This photo, from 1991, brings back such fond memories. As I mentioned, my housemate and her husband owned a super cool cafe in downtown L.A. Here I am hanging out at the cafe with with three of my six housemates. Missing is Bibbe’s husband, Sean Carrillo, her oldest son, and Sean’s sister, my dear friend T, who is doing a guest post next week.
2777 Francis Avenue: The seedier side of our street
Despite the art-filled life we were living inside our house, the neighborhood outside was gangland.
The Mara Salvatrucha gang ruled our neighborhood and left their mark — MS, Mara, and MS-13 — everywhere, including spraypainting it on our house and writing it in the dust on my dirty car windows. It seemed like they all hung out at what I called “the gang house” at one end of the block. Unfortunately, that end of the block was on the way to everything within walking distance from our place: the tastiest Thai food in L.A., the convenience store where we bought our smokes, and even the payphone we used. (Our house didn’t have a phone.)
If I needed to walk past their place, I would lace up my Doc Marten boots, put on baggy jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, and try to put as much “Don’t fuck with me” in my walk as I could. Sometimes they would be sitting on the front porch with music blaring and I would feel a shiver of fear run down my spine. But the most they ever did was yell a random comment or two, which I ignored, holding my breath until I rounded the corner.
But Sean, who was Chicano, was not so lucky. It seemed they knew some punk white girl was not a threat, but they weren’t so sure about other men. One day he woke up and found all four of his tires slashed.
Another time, his nephew, a sweet, happy-go lucky, talented artist (whose illustrations would later be featured in the New Yorker) drove up on his scooter. He was immediately accosted by gang members who asked him, “Who you with?” After a few minutes, they realized this skinny young kid wasn’t a gang member and in fact, wouldn’t hurt a fly, so they left him alone.
One night, they scared the shit out of me, though. I mentioned before that if you came home late and couldn’t park nearby, you left the neighborhood for an hour or two and came back hoping for a closer parking spot so you didn’t have to walk far. Even then, there was zero talking and a fast-paced walk up to the front door and it’s double deadbolts.
One night, I came home alone and felt lucky to find a close spot. But as soon as I parked, a van pulled right in front of me. Crap. Now what? I waited. Two guys got out. Sean had advised me to never make eye contact with a gang member. So, I stared straight ahead out my window as they got out and “split” my car.
That means they each walked on a different side of it as they passed. Gang members do this so they both aren’t gunned down at the same time. Learn something new every day, don’t you? I watched the guy on the driver’s side notice me sitting in my car as he drew near. I held my breath, but kept looking right ahead. He took his finger and slowly drew it across my window at eye level as he passed. My heart was pounding and I was frozen in fear, not daring to look over at him, staring right ahead, but seeing him out of my peripheral vision. As soon as they were a few cars behind me, I started my car and got the hell out there, changing my plans about going home right then.
Another night, my Danish housemate and I came home. Let me back up and say that our standard procedure at night was not to walk up the brightly lit series of steps from the sidewalk to the front porch. Instead, we would creep up the grassy hilled lawn in the shadows so nobody would see us. This time we started up the lawn and two men were standing there in the dark near the house. We both silently did 180-degree turns, went back down the grass and then up the steps, too afraid to even breath. My hand shook as I undid the deadbolts and finally got in the house, slamming the door behind me. We ran, terrified up to Bibbe’s room, and told her what happened. Of course, as I mentioned we didn’t even have a phone to call the police.
Bibbe, a savvy New York born and bred woman, had been mugged several times and thought nothing of going downstairs and confronting the men. But to my surprise, instead of yelling at them to get the fuck off our property, she took a different tact. She told them, in Spanish, that they had scared her daughters, who were good girls, and that they must leave now. To my surprise, the men became supplicating and apologized to her, saying they meant no disrespect and were leaving immediately.
For that day on, my understanding of the Latino and Chicano cultures changed forever. For the majority of them hold honor above all else. I never was as afraid of the gang members in my neighborhood again. They had their own code of ethics and it most likely didn’t involve harassing some college girl minding her own business. Especially when she actually lived in their hood, the area they worked to protect.
That didn’t mean we didn’t live around some crazy people. One time we pulled into the convenience store. While one housemate was in buying smokes, the other, the future Rolling Stone rock star, went to make a call on the payphone. A few minutes later, he came running back and jumped in the car, locking the door saying some psycho had come after him with a baseball bat.
Another time we were hanging out in the living room talking and a volley of gunfire made us hit the floor. It sounded like it was coming through our front window. We Army crawled through the living room and to the stairs and then peeked out a second-story window but saw nothing.
Police helicopters with giant spotlights were nothing unusual, but they always sent a thrill of excitement through me to hear the sound so close by. One night I was bored and so I sat out on our front porch on the cold cement, silently spying on a man who kept hanging out in the street and watched his drug deal go down. I could probably go on and on, but this post is long enough.
Dear reader, please stayed tuned until next Monday, when I have my last post about 2777 Francis Avenue (but not my last LA Life post), which I’m hoping will be a guest post from one of my favorite housemates (I should clarify: she was one of my favorite housemates as long as I wasn’t trying to wake her up too early in which case she would turn into Satan’s concubine and hiss like the exorcist: “Touch me and you die!!!!!” )