“What the hell is that?”
Tim Watkins, director of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC), had just dumped a handful of .357 Magnum hollowpoint bullets out on his desk.
“That, Eric,” Watkins said, “is what an 8-year-old kid gave me yesterday before I started going over his homework with him. You know what he told me when I took them from him?”
I shook my head.
“He told me that he found them on the street and that you can get a hundred of them for about 10 bucks.” Watkins leaned forward on his elbows, and his brow wrinkled like a war map. “That means that life in Watts is worth about 10 cents. Now, what the hell is that about, man?”
This conversation ran through my head as I approached the yellow plastic police tape that cordoned off the northbound pedestrian traffic on Graham Street and blocked entrance to 103rd Street, also known as Charcoal Alley, the main drag in Watts. I spotted a gray compact, with both doors sprung open, in the middle of 103rd Street. A blood-soaked sweatshirt lay on the asphalt next to the car, which was pointed west, just before the Blue Line crossing. LAPD and Sheriff’s deputies were both on the scene.
I walked up to LAPD Sergeant Jay; I knew him from the time he used to work MTA security on the trains, before the contract went to the Sheriff’s Department. We shook hands. I told him that my neighbors had elected me Neighborhood Block Watch captain. I asked him what happened.
“About 8 o’clock this morning, the car out there pulled up to the train crossing,” said Sergeant Jay. “The crossing gates were down, and they were sitting there in traffic waiting for a train to pass. Two guys walked over to the compact and opened up on the occupants. The driver died on the scene. The passenger took rounds in the arms, legs and upper torso.”
“You know, Jay,” I said, “the guy who lived isn’t going to tell you anything about the shooters.”
“Hell, no,” he said, “that fool was on the ground bleeding to death and lying about who he was before his mama walked up and identified him.” The man was speaking with resentment in his voice. “There I am trying to help him. You know, try and get a line on the guys who did it, get ’em off the street. Fool laying there is bleeding out all over the ground got nerve enough to lie to me about his identity!”
“You think he got a clue?”
“About what?” Sergeant Jay asked.
“About who he really is?”
Jay shook his head, as though he didn’t understand what I meant.
“Fool is aiding and abetting urban terrorism,” I said. “He’s a statistic, who is working his way up toward being a casualty in an undeclared war, and he doesn’t even know it. There were 656 homicides in Los Angeles last year, Jay — 271 gang-related, black-on-black. You know the Killing Mob is at war with the Barrio Grape Streets in Watts?”
“I thought we were at war with Iraq,” said Sergeant Jay.
Sister Gee walked up. Sister Gee is the Muslim lady who runs the concessions stand at the Platform Station stop on this corner at 103rd and Graham Street, on the east side of the railroad tracks. She is dressed, as always, in Muslim garb, in an all-black habit, looking like a nun, only she doesn’t have on the white bib or the rosary beads.
“He’s right, Officer,” Sister Gee said. “These gang kids are urban terrorists. Only last weekend, I had to walk a group of senior citizens to the Towers. The gangbangers were about to jack them.”
Sister Gee walked away.
“What you got on the rounds?” I asked Sergeant Jay.
“The shooter used a 9-millimeter,” Jay said. “We got two suspects in custody.”
“Did you find the weapon?” I asked Sergeant Jay. “The thing is to find that weapon. Get it off the street.”
“You sound discouraged,” Sergeant Jay said.
“Think about this,” I said. “We need to raise the cost of bullets so high that a guy would need a job — a real good job — to buy one. Then we could take the tax revenue from the increased cost of ammunition and create some jobs for these young people. When I say young, I mean the kids who are 8 and 9 years old. The older violent offenders have been working all their lives at being criminals.”
“You think raising the cost of a bullet will solve it, huh, Eric?” Sergeant Jay asked.
“No,” I said, “but life down here should be worth more than 10 cents.”
—J. Eric Priestley
The Orchid Chief
There are dirt bikes, dune buggies and a half-dozen mud-caked 4WD pickup trucks parked outside the Castle Inn in the Mojave Desert town of Landers. The 40-year-old bar and grill sits at the intersection of two rutted dirt roads in the heart of this tiny settlement. Inside, a sunburned and dusty clientele focus on a young woman’s luscious white cattleyas. Each patron takes a long, deep sniff of the orchid’s scent and passes it along the horseshoe-shaped bar.
Landers, a town of around 1,000 residents, is known to most of California for the magnitude-7.4 earthquake that occurred here in 1992. If not for the earthquake, people know Landers as a center of New Age mysticism and extraterrestrial activity. From 1954 to 1978, George Van Tassel — a Douglas Aircraft test pilot — built a wooden dome called the Integratron here based on plans he claimed to have received from Venusian astronauts. These days the Integratron hosts a variety of New Age conferences, but nothing on par with the UFO gatherings that took place in the ’50s and ’60s up the road at Giant Rock, allegedly the largest freestanding boulder in the world. Landers is also home to one of the largest orchid growers in the United States and, not coincidentally, the Eighth Annual Morongo Basin Orchid Festival.
Chris Gubler is a stocky, decidedly unsinister guy with a big beard and a straw hat. His grandfather operated the largest nursery of any kind in turn-of-the-century Switzerland. His father, Hans, immigrated to the U.S. in the ’50s, eventually settling in Landers in 1976. Gubler praises the location for its year-round sunshine, lack of pollution, and high-quality water. But he wasn’t always an orchid man. He was an electronics major at Cal Poly Pomona when he decided to take a horticultural class. “Gee whiz, the people were down-to-earth,” he says. “I changed majors much to my father’s delight. I’ve been running the show since.”
Gubler Orchids is a complex of greenhouses perched on a plain dotted with creosote, chollo cacti and the occasional California juniper. It nurses some 500,000 orchids and exotic carnivorous plants, and supplies thousands of plants to home improvement stores nationwide, as well as to independent garden centers and individual growers. It offers tours year-round, but on the first weekend in October, Gubler Orchids hosts the Morongo Basin Orchid Festival, bringing in hundreds of orchid hobbyists from all over Southern California. Gubler tells me to expect a mellow crowd.
On the first day of the festival, the parking lot is overflowing. Out behind the greenhouses, tubby country rockers Central Station play to a crowd enjoying margaritas sold from a Conestoga wagon that seems to be manned by two 8-year-olds. Inside the nursery, people wander amid a forest of exotic orchids blooming in the humid, artificial environment.
Richard, a deeply tanned man with bleached-blond hair and a skinny black goatee, peruses a table of phalaenopsis and considers purchasing a plant for his wife. He found out about the festival through a flier his son brought home from Landers Elementary School. Gubler donates profits from the festival to the school as well as several other local charities.
A woman named Pam flew down from Washington with her husband and her sister, Christine, after visiting the nursery while on vacation last year. Pam came to sell her stained-glass orchid lamps. Her husband — a man with a long, gray beard and a lot of tattoos — is selling his orchid photographs next to a smattering of tables where rapt, margarita-sipping attendees participate in an orchid re-potting class. Christine bashfully confesses that she lost most of her orchids to crown rot and is seeking replacements. “We were surprised to even find the place last year,” says Christine. “We were the only ones here, but one gal took us on a 45-minute tour. It’s just a real personable experience.”
Yes, but can Gubler Orchids ever fill the hole in the Landers economy left by the long-gone glory days of the Giant Rock UFO conventions?
“If we ever got that big I think I’d be pulling my hair out a little bit,” says Gubler. “I can only afford donating so much.”
Peace, Love and Fund-raising
At first glance, the sold-out gathering of the Center for American Islamic Relations Saturday night, in a massive banquet hall at the Anaheim Convention Center, looked like any ordinary rubber-chicken dinner. But these are not ordinary times, and in the wake of 9/11, American Islam has become the convenient whipping boy for extremists on the cable/talk axis. In fact, on the very day before the dinner, North Carolina Congressman Cass Ballenger (R-N.C.) went so far as to blame the CAIR office in D.C. for his divorce from his wife of 50 years (the stress of living near the nation’s leading Islamic-rights watchdog group, so close to the U.S. Capitol, led Ballenger and his wife to constantly worry that “they could blow the place up”). ‰ Ordinarily, this kind of idiocy could be pooh-poohed. But in George Bush’s America, where 18-year-old Rashid Alam was nearly killed by white supremacists this February in Yorba Linda, every statement by an official in power with those overtones can be terrifying.
The atmosphere among the 1,800 attendees, however, was not at all defensive. And Ballenger might have been surprised to learn that only about half the women wore traditional dress to the dinner, with many flowing hajib and colorful, floor-length dresses alternating with business suits and carefully coifed hair. Nary a turban was to be seen, except upon the head of Sikh representative Nirinjan Khalsa, an activist with the California Sikh Council. “Ninety-nine percent of all Muslim men, even the imams, don’t wear turbans,” Khalsa said. “Sikhs do, and we have been the targets of six hate-crime-based murders since 9/11.”
Presidential peace candidate Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), the scheduled headline speaker, backed out at the last minute, but there was plenty of political star power — Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez and L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, for instance — and the fact that Kucinich was scheduled at all is significant. This is a group who went for George Bush by a 3-1 margin.
“If Bush came to speak at this event, he’d be booed today,” said Dr. Mohamed Auwal, a CAIR board member. “On the issues that matter to us, from civil rights to Iraq, he and his administration have been a disappointment. We are waiting to see who the Democrats put up.”
“Does that include Senator Joseph Lieberman?” I asked.
“Lieberman has been good to us on community issues. He isn’t good on Israel and Palestine, but you will find that Palestine is one of, say, 10 important issues here, not the only issue.”
“We’re very similar, the Palestinians and the Jews,” said Fadwa El Guindl, a USC professor. “If it weren’t for politics, we’d get along. After all, we’re the same people, you know?”
Things heated up considerably with the appearance of Imam Siraf Wahhaf, all the way from Brooklyn. A large, boisterous African-American gent in flowing white robes, he was a huge contrast to the generally low-keyed procession of Californians who proceeded him. He began his pitch, as good speakers do, with a little joke about reading the wisdom of Britney Spears in Time magazine — the dancing thrush gushed over unconditional support for Bush policies, “because he’s the president” — and contrasted her thoughts with General Wesley Clark’s remarks in the same periodical about fighting in Vietnam to protect the rights of Americans to protest whoever the president was. This led to a passionate parable about Martin Luther King Jr.’s donation of his Nobel Peace Prize money to the civil rights cause in 1964, and segued into the imam’s main purpose, shaking the tree to raise CAIR’s goal, $500K. “Dr. King donated $54,000, can someone in the house match his donation to CAIR?” he asked. Amazingly, the imam was able to persuade four attendees to pledge just that, exhorting the faithful with tak-bir and hamdi-hillah (“thanks to Allah,” “bless you”), like something right out of Reverend Ike. With pledges that ranged from 25 grand to $280, CAIR managed to raise $487,000. In George Bush’s America, maybe the night wasn’t so out-of-the-ordinary after all.
To Live and Die in L.A.
The 24-Hour Insurance Nurse is typing over the phone: “Severe pains in chest and back . . . nausea . . . numbness and tingling in left arm . . . dizziness . . . sweatiness . . . ” More typing, followed by a beep. “Our recommendation is for you to hang up and dial 911.” She pronounces it “nine-eleven.”
“Is it okay if I drive myself?”
I wonder if I’ve watched too much TV. I wonder if I will be stricken at the wheel and crash the car through the glass doors of the ER. (Just like on St. Elswhere!) The sign at Huntington Park Hospital reads: Emergency Room…Let us park your car for you! I pull up by a gauntlet of Latino men wearing white shirts and black pants, who only acknowledge my existence when I am two inches away. “Who is the patient?” one of them asks.
Wave of a finger. “Over there. Parking garage.”
Locking my car, I realize I’ve lost my parking ticket. If I die in there, I won’t have to pay the $20 penalty fee.
In the waiting room, 10 or so people, blacks and Latinos, sit with their sick children or by themselves. A little girl with a dandelion of puffed hair talks into the pay phone: “…and then he sat on me and punched me a coupla times and hit me in the head and strangled me.” I am called back before all of them.
The room is small and white. I tie on my hospital smock and lie down on the cold butcher block paper. The people come through like well wishers: a guy from the front desk (“Uh, were you able to complete that form?”); a Latino woman from Minnesota who wheels in the EKG and tapes the cords down to my chest, arms and legs with metallic sticky Post-it notes; a woman named Meredith who sprays nitroglycerine under my tongue like it’s a cologne sample, then gives me baby aspirin and tells me to chew. Meredith smoothes my hair back and tells me that they’re going to come and take my blood and that all the tests should be ready in an hour and then we could decide where to go from there. Then everyone leaves. I lie on the gurney, eyes wide open. I look up at the digital face of the heart monitor and watch the lines loll lazily up and down to the beep. In the hallway, people stare in as they shuffle by. I arrange the features on my face to show a brave and dutiful acceptance of fate.
I call my better half on my cell phone, then hang up, realizing she is at a play and has shut her phone off. I call my mother in Wisconsin but it is already two hours later there and she is in bed and has shut hers off as well.
It was a balmy spring day in 1967. My father was sitting at his desk in the Racine County National Bank. He told his receptionist he was going out for a few hours for lunch. He got in his car and drove to our house five miles away. He pulled into the driveway and leaned on the horn. My mother came outside and he told her that he needed her to drive him to the hospital. In the waiting room, he disappeared for the longest time and finally a doctor came out and told her that my father was having a massive heart attack and that they would know within the hour whether he would live or die. A year later I was born.
I always asked my mother what she went through, sitting there alone with her thoughts. Being Danish, she always demurred that she didn’t think much of anything about it. She waited. So it goes. Now, I know what he knew, lying in that emergency room while they worked to keep his heart from burning down to a cinder. That type of wait is not the kind of wait that one waits in the waiting room. In here, you’ve already been swallowed by the maw of the building and are being digested. One is not impatient or irritated. It is a blanket of calm over and under you. You watch the smeared clock tick. You listen to the voices outside (“They don’t make these gurneys for fat ladies, do they?”). You close your eyes and open them again. You are in control of time for the first time in a long time. You possess it. It is a private moment, dying, or expecting to. It is the purest stretch you will ever experience in your life. I didn’t want it to end.
Someone is drawing blood from my arm. I turn my head away and start whistling. That’s when it starts. My chest seizes and both arms go numb. Sweat emulsifies my whole body. I become lightheaded. Oh God, this is it . . .
“I think I’m getting sick,” I say as my voice draws farther away.
“Are you going to throw up?”
“No, no, I think . . . pass out . . . ”
My whole body is wet and quivering. The beeping on the monitor grows faster and faster until another sound comes over it, like a fire alarm. It’s happening. They crank me on my back. Meredith’s oval face is over me, smiling kindly, light behind her head: “If you need to go, just go . . . ”
Go?! Tears mince with sweat. Not now. Not this way. Not at 35 . . .
“If I go, will I wake up again?” I squeak.
I go, that is, everything goes blank for a few seconds — a mere panic attack. When I come to again, I owe $2,703.00. Plus $20 for the lost parking ticket.
—Matthew C. Duersten