Pandemic in Los Angeles: Day 53

The other night, on the drive back home, I found myself behind the wheel looking for a parking spot. It must have been just slightly past 7:30 pm. When I made the turn onto my street– which rarely has an open space but which I gave a shot anyway–I was struck by an unnerving sight: a police car parked in the middle of the street, its doors open, behind another car a few feet away sitting idly and without passengers inside. I slowed down my car to survey what was going on: it was an arrest.

As I slowly lifted my foot off the break to ease the car forward, through the windshield I saw one of two police officers taking a young man in a baseball cap and face-mask, who looked to be somewhere in his early twenties, with his arms behind his back, presumably on the way to the patrol car.

Less than ten feet away, I saw the second police officer pinning what looked to be another young man in a baseball cap against the wall of the residential apartment building across from my own. The police officer was searching him. From my open window on the passenger’s side, I could hear the young man pleading with the officer to ‘take it easy.’

A lifetime ago, when I was fifteen years old, a similar experience befell me and a group of other youth in the neighborhood. But even if that experience at the hands of law enforcement was an anomaly, or something extraordinary, I still couldn’t count how many times over the course of my nearly thirty years in the community I’ve seen police cars in the neighborhood just like the one from that night, more often than not escorting youth into custody.

I am not alone in that sight. After maneuvering my car fully past the scene, I continued toward the intersection opposite from where I entered to try my chances for a curb elsewhere. A couple of minutes later, a few blocks away from home, I found a spot and quickly pulled my car alongside. Returning back to the block on foot, the scene was just slightly changed. Less than five minutes must have elapsed from when I originally came across the spectacle. The young man against the wall was still there, while the other was no longer in view. There were a few neighbors out, some walking their dogs, but we weren’t exactly in the mood then for our usual polite greetings.

As I paced forward, closing in to the gate outside my building also brought me closer within range of the arrest. I thus sped up my pace, but found myself wrought by feelings of embarrassment for the young men.

I asked myself if I should photograph the scene, if only to create a citizen’s record of the arrest, but decided against it. It is already a humiliating experience enough to be subjected to the will of a police officer. A photograph of the event, which can be shared widely, is all that less necessary.

As sunset edged along the sky to leave the street with evening, I realized that mom would be home soon. Making my way past the gate and into the building, I thought of calling her to warn her about the unruly debacle, but decided against that too, hoping the arrest would conclude just before she returned with her cart along the street.

On getting inside, I took a seat in the living room, looking to find a way to shake the moment from my memory. But a few minutes later, I heard the familiar sound of mom’s cart rolling through the hallway. Pushing the cart along more quickly than usual, on arriving outside the door, she let the cart go roughly against it, which was unusual for her, and which created a clear thud sound. On opening the door, I could see that she was shaken. The arrest had lingered. It brought back a host of memories for her too.

J.T.

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Pandemic in Los Angeles: Day 51

Sprinkled along Santa Monica boulevard, coronavirus notwithstanding, sun-baked tios and tias clad in face-masks offer bouquets of red roses in time for the dia festivo. Inspired by the gleaming spirit of their calls, one day before Mother’s Day, I am gifting readers with a new category for mom’s Newsstand in East Hollywood, facilitating for visitors of the webpage some time to connect with a few of her cuentos; I offer the collection of words nestled by the category as my mom’s newsstand has offered the community literacy and information for nearly two decades: with an utmost belief that words can in fact change the world.

Happy Mother’s Day, Los Angeles

J.T.

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Pandemic in Los Angeles: Day 47

This upcoming Sunday will mark Mother’s Day 2020. I’m taking mom out for some chile relleno, even if it still has to be takeout. Earlier today, I was stopped in my tracks when I heard LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner recognizing his own mother as the catalyst for his life in education during his weekly address for parents and families in L.A.:

The most important teacher in my life was my mom. She helped thousands of public school kids learn to read, including me. The love of reading she taught me led to a love of learning, which is with me today, as I try to better understand the world around me. Thank you, Mom.”

Austin Beutner

Let’s leave it simply at that for today, Los Angeles.

J.T.

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Pandemic in Los Angeles: Day 08

Today I awoke to the news that over 3.3 million people in the United States filed for unemployment benefits over the past week. When I mentioned this to mom, she gasped. She then pointed out to me that the number doesn’t even include the informal economy, comprised of nannies, tamaleras, small business owners like herself, and countless more.

At the same time, the number of cases of Coronavirus found in L.A. County topped 1,200 today, with the figure reaching over 4,000 for the golden state overall; I realize that the figure is just the tipping point if Californians don’t heed the warnings to stay home and minimize travel down to the essentials. As well as if the professionals don’t have the personal protective equipment they need to reduce the risk of becoming infected by their patients.

But most signs point to the fact that people have stayed home as ordered thus far. In my own community, I’m surrounded by humble, God-fearing citizens, who, as working class people, largely play by the rules set up for us daily anyway for fear of reprisal otherwise. I know that las familias have been home, led overwhelmingly by mama, that is, and that for many of them the shutdown has even been a reprieve, especially for the laborers among them who wear their backs daily with brittle bones undergirding them to bring the day’s bread home.

We are a people as humble as angels peering down from their portraits as if weighed down by their wings. And something tells me that if Jesus himself walked through Los Angeles today, he’d smile deeply on meeting our glances for our still looking up through yet another storm. Perhaps he does. We are the people of the awakening. Tomorrow it’s my turn to bring back some more bread.

J.T.

Our Community is Getting Stronger, Este Hollywood

From the words of Dr. Mary Gallagher, President of Los Angeles City College:

“On Saturday, August 24th from 4 to 8 PM, staff from the non-credit department of LACC participated in a great local community event called Back 2 School 2, marking the second year of this event. I was able to attend and hear all of the things going on at the ‘grass roots’ level of our community. LACC was included because of the GED preparation and testing we do. We also provided information from some of our students currently attending non-credit classes. It was a fabulous event. I look forward to next year.”

Dr. Gallagher’s recognition of BTS 2 is a milestone achievement for the work to uplift more vecindades in East Hollywood and throughout Los Angeles. In the days ahead, the work to keep strengthening our community will remain challenging, but I also believe that as our special event showed this past Saturday–and last year–the promise of the work will remain bright and full of encouragement. There will be more following up on the success of BTS 2, but for now, I’d like to express my deepest thanks to each supporter, close and afar, who took a moment to contribute to this critical day for our neighborhood and families all throughout this great city.

J.T.

Still Resilient in Los Angeles

JT_Red
Metro Red Line Station; Vermont Ave and Santa Monica Blvd.

When you’ve known a place your whole life, a place that you take pride in, where you’ve found love in, and where you’ve found yourself in, what do you do as that place is taken from you? When the people who comprise this place are people who look like you, or who speak the same language as you, who hail from that same “otherness” like you, what do you do as they’re taken from you, too?

I think of the local Metro’s Vermont and Santa Monica Red Line Subway station. A place where thousands of people pass one another by each day, past the flocks of pigeons nestled above in the station’s arches, and past the heaps of other people laying by the entrances to the terminal.

The birds cradled in the station’s altitudes are conditioned to the factors of the environment, which are often rather unfriendly to their livelihood: Food is scarce, competition for food is abundant, and the winds push people and traffic through their huddled masses daily.

The humans below, whether moving with the traffic or anchored to the sidewalk, are conditioned to the factors of the environment, too: Food and housing are expensive, finding decent work to afford decent food and housing is likewise competitive. As people push through flocks of pigeons in the race to get to it all, we push past one another too; over time, this has the effect of insulating us from the environment and one another as a whole.

I think of my own experience in this sequence, in terms of just how many people I’ve walked past over the dozen or so years I’ve stepped foot through Metro’s Vermont and Santa Monica corridor. Past people conflicted by mental health disorders, addiction, or no place for shelter at night. Past people trapped in abusive relationships, police violence, or no access to a steady meal each day. Past children who had no choice. I’ve got a feeling that this is an experience which binds me with millions of other people in the U.S. today.

In the 21st century, America isn’t just pushing people away from its borders, but it’s also pushing them from their homes, their livelihoods, and even from its street corners. In the pending displacement of Super Pan, my pueblo is dealing with wealth in this country, and the power of wealth to shove human beings out of the way instead of using it to uplift them and our community together as a whole; a legacy as old as the country itself.

But all around us are more mom and pop shops at risk of displacement, just as there are more Metro stations serving as shelters for more people with less than us. Not far off are also those individuals with wealth who simply want to take each of these spaces for their own benefit without pausing to consider how others can be harmed by such obnoxious claims to space.

If I’m somewhere in between, that is, not enamored by the power of wealth, but also not forced to sleep by the Metro stations at night, then just where do I stand? I pass by the less fortunate like the rest, to try to be better in some other way, which is for the most part what I have to do. But I don’t believe I’ve always got to do things this way.

I believe there’s still a world to build right through the one we see now, both with and alongside others: a world that’s been here before, actually, and which still glimmers through the shadows in moments each day out there; a world of people helping each other, uplifting each other, and building great things as a result.

A world we have to fight for, and which we continue fighting for each day: Nuestro Pueblo, Los Angeles.

More on Super Pan in the Virgil Village SOON,

J.T.

Show and Tell: The Sock-Puppet

I will never forget the anguish I put my mother through as a child. So many dreams. Dreams that are memories now and also pain mixed up with love and a desire to let them be known.

I remember the sock-puppet for show and tell. It was a cloudy afternoon when the dim orange lighting of the kitchen washed over the peeling walls as I begged and pleaded with mom to help me with my show and tell project.

I needed something to show. Mom worked in needles. She worked in sowing, in making something out of nothing but a string of yarn. She agreed to help me then, making my anguish into her anguish as the hours seemed to trap both of us in their midst. It was still early in the afternoon when I sidetracked her with my last minute request, and we could take the whole evening if need be, but the next day still loomed like the clouds through the windowpanes, into our souls and slowly more coldly.

As night encroached I didn’t know if we would make it. All I could feel was my heart pouncing as time managed to swerve right above our every angle and motion.

Mom kept her personal sowing machine in the kitchen, and it didn’t dawn on me that she did so because that’s where she could get more work done for her shift at the garment warehouse the next morning. It didn’t occur to me that she had already had an eight hour work-day by the time I made my request to her, and that she had already picked us up from school, and that she had even managed to prepare dinner for us to curl into the evening with our bellies full.

All that dawned on me was my show and tell. The sock puppet needed to be real, and to come alive like the ones on Mr. Rogers’s. I needed to be able to hold my puppet, and to tell its story like an expert.

So I went back and forth between the kitchen and the living room checking on mom and her hands at work, keeping an eye on her angles as she shaped the dimensions of the puppet underneath the magic needle. She gave life to my dream on that day, which was also my pain, in one of the earliest instances of a lifetime of last minute races against time and everything that seemed possible that I’d embark on with her. We would share anguish over each other and one another’s fates through the course of many years in this manner. Years which would also seem to dash just above our heads as we scrambled to meet them with our best minds.

Before late into the night, mom stretched the hands and legs of the tiny sock-puppet before my eyes. I remember looking at it in that moment, as if to look into the depths of imagination itself, and feeling at once that it wasn’t like what I expected.

Made purely of black yarn, it didn’t look like the sock-puppets from Mr. Rogers’s. And it barely fit through my hands. I also couldn’t move the legs if my fingers were placed through the puppets’ hands, and likewise couldn’t move its hands if my fingers were placed through its legs. At least, not in the seamless way that appeared to be most right.

What’s more, our sock-puppet had no face. It was just the figure of a body, but it had no personality.

I barely mustered a thank you to mom before taking it from her hands then, as I figured that I could maybe still make it work, if only I gave it some eyes and some lips and a nose. I then retreated into the living room with the soft garment in my hands, placed the puppet’s body down on the plastic table where my brother and I did our homework, took some scratch paper out of my backpack, and set out to give the tiny figure its rightful personality.

I won’t ever forget the face I would forge on the sheet then, because it was the most natural face that came to mind in that moment; the only one in the entire galaxy that I could draw with some ease. After cutting out the circle of paper that we’d glue onto the figure’s circular-shaped head, I gave the sock-puppet curious wide eyes, brimming bright eyelashes, a roundish nose with just a small lumping tip at the end, and a set of large, wise lips. It was the face of my mom.

Even if the figure wasn’t quite what I expected then, I would still have something to show for show and tell. And my mom’s face before my anxieties–just as her hands motioning through the darkness of the night to still save the day–would remain with my memory through a lifetime; every dream come true for me now is only an extension of everything possible through the tiny sock-puppet with her eyes.

J.T.

4 Years of Jimbo Times: The L.A. Storyteller

JIMBO TIMES began just a little over four years ago following an epiphanous walk from my mom’s newsstand on Santa Monica boulevard the evening of August 19, 2014. It was near mid-night when the idea took hold of me, and I can still remember crawling from the apartment bedroom into the bathroom with the same laptop I write these words on now to spill out an ode to the city I call home.

Four years later, with the Back to School Party, a one day event of art, workshops and music for my neighborhood, less than a week behind me, I can think of no better place to be with J.T: The L.A. Storyteller.

If I’m fortunate enough to get four more years of this magical glitz through the stars, the idea is to do so not alone, but alongside more of Los Cuentos. Not only Los Cuentos, the shirts by Jimbo Times, but also with Los Cuentos de nuestro pueblo, Los Angeles.

What do you say, L.A? Do we dare dream of what could still be, might be, or should be if we only put our minds to it?

J.T.

Poem in Hand, I Would Like to Welcome You With the Following

Western and 48th Street, Los Angeles
Western and 48th Street, Los Angeles

I heard the sneers of discrimination at my schools before I heard the sonnets of poetry through their halls.

But the first time I was discriminated against based on the color of my skin, the language I spoke at home, or some other characterization of me, I didn’t quite know the definition of the word: discrimination.

Similarly, the first time I heard my first poem, I didn’t quite know that it was poetry, either. But in each case my feelings told me what these things were. Today they still do.

Now I deploy words to work for me as I’ve worked for them over the course of a lifetime in education, in the same way my mother has worn every bone in her body to work shifts her whole life: to survive any rancorous winds which would seek to tame us.

My mother’s feet are waning into the ages now, yet with each new day she makes one thing clear:

We will not go gently into the night. Every moment we get, is another moment to rise.

J.T.

Frontin’: From Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles

jt_Central_Night
Barbed Wires, Central Juvenile Hall; Lincoln Heights, Los Angeles

It was just another warm Friday night of drinking and hollering with the crew, when the blades of the helicopter tore through the sky. A moment later the helicopter’s light consumed the shadows we hid in, casting our group as the target for the siege. A wail of sirens followed. There wasn’t much time. Like roaches, we scattered, but only in vain. The cops had the whole street surrounded. A couple of dizzying hours of booking later, I found myself in handcuffs walking down to KL, the section for 15-17 year olds in Central Juvenile Hall, otherwise known just as’Central’ north of downtown Los Angeles.

My friend Josh and I got booked on a Friday night, which meant we had to wait through the weekend before seeing a judge. Both of us figured it’d be no big deal, and that we got booked for disturbing the peace, breaking curfew, or some other lame citation we knew the police liked to blow up on kids like us.

But when Monday morning arrived, I got to the waiting room for the hearing and froze as the public defender assigned to “my file” threw a curve-ball at me:

“There are six felony counts against you,” he said.

“Two counts of aggravated assault, two counts of robbery, and two counts of attempted grand theft auto.”

Dumbfounded, but somehow hopeful that the truth would gleam in my eyes, I looked at the public defender and responded naively.

“Well, that’s wrong; we didn’t do any of that,” I told him.

I would never forget the look he gave me then, which was somewhere in between mild disdain and flat out disgust.

“Yeah, right,” he replied blithely.

Not knowing what else to say to the public defender, I glanced around at the waiting room. It flourished with the boisterous chatter of a herd of other juveniles waiting to be called on for their hearings. There were enough of us crammed into the seats that morning to fill a high school classroom or a small church. Among the crowd I saw where Josh was sitting, and left the seat with the public defender to make my way over to him.

“Man,” I said to him as I took a seat by his side, “I don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.”

“It turns out these two paisas got jumped on Lockwood that night,” Josh said.

Lockwood was the street just before Willowbrook, which is where our crew was stationed when the cops showed up.

“Lame-ass putos were fucked up,” he went on, “that’s why they pointed us out even though we were on some other shit.”

Before I could press further, a voice called out each of our last names.

At criminal court, when you and another inmate are under arrest for the same case, you have to stand enchained together before the judge. When Josh and I got called up, a guard bound us together in chains at our ankles and wrists. Only until we were locked to one another were we led into the courtroom.

The courtroom was large, not in a heightened way, but in a wide way. What was really impressive about it was the judge’s bench; it was lengthy, sophisticated, and imposing. In fact, the bench was so big that it actually made the judge himself look rather small. He was a Jewish man, as indicated by a little round black hat on his head, and probably in his fifties, which only made me more afraid of what would follow.

Jews and little Spanish-speaking kids like Josh and I weren’t exactly neighbors in L.A., so I knew then not to expect the man to consider us one of his own; as if we were some strayed mijos of the people next door to him.

Another part of the courtroom that surprised me was the absence of benches for the public or other audiences like the ones I’d seen on Judge Judy. Immediately, I realized this would make for a very closed off hearing; the only places for spectators were a few small chairs set up for my mother as well as Josh’s parents which were placed a few feet away in front of the bench close to where Josh and I stood.

On seeing my mom, standing in chains before her all I could think of was how important it was that I look fuerte, or at least okay. The thing is, even if we were in the courtroom together, there was no way I could just walk over to her to at least apologize for seeing me locked down like an animal. The court forbid any interaction between inmates and others, even if the others were family. In turn, the only thing I could give my mom had to come from my eyes, which I poised with everything I could to let her know que estaba bien, strong, mama.

But even with a show of strength, when mom and I exchanged glances as the judge spoke, she looked angry, saddened, and worried all at once. It was a look I had grown used to by that point with her, but one which I had never been so ashamed of facing as I was during that moment.

When the hearing started, the judge didn’t so much as even look in the direction of either Josh or myself, instead focusing his attention solely on the district attorney and the public defender.

The details of the case were stated quickly, and basically the judge just reiterated to the district attorney what my “defender” had said earlier that moagorning with slightly more rhetorical strings attached. I could hardly care about what those strings were though, as there was only one line throughout the hearing which stood out.

“Two years in a youth camp if convicted.”

Two years. Just like that, Josh and I had gone from standing on the street with the crew two nights before, to being ransacked by a judge and D.A. who spoke without flinching about casting away the days of our lives for two yeara; as if we’d given them permission to do so in a contract we forgot about signing with them.

The D.A. would follow the judge’s statement with his own, but all I could fathom as he rambled on about codes was how wrong they both were. I stood there humiliated, waiting for the discussion to so much as consider any counter-evidence to the accusations: Fingerprints. Alibis. Our histories with violent offenses, or lack thereof. Our stories, for crying out loud. Anything.

But neither the defender or the D.A touched on any of it; it’s as if they were just having a conversation about some livestock rather than two teenagers in chains before them.

Despite this, somehow I still believed that at some point I would at least be granted the opportunity to state my own thoughts on the matter. After all, it was my life they were talking about sending away.

But again I was misled as to how things worked at Central. In a matter of five minutes the gavel went down. The witnesses who apparently pointed us out didn’t show up to the hearing, and as a result, our court date would have to be postponed. For three weeks. In an instant, then, what should have been no more than two days at Central turned into twenty-one.

After the hearing, Josh had to go back to MN unit, for the 16-18 year olds, and I to KL. I could see my mother later, but first Josh and I were escorted out of the courtroom and merged into a chain-linked herd of other kids getting sent back to the halls. We were a generation of kids locked at the elbows and ankles then. An entire school of minors gone wayside to the dumps.

When it came time to part, Josh and I shook hands, vowing to be cool through it.

“Keep your head up little man,” he said.

“For sure,” I replied, as I was led back into my section to return to my cell.

The room I was placed in was painted a pale white, with nothing in it but two old twin-sized mattresses. One mattress was stacked on a short metal bed-frame latched to the ground, while the other mattress was stacked on top of a concrete block that was attached to the wall of the room itself. There was a single window made of impenetrable plastic, but even that window only allowed us to view yet another wall, the one surrounding the entire compound of Central topped by endless barbed wire. When the guards locked the door behind me, the entire place seemed to cave in on me.

During the first few days at Central all I could think about was the agony of two years in a camp somewhere, and trying to get home by some miracle. But three weeks later, when mom and I returned to court and were told that the witnesses had missed the hearing again and that we’d thereby have to resume things after four weeks, I realized I could be locked down at Central for quite some time.

I had to adapt, and make a home of the halls at Central for the sake of survival: walking up and down the span of the compound, eating at the assigned times, sleeping through one lousy mattress after another, and soaking up the cold water of the showers in the evenings. I made friends in the process, to the degree that someone is able to make friends in such an environment, and I laughed there, to the degree that someone facing a criminal sentence for a crime they didn’t commit could still laugh about things.

More than anything, though, I learned from the other young people there.

In the halls, as it is anywhere you go, it was all about maintaining dignity and respect. In particular, everyone had to watch what they said. After all, being confined to a hallway with only about 60 other individuals makes for a lot of time to just talk. This made it so that street gossip, rumors, and other stories permeated through the KL Unit as frequently as the electric currents that illuminated the building. As such, no one could really escape the information that flowed through; everybody was up on game, so to speak, as to what was okay to say and what wasn’t.

The words that most successfully set things ablaze were diss words, or words which mocked the name of a particular crew or gang. The thing is, most of us at Central were part of some kind of clique on the outs, and when your set or crew was dissed by some foo, there were two ways to respond: you could either let it go and be considered a lame, or you could put it down for yours and handle it by putasos.

More often than not, when put to the test, most of the KL unit put it down. But every now and then, there were more complicated cases, and juice had quite a bit to do with this.

Juice basically meant connections: if you had juice, you had some connections, and if you had no juice, you had little to no love during your time locked down.

After nearly two months at KL waiting for my case to get settled, I had an inkling of juice. This is because during class and when it came time to eat, I spoke on good terms with both fellow inmates and staff members alike. In turn, they occasionally looked out for me with an extra meal after dinner, a snack or two under the table, a certain book from the library, and even time with the weekly writing group, which was some organization called IOW.

The thing is though, my juice was paltry compared to the love some of the other folks got at Central. For this, a kid named Connor comes to mind.

Connor was a tall Black gang member from South Central L.A. who found himself at Central because of a violation of probation. By the time he came in, my case had stranded me in the halls for over a month and a half, and this put me in a position to watch the development of Connor’s demeanor through his time at KL. One of the staff members in the unit put it best:

“Kids walk in here and ain’t tryin to step on nobody’s toes. Another two weeks though and they start walking like they da kings ‘round here; all gangstered out, frontin’.”

In his first week at the halls, Connor was quiet, polite, and mostly invisible to the rest of the unit. He made eye contact with no one in particular, and got in file just like the rest of us when it came time to line up for class or rec. By his second week though, once he got a feel for the place, Connor found his comfort zone and went on to become one of the loudest, most defiant foos in the unit–to the irritation of most of his peers–including myself. The thing is, he had a bad temper and a scandalous way about him which would often send him to the box or ‘solitary’, but which also made the rarity of his good behavior something particularly noticeable for the staff.

At a distance, I resented Connor for this. As I saw things I got my juice at KL for being respectful, whereas Connor got his for being less than terrible. I would learn more about Connor though, following a certain Sunday afternoon.

Sundays were visiting days at Central, in which those of us who had parents that wanted to visit could sit with them at a table in the unit under supervision for twenty minutes to half an hour. My mom came in every Sunday, and to my surprise: so did Connor’s. This alone fostered a respect for him, and when I saw Connor consoling his mom, telling her that he was alright, it dawned on me that there was more to him than just his fits.

For her part, Connor’s mom looked like a sweet, kind woman not very different from my own special little lady across the table, and it made me wonder how they got into things over at Central.

When I turned to look at my mom, I put on the same show of strength from before; after nearly two months inside, we had another appointment with the judge in the next few weeks, and we were hoping that the so-called witnesses of the case would fail to show up yet again because it could lead to the collapse of the case. This made my mom anxious, but I assured her that it was going to work. Of course, I had no idea whether that was actually the case, but I had to make it seem that way even if only to put mom at some ease while we waited. When our visit was finally wrapped up, we hugged and promised to have faith again until next time, hasta la proxima.

From there the days and nights in the halls went on: new kids came in, and old kids went out. Through it all, I wondered just when it would be my turn to move on, but at the same time I feared what that would look like. I also wondered where kids like Connor would end up. As it’d happen, it wouldn’t take long to find out.

One day, a kid from the sixty crips gang came into the halls. For Connor, the ‘sixties’ were supposed to be among his fiercest rivals, and when it came time for them to meet, Connor chose to diss his enemy. As the crip stepped through the door into our unit, Connor yelled loud in declaration from his cell:

FUCK SISSIES!”

In most instances, this phrase meant total warfare. After all, the sixties were a huge South L.A gang with members that came into the halls almost every other week. In fact, the gang was so large that often its members were in our unit for just a few days before being moved to less hostile environments.

With this in mind, when Connor dissed his enemy, everyone at KL expected a rumble. After all, the crip was a fit, medium-sized dude. That is, he looked capable of putting up a good fight; but to our surprise, instead of retaliating, the crip let Connor’s diss pass. In the eyes of the staff, this made him a non-threat, but in the eyes of the KL unit, this made him a lame.

A week went by, and when the kids at KL noticed the crip wouldn’t stand up to taunting, they started to diss him as if to test out their own luck with the word. For his part, just like on the first day there, the crip would shrug off the diss for the most part, so a lot of people got comfortable just casually taunting him. At first, I told myself I wouldn’t stoop to the rest of the unit’s level, and that I didn’t really care about the whole thing either way. Except that it was hard not to join in with the crowd at KL at one point or another.

One morning after breakfast, we were all sitting down waiting to head out to school on the other side of the compound, when the crip sat down just a few feet away from me while Connor was helping the staff with clean-up, working his juice.

That morning the march to school was taking longer than usual to get going, and as a result, I remember the crip getting tired of being seated and starting to run his mouth “on some bullshit.

At that point, the crip was in his third week at KL; he’d gotten a feel for the place, and although he still didn’t put it down when others dissed him, by then he knew it was alright to sound off at the little inconveniences of being locked up every now and again, like when being seated on the floor for an inordinate amount of time before we could be shepherded over to school.

By then a little bit of rowdiness or hollering from my peers in KL wasn’t a big deal, as in fact sometimes it made the time go by faster. I would have just shrugged it off, but on that day, the crip’s blathering just got to me somehow.

Maybe it was the three months at Central that I was coming up on, or a particularly terrible meal that morning. Maybe it was that I was getting too confident about my juice at KL, or that I was feeling too safe among the crowd of bodies that surrounded me and the crip. Or maybe it’s just that I was so damn tired of the routine that I felt like setting something off just for the hell of it. Whatever it was, I couldn’t keep it within ine, and so before the crip could go on with some more frontin’, the words simply hollered from down in my lungs:

“SHUT UP SISSY!”

At the sound of this, the crip finally got up to defend his hood. Not knowing who uttered the diss, he wailed for somebody to step up. That’s when from out of nowhere, Connor ran up and lunged at him. Those of us seated on the floor got up to clear the way for the fight, and for about five seconds afterward Connor pummeled into the crip’s face before staff ran out of the office to pull them apart.

It should have been over when the staff pulled them apart, the way it always was with such squabbles, but something else happened; as one of the staff members attempted to pull Connor off by the shoulders, in all his fervor Connor punched the staff member in the chin.

I can still see the absolute disbelief in Connor’s face now. Even the staff member himself, Mr. Ramirez, couldn’t believe it. He just stood there for a second staring right back at Connor while the blood pressure squirmed under his lower lip. For a moment Connor looked like he wanted to cry and just beg for forgiveness right there on the spot. But there was no time.

Other staff immediately grabbed Connor by the neck and arms and hauled him away shouting. Everyone, Connor and the staff included, knew that was that last we’d see of him then. No juice, no matter how strong, could save Connor from the courts for assault on a staff member.

In bed that night, I felt like a monster. I said the diss, and I started the whole thing. It was my fault, but no one knew. The only thing that was being talked about was the hit on Mr. Ramirez itself and what’d come next for Connor.

The following Sunday, when I sat down to wait for the visiting hour, I looked around at the other tables, almost wishing to see Connor and his mom somewhere in the room, but they were gone.

A moment later when my mom stepped in through the doors and took a seat from me across the table, she told me about new arguments in the case being prepared by a private attorney that she and my uncle had pillaged their savings for. She was hopeful that the new lawyer would do the trick, but that day, I was just happy to have her across the table from me. At that point, even after nearly three months of separation, the halls had brought her and I closer together than we had been in years.

The truth is that even while I hadn’t attacked the two paisas like the prosecution alleged, I was still on my way to the halls. After countless days on the streets with my so-called crew, vying to be validated by their handshakes and recognition, and looking to find trouble to push it all past the limits, it was only a matter of time before I would have gotten caught up anyway. Like Connor and so many of the other people at Central, I was playing a game I didn’t know was rigged until it was too late. But unlike Connor, I had just a little more luck on my side.

At the fourth hearing with the court, the witnesses of the case failed to show up for a fourth time. In turn, the defense for Josh and I effectively argued for a dismissal of the case, and just like that, as quickly as the charges were summed up against us in the first place, the judge uttered the magic words that dispelled them:

“This case is now dropped. You are RELEASED.”

Even now I can’t describe the relief I felt in that moment. Like every hearing before then, the gavel went down in a matter of just five minutes, but that time it finally went down in my favor.

After the verdict, when they escorted me from the courtroom to head back to the halls, I never felt so much joy to have my hands cuffed and linked into the herd of chains with the other releases for the day.

In the afternoon, when they finally unlocked the cuffs and returned me my clothes from three months prior, I prepared to run out of the place to meet mom outside before the guards at the door could even finish uttering the “lease” in “Release”. The process took a few hours, but by then, a few hours were time that we had. Josh and I spent a total of ninety days each at Central for the false accusations  against us. But it was still better than the two-year bullet.

When the doors out of the compound finally opened up, I promised myself it was the first and last time I’d go through them. I felt for Connor and Josh and everyone I’d come to know throughout my time there, but I couldn’t deny myself what I felt: finished was finished. A few months later when I learned that Josh landed in L.A. County jail for a separate round of charges, I didn’t blink. I let him and the whole crew go as I strived to turn over a new leaf for myself back on the outs.

But even after walking away, nearly ten years later, the days at Central are still lodged in my memory. I’ve got little idea where any of the KL unit from those days stands now, but I’m hopeful that somehow along the way, everyone else caught a break too. But what I do know is that to this day, Central’s lousy mattresses and cold showers continue for whole schools, congregations, and other generations of kids on the run, just adapting, trying to maintain, and frontin’ till their break comes along too.

J.T.