Gordon Parks To Students in Watts - "Nothing Can Stop You"

Published L.A.Times Feb. 28, 1997

Internationally celebrated photojournalist Gordon Parks was on his own at 15, with both his parents dead. Hungry, broke and shivering on a freezing evening in St. Paul, Minn., he confronted a train conductor who had a wad of money. Parks pulled a switchblade.

It was the only time he almost committed a major crime, Parks, 84, told a group of Verbum Dei High School students Thursday in Watts.

"At that moment, in that white man's face, I saw my father's black face," he said. "And I heard my father say, 'What the hell are you doing?' So I looked at the conductor and said: 'You wanna buy a knife?' "

He has inspired generations of African Americans through his photography, writings, movies, music and, perhaps most importantly, his never-say-die spirit.

And that spirit was out in full force Thursday when Parks spoke to students from Verbum Dei High School at the Watts Labor Community Action Committee Center.

"We have brought you history today," said Janine Watkins, the center's special events coordinator. More than 100 students sat in rapt attention as Parks took them through highlights of his life.

For an hour, the dapper former Life magazine photographer delighted the group with his humor, philosophy and tales of growing up black in the Midwest during the Depression.

"If you want to do something, nothing can stop you," said Parks, who wrote and directed feature films such as "Shaft" and "The Learning Tree." "You can do anything you want to do if you want it bad enough."

Parks credited his deeply religious parents with giving him the proper values. In order to provide a skin graft for a young girl who had been badly burned in a house fire, Parks' father, Jackson, donated skin from his back.

Later, someone asked Parks' father if the girl's family had thanked him and sent flowers.

"My father told the man, 'I didn't do it for thanks. I didn't do it for flowers. I did it for the girl.' "

One student asked Parks, who has inspired so many, who was his inspiration. After mentioning his parents again, Parks said his life changed when he viewed Farm Service Administration photographs depicting the devastating effects of the Depression.

"I thought I could show racism the way the FSA showed the Depression," he said.

A short while after seeing those photos, he sold his first photograph to the Washington Post. It showed a black cleaning woman holding a mop and a broom standing before the American flag. Parks compares the shot to Grant Wood's painting "American Gothic." Today, it is Parks' most famous photograph.

In 1949, he became Life's first black staff photographer and traveled the world. One of his most famous articles was a profile of Red Jackson, a Harlem street gang leader with whom he lived for three months. A generation later, Parks' reputation helped him gain access to the Black Panthers.

"Once we were riding around in Berkeley and one of the Panthers had a gun," Parks said. "I told him my 35 [millimeter camera] was more powerful than his 45."

Three weeks later, Parks said, that Panther was dead.

Margret Triplett, an English teacher at all-boys Verbum Dei, said she wanted her class to take away an appreciation for the past.

"He shows that it doesn't matter where you're from, you have an opportunity to move forward," Triplett said.

Derrick Hogan, 13, who appeared somewhat awe-struck by Parks, said: "I learned about history. People think it's bad now, but it was worse back then."

Parks, who is still busy writing and composing and who was honored Thursday by the Director's Guild of America, had high praise for the Watts Labor Action Community Center. In all his travels around the world, he said, he had never seen a place so committed to the youth of the neighborhood.

Wearing a stylish double-breasted blue blazer, silver handkerchief and brown plaid pants, the legendary photojournalist posed for pictures with the group and left the students with one last bit of advice:

"Don't let anybody tell you you can't do something. Be prepared and make yourself so special that they'll have no choice. They'll have to hire you. There is no obstacle you can't overcome. There are no excuses."

Gordon Parks was born in 1912 in Fort Scott, Kansas. He died in 2006 in New York City, The photograph is by Alfred Eisenstaedt, if that means anything to you. 

A 2008 Lakers Team Dinner at Osteria Mozza; "But, the Coolest One was Lamar Odom."

MAY 7, 2008, reprinted from the L.A. Weekly

Around 7:30 on Friday night, the crew at the EZ Lube on Highland and Melrose lined up and started cheering. Three of them pulled out cameras and started taking shots like paparazzi. A fleet of SUVs filled with very tall men had pulled up across the street at Osteria Mozza to have a dinner in the private dining room. Somehow word had leaked out. “My guys were very excited,” said EZ Lube’s manager.

Celebrity sightings at Osteria and Pizzeria Mozza occur almost daily and rarely cause a stir. But this was different. The Lakers were having a team dinner.

“Luke Walton called me and said the team wanted to get together and watch the Jazz-Rockets game,” said John Black, vice president of public relations for the Lakers, who swept the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the NBA Playoffs and wanted to get a good look at their next opponents, either the Utah Jazz or the Houston Rockets. Black, who claims to eat out 350 times a year and is an expert on the Los Angeles restaurant scene, recommended Mozza’s private dining room and made sure a huge flat-screen TV would be available for the team.

Around 8 o’clock, I arrived at the restaurant with Max, 15, a Phoenix Suns follower, and Oliver, 14, a die-hard Lakers fan, who can give you stats on the whole team. Outside, near the parking valet, a kid about 3 feet tall and wearing a Pau Gasol jersey was holding a basketball signed by many of the Lakers. We were at the right place.

Oliver’s mother is Mozza co-owner Nancy Silverton, so I took Max and Oliver into the private dining room through the kitchen entrance — and there they were, your Los Angeles Lakers. The game was on the screen and you could have heard a linguini drop, it was so quiet. Everyone was studying the game; nobody was talking. Except one guy. Kobe Bryant’s security guard. He came up and "suggested" we leave.. “The Lakers are watching the game.” The guy was about 5 feet 9 — no taller than I am — but with arms like the trunk of the General Grant Christmas tree at Kings Canyon National Park. He wasn’t mean, but he was firm. Max and Oliver gave me a look that said, “Let’s just go.” The Lakers, I explained to the disappointed kids back in the main dining room, were working. Studying.

About five minutes later, the security guy came out and said, “When the game is over, the team would be glad to meet the boys.”

I took the guys to a friend’s house to watch the game, but with the Jazz up by something like 20 points we headed again to Mozza and found ourselves back in the same private dining room we’d been kicked out of an hour before. This time, the bodyguard was a sweetheart and got all of the Lakers, no longer in study mode, to come by and shake Oliver’s and Max’s hands and sign a team picture. Kobe, who got word during dinner that he would likely win this year’s MVP award, was nice. Derek Fisher was nice. But the coolest one was Lamar Odom, who was completely sincere when he was talking to the kids.

When they finished their dinner, the Lakers, who had entered the restaurant silently through a side entrance, left publicly amid the chaos of a packed dining room. The restaurant went still. People couldn’t take their eyes off the team as the players made their exit.

In case you’re wondering, MVP Kobe paid for dinner, and yes, he left an awesome tip.


The Original Wild Ones - Wino Willie Forkner and J.D. of The Boozefighters

 The Day That Kicked Bikers' Wild Image Into High Gear

"What's wrong with society today is there are no more fistfights."

--Sonny Barger, leader of the Hells Angels

Before there was Sonny Barger and the Hells Angels, before there was Marlon Brando and "The Wild One," there was Wino Willie and J.D. and a South-Central Los Angeles motorcycle club called the Boozefighters.

On the Fourth of July, 1947, the Boozefighters invaded the Central California hamlet of Hollister and, as Life magazine memorialized it, took over the town.

The incident set off a growing fascination with outlaw bikers, culminating in Brando's legendary "The Wild One" in 1954, with one exchange that still reverberates: "What are you rebelling against, Johnny?" Brando's character was asked. "Whatdaya got?" he snapped.

Today, 75-year-old Wino Willie Forkner and 80-year-old J.D. Cameron--the last surviving founders of the Boozefighters--look back on their legacy with amusement. To visit with them in Cameron's La Mirada home is to recall a distant time when postwar America was bursting with unfocused energy.

"It was a time when you could have a fistfight with someone and when it was over, you'd have a beer together," says Cameron, who made his living in the freight-unloading and trucking businesses, where he employed Willie. "This was way before all this guns and dope crap."

"Yeah, we just had a little fun," says Forkner, a barrel-chested World War II vet with pinkies as thick as thumbs who lives in Fort Bragg, Calif., and still rides his motorcycle. "We didn't do anything wrong."

What happened in Hollister, they remember, started with city-approved street racing on the main drag, San Benito Street.

Well, maybe a little more. J.D. allows that he may have had a few fistfights.

And then Wino Willie begins talking about a town drunk who came into one of the bars.

"Me, Kokomo and Gas House Wilson started buying him wine," Willie says. "After his third glass, he fell over. So we tied him to this wheelchair, tied the chair to some car and dragged him around town. I looked back and he had fallen out of the chair.

"So we put him on the hood and started driving again. Slowly. But he looked like he wasn't breathing, so we thought he was dead. We dropped him in an alley, covered him up with papers and took off.

*"Man, later that day, when I was in jail, I looked over, and there he was, making a ruckus. It's damn hard to kill a drunk."

Wino Willie, who got his nickname as a 7-year-old boy in Fresno when he would visit local wineries and indulge in the latest vintage, had landed in Hollister's jail on the charges of inciting a riot. Of course, he tells a different story.

"They had arrested Red [another of the Boozefighters] for drunk and disorderly, and a bunch of the guys had gone over to the jail to break him out. Man, I went over there and told the fellas, 'Let's forget this Wild West stuff. Red needs a rest.' But, of course, the cops figured I was the leader, and they grabbed me. Later that day, the judge says he'll let me out if I listen to my wife. I told him, 'Hell no. I haven't listened to her yet and I'm not gonna start,' " he said, laughing.

What caused a national stir was not the incident itself, or a San Francisco Chronicle article that described the events as "the worst 40 hours in the history of Hollister," but a single photograph in Life magazine. It showed a large, leather-jacketed man guzzling beer on a Harley with a pile of broken beer bottles lying near his front tire. J.D. and Wino to this day are infuriated by the photograph, saying it was staged.

Life's one-page layout led to a Harper's Weekly article by Frank Rooney, "The Cyclist's Raid," which led to the Brando movie, which sent the image of bikers downhill faster then a wheelie on a steep hill climb.

"I hated that movie," says Cameron.

The most glaring discrepancy between the actual event and the movie was that, unlike the film, in which a sleepy town is stunned by an unexpected invasion of a motorcycle gang, Hollister was waiting with open arms for thousands of bikers to converge there.

For more than a decade the American Motorcycle Assn. had sanctioned an event in Hollister. So on the Fourth of July weekend in 1947, an estimated 4,000 motorcyclists descended on the city of 5,000.

What set that year's event apart from the others was that this time 15 members of the Boozefighters rode north from Los Angeles.

Although the Boozefighters were never mentioned in the Life spread or the Brando movie, word of mouth spread. Their name was a perfect fit, and soon all the biking world knew.

The Boozefighters had been formed in 1946 at the All American Cafe, a small beer joint on Firestone Boulevard near Hooper Avenue, just north of Watts. Many of the members, including Cameron and Forkner, were married. They were, by and large, a bunch of guys who loved to race motorcycles and drink beer.

John Cameron was born in 1915 in Oregon and began racing motorcycles when he was 15. He was rejected for the war because of injuries from a series of crashes. He came down to Los Angeles and bought a small freight train unloading business, where he met William Forkner in 1942.

Forkner, five years younger, had grown up in Fresno, where he expanded his early appreciation of fermented grape juice. Survival in the Pacific during World War II developed his zest for kicks. One day, the Army Air Corps took him off his B-24 bomber because it needed him on another. While on a mission over Iwo Jima, he watched in horror as his regular B-24 exploded and crashed.

"When I came back, we were hanging out at the club and we figured, 'Let's have fun. This is what we fought to protect,' " Forkner said.

The days after the vets came back were "a special time," added Cameron. "People were happy the war was over and we just wanted to enjoy life."

Goldie Miller, a Fremont High graduate, met Cameron and Forkner at the All American Club.

"They were some real characters," says Miller, 74, herself "a free spirit back then. They just loved to party. They wanted to be big-time professional racers, but that never happened. Sometimes they'd go out to the parking lot and duke it out, then come back in for another beer."

Miller was at the Hollister event, but her recollection is fuzzy at best.

"I don't remember a whole lot. I was into having fun too. If I was making book, I wouldn't have given any of them a chance to make it to 40. But, really, they were very nice people. And you knew nobody was gonna mess with you if you were with them."

The next year in Riverside, another ruckus promoted the Boozefighters' reputation for wildness. The club continued to be active through the 1950s, then simmered down. By 1970 the aging members had scattered throughout the country. Cameron bought a trucking business and kept in touch with Forkner, who was working as a trucker.

Forkner--and Cameron, if heart problems don't hold him back--may be heading back to Hollister.

Now a city of 24,000 that bills itself as the earthquake capital of the world, Hollister is already vibrating about the 50th anniversary of the "invasion" next year. Police and merchants believe that as many as 100,000 motorcycle enthusiasts from around the world may converge there on the Fourth of July weekend in 1997. Several groups are vying to put on a trial run celebration this summer.

At Johnny's, one of the bars the Boozefighters patronized in 1947, owner Charise Tyson is looking forward to the day when the bikers return to Hollister.

"I can't wait. We're gonna do big business," Tyson said. "I'm not really concerned about violence. Heck, even the Garlic Festival (in nearby Gilroy) has its problems."

Across the street at Bob's Video, owner Bob Valenzuela is also in favor of the event. "People will be coming here from all over the world because they know about Hollister from the movie," he said. "This is truly holy ground for motorcyclists. It is Mecca."

Today, the Boozefighters motorcycle club still exists, but it is centered in Fort Worth. Comparisons to the original club are like comparing the cushy, soft-tailed, muffled rides of today's bikes with the rigid framed, roaring Harleys of old. The club, with chapters in Virginia, New York and California, has strict rules of conduct and members include doctors, lawyers and law enforcement officers.

Wino Willie and J.D. sneer at the new leadership. "When I met them they came dressed like business people," Wino Willie says. "Today, it's all about greed. We never made a dime off of this whole thing, and we don't care either."

Wino Willie visited J.D. again last week.

"He told me, 'Well, Wino, I'm dying,' " Willie said. "And unless he gets this pig valve operation, he will. But he's not a complainer."

Cameron, a tall, well-built man, says merely that he's going in for an operation Tuesday. Then he says, "We just wanted to have some fun. And we sure did."

One more question lingers. What were the real Wild Ones rebelling against?

J.D. pauses for a few seconds.

"Well, I guess I'm rebelling against discrimination. Ya know, all kinds, but for me, just because someone's a biker, they got rules against you."

And Wino Willie?

"I guess it's the establishment that I spent three years fighting for," he says. "You take off the khakis and the blue and put on some jeans and a leather jacket and immediately you become an asshole."


Wino Willie Forkner 90_s.jpg

Thuglandia - Los Angeles Magazine Article on the State of L. A. Gangs

As a journalist who has covered the street gangs of Los Angeles off and on for the past 17 years, I have often stated, with perverse pride, “L.A. has the best street gangs in the United States,” the way someone might boast about Yosemite’s waterfalls. Big and gaudy and violent, they’ve been rapped about and emulated the world over. But lately if you don’t live in a gang-infested neighborhood, you’d be forgiven for thinking that thugs are forsaking the thug life. Annual city homicide totals are down dramatically from the early 1990s, when there were more than 1,000 killings (nearly half of them gang related), to fewer than 300 in 2012.

But don’t be mistaken. The gangs are still here causing nightly heartbreak. They just aren’t as flagrant as they once were. Among the reasons: the huge drop in crack use, intense gang intervention efforts by former gang members, and police strategies that include upping their presence (along with surveillance cameras) in the Watts projects and bettering their relations with community leaders. There’s also the sheer number of dead and imprisoned gang members to consider as well as the exodus of thousands of others to “expansion cities.”

Those aren’t the only theories. “I think it’s more about business,” says Los Angeles Police Department sergeant Richard Lozano, who works in the Rampart gang unit that oversees the area around MacArthur Park. “The violence brings too much attention from us, and that ruins the potential for making money.” In the park itself several gang factions manage to sell their drugs without killing one another. You’ve got the Columbia Lil Cycos, the most notorious clique of the 18th Street Gang, in the northeast quadrant. Almost half the park is held by two large factions of Mara Salvatrucha, aka MS13. Another large chunk belongs to the Crazy Riders, and several other gangs exist in the surrounding area. This year’s death toll so far? Zero. 

Miles south of MacArthur Park, the quest for illicit financial gain has produced some strange partnerships. “It’s not unheard of anymore for some guy from Grape Street to team up with a Hoover [Street Criminal] to go rob someone or break into a house,” says LAPD detective Chris Barling, head of homicide at the 77th Street Division. Acting on street intelligence that no one will be at a residence, members from two or three gangs clean the place out—what they call “flocking.” Or they might get together for a little “OTM,” as in Outta Town Money: Someone has connections in, say, Phoenix, and L.A. gangsters go there to burglarize houses with the local as their guide. 

Gangs aren’t just less openly hostile to one another, though. They’re less specialized than they used to be, too. In the 1980s, the Rollin 60s and Rollin 90s were infamous for brazen bank robberies. Inglewood Family Bloods did “smash and grabs” at jewelry stores. The Bounty Hunters, operating out of Nickerson Gardens, robbed motorists along Imperial Highway on an hourly basis. In Boyle Heights, Big Hazard from Ramona Gardens earned a reputation for their convenient “drive-ins,” where customers copped drugs without leaving their cars. Home invasions? They were a trademark of Asian gangs. But these days “there’s no secrets in the gang world,” says Cleamon “Big Evil” Johnson, who led the 89 Family Bloods and won an appeal in 2011 after spending 14 years on death row and is now in county jail awaiting retrial. “When other gangs heard that someone was doing good with a crime, they’d be on it, too.”

That said, no gang can do credit card or medical fraud like Armenian Power (I’d recommend paying cash at a 99 Cents-Only store). The Avenues have a notorious specialty as well: The region’s preeminent gangster racists, they’re known for trying to rid Highland Park of blacks through intimidation and murder. 

But no matter how heinous the Avenues’ crimes, for sheer violence Highland Park can’t compare to the LAPD’s Southeast Division, which encompasses Green Meadows and Watts, among other neighborhoods. During the first four months of this year, there were 16 killings in 11 of the LAPD’s 21 divisions. In Southeast there were 17. In fact, the last gang-related funeral I went to, back in February, was for a guy from Southeast, and I can tell you nobody at the church that day was celebrating that gang deaths are down.

One Park, Three Worlds

Macarthur park is too big, crowded, and profitable for a single street gang to control. So for many years a détente of sorts has existed that allows three or four gangs to run the drug trade—nowadays mostly meth—in a park that in the 1990s saw several killings a year.

Northwest Corner
The Wanderers had a presence in the northwest portion of the park, but this less-trafficked area has been taken over in recent years by cliques of the Mara Salvatrucha, aka MS13.

Southwest Corner
Running the quadrant at 7th and Park View streets, the MacArthur Park Locos and the Rampart Locos are factions of MS13, the gang whose members are as well known—and feared—for their face-covering tattoos as for their violence.

Northeast Corner
The busiest section of the park, by 6th and Alvarado streets, has long been the bastion of the Columbia Lil Cycos, a clique of the 18th Street Gang. Though 18th Street is considered L.A.’s largest gang, with as many as 15,000 members, it’s actually an amalgam of 20 cliques. 

Southeast Corner
The Crazy Riders, a mix of mainly Mexicans and Central Americans but also some blacks and whites, control the park’s southeast section. Far smaller than MS13, they began as a group of guys who played American football in the park.



L.A. Times Op-Ed on the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, "They Tried. We Survived."

Remembrance Day: The Turks tried. The Armenians survived.

On Friday, thousands of Armenians, my people, my comrades — em ynker — will march to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first recorded genocide of the 20th century. Thousands of us will demand recognition from the leaders of the Turkish government, an admission from them that their Ottoman Empire forefathers carried out atrocities, that it was a genocide: “acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

I say “us” with a renewed personal sadness. Just last year my cousin discovered our fathers — Zaven, a.k.a. Sam, and Antranig, a.k.a. Tony — had a brother, Azad, who died between 1915 and 1921 near Van, in eastern Turkey.

Will I be in the proud and crazy crowd Friday? Yes, but I won't be making any demands. I don't demand things anymore that I don't think will happen.


I respect the fiery youths who will make the loudest noise, who will wave the red, blue and orange national flag from their black AMGs and silver M5s, who will chant for justice and carry signs and banners. I am proud of them. I admire them. I used to be them (to a fanatical point — I condoned violence), but it's just not me anymore. I think we should focus the march equally on how far my small-in-numbers people have come from the horror we endured.

 The Turks know the genocide happened. The pope knows it happened. President Obama knows it, even though he won't say it today. I mean, come on. There's DNA evidence to support a 5th century historian's claim that Armenia dates to 2492 BC. So on one fine spring day in 1915, did all the so-called Western Armenians suddenly decide it would be a good idea to just pick up and move to Beirut and Fresno and Watertown, Mass., and Aleppo, Syria? (Boy, we sure know how to pick 'em.)

Besides, who would claim to be a victim of a genocide that didn't happen? Who wants to be a genocide survivor? Even on our strange planet, that makes less-than-zero sense. Who is going to insist for 50 years that history be corrected (we were still too shellshocked to start the demonstrations before 1960), if they don't know that history in their bones? Who is going to keep saying, “Hey world, what about us? The Turks tried to exterminate us”?

And to me that's the thing. They tried; we survived. Today, I honor the dead from the early massacres in the 1890s and the death marches, from the deportations and the killings from 1915 to 1923. But I also honor the Armenians alive today.

I'm not going to cite the usual lineup of famous Armenians (but did you know Steve Jobs' adoptive mother, Clara Hagopian Jobs, was Armenian?). Instead, I have a personal honor role of great Armenians — the children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews, cousins and in-laws one or two or three generations removed from the ones who got away and the ones who didn't. The proof that my people live.

There are Vic and Greg Yedikian, my mechanics in Gardena. There's my preferred public defender, Alexandra “A.K.” Kazarian, and Krikor Tcholakian, the owner of Carousel restaurant in East Hollywood. There's David Arzouman, my favorite local artist; Harry Kasbarian, an advocate for Armenian causes (who also sells tires in Glendale); Lisa and Sevan Nahabedian, whose cleaners I go to in Larchmont. And there's my favorite Armenian priest, Father Mesrop Ash of St. John Armenian Apostolic Church in San Francisco, who just happens to be my nephew. All told, they are the makings of a small-town Main Street, from a people ordered annihilated.

Not long ago, I was driving east on Los Feliz Boulevard when I spotted a man standing in front of a SUV holding out jumper cables for passing motorists to see and get the desperate hint. I stopped and gave him a jump. After his car was running, and I disconnected the cables, he shook my hand and thanked me. I said, “I'm Armenian.” I just wanted to let him know we're still here.



"A Slice of Runyon" Closes Downtown, Hank's Bar Is Knocked Out

February 11, 1997

If Damon Runyon were alive and looking for a watering hole in downtown Los Angeles, five'll get you 10 he'd be hanging out at Hank's Bar.

Runyon would find plenty of colorful characters to write about in the New York-style saloon on Grand Avenue near 8th Street.

There's Racetrack Charlie, who won't talk to a reporter because he might be "a copper." There's Liquor Mary, who can put 'em away with the biggest drinkers. There're undercover cops, ex-showgirls and Playboy bunnies, lawyers and gamblers, Wall Streeters and office workers.

But first and foremost, there is the bar owner, Hank Holzer.

Holzer, a former prizefighter, approaches a customer sitting on a bar stool. He fakes a right hand to the customer's ribs, then brings an uppercut to within an inch of the man's jaw. It happens so quickly that the customer, an athletically built man in his 30s, cannot react. He only smiles and shakes his head at the speed of the impressive combination. Nothing unusual about an ex-boxer showing off his skill.

Except that Hank Holzer is 88.

"I still have the punch, but it's my reputation that gets me by," says Holzer in a New York accent as thick as the pastrami at Langer's Deli and decked out in his trademark captain's hat.

His mind is as sharp as his fists used to be. Once a sparring partner for Rocky Graziano, he tells you in vivid detail (including the weather) about the three legendary middleweight championship fights in the late '40s between Graziano and Tony Zale.

The narrow bar--a few booths and 14 stools--is attached to the 80-year-old Stillwell Hotel. The jukebox, full of Frank Sinatra, John Coltrane, Barbra Streisand, Smokey Robinson, Patsy Cline and Louis Armstrong, is almost always spinning.

Near the bottles of booze is a sign that old-timers say Holzer put up a decade before the hit TV show "Cheers": "Welcome to Hank's, where everyone knows your name, where everyone's glad you came."

"There are no racial barriers in this bar," says one of the youngest regulars, Greg Meyer, a 32-year-old stockbroker. "Everybody gets along good here."

Almost on cue, two customers out of earshot at the other end of the bar--one black, one white--start singing "I've Got You Under My Skin" along with Sinatra.


Holzer was born in Greenwich Village in 1909. By the time he was 16, he was fighting professionally as Steven Terry. ("Back then, you took on an Irish name because they were the most popular.") Though never a champion, he fought well enough as a welterweight to make a good living and marry a successful model. He earned several medals and commendations for bravery while serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II.

When his wife, Frances, became ill with diabetes, doctors advised Holzer to move from New York to California for the warmer climate. He opened Hank's Bar in 1959 and ran it for 14 years until Frances' illness forced him to quit to take care of her.

A decade later, in 1983, at her urging, he bought back the bar.

"She told me 'I'm getting well, go on back to the bar, you love it too,' so I did."

Shortly afterward, she died.

The vast majority of the regulars are friendly to strangers. Of course, this is a New York-style bar. Five-foot-one Fast Eddie Schrodeski, 76, balls his fist up at a reporter who asks about Hank.

"How do I know you're the real deal, maybe your some kinda agent?" says Schrodeski, who proceeds to cuss out the reporter from beneath a cap that hides his eyes. Holzer intervenes and vouches for the reporter. Schrodeski slowly acquiesces.

"Hank's kind of like an inspiration to us younger guys," he says.

"Hank is like the father I never had," says bar regular James Watson, 46.

Holzer looks healthy but says, "I'm pushing 90, I probably only got a couple years left. I don't like to dwell on past glories. I've had a good life. I was married 42 years to a beautiful woman. She gave me a good son. I have plenty of friends. I've known all types of people, from killers and shylocks to millionaires."

One millionaire who used to frequent Hank's Bar was the late philanthropist Ben Weingart, whose name now graces a large homeless center in Skid Row.

"Weingart used to look at these guys sleeping in the gutter and tell me, 'Hank, one of these days I'm going to do something for these people,' " Holzer recalls.

Inevitably, the conversation turns again to boxing. Holzer reels off his all-time favorites: Rocky Marciano ("If he fought Tyson, they have to indict the Rock with murder"), Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Zale and Harry "The Human Windmill" Greb, who had 294 bouts.

Behind the bar is a small box with markers of the few people who owe Holzer money. Holzer takes the box and pulls out a IOU slip.

"This one is from Henry Armstrong," a legendary champion of the '30s who died in 1988. "That guy still owes me 48 bucks."


2007 L.A. Weekly Article on the Mayor and LAPD's List of the City's Worst Gangs and a Reporter's Counter List

The Mayor's Fake "Worst Gangs"  L.A. Weekly  March 7, 2007

It's not unusual for a top-10 list to cause controversy. Top 10 movies of all time. Top 10
restaurants in the country. But recently the Los Angeles Police
Department and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced with great fanfare
a top-11 list of the worst and most violent gangs in the area. While
movie buffs and foodies might lightheartedly argue their cases in bars
and cafés, the LAPD list is being scorned and laughed at on gang
corners, in patrol cars and in squad rooms.

When asked about the top-11 list, one Los Angeles officer and expert
on gangs said, "It's laughable. There was pressure from the [brass] to
get out the list, but they didn't ask the right people. They didn't
ask or listen to the experts."

The lead homicide detective of LAPD's deadly Southeast Division found
the list odd. "I can't imagine that those are the worst gangs in the
city," said Detective Sal LaBarbera. "I think they were trying to
spread it out over the whole city, because we've got five gangs alone
in Southeast - the PJs, Grape Street, the Bounty Hunters, Hoover and
Main Street - that could be on that list."

Southeast Division and neighboring 77th Street Division suffered 136
homicides in 2006, representing more than 28 percent of all killings
in Los Angeles. Yet only two gangs from Southeast and 77th got onto
the apparently geographically and politically correct list - Grape
Street Crips and Rollin' 60s Crips.

The list does contain some truly dangerous gangs. But it also leaves
out very powerful gangs: the Hoover Street Criminals, East Coast
Crips, Bounty Hunters, Florencia 13 and Quarto Flats - the old-time
Boyle Heights gang with close ties to Mexican cartels.

"It's a bunch of bullshit," said Antony "Set Trip" Johnson, 17, a gang
member from Five Deuce Hoover, a subset of the notorious Hoover
Criminals. "We should be on that list. Fuck it. We the most hated gang
in Los Angeles."

Johnson, who was very familiar with the list, scoffed at some of the
gangs on it. "204th Street? That's bullshit. That ain't a rough
neighborhood. What they got, 10, 20 members? And Canoga Park Alabama?
You gotta be kidding me. That ain't a gang hood. La Mirada Locos?
Never in my life have I heard of them."

A few miles away, in Rollin' 60s turf on Brynhurst Avenue, a group of
Crips studied the list of top 11 gangs set out on the hood of a
battered dark blue Nissan Sentra. They had not yet heard about it
until shown the list by the L.A. Weekly.

"I never heard of some of these gangs," said Steven Smith, of the
Rollin' 60s. "This has got to be political. Where's the Bounty
Hunters? Where's the Eight Treys? Who the fuck is 204th Street?"

The politics of this strange list, announced by LAPD Chief William
Bratton and Villaraigosa as part of their crackdown on a purported
explosion in gang violence, shows itself most vividly when it comes to
204th Street - a predominately Latino gang that is not considered
among the city's worst.

That gang apparently made the list almost solely on the basis of the
racially motivated killing of black 14-year-old Cheryl Green, as a nod
to angry black community leaders and intense media interest. Green's
killing put the gang on the map, but its members have attacked several
black victims in recent years. However, the 204th is not active enough
to be seriously considered one of the worst in L.A.

On 204th Street turf near Western Avenue and Del Amo Boulevard, a gang
member who would not give his name seemed offended when it was
suggested that 204th Street is not one of the 11 worst gangs. "No,
cousin, there's a lot of stuff that goes on around here," he said as
he walked away.

Two young men who live nearby, however, said the area was "all right."
Said Herman Galvez, 17, "It's not that bad here." Jesse Ortega, 27,
his cousin, said, "Well, it's politics and 204 is on the list because
of that shooting of that little black girl. Now that was terrible."

In the sprawling San Fernando Valley, while attempting to research the
one Valley gang that made City Hall's list - the Canoga Park Alabama
(CPA) - I spent three hours driving and walking the streets. I was
curious to see how the CPAs felt being on a widely publicized list
with some of the nation's most infamous gangs.

I struck out, unable to track down even one member.

An office manager of a pest-control business on Alabama and Gault
streets in Canoga Park said he sees the gang often in the afternoon,
but never has had a problem with them. "I'm not here at night, but
they are cool to me," said Preston Foster. "When I heard five years
ago I was coming to work here, I thought it would be kinda dangerous,
but it's not like that at all."

In the parking lot of Mission Hills Bowl on Sepulveda Boulevard in
Mission Hills, a woman in a van was "shocked" to hear Canoga Park
Alabama had been named the worst Valley gang. "I'm very surprised to
hear that because it's worse in Mission Hills and Pacoima than it is
in Canoga Park," said Pamela Saldy. "I would have thought it would
have been the San Fers."

Turns out, she was right - City Hall was wrong. Lieutenant Gary Nanson
said that, when asked by LAPD brass to come up with a list of the
worst gangs in the Valley, he and all six LAPD gang details in the
Valley put the San Fers at No. 1.

The San Fers are a decades-old, 700-member gang based mainly in the
Valley's northern reaches - concentrated in Mission Hills and the
tiny, heavily Latino city of San Fernando, which is encircled by Los

Based on a combination of crime statistics, gang intelligence and the
level of community fear, Nanson and his detectives ranked the Valley's
top 10, starting with the worst, as: the San Fers, MS 13 Fulton,
Vineland Boyz, Canoga Park Alabama, 18th Street, Project Boyz, Barrio
Van Nuys, Langdon Street, Blythe Street and the Van Nuys Boyz.

>From 2005 to 2006, gang crime in the Mission Division, home to San
Fers, rose 165 percent, while the West Valley, home to Canoga Park
Alabama, saw a 55 percent rise. (The percentages sound huge. But the
number of actual crimes are fairly small because Valley gang activity
is modest compared to city-side gang crime.)

So Nanson, based in the northern Valley, was a bit surprised when the
announced top-11 list omitted the San Fers. On one hand, Nanson agrees
with naming the gangs, a departure from the previous LAPD policy,
saying, "I think it's a very positive step for law enforcement to come
out and name these gangs because they can no longer remain

"When we gave the list to Chief [Gary] Brennan, I noticed they pulled
out Canoga Park Alabama," said Nanson. "I was surprised, because the
San Fers were the Valley's most problematic gang. But I now believe I
know why they picked out CPA: It was because of the new racial twist
which makes it very topical."

The Canoga Park Alabama is a Latino gang. Nanson said that in the last
six months or so Canoga Park Alabama has been involved in racially
motivated attacks against blacks. Squashing attacks by Latinos on
blacks is a political priority right now.

Some think releasing the list could result in even more bloodshed. Jose
Ramon, a barber in Gardena, worried that the list could inspire gangs
to "go on a killing spree" just to get on the list. "I think the gangs
that weren't nominated might try to do something crazy so they can get
nominated next year," said Ramon, whose girlfriend lives near Jordan
Downs, domain of the "nominated" Grape Street Crips.

The executive director of the California Gang Investigators
Association is against publicizing the list, which he feels is flawed.
"No, these are not the 11 worst gangs in the city, but they had to
pick some from a variety of divisions," because of political pressure
to spread the list over a broad geography, said Wes McBride.

"If you are going to name the top 11 worst gangs, then name the 11
worst gangs. But my problem in naming the 11 worst gangs is that the
12th worst gang might get upset."

McBride said there is no definitive list of the top 10 or 11 worst Los
Angeles-area gangs. "It's like a top-10 restaurant," he said. "They
might be one of the best restaurants in the city, but then the chef
leaves and it's not the same. Same with the gangs. They might be very
active and then a couple of their shot callers [gang leaders] get
busted and the gang is put in shock."

Daude Sherrills, a former Grape Street Crip turned community activist,
agreed, saying, "I seen that funny-ass list, but it didn't amount to
nothing, just some more political rhetoric." Sherrills said his family
moved into the tough Jordan Downs housing project when it was new, in
1942. Today, he said, "They spend a billion dollars to arrest a
motherfucker, but they don't spend enough to educate a motherfucker."

Sherrills' brother, Aqeela Sherrills, said the list is a waste of
taxpayers' money. "It's ridiculous that they are making this top-11
list like they are taking on the Mafia," he said. "They are making it
like these gangs are centralized organizations. I wish they would just
go after the most violent individuals rather than put a whole
community down."

Former Grape Street gang member Kmond Day, 32, was in a parking lot
near Building 47 at Jordan Downs talking to older homies about the
list, which he found bizarre.

"I can understand why Grape [Street] is on the list, but what I don't
understand is why are we the only one around here on it," said Day,
who says he volunteers his time to stop gang activity.

Bow Wow, 28, another former gang member, said putting Grape Street on
the list won't make a bit of difference in Jordan Downs: "We already
got a gang injunction on us. They got helicopters flying over here all
the time. They got these million-dollar security cameras all over this
place. What else can they do?"

He suggested that Bratton and Villaraigosa, rather than issue a
meaningless list crafted with racial politics, geographic politics and
media coverage in mind, "get four, five respected individuals from
each project and have them run some good training programs. They got
the money to do it, but they sending it to the wrong people."

With so many complaints about the city's supposed worst 11, the L.A.
Weekly crafted its own Dirty Dozen list of worst gangs, based on crime
statistics and numerous interviews with LAPD gang experts, officers in
gang details, homicide investigators, gang members and community
leaders. The results:

Rollin' 60s Crips

Grape Street Crips

Florencia 13

Hoover Street Criminals

18th Street Westside

Family Swan Bloods

Quarto Flats

East Coast Crips

PJ Crips


Main Street Crips

Mara Salvatrucha

Several sources said the Bounty Hunters, a Bloods gang from Nickerson
Gardens public-housing project in Watts, should be on the list.
However, crime is down substantially in Nickerson Gardens, with three
2006 homicides in the general area, as well as 45 robberies and 53
assaults. It's not a safe place. But it's a far cry from 1989, when
the area was racked by 11 homicides, 139 robberies and 162 assaults.
By 2003, the violence had dropped to six homicides, 52 robberies and
153 assaults.

Behind these stats are concerned Nickerson Gardens residents and
workers who volunteer their time reaching out to younger gang members
and youths who haven't yet joined gangs.

Respected community leader Donny Joubert, 46, said he was proud of
the work that "younger brothers have done to make things better in
Nickerson Gardens." Standing in front of the project's gym one recent
evening, he added, "We are not trying to say Nickerson Gardens does
not have problems, but we're trying to make it better, and we have had
some success in dealing with the gang members. I thank God we were not
on that list."

In the end, the top-11 list announced with great fanfare by
Villaraigosa and Bratton, and accepted largely without question by Los
Angeles media, has resulted in a curious outcome: gangs, antigang
activists and police say it's packed with politics. In a matter of
days, the Weekly crafted a more realistic list, sans politics,
according to the rank and file - not the brass, but the officers and
detectives who know the gangs and deal with them on the streets every
day and night.

Dec. 31, 2014 LA Weekly Aritcle on The Legendary Career of LAPD Homicide Detective Sal LaBarbera

Sal LaBarbera sees dead bodies.

Driving from Watts to USC — up Central Avenue, west over on 83rd, up Figueroa — the LAPD homicide detective can envision the slain bodies of his cases. Hundreds of them. Hell, no, thousands of them.

"There is not a street, not a corner, from the Nickerson Gardens to the Sports Arena [where] I haven't been part of a homicide investigation," LaBarbera said as he drove that route recently. "I don't remember all the names. How could I? But I remember the bodies."

Detective Sal LaBarbera's days of seeing dead bodies are winding down. After 33 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, 27 of those investigating homicides, he is retiring. On Jan. 31 he will be, as police say, "KMA367." End of watch.

He'll leave a legacy as one of the best homicide cops in the history of LAPD, meaning one of the best anywhere — built on a foundation of loyalty to his peers but, even more, to the victims and their families.

"The level of compassion and the commitment he has are unsurpassed by any detective," said LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, who has worked with LaBarbera his entire career. "We're really going to miss him. Not just because he's a great detective but because he's a great friend."

LaBarbera said the best part of being a detective is "driving Code 3 in reverse around LAX chasing somebody." The worst? "Statistics are bullshit. One murder is one too many."

LaBarbera, 55, was raised in New York's Westchester County by his detective father and homemaker mother. He played semipro baseball in New York as an outfielder.

But his grandparents lived in the San Fernando Valley, and when he visited them he would sit outside the LAPD Van Nuys station and watch the officers come and go. "I was so impressed by their size, their professionalism and that sharp uniform," he said. "They were unlike what I was used to seeing in New York."

He graduated from the Los Angeles Police Academy in 1981 and fairly quickly was assigned to the wild 77th Street station, becoming a detective trainee. By 1990, he was working homicide at South Bureau amidst the era's gang bloodbaths.

"It's the most rewarding and demanding job. Thirty-six-hour shifts were normal," he said. "My goal was always to catch the bad guy before the victim's funeral. To get suspects to cop out, that's so rewarding. I have a half-dozen assholes on Death Row."

The worst thing about being a homicide detective: "Seeing the carnage left behind." The best: "A little bit of closure for families."

LaBarbera's boss, Lt. Jeff Nolte, said the detective is "going to be impossible to replace."

"There's more art to homicide than science," Nolte said. "It's a feeling. It's about tension. It's about having relationships. There is no one like Sal when it comes to naturally building a relationship. When a witness senses that feeling, they become comfortable, and that's when they come forward. Sal is unwavering in his oath to make things right."

Thirty-one years ago, at Manchester Avenue and St. Andrews Place, LaBarbera was on patrol when a man got shot, his femoral artery taking a potentially fatal hit. But the detective reached his fingers into the victim's leg and pinched off the artery, saving him.

The best thing about his job, LaBarbera said: community contact. The worst: "Department bullshit."

Det. Chris Barling, supervisor of the 77th Street homicide unit, has known LaBarbera for 27 years and calls him "Hollywood Jack," a nod to the detective's frequent press conferences and oft-stated desire to "go Hollywood" after he retires.

When Barling heard L.A. Weekly was profiling the detective, he asked, "How much is he paying you?"

But then Barling got serious. "Sal's compassion and caring about people both on the force and on the street, the victims, the families, is second to none. He is a compassionate and a passionate advocate for victim's families."

Det. Tim Marcia of the Robbery-Homicide division explained that the detective taps into something deep in these families, then turns it into a tool that propels him forward.

"He's carried the loss of a victim close to his heart, and he used the pain and anguish that violent crime brings to a family as motivation to do the job right," Marcia said. "Sal was a real murder cop, and the city of L.A. is a better place because of him."

It's not difficult to tap into compliments from co-workers. What's unique about LaBarbera is that he gets compliments from "the other side."

Infamous 89 Family Swans gang member Cleamon "Big Evil" Johnson lauded LaBarbera for his "come at you as a man" straightforwardness.

Johnson is incarcerated at Men's Central Jail, awaiting his retrial for two murders for which he served 13 years on death row. In 2011, the California Supreme Court overturned his conviction, finding that a juror leaning toward acquittal was wrongly excused by the trial judge. A few months ago, asked by a reporter about the guest list for his "homecoming party" if he wins at retrial, Johnson said, "Hey, you gotta invite Sal. Just tell him to leave the badge at home."

Homicide detectives who listen to Johnson's jailhouse phone conversations gave LaBarbera a full ration of shit for that.

Betty Day, the mother of Wayne "Honcho" Day, a former Grape Street Crip whom the FBI once labeled the "Godfather of Watts," also praised LaBarbera

"That Italian is retiring, and I'm just now hearing about it?" Day said. "He knows my son, and he was after him, but Sal was and is always fair. A good cop. He better invite me to his party."

Donny Joubert, a respected Nickerson Gardens peacemaker who convinced the project's Bounty Hunter Bloods not to retaliate against a rival gang — and to instead let LaBarbera do his job — remembered, "Sal sat down with me, and I could feel his determination, his concern for my family."

"Sal got the killer," Joubert said. "We have nothing but respect for Sal in Watts."

LaBarbera said his best moments include "hijacking an ice cream truck and treating the neighborhood." His worst: "The nightmares, the not sleeping."

LaBarbera's dedication to families of the murdered came at a cost to his own family. He recalled "getting yelled at for almost not being there for my own child's birth," even as he celebrated the fact that he delivered "three babies over the years."

When asked if her father ever left a special occasion to rush to a crime scene, LaBarbera's oldest daughter, Marissa, 21, replied with a laugh, "Which special occasion would you like me to start with? Easter, Christmas, my birthday?

"My dad would get home from a 12-plus-hours workday, sit down at the dinner table, ask us girls how school was, and all of a sudden his cellphone is ringing and he is out on the porch, smoking his cigarette, with his work face on. His demeanor would stiffen, his tone would become more stern. And I would watch through the window and realize my dad is going back to work."

Younger daughter Emily, 18, said she has some of his traits.

"I don't want to be a cop, but what I will do, to follow his footsteps, is to be a wolf, not a sheep. Meaning, I'm going to be a leader; I'm going to help others, and I won't be afraid of anything."

For LaBarbera, the worst part of the job has been "someone dying in your arms."

The best: "Being there with prayers and kind words for someone dying in your arms." 


This story was edited by Jill Stewart.

Sal and a suspected assassin . As the above photo shows, , Labarbera's style was to get close to suspects before arresting them 

Sal and a suspected assassin . As the above photo shows, , Labarbera's style was to get close to suspects before arresting them 

The Folsom Best Seller List

I HAVE SEVERAL FRIENDS in prison. They are all black street gang members and shot callers who I've met over the past three decades, both as a crime reporter and as a fixture of the Fruit Town section of Compton in the 1980s. For the record, there is nothing “fruity” about Fruit Town. One of the roughest sectors of Compton and the home of the gang known as the Fruit Town Piru Bloods, it is so named because of the streets there: Cherry, Peach, Pear.

Fruit Town, like so many neighborhoods in ghetto America in the 1980s and early ‘90s, ran on crack cocaine. The economy of Cherry Street was dominated by the drug.

At 707 W. Cherry Street, where I lived on and off for several years, crack ruled with an iron pipe. The household was headed by a grandma with four daughters, one son, one daughter-in-law, and many grandkids. My memory is fading, but, let’s see. Daughter Jackie had two kids, Kathy had three, Cynthia, two or three, I think, and Addie Irene, my girlfriend, had three, the youngest being born in 1988 and named Michael Krikorian, Jr.

There were times, before Li’l Mike came along, when all four sisters were on the pipe. I dabbled myself, enough to know it was not for me. (I preferred my Jack.) To get away from the household where sometimes more than 20 humans slept in the small two-bedroom house, Irene and I would go to motels in Compton. There was and is a motel on Compton Boulevard, just west of Central, that didn’t have a name and where I – and I bragged about this to the boys way back when, and still do to this day – had credit. One time I didn’t have any money, but Irene and I went there. I asked the manager for the room — it was $12 for two hours — and told them I’d pay tomorrow. To my delight, they said ok. The next day I came back and gave them $15. In Compton, way back when, my credit was black label.

The routine was we’d rent a room, get a $20 rock, smoke it up, maybe fuck, often not, maybe get another rock, come back to the room, smoke it and go back to Cherry Street. One of those nights at the no-name motel, I watched TV and learned that Len Bias had died of a coke overdose. It wasn’t the death of the so promising basketball player that convinced me crack wasn’t shit. It was the realization that I was going to motels not for sex, but for a high that didn’t exist, except for the act of getting it, coming back to the room and smoking it. Inevitably, gloom descended as the rock dwindled. I’ve seen many portrayals of drug addicts on TV and in film — the heartbreaking Bubbles of The Wire, the fidgeting Breaking Bad speedsters, the Spicoli stoner from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I have never seen an actor nail a crack head. Usually the on-screen crack addict behaves like a meth freak. Unlike marijuana or booze or — and, I’m assuming heroin — crack provides no obvious, stereotypical high. The only remarkable thing about crack is the overwhelming urge to get more. I’m pretty sure that less than an hour after I heard about Len Bias, I made Irene’s radiant smile bloom by telling her I would go get another 20.

Fruit Town had some dull moments, but not many. People usually exaggerate when they describe a neighborhood as a place where there are shootings “every night.” In Fruit Town, there were shootings every night. Most of those shootings did not result in injury. The street was full of expert duckers. On top of it, the rival gang members, particularly the Palmer Block Compton Crips, were horrible shots.

But, of all my haunts, Cherry Street in the eighties, for all its death and gloom and devotion to crack, was one of the most alive places I ever spent time. There was the loveable smoke hound Donald walking up the street slapping me five, telling Irene and me “I’m on a mission” to score. Almost every night he was on this mission. There was Gilbert and his homeboys walking to the corner singing “So in Love” in sweet harmony. There was pure joy in the house when I’d walk in with a bucket of Church’s or KFC or Popeye’s or bags full of groceries. There was someone pulling a knife on me after I called him a “punk” and he proclaimed himself a “Trojan.” Irene’s grandmother, respected by the hoods in the hood, came to my rescue one night from, of all places, her bedroom window. There were gales of laughter when Irene’s sister Kathy would openly flirt with me in front of her and Irene would say “Michael, please, please go take that tramp to the motel. No one else will.” There were Irene’s kids, Marlon and Tyrell, piling in my car as we went off for the adventure of the drive-in. They loved the Sylvester Stallone film called Cobra

I bring this all up because it was there I first knew people who went away for many years. 

The thing about the guys I know in prison is — even if they were shot callers (gang leaders) — when they go away, very few of their homies write to them. I know how important it is to these guys to get a letter, to know someone is thinking about them, to be gone but not forsaken. So for nearly 20 years, I have been writing letters to inmates, the vast majority incarcerated in California state prisons, though three are in federal joints. 

I am no pen pal looking for some kind of vicarious thrill. These guys were my friends on the street and they still are inside. And while some of them may never get out, those that do say they owe me. Let it be known, I don’t do it for a return favor. On an average, I’d say I write eight letters a month. In addition, I occasionally send a book.

One cannot simply mail a book to an inmate. It must be ordered online and shipped by a third party. Only paperbacks are acceptable. I guess the thinking is a hardback would make a better weapon. Hell, some guys I know inside, like legendary Big Evil from 89 Family Swans (who recently had his San Quentin death-row conviction overturned and awaits retrial at Los Angeles' Men's Central jail) and Loaf from the Bounty Hunters of Nickerson Gardens (locked away for 20 years at the federal prison in Lompoc) are so tough they could hurt someone with not only a paperback, but a term paper. 

These books I send are sometimes a book the friend/inmate has requested. Sometimes it is a book I think they might enjoy and, for a while, get their mind outside the prison walls for a brief respite from California hell.

The single most asked-for book, requested by roughly 20 percent of the guys I know in prison, is a 6000-word glorified pamphlet called The Art of War, written in the 6th century by a Chinese guy named Sun Tzu. This book is such a prison staple that a California prosecutor tried to use possession of it as proof that an inmate was a gang member.

For a prisoner, The Art of War is a survival guide, another avenue to gain mental toughness in a place that demands it.  All of these guys are tough physically, some of them world-class bad asses, so that front is covered. One of the book’s key points is to avoid fighting through tactical mastery. General Douglas MacArthur, Henry Kissinger and Gordon Gekko were all big fans of the book, so why shouldn’t Big Evil and Big Cat want the knowledge? To deal successfully with prison life, a strong mind is much more useful than a strong left hook, despite what the bullshit movies say.

I’ve twice sent on request Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here, the true saga of two children growing up in the Henry Horner housing projects in Chicago. Blue Rage, Black Redemption, the memoir of Stanley “Tookie” Williams, the founder of the Westside Crips who was executed in 2005 at San Quentin, has also been requested and sent out twice.

My namesake, Michael Krikorian, Jr. who is doing 40 to life for a Compton gang-related homicide gets the most letters from me. (It’s too long a story to explain here, but anyone interested can read about it here.) He just got out of “the Hole” at New Folsom and requested I send him The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. I did. It’s a sort of guidebook on how to achieve stature with tips from characters as varied as our boy Sun Tzu to Talleyrand to Casanova. 

Because my inmate friends are black, I usually — but not always — send books with black characters. Two favorite authors of mine  (and now theirs) are George Pelecanos and Walter Mosely. I have received letters from Big Evil and Daude praising Mosely's Little Scarlet (featuring his Easy Rollins and set right after the 1965 Watts Riots) and Pelecanos’ Hard Revolution (about a young cop, Derek Strange, set in D.C. after the 68 riots there).

Derek Strange, in more current times, appears in Pelecanos’ trilogy Right as Rain, Hell to Pay and Soul Circus, where he teams with a former white D.C. cop Terry Quinn. All three of these have made their way into various California state prisons. 

I have also sent Mosely’s Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, one of my favorites, which features Socrates Fortlow, an ex-con who tenderly cares for a troubled street kid. I sent it to a few guys so long ago I can’t even remember who got it. I’ll send it out again next week. 

I haven't sent any of another favorite of mine, Michael Connelly and his Harry Bosch books. I don’t think my guys would root for Bosch, an LAPD detective. Private eye books are good to send. Books featuring the LAPD as the good guys are not. 

One non-fiction work I’ve sent out was written by Bob Sipchen, a friend and an ex-colleague of mine at the Los Angeles Times who is now National Communications Director for the Sierra Club. It is titled Baby Insane and the Buddha, about a San Diego Neighborhood Crip whose Folsom-bound life is turned around by a tough but compassionate cop. Many years ago while he was at Soledad, Big Cat from the Rollin’s sixties Crips had some trouble with it as he told me he never ran into a “compassionate cop”. Still, he enjoyed the read.  Most recently he requested Form Your Own Limited Liability Company by Anthony Mancuso. My man Big Cat has some plans for the future.  I was gonna send it to him, but my cousin Greg, who is an investigator for the Federal Public Defender’s office and has known Cat as long as I have, sent it to him first. 

I’ve ordered Kevin Cook’s Titanic Thompson and sent to at least four prisoners who relished it. The book, subtitled The Man Who Bet On Everything, chronicles the life of Alvin “Titanic” Thompson, said to the be the model for Damon Runyon’s Sky Masterson. Myself, I wanted to readTitanic after its first line: “Is it wrong to gamble, or only to lose?” I love that line. The biography of this white guy has been enjoyed at Corcoran, Delano, High Desert and Pleasant Valley, the cruelest-named prison in the United States.

Years ago, probably in the late 1990s, I sent Melvin “Skull” Farmer from Eight-Trey Gangsters Crips Moby Dick. I don't know what I was thinking. I could have very well been drunk. Maybe I thought he would get so into it that his mind would drift from his cell to the ocean where Captain Ahab and The Whale rumbled. Skull had written his own book, The New Slave Ship, about being the first Californian to have his “three strikes” conviction overturned. He later told me he had seen part of the movie and knew it was “about fishing” and he didn't like fishing. He said he tried to read it, found it boring and when another inmate showed an interest, he traded Melville for six cigarettes, better known behind bars as “squares”. (Why squares? I have no idea.)

A couple months ago I got a letter from Grape Street’s Bow Wow from Grape asking if I could get him 50 Shades of Grey. I did not see that one coming. And a week ago, Big Evil said he wanted to read Crime and Punishment. Talk about the gamut.

I stated before that all the inmates I send letters to were black. I’ve recently added a white guy. My friend Gail Silverton told me about a friend’s son, one Gabriel Singer, who is doing a slew of years — currently at Calipatria down by the Salton Sea — for firing a gun in the air that may have lead someone else to fire a gun that killed someone. I haven’t had a book request from him yet, but I suspect I will.

Still, the most requested, umm, reading material is not a book but rather a catalogue of scantily clad black women from a mail-order firm in Long Beach. I once sent Li’l Cat (Rollin 60s) a $20 money order when he was at Corcoran doing life on another “three strikes” case. He was very grateful, but said if I ever have another twenty to send his way, use it to buy 20 photos from this Long Beach place. He said he could enjoy the photos, then sell them for three times what I paid for them. His big brother, Big Cat, most recently requested the same. In prison, as in the outside world, the right woman, even a photo of her, is more valuable than a book.\

ORIGINALLY  published in the Los Angeles Review of Books 

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