Javier likes to listen to Mexican metal bands turned up loud on an off-brand CD player he bought wholesale in the Toy District. He likes Mana and Molotov, but not El Tri, Jaguars or what he does in cars with men for money. “No me gusto. Solo lo hago por la roca,” he says, when I finally catch up with him. He squints his eyes to convey the pain he feels about what he’s become. But he’s a liar. He’s numb. His pathetic grimace is part of a manufactured posture that he can slip in and out of at will. But I give him five bucks anyway.
Mostly what the slight 14-year-old from Sinaloa with the harelip scar who smells like a restaurant dumpster likes is smoking crack. And like a lot of people who live by the rock, that’s what he’s doing downtown. It’s where the drugs are. Where the crack is. An area that soft-spoken, veteran police Lieutenant Lionel Garcia calls “the box.” It’s an informal term in cop-speak that means the floating area of most concentrated crime in any given precinct. According to Garcia, the man with all the numbers, the box on Skid Row is currently between Fifth and Seventh streets from Los Angeles Street to Central Avenue. The epicenter of the box is Fifth and San Pedro.
The box is a drug supermarket where gang members from all over L.A. and the surrounding area come to sell crack and heroin. They sell it to the homeless who are there to take advantage of the centralized services, and to anyone else who wants to take advantage of the vast inventory and rock-bottom dope prices available at the country’s largest swap meet of despair.
The box is where addicts and people with psychiatric disorders sleep on the sidewalk. It’s where people openly use drugs, turn tricks for five dollars in Porta Potties and partake in other drug-related activities. The population of the box is overwhelmingly black. The crack’s in the box and so is Javier.
The Super Dope Cops
The LAPD’s Central Division regulates the box. The narcotics cops make more than 5,000 drug arrests here annually. I met two of the LAPD’s finest on the roof of the building where I live on Skid Row. They let me tag along with them.
Nobody looks up from Skid Row. From up on the roof the constant parade of dealers and addicts reads like an anthill to the naked eye as they wander the streets trying to connect with each other. But even if these creepy crawlers did look skyward they wouldn’t be able to see me or the super dope cops I’m kicking it with. These undercover narcos are experts at concealing themselves from view as they survey the crack traffic on the street below through powerful binoculars.
Chris Luna and Rick Kellogg are two buttoned-down, pumped-up, clean-cut drug cops who could moonlight as Chippendale’s dancers. They spend a good part of most days staked out in this precision ballet of elevated perspective as radio waves carry their lofty intelligence to stealthy uniform cars lying in wait on the mean streets below. It’s a coordinated, meticulous dance that is second nature to them. There’s an element of performance in the way these guys work. They’re everything that makes boys want to be cops... Not Javier, probably, but other boys. Boys with papers and parents and futures and whatnot.
Aside from the fact that they look like superheroes (Rick won first place three years running in the police bodybuilding competition) and spend their time in a toxic cesspool of mental illness and drug addiction, Chris and Rick appear to be relatively normal people. Chris, a 29-year-old single father, worked seven years in South-Central before relocating to Central Division a year ago. He’s more verbal than his partner Rick, a very intense 37-year-old single father with eight-plus years at Central, including two in narcotics. Rick is the kind of guy you’d trust with your life, and Chris does. These guys are working on Skid Row because they believe they can make a difference.