Interview with a Skid Row Gangster

Gangster Erwin Ross talking to PRISM about life in South Central, Los Angeles, heroin addiction and homelessness.

Words and Photography by Joshua Thaisen. Every Monday morning at 10am, street sweeping trucks roar up and down the gutters of Skid Row, while homeless people, who are being threatened with loitering citations by the LAPD, search for a new space of footpath for the next long, restless night. The four-square-mile district of Skid Row is ‘home’ to thousands of homeless and saturated with drugs and prostitution, creating a climate of sickness, hunger and violence. With a population nearing 20,000, the strain on community services and healthcare has created the largest humanitarian conflict zone in the developed world. The footpaths are furnished with used needles, broken crack pipes, loan sharks, and street gangs. Referred to by locals as a lawless “snake pit,” Skid Row is society’s comedown, with track marks that lead back to a great institutional failure of a nation neglecting its own people. Skid Row gangster Erwin Ross spoke with PRISM about life in South Central Los Angeles. Erwin is a well spoken, hard-edged elderly man, decorated with scars and stories from a hard life on the streets. Born in South Central Los Angeles, Erwin describes his life as a colorful adventure of risk-taking and hard lessons learned. At the age of fourteen, he was sentenced to four years in the State penitentiary for vandalism, depriving him of any formal education or career prospects. While in prison, Erwin’s masculine identity formed in an environment rewarded by violence, deception and drug-taking. Erwin developed what would become a twenty-two-year-long heroin addiction, keeping him bound to a vortex of crime, incarceration, and homelessness.

PRISM: Where were you born? How was your childhood and upbringing?

I was born in Los Angeles, California. I was raised in Watts, South Central. And you know, my childhood was good… it was good for living in the ghetto! I ran through the alleys, climbed trees, did everythin’ that a typical young person would do. In 1959, I went to Markham Jr. High, then I went to Jordan High. Got kicked outta there. Then I went to an all-boys’ school. My momma come got me ‘cause she didn’t want me in there. Went to another high school, got kicked outta there [laughs]. The last school I went to was Manual Arts. And from Manual Arts I went to the State Penitentiary. I was part of a group of guys that would just go around vandalizing, so they put us in youth authority for that. That was back in the early ‘60s. I stayed in there ‘till about ‘64. Round about the time I got out, it was during the riots, 1965 Wash-Summer riots. After that, a whole lotta’ programs came in: Central City Bricks, Bris Back Family Program. I been through all those drug programs and ah… I dunno… it didn’t do anything. At that time I liked what I was doin’ – at that time I was takin’ pills, ‘cause that’s what we did. I graduated from there to shooting heroin. I shot heroin for roughly twenty-two years. I quit in about 1979, somewhere up in there. I picked it back up again in ’95. One time I disagreed with it and haven’t shot up since. I spent that last twenty years in and outta the penitentiary. I get out, I go right back; I get out, I go back in; in and out. It was always because… they say, “If you doing the same thing, but expecting different results, you crazy!” And crazy I was. Me and the Devil… we was home boys. We ran together, you know? But he always seem to leave me…

Were you re-incarcerated for the same offences?

Yeah, same thing. Standin’ on the same spot, same corner – on San Julian in Skid Row. I get done, do four years, and go right back to that corner. I repeated that ‘til about 2012. I been out almost two years now. Basically it’s because I’m sick. People ask me when I’m gonna stop goin’ to the penitentiary. I tell ’em: ‘when I stop liking the drugs that I do’. I don’t believe in people wearing a brother down. People die all around ya. And ya can’t do this, can’t do that. That’s a crock! You do things because you like it. You drink because you like it. I do drugs because I like it. If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t do it.

What opportunities existed for you coming out of regular incarceration?

Opportunities? As I aged, not too many. But there was a gruel of em’ out there. There was all kinda’ help, but it was for younger people. I’m old, man… Man, I’m sixty-seven-years-old. When they started programs in South Central, you know? I was just over the age borderline.

Tell me about life on the streets of South Central. What do you have to worry about?

The next man getting your issue! And your money. When I was coming up I shot a lot of dice; liked to hustle. It started with a car. Back then you could go buy a car from the junkyard for fifty bucks and then all the parts you stole. Old cars, sitting up, doing nothin’. That’s how you started off when you were fifteen, sixteen-years-old. Then as you get older you either start sellin’ weed or takin’ people’s money, burglarizing, robbery. That can maintain you until you in your mid twenties, but then you gotta decide if you’re a player or a crook. I decided I was a player. So my thing was shoot dice and con people out of their money. That was my delight [laughs]. Like you, most of the fellas are real good; they play the game real good. So if you can look the part, you’re a good player. So they start naming you “player.” I’m gonna live a player’s life, I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do that. They just played you outta your money. Tricking people outta their money was one outta a trillion other things that we did.

How have the streets of Los Angeles changed over the years?

Okay, when I was first down Skid Row, they was like winos, people all over, drinkin’, sellin’ pills, weed, and stuff like that. That was in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. We used to go down there, shoot dice, and sell pills. I didn’t live down there ‘til way later. Then I spent a few years not going down there, period. But then after I got incarcerated I started going back down there. The transition came with the gangs in the ‘80s. The Crips and the Bloods start coming down there to sell drugs.


Do the Bloods and Crips still control the drug trade in Skid Row?

[laughs] Oh yea! They are still down there. Any youngster, that’s twenty and under, is a recognizable gang banger from some gang. You got ‘em all, and you even got them old, fifty, fifty-five-year-olds. But recognizable are the young ones, with their pants hangin’ down; recognizable, easy. Now, when I went back down there, the transition was I didn’t see winos that literally drank wine around the corner, or standin’ on the corner behind somethin’, drinkin’, layin’ out. You didn’t see that anymore. In the ‘80s, that’s when crack cocaine really hit LA. It changed it. It changed all that. The most money was been made for people down there. You could make a lot in the suburbs, but there was more business in Skid Row. People come from far and near to buy their drugs, from all walks of life. The winos were sorta’ pushed out, back to Alameda. Back on this way you don’t see ‘em no more. Now you don’t even see a can or a bottle. None of that on the streets because they pick ‘em up and sell ‘em. But, what you do see is a congregation of folks; you see a cluster of people on different corners. We stand on corners and mid sections of the streets, on the sidewalks. What you think we standing there for? To look at each other? Or to have a meeting? A conversation? No! Crooks! When you see ‘em stand out there, no matter how good they look, remember you in a high density area, full of drugs. Next thing you know, old Josh here is in jail. Now you know Josh don’t mess with no drugs! But they got him on possession? Why? Because me and some other people threw some dope on the ground. Ain’t nobody claimin’ it. And it was closer to Josh then it was to me. So I got a conspiracy, he got a conspiracy, that why we standing there. If a person didn’t want that to happen, he wouldn’t be standing there, he keep on movin’.

How would you rate the effectiveness of policing in Skid Row?

Over the years they got a little more slack. Because at times they knew… “Mr. Ross, come here! Have you been using that heroin? Because you goin’ to jail if you have,” ‘cause they knew me. Well you don’t get that no more. Because outta a hundred people, seventy-five is using, twenty-five is sellin’. So basically they cruise for their eight-hour shift; people are sellin’, people are shootin’ in the streets, but they don’t do nothin’ no more.

What was it like using heroin?

It was the best high in the world, and still is to me. But what goes wid’ it? I can’t hang. When I first did it back in the early ‘60s, I had somebody else shoot it in my arm, and I got sick in the stomach. My stomach got bloated. It was a feelin’ that I have never felt before because I wasn’t used to it, so my body was rejecting it. I threw up, you know? I got the vomiting, and throwing up, then after that subsided, about fifteen minutes later, then, I felt the high. I felt the high… I didn’t like it at first, because I didn’t understand it. But as it progressed on that day, it got a little bit better… It took me at least another three months to try it again. When I tried it again I was waitin’ for this feeling in my stomach; I get a little knot in my stomach, but I don’t throw up. From there, I dunno…  I was shooting dope. Just a little bit, about ten cc’s. Ten cc’s is nothing. You get half a gram for ten bucks, and a gram for twenty bucks back then. But that’s nothing when you put it in a needle. It’s a drop. Then from there you just progress on. I’m gonna try a little bit more. I’m gonna try me twenty. Then thirty, and before you knew it, I’m up there, seventy, eighty ccs. That’s a lot of heroin! [laughs]. Where it tricks you is that one day, outta nowhere you get sick. And you don’t know what’s wrong with ya. You’re all knotted up, but nothing coming up except green stuff, and the lining of your stomach… and your bones ache. And somebody tell you, “You sick, man! You need a fix.” Then okay, you fix. And bam! You’re normal. That goes on for a while, then it takes you to another stage. Now if you wanna get high, you have to shoot even more. You shoot some more. That’s when you’re starting to overdose… four times for me. But that’s because you’re not a biochemist, you don’t know what in that needle, whether it’s real good, or garbage, and I’d shoot a lot of it, then I OD’d. I did that four times, some people die, some people don’t. All I did was overdose.


Did overdosing change your perspective on drugs?

It didn’t change me. At the time I was playing Russian roulette, I mean the gun was on the table. Spin it… then bam! When you miss you don’t die. So… Let me tell you, in and out of the penitentiary, every time I get out, I go shoot some heroin. One day I decide, we gonna shoot dope inside the penitentiary. Then someone says, “Man this dope ain’t no good.” I say “None of it’s no good… I need to quit shooting this stuff.” So I get out, and I only been out a day, and I’m goin’ to shoot some heroin. I didn’t do it. Ten days go by and I don’t think about it. Another ten days go by and I don’t think about it. I don’t think about heroin, but I moved over to another drug, that’s why I didn’t think about heroin. And that got me off heroin basically all the way. I was on PCP. Smokin’ that PCP! And Lord have mercy! [laughs]

How did regular drug use affect you mentally?

I always question that! [laughs] You know why I question that sometimes? Because I find myself doin’ things that I normally wouldn’t do. Little things. Why would I put that over there when I know it’s goin’ to fall? Why would I go this way, when I’m all tangled up, and I know I wanna go that way. You start to question yourself when you’re doin’ things in life that common sense don’t agree with.

How long did it take for that to start?

Well you see now, now that I’m on this [points to oxygen tube] I don’t get any air to my brain… my blood moves slow they told me. They told me that my blood cells don’t have enough air. Or travellin’ fast enough to my heart, or my brain. So that why I gotta’ have this 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Is it your condition that lead you to seek help from Lamp Community?

It’s ironic, but I’ve applied for different housing, and my goal was senior citizens’ low income housing. I’ve been outta LA too, tryin’ to get it. But I always get put on a list, and the list is like three, four years long. I was on Skid Row, livin’ on Skid Row, sleepin’ on the ground, catchin’ pneumonia, goin’ to the hospital. They give me antibiotics, I get back out, go do the same thing. I repeat that [laughs]. I keep repeating that. Then one day, I said well I’ma call 911. I’m in my car, and I’m under the parking space at the Midnight Mission. The guy from up under there calls for me, but security came. The ambulance was coming for me, but they couldn’t get me from down there, the guy wanted me to get up on the street. He didn’t care what I was doin’. So anyway, I go up there and give my keys to a friend of mine and say “Take me to the hospital.” Well, the social worker there that has tried placing me a couple of times says she wants to try this place called the Lamp. Now I got a letter, because when I was incarcerated back in 2011, 2010, I got a letter from the Lamp. This place right here. I ran across that letter the other night, it had the address on it, and the ambulance brought me here. Rosa told me about the program that night. She said “HAUS is not a regular shelter; it’s for people that are sick or injured.” And she told me about that apartment thing.  That sold me, I’m gonna get an apartment, other than that I’m just eatin’ hamburgers, sodas and that kinda’ thing.

What is your advice for young men out there who may be stepping into your old shoes in Skid Row?

Steppin’ into my shoes is a harrrrd thing man… I do more thinkin’ then I do anythin’. But steppin’ into my shoes? You don’t wanna step in them shoes. Not good shoes. On Skid Row you have all these shelters, you have everything you need. Everything is there for you on Skid Row. Now, fixin’ your mind, sayin’ you wanna live on Skid Row… I dunno, maybe can’t live nowhere else. It’s often said that a lot of the young guys run away from their own neighborhoods because of somethin’ they did, and they have to live down there. I just say this: mind your own business and take advantage of any programs that come through there, it’s a lot of ’em. And if you really want it, you can get you some housing. It might take a little time, but you can get you some. Because a lot of homeless children, mothers, sick people getting it first, but if you just say want a place to stay you can get it. Just take the necessary steps. Hang in. Don’t quit. Don’t give up.

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