Days of triple digit temperatures are no time to put on a bulletproof vest, but that’s exactly what I was instructed to do by the detective.
The detective was wearing a windbreaker and slacks in weather not even being completely naked would make comfortable. Not only was he sweating from the heat, but also from a strange nervousness. I’ve worked with this detective before, so I could tell something was off. The heat combined with the task at hand was not making me happy. A few minutes after putting on my vest, sweat ran down my back and soon it appeared as though I had lost control over my bowels. Now, I’m cranky.
The job was to photograph a body in an alley located in the heart of East Los Angeles. This is the part of town where no one raves about living in the City of the Angels. At the time, the population of Southern California had quickly grown with migrant workers who lived in overcrowded conditions. So many of the homeless were a product of a lack of floor space anywhere. There had been quite a number of people dying where they slept.
It was obvious that this particular body had been moved. The detective informed me the body had come from a nearby building packed with vagrants, and that they would have to secure it before we could proceed. Now I understood why he appeared nervous. Police presence was growing rapidly and squad cars were coming in from neighboring areas to secure the scene and make it safe.
Two hours passed before I was finally able to begin. I left my vest in the truck, which had become relatively comfortable with the AC running at full blast. The coroner had been called and we started in the building. I only took photographs of the lower floor. The building was located on a corner and the body was placed in an alley behind a parking lot.
The lower floor was decorated with over-used furniture and a makeshift chapel that could be quickly folded away to allow shoulder-to-shoulder sleeping along the concrete floor. The smell of disinfectant and old urine was nearly strong enough for me to use my mask. The kitchen contained three refrigerators and a stove that I assumed to be in some working condition. I had to admit, my garage was cleaner.
The occupants were asked to line up against a wall under the bright sunlight. They were going to be photographed for ID purposes. From the looks of discomfort on their faces, it appeared as though the sunlight was killing them. There was only one woman amongst the handful of men. I allowed her a moment to smooth out her hair and work up the best smile she could. I could feel the tension slowly melting around me.
The coroner arrived and I completed my overalls. I took shots up to a partially rolled-up carpet in an upright position against a chain link fence and utility pole. A thin man with no shirt had been wrapped inside of it. I could see that his body was malnourished. Sometimes with alcohol as the main source of calories, the body will rob muscle and bone tissue for nutrients. His head rested peacefully against his clasped hands. He looked as though he were in the middle of prayer when suddenly he was called home to heaven.
Along with the carpet, his story began to unfold. He had been a drug counselor who made the decision to stay and work in the place that saved his own life. Rescuing similarly situated individuals became somewhat of a calling for him. When he died, the residents became nervous and took him outside. With as much dignity and respect as they could muster, they placed him in such a way that forever memorialized him as the angel in the alley.