Making the Best out of Bad

Michael Reed, 49, sounds like a lot of Southern California boys who grew up at the water's edge, or within ditching distance of it, in the post-Beach Boys golden era of surf. Michael cheerily admits that he ditched a lot as a student at Lennox High, often to hang ten down at Manhattan or Hermosa. He is wiry, upbeat, and partial to t-shirts and tennis shoes; he peppers his speech with words like "dude" and "duh" and "awesome." He loves to rock out to Led Zeppelin, his favorite band. He rides a bike.

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Michael could be one of any number of charmingly boyish, mostly blond locals who epitomize SoCal phenomena of youth wearing well. He is that, but he's different. For one thing, Michael is black. For another, until very recently, he was homeless. The timing couldn't have been better. Just as the economy was heading over a cliff, Michael managed to get a rental space for a trailer that somebody had donated to him months ago, but he had no place to put. He now has an address in a trailer park in Carson, a setup I assumed would be squalid and desperate, but is actually quite neighborly and nice. I visited over the weekend and stayed a while, stretching out on a small lawn. There are plastic bags stashed underneath trailer wheels, but there are also gardens and bird feeders and wind chimes, and Michael himself has a little patio set right outside his door. The park feels like a pioneer camp that houses the hardiest but most idealistic of folks, people who can't or won't live by society's rules.

That's where Michael's beach-bred sunniness comes in handy. He lives in the trailer park with his Topaz, a golden-colored pit bull who lost her right hind leg to a bullet wound inflicted by the Inglewood police last year. Topaz has other scars from other bullet wounds sustained during a shootout that took the life of another homeless man; she and Michael simply got in the way. That was one of several highly questionable shootings by Inglewood police of unarmed citizens, and in all the furor that followed it, the story of Michael Reed and Topaz was more or less lost. Since last fall, Michael's filed a claim twice with the city of Inglewood to get some sort of compensation for his damaged goods--that would be Topaz--but so far, no luck. Neither Michael nor Topaz, who was homeless herself until Michael adopted her six years ago, are voters that politicians or public officials worry about keeping happy.

Michael's not down about it, just frustrated in a can-you-believe-it kind of way. He rolls his eyes. He professes to have never had any faith in the system. But he is worried for Topaz, who can't get around like she used to. Her remaining hind leg is under a lot of strain. She's developed a mysterious sore around her amputation and needs to see a vet regularly, but Michael can't afford it. Yet Topaz is a gentle giant of a dog, as tough and implacable as her owner. On the day I visited, she lay on her side on the rough lawn in the shade cast by a neighboring trailer, as content as if she were on the Riviera. Nothing quite like California life, indeed.

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