LA Bus Tours: Gang Turf And Tombstones

December 2, 2012

LARB:

Crime as entertainment: What does that say about our culture and more importantly, our values?

Does crime ‘tourism’ lessen out sensitivities to problems that are real and disproportionately effect those less fortunate than ourselves?

What happens to a community and to families when kids see gang members and criminals idealized and made famous? Who is to blame when fortune are made off of what is the tragedy and suffering of others?

Will neighborhoods that are ignored and forgotten somehow benefit from this new found attention? Can that attention be turned into something positive that will serve the community?

HERE’S HOW TO TAKE A GANG TOUR: start at a bus parked outside a Silverlake building called The Dream Center, where grown adults cluster like kids on a field trip. Pay $65, and take your complimentary bottled water. Notice the church group from Missouri, 20-strong and blonde, and eye their grocery bag full of snacks. Notice the surprising number of Australians. They pace restlessly. One of them is named Tiny, but he isn’t. He appears to be here with his son, a teenager in baggy shorts and braces.

Alfred is the guide. He’s a marine turned gangbanger turned entrepreneur. He’s cracking Inner City Jokes. His phrase. We don’t need the windows open cuz we don’t do drive-bys. Also, we can’t have them open because the bus is air-conditioned. He’s hired three other guys to help lead the tour — ex-gang-members who had trouble finding other jobs with felonies on their records. They’ve turned their experiences into stories for travelers. They are curators and exhibits at once. When they’re not giving tours, they’re doing conflict mediation in the communities these tours put on display. The $65 will fund this work.

Your friend the screenwriter arrives. He compliments your tactful yellow dress — neither Crips blue nor Bloods red — and you remember elementary school field trips downtown. You and your fellow Westsiders were given careful instructions about gang hues. The Missouri group leader is a buzz-cut guy whom Alfred affectionately calls “Pastor.” Where’s Pastor? he says, when he’s talking about something Pastor might be interested in.

On board the bus, the jokes continue — In the event of an emergency, you’ll find bullet proof vests under your seats — but the scenery changes: Silverlake bungalows give way to the warehouses of downtown and the signage of a hybrid city — Papuserias and Pho shops, Spanglish enticements: Thrift Store Y Café. A hotline at 1-800-72-DADDY promises dads it can get them custody or at least visitation rights.

Each guide stands at the front of the bus to tell his story. One guy, let’s call him Capricorn, points out the projects where his first girlfriend still lives. “Still won’t take my calls,” he says. Another guy lays down statistics — every felony, every sentence, every prison, how much coke he got busted for each time. One guy describes a brutal turf war on the first day of junior high, when the kids from three different elementary schools — each one loyal to a different gang — were all jammed together for the first time. They started clapping at each other until the police came. You think clapping is a kind of hand signal. You learn it’s not. Guys get their first guns when they’re eleven, you’re told. Moms don’t ask where the money comes from.

You hear notes of something like nostalgia when these guys talk about their former lives — the weapons and arrests, the monstrous tallies of their former cash flows. Pride comes before the fall and also after it. But the nostalgia is tangled up with a deep and genuine lamenting of the terms of this territory--how harshly it circumscribes the path, how inevitably it punishes alternatives. For these guys, though, things are different now. They got out of prison and wanted another way. When Alfred says, I’m a spiritual man, you see him looking around to see if Pastor’s listening. His reform is operative on all fronts. He’ll tell you about his struggle for a bigger vocabulary: I learned “gentrification” in solitary; I practice “recidivism” in the shower. He calls Capricorn’s life story “an indigenous tale from the hood.”

Scholar Graham Huggan defines “exoticism” as an experience that “posits the lure of difference while protecting its practitioners from close involvement.” You’re in the hood but you aren’t — it rolls by your windows, a perfect panorama of itself. You’re deep inside the climate-controlled isolation of car culture.

You pass the old LA County jail, which is surprisingly beautiful. It’s got a handsome stone façade and stately columns. The new LA County jail — called The Twin Towers — isn’t beautiful at all; it’s a stucco panopticon the color of sick flesh. Alfred gets on the mic to talk about his time in there: 10 guys in a cell meant for six, extra men moved to closets and kitchens whenever inspection teams rolled through. He talks about the rats. He calls them Freeway Freddies. It was an ecosystem in there, evidently, and out here too: you see an entire neighborhood selling bail bonds. You see Abba Bail Bonds and Jimmie Dright Jr. Bail Bonds and Big Dog a.k.a. I’m still tough Bail Bonds, and Aladdin a.k.a. I need my fucking third wish Bail Bonds. Bail bond shops remind you that every guy serving time has a mother and every mother has a story of that time she went to the bail bond strip mall and had no idea which bail bond shop to choose.

From downtown, you head to South Central and finally to Watts. The towers are eerie and wondrous — like something a witch made — pointing ragged into a blue sky. Capricorn tells you he’s climbed them. Every Watts kid climbs them. A lot of guys get them tattooed on their backs or biceps — the distinctive profile of their bony cones. One of the Missouri girls asks, “What’re they made of?” and Capricorn says, “What does it look like they’re made of?” You like this kind of tour, where there is such a thing as a stupid question, though this — to you — doesn’t seem like one. What are they made of? Capricorn finally mutters, shells and shit. He’s right, you find out later — they’re made of shells, steel, mortar, glass, and pottery. An immigrant named Sam Rodia made Italian folk art the template for generations of gang tats.

Capricorn tells you he chose his name before he knew his zodiac sign. It happened to work out. He gets a call from a guy named Puppet but doesn’t take it. He says, “I can’t deal with that right now.” He tells you he still believes his phone is tapped — by whom, he doesn’t say — so he changes phones nearly every week, gives the old ones to his nieces and nephews. Your screenwriter friend says, “So now your nieces and nephews’ phones are tapped?” Capricorn doesn’t laugh. Your friend tells him you grew up here, in Santa Monica, and you feel ashamed because you know Santa Monica isn’t here at all.

The here of Watts is pastel houses with window gratings in curly patterns. Here is yard sales with bins full of stuffed animals and used water guns. Here is Crips turf. “Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country,” writes Susan Sontag, “is a quintessential modern experience.” Part of what feels strange about this tour is that you’re assuming the posture of a tourist — How many people have died here? How do the boys come of age?—but you are only 18 miles from where you grew up.

Alfred says more people have died in LA gang conflicts than the Troubles in Ireland. You’d never thought of it like that, which is his point: no one thinks of it like that. These blocks look so ordinary — South Central Avenue itself is just a gritty bracelet of strip malls and auto body shops; Watts is parched lawns that once burned. The here of Watts was on fire in 1965. Black boys who hadn’t been let into the Boy Scouts were sick of it. They made their own clubs. 35,000 people rose up. People got sick of it again in 1992, when Rodney King was beaten and thousands of people, the children of the Watts riots, said enough. Reginald Denny with a brick to the head said enough.

You try to remember what you thought about Rodney King when you were young, but you can’t. Is that possible? You can’t. You were nine years old. You can remember, faintly, that some part of you got stubborn about the police — but they only would’ve hit him if he did something wrong. You still wanted to believe in uniforms and a system of order that had always served you well. You remember OJ Simpson better than King. OJ Simpson’s wife was killed in Brentwood, where you went to school…

Read it all.

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