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How Rickey Taylor Became The Pirate Of Downtown

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The Taylors (Photo courtesy of the Taylor family)
Downtown is a surreal place where the city's poorest residents are literally living underneath some of its wealthiest. It has a big city feel—it's bustling and chaotic and noisy and smelly—but it's also full of intimate moments befitting a small town. Stick around long enough and you'll find it hard to walk down the street at any given time without running into someone you know—and you'll probably know their dog's name, too.One of those people you would have met—until sadly he died this summer at age 60—was Rickey Taylor. Rickey had been living on Skid Row for decades before lofts started going up around Spring and Main streets. But when they did, he developed into the neighborhood's unofficial ambassador. He became the pirate of downtown. His signature greeting was a hearty "argh." In addition to his self-appointed role as head of the downtown welcoming committee, he was a guardian angel who would look out for the fresh recruits to the loft lifestyle, a bridge between the haves and have-nots and a performer who was always ready to dance or strike a pose at Art Walk.

It didn't matter whether you were a loft-dweller, just in the neighborhood to party or a business owner opening up shop. Sooner or later, you were bound to run into him (or more than likely he was going to run into you) and strike up a friendly conversation. After a couple more run-ins with him, you might even feel comfortable calling him your friend, and he would like that. Those friends, along with a family who always stuck by his side, showed up in huge numbers for his funeral and various memorials around town. Rickey lived most of his life on the streets, but after a battle with cancer he didn't get a pauper's sendoff.

His younger brother Ronnie wants more than anything for more people to hear Rickey's story: "It's worth people knowing that a transient can bring people together like that."

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Before he became Rickey "The Pirate," Rickey was born in Los Angeles in 1954, one of six children raised in the projects in Watts by his mother, Floria Taylor. They were far from rich, but "never had a hungry day," said Ronnie. Floria, he said, could feed the entire family for $2. They were a church family—part of a congregation that would later show up en masse to Rickey's funeral to proclaim that in death, Rickey had traded his pirate hat for a crown.

Rickey was by all accounts a precocious child and a born performer. It's easy to recognize the man who would break into dance any time he had an audience. Once he turned five, his mother entered Rickey and his sister Sandra in every dance competition she could. He worked two jobs while he was still in elementary school around the time of the 1965 Watts Riots: pressing clothes at a dry cleaner and running the cash register at a liquor store. His family can't agree on exactly how young he was when he began directing the youth choir at Holy Light Missionary Baptist, but they agree he was just a kid at the time.

The stories of Rickey Taylor the boy don't sound all that different from the ones told about the Rickey The Pirate. At the cash register, Ronnie said, "He was selling liquor and talking shit like he talks shit." He dressed with a theatrical flair, sporting diamond rings. When Floria had to punish Rickey, she'd force him to shave his 'fro, because nothing hurt his pride quite like a haircut. Still, for the most part "he was a good kid, he never sassed" Floria says. Signs, however, of the substance abuse that plagued him later in life began to surface as early as junior high. Not infrequently, he'd come home from his job at the liquor store with alcohol on his breath.

More than anything, Rickey loved attention. Before he was Rickey The Pirate, he was Rickey "James Brown" Taylor and he did a dead-on impersonation of his idol. Ronnie said: "He's always been the star of my family."

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Rickey always took his mom (on the right) everywhere (Photo courtesy of The Taylor Family)
When Rickey was a teenager, his family moved to West Los Angeles. He started singing and dancing with soul and funk groups at clubs around town, like the Proud Bird near LAX or the Regency West in Leimert Park. The venues were limited by a strict rule: his mother refused to let him perform in clubs that served booze. She also put the brakes on promoters' plans to take him on the road to perform. Yet, Floria still beams when talking about Rickey's talent. Shuffling through old photos after his death, she stopped on one of the two of them at the Proud Bird: "He was always taking his mama somewhere—that's why I miss him."Even when times were good though, Rickey's troubles—namely substance abuse— lurked in the background. By the time Rickey reached his late teens, it reached a breaking point. When he was 17, Floria kicked him out of her home because of his escalating drug use.

Then in 1975, the year Rickey turned 21, his life took an even more dramatic turn. "That was the down," Ronnie said. Rickey had a son with his then-girlfriend, but their relationship was rocky. One day he came home to find she'd left town, taking his only son with her. In short order, Rickey's life started to unravel. He hit the booze and drugs harder than ever before. He lost his job and started drifting aimlessly around the country, taking odd jobs, stopping in on Texas and San Francisco along the way.

More than three decades passed before he would again have an address to call home. "I wanna do what I wanna do," Rickey told his family. And he did, despite their pleas for him to come home.

In the meantime, the singing group he'd been a part of in his teens changed their name to Rose Royce. They released their first album in 1976: the hit soundtrack to Car Wash. But Rickey, the natural performer, had given up on a career in music by then.

Eventually he settled down on Skid Row, as much anyone can settle on Skid Row. The 50-block section of downtown had previously been occupied mostly by white, male alcoholics. Rickey landed there right in the middle of a sea change that came about in the '80s: Crack and PCP had entered the scene. More and more young black men were landing there, swept in by the drug epidemic and a decline in manufacturing jobs in and around South L.A. There were also more veterans, and more mentally ill people as public institutions crumbled. It was L.A.'s dangerous wild west, with businesses fleeing to the eastern edge of downtown and leaving behind a ghost town after 5 p.m.

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"Junkies Row" on May 21, 1989 (Photo via the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)
Rickey's family tried to lure him off the streets many times, but nothing swayed him. They still doted on their performer as much as they could. Once, Ronnie bought him gators; Rickey might not have had a home, but he still had flair. Rickey occasionally took the bus to Floria's house for a shower and a good night's sleep. "My mom has never left him," Ronnie said. "She was always with him with, whatever he had to go through."

Floria said Rickey was a good son who loved his mom and God. But she wouldn't let him stay under her roof while he was hitting drugs or booze, "I didn't like that drinking and that thing he was doing."

"I said 'Rickey, you know you can go home but you can't do drugs,'" Ronnie continued. But Rickey said he liked drugs and would continue to do them. "He didn't want to bother us," said Ronnie. "So he chose to stay downtown."

Until the end of his life, even when he was in and out of hospitals to treat his cancer, Rickey's family said he never tried to get clean.

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Rickey spent a long, long time on the streets—long enough to see the nadir of downtown and its revival. In the late '90s, lofts started to go up for sale right on Skid Row's edge. It became known as the "historic core," and it became Rickey's stomping grounds. Rickey certainly wasn't living the same kind of lifestyle as someone living in a luxury loft on Spring Street, but he became a rare figure who in his own way managed to straddle both worlds.

He worked odd jobs for new businesses, like cleaning and construction at a gallery on Fifth and Main streets.

"He was a regular, he kept coming back," said Bert Green, owner of the gallery, which has since relocated to Chicago. "He was a great personality."

The thing that elevated Rickey from what Green calls a "friendly nice homeless junkie" to a downtown icon was the pirate hat. According to Green, a film crew handed Rickey the hat on a lark sometime around 2006 or 2007. "He thought it was funny," Green recalled. "'Look what I got!'" It became Rickey's signature.

Not long after, he showed up to the nascent Art Walk wearing the hat and the rest, as they say, is history.

"I think he made more money in one day than he had in the previous year," Green said. "This is around the same time thousands of people are moving into downtown L.A. He became a major fixture."

From then on, Rickey always donned a hat. Sometimes he'd lose them or they'd get too dirty from being on the streets. But someone always bought a replacement for him or he'd head over to the Toy District to buy one. And he worked the pirate persona. He'd greet downtowners with "argh" and curl his lips.

Rickey had a special knack for putting new downtown denizens, unaccustomed to their new proximity to Skid Row, at ease. As his older brother Donnell puts it, "he had a gift of gab."

One of the downtown newbies who didn't last long was screenwriter Mike Armstrong, who moved his family to a huge loft with a jacuzzi on the deck. In 2011, he wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Times describing the neighborhood as "the low-grade horror movie of American cities," full of "a particular class of zombie-like human being seemingly so devastated by drugs or mental illness or both that he or she can't even form the words to ask for money." Rickey, however, was near the top of the list of things Armstrong would miss when he decamped to a quieter neighborhood:

I'll especially miss Ricky [sic] the Pirate, a beloved fixture who can be found in and around Spring and 6th. His "Arrrgghh" will frighten you the first time you hear it at 1 in the morning from the shadows of a doorway, but after a while, you won't feel safe without it. Goodbye, Matey. Ahoy and arrrgghh back at you.

Rickey would tell other homeless people to back off from the not yet battle-tested residents if they got too aggressive with their panhandling. Gentrification has been hard on many people living on Skid Row. When loft-dwellers started moving in, police ticketed folks sleeping on the streets during the day or jaywalking. But Rickey seemed to thrive, using the changing neighborhood as a sort of stage.

He worked in shifts. Throughout the day, he moved from Spring Street Coffee to The Down And Out or Bar 107. He befriended old and new residents everywhere he went, and always kept busy. He met up with artists, he agreed to make a goofy video of himself dancing and put it on YouTube. He was always game for an opportunity to perform.

The monthly Art Walk is where he shone. The event grew along with neighborhood, and it also served as a kind of open house for people interested downtown. Artist Robert Vargas called it a place where "strangers would become more intimate." Vargas, whose murals are everywhere in downtown, says he was drawn to the neighborhood's characters, so Rickey's pirate hat stuck out to him right away. Rickey became a "conduit of inspiration." Vargas gave the paintings to Rickey who would sell them.

"He genuinely loved to sit for me," Vargas said. "There was a lot going on in drawing Rickey."

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Robert Vargas drawing Rickey (Photo via Robert Vargas)
His family was slow to realize that Rickey had become a local celebrity. He'd come home to visit his family and brag that he was a star. Ronnie said, "We just overlooked it."

But they eventually started visiting Rickey during Art Walk. Floria said that just as he would invite her down to be the guest of honor to his shows as a teen, he loved having his mom come downtown to show her off. And he loved to show her the life he'd created downtown.

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Rickey Taylor and his mom on his birthday in 2011 (Photo by Fernanda Hughes)
"It wasn't just the drugs that had him, it was downtown," Ronnie said. He visited his family, but he'd always be eager to get back to the streets: "He couldn't wait to get back to his other family."

"Rickey had the mindset that people wanted him, they needed him," Vargas said. And creative types did — some of them had moved downtown in particular because they wanted to an experience that felt authentically urban and gritty, and Rickey was a bridge to that world. There was a darker side to that, of course. Vargas would sometimes get a whiff of exploitation from people who would use Rickey's image in their work or online.

Rickey never kept the fact that he loved drinking and drugs a secret, but he kept his addiction out of sight from the people who knew him best. He'd retreat deep into Skid Row to use before returning to the Historic Core with his sociable, friendly, performative A-game.

Russell Brown, former head of the Historic Downtown Business Improvement District, struck up a friendship with Rickey early on. Brown says he's dealt with his share of addicts, and Rickey seemed to manage his addiction better than most: "I never once saw him crazy, passed out or unconscious."

Rickey's brothers said between growing up in the projects and living on the streets, he was fearless. But it was clear that as he got older he was becoming increasingly vulnerable. One morning Rickey turned up beaten badly, with broken teeth and a bloody eye.

"I decided it was time to do an intervention," Brown said. "He had been comfortable sleeping on the streets, but I felt he couldn't continue to sleep there."

Brown managed to get help for Rickey through Project 50, a controversial program started in 2007 that aims to house the most vulnerable and chronically homeless people on Skid Row. Rickey qualified in 2009.

After spending three decades on the streets, Rickey had a place to hang his pirate hat. He moved into the Rainbow Apartments. There was a house-warming celebration. His mom baked her famous peach cobbler. Friends and community members chipped in to buy Rickey basic supplies for his apartment.

"I assumed once he got housing, my part was over and done," Brown said. "But he had been 30 years on the streets."

Getting off the streets did help: Rickey was getting better sleep, and he didn't look quite so bleary-eyed. But there were issues. Rickey wouldn't always sleep in his apartment. Brown said, "That's a habit that was hard for him to break." His new apartment also had bed bugs that drove him nuts.

Brown said that at first Rickey didn't maintain his apartment, and he had to call in teams a few times to clean it. Rickey had "recreated the dumpsters he'd be living in," Brown said. But eventually his cleaning improved. He received welfare that his mother disbursed to him in small amounts.

Rickey's health had already been on the decline by the time he moved into his new place. He told Blogdowntown at the time: "I have bad kidneys, or something. I don't really drink that much. It might be diabetes. That's what a doctor told me a long time ago."

His condition worsened, and a few years ago Rickey was diagnosed with cancer. To anyone who didn't know him well, nothing would have seemed out of the ordinary. He continued making his rounds throughout downtown. He still wore the pirate hat. He continued selling portraits or signed black-and-white headshots to locals or tourists passing through. But the people who knew him noticed his energy flagging and that he would disappear for days or weeks at a time for treatments.

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Photo courtesy of Robert Vargas
Even in the hospital, Rickey was still Rickey. During a longer stay, he bragged to the nurses that he was so famous that he had his own artist. He was pleased to see that "his artist," Vargas, did show up. Vargas wasn't happy to see Rickey in a hospital bed, though. His face dropped. Rickey told him, "Vargas, it ain't that kind of party, don't cry."

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Robert Vargas writes, "I wanted to show him smiling and happy, the way I always wanted him to be. By this time I knew how far along he was with his sickness so I wanted to somehow lock him in the painting with that infectious smile of his and take the pain away." (Photo by Robert Vargas)
Vargas sketched pictures of Rickey in his pirate hat at his bedside on a paper towel. Rickey tried to sell the napkin to a nurse.His death caught everyone off guard. There were tales of people who had seen Rickey in the days before his death. Brown knew someone who had seen him just hours before he passed. He had seemed a little weaker, sure, but not like a man facing death. No one was more shocked than his mom, who said he had just bought a new suit and shoes: "He was nice, good as I ever seen him."

On June 17, Rickey made his rounds on the streets before returning to the community room in his apartment building. He looked like he had fallen asleep watching TV, but when someone went to shake him, his body was already cold. His family took solace in the fact that his face looked serene.

There were more than a few gatherings around downtown where locals swapped Rickey stories. In the weeks since, a bar named a special after him: it's three shots of rum. Someone made a 4,271-piece Lego mosaic and someone else spray-painted a Walk of Fame star for him on the sidewalk. Vargas painted a utility box with a cartoonish portrait, outfitted with a pirate hat. "I like it because it's like he's still posted up here," he said.

When I passed by it a week after Rickey died, a homeless man snatched up a pirate hat that was in front of the utility box. It was one of a dozen or so remembrances for Rickey, including flowers, a candle and a few pieces of cardboard written with notes like, "Keep smilin' on heaven's street." A white hipsterish man chided the man: "Don't take that, that belongs to Rickey."

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One of many memorials for Rickey around downtown (Photo by Emma Gallegos/LAist)
Rickey's family pulled out all the stops for his funeral at Inglewood Cemetery. Rickey was dressed in a white suit with a white bow tie and a light gold paisley print. It matched the white casket with gold details. A few hundred people showed up to pay their respects to him: his family, friends and the church community. Reverend Floyd Crume, a reverend at Holy Light Baptist where Rickey had been a youth choir director five decades before, read a passage from scripture. His brother Donnell remembered, "He had showmanship since he was three."

Ronnie said he's still trying to understand who his brother was and what he meant to the neighborhood. At night, he said, "I go downtown...just to walk where he walked and see what he saw."

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The community held a vigil for Rickey after his death, and shouted a collective "argh." (Photo by Fernanda Hughes)