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Inside the Crips
Life Inside L.A.'s Most Notorious Gang
By Colton Simpson, Ann Pearlman
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2005 Ann Pearlman
All rights reserved.
"There is an abundance of hope, but none for us." — Franz Kafka
Events are lined up like dominoes falling so fast I don't have time to think about one before the next one tumbles. Most of my life, I've been at war. If there's a time before war, it's the time before remembering.
And so my first memory is when I am four and in a motel room down the street from our home. It's Los Angeles, 1969. I race matchbox cars on a light stripe on a brown rug. The sun shining through venetian blinds creates my road. Damon, my brother a year older, crashes his blue car into my truck. "Bam. Krr," he growls and knocks my truck from the road to lie on its side, the small wheels spinning.
I look up to complain about my brother's violence and see my mom. She stands with one leg bent, sliding the strap of a shoe over her heel as she tilts toward the wall, supported by her outstretched arm. The wall is in an unfamiliar room in a motel, but I don't know why we're in a motel so close to home. This is my first memory of my mother as she leans, her long hair waving toward her waist, a slice of sun dazzling over a dress the same color as her beige flesh. Her face is oblivious of her splendor, of us. The only thing that exists is gliding the black strap over her heel. Nothing else is important but that moment. Not me, not Damon, not the room with the pale green walls. This moment, this brief space is my peace, her paused on one leg like that, her palm on the wall. As I notice her, I realize how fine she is, her face is that restful. Like the statues of the Madonna in church. I'm splashed with the shafts of white light and her glory. Safe. I am safe.
Wham. A man backhands her and she crumbles onto the unmade bed, hair splayed out. I only see the man's back, and then as he turns toward me, a brass buckle on his belt, his navy pants. I don't see his face; I don't know who he is. These images contain no sound, just pictures. There is no blam his fist makes on her cheekbone. I do not hear a groan, or a surprised gasp for air from my mother. She falls silently to lay on the bed over a green and gold comforter. She doesn't move, doesn't rise.
And me. And me? I cover my head with my arms and cry.
My mother sits up, wipes her nose. Her feet are on the floor, but she doesn't stand, doesn't go after him, and doesn't defend herself. Just allows him to tear away at her beauty and end our harmony. He's gone. I don't remember the door slamming as he leaves.
Why didn't she sense her danger? How could she have been so innocent?
I should have seen it coming. Something — a movement, an expression, a sound, and a gesture — must have warned me. I need to pay more attention.
Why didn't she fight?
* * *
After that I see less of my father. He's away for weeks playing baseball for the Los Angeles Angels, and brings home joy and soap wrapped with decorated paper and shampoo in small bottles from his hotels. And then my brother Marc is born light skinned, lighter even than my mother, a baby pale as a fish. Blue squiggly lines run under his skin.
I can tell Moms loves him the most.
When my father sees him, he shakes his head, sadly. The baby doesn't make Pops seem huge by contrast, but turns him frail in spite of his hard arms. My mother and father fight all the time now. Then one day, Pops calls the police. He tells them, "Her new boyfriend is always threatening to shoot somebody. I want you to witness this. The stereo system is all I want and I'm outta here."
My father has angular features, a high beaked nose, and cheeks that cave under his bones. "Colton," Pops leans his elbows on his knees so we're at eye level, "I'd take you with me. But she won't let me. And I have to leave or my temper will get someone dead or someone serving time." Then he stands. "You're my son and I love you." He places his palms on my shoulders. A baseball he's given me is clutched in my hand. "Remember. Always remember. You, Colton, are my son." He leans back on his heels. "I tried to get custody of all of you, since she's so harsh, so evil and conniving, using her beauty as a trap." Pops stands and crosses his arms. "But she flirted her eyelashes at the judge, acted meek while she cried about how much she loved her sons. So." He nods at the burgundy velvet sofa, the wood dining table, the white ceramic lamp as though counting, as though counting something, saying good-bye. Every motion resounds through his body in a dance of tendons and muscles. "It's all hers now. But, Colton, you have my temper, so watch yourself," he warns.
Pops is everything I dream of becoming — tall, respected, a celebrity. The police help him load his stereo and jazz records into his car. He drives away.
We're alone with Moms. "Your father don't care about you. He ain't no good," Moms shrugs as she winds a strand of hair around her curling iron.
Pete, a White man with a red face and soft flesh around the middle, moves in. He's not long lean and lanky like Pops, built like a tank rather than a rocket. He plays "I Can See Clearly Now" and "Witchy Woman" over and over. I miss Coltrane and Miles.
"We'll go hunting for rabbits," he booms, "but first you have to learn how to shoot." One day, he lines up tin cans on the fence of our backyard and shoots at the cans. Ping. Ping. I come out and he hands me the .38. "Here." He shows me how to sight the target, lining up the little bar between the arms of the V, and to slowly pull the trigger. When I pull the trigger, power surges through my arm, my shoulder, but my bullet topples the can. Just like that I find my mark.
"Hey, not bad." Jimmie claps me on the back so hard I have to catch my footing. "Not bad, kid."
The next one, I miss, but the one after that goes right through. The can wobbles on the fence, rights itself, and waits another shot.
After that, guns are all I think of. I save my Christmas money and my birthday money to buy a pop revolver. Damon and I shoot each other in the living room, in the bedroom, hiding under the dining room table. The burnt powder adds wisps of smoke to the tobacco and marijuana clouds on the ceiling. The startling claps add to the chaos in the house. Then I buy a BB gun and save enough money to get one for Damon, too, and we race around Ladera Heights popping at the trees, the houses, palms, each other. Skinny enough to hide behind a palm, I blast the adobe corner of our house as Damon runs. Ping, the BB ricochets off the tree.
So it sounds like we're a family — Pete and Moms and Damon and Marc and me — but like the contentment racing cars in the light bars, nothing is what it seems. Pete is a roofer and Moms works long hours as a nurse. A Mexican woman lives in the spare bedroom and she's the one who is always there. She doesn't speak English, doesn't even come out of her room except to heat up a TV dinner for us when Moms works late.
One evening, Moms works the early shift and comes home before dark. She goes into the bathroom first thing and calls, "How you guys doin'?" I smell her marijuana. She enters the kitchen and pours a glass of wine and rinses dishes. I listen to predict her mood. When I walk into the kitchen for some water, she says, "You look just like your dad," and shakes her head, nibbling on the corner of her lip. She finishes the wine and pours another. "Think I'll go out for awhile," she says more to herself than to me. "Where's my keys?"
I know what's coming. I sense it when she starts her search, sense it in her restless movements, how she scatters from place to place, never even giving herself enough time to look, searching with angry hisses instead of systematic eyes.
I try to leave the house.
"Where you goin'? You help me find those keys." I search the bathroom. In the dining room, she sees my jacket hanging on the back of a chair, a comic book on the table. "Didn't I tell you kids to keep your stuff in your room?" My book flaps to the floor. She downs the rest of the wine and places the glass on the wood. Then she peeks in our room and notices our unmade bed. "Look at this mess. Didn't I tell you to clean this shit up?"
I look through the sofa cushions.
She kicks the clothes on the floor. "Where's my keys? Why's this shit all over? You goddamn kids." She slaps me. "Look at all this shit. No wonder Pete's always mad at me."
I hold my arms in front of my face.
"It's you kids." She whacks me on my back, my legs, her arms flailing in the air before her hands land. The small slot machine Pops gave me for Christmas sails at my head. I duck and it travels through the window. "See. Now I have to fix that fuckin' window."
Moms grabs the plastic bat. Oh, no. I remember how it hurts, the welts it leaves. Her mouth is pulled into itself, her eyes squinting, her hair uncombed. She strikes my back and my ribs with the bat, storms from the bedroom, finds her keys in her pocket, slams the front door.
Being alone is better. Damon and I sit on our bed and listen to ourselves breathe.
I rub my back and arms. Soon my red arm will darken to a bruise.
A week or so later, Pete and she watch The Waltons, then Mary Tyler Moore, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. After awhile, they go into their bedroom.
Maybe they'll go to sleep.
But Damon and I hear them crashing the furniture and screaming at each other. We go into our rooms, lie in our beds, but we can't sleep.
"Let's go," I suggest. We leave the house with our rifles and play cops and robbers with the bushes, the palms, the telephone poles. The darkness makes the game more exciting. Maybe this is how families are. Just not the Waltons, I think as I stand behind the corner of our house waiting for Damon to appear. I know he's behind Pete's truck, and then he peeps out and bam, I fire. The BB bounces off the truck and hits Damon on the shoulder.
I visit Pops at his mother's in Venice and he makes sure I'm playing Little League and enrolls me in karate. But he doesn't or can't interfere with what's going on day to day.
Two nights later, I wake up to Pete yelling, "You fuckin' nigger. I'll kill you. I'll kill you, you fuckin' nigger." I peer into my mom's bedroom and her blouse is partly open. A family friend, Wilson, is behind her, his fingers on her shoulder.
"You crazy," she yells at Pete. "Wilson brought me home from the bar 'cause I'm too drunk to drive. He's helping me."
The image freezes for a split second. Pete is red, teeth glistening, his lips stretched to say "nigger." Half in her black bra and half in a red shirt dragging from her shoulder, Moms's face is turned, hair at odd angles, her mouth loose like it gets when she's drunk. Black circles of smeared makeup turn her eyes hollow and deep. Wilson's fingers are spread, his mouth open, his eyebrows raised.
Pete turns and sees me. With this motion, the picture clatters in broken pieces and movement continues.
"I was drunk and he did me a favor," Moms protests.
"You fuckin' nigger," Pete screams at Wilson. "Trying to mess with my woman." Pete collars Wilson, punches him. Wilson's nose squirts blood and he falls. Pete hits him, straightens up to kick him in the ribs.
Wilson curls to protect himself. "No," he whimpers.
"I'll kill you." Pete picks up Wilson, drags him through the living room. A table crashes. Under the punches and screaming, Wilson moans. Pete body-slams Wilson out the front door. "You fuckin' nigger."
Pete is in my house with my Black mother and her Black children, me, Damon, and he's saying "nigger." I think of sheeted, hooded men right in my house.
Pete crashes back into the bedroom. "You fuckin' whore." He kicks a table against the wall and the lamp breaks. Sharp shards of white ceramic and bitter glass glitter from the carpet.
I sneak into the living room to the phone as Moms screeches, "He's gay, you asshole. He was just trying to help me."
I dial my father. "Come help, he's calling us nigger. Pete beat up Wilson. He's punching Moms and calling us 'nigger'." I think my father is my savior.
Pete storms into the living room, grabs the phone, and jerks the cord out of the wall. He pulls off his belt and starts swinging. He hits my shoulder, my thighs. I'm only wearing skimpy pajama shorts and the buckle rips through the fabric, tears through my skin as he whips my thighs, knees, legs. I cover my knees with my hands, but he keeps whipping, hitting now my fingers and knuckles, and that hurts more. His buckle catches my knees. The strap hits my thighs.
Pete's face is purple as the belt whirls over his head, the metal shooting blinding sparks. Moms enters the room and watches.
He doesn't stop.
My mother sees Pete beating me. She sees me crying and screaming. Her eyes fix on me like this is a movie. Her mouth is slack, lipstick smeared, the blouse hangs off one shoulder, one breast contained by black bra. She watches.
She watches as though this has nothing to do with her, as though she's glad it's me and not her. I have it coming for being born looking like my father. I have it coming for my father leaving her.
When Pete is exhausted, he stops.
Blood trickles from my wounds, patches of skin ripped from my knees. I limp into the bedroom. Damon sits on the bed, his hands beside his thighs. He looks at me and turns away.
He wets a towel and wraps it around the wounds. My father doesn't come and get me.
After that, the fighting escalates between Moms and Pete and a few months later he moves out. Things'll be better now, I think as I see him load up his truck with his boxes. But Moms is more determined than ever to get out of the house and more annoyed with Damon and me.
* * *
I'm eight when Moms comes home from work and heats up Swanson's turkey-and-stuffing dinners. Damon and Marc and I eat on TV trays watching The Three Stooges. She changed from her nurse's uniform to a red wild-patterned dress and sits at the kitchenette table. Her legs are crossed, one leg swinging. She pulls off the band that keeps her hair back for work, puts it on her wrist, and combs slender fingers through her hair as she drinks her wine. Her being nice raises my suspicion. Then, sure enough, the beat of her leg quickens. "You kids watch TV. I'll be back later," she says. She starts looking for her keys. I go into our bedroom.
Find your keys and leave, I think. Find them soon.
Drawers bang in her dresser and end tables. She checks the bathroom. The bathroom door slams shut. Not in there.
Plates on the kitchen counter clatter. She rifles through my schoolbooks and papers, in between the cushions on the sofa. The pow pow is coming. My backpack lands with a plop against the living room wall. I try to concentrate on The Three Stooges.
"This place is such a fuckin' mess. No wonder I can't find nothing. Why don't you kids clean this shit up?" As she rants and paces and wildly searches, she heightens and deepens her rage. She spatters my face and head with slaps. I hear her hit or kick Damon, who's in the living room. He yelps and starts crying. "It's you fuckin' kids why I can't keep no man. It's you fuckin' kids," she yells over and over. Damon comes in the bedroom and sits next to me.
Then she slams our bedroom door.
I lie on my side on the bed.
Damon and I listen to her crash through the house. Then she comes in our room. Her hands are on her hips, her mouth clenched in such a tight line her lips vanish. Her eyes are wide and eyebrows lifted. No one would think she's beautiful if they saw her now.
"This room is a pit, a fuckin' pit." She shakes her head from side to side, narrows her eyes, and screams, "I tell you and tell you. And you don't do nothing but sit on your asses."
I examine the indentation on the wall shaped when she threw a bat. I see the imprint of its flight on the dry wall. The ridge in the butt end made a circle, and then, the bat hit the wall so a streak zooms to the right.
She picks up my baseball trophy from a Little League game and throws it on the floor. "I've had it. That's why I can't keep no man because of you goddamn kids." She sweeps our dresser with her arm. Damon's baseball trophy, my pop pistol, Damon's BB revolver, a baseball fly off our dresser, scatter on the floor. "Look at that mess."
She grabs a switch and starts whupping us. First Damon and then me. "That's why I can't keep no goddamn man. Because of you fucking kids." She shrieks with each stroke. The baseball rolls across the carpet, halts when it hits my tennis shoe. It'll be over soon.
Moms leaves the room.
But she returns with rags in her hand. "I've had it," she says. Her cheeks are red and her hair crawls like snakes trying to escape her scalp.
She ties a rag over my eyes, ties it so tightly that I see red squiggles on the backs of my lids, ties it so fast, she catches my hair. The smell of her musk twists my stomach.
I try to loosen the rag, but she whacks my fingers with the switch. "Don't you take that rag off, hear me?"
Excerpted from Inside the Crips by Colton Simpson, Ann Pearlman. Copyright © 2005 Ann Pearlman. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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