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
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
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.
"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
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.
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
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 1960s 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.
"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."
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
"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."