This is a story of early ’90s Los Angeles. I don’t remember exactly when this harrowing tale of self discovery occurred, but it was sometime after Boyz n the Hood but prior to the Rodney King riots.
I was in my early twenties and living in Hollywood, and I’d just started making enough money to replace my beater car. Don’t get me wrong: I loved my car, but the only way I could’ve guaranteed that I’d reach my destination reliably was if I cut a couple of yabba dabba doo holes in the floorboard and paddled my way across L.A.
Since I was a kid, which was about five years prior, I dreamed of owning a vintage Mustang: the sleek lines, the V-8 rumble, the extreme cool factor. I watched the Recycler, the paleolithic version of Craigslist, for weeks, wasting time looking at old Fords that were worse hunks of garbage than what I was already driving.
And then one Thursday I found it: A 1965 notchback with a 289 and what appeared to be a straight body and clean interior. I called the owner, and the car sounded great. “How about I come take a look on Saturday morning?” I said.
“Sure. Here’s my address. See you around 10.”
When we hung up I pulled out my Thomas Guide, the Jurassic version of a GPS, and looked up the dude’s address—right smack in the middle of Compton. South Central. Ice-T and Colors and “Fuck Da Police” and all that stuff.
But that’s pop culture, right? The Mustang’s owner sounded really cool, really laid back, and I really wanted that car. I wasn’t going to be scared off by a bunch of rap songs and the fear hype around Compton. It was just another neighborhood. Did I mention that my car was a piece of junk? I was willing to set aside my “bad neighborhood” perceptions in the interest of Mustang-itude, but breaking down in South Central? That didn’t sound too fun. I called my buddy and asked to borrow his brand new Honda Civic wagon.
Saturday morning came, and I piled into my pal’s family truckster and hit the freeway. I took my exit and followed the map through block after block of stucco homes with bars on the windows. One more turn and I was on the right block. To my left stood a home with a waist high cinder block wall running along the sidewalk. Five or so guys sat on the wall or leaned against it, drinking forties. They wore matching Raiders gear and heavy coats, though it was the middle of summer, and jammed to the biggest boom box I’d ever seen.
And right next door in the middle of the front lawn hunched my future ride, gleaming in the late morning sun. Oh, man was it beautiful. I wanted that Stang. Come on, those guys aren’t going to hassle me, right? I mean, that’s stupid movie stuff. They’re just chilling on the sidewalk, they don’t care about me. I parked my buddy’s new car in front of the Mustang house and got out to take a look.
The owner was every bit as cool in person as he was on the phone, and the Stang still had the much coveted center console. Come on! It was like hitting a jackpot. “Can we go for a test drive?” I asked.
“Sure, let’s do it. You can even go up on the freeway if you want.”
I was in heaven, with that big, long hood extending out in front of me and that Mustang growl bellowing from the twin exhaust pipes. I opened her up on the freeway and it was all I could do not to scream, “Whee!” and then I carved the turn at the bottom of the exit ramp and made my way through the neighborhoods of stucco houses with bars on the windows.
When I made that last turn I knew immediately that there was a problem. The cinder block wall was completely empty, not even a 40 ounce beer bottle remained. Then I looked in front of the Mustang house: my buddy’s brand new Civic wagon was gone.
“Fuck,” I screamed. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
“What’s wrong?” the owner asked.
“Those fucking gangsters stole my fucking car and it wasn’t even my fucking car I borrowed it from a fucking friend because my fucking car would’ve broken down in the middle of fucking Compton and now I can’t buy your fucking car because I’m going to have to pay my fucking friend back for his fucking car because those fucking fuckers fucking stole it.”
We sat quietly, no sound but the rumbling of my dream car’s big V-8.
“This is not my house,” the owner said.
“This is not my house. You’re on the wrong block.”
I can’t remember how I managed to get the Civic back to my buddy, but I can’t imagine that I drove it. Driving is nearly impossible when one has disappeared up his own ass.
—modified photo Philip Taylor / Flickr Creative Commons
—originally posted at The Good Men Project
Categories: Good Men Project, Memoir, Reprints
Ouch. But is it really “kind of racist” or were you just buying into the stereotype we’d all ben fed since day one? Yea, Compton was a shitty, gang-infested area and the stereotypes were live, right in front of you. If you’d had time to logic it out, you might not feel a little bit racist, it was total panic due to the scene in front of you. I am not making excuses for your freakout, but……you had no time to get a “feel for the room” and figure out if the guys were trouble, or just hanging out and drinking.
When I was 18 and living out of my Datsun 1600 2-door with my black cat Ratty – if I didn’t have a friend’s place to crash at, I had to figure out where to park and sleep in the car. Beverly Hills? Brentwood? Sure, nice quiet and safe except for the police rapping on my window and telling me to get out of the neighborhood. Going further east was the only way I was going to get to sleep through the night without the cops moving me along. I had to protect my cat, if a mean cop decided I should spend the night in jail, my cat would be alone in the car, or worse, towed and probably let out. He was my best friend and trusted companion. I had responsibilities.
East was East LA – I didn’t choose the Latino gang neighborhood over the Black gang neighborhood for any reason other than it was closer to where I had to go during the day. South Central was just too far south.
However, I was visiting a friend who lived in a mellow area of South Central, we visited for hours, but I couldn’t crash there – he was back home with his mother, in-between jobs, and it just seemed like an imposition. The house was neat and cozy and very tiny, and I didn’t ask.
After midnight on my way back up to East LA, I stopped at a liquor store for some beer and cat food. I was still deep in South Central, but didn’t think twice about pulling in to get some essentials for both of us.
I purchased my goods, got in the car, turned the key. Click.
Click. Click, Click, Click.
Okay, I got out of the car, opened the hood, and willed myself magically know what wire to jiggle.
A black dude walked up and offered to help. He was a little unsteady on his feet, but not much.
“Naw, I’m cool, it’s just a wire, it’s happened before.”
“No, here, give me the keys and let me see what I can do.”
“No, really, I am okay, I know what to do.”
He continued to walk towards me, hand out for the keys. I started panicking, I didn’t want to holler for the store owner, it felt stupid, I don’t know why. My heart started pounding, he was two feet away from me, reaching for the keys I had clutched in my hand.
Ratty had jumped in the front seat, and was looking out the driver’s side window, his paws up on the inside door handle, which made him look much longer than a normal cat. With his yellow eyes and sleek black stretched out body, he looked mildly demonic.
I jumped away from the guy, and said,, “No, man, no – I can’t give you the keys – see in there? That is a miniature panther, they are vicious to strangers, dude, he will fuck you up!!”
The guy’s eyes got very wide, he stepped back, holding his hand out in a “get away” gesture.
“Miniature Panther? I’ve never heard of no such thing!”
“I know, they are very rare, and super mean to everyone except their owner. I’ve had him since he was a baby, and he won’t bite me, but he bites and scratches everyone else – please, look at him, he is already mad.”
“I don’t want no part of no miniature panther, I don’t need that trouble, sorry girl, you on your own.”
The wobbly legged relief I felt when he walked away was superseded only by the relief that managed to jiggle the right thing under the hood, the car started, and we took off.
So – – was I a ‘little bit racist’ in that moment?
Or was I scared that he was a man and I was a skinny little 18 year old girl, and skin color had nothing to do with the coppery taste of fear in my mouth when he kept walking towards me after I had said no?
Or was he just a slightly tipsy guy who was nice and just wanted to lend a hand?
Would I have been as scared if he was a white guy?
I’ll never know.
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Too good! You really need to write these stories….
I just did. 🙂 That is about my quota for the year.
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And BTW, did you get the damned mustang. or just shame-speed home? (ps, paleolithic version of Craigslist and Jurassic version of a GPS – I spit, I did)
Good thing you didn’t ask to pet his dog.
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