To Live and Die in L.A. – Los Angeles, California
To Live and Die in L.A.
Los Angeles, California
– Saul Bellow
It’s the, City of Angels and constant danger/
South Central L.A. can” get no stranger
It was Diego’s idea. We were standing in Tower Records looking at graffiti magazines. “Man, what are you tryin’ to do on New Year’s?” he asked.
“I dunno. Go downtown, get faded, talk shit. Get some girls.”
I put my magazine down and look at him. “Why, whatsup?”
He had a look in his eye, “yo…you down to go to L.A.?”
“Oh yeahhh…thas’ right,” I said, snapping the fingers on my left hand. “You got family there.”
Diego grew up in Los Angeles. We had met several months before at a job interview for a demeaning job at Chuck E. Cheese.
We were being interviewed by an enthusiastic man with a blond mustache who spoke with a lisp. “Well, lookth like we gota couple ah really great guyth here,” he said.
We weren’t “great guys.” We were bad kids. We would work sporadically to support our graffiti habit. We needed money to pay fines, money to pay bail and money to buy beer. Everything else we stole. Neither of us knew how to drive or had cars. We held a series of low paying, dead end jobs that we would exploit. We worked at Old Country Buffet because we would get free food, Michael’s Art Supply so we could steal paint and art supplies, the supermarket so we could steal food essentials. We both dropped out of high school and went to jail every few months. We partied a lot. We were teenagers and having a great time.
That night we were watching television and the music video came on the the Snoop Dog song G Thang. Snoop and Dr. Dre were at a Bar-B-Que.
“Ain’t nuthin’ but a G Thing baby/Two loc’d out g’s goin’ crazy”
The scene cuts to some girls. “That’s my cousin,” shouts Diego. “No..wait..that’s her..that’s my cousin Gloria.” He sits back, satisfied; “Ha-ha..fool, we’re goin’ ta L.A!”
We would leave the next night, at 11:00 p.m. on a Greyhound bus.
Diego had an uncle who was a drug dealer; Uncle Frank. In the 1970’s he had gone to prison for a botched jewelry store robbery. While in prison he severely beat a homosexual and received more time. “When you got a job to do in prison, you do it,” he told me. He looked like Edward James Olmos and wore sharp black suits and long wool coats in the winter. He was very dangerous.
The cops wanted to arrest Uncle Frank. They wanted to put him back in prison, he told us. He wanted Diego to take a camouflage duffel bag filled with high grade marijuana to Los Angeles and leave it with relatives. Diego solemnly agreed and he took the heavy duffel bag; a loyal nephew. “You can smoke whatever you want out of it. Just don’t fuck up,” said Uncle Frank.
Uncle Frank gave us a ride to the Greyhound station in his Cadillac.
We took our seats in the very back of the bus, near the bathroom. After all the passengers were on, the driver turned off the lights and it was very dark on the bus. A small, purplish light showing the way to the bathroom glowed above my head. Diego sat across the isle from me.
The bus was filled with fucked up people. Divorcees, fugitives, drug addicts, run aways. It was nearing midnight and people were talking. I catch fragments of conversations and disjointed stories:
“So..I’m like..two blocks away from my house and I’m like..fuck this..”
“They put me in jail..bitch said she’s afraid ah me. Niggah, I’m afraid ah her!”
I brought a bottle of Nyquil and pulled deeply on it. Minutes later, I was fast asleep.
I woke up with the sun. Sometime in the night, I had acquired a seat mate, as had Diego. I looked over at him, he was asleep, holding the camouflage bag close to his chest. I worried for him; if he was caught, he would go to prison for many years. The bag was hefty and packed solid with vacuum packed bricks of marijuana.
The person sitting next to me was a woman, frail and blond with cigarette stained fingers, Farrah Fawcett hair. Poor white trash. We were in Oregon. She had a large plastic bag filled with a generic orange soda called Simply Orange. I could tell she had been a battered wife.
There was a young girl sitting next to Diego. She had auburn hair and a white sweatshirt. She was sleeping and looked very innocent.
We came to a tuck stop and I woke Diego up so he could eat, piss. We walked around back and loaded a bowl into the pipe.
“What a fucked up place,” I said. “Who lives here?”
On the wall someone had drawn a woman bending over and spreading her asshole.
“Me and that girl..hooked up last night.” Diego told me. “I felt on her tits.”
“How old is she?”
“Fifteen.” Diego and I were both 17.
I exhaled, did the moral calculus. “Nah..two years ain’t shit. Don’t fuck her though. You fuck her you’ll never get rid a her.”
We went back to the bus; all the other people were walking out of the diner. I ran into the little store, got a Snapple, chicken strips and got back on the bus. The clerk was sullen. What a hellish place.
We entered northern California. Vast lands of nothingness. I looked out the window and watched the telephone wires. If you see them when you are still, it just looks like a drooping black cord. When you look at them while your moving, they rhythmically drift up and down. I thought they were beautiful like that, in motion. The woman who was sitting next to me had gotten off where I bought my chicken strips. That town was her home.
I look over and see Diego taking the girl into the bathroom. He was going to fuck her.
The Los Angeles Greyhound station is an ugly and neon place. It is dangerous. It was the early morning and a great many homeless people loitered about the premises. Mexican workers, expendable humans, were busy mopping the floors and cleaning the windows. The sun was bright.
Diego’s grandfather, “Grandpa Joe” was waiting for us. He was wearing a Panama hat, dirty pants and flip flops. He was elderly and had a walrus mustache. He drove an old pick up truck with pieces of scrap metal and plants in the back.
Grandpa Joe lived in Watts. Watts is a slum with no future, an area of darkness known for little else than the riots that took place there in the 60’s. He lived with a woman, a new, younger wife whom the rest of the family despised. She was Mexican. She had only recently moved in and brought with her two shitty little dogs, Pepito and Presidente.
Diego’s cousin also lived with Grandpa Joe. His name was Hector and he was slightly mentally disabled. Until very recently, he had been married to a nice girl and had a job. The girl died, someone had accidentally given her pills when she was drinking. Her photograph, surrounded by a bouquet of plastic flowers sat prominently in the tiny living room. I felt sorry for Hector.
There these people lived, in a squat little white house, in Watts. They would sit and watch the USA Network until late in the night. Silk Stockings was their favourite show.
Diego’s cousin Gloria, the one from the Snoop Dogg video, lived several blocks away with a live-in boyfriend. Diego was to give her the narijuana. He called her and she sent a car to pick us up.
We went outside to meet them. I looked across the street and saw a black man lifting weights in his yard. Chained to the weight bench was a pit bull. It was hot in South Central L.A.
I wondered what it had been like during the riots.
A small black car arrived driving by a man named Rolly, Gloria’s boyfreind. We climbed inside and Diego gave him the bag of drugs. I was thankful to be rid of it. I sat in the backseat and watched the poverty fly by in the window. “Los Angeles is a wasteland,” I thought to myself.
We were going to Hollywood. Rolly wanted to take the trip and we went along for the ride. We stop in Lynwood, on the border of Compton, to pick up Valdez, a fat Mexican gang banger who wants to go along for the ride. “Yeah man…fuckin Hollywood man. HOLLYWEIRD!”
Hollywood for these people was another planet; a place to be envied and despised. The South Central LA people put their pride in petty things, cars, gangs, clothes, false masculinity. It’s all pretend, all make-believe. These things are just ornaments to cover the despair of living in a crumbling neighborhood and having no options.
It is hot and raining and I could smell the dust rising. It was late afternoon, school had just gotten out and giant throngs of black and Mexican schoolkids filled the sidewalks.
We stop into a suburban district, and pull into a cul-de-sac. Diego, Rolly, Valdez and myself go into a house. Inside it is dark, and spacious. There are leather couches and mirrors, tacky paintings. It was the house of a drug dealer. Diego wanted to buy some cocaine and told us to chill out and play video games while we waited. On a leather ottoman a mirror sat with a razor next to a fat line of coke.
“Kick back…you can finish that shit,” a man in a bathrobe tells us as he walks by, pointing at the cocaine with his chin. Rolly disapears into another room.
“This shit is sketchy man.” I protest. He is snorting coke. “We don”t even know these mutherfuckers and were all of a sudden chillen with ’em, doing lines with ’em?”
“Bah..fuck it. Be cool,” he tells me. I knew he was right.
We didn’t make it to Hollywood; instead we stayed in that house, doing free drugs and drinking liquor; fucking around.
A morbidly obese Mexican teenager came into the house and looked hard at us. He appeared to have metabolism problems as his face was emourmous and his cheeks were flushed and red. He had a high pitched, falsetto voice. He and Valdez went into a room and I heard to high pitched wail of this boy, “Valdezzz..you pinched an ounce!”
I wanted to get out of there. I was sick of these fucking freaks.
It was now dark outside. We didn’t come to LA for this, to be cooped up in some coke deaker’s pad. Rolly told us he knew of a party, across town in East Los Angeles. “We gotta leave like now.” It was 9:00. “Gonna be a good party. You can see how we do in LA.”
We all piled back into Rolly’s car and set off. I was high on cocaine and weed. Diego was drunk and talking too loud, laughing boozily. The rap single California Love was on heavy rotation and was playing from every car:
California..knows how to party/
In the cityyyy…city of Wattsss/
In the cityyy..city of Comp-tin..
We arrived at the house where the party was supposed to be. Long lines of cars, people standing around, loud music from every house. There was graffiti on everything; it wasn’t the graffiti like New York or San Francisco. This was serious graffiti; the refined placas of local gang members, roll calls of dead comrades. This graffiti was East LA graffiti with deadly messages of power and control. There was graffiti on the curb, graffiti on the doorways, graffiti on broken down cars. It was very tall, skinny and blocky, sharp edges and square letters.
“You guys go in there, we’re gonna go get some beers and shit. Anyone says something, just tell ’em you’re with me. This is my cousin’s house.”
He drove away.
I had never seen real Mexican gangs before; just in the movies and in photographs. They looked strange to me, very exagergated, very old styles. Large mustaches, big muscles, old cars. A kid wearing a Mexican poncho walked past us.
“This is fucking East LA man.” Diego said.
“Yeah, cool. So what the fuck are we doing here?” I asked, laughing. I was high and didn’t give a shit. “Lets go inside. I bet they got beer.”
The party was in a basement and to get there you had to go down a rickety stairway. There was graffiti on the walls of the house.
At the bottom of the stairs was a small, crowded space that was hot with the collected body heat. It smelled like weed and sweat. Basements are hard places to blend into, there is an intimacy to this kind of setting. Sittting on the last two steps was a man playing the guitar.
We found an empty couch and sat amongst the party rubble; beer cans, bottles and jackets. It was dark inside and after my eyes had adjusted, I could make out what was going on. In the corner I noticed a large man with a handlebar mustache. His arms where covered in prison tattoos and he wore a blue bandanna, folded just so, pulled almost over his eyes. He was wearing dress slacks pulled high on his stomach, polished shoes. A cholo.
The Marvin Gaye classic, I’m Your Puppet played in the background.
“Yo..Diego,” I said. “We should fuckin’..split, right?” I hoped I wasn”t being paranoid. These were Mexicans in a Mexican neighborhood, I wondered if I was being racist.
“Yeah..let’s go.” he said. “We”ll hop the MTA to Hollywood. We got an hour till twelve.”
A girl plopped herself between him and I. She was fat and her face was coated in make-up to make it look white. She was drunk and flirtatious. I wanted her away from us; this was someone’s bitch, she was going to cause problems.
I chug my beer, Diego had been passed a joint.
“What chu claim?” a voice said with hostility.
“Nah,” Diego said calmly. “We don’t bang. We just write graffiti.”
I looked over and saw a thin boy standing over Diego.
“No, ese..whose your clique,” the boy said hissed a snake.
“It’s not like that,” I blurted out.
He turned toward me.
“What does that shirt mean?” he asked. I had been wearing a t-shirt for the 80’s punk band Black Flag. It’s logo is 4 black bars. They didn’t know what it was therefore, it constituted something alien, a threat.
“It’s..it’s a band.” I stammer. I looked at his face and saw a wispy mustache sprouting from his lip. He was sweating.
This was fucked up. This is what happens before you get jumped. Fuck.
I looked at the stairs. Where the hell was Rolly?
“Yo..check it out,” I told the kid. “Our homeboy broght us here. He’ll be back in a minute. We’re not from here..we don’t bang.” I was afraid. One on one, either Diego or I could have whipped this kid’s ass. But we were in his place. He was earning his stripes, impressing the older ones.
“See, my homeboy here.” the boy points at another, bigger kid. “He thinks you’re from SSL (the South Side Locos, a violent Mexican street gang). You callin my homeboy,” he grits his teeth and cocks his head, “a liar?”
My mouth had gone dry and the room had started to spin. Everyone was staring at us. “Naw dude. Um. You got us twisted with someone else. We”re not from here, like I said. We”re just trying to get outta here. You know?” I looked at him and decided I could take two, maybe three punches from him if I had to.
Other boys began to get up fom their seats. I look at Diego. Then I was punched in the face.
“Break out!” I heard Diego shout. He was tackled by three people and I stood there, frozen. I couldn’t leave without him. I pushed the kid out of the way and ran toward were Diego was. People were shouting in Spanish. I smashed into the group, knocking them over and Diego somehow emerged from the tangle of legs and arms.
In the chaos a large lamp had been knocked over, casting the small room into darkness. I felt hand grab my face. It was Diego.
We ran up the stairs. I heard people shouting downstairs. We broke through the screen door and outside. I was covered in sweat.
We ran down the street. I looked back and saw the sidewalk in front of the house quickly fill with people wanting to hurt us. It was dark and no one saw what direction we had gone.
We cut through a yard, hop a fence, and run over someone’s garden. Our adrenaline was on overdrive.
Running across a busy street brought us to a donut shop. The parking lot was filled with people, cars blaring music, people hangin’, talking shit.
We ran into the crowd, around the corner and leaned up against the wall, catching our breath. For the first minute, we just sat and panted. Diego bent over, hands on his knees, I leaned against the wall with my head tilted back.
“That shit..” pant-pant “what the…fuck was that..” pant-pant, laugh. Neither of us could finish a sentence.
We calmed down.
“Man..you alright?” Diego asks, looking over my face.
“Yeah, yeah. I’m fine,” I said.
There was silence. The danger of what had just happened began to sink in.
“Hey. Happy New Year,” Diego said.
“Yeah. Shit. You too.” I said. I was happy we were safe. We hugged.
He was my best friend.
Diego and I eventually drifted apart. Several months after this incident, Diego was struck in the head with a champagne bottle. He had been caught stealing video game cartridges from a fraternity party. After that the world stopped making sense to him. He began to have paranoid delusions and would call me, begging for help. He thought people were trying to hurt him. He was arrested for pulling a blade on a co-worker and sent to a halfway house. While there, he took a razor blade and cut his wrists. I still miss him.