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Disillusioned Point of Light Finds Himself Fading Fast

Daily News - April 22, 1993

By Dennis McCarthy

Dear Mr. Castellani,

Barbara joins me in wishing you every success as you continue

to set a fine example for your friends and neighbors. May Cod bless you.

Sincerely, George Bush

Aug. 28, 1992


   Tuesday, April 20, 1993, almost eight months later. Election day in Los Angeles.

    Ray Castellani sits on a folding chair in front of his Studio City hot dog stand. The letter from the former president is taped prominently on the front of his cart.

    "You ever see the movie 'The Hustler?' " Castellani asks, watching another traffic snarl on Ventura Boulevard set off a round of horn blowing.

    "Remember that last scene in the pool hall where Jackie Gleason, playing Minnesota Fats, slumps back into his chair and says to Paul Newman, 'I can't beat you, Fast Eddie'?

    "Well, that's where I am," Castellani says. "I can't beat the system. I'm tired, I'm sick, I'm frustrated and . . ."

    The 60-year-old founder of the Frontline Foundation, an organization of volunteers who feed people in L.A.'s Skid Row seven days a week, stops in midsentence, afraid of what he might say next.

    "Maybe it's not a good idea for you to talk to me right now," he finally says, slumping back in his chair - a mix of anger and resignation in his voice.

    When mayoral runoff candidates Michael Woo and Richard Riordan begin making the rounds in the coming weeks to press the flesh and talk to people about how to fix this city so it works for everybody, they'd be smart to make an unofficial stop at Ray Castellani's hot dog stand.

    Leave the TV news cameras behind. No press availability at this one. Just make it a couple of guys sitting down to a hot dog and some blunt talk.

    If the system is beating down guys like Castellani, we'd all better sit up and listen.

    This isn't the same, energetic man I met five years ago in the kitchen of an Encino church. Not even close.   

    Back then, Ray was a streetwise dreamer, surrounding himself with young, eager volunteers slapping together sandwiches and containers of stew to feed the street people of Skid Row.

    Ray had this crazy idea that he could garner the heart and soul of the Valley to help him feed the hungry downtown. He tapped everyone for a donation - regular people, civic organizations, city officials and corporations.

    Damn, if it didn't work. The guy became the Pied Piper of Skid Row. We bankrolled him with food and donations, and the Frontline Foundation hit L.A.'s most notorious ragged streets - its vans pulling curb side and setting up tables of food on Main street.

    From alleys and cardboard shanty camps they came - the hidden population, blinking from the lights of the TV news cameras - street people trying to express emotions they weren't used to feeling.

    Warmth, caring - even love for this guy from the Valley coming downtown to feed them - no preaching, no judgments, no questions asked. You hungry? Sit down.

    It was the kind of good news story the media couldn't get enough of. OK, so maybe we couldn't give these people a roof over their heads, but they weren't going to bed at night hungry in those cardboard shanty camps. At least that was something.

    What we didn't see was the constant behind-the-scenes struggle to keep the program alive. We didn't see Ray writing out a $7,000 check every year just for car insurance for those vans delivering food. We didn't see him writing out the checks for rent, utilities and food.

    The monthly nut came to almost $5,000. And every month there was Ray, hat in hand, talking to groups, city officials and corporate heads - begging them for donations to serve 6,500 meals a month.

    It worked - for five years. But things changed. The local economy headed south. The small donations from private individuals began drying up. They had their own families to worry about.

    Corporations and the city began tightening their own belts - cutting costs or shifting priorities to other, new causes.

    Ray still had all those mouths to feed down on Skid Row, but it was getting tougher and tougher to fill them with sandwiches and stew.

    Then the riots hit last year, and the focus of need in this city turned to South Central Los Angeles and other areas where years of frustration and anger from other forgotten people boiled over.

    The people of Skid Row didn't riot. They did what they always do - walked back down the alleys to their cardboard shanty camps. Got lost.

    Now, their Pied Piper sits on the corner of Laurel Canyon and Ventura boulevards on election day, selling hot dogs for a living to support his own family.

    Across town, in a small kitchen in a Van Nuys industrial center, a skeleton crew of volunteers, including Ray's wife, Noreen, tries to keep the Frontline Foundation alive without Ray's daily participation.

    They're down to peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches and a mishmash of canned goods mixed together to make a vegetable stew. A few vans still roll down to Skid Row, but it's day to day on how long.

    Ray Castellani's not in the vans anymore. He's out selling hot dogs.

    The only visible reminder of who he was and what he has done these past five years for the forgotten people down on Skid Row is that letter from an ex-president, taped to his cart - warmly congratulating Ray for his "outstanding record" of community service.

    "Efforts such as yours are evidence that these values remain firmly embedded in the American character," Bush wrote. Ray Castellani isn't so sure anymore.


Dennis McCarthy's column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday.