From the very beginning, I knew
this was going to be different. As Martin and
I drove up to my new apartment building a couple
of LAPD officers across the street were preparing to tow away an obviously
stripped and stolen car. "Quick! Let's start unloading the van while
the cops are still here!" Martin exclaimed. As I exited the truck and
looked down into the street something shiny attracted my attention. I
bent down to examine it and then shouted incredulously, "Marty!
There is a live bullet lying here in the gutter! What the hell is a bullet
doing in the middle of the street?" This discovery symbolized
well the next eight months I spent as a resident of downtown Hollywood.
The apartment building into which I moved
was relatively comfortable and safe with an armed security guard
at night. Hollywood then was an eclectic mix of mostly Latino immigrants
and homeless with a smattering of struggling musicians/actor types.
But Hollywood defied generalizations, as anybody and everybody might
be encountered at any moment. However, it seemed everyone kind of
ascribed to the druggie, tattoo/body piercing alternative bohemian
thing. I liked the heavy concentration of Spanish-speaking persons
in the neighborhood and this is partially what brought me to move
there. In Hollywood, I could just sit in a restaurant, soak up the
language of my surroundings, and immersed in Spanish everyday learn
it thoroughly month after month. My first night in my apartment I
took a phone call with a wrong number and handled everything in Spanish.
Yes, Hollywood was as good a place to live as any if I wanted to
polish up my Spanish.
I had never lived in an area so densely
populated by immigrants and I had much to learn. The fist thing that
jumped out at me was the incredible amount of noise in the neighborhood.
Such a quantity of people crammed into such a small space made for
a cacophony of TV sets and mariachi music, phones and car
alarms, TV sets and family laughter, marital arguments. The noise
mostly began to settle down as the evening progressed except for
the sirens in the distance and the suddenly ubiquitous "WOPWOPWOPWOP!" of
the LAPD helicopter during its frequent visits to the area. But all
too often just as everything quieted down and I was finally in bed
relaxed with sleep approaching gunshots would explode in the street
outside, "BAMN! BAMN! BAMN!" I suddenly was no longer even
close to falling sleep. This brings me to what was perhaps the biggest
problem of living in Hollywood: gangs. Well, drugs were probably
the biggest problem, but the two were interrelated.
One might harbor a distaste for violent street gangs
in general, but to have them as neighbors is to learn to truly despise them.
The Highland set of the 18th Street gang (the biggest gang
in Los Angeles) dominated the streets and were the single most powerful influence
in the area. After dark, the gangsters hung out on the street corners and dealt
drugs openly. The corner of Yucca and Wilton about 100
yards from my apartment was particularly bad. When gunshots rang out and the
sirens eventually followed, the chances were excellent that this corner was the
site of whatever violence had just occurred. On a busy evening one could hardly
sneeze without knocking down a gangster, transient, prostitutue, or other such
I sometimes would watch the gangsters
with shaved heads, white T-shirt, gold chains, tattoos, and baggy
pants in with their low-rider cars and loud stereos and I would wonder
if they actually wanted someone to shoot them. The gangmembers weren't
hard to identify! They might as well have painted targets on the
back of their shirts. These gangmembers were like a cancer and affected
the life of the community adversely in a myriad of different ways
both large and small. Residents of our block simply tried to survive
the best they could by ignoring, collaborating, and/or simply putting
up with them. Yet with the gangsters there ultimately could be no
doubt: the neighborhood was theirs! The police might come,
but then they would leave. The gangsters were present "24/7," as
they would say. You cross the gangmembers and/or get in their way,
they would either beat and/or kill you.
I would sit there on the corner watching
all this and wonder what the hell I was doing living in bozoland.
I was learning what it meant to live in a gang-infested neighborhood.
It was a very humbling experience. To know right around the corner
some hard working father was robbed of $15 right in front of his
kid and then murdered in cold blood. To have heard the fatal gunshots.
To know nobody would be brought to justice for this crime.
The very few times I walked around there
at night, I seriously CONTEMPLATED carrying a weapon. The
gangsters would look at me and tell me with their eyes, "There
you walk on my sidewalk - only with my permission." I had always
previously (and ever since) resisted carrying a weapon in Los Angeles
despite pressure from my friends, but I was not a fool. To
walk around there at night without a gun was pure idiocy, and going
around armed was little better (a serious Catch-22 situation). But
the hell if I was going to ask permission from anyone to walk in
the street - this was the United States and I was a free man in my
own country! I minded my business and was careful not to challenge
any of the gangsters and they pretty much left me alone. I could
tell this was a situation likely sooner or later to end up in an
unfortunate manner, and this had much to do with why I only lived
there for eight months. However, I would have shot one of those 18th
Street gangsters in a second to save my own life. In such an environment,
I have no apologies for CONTEMPLATING carrying a handgun in
violation of the law. I say all this as someone who has a serious
learned dislike for the damned things! With all her anti-gun rhetoric,
our local LA Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg didn't have to walk the
area around Yucca Ave. at night without her police escort.
I learned that it is a strange thing
to live in fear. Not fear so strong that it occupies all the attention,
but fear always present in the back of the mind somewhere as daily
life unfolds. This
fear for one's personal safety unquestionably degrades the quality
of life. I sometimes thought how it must be even worse for the gangsters!
Think about the fear a gangmember lives with walking the streets
knowing that at any moment he might be shot at, wounded or killed.
Think about how that kind of stress and how enervating it would be!
Imagine the dreams and nightmares that comes to a gangster in the
middle of the night when his deepest and darkest fears rise to the
surface unrestrained. That is true fear! One wonders if when they
finally get shot the gangmembers don't breath a sigh of relief, "Finally,
it's over! Now I can at last relax!" A lifestyle such as that
of the gangster most likely is going to end sooner or later one way
or another. The ending most likely will not be a happy one.
I was lucky since all I had to do was
go live elsewhere more auspicious. My heart went out to those good
people who could not afford to move someplace else. Yet I found it
profoundly depressing to live around so many people who were apparently
unable to hope for more from life. It is especially tragic that young
people have to grow up in such a place. Knowing nothing else, they
might arrive to think such a place as normal and acceptable. It is
not normal. It is not difficult to see how growing up in such a place
can help a young person arrive at the conclusion that the world is
an orderless, chaotic and frightening place in which to live. As
a teacher in Los Angeles, the number one complaint I heard from my
students was having to live in fear for personal safety. They would
ask me (a representative of the "adult" world), "Why doesn't someone
do something?" As disgusted with the situation myself as they
were, I had no answer to that question. It was this disgust with
the status quo, of course, that had much to do with why I did not
stay a teacher in Los Angeles for very long.
And then there was the second major Hollywood
problem: the thousands of teenage runaways living on the Hollywood
streets. Begging for money or drinking from a bottle in a paper bag,
I always felt sorry for these lost kids - especially the girls, many
of whom seemed to stumble drug-sodden through life being led around
by some bumptious boy in a leather jacket and predatory look. Dirty
and destitute, these young women seemed to have "VICTIM" tattooed
across their foreheads and looked utterly lost. All these teenage
runaways from all over the country flocking to Hollywood as if it
were the promised land! Hollywood would be the last place I would
go if I were fourteen years old and fleeing an unsafe home. Right
there arriving at the bus terminal there are people just waiting
to chew you up and spit you out. But so many of these kids seemed
to embrace self-destruction with the abandon of the Godforsaken.
They had that nothing-is-serious-everything-is-a-joke attitude; you
could tell many just did not give a shit: "Let us drink tonight
for tomorrow we may die!" Like their Hollywood cholo cousins,
these street kids seemed to walk the earth with one foot already
in the grave. And like the cholos, they made remarkably poor
neighbors: they were loud, obnoxious, and omnipresent on Hollywood
Blvd. at all hours of the day and night. They also helped add to
the crime problem. One night a band of homeless youth attacked some
other homeless person and dragged him into an abandoned building
across the street from where I lived. (Note to Hollywood tourists:
STAY OUT OF ABANDONED BUILDINGS IN HOLLYWOOD - BAD THINGS HAPPEN
THERE!) They tortured him there for eight hours before they murdered
him by bashing his head in with a brick (they beat him, burned him
with candles, urinated on him). As opposed to the more mundane Hollywood
murders and atrocities like abandoned babies found in dumpsters and
prostitutes lit on fire that never make the news, this one even got
air-time on the evening newscasts.
And then there was Kevin. Kevin was the
boyfriend of one of my best friends who had run away from his home
in Massachusetts when he was thirteen and had come to Hollywood to
become a drug addict/writer and die in Hollywood (his own words).
He managed to scrape by for years on the street as a male prostitute
and by the time I met him he was already nineteen years old. Kevin
was a tallish-thin wisp of a young man, and I could tell he was lost
from the first meeting. He had major drug and alcohol problems as
well as being HIV-positive. He finally overdosed on cocaine - his
heart exploded and blood came out of his mouth as my friend burst
into the bathroom where he was shooting up. Kevin died in my friend's
arms. When I heard the news, I was sorry for my friend but not terribly
surprised. I could see the stamp of death on Kevin almost from the
start. You can see that same kind of drugged-out, wasting away look
on so many of the walking dead of Hollywood. Drive down Santa Monica
and Highland or La Brea and look at all the Hollywood fauna and flora.
You will see this same look on them.
In one place or another, I lived in Hollywood for almost three years
and it was my home. If I did not want to live there forever, I did
learn many things in my stay. And I still
have a soft-spot in my heart for certain old hangouts of mine. For
example, I loved going to Bob's Frolic Bar near the corner of Wilton
and Hollywood Blvd.
Bob's Frolic II, in downtown Hollywood
There amidst the rock-and-rollers, drunks and heroin addicts, I
would put dollar bills into the CD machine and write in the corner. I
loved that place! There were also a half-dozen Mexican food restaurants
that I would sit in after work and watch the world pass by out the
window. The Latin American transvestite (or transsexual) prostitutes
would walk by in their ridiculously revealing clothes and the Mexicans
in the restaurant and me would look at each other and laugh. Sometimes
I would go sit and watch the free needle exchange program where hypes
could trade in their used needles for new ones and supposedly lessen
the risk of AIDS infection. I would look at all the people creech
up to that street corner and I would think to myself, "Where do
all these people come from? Why the hell would you ever even try
heroin?" I guess there are just places on this earth where people
of a similar interest (i.e. heroin, hustling) come to be together.
Then there was the white-trashy prostitute I often passed in the
morning as I went to work. I remember seeing her filthy and without
shoes once at 7:05 a.m. negotiating with an overweight "joe" in his
gas company truck and in uniform! Hollywood might have had strong
negatives, but it was often colorful.
After living in downtown Hollywood for
eight months, I was more than eager to move. I studiously canvassed
the area, and moved to the one nice block I could find in the area
with apartments. In fact, as soon as I saw the apartment
building right on the border of Larchmont/Hancock Park area and Hollywood I
said to myself, "That's it!" Two weeks later I was signing
the lease and moving in. I lived there quietly for almost two years
until I finally left Los Angeles for good.