L.A. Drivers, Where Are Your Manners?

Published in Los Angeles Times Monday, Oct. 29, 2018

Not too long ago, I was rumbling along on the 405 in Orange County, doing about 80, 85. Off to my left, in the fast lane, were five bikers in single file, Hells Angels, based on their jackets, from the Chatsworth chapter. They all sped up to cut over to the right to get on the fast approaching Garden Grove Freeway. Four of them sliced in front of me, but the fifth guy didn’t have enough space, so he stayed in the fast lane.

I have a special place in my outlaw soul for the Angels ever since interviewing Sonny Barger 21 years ago in Hollister for the 50th anniversary of the ruckus that inspired “The Wild One” with Brando. So, I eased off the accelerator and nodded over to the guy in the fast lane to go ahead.

He gassed it to catch his comrades and, as he zoomed across my lane, his right hand on the throttle, he crossed his left arm across his body, and gave me a thumbs up, nodding his head.

Courtesy. Politeness on the open road. From a Hells Angel. When almost no one these days on L.A.’s streets or freeways bothers to lift a hand in a gesture of thanks to another driver.

Driving is about the one place in L.A. where everyone is created equal; we’re all on the same maddening journey.

Los Angeles, where are your manners? Does anyone here even remember that line?

My parents taught me to be polite, but I got a master class in manners a long time ago in New York City. .

I was about 20 and walking down Broadway on a crowded sidewalk, around 45th Street, when I bumped into a guy, about 6-feet-3, 240, walking the other way. We both stopped. I didn’t say anything, but I thought to myself, “I’m about to get my ass kicked.”

He wan’t looking for a fight, just common courtesy. He said, “Can’t you just say excuse me?”

I’ve never forgotten my quick slide from fear to human connection. From that moment on, I’ve been quick with “excuse me.”

The best among us will do the right thing just because it is right. I say, do it for the reward too: When you extend the slightest kindness to a stranger, or vice versa, doesn’t it make you, if only for a few seconds, feel good?

The manners thing ought to be on the driver’s test. A prearranged “nice” driver lets you cut in and if you don’t wave, the DMV examiner deducts a point or two.

I don’t really know if the country is more divided politically than it usually is, but it sure appears to be. Some things though, cross party lines. We are all stuck in traffic in Los Angeles. Even when it’s moving, the joke goes, it’s a traffic jam at 70 mph. The least we can do is take four seconds, roll down the window and give a nod or a little wave when someone lets us merge.

A couple of Saturdays ago now, during that brief but exhilarating — and much appreciated — lightning show that lit up L.A.’s normally blah night sky, I was driving on Third Street in heavy stop-and-go traffic. Instead of blocking an intersection, I stopped to let an oncoming car make a left turn in front of me. The guy to my right, in a new, glistening white Mercedes AMG C 63 S — normally a car whose driver thinks he or she owns the road — actually backed up about 10 feet to let this other car make the turn. The driver who sailed by in front of us didn’t even bother to look our way.

I rolled down the passenger side window and nodded at the Mercedes driver, who rolled down too.

“Man, she didn’t even thank you,” I said. He hunched his shoulder, smiled and said “Manners. Where did they go?”

My girlfriend, after reading a draft of this piece and learning the Times was running it, said “That’s what we’ve come to. You giving advice on manners.”

Driving is about the one place in L.A. where everyone is created equal; we’re

all on the same maddening journey. Let’s make the ride just a little more pleasant.

The great Lewis Hamilton who just won his 5th Formula One World Championship, tying Juan Manuel Fangio. (Michael Schumacher won a record 7 times.)

The great Lewis Hamilton who just won his 5th Formula One World Championship, tying Juan Manuel Fangio. (Michael Schumacher won a record 7 times.)


For The Entire Year of 2017 There Were 2 Homicides In LAPD's Hollywood Division

I look at crime stats the way I used to look at baseball statistics when I was a kid. Now, instead of checking on Sandy Koufax’s strikeouts, I check the homicides in each Los Angeles police division.

The other day, on the LAPD website, I came across one stat that struck me as stunning, though in a good way. As of then — and as of midnight, New Year’s Eve — LAPD’s Hollywood Division recorded two homicides in 2017: Jimmy Bradford, 47, and Bryan De La Torre, 21.

Hollywood Division has never ranked in the stratosphere of homicides. It’s not like the 77th or Southeast, where in violent years past more than 100 killings were not unusual. (In 1993, there were nearly 300 killings in those two divisions) But two? The last few years, the Hollywood total has been seven or eight, and the peak was 35, back in 1995.

Then, as I took a closer look, I noticed that while homicides were down 71% compared to 2016, and robberies down 5%, aggravated assaults were up 21% — 680 compared to 581. That seemed odd. 

I had lunch with the commander of Hollywood Division, Capt. Cory Palka, and he gave me his explanation. Not particularly politically correct, he came out fast with a reasonable rationale.

“The decline of what I call neon club culture,” he said. “We closed three clubs in Hollywood that were a magnet for the urban crowd of South L.A.”

Hollywood’s story is to some extent the city’s story: Killings are down. Assaults are up.

It doesn’t take a sociologist to figure out “urban” means black.

“Of course, the vast majority are good people. But with an urban crowd from South L.A., you are going to have some gang members. That’s just the facts. And you have club owners with an encouraging attitude — over-serving alcohol, not having proper security — that fuels the situation. Throw in gang members from different neighborhoods, and you get killings.”

Palka said that in each of last few years there were always two or three club-related killings in Hollywood. Because of strict enforcement of various codes, the Cashmere, Cosmos and Supper Club were closed. Last year, no club-related killings. And just one related to gangs, that of De La Torre.

There is still a vibrant clubbing scene in Hollywood, but according to Palka, it caters to a different, often gay, clientele. “That’s fine with us. You don’t have Rollin 60s going there because of the gay element.”

He also cited a crackdown on the so-called Yucca Corridor open-air drug market, as well as local gang prevention and gentrification as keys to making most of Hollywood safer.

The gangs in question — the 18th Street Hollywood Gangsters clique, Mara Salvatrucha 13, White Fence — have had their presence diminished by years of pressure and a new tactic Palka and the division’s gang unit endorse: respect.

“We build relationships,” said gang unit Lt. Jeff Perkins. “It goes both ways. But they know, if [you] commit a crime in Hollywood, we are gonna come after you and you will go to jail.”

Gentrification has meant an increase in the division’s Hollywood Entertainment District force, which now has a lieutenant, five sergeants and about 80 officers. They patrol the area bounded by La Brea, Argyle, Sunset and Franklin, prime tourist territory.

“There are billions of dollars invested in Hollywood and there is a concentrated effort by the police to keep that area safer,” Palka admitted. “I’m all for more expensive restaurants coming to Hollywood. I’d rather have the customer willing to pay $10 for a beer over the customer who pays two bucks for a beer.”

He gave an example of what “safer” means.

“Around the corner from the Pantages, there were a couple vendors selling illegal ‘Hamilton’ T-shirts. Husbands would go on this darkened street and pull out cash because the bastards were too cheap to pay 50 bucks for their wives for a real shirt. And they were getting robbed left and right. We put a stop to that.”

As for the aggravated assaults: “My commanding officer, Mike Moore, says, ‘Your numbers are up, your numbers are up.’ But we have traded major assaults with gang members that can lead to homicides for a homeless man hitting another homeless man with a wrench. Do I want that? Of course not…. Would I rather have that? Yes.”

He also said he knows that sounds wrong, but the truth is the truth.

So Hollywood’s story is to some extent the city’s story: Killings are down (not in every division, but most: the 77th recorded a city-high 49 homicides, sadly about par for the course the last few years; but the once-deadly Rampart Division had 12 killings in 2017, compared to 22 in 2016). Assaults are up. Tamping down gang activity helps the homicide count but the assault problem is bad, and about as intractable.

In a utopia, there wouldn’t be any homeless people attacking each other. And in even a junior utopia, the homeless encampments along the freeways and underpasses would be as safe as Hollywood Boulevard.

I got word about two months ago that an old friend was homeless and living along the Hollywood Freeway near Western Avenue. I checked it out. I didn’t find my friend, but I discovered a sad, eerie tent village, with a foot-wide path separating the shelters from a rocky, 45-degree dropoff to the 101.

The LAPD can’t make that dangerous encampment disappear, and officers might not work a homeless-on-homeless assault like they would a lady from Kansas getting attacked in front of the Chinese theater, but a homicide is still a homicide.  As Michael Connelly’s fictional detective Harry Bosch says. “Everybody counts or nobody counts.”

Jimmy Bradford, one of the Hollywood’s two 2017 homicides, homeless - and black -  was stabbed to death near an on-ramp to the 101 on June 12. On the board at West Bureau Homicide next to Bradford’s name it reads “cleared by arrest.”

As for the other homicide victim, Bryan De La Torre, his case hasn’t been cleared. “But homicide is still working it,” said Palka. “Working it hard.

Reprinted from L.A. TIMES Op-Ed January 4, 2018  Here's the link to the Times' op-ed    http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-krikorian-crime-rate-hollywood-20180104-story.html

 

LAPD Capt. Cory PaLka , commander of the hollywood division 

LAPD Capt. Cory PaLka , commander of the hollywood division 

My Lunch With KeeKee Watson, Played Infamous Role On Florence and Normandie

On April 29, 1992, I had a big-time hankering for my favorite hot dog. Just as I was about to roll out to Art’s Famous Chili Dogs, at Florence and Normandie, my cousin Greg called. “I’m going to Art’s,” I told him. Greg yelled at me: “Do not go to Art’s! Turn on the TV.”

I did, and what I saw was Reginald Denny a brick’s throw from Art’s, getting stomped. As I watched, one of his attackers, Henry Keith “KeeKee” Watson, stood, almost casually, on Denny’s neck.

Twenty-five years later, I’m at a pizzeria with KeeKee, now 52, talking about the riots. He can be an imposing man; big, wide, capable of a frightening sneer. But on this day, he’s charming. The two female servers smile when he raves about his three-cheese pizza. His glowing review of butterscotch pudding could not be printed here. (The servers ask him to write it on a comment card.)

Watson remembers the mayhem of 1992 as cathartic — a furious release — and yet it had no lasting impact on his neighborhood, three blocks from the Florence and Normandie flashpoint. What fed the fury, he will tell you, only gets worse.

“Twenty-something years ago, they was beating guys like Rodney. Now they’re shootin’,” Watson said. In 2016, he witnessed a police shooting in an alley near 107th and Western Avenue. “Half the time they ain’t traffic stops. They are assassinations.”

Twenty-something years ago, they was beating guys like Rodney. Now they’re shootin’.

 Keith “KeeKee” Watson

Watson acknowledges his pivotal involvement in the ’92 riots, but he puts the overall onus on the police.

“The LAPD is 99% to blame. When I first saw the Rodney King beating, we were kind of excited because it was like, finally, this was caught on tape.

“Just about any black man in Watts, Green Meadows, any South Central neighborhood — getting your ass kicked by the police was not news. It was a matter of fact. We thought finally, finally, finally they caught them on video.”

Then the verdict came in.

“I was shocked. I was in disbelief. I was pissed off,” Watson said. “On 69th Street everyone was upset. It was like validation that it was OK for the LAPD to beat black men. The turmoil was kicking up. Minute by minute it was getting turned up.”

In court a year later, Watson would escape felony conviction; he was found guilty of misdemeanor assault and released for time already served. In his defense, his lawyer said, he got caught up in “crowd contagion.”

This is the way KeeKee explains it now: “It’s like if you told me you had an extra Garth Brooks ticket, I’d say, ‘Brother Mike, I’m gonna have to pass on that.’ But if you were able to convince me to go, hell, 30, 40 minutes into the concert, I’d be do-si-doing. That’s what happened at Florence and Normandie.”

Michael Krikorian, author of the crime novel “Southside,” was a freelance writer in 1992. His Tweeter acount is @makmak47  .  Henry Keith Watson apologized to Reginald Denny in court and on television in 1993. He has been a limousine driver since 1996.

KeeKee.jpg

"Eh yo, Pete.... Meet Me On Grape Street" L.A. Times Op-Ed on a N.T. Times Restaurant Review

Reprinted from the Los Angeles Times Op-Ed Section, January 6, 2017. 

When chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson opened the first LocoL near 103rd and Grape streets in L.A., they weren’t grasping for restaurant-review stars. It wasn’t about reviews; it was about bringing a sense of “We’re not forgotten-ness” to places like Watts and Oakland, where the second LocoL opened at Broadway and Grand in May. LocoL’s motto is “revolutionary fast food for everyone,” and that’s about right.

But, lo and behold, the Oakland LocoL just got what it didn’t need: a nasty critique in the New York Times food section. As part of a very occasional series on restaurants not in New York, Pete Wells wrote the review

Wells was in the Bay Area, but he passed up the chance to review the French Laundry in St. Helena, or Quince, which just got three Michelin stars, in S.F., or the equally honored Manresa in Los Gatos. Instead, he went for LocoL, and he went for it with a vengeance.

LocoL didn’t even rate one star; Wells blasted it with “satisfactory.” He referred to a fried chicken sandwich “mysteriously bland and almost unimaginably dry…. The best thing to do with it is pretend it doesn’t exist.”

Choi responded with an eloquent post on Instagram: “The pen has created a lot of destruction over the course of history and continues to. He didn't need to go there but he did…. It compelled him to write something he knows would hurt a community that is already born from a lot of pain and struggle.”

In a text to me Choi wrote: “I ain’t mad at Pete. But, what he didn’t take into context is that none of our team ever had a job before. They didn’t deserve these harsh words as they’re trying their best every day. It’s like yelling ‘booooo’ at an elementary school musical.”

Maybe Wells decided that Choi’s and Patterson’s resumes — rife with awards, stars, books, even a movie (Jon Favreau’s “Chef” is based on Choi’s food truck) — opened LocoL to all critical comers. 

In highly seasoned language, I texted Choi back. He might not be mad at Pete, I said, but I’d like to give Wells the opportunity to meet several Grape Street Crips in the Juniper Street parking lot at Jordan Downs.

Some might say my offer was rude. But so was Wells’. What Choi and Patterson went looking for in Watts and in Oakland — and what they found — is resolve, pride and hope. LocoL exists as much to support and employ these communities as to feed them. That’s what revolutionary fast food means. 

In my experience — I’ve eaten at the Watts LocoL about 40 times, I’d say — the food is good. How good? Jonathan Gold, in this newspaper, ranked it No. 58 in his 2016 listing of the 101 best restaurants. I live with chef Nancy Silverton, and most of her office staff at Mozza yelled at me recently when I brought back LocoL take-out for only one of them.

Still, LocoL’s cooks and workers aren’t culinary students from the Cordon Bleu. They haven’t worked at Spago, or even at Popeye’s. As Choi said, before LocoL, many of them hadn’t worked at all.

Over a year ago, at Pizzeria Mozza, I had to do a double take at table 70. Was that Ready and Nardo from Grape Street? I know them from my reporter days (and nights) in Watts covering gangs. I didn’t expect to see them at Mozza. (A little background: In a three-star gang like the Grape Street Crips, if your name is Ready, when it comes down, you’re there.) 

They were at a table with Choi, who had already hired them for LocoL and wanted them to see the way Mozza functioned. A month later, when the Watts LocoL opened, Ready moved about the place like he was the maitre d’ at Valentino. Transformations like that is what LocoL is all about.

If you want stars, go to Providence or Melisse, or if you’re in the Bay Area, go to Atelier Crenn or Saison. If you want to feel good, eat way-better-than-usual fast food and brag to your friends about being in on a movement, then go to LocoL in Oakland or Watts.

By foodie standards, LocoL’s “satisfactory” rating was bad news. But, you know, that’s the only thing I can’t fault Wells on: LocoL satisfies.

Grape Street

Nancy Silverton's Books of the Year, in today's Wall Street Journal

Chef Nancy Silverton on Richard Russo and Marisa Silver

- Wall Street Journal, Dec. 10, 2016 by Bari Weiss 

To me, a great novel is like a great meal. The ingredients—no, make that the characters—meet, come to a boil, then simmer and, hopefully, meld together in such a deeply satisfying way that I linger. I can’t put my fork—book!—down.

In the past few years there have only been an armful of books I have loved: David Benioff’s “City of Thieves,” Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch,” Michael Krikorian’s “Southside,” Anthony Marra’s “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” Abraham Verghese’s “Cutting for Stone” and Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels.

But this past year I’ll happily add two to my short list. Marisa Silver’s “Little Nothing” was a great escape—a dark, mysterious adult fairy tale about a dwarf girl who turns into a wolf and then a . . . I won’t ruin it. With someone else’s pen, this love story could have been a mess, but Ms. Silver’s engaging, heartfelt style brought it together for me. I felt so deeply for this outcast and, perhaps even more, for the man who loves her unconditionally.

My other book for 2016 is Richard Russo’s “Everybody’s Fool,” the sequel to “Nobody’s Fool.” I see Paul Newman every time Sully’s name appears. And we all know that’s special. 

Ms. Silverton, a chef, is the author of “Mozza at Home.”

L.A. Times Op-Ed - Stay and Fight, No One's Moving Anywhere

No one's moving anywhere. My friends Dahlia and Chris aren't going to Mexico, and Alexis K is not going to Copenhagen. Nancy's not permanently packing up and moving to Umbria, Kate Green's not heading permanently to Chablis and Duke is not moving to Thailand with his cousin Jake.

And you?  You aren't going wherever the heck you say you are moving to now that Don Trump is going to be president of the United States of America.

What we all do is this: We stay and fight.

First, we wait and see. Even Hillary Clinton said Wednesday, "We owe him an open mind and a chance to lead."

But if we don't like what happens, we fight it. We take to the streets and rekindle memories of the anti-Vietnam War protests and civil rights marches. We don't run and hide. We don't abandon America.

I feel, strangely, not what I thought I would “the morning after.” I’m more patriotic than I was yesterday. More in love with my country than I have since, I guess, Sept. 11, 2001.

As my old friend Aqeela Sherrills, a longtime Watts gang interventionist and community activist said in a Facebook post Wednesday: “There's a gift in every tragedy...   A Trump victory is an opportunity, if your like me, I do my best work under pressure. Don't go to Canada or where ever you thinking, The U.S. is ours! and no President, Senate, Congress or White House will tell me otherwise!... lets go to work!”

The country our parents, uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents fought for is sliding around  a hairpin turn, but it hasn't crashed.

Yesterday, a guy I know from the streets showed me a knife he had in his waistband. A killing knife. It made me think of “Saving Private Ryan”and a brutal, achingly sad scene:  room-to-room fighting, a German soldier slowly pushing a killing knife into the chest of an American soldier.

When I went home, I Netflix'd “Saving Private Ryan” with the intention of forwarding to that scene, but instead I started watching from the beginning. The first 25 or so minutes show the first wave of Allied forces landing on the beach at Normandy, D-Day, 1944. It's one of the most powerful  movie sequences ever filmed, and it ends with a panorama of bloody corpses washed along by the tide.

What happened Tuesday doesn’t compare to those days. Everyone walking around like it’s the end of civilization now that Trump is in? It's not. We’ve  been through far worse. A perceived threat is not as bad as a punch in the face. 

I was on a text thread Tuesday night that included several millennials. It started with how wonderful the election was going turn out: the first woman president, the rejection of hateful talk.

But as the eerie night moved on, the thread's tone changed to doom. “I'm terrified,”  “so upsetting,” “I'm really scared,”  “will we get through this shameful moment,” “this is horrific,”  “I cannot take this.”

Yes you can take this.  

At Men's Central Jail last week I saw my old friend Cleamon Johnson, a.k.a. Big Evil. We got to talking about the election, and Big Evil said, “This fool might win. But sometimes you have to go all the way down before you can rise.”

So everyone, don't start packing. Get ready for a fight.

And watch the first 25 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan.”  You’ll know we’ve been through a whole lot worse.  

Michael Krikorian is the author of the novel “Southside.” KrikorianWrites.com. @makmak47

stabbig

 

 

 

 

The Death of Gerrik Thomas; Just Another South L.A. Killing?

Los Angeles Times Opinion  Op-Ed February 4, 2016

It was the fourth time in two days last week that a young black person was killed by other blacks in South Los Angeles. It didn't make much of a news splash. Like the 16-year-old girl and 20-year-old man at 81st and Avalon, like the 17-year-old boy at 83rd and Main Street, Gerrik Thomas' shooting death, on Jan. 25, was to everyone other than his family, friends and the homicide detectives, just another L.A. killing.

Why isn't [Gerrik Thomas'] excessive and unnecessary death a story? Why are the community, the hashtag leaders, the media and the politicians mostly silent?-  

Thomas, 21, had gone to the market to buy a soda. As he walked back to his great-grandmother's blue-and-white house eight doors down from the corner of West 54th Street and 9th Avenue, he was hassled — maybe asked, threateningly, “Where you from?” — by two males about his age driving by. He didn't answer; he called his mom. Moments later, according to police, at the corner, in front of the M & J 100% Hand Car Wash, the car stopped. The two guys got out. One grabbed Thomas, and the other shot him in the head. Thomas was pronounced dead at California Hospital.

There will be no protest marches organized in Thomas' memory. No downtown streets will be blocked; the entrances to the Harbor Freeway will remain open. No angry citizens will demand the arrest, trial and conviction of those responsible for his killing.

I get the outrage when a cop kills an unarmed civilian, I get the fury when a video shows what looks like an unnecessary, excessive police shooting. But what I don't get is why Gerrik Thomas' death barely signifies. Why isn't his excessive and unnecessary killing a story? Why are the community, the hashtag leaders, the media and the politicians mostly silent?

Is it that Thomas' death is acceptable? Does it just come with the territory in South Los Angeles?

I've been writing about gang killings in Los Angeles for well over 25 years, and I know these deaths are not acceptable to the families on Grape Street, on Success Avenue, on Brynhurst Avenue. Their pain is as deep as it gets. I know the answer is “no” to the question Reggie Sims, gang interventionist at Jordan Downs, asked about the lack of uproar over the killing of his son several years ago: “Just because he was shot by another black kid, that makes it OK?” I've heard that question from at least 100 different relatives of the slain.

By way of an uproar, I'll tell you a bit about Gerrik Thomas.

If you ask 20 of his friends and family about him, every one will say something about his smile.

Some might describe the tattoo on his right forearm — “Demicha”— his mother's name. Others will talk about how he took the bus to work as a security guard near the airport or at Los Angeles County Museum of Art. About how respectful he was. That he went to Daniel Webster Middle School and Crenshaw High. That he dreamed of being a doctor and was enrolled at Los Angeles Trade Tech to learn nursing. But all of them will bring up his smile.

“Who would do this to him?” asked his friend Shonda Smith, staring at dozens of “murder candles” set on the sidewalk where he was shot. “He wasn't the type of kid to even have the slightest confrontation with anyone. He was a good kid. A nice lovable young man. And that smile of his. His smile would brighten a whole, gloomy day. I can't believe it that he's gone.”

“Even when Gerrik had a rough day, when I could tell something was bothering him, he still had that beautiful smile of his,” said his great-aunt Karon Stinson. She was on the porch of his great-grandmother's house two days after his death. “Granny,” in a wheelchair, agreed about the smile, in her whisper of a voice.

LAPD homicide Det. Christopher Barling, head of the 77th Division squad, said Thomas was not a gang member; he had no record. It is unfortunate that when a killing happens south of the 10 Freeway, it is often assumed the victim was a gang member.

On Thursday, Demicha Lofton-Thomas, Gerrik's mother, posted a statement on Facebook. This is some of it:

“On Monday, January 25, 2016, at 6:30, my biggest fear came to reality. My son Gerrik Thomas was the victim of a violent crime. [He] had just called my phone at 6:24 and said that a dude banged on him. I talked to him for a couple minutes not knowing it would be the last time I'll ever hear [his] voice. At 6:33 I received a call ... I heard all the crying in the background.... I felt it in my heart. My stomach started to hurt. My legs were getting weak like they were going to collapse.”

Anyone with information about Thomas' killing can call the Criminal Gang Homicide Division anonymously: (323) 786-5100. Thomas' family has set up a Go Fund Me account to help with his funeral expenses: www.gofundme.com/long-live-gerrik. If you haven't figured it out for yourself, Gerrik Thomas' life mattered.

Gerrik

War and Peace in Watts, Part 2 of the Classic LA Weekly Article

Ronald “Kartoon” Antwine is sitting in his garage, looking out at the Union Pacific railroad tracks near 114th and Wilmington Avenue. Kartoon is one of the legendary Bounty Hunters. A former menace to society. A 6-foot-4½-inch, 260-pound thug who carried a pistol in one pocket and a sawed-off Winchester pump shotgun under his black leather jacket. He robbed people, shot people, beat up people in the wild days of the ’70s.

He paid for his crimes by doing more than 15 years at the toughest prisons in California, including thousands of days at Folsom back when Folsom made the Pelican Bay of today seem like juvenile hall. He walked out of prison in 1992 and has not been back.

Just days after he left Chuckawalla Valley State Prison in Blythe (“America’s Hottest Prison”), the peace treaty was being negotiated, and Kartoon became a key representative for the Bounty Hunters and Nickerson Gardens. He recalls that one of the biggest sticking points was that the Crips — PJs and Grape Street — were concerned about their safety in his Blood neighborhood.

“One day I said, ‘Let’s find out,’ and we all started walking through the Nickersons, Bloods and Crips. The young homies were stunned, but they joined in. It was beautiful.”

These days, Kartoon is a gifted writer, a Bounty Hunter historian, a community activist, and still a respected figure in Nickerson Gardens. “You see that field right there by the tracks?” he asks, pointing 50 feet away. “That used to be our Vietnam. That was the frontlines. That was the border between the Bounty Hunters and the PJs. There used to be weeds higher than me there, and we’d be sniping at them from our side and they’d be sniping at us from their side.”

But now that the PJs and Bounty Hunters are getting along, the weeds are gone, and so is the fear of gunfire. “I sit in this garage and it’s a pleasure to see the people cross the tracks, crossing enemy lines. It’s like walking through a force field on Star Trek. Used to be you cross those tracks, you die. Now people walk back and forth.”

Kartoon, 46, partly blames the local government and the lack of resources available to help stop the violence. But Kartoon (Bloods disdain the letter C) reserves his harshest words for those whom he considers the cause of the treaty’s demise and the latest upsurge in violence by young, reactionary gangsters. “All the projects are doing their part to stop the violence, but every project has those reactionaries who listen to no one and don’t want to participate in the peace movement,” he says. “All we ask is they don’t sabotage the peace. It’s like in Baghdad. They got that one religious sect doing all the bombing. But, the other sect refuses to retaliate.”

Kartoon says he’s been in the Nickersons during and after recent shootings. With other hall-of-fame Bounty Hunters Big Hank and Big Donny he tried to persuade the young homies not to retaliate. “Our young guys were saying, 'Fuck this. We gonna do something.' So Hank and Donny and everybody, we had to calm them. It’s not an easy thing to do.”

He doesn’t tell young Bounty Hunters what to do — to attack or not to attack — but rather emphasizes the consequences of their actions.

"All the guys getting busted, they don’t realize what a life sentence is. When the pop goes off, when their head pops out of their ass and they realize they ain’t going home after just five years. When they realize they’ll never be able to taste a Big Mac or a Quarter Pounder again. To see them go crazy when they hear their moms is dying and they’re locked up and can’t go see her. When they hear their woman is pregnant by their best homeboy. When they realize they’ll never see a night sky again."

As I’m driving one evening through the 1,066-unit Nickerson Gardens, said to be the largest housing project west of the Mississippi, dozens of men and women are milling about, and children are playing near their apartment units, many of them with small, nicely tended gardens with roses in full spring bloom.

For anyone who has ever seen the nation’s worst housing projects, such as the now-destroyed, infamous Robert Taylor Homes on the South Side of Chicago, the projects in Watts look almost pleasant during a quick drive-through. They are not high-rise prisons like Robert Taylor, Cabrini Green or Rockwell Gardens, but rather two-story buildings with small patches of lawn in front of them. A closer look, however, reveals the poverty and aura of hopelessness.

The Los Angeles city attorney has imposed a gang injunction against the Bounty Hunters here that makes it a misdemeanor for any of them to be together, although it is impossible to enforce all the time. In part of the city attorney’s report, LAPD Officer Victor Ross, one of the most hated men in Nickerson Gardens, writes, "When gang members are stopped by law enforcement they will say that they are going to visit their grandmothers, but in fact they are just hanging out with a bunch of other gang members, drinking, using drugs, playing loud music, gambling, loitering to be hooks or lookouts. They are doing anything but visiting their grandmothers."

Officer Ross describes a few gang members, like Aubrey Anderson, known as "Lunatic" or simply "Tic." "He is feared in the sense that he is short-tempered and is seen as crazy enough to do anything. He is not afraid to commit violence to further the gang." Another one is Israel Jauregui, a.k.a. Izzy, who has a tattoo on his arm that says, "Kill or Be Killed." "He is a violent gang member who is not afraid to commit shootings or other violent acts for the gang." Izzy, it turns out, is in federal custody now, and attempts to contact Lunatic were unsuccessful, much to the delight of my family.

Of the three projects in Watts, Imperial Courts appears the most run-down. The blue and green buildings that house 490 units look tired. Trash is rampant, flowers are few, and packs of young men evil-eye every stranger.

At Imperial Courts Recreation Center, which has a shiny full-size basketball court, no one is in the gym. But the narrow streets are full of young men. No one wants to talk about the breakdown of the truce. The four most common responses are "I’m not from here," "I’m just visiting," "Fuck off" and "Talk to PJ Steve."

PJ Steve is Steven Myrick, a tall, well-built 39-year-old who’s been a Crip almost his entire life, did nine years for kidnapping, robbery and assault, and has 2-inch-tall letters, "P" and "J," tattooed on his throat.

When PJ Steve heard about the 1992 treaty, he had mixed emotions.

"I was locked up when the peace treaty happened, and I was confused about it for a while. I couldn’t get it," says PJ Steve. "But then you realize it was a move for the kids. Kids need a better way than the way we had it. But now you got kids going back to the same ways.

PJ Crip "Cornbread" chimes in that he doesn’t feel safe in Jordan Downs.

In Jordan Downs, a group of Grape Streeters talk about the breakdown of the treaty, and the future. "I didn’t really like the peace treaty anyway," says Scrap, 29. "If I kill you today, then one of your homies who’s like 11 or 12 now is gonna remember it, and when he gets older he’s gonna blow my head off. That’s what’s happening today."

There is some hope in Jordan Downs that the infamous Grape Street shot caller Wayne "Honcho" Day may soon be free after serving nine years in federal prison on drug distribution and conspiracy charges. Day, now 48, was sentenced to more than 19 years, but he successfully appealed on the basis that he was poorly represented, and a decision on whether to reduce his sentence will be made within a month or so, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Terrell.

In a 1997 speech by Steven R. Wiley, then chief of the Violent Crimes and Major Offenders section of the FBI, Honcho was called "the Godfather of Watts." That’s a slight exaggeration, but when told that Honcho may be getting out of prison soon, both Kartoon and PJ Steve consider it good news.

"If Honcho was here, this wouldn’t be happening," says Kartoon.

Sitting on a wooden table near the closed Jordan Downs gymnasium on a fine spring afternoon as his friends prepare to barbecue and play baseball, Honcho’s nephew Kmond Day lays part of the blame for the violence on alcohol.

"Alcohol is not for peace," he says. "But some people drink cuz there’s nothing else to do. The reality is, if we have guys from our own hood who get high and we can’t control them here, how can we expect them to go to other hoods and not act stupid?"

But Kmond says most gang members don’t even know why they bang.

"A lot of so-called gang members could win Oscars. They’re acting like gang members. They’re doing the stuff gang members do — shooting, killing — but they don’t even know the whole purpose of representing the hood. If you ask them why they bang, they say, 'To represent the hood.' Represent what? There is no point in representing the hood. What’s the purpose? There is no purpose."

Many young kids gangbang out of fear, not fear of the other hoods but fear from guys from their own block.

"You got cats that’s killing cats from other projects, and the homies that are with them are afraid of them, so they try to impress their big homies," says Kmond. "But really, they are just scared. But they think it’s the only way to survive."

Some complain bitterly about what they consider the rough tactics of one LAPD officer, Christian Mrakich. They claim he harasses people and encourages the gang wars. "Mrakich is the Rafael Perez of Jordan Downs," says Daude Sherrills.

Captain Sergio Diaz says he has received several complaints about "an officer" in Jordan Downs, but nothing has been substantiated.

"While I can’t talk about personnel investigations, I will tell you, in the course of a criminal investigation earlier this year, we know from wiretaps that targets of these narcotics investigations encouraged each other to make complaints about a specific officer who they knew to be investigating them," Diaz says. "We checked them out and concluded he had done nothing wrong."

Attempts to interview Mrakich are rejected by the LAPD, but his commander laughs when told that many gang members spoke badly of the officer.

"We have a lot of bad things to say about Grape Street, too," says Captain Diaz. "They are killers, dope dealers and robbers. Mrakich and [Victor] Ross are very effective in the projects, and of course many people hate them, quite naturally."

Unlike some in the LAPD, Diaz praises the now-fallen peace treaty.

"There was a lot of skepticism in the department about the treaty, but I believe it made a significant difference in the violent-crime rate," says Diaz.

"Obviously, the truce thing was good in that people weren’t shooting each other. But now, unfortunately, that is over."

On the evening of April 9, Officers Oscar Ontiveros and Darren Stauffer, from Diaz’s Southeast Division, are involved in a shooting that kills Bounty Hunter Spencer "Fox" Johnson after, they say, he pointed an assault rifle at them near Bellhaven and 112th streets. Gang sources say Fox was on the lookout for a Grape Street attack at the time.

In the early-morning hours of May 9, another Bounty Hunter, Kemal Hutcherson, 24, is gunned down — not by police — on perhaps the most cruelly named street in the city, Success Avenue.

Though it has a nationwide bad rep (and this story won’t make it any better), citizens who live here have a great deal of pride in Watts. I’ve never heard anyone boast, "Man, I’m from Bel Air," but folks seem almost eager to tell you they’re from Watts. And because of their resiliency, and because of the mostly good memories of the 1992 treaty, there is much hope that this current battle of the projects will not be left to fester and maim and kill for years.

In the last two weeks there has been a call to fight the good fight. Not to cave in to the violence and accept it as in days of yore. Not to just be outraged when a cop kills a black kid, but be outraged when a black kid kills a black kid.

In the projects, a new group of respected, slightly older gang members — not just famous triple O.G.s like Big Hank from the Nickersons or Elementary from Grape Street, but adults in their mid-20s and -30s, men and women who are trying to reach the youngsters and quell the killings — have emerged.

One of those young men is Bow Wow from Grape Street, who has been meeting with his counterparts from the other projects and reporting back to the young homies.

"We need to keep conversating," says Bow Wow. "There’s a new leadership, and we just need to keep talking and not shooting."

The older guys can help, but much hope is put on the new generation of leaders.

"We are dealing with a new generation who are trying to maintain the tradition of peace, trying to make a difference in a positive way," says Gregory Thomas, supervisor of those gang-intervention workers at CSDI. "Young brothers with respect. Guys that have been through a lot and changed."

The spirit behind the new leadership is that the new violence has heaved the responsibility for peace on the newer generation, and a lot of younger men are stepping up in an effort to stop this madness. They are trying, for example, to prevent a 15-year-old from getting into a car with an AK-47 and shooting another black boy because he lives in a housing project that is similar to his own but has a different name.

"This is not about the Nickerson Gardens or the Jordan Downs or the Imperial Courts," says Michelle Irving, a former Sybil Brand regular turned gang-intervention worker. "Those are just names someone gave three housing projects."

Citing the same impetus that was behind the 1992 treaty, the adults say they are doing this for the children. "It’s sad to see a young person walking down the street worried about if he or she is going to get shot," says Irving, who was "a mother and father at age 14." "They should be walking down the street thinking about school. Thinking about a future. A bright one."

As Aqueela puts it, "Peace is not a destination. It’s a journey with peaks and valleys along the way."

In Watts, that journey just might be never-ending. But at least there’ll be a whole lot of people along for the ride.

War and Peace in Watts, Part 1 of the 2005 LA Weekly Classic Article

President Bush keeps saying America is safer now that Saddam Hussein is out of power. Prez hasn’t been to Watts lately.

The much heralded, often copied and never equaled Watts housing-project gang peace treaty of 1992 has officially imploded, leaving bodies, grieving families and shell casings scattered over the most infamous black neighborhood west of the South Side of Chicago.

The nights of mixing purple, blue and red are over. Gone are the days when the Grape Street Watts Crips from Jordan Downs (purple), the Bounty Hunter Bloods from Nickerson Gardens (red) and the Project, or PJ, Crips from Imperial Courts (blue) could encounter one another without fear of death.

During the wild year of 1989, in the LAPD reporting districts that cover the three main housing projects in Watts, there were 25 homicides. During the height of the treaty in 1997, there were four. So far this year there have been at least seven killings in and around the projects, dozens of shootings, a reported 187 violent crimes and, with all that, the acknowledgment that there is no more treaty.

Long gone are the joyous parties and rowdy football games that homies from the projects threw and played together. Gone are the days when a gangster from the Jordans who had a child with a lady from the Nickerson could have a lazy Sunday-afternoon barbecue in peace. “I can’t even go see my son,” says Grape Street member Dell (“like the computer”) Hester, 21. “I got a baby from a girl in the Nickersons, but I can’t even go there no more. It’s gonna be a real hot summer.”

While many in law enforcement say the treaty has been shaky for years, only recently have actual gang members themselves admitted it. The 1992 treaty, which became official the day before the Rodney King verdict set the city ablaze, was born from older gang members who did not want their children to go through the dread they had long endured. It was marked by celebrations, by families and friends being able to visit each other in different projects without fear.

But in the last year or so, as a new generation of gang members came of shooting age, which is about 13 to 16, word began to spread that the treaty was on the ropes. And in the projects, words, rumors, truth and fiction get spread fast. Soon residents of Nickerson Gardens knew it wasn’t wise anymore to go to Jordan Downs, and folks from there knew they weren’t getting the royal treatment if they popped in at the Nickersons or Imperial Courts.

“We ain’t even thinking about a peace treaty right now,” says Bow Wow, a respected 26-year-old from Grape Street. “We’re just trying to get a cease-fire. Just trying to stop all the shootings.”

Thomas “Tuck” Graham Jr., 20, a Bounty Hunter who was so young when he started banging he doesn’t even remember how he got his nickname, says the days of peace with Grape Street are over.

“We used to see Grape Street members come over here and we’d give them a pass,” says Tuck as he smokes a cigarette and sips on a small bottle of Ocean Spray cranberry juice. “But now things are different. I see a Grape Streeter, especially in the Nickersons, he ain’t getting no motherfuckin’ passes, especially since they killed my homey.” His homey was Dwayne “Sexy Wayne” Brooks, 22, a Bounty Hunter renowned as a smooth-talking ladies’ man.

The Watts peace treaty certainly did not stop all violence in the housing projects. Internal, in-house disputes were often settled with Mac 10s and Sigs. There were also gang member–vs.–rival gang member acts of violence, but for the most part this was done on an individual level, a personal dispute between, say, a Bounty Hunter and a Grape Streeter over a range of things, from drugs to, of course, women. But the peace treaty pretty much squashed one gang firing on another gang simply because they were from a different hood. 

 The killing of Sexy Wayne marked a clear return of killing someone just for that very reason. On March 5, there is a minor conflict in Cerritos at a skating rink. For decades, such places have been magnets for many black gang members. Details of the incident are sketchy, but either words or a few fists are briefly exchanged. Bounty Hunters say Sexy Wayne is not involved in the incident. Later, a group of cars drives to the Artesia Transit Yard near Gardena, where there is a Park and Ride MTA station.

“Shortly before 2 a.m., a group of up to 70 cars that had been cruising just happened to stop there,” says Detective John Goodman of the LAPD’s Harbor Division. “There was some kind of confrontation, and there were a lot of shots fired. Brooks was shot and killed. A lot of people saw it. That may have started the escalation in the current violence.”

Street rumors quickly circulate that the shooter was from Grape Street. Brooks, decked out in Blood red, had been with members of the PJ Crips, who have become strange gang fellows of late with the Bounty Hunters.

Perhaps the most unusual result of the latest outbreak is that it has brought the Bounty Hunters, the city’s most notorious Blood gang, closer than ever to the PJ Crips of Imperial Courts, and that alliance against the Grape Street Crips is sending bewilderment throughout the black street-gang community. 

Nine miles away from Watts, in Hyde Park, a long way in gangland L.A., Kevin “Big Cat” Doucette, a notorious shot caller of the Rollin’ 60s Crips, is telling his cohorts about that distant gang war. “That’s about the craziest shit I ever heard,” says Big Cat, 45. “The PJs and the Bounty Hunters teaming up against Grape Street. Crips and Bloods teaming up to go at Crips.”

Even law enforcement is surprised by the alliance. “The alliance doesn’t seem plausible or possible, but that’s what we’re hearing,” says Detective Dana Ellison of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Century Station. “The so-called treaty is dead.”

And with the dead treaty comes the return of the payback shooting. Bounty Hunter or PJ Crip gets killed, supposedly by Grape Street, then a Grape Street must die in retaliation. Doesn’t have to be the shooter that gets hit with the payback. Sometimes, doesn’t even have to be a gang member. Just someone living in the rival project will do.

Someone like Jason Harrison.

A week after Sexy Wayne was killed, Harrison, 19, who is not a Grape Street gang member, is gunned down on 102nd Street inside Jordan Downs. It’s on. The next day, the Imperial Courts project is shot up. Then the Nickersons gets sprayed. Then Jordan Downs. Then, then, then.

Sal LaBarbera, the lead homicide detective for the LAPD’s Southeast Division, which covers Watts, says tension is as high as it’s been in a long, long time.

“You can tell the energy level is up in Grape Street,” says LaBarbera, a cool New Yorker straight outta Central Casting. “Guys are on guard duty. Trash cans are lined up at the entrance to the projects. Folks are ready to go. Ready to run into their apartment and get the guns.” He’s right, of course.

It’s a rainy late night inside Jordan Downs on 102nd Street near an entrance to the projects off Juniper Street and 103rd, where two dumpsters the size of Escalades are placed. Young men and teenagers of the 700-unit project are indeed on the lookout for strangers while they smoke chronic and sip Olde English 800, still a favorite after all these years.

Contrary to popular opinion, especially from Westsiders who’ve never been here, Jordan Downs can be a welcoming place, especially at a Saturday-afternoon barbecue or baseball game. You might get some curious glances at first, but then, after a few intros, a couple of beers, it’s usually cool. Certainly a warmer welcome than a Grape Street Crip would get on Mapleton Drive in Holmby Hills.

But at night, at least this one (and many others), the place is about as friendly as Uday and Qusay in a bad mood during the Persian Gulf War.

“The fuck you doin’ here? Get the fuck outta here, bitch,” booms a Grape Streeter to me as I slowly drive by. I’m in an Enterprise-rented black Chevy Aveo with doors so flimsy one burst from a Kalashnikov would turn them into Emmenthaler Swiss cheese.

“Hello, officer,” says another, which for years has been a common nighttime greeting to me in Watts. Not a lot of Armenians here. I stop in the lot between buildings 99 and 100 and inform the two Crips that I’m a reporter trying to find out what happened to Jason, trying to humanize him. From nowhere, two more Grape Street Crips appear, one of them standing in a doorway. “You need to leave. We ain’t talking to no reporters.”

I park the Aveo in the lot a short distance from my new buddies, get out of the car, and walk over to the makeshift memorial display of murder candles, yellow roses, a large purple bunny rabbit and a framed photo of Jason Harrison. Scribble a few notes — barely legible later — and head back to the Aveo.

A fifth Grape Streeter, older, like in his 40s, approaches, identifies himself only as Wes, and speaks quietly. “Jason was a good kid. Been knowing him since he was 12. Just had seen him an hour before he got shot, talking to some of the guys, and then I guess he was walking to his grandmother’s, right over there. Be careful.”

I want to talk to the younger gang members, but figure it’s early in my reporting and why push it. At least, that’s my excuse to myself. I drive away.

The next day, a former teacher of Harrison’s praises him. “Jason was just a great, great kid. When I heard what had happened, it felt like I’d been hit in the gut with a baseball bat,” says Gary Miles, a teacher at Markham Middle School and a longtime friend of the Harrison family. “Jason was never involved in any of the Grape Street gang stuff. He was a good, hard-working student. One of those kids, every time you saw him, he’d give you a pound and a hug. Always had a smile. A kid that loved life.

“Lots of people not from around here don’t understand how entrenched people are to their neighborhood, to their set,” says Miles. “Lots of these kids are third-generation gang members from these projects. Forget about being jumped in. These kids are born in.”

Miles, who is from Brooklyn, says the lure of the streets can often be too tempting for a project boy to resist. “Some kids would rather be a part of the hood thing than go on to junior college or a university if they could. It’s that lure. Plus, you throw in the music culture, MTV, and it just adds to the desire. Do I want to be a college football player or do I want to be hood famous? It becomes a seduction.”

Two weeks after he died, Jason Harrison is laid to rest. His funeral, at the Inglewood Mortuary, is overflowing with emotion and mourners. About a hundred guys, guys that grew up together, went to Folsom and Corcoran together, just mingle outside during the services. Jason’s father has “Kodak RIP” shaved into the back of his head. Jason’s nickname was Kodak because he blinked a lot.

His aunt goes on a tirade during her eulogy. “We are here today to take a real good look at our lives. There’s been too many deaths on our streets. When a person takes your life, you don’t take one life. You kill a family. You kill a community.”

The aunt ratchets up her voice. “Today, parents are burying their children. Kids are killing kids. Children are killing, then going to bed snoring.” A purple-clad teenage boy passes out. He starts shaking. Almost no one notices, even the three Crips standing directly behind him. The aunt starts to scream. “He coulda been a gardener, a chauffeur, a movie producer, a cook. We don’t know what Jason coulda been.” 

At the Community Self Determination Institute, on the northern border of Watts, executive director Aqueela Sherrills describes the current situation as a “powder keg.”

“It’s the worst it’s been since the treaty in 1992,” says Sherrills, whose own 19-year-old son, Terrell, was killed in 2003 in an unrelated incident. “It’s crazy out there right now.”

Sherrills and his brother Daude, both of whom have been active in the gang peace movement for more than a decade and who have traveled the world speaking about it, say the current problem is a matter of leadership.

The other gangs couldn’t agree more. Many PJ Crips and the Bounty Hunters lay most of the blame on the Grape Street gang, who they say have lost their leadership, which has cut loose a new generation of young gang members to go on shooting sprees.

Daude Sherrills admits the leadership in Grape Street is not what it once was, but also says, “Imperial Courts has a lot of enemies. We’re not responsible for their enemies.

“But the hopelessness and joblessness create an idleness, which can create apathy for life,” he continues. “And that creates a domino effect that leads to murder and mayhem in the streets. Our race is in worse condition than we were before the ’65 riots. Everyone needs to take responsibility. We are fortunate more lives haven’t been lost.”

Throughout the years, though, many lives have been lost in the three housing projects. According to LAPD statistics, from 1989 to May 21 this year, in the three reporting districts, or R.D.s, that cover Jordan Downs (R.D. 1829), Nickerson Gardens (R.D. 1846) and Imperial Courts (R.D. 1849), there have been 202 homicides. During that same period, there have been a startling 6,470 assaults in the three projects. These numbers cover just three reporting districts, not including all of Watts, out of a total of more than 1,000 in the city.

In 2003, as things started to heat up, there were 12 homicides in the three projects. In comparison, that year the entire West L.A. Division, with 63 R.D.s, had three homicides.

“There’s no denying it’s a very violent place,” says Captain Sergio Diaz, commander of the Southeast Division, which covers more than just Watts. “As of May 21, there had been 30 homicides in Southeast Division, an area less than 10 square miles and 140,000 people. That’s 10 times the national average.” 

To be closer to the late-night scene, when violence is most likely, and to get a better sense of the mood of the community at its most vulnerable, I decide to move in for a couple of nights at one of the two motels along Wilmington Avenue, between Nickerson Gardens and Jordan Downs.

I have been warned by several gang members not to do this. “But if you do,” laughs Daude Sherrills, “bring your own sheets.” I do. Red 300-count Egyptian cotton. I had been saving them for a special occasion. This wasn’t what I had in mind.

My choices are the Villa Hills, near the railroad tracks off 108th Street, and the Mirror Motel, down on 112th Street. I check out the Villa Hills first. I am somewhat intrigued by the name. There’s not a hill for miles, and to call this place a villa is like calling Fallujah a resort town. Later, I realize the Hills part must have been taken from the slight 5- or 6-foot rise on Wilmington for the railroad tracks, and I guess the Villa part comes from the small bougainvillea near the front of the motel. The rooms go for $40 a night. The manager shows me Room 16. As soon as the door opens, the stench hits your nose like a jab from Larry Holmes. A combination of odors I don’t even want to think about. I tell the guy thanks and head back to check out the Mirror.

The Mirror, painted a faded powder-blue, is a bit larger, two stories, and has 30 rooms. At 4 p.m., there’s only one car in the parking lot. I ask the Indian owner-manager how much for a room for the night. Thirty-five dollars. But then he says something very un-innkeeper-like — he fervently implores me not to rent a room here. “No, no,” he says. “No, you should not stay here. It’s not good around here.” He holds up his left hand and starts shooting off an imaginary pistol. “Boom, boom, boom. Every night, every day. Don’t stay here.”

I’m tempted, but head back and rent Room 16 at the Villa Hills. (I’ll go back to the Mirror another night.) I bring in the sheets. They’re full-size and don’t fit the queen-size bed, but I get two corners on, which is enough. There’s a television that gets Channel 7 and a few others. No porno. There’s a dirty sink and a tiny shower, a ratty dresser, a broken window screen, and walls that appear to have been splattered with something that was probably once cavity blood.

Across the street, Tommy’s Liquor is getting ready to close up at 7 p.m. “It’s not safe here at night,” the clerk says. A couple blocks away, a taco truck stays open later, doing a decent business in the early evening.

As night falls, cars start showing up at the Villa Hills. Some stay for maybe a half-hour. Others, all night. Some guests make a lot of racket arguing, and some are clearly having a good time.

Around 11 p.m., I take the Aveo out for a cruise through the three projects. They seem rather quiet on this night. In Imperial Courts, one lone, young PJ Crip, who won’t give even his nickname, asks, “What we suppose to do? Just let Grape Street shoot at us?”

Still, even at this hour, several front doors are open and many folks appear as relaxed as if they were at a Sunday-afternoon picnic in the park. It takes more than decades of homicide to lock down the residents of Watts.

A short time later, I head back to what Daude Sherrills calls “the only five-star hotel in Watts.” After a while, I go out for a short walk, past the railroad tracks, toward 107th Street. There’s a couple walking the same stretch of forgotten road. I hear at least five gunshots and instinctively duck down a bit, though the shots are not from a nearby passing car. The lady ahead laughs and calls out, “Fraidy cat.” Her companion laughs too.

The next morning, I learn from police that a few blocks away, Keith Moore, 19, of Jordan Downs, was shot to death at 105th and Lou Dillon, in an area of Watts called Fudge Town. These shots are not the only ones of the night. Two other times, gunfire is heard near the motel. Police later say the Fudge Town killing is the only shooting they are aware of. No one calls the cops in Watts just to report gunfire. Someone needs to be hit. If gang members here were good marksmen, the homicide rate in Watts would be world-class bad.

COMING NEXT - PART 2