The LA Gang Dude
I’m in Los Angeles because my wife, Chonda, has a couple of jobs to do. In between jobs she likes to shop. When she shops I usually just hang. Watch. Wait. Sometimes hold her purse. Tonight I’m going to talk to someone. I’m going to initiate a conversation for the sole purpose of connecting with my fellow human being. Just make small talk, I tell myself. No matter how uncomfortable, it’s these connections that will quicken that sullen spirit of mine. At least I’m buying into that idea for now.
Not too far away I spot someone I’d like to talk to. I choose him mainly because he’s the only man in the place at the time—the H&M store on Sunset Blvd, a woman’s clothing shop. Already I imagine a kinship, a certain kind of fellowship that men in dress stores understand. Although he’s not holding a purse, I believe he’s as bored as I am. He’s a big Hispanic guy. Over six foot. He’s leaning forward with his elbows on a rack of dresses. His head is shaved and he’s wearing wrap-around shades. As I approach slightly from behind and to his right I notice that most of the back of his head is taken up in a tattoo. Just above his medulla obbligato are the capital letters BH.
“Hey, dude,” I call out when I think I’m close enough to be heard above the loud pop music playing in the store speakers. I never say “dude,” but something in my gut tells me to this time. He swivels his head just enough that he finds me. I circle a hand over the back of my own head and ask him, “So what’s the BH stand for?”
He keeps his weight rested on the dress rack. I can’t read his eyes for the shades, but the corners of his mouth are turned down. He says something, but I can’t hear above the music. So I ask him again. He tells me but I still don’t know what he’s said. Once I again I listen to my gut that tells me (begs me) not to ask for a third time. I nod as if I heard. Then he adds, “It was a gang I was in.”
Even though I’m from Tennessee, I’ve heard about LA gangs—just that there are gangs and sometimes they can be dangerous. But this guy is alone. No gang to back him up. I figure he doesn’t have to put on a tough-man show for me. Maybe that’s why I’m bold enough to ask him, “So what did you do in the gang?” (For the purpose of some potentially sensitive members of my audience, I will now censor the remainder of this story. If I do this well, you’ll never know what words have been changed.)
He says, “Stupid sugar, mostly.”
I nod and say, “Hey, who doesn’t?” He looks away from me, across racks filled with dresses, some up to 75% off. “So you’re not in the gang now?” I ask. He scowls and I’m glad he’s wearing the shades now. Kind of a what-I-don’t-know-won’t-hurt-me thinking, I guess.
“I’ve been in prison most of my life.” He’s looking right at me, or at least the shades are aimed right at me. “I’m on parole now,” he says.
Heat rises up my neck. I’ve registered the word parole. Back home when you ask someone what it is he does for a living, it’s proper to repeat the occupation and then make a comment about it. If someone tells me he’s a dentist, I say, “Wow, a dentist!” Then I try to think of my best dentist story, preferably something funny. I’m thinking now that is a stupid ritual. But I can’t stop myself. “Parole?” I say. “Wow, dude!” (Why am I saying dude all the time?) “And look at you now.” I extend a hand toward him, palm up, wave it a bit. “You’re out, and…” I have no funny parole stories. “…you’re in a…” I look around. I want to say something like a place of freedom. Something that captures the notion of fetterlessness. Instead I say, “…you’re in a dress shop.”
His expression goes stony (or stonier). This conversation is suppose to make me feel alive, not get me killed. Quickly I use the same story I use when I’m driving in a city I’ve never been to before and it seems everyone’s blaring horns at me. I say, “Dude I’m from out of town. This is my first time in LA. I’m from Tennessee.”
The dude cants his head the slightest. His stoniness seems to soften. For the first time he asks me a question: “Home of Elvis Presley?”
I pump a fist in the air and say, “King of Rock’n Roll! Yeah, we claim him. He’s ours.” I bring my fist down because I don’t feel totally honest. “But I’m a big country music person myself.”
Now the dude pushes back from the dress rack—yeah, he’s over six foot—and says, “Country music?” I nod. He takes a breath-and-a-half and says, “Country music pretty much saved my life when I was in prison.”
My soul stirs, totally in a genuine way. “Really?” I say.
He nods now. “Yeah. Shania Twain. She’s something.”
We’ve connected and I want to keep this going. But what do I say about Shania Twain. If I start singing “Man, I Feel Like a Woman,” he might cut me with a shiv. So I think. Then I say, “Can you believe her husband left her?”
He shakes his head sadly and frowns and says, “Now that’s some messed up sugar right there.”
I nod. “Absolutely.”
“So let me get this straight. You come all the way from Tennessee to spend your money in LA?”
I shrug. “If we didn’t spend it here, we’d spend it there. Shopping, you know.” He nods and cuts a slight glance back over the fiery-red clearance sale signs. Between country music and shopping with women, we’ve connected. I see Chonda in a nearby clearing. Her arms are full and I figure she’ll need help pretty soon, so I tell him I guess I better go over and at least try to slow her down. I walk away and I hear him call out, “Hey, dude!” I turn around and he’s giving me a crooked smile and one of those fist pumps in the air. “Welcome to LA!” I fist pump back right back and go find my wife.
While on the plane to LA I finished reading To Kill A Mockingbird. The final thought of that book, articulated by an eight year old, still resonates with me: How can you ever know someone if you never see them? In this case, tattoos, shades, scowl and crooked smile. I saw him.
Later, back at the hotel, I go to Google and do a search on “LA gangs BH.” I get two options: either he was a member of the Bloodhounds, with an estimated 400 kills over the past five years; or he was a member of the Booty Hunters. Either way I’m left with one sobering thought: Hmmm, I wonder if his homeboys know that he’s a country music fan? If they did, they’d probably give him a lot of sugar about that.