Back in 1985, while working at Hughes Aircraft in Long Beach, Calif., I met a fine young woman named Addie. She worked in a different department, but whenever I saw her, I’d flirt with her. Eventually she became my girlfriend. I was a fixture at her mother’s house in the Fruit Town ’hood where Addie lived with her two sons. It was known as Fruit Town because of the names of the streets — Cherry, Peach, Pear — and it was one of the roughest neighborhoods in Compton, home of the Fruit Town Piru gang, one of the original gangs in the confederation known as the Bloods.
It was during this time that the crack epidemic was at its inglorious height. There were dealers up and down Cherry Street, a narrow lane of tattered two-bedroom homes. My girlfriend became hooked on crack. Some nights she wouldn’t come home. But I stayed with her and tried in vain to get her to stop. When you love someone who is on crack, you can’t help trying to get them to quit.
Like the fool I was, I continued to have unprotected sex with her. She became pregnant. I wondered if I was the father. Addie swore tearfully I was. When the baby was born, he didn’t really look like me, but he did have a bit of a hooked nose like mine. I put my trust in that nose.
Addie named the boy Michael Krikorian Jr. For the first two years of his life, I bought almost every sip of Similac, slurp of food and batch of diapers. Finally one day, Addie’s sister Kathy called me an idiot and told me he wasn’t my kid. Something I knew deep down. Eventually Addie admitted it to me. Still, the kid didn’t have a real father, so I continued to help out. (The biological father was a dealer up the street. He died eight years ago from a heart attack.)
Even after Addie and I split, I would still drop in on Li’l Mike. When he saw me walk in the door, he’d get this really big smile on his face, rush over and punch me in the leg. But eventually the visits faded, and the last time I saw Mike he was maybe 6 or 7 years old. Then last summer, Addie called. I hadn’t spoken to her in years. Michael, now 19, had been arrested and charged with a gang-related murder.
One morning a few weeks later, I went over to the notorious Men’s Central Jail, where half a dozen inmates have been killed in the last few years. I got in the dreaded line of visitors who wait outside to see loved ones. You really do have to love the person who’s incarcerated to get in that damn line. It felt as long as a football field.
Michael Jr., I learned from Addie, had joined the Neighborhood Compton Crips. As I waited in line, I wondered where Li’l Mike would be today if I really were his father and had raised him. And I wondered where I would be if it hadn’t been for my own father. Maybe I’d be there, too. I got into trouble twice as an adult, and both times my dad came to my rescue.
After about 90 minutes outside, I was let into the jail’s waiting room — a depressing place with flies and swarms of little kids running around. Finally, after another hour and a half, a deputy called out Michael’s name.
I went to Row F, Seat 14, and there he was, waiting on the other side of a pitted glass partition. He looked good — lean and muscular, like a cornerback or a wide receiver. Li’l Mike is now 6-foot-2, 205 pounds.
He looked at me as if to say: “Why you sitting here? You must have the wrong seat.” I just sat there looking at him. Slowly, the past came back: a lopsided grin, then a smile, then the big smile I remember. That recognition was sweet. It took a minute for the phones to work, so we just kept staring at each other. Then the phones came on.
“Do you know my name?” I asked him.
He just started laughing. “Yeah,” he said. “You got a cool name.”
We talked about his life — his brothers, his schooling, his plans if the case goes his way. He asked me to send him a certain book, but it had to be a paperback. I said I would. I told him I was sorry I didn’t have any cash that day to leave for him. “That’s all right,” he said with a warm, sincere smile. “The visit is greatly appreciated.” I said something stupid like, “Hang in there,” and then put my left fist up to the glass. His fist met mine.
As I walked outside into the fresh air, I thought about him sleeping in that jail. I prayed he wouldn’t be found guilty, though the trial wouldn’t be for months. I figured I’d go back and visit him again. Damn that damn line.