Saving lost souls on Skid Row with karaoke, coffee
Los Angeles — Darkness is falling on another long, depressing night in one of America's most marginal neighborhoods.
For the 200 or so battered souls lining up outside the aging street-corner edifice housing the Central City Community Church of the Nazarene, however, this one will seem neither quite as long nor as harsh as the others.
This is "Karaoke Night" on Skid Row.
There will be break dancing, waltzing, even an impromptu conga line, as people sing everything from country to rock to R&B. The music locks out the ugliness outside, where a misdirected look can launch a knife fight, where the streets reek of urine, where some 1,700 people lay their heads on dirty sidewalks every night to sleep.
"It's a little bit of a return to normalcy in an area that's just absolute chaos," says Andy Bates, who heads Skid Row's Union Rescue Mission and says he's seen the power of these weekly songfests to bring joy and even change lives.
"People kind of lose themselves in that moment and get to display their talents," he says.
As a crowd gathers outside, the graying, bearded, ponytailed Pastor Tony Stallworth breaks into a soulful sound-check version of the pop-gospel song, "I Love You With My Life." The crowd outside can hardly contain itself. Pounding rattles the front door as Ronnie Shepherd, aka Sidewalk Slim the doorman, declares: "It's almost show time!"
Minutes later, Shepherd is greeting a rumpled mass of humanity, including some people pushing shopping carts filled with belongings. As a startled rat escapes under a side door, they make a beeline to "Cowboy" Jonathon Brown's songbook, where they'll pick their tunes for the night.
Then for the next three hours, they'll rock the joint.
Some of the singers, of course, are profoundly awful: They croak off key, lose the beat, stumble over the lyrics.
Then there's that handful who leave the audience shaking its collective head, wondering why they're not in a recording studio.
"I'm just a homeless person," one of them, James Walker, says modestly after wrapping up a stirring duet performance of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" with Joani Dahmen, a Washington State University senior spending her spring break volunteering at a homeless shelter.
"I live in a tent on the sidewalk just a couple blocks down the street," he volunteers, although he doesn't want to talk about how he got to a place teeming with drug addicts, prostitutes and the mentally ill.
Following him to the microphone is Patricia Turner, who earns a standing ovation for "All I Ask of You" from the musical "Phantom of the Opera."
She would like to pursue a singing career someday, but the 22-year-old struggles with a mild form of autism and is living in a welfare-subsidized apartment.
Cowboy, keeper of the song list, lives in another. He's been coming to Karaoke Night since Stallworth launched the first one 17 years ago. He was living in a tent near the door then and heard there was free coffee and snacks.
"Since I happen to like coffee, that got me in the door," says the laconic Cowboy, whose preference for 10-gallon hats, blue jeans and Jim Croce songs earned him his nickname.
For Stallworth, Wednesday's Karaoke Night was a natural for a minister with a booming voice. "When I came to the Lord back in 1989, I prayed and I told him I'd like to make my living singing," the church's senior pastor recalls.
"Of course I was referring to I'd like to be a recording artist," he adds, bursting into laughter at the realization God gave him a karaoke machine and a congregation instead.
About a year into it, he began to have his doubts. Was this about his own vanity? Or, worse, were people only showing up for the free coffee?
The next Karaoke Night a homeless man gave him $3 and told him: "I was on the way to the dope house one night when I heard the music and walked in, and now I come here every week, and I just want to help out."
"I just looked up in the sky and said, 'Thank you, Lord,'" Stallworth recalls.
And Karaoke Night continued.