting along well with his terrier mixes Hammy and Luz. Weinstein got a third bed, but one is empty every night because Luz and Cookie sleep together.

Twitter: @LATstevelopez

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