A few months ago I went to LA's infamous skid row, looking to cover the 3 on 3 tournaments that take place near the mission, but I found instead a man most intelligent, so charismatic, but yet a tortured soul: Brian Denton Sr.
I don't even know where to begin in telling this tale. I struck up a convo with Brian about his family's pride in their Chickasaw Indian ancestry, his passion for riding BMX bikes, his love of the Dallas Cowboys (he had an NFL jersey on).
We talked right there on 4th and Broadway, with hundreds of makeshift tent houses all around us. I sensed Brian was distressed so I wanted to find out more. He said, "My wife Mel [short for Melony] had just died of a disease 2 weeks ago."
To see the pain in his heart was unbearable. He showed me a picture of Mel, a once vibrant, beautiful young lady. It seemed impossible she passed so young.
I asked, “Why are you living in the streets? I can tell you're educated, capable, the exact opposite of someone I'd imagine being trapped here." He answered, “I'm just in pain, been living here for 3 years since I was let out of prison. Life is unbearable since my son Brian Denton was murdered last Christmas, and now Mel is gone. I wonder if I can make it through another day."
I told him, "Strive on brother, there will be a brighter day," to which he said, "I'm on the edge now." Who wouldn't be?
Brian, to be very honest, seemed extremely regretful as he told me why losing his son hurt so much, "The worst thing I ever did was go along with a partner to rob a liquor store. The job went wrong and the clerk ended up dead."
I asked him, "You took someone's life, is that why you went to jail?" "Not exactly, I was there as it happened, but I didn't pull the trigger. I don't run from the responsibility of my actions though. I did a 19 year bid for that, which meant I didn't get to raise my son.”
“After I was released, Brian Jr would follow me all over Skid Row. I spent 3 years trying to let him know me, making up for lost time. I remember the best day of my life was when my son actually called me 'dad'. He called me that because he said I had earned his respect enough for him to call me that. Wow, it was so beautiful to be called dad."
Seeing Brian Sr look into space at that memory saddened me, knowing he desperately wanted to redo his choices in life, yet couldn't.
One could write a thousand books on how gritty, forsaken, yet vibrant and utterly authentic life on Skid Row is, yet never scratch the surface of its existence. People living there watch each other's backs on the street.
Brian Sr told me he wished he was there to save his son on that fateful day. He felt 100% responsible in his heart that his boy was killed because he chose to hang with his "dad" on Skid Row. He couldn't forgive himself.
The autopsy report said that Brian Denton Jr died of blunt-force trauma. Brian Sr said simply that "the streets killed him", and what tore him up the most was that Brian Jr had just graduated the CCC Academy and was headed to a forestry job.
Yet he was cut down before his prime at the young age of 23 in such a violent way. If Brian hadn't died in that apartment on New Years Day, 2016, he was shipping out to work in the forest in 2 months. How much more opposite can the forest be than Skid Row?
The title of this story includes the word despair, because you can tell that Brian wakes up to relive this trauma every day. Maybe that's what pushes him to substance abuse to find escape from his nightmare. He admitted to having a problem self medicating on Skid Row.
Who knows what release can one find from this kind of pain?
What makes me think of Brian often, even though I haven't seen him in 4 months, dude is easily one of the smartest and seemingly most capable people I've met. Like someone you'd see being a manager and or boss, a sharp person who seems so well spoken, not the kind of person you'd imagine stuck in the black hole that is Skid Row.
What good can come from this story?
I talked to Brian Jr's grandma Mary, who related that her grandson was such a kind and gentle soul. She hopes the world knows that Brian Jr was a great youngster, full of life, sweet. A kind boy taken too young. She hopes that Brian Sr will stop torturing himself, live right, put the pain behind.
I remember meeting Brian Denton Sr that day in May, seeing a man who had lost everything that mattered to him. I took off my Team USA jersey and gave it to him saying, "This is my favorite jersey because it gives me luck. Have it Brian, as I know you must try to find a reason to go on, do good things in your boy’s name, in your wife's name."
He thanked me for the jersey and we exchanged numbers. He asked if he could call me if he felt like life was too stressful. He said he appreciated that I was a person who didn't judge him, yet just wished him well.
Brian still hasn't called me in these past few months. I've gone back to that same spot in Skid Row I met him at. It's pretty freaking scary down there but I asked if anyone had seen him. One man who called himself Boobytrap had seen Brian not too long ago. He said that Brian was like an uncle to him since they both rode BMX bikes a lot on Skid Row.
But he said, "You don't find people who want to hide in Skid Row, they just come out when they want. The haystack doesn't find the needle." I gave Boobytrap a 1 800 suicide prevention hot line to give Brian if he sees him again.
I did ask Brian Sr if he thought me doing this story on him story might help him find relief from the pain. He said, "I would be very honored to know that my wife and son were celebrated. I don't mind people knowing my story, I'm not afraid to speak the truth about things. Maybe it will help someone else avoid the mistakes I've made. Out of all this terribleness, some good might come."
So here I am, as you the reader are as well, reading Brian's story so that promise is fulfilled. 100.
As I did research to finish this story I came across Brian's Facebook page, which has photos of a happier time. Seeing his beautiful young wife Mel, his full of life son, it's just heartbreaking to know everything that a man values can be gone in a short amount of time.
Brian did allow me to take his photo, proud of the jersey I gave him. He has pride in his appearance and wanted to clean himself up and take a proper photo with me at a later date to go along with this story.
For now his Facebook photo will have to suffice, a man from a different time, not so sad, not so filled with grief before he had transformed into a needle and inserted himself into the haystack of Skid Row.
Then I thought how can I, E-Woods, celebrate Brian Jr, who I'd never even gotten to meet?
I came across the LAPD crime report while doing research for this story. The link below describes Brian Jr's passing. I saw a section where so many relatives had left memorial messages, so many that missed Brian Denton Jr.
Reading his mother's message to her son really stuck with me. So if I'm going to celebrate a young man, what better way then to offer the words of the person who brought him into this world.
Here is what she said:
"Happy birthday my handsome son. Every single day I mourn for you. I just cannot get over the fact that you are no longer on this earth! Nick [his younger brother] and I are so hurt. I truly hope that you RIP in Heaven. May you continue to smile bright...and guide and protect us. I love you dearly. You will forever be in our hearts.
— Kimberly Augmon, March 1, 2016."
Me, a writer in search of a story of a 3 on 3 tournament, found so much more from a man that feels there's nothing less he can lose. Irony. A tale I can't even begin to tell because sometimes the needle in the haystack pierces your heart.
And all you're left with is hope that the needle has found some peace from despair in the haystack that is Skid Row.