Corner of Whitley and Hollywood Blvd.

Two street kids hang out on the corner of Whitley and Hollywood Blvd. some 100 yards from my apartment. In the background is the famous "Frederick's of Hollywood" lingerie store.

      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 sketchy characters.

      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.

Police console victim of violence!

      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.

The needle and the damage done...

      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 Bar in Hollywood

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.

Some discussions....

Almost everyone that I knew as a real friend has packied it up as well....
"I wish every kid 'dreaming' of making it in Hollywood could read your page."
"The punks seem to still have the run of the streets around here...."
" "I wrote [Councilwoman] Goldberg an E Mail today..."
"You better watch your back...!"
"I'm claiming 18 street foe life and I don't like you you disrespectin me and my homies..."
"Only the faces have changed...".
"You'll be happy to know Hollyweird hasn't changed much."
Dreams and nightmares "por vida en La Mara Salvatrucha...".
"You are the first person i have came across that somehow found out what a cholo thinks when someone walks on "his sidewalk."
"...brown pride por vida."
"Gang member are just trying to stay alive in harsh inviermets. and its people like you that move in the hood and don't under stand shit biiiiitch."
"Ahi te wacho, ese!"
"Chicanos need to be who they are: our job, as Chicanos and non-Chicanos, is to encourage GROUPS of young Chicanos to find maximally beneficial and productive forms of authentic cultural expression."