“My addictions followed me after I got out of the military, from then until now. I’d be a fool to tell you no. A good 80 to 90 percent of people who served either in Vietnam or were drafted at that time were either alcoholics or addicts. I did heroin. I did coke. We didn’t smoke it back them. We snorted it.”
So began the downward spiral of addiction and illness of Tony Mardirosian — born in Las Vegas and raised mostly in Santa Barbara, who served his country in the Army for more than a decade. It seemingly ended living on L.A.’s infamous Skid Row in 2011 after two near-death bouts with stomach cancer.
Two-and-a-half years ago, from out of the blue, the then 59-year old vet decided he was tired of it all: making sure he took off and hid his shoes every night so nobody would steal them, getting roused before dawn when he stayed overnight in a mission, going down to Compton to score some righteous dope and trying to get out of there without getting hassled or worse.
He took himself to St. Vincent de Paul’s Cardinal Manning Center on Winston Street, and stayed there for 16 months. And it was in the 55-bed emergency transition (ET) program where he finally got his act together and found Section 8 subsidized housing.
n‘I wanted to disappear’
Tony spent 13 years in the military on-and-off, where he served in the U.S. Army infantry, 101 Airborne, 11 Bravo. A door gunner in a helicopter in Vietnam, he was a weapons’ specialist and later became a sniper trainer.
All this weighed heavy on the young man’s life when he got out in 1983.
“I was traumatized,” he recalls today. “I went to Delhi, Louisiana, because it was the smallest place in the world and no one knew me. I wanted to disappear and go off the radar. I had a lot of issues.”
Another vet had told him about the money you could make working on offshore oil rigs near Morgan City, Louisiana. And that’s what he did for the next seven years. Two weeks on, one week off. “I was addicted all that time — heroin, coke, smoking pot and drinking by the gallons,” he says. “On land, I just stayed clean long enough before being tested to go back out.”
In 1991, he came back to California, met a girl from Sweden and then went with her to the Scandinavian country for five years. He found work running heavy equipment like backhoes, front-end loaders and Bobcats. “I actually tapered off,” he notes, “and cleaned myself up.”
When they broke up five years later, Tony, a union carpenter by trade, returned home to Southern California. He found work in construction. He also started getting bombed on weekends with friends, drinking, snorting cocaine and even doing “little bits” of heroin. After, Tony took more good-paying work in Salt Lake City, Utah, building bridges for the 2002 Winter Olympics, all the while doing more and more drugs and drinking.
nFirst time homeless
Then in 2007, feeling sharp pains in his stomach, he was diagnosed with cancer. After having surgery and getting out of the hospital two months later, he had nowhere to go. It was the first time he was actually homeless. So he wound up in a shelter for three months, now also addicted to Demerol and morphine.
“This is how I got on the pain pills, so I’m really addicted again,” he says. “After the cancer operation and I got semi-alright, the doctor told me if I wanted to live another five years, I had to stop drinking. My liver was 57 percent full of alcohol.”
Later that year, he hopped on a slow-moving freight train in Vegas to L.A., but ended up in Long Beach, getting $221 a month and food stamps from General Relief.
“Now there’s nothing left to do but to do drugs,” he explains, matter of factly. “I was living on the street in Pasadena and lived in the trees and the park, literally up in the trees. So I stayed there a good two years.
“I wound up on Skid Row and went to the L.A. Mission the first time. But I didn’t like the way they made you take a shower and made you go straight to bed at 8 o’clock and stay in that freakin’ place until 4:30 a.m., when they kicked you out. You couldn’t sleep with everybody snoring, and you were likely to get sick. So I went back out on the street.”
That was Tony’s life from 2008 on.
He says he never was sick or even cold in his sleeping bag. His biggest worry was somebody taking his belongings, including his shoes, while he was sleeping. He drank, did all kinds of drugs and was OK with being homeless.
“But it sucked,” he says. “You have no protection. You could only trust yourself.
“When you did your drugs, you had to be real cautious — Go into Compton, get your crack and get the hell out of there or somebody would rob you or kill you. And then after that, I started buying my crack cocaine right in front of the L.A. Mission. It was called ‘the fire.’ It was good stuff, but in small quantities.”
In 2011, Tony felt another sharp pain in his stomach. Having heard Huntington Memorial Hospital was one of the best cancer treatment hospitals in the country, he managed to make it back to Pasadena, seeking emergency medical help. He had a high temperature and was convulsing, “I was in and out of it because the poison went into my stomach,” he explains, “and now I’m dying.”
But 39 days later, after another major operation, he returned to the street. Again he sought out the L.A. Mission. This time for six months. Then back on the street, he had a personal epiphany.
nChoices and direction
“Out of the blue, I decided I was tired of all this stuff and it’s time for me to do something,” he says. “So I went to the Cardinal Manning Center in December 2013. They asked me if I could save money [which was a requirement]. I said, ‘Yes.’ So I went into the program. And I’ve been clean from drugs now from that point.”
He did wind up saving 40 percent of his disability income. He did all of the center’s programs and workshops, including participating in five support groups a week. They ranged from learning better interpersonal skills to discussing movies. He volunteered to work in the kitchen. And he followed all the rules in the dorm-like program.
“I never got written up once,” he reports with pride in his voice. “Not once. And I had all my Section 8 paperwork done in four months to get my [subsidized] rent vouchers. But it took me another year to find an apartment. They wanted to send me way out to Lancaster. But I got lucky to find a place in Huntington Park and moved in this January. And it’s great.”
At CMC, Tony also got support and encouragement from the staff, who he knew mostly by their first names: Vicky, Anne, Jennifer and, most of all, Tray. Tray Clayton encouraged him to join a gym to get back in shape, which he did.
Tony still goes to that gym. And he goes back to the Cardinal Manning Center at least three times a week to see him and other staffers.
“Tray would sit me down and talk to me every couple days and tell me, ‘You’ve got to think positive,’” Tony recalls, during a recent visit to CMC with a guest. “‘Cause he heard I was in the military, and he couldn’t understand why I was homeless and all this stuff ‘cause I was so smart. And then I broke down and told him mostly about everything.”
Tray, the residential assistant, stops sweeping the lobby’s floor as we walk over to him.
“As far as Tony working out and staying focused, which helped him relieve stress, you know, that’s like a plus,” says the young man, his biceps bulging in a white T-shirt. “If you can work out and be consistent every day, that’s a big step. It takes a lot for a person to go to a gym every day and work out. To get up and say, ‘I’m going to do this today.’ And he did that.”
Tony, wearing a black T-shirt, is smiling a little now. “If you bond with somebody and there’s a good positive attitude, it makes you feel better,” he observes. “By him pushing me to the gym, made me instead not think about smoking crack or smoking weed and gave me a better idea. Obviously, I couldn’t be doing cocaine and heroin and be benching 275 pounds now. I have no desire to do any drugs at all.”
After a pause, the 61-year-old former addict finishes his thought: “Everybody makes their choices. And we either fail or we succeed on the choices we make. Now I live each day one at a time, where before I was reckless and didn’t care and thought I had many days left.
“They give you choices and direction here,” he points out. “The people just have a positive attitude. You could stay out on the street and smoke dope and crack all year long and never get nowhere. This place gave me a choice.
“That’s about it,” says Tony before walking away. “I don’t know what else to say.”