Blue Moon with an Avenue Boy
The other morning I did something a bit crazy, something that would cause the men in my life to go quaking in their boots. I swung by an unfamiliar house and invited a gangster into the passenger seat of my old, white Mercedes. He was 3 days away from 5 years in prison for chucking a loaded shotgun from a car in plain view of police. This charge was compounded by several others, like attempted murder. He once beat an aspiring rapist off his property with a bat, knocking him away from the sleeping women inside. Baseball bats. Over the course of our dawn hangout, I gleaned that Eastside gangsters love them, unregistered shotguns, and knives.
This all began a few months ago. I was walking Van on our usual route in Glassell Park, a Habitat latte in my hand and a book tucked beneath my arm. Almost directly beside me, a tatted and shaved boy kept pace, eyes shifting anxiously from side to side. Oprah’s after-school specials ran through my head and I remembered: If a man is following you, make eye contact. He’ll know you could identify him in a line-up. Ask him the time. I opted for, “Why you walkin’ so close to me?”
He looked stunned by my acknowledgement. It seemed I was hardly on his radar but for one reason. Nervously, “I-I’m sorry. The police just fuck wit me. I figured if I was walking with a white girl I’d be cool.”
“Oh. Why? ‘Cause you jaywalked?” I’d seen him do it.
He laughed, “Nah. I wish. Nah. They’re always fuckin’ with me. Always. You know where you’re at? You know Drew street?” The answer was yes but vaguely. I’d always been intrigued by the gang activity 2 blocks from my quaint, cabin apartment. I’d drain coffee into colorful mugs, settle beside my majestic rubber tree on the porch, sliding door wide open, listening to what is forever a debate between firecrackers and gunshots. Mariachi music and hip hop and laughter would pour across the grassy lot beyond my place and I’d imagine how differently my life would be on Drew. Cursory research deemed its Avenues the most violent gang in LA. They began in the 1940s, killed a sheriff in the 90s and got subsequently arrested and royally screwed in police retaliation. During raids, Chris said the dogs get shot first. “Like 30 dogs last time.” That incident, he’d laid on top of his beloved chow, saving the pup from cop bullets.
“If hipsters knew that shit, they’d be outraged,” I laughed.
“Fuck hipsters. I hate them.”
“You hate me.”
Regarding my comment with a smile, “I do hate you. But not you.” All the while, I’ve parked the car and we’re carrying Blue Moons beneath a bridge in Pasadena, Chris leading the way,. The sky was a rich sapphire, our dirt path to the unknowable below washed with street lamps. 4:45AM.
“I really hope you won’t kill me.”
He laughed. “You know what would happen to me if I killed a white girl?”
“National news. 20/20.”
“The big L.” Life in prison. His dad was already serving 396 years for quadruple homicide. Described as an ultra violent, 5’4” bulldog, the man was at last locked up for plowing 2 women down as they exited a Bible study. His father was drunk as a skunk and I couldn’t help but imagine the scene, almost too cliche for a movie, God fearing women exchanging blessings before meeting their very maker. Which brought us to the conversation of whose life is valuable and whose is not. We each climbed onto the bottom ledge of the concrete bridge and gazed to the reservoir below. “When we kill each other, to cops, it’s just scum taking out scum. Like we’re doin’ them a favor.” It’s true. I’m used to white babies on milk cartons, missing blonde joggers on the evening news and a crude sense of “us and them”, separately residing in metropolitan cities. The suburbs were “us”. The ghettos were “them”. I’ve had dark experiences with perverse men, owners of windowless vans, but I’ve never been taken. His cousin however, just 3 months prior, was kidnapped while buying her baby’s medicine at the CVS. Three men raped and tortured her to death in a van. They dumped her body in a nearby elementary school parking lot very close to my home. I wondered if my skin had kept me safe all these years. Considering I hadn’t even heard of this horrific tragedy, was the price of my murder notoriously steeper than hers? “After we killed that sheriff, they passed a law. A whole hood can be convicted for one murder.” It’s Atwater vs. Eagle Rock vs. Highland Park and on and on, streets mere miles apart. “Where you from, homie?” and it’s multiple holes to the head.
“It’s so stupid,” I said, twisting my brows into a frenzy, sad these young boys are dying for nothing.
But, “It’s not. It’s not stupid.” He wasn’t offended but his words carried conviction. For gangsters, there’s a constant evening of the score. “We took shrooms right here.” Chris smiled, a memory dancing across his face. He was talking about his childhood best friend, the one whose murder sent Chris’ life into a never-ending tale of revenge. “We couldn’t even get around that tree. For hours, we couldn’t,” he reminisced. In a psychedelic haze, a coupla teenagers perceived the nearby tree an unwavering barrier to where he and I now sat. “And then, these Mexican kids were all pulling out guns like, ‘Where you from? Where you rep?’ And we just laughed our asses off ’til they left.” Chris rubbed his shaved head and sighed. The weight of his impending sentence was crushing his spirit. He’d already sent me the news article explaining what he’d done. He’d already promised, with a proud glimmer in his eye, that his street name strikes fear into rival hearts. He only fucks with gangsters. There’s no rape, no killing of the “innocent”.
“Did you have to get used to being violent?”
“I was born violent.”
Chewing my cheek, considering basic psychology, “Did you see your dad get crazy? When you were little?”
“Hah. He beat the shit out of me once. Doesn’t even remember. I was 5 or 6, at the movies. Asked him if I could go to the bathroom. He took me there and beat the shit out of me. No reason.” He grinned but my stomach sank. I hate that boys go hard because they have to. I’ve pressed the sweet cheeks of kids that age, discovering boys more tenderhearted than the girls, strong emotions quivering their little lips. “I’ll give you something to cry about,” their daddies say, hoping their grit will shield them from the cruel world, turning them into cruel creatures themselves.
His dad in prison, Chris’ gang banging began at 13 when he dropped out of school to help his mom pay the bills. His talent for tagging caught the affection of the Avenues and he was soon thrust into a car, a bag of meth passed over, a demand he turn crystal into cash. Even then, he had no personal vendetta until his best friend was shot 7 times in the face right before his eyes, aged 21. “Cops had to pry me off his body. I was holding his head together but his face just disintegrated in my hands. It fell apart.” I took a mighty chug of beer, feeling helpless. This took place in a parking lot I walk by nearly every day. “Later, I went back to pick up the pieces of his skull and teeth. They left them there.” He didn’t admit to killing anyone but he’s got zero regard for another gangster. He’s got no problem watching somebody die and especially not with watching somebody else’s friend in agony. Shared pain releases him from his own, if only for a second. And the revenge goes back and forth forever.
Until this point, our eye contact had been infrequent. He and I were nervous for different reasons. We had almost nothing in common but for being human. In 3 days, I’d be in Paris and he’d be in prison. It wasn’t fair but we lived out our birthrights. We kicked our legs beyond the concrete, mine in jeans and dirty Chucks, his in bleach white socks, slides, and extra long navy Dickies. We wore the uniform of our respective cliches. He resents gentrification, I embraced it without apology. He’s got 3 baby mamas and 5 kids, I’m childless. “You ever heard of pulling out?” He laughed.
“Yeah, yeah I’ve heard. I know better now.” Chris takes another swig from the bottle before glaring at the label. “I don’t even drink anymore. I thought it would help me forget.”
“Where you’re going?”
Obviously, I couldn’t imagine. He explained that in prison you forget your hood and find your race. He thinks processing will be the worst of it. An overpacked room stacked with sweaty, stinking criminals defending their lives and starting fights for 3 whole days. “Are you worried they’re gonna fuck you up?”
“I know they are.” But he’s used to pain. An ex-girlfriend ripped his eyeball out while clawing his face. She laughed maniacally while the paramedics popped it back in. Later, Chris shyly apologized for his dead tooth, front and center. “This guy tried to pistol whip me to death. My face was so fucked up the cops came and took pictures on their phones. They were like, ‘Wassup with your skull passion? Wassup?”
“It’s like, it’s a girl that wants to fuck you. It’s an Avenues thing.” The cops were teasing him, mocking that he’d never get laid again with a face like that.
By this time, around 6:30AM, the sun had risen but barely kissed us with its presence. Perhaps we were too glum to have noticed. Elderly Pasadena couples walked by with their golden retrievers and I wondered if they were judging us. Two teenage looking kids, dirty ol’ stayouts, drinking beers ’til the wee hours. I yawned for the millionth time. “You’re tired, huh? Let’s get you home.” We jumped off the ledge into the rocky dirt and back to the car. I dropped him off feeling bad that my life would stay exactly the same while his drastically changed. I hoped he’d survive the brutality of prison. I prayed the Mexicans would take him under their wings despite him being Indonesian. They had before, they could again.
Arriving home, Van greeted me sleepily, shaking his pompom tail and begging me where I’d been. He hadn’t even woken up when I crept out at 4:20 upon Chris’ invitation. I flung open the sliding door, the one that peeks my ears to the realm outside my own. I felt guilty for being me. Was I superior? No. I’d touched down on a war zone and my particular tone of skin kept me ignorant and unscathed. Aren’t I just lucky?