My first day in the new house, I’m lounging on our wide front porch taking in the neighborhood. It seems quiet enough, and as I sit watching the elderly Mexican lady across the street water her lawn, I suddenly hear a commotion coming from down the street. I look across the intersection, and observe three teenage boys sneak up on an innocent enough homeless man and beat the crap out of him. They knock his legs out from under him, scream obscenities, and kick the poor guy in the ribs for about five minutes before walking away. After they leave, the man gets up, dusts himself off, retrieves his 40 oz from the gutter, and walks on as if nothing happened.
In the hood, July is designated Independence Month. Although fireworks are illegal in Long Beach, they are inexplicably legal in Lakewood, which is only a ten-minute drive away. Despite this, the residents of my neighborhood prefer to set off their firecrackers in the middle of my street, all day and all night, all month long. On the 4th, many people put the fireworks away in favor of shooting guns off and smashing beer bottles in the street. It’s a celebration, y’all!
I start to veer dangerously close to a nervous breakdown caused by the five different ice cream trucks that circle our block all day, every day, playing their maddening off-brand ice cream tunes. One inexplicably plays Christmas carols, another has Disney characters dressed like gangsters airbrushed on the side of it. Mickey Mouse is wearing a gold chain, khaki shorts, and a plaid shirt buttoned at the neck over a wifebeater. Minnie Mouse is wearing lip liner. I learn that the most popular neighborhood treat is a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos with nacho cheese and lime juice.
The area I live in is known for three things: gang activity, substance abuse/drug dealing, and recovery programs/sober houses. My side of the street is obviously the drug dealing side – there’s what appears to be a trap house across the street, and two houses that always have people hanging out in front of them – real scary, tatted up gangster types. One night when I was walking home from the 24-hour donut shop (I quickly learn not to do this alone – even during daylight hours), one of these fellows asks to use my lighter. Since it’s in my hand, I don’t feel like this is a good time to refuse. I hand him the lighter, and he lights a blunt with it. “You wanna hit dis?” he asks. “Um, no thanks,” I say, as my imagination runs wild with what else could be in that blunt besides weed (PCP, crack, formaldehyde?). “Well, I got that white girl, that crystal, that weed if you need it,” he says. I glance at the toddler playing on the steps nearby before I flash him my brightest smile and say, “Okay, got it, thanks byeee!”
The other side of the street is dotted with halfway houses. The recovering addicts seem to spend most of their time smoking cigarettes outside of the donut shop, hanging out at Choices Café, the AA/NA–sponsored eatery, and shuffling up and down the block aimlessly. One house is particularly scary – the older former addicts look like poster people for Faces of Meth, and they aren’t friendly and talkative the way some other folks in the program are. The men all appear to be former or current skinheads – one guy has an iron cross tattooed on his bald scalp and another has a swastika inked on his chest. When I park my car in front of their house, they stand there and stare with their arms folded menacingly. I try not to judge a book by its cover, but I also try to avoid eye contact.
By now, I’m getting used to the near-weekly police helicopters flying over my house at night. They fly so low my bedroom windows shake, and the beat of the propellers lull me to sleep. The helicopter spotlight jiggles through my room with each revolution, kind of making me wish I were on ecstasy. On Halloween, no one goes trick-or-treating. No one. The next morning, the streets are littered with smashed pumpkins.
My suspicions that the house across the street is a trap house grow stronger. Cars constantly pull up in front of the house and sit there, idly honking their horns. I never see anyone go in or come out of the house, just random cars waiting outside. Most of the cars are jalopys, but occasionally a Rolls, Beamer, or Lexus will pull up with blacked out windows. Speaking of windows, the ones in this house are covered with some sort of tarpaulin, but it’s plain to see that the lights in this house never turn off. In the wee hours of the morning, you can usually spy at least one tweaker lurking in the shadows, doing the drug whistle. It sounds like, “Two-ooo!” and is unmistakable. Sometimes, late at night, I can see shadows moving around inside. It’s really creepy.
The garage of our house has been converted into a bedroom, so the curb in front of the driveway is now a reserved parking spot for residents. My boyfriend and I begin to wage war against a variety of neighbors who seem to think that because we park there, the spot is open for all (despite the very large No Parking sign attached to the garage door). I spend the month practicing ultimate passive-aggressiveness, skulking around leaving nasty notes on the windshields of cars parked in my spot, always under the cover of darkness. I have one multiple offender towed, and crow with satisfaction as I watch him alternately plead with the driver not to tow him and curse me for having called the tow truck, safely from the vantage point of my bedroom window.
Every night between 11:30 p.m. and 1:30 a.m., a late-nineties Nissan model drag races through the alleys and does hardcore donuts in the middle of the intersection. Our bedroom window being mere feet from the closest stop sign, my boyfriend and I start to become worried and paranoid that the driver is going to lose control and bust through our bedroom wall. I call the police several times, but the car is always gone by the time they arrive. Finally, one night, they get him. We watch as he sees the cop parked discreetly on the corner, and stomps on the gas in a getaway attempt. We listen to the high-speed chase through the streets and alleyways, wave to the police helicopter flying overhead, and, finally, watch the cops pull over and arrest him right in front of our house. It is a big win for us.
Valentine’s Eve, I go outside to have a cigarette and notice the coroner van parked down the street, along with an ambulance and about 20 cops. The police have wrapped crime scene tape around the entryway to one of the sober living complexes. I am creeped out, sad. The police and ambulance eventually leave; the coroner stays for several more hours.
As my boyfriend is backing out of his parking spot, a man jumps behind his car and my boyfriend taps him with his bumper. The man brushes himself off and insists he is fine, but not before taking $20 from my boyfriend in apology money. An hour later, my boyfriend gets a call from someone in the sober house where the man lives informing him that the man “broke his arm” in the “accident.” We are doubtful, and a call placed to Native American Choices informs us that this man is known for inciting accidents and then asking the drivers for money. He leaves a few threatening voicemail messages and we don’t hear from him again. A week later, we see him walking around – no cast, no limp, no injury.
I wake up around 10:00 a.m. one morning and hear someone talking on the front porch. It doesn’t sound like any of my roommates, so I get up to investigate. Upon opening the door, I find a middle-aged man sitting in one of our chairs, talking on his cell phone while he enjoys his morning cigarette and Colt 45 (yes, it was really Colt 45) like it ain’t no thang. I tentatively say, “Um… excuse me?” and the man holds his finger out to me, as in, “Can’t you see I’m on the phone?” I’m so bowled over by his reaction that at first I just shut the door and stand there, puzzled. My boyfriend comes outside and tries to get the man’s attention, saying “Hey. Hey mister!” I get fed up, and snarl, “You need to LEAVE.” The man rolls his eyes at me/ the inconvenience, gets up and walks away without a word.
It’s NBA playoff season, and my beloved Lakers are still barely hanging on. We think we’re depressed about the loss of Game 4 to the Mavericks until we go outside and witness a man experiencing a full-scale emotional breakdown across the street: wailing, punching fences and briefly trying to uproot a stop sign (picture Kristin Wiig in Bridesmaids trying to push over the chocolate fountain in rage). Eventually he gives up and just sits down on the curb with his head in his hands, presumably weeping.
It’s 3:30 a.m. I’m lying in my bed, asleep, when all of a sudden I hear a commotion outside. My boyfriend and I peek out the window and witness the following conversation:
Man: Yo, gimme yo wallet!
Very Large Woman: What?! You gonna try and mug ME?? (pulls gun out of waistband and points it in the air, movie-style) THIS IS MOTHERF-CKING LONG BEACH!
Man: Oh, sh-t! (books it)
Middle of the day. I’m on my way to work when I notice a young man taking a very obvious piss on the sidewalk. I honk my horn at him and yell, “You’re disgusting!” He blows me a kiss.
Later in the month, I’m standing on the porch having a morning cigarette of my own when a man walks up to me and engages me in the following conversation:
Man: Do you have a plastic bag I can have?
Man: You’re telling me you don’t have a single plastic bag?
Me: Yeah bro.
Man: You don’t have any from grocery shopping or anything? C’mon, all I need is a plastic bag. It won’t take that much time out of your precious day.
Me: (getting fed up with his sassy ass) Well, what do you need a plastic bag for?
Man: My groceries, man! (points to old lady-style shopping cart filled with empty plastic bottles.)
Me: (stares at him)
Man: (stares at me, obviously not about to give up)
Me: (heaving a giant sigh) Ugh, okay fine, dude. Wait here.
I go inside, fetch the stupid plastic bag, and give it to the man. He thanks me, and I watch him walk across the street, pull out his “groceries” which happen to be a single tall can of malt liquor, slip the can into the bag, and start drinking. When he’s finished, I watch him throw his empty can into the bushes and walk away.
My boyfriend and I are lying in bed, getting stoned and watching The Shining. All of a sudden, we hear six or seven rapid-fire gunshots outside our window, immediately followed by running footsteps in every direction. I call the cops while my boyfriend comforts our new roommate, who has just moved in and has been frightened to tears by the hubbub. Within minutes, our intersection has been roped off with crime scene tape, and the police copter is hovering directly over our house. This lasts for hours. We later find out a man was gunned down only a couple houses over.
Several weeks later, we witness two female bounty hunters apprehend a suspect outside our window. He’s not the murderer, but he did skip bail. We are impressed, entertained.
First week in October, we get word that a man has been shot in a drive-by next to a medical marijuana dispensary a block away from our house. The shooting happened in broad daylight in the middle of the week.
The next week, my boyfriend and I are once again lying in bed getting stoned when we notice a police spotlight shining directly through our bedroom window. Paranoid, we crouch below window level like felons, occasionally peeking out the window to confirm, yep, they’re still there. We can hear them searching our front lawn for contraband and are still crouched under the window when we hear the distorted sound of a cop speaking through the megaphone. It all sounds very serious and alarming, but we can’t quite make out the words. It definitely sounds like they are saying something along the lines of, “Residents of this home: come out with your hands up!”
“Are they talking to us??” I gasp. “I think they’re talking to us!”
I decide to surrender myself, and tiptoe out the front door with my hands near my shoulders, just in case. Immediately, the cop standing nearest our door barks, “GET INSIDE. NOW.” then gets back on the bullhorn. We can hear him much more clearly now, and realize he’s saying, “RESIDENTS. STAY IN YOUR HOMES. THERE IS A SUSPECT ON THE RUN. IF YOU SEE A STRANGER ON YOUR PROPERTY, CALL LBPD IMMEDIATELY. DO NOT APPROACH THIS PERSON YOURSELF, HE IS CONSIDERED ARMED AND DANGEROUS.” Despite this, most of the residents are outside, watching the action. We abstain, and go inside to watch from the vantage point in our bedroom. It is the first (and hopefully only) time I will hear “COME OUT WITH YOUR HANDS UP AND NO ONE GETS HURT” outside of television or movies.
The day after Halloween, I look outside and notice that someone heaved a small boulder through the windshield of my neighbor’s ugly burnt orange Cadillac sedan. I throw my things in my car and get the hell out.