Dusk. Friday. Late spring, a normal Friday. 1993. Phone rings, “Can we come down?”
“Sure, of course.”
“See you in a few.”
I go out onto the front porch to wait for the boys to whirrrrr down on their BMXs. The air has that bright end of sunset red tinge. Standing in the middle of my street and looking southwest, you can see a strip of ocean and the lights of Tijuana, on a clear days you can see the bull ring. My old neighbor, Letha, and I sometimes watched fireworks on Coronado and in Imperial Beach on the Fourth of July from that very vantage point sharing a glass of wine. Thinking of that, I get up from my porch and walk out into the street and look toward the ocean. Fog is fast gathering down there and the bright sunset is swallowed, dusk no longer tinged with gold. I hear a gunshot behind me, and not far. I turn toward the sound and take a few steps up the street. My heart goes cold when I see the boys coming on their bikes. Where’s the shooter? They stop at the corner. I began walking as fast as I can toward them. I hear Jimmy, “Don’t let her see, Jason! Stop her!”
I’m scared for the boys. There’s someone with a gun up there. Jimmy, Mikey and Marc stay where they are while Jason rides quickly toward me. I wish they would just come HERE. We could go inside. The news tells daily of drive-bys. I don’t want them lost to that random killing.
“You wanna see me do a can-can, Martha?” Jason asks and launches into this complicated trick.
“What happened?” I ask.
“How about a Bunny Hop? Do you wanna’ see me do a bunny hop?”
“Jason, what happened?” I now hear sirens in the distance, coming from the fire department a mile up the street.
His response is, “Don’t go up there, Martha.”
“Is it a body, Jason?”
“Yeah. Some guy was shot.”
By then I’m at the corner. The boys try to stand in front of me, shielding me from the sight of a middle-aged Mexican lying face down in the dirt beside a neighbor’s driveway.
“Is he dead?” I ask the boys.
No one has ventured any closer than the corner where we stand roughly 30 feet from the body.
We hear screaming and running coming from the alley down which this man had run. A woman’s voice, a man’s voice. If they’re saying anything, I can’t understand it. It might not even be words, just crying and screaming; fear, rage and anguish seeking expression.
He’s just a man. He’s wearing navy blue work pants and a white shirt; the kind of sensible, serious black steel-toed shoes a delivery guy wears to protect his feet. That this simple person would be involved in some deathly drama seems absurd. I stare without really getting what I’m seeing. The boys are worried. I should not see things like this. Their Martha should never see anything so ugly.
I realize this and think that it’s my job, as an adult, to shelter the boys, but here they are sheltering me. I decide to let them, and I turn toward home.
“Let’s go home,” I say. “The cops will be here and it’s their business, not ours.”
“I wonder what happened?” asks Mikey.
No one answers. Not long before, maybe only a year, someone had broken into Ryan’s house and cut up his mother. We learned of this the morning after, when Jimmy went down to get Ryan to go to the jumps. The house was cordoned off with Do Not Enter Crime Scene tape. He came back up the street to get me, to go down there, to get me to go look. It was horrifying, chilling. There was blood on the concrete sidewalk by the front door on the stucco walls and on the door itself. Someone had been hurt badly. Neighbors said that the fire department had taken Ryan’s mom away on a gurney. Ryan had stayed with the neighbor for an hour or so until his dad came and got him. We never saw Ryan again.
Our neighborhood is constantly in competition with two others for having the most violent crimes. It’s the result of the clashes of cultures and drug gangs (Asian vs. Mexican vs. Black vs. White meth farmers and dealers). It’s the result of people working three jobs to hold a life together, exhausted, frustrated, poor people who want more than they’ll ever have — their desires fed by the outrageous entertainment centers for which they’ve hocked their lives. It’s the result of passion and love and cheating and child-stealing and coyote depositing and INS deporting and all the rough unjust moving around of people for one reason or the other. It’s the result of despair.
Larry McMurtry wrote about California in the introduction to his book of essays about Texas, In a Narrow Grave.
“…present-day Texas is a very rich subject, particularly for the novelist. Present-day California might be even richer, but California, whether as a subject or a place to live, is almost too taxing. There the confusion is greater, the rivalries of manners more intense: the question is whether anyone can live in California and comprehend it clearly now…”
It’s a very good question. My gang of white adolescent boys and I stand on the edges of this violent, multi-ethnic neighborhood some distant sentimental liberal has named the “Urban Village,” and watch it shoot itself, knife itself, beat itself up mostly in relation to race, custom, language, territory, drugs.
“For the Mexicans,” says my neighbor Chayo, “it’s about territory, not drugs. For the Blacks and Asians it’s about territory and drugs.” For the Whites? No one knows. Few hang around, only people like me who can’t move; finances hold us here. Where would I get another house in San Diego for $800/month? The white neighbors across the street have lived here since the ‘60’s when it was a beautiful neighborhood. Most of the older Mexicans have lived here that long, too, and attended Hoover High when it was one of the best high schools in San Diego. Old photos of the hood show fancy cars, immaculate lawns and gardens, men in white shirts and fedoras, women in pretty shirt-dresses with aprons. But this Mexican is face down next to the light pole, dead. None of us knows why.
We sit on the curb under the palm tree in my front yard, watching the street. Night falls soft and starlit somewhere, but here the sky is a wild red and blue disco show of police cars and fire engines. No one asks questions, looks for witnesses or talks to neighbors. It seems they simply examine the body, check his I.D. and haul him away. Chances are good he has no I.D., another “Illegal” come up to earn a living where he might actually have that chance. Most of our stories have no better or more meaningful ending than that.