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Not Enough Bread For Sandwiches

Los Angeles Times - June 11, 1993

by Aaron Curtiss, Times Staff Writer

It is the one thing Ray Castellani hoped never to say to the Skid Row bums he calls brothers: Goodby.

But after five years of feeding the forlorn and the forgotten, serving love with every egg salad sandwich, Castellani's Frontline Foundation is out of money and Castellani is damn near out of hope.

"I feel, I feel alone," said Castellani, himself a recovered alcoholic whose drinking and bad luck has landed him on Skid Row more than once in his 60 years. "I'm tired."

Tired of scratching from month to month for donations to keep his Van Nuys kitchen open. Tired of listening to big-budget charities poor-mouthing when he manages to provide hundreds of meals six days a week for less than $60,000 a year. Tired of hearing politicians preach the virtues of community activism and then not return his phone calls.

So after serving 350,000 meals to the addicts and the lunatics and the out of luck, Castellani plans to close Frontline some time this summer, to give away the foundation's stockpile of food to get on with his life.

"Win, lose or draw, we did our job," said the former film and television actor, who now hawks hot dogs on Ventura Boulevard to make ends meet. "The day I have to say goodby to the people of Skid Row, I . . . I will cry. I know I'm close to that."

Castellani figures his job is to feed people. Not to save their souls or to rehabilitate them. Just to make sure that when they fall asleep in some flophouse or on some urine-soaked sidewalk their bellies are full and they know somebody cares.

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"Somebody must be out there on those streets saying, 'Hey, man, I love you,' " Castellani said, trying to explain a mission that began more than five years ago when, on an impulse, he handed out 111 peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches on Skid Row. He's not sure what made him do it. God, maybe. Whatever it was, it burned strongly.

Since then, his organization has grown. He rents kitchen and office space in a Van Nuys industrial park and dozens of volunteers round up food, make sandwiches and truck the food downtown.

But success has been costly.

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Rent, utilities and the salary of Frontline's single paid employee combination bookkeeper, secretary and cook add up to $3,600 a month. The organization's bank account has dipped below $3,000. And Castellani refuses to scale back the number of meals he serves because food, all of which is donated, is not the problem. Money is.

In order to save money, Castellani disconnected the office phone and he refuses to buy essentials, such as paper towels or plastic forks, insisting that they be donated. "If there is a big pie out there, all I'm asking for is a few of the crumbs from around the edges," he said, hoisting a duffel bag full of sack lunches over his shoulder.

Castellani has overcome other seemingly insurmountable obstacles in his life. A cowboy actor in the 1950s and '60s, Castellani hit the bottle and once said he was so drunk he couldn't remember his lines or even what film he was shooting.

His life fell apart and he ended up living from day to day, sometimes on the streets until he sobered up in the late 1960’s and got a few bit acting parts. He drifted until he founded Frontline.

Then in 1990 his pickup truck and sometime home was stolen, prompting people from all over Southern California to call in with offers of donations, allowing him to expand the operation into a simple, but effective organization. 

Although he recently tried applying for a few grants, he ran his program with funds donated by individuals or businesses. He received no government assistance, nor did he hold sophisticated fundraisers. As he did on Skid Row, he relied on the personal touch, simply asking people for help. For a long time, they responded.

But Castellani sees no way out of his current mess. Donations have fallen off and social service agencies around Los Angeles - even those with staffs of fund-raisers - are feeling the pinch of the recession.

"With scarce resources, people are into their own survival now," said Maxene Johnston, director of the multi-service Weingart Center for the homeless on Skid Row. "The '90s are not going to be easy on anybody."

And tough times are especially tough on the men and women who depend on charity to eat from day to day.

Maneuvering his 14-year-old Ford F-100 pickup through the crowded streets in the shadow of the downtown financial district's gleaming glass towers, Castellani was hailed on a recent morning by hundreds of men and women.

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"Hey, Ray!" they shouted. They smiled. He waved back. Many ran to the driver's side of the white truck to grab a sack lunch and a couple of cigarettes. Others just wanted to say hello, telling Castellani they had eaten that day and to save the lunch for someone else.

In the past Castellani used to stop his truck on a corner, setting up a sidewalk soup kitchen that attracted large crowds. Now, to keep traffic moving and, more important, to preserve the dignity of the hungry, he stops here and there to hand out individual sack lunches quickly without causing a commotion.

"The food he brings down is going to be missed," said 44-year old Big Red, whose body is covered with scars from blades and bullets that attest to a life of violence and anger. "But it's the intangible, it's the love he brings down. Somebody cares. He don't ask for nothing. You can't replace that."

Big Red, whose short temper has landed him in jail over and over, has nothing but kind words to say about the man who came to visit him in lockup and for whom, he said he would gladly lay down his life.

"He doesn't want to be praised for what he does," Big Red said, eating a strawberry ice cream Castellani had included in his lunch. "He doesn't want to be on a pedestal. He just wants to continue doing it."

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But in the loveless alleys of Skid Row, kindness often is read as weakness. And when Big Red returned to his crowd on Ceres Avenue, his attitude changed and a woman looked at him the wrong way. He slapped a woman out of her chair.

These are the people Castellani loves. They make him furious sometimes. Sometimes they make him cry. They, and so much else, have worn him out.

But still he comes. And will until the last penny is spent and loaf of bread is made into sandwiches. Then it will be over and Castellani insists he will come no more.

"I think the book will be closed," Castellani said, easing his truck into the sluggish traffic on the Hollywood Freeway. "I think it would be tragic to draw this out. I hope the relationship between and the society of Skid Row will be as fond a memory for them as it is for me."