For the 200 vatos gathered in this Rosemead park, a July sunset in the San Gabriel Valley is a chance to chill, compare new tatts and blast out the banda. All the local heavies, the klikas, are there, all keeping a wary eye on each other, because maybe, for a past transgression, they might be taken out.
At the peripheries, lookouts are scanning the streets for the dumb-assed porkies who might be a little too curious as to why so many Youth Authority-bound teens are assembled.
As the sky turns from blood red into that powdery, never-all-the-way-black L.A. night, the man of the hour pulls up in his cherry-red, ground-scraping 1965 Buick Riviera. Slowly, and with the exaggerated macho of a man twice his age, 18-year-old Ronnie D. Bone disembarks his chariot. A sea of chinos, Ben Davises and Dickies surrounds him and his pair of pit bulls.
Mr. Bone, who has called this meeting, climbs onto the hood of the low rider, spits on the dirt to clear his throat, and lays it out.
“I'm really pissed off at you,” he tells the vatos. “While I was away in the pen, I see my old neighborhood taken away from our people by these fuckin' Asians. What used to be ours is theirs. If they can take what's ours, then they should be paying us rent!” he says.
Every head is nodding.
“Every Asian business on Garvey Avenue and Atlantic Boulevard, I want their windows busted out, and I want you to tag the shit out of 'em, too. Do this till I give you the word to stop, okay?”
The troops say nothing. They just turn and leave. An order from Bone is an order to be followed, period. But to be sure, there are some who don't know what's really going on.
For at this moment, which took place in the mid-1980s, Ronnie D. Bone was not inaugurating the dreaded apocalypse of open race wars in L.A. No, his game plan was more opportunistic and more profitable. Bone was launching one of the Southland's more blatant and successful extortion schemes. Ronnie Bone is not his real name, but, as they say, the events themselves are a matter of record, so much so that Ronnie could still suffer bad if somebody figured out too much about him from this account. At least that's what Ronnie says, and there're some fairly reliable homeboys who back him up on that one.
The day after the gathering, like a cyclone, the barrio boys descend upon the hapless Asian merchants, breaking and rebreaking windows, spraying and respraying tags. Like roaches on speed, they keep on coming.
Three weeks pass, and it is then that Bone makes his first appearance amongst the sons and daughters of Asia, decked out in a double-breasted number from the Wearhouse.
With exaggerated civility, he struts into a dry cleaners, a dumpling house, a pharmacy. At every stop on Garvey Avenue, his rap is the same. He asks for the owner or manager and commences:
“Hi, I'm Ronald Hirsch with the Youth Gang Services Commission, and I hear you're having some problems with the local gangs and vandalism.”
“Hirsch” then produces a business card that proclaims him a “gang coordinator,” which, in a perverse way, he is. Immediately, the middle-aged Asian mom or pop is nodding furiously, or chattering insanely about broken windows, the police, the graffiti, the city, everything. Bone lets this go in one ear and out the other; he's halfway home.
“I can help you,” he intones reassuringly. “Show me your damage reports, give me half of the total, and I can cut your losses down to nothing. I've been given the authority from the state of California to do this.”
Bone is recounting this tale to me in a tiny Glendale one-bedroom belonging to a porn-actress friend. He doesn't often speak so directly about this caper, but when he does, he can't help but begin to smile when he gets to the state of California part. “These people don't know their feet from fried duck,” he says to me. Maybe not, but his marks got the drift.
Making a cursory check of the damage reports, Bone lists his terms. “I'll need $3,000 to start the process,” he says, sending the business owner into a backroom for a cannonball-size wad of cash.
As Bone pockets the money, and offers a gracious thank-you, he notes, “If there is trouble, I'll take care of it out of my own pocket, or bring the perpetrators to justice.”
He then struts confidently out to his Riviera, where his 30-year-old driver awaits.
Bone estimates that he had 22 businesses paying tribute in his Monterey Park zone. That brought in 35 to 40 grand a month plus a variety of complimentary services – free dry cleaning, drinks, a car here or there, whatever he needed. To pay his little army of hooligans, he'd spring for a keg or two of beer, a bottle of PCP – it was party time.
“I was a kid, but they were less wise than me,” he recalls. “So I could buy them off with a suit, a $2,000 car, guns, heroin, whatever they needed.”
Low labor costs, high margins – this was a 1980s prequel to the 1990s. Ironically, it was an affable Asian gangbanger, in the pen with Bone at Tracy, who turned Ronnie on to the racket. “Kim was better to me than a lot of my own people,” Bone says. “Kim tells me, 'This is what you do, man.' He tells me that extortion is part of the [Asian] culture, that they understand, and it pays big. He says they all go along, and when they don't, Molotov 'em – as examples!”
Once out of Tracy, Bone was set up by older homies on orders of gang elders behind bars. “Got a crib, a gun, a huge bag of dope, a bank account, new car, a racehorse [woman] to live off of, and a party the day I got out. Everyone in my old hood now looked up to me. Best of all, I was feared by everyone. Next day, I go about setting up this racket. I kick back about a quarter to the fellas in and out of the pen, and man, I was flying.”
He'd come a long way from an upbringing that made him a poster child for dysfunctionality. His mother's various lovers beat him senseless until he was old enough to fight back. At 12, he was already selling and shooting heroin. By 15, he'd made the rounds of 10 foster homes, a slew of orphanages, and the hellish confines of MacLaren Hall, whence he “graduated” to the California Youth Authority.
He thought he'd seen it all: “Then I got sent to Tracy up north in the middle of the Norteno-Sudeno wars and it was fuckin' gladiator school.”
Was he scared? “No way, I loved it as much as a young Marine might have loved Grenada or Panama or the Gulf,” he says, banging the floor with his fist in a rare display of energy.
And when he got out, Bone never had it so good. Not only was he squeezing the Asians, but he also was pimping the “Garvey Dirty Legs,” the street whores of the lower San Gabriel Valley. “I had some girls working for me, pulling in about 5 grand every two weeks. I took care of their kids and their habits, and they loved me. One of them had a daughter of mine.”
He estimates he made half a million a year for three years. Spent it, too. “Oh man, thousand-dollar hookers, Vegas, a month at the Disneyland Hotel with a spike in my arm and a pipe in my mouth.”
It lasted until the local constabulary put two and two together, and collected a set of Ronald Hirsch business cards. “I was young and dumb,” Bone says. “Putting my own name on that card was insane.”
The local Five-0 were familiar with Bone from years of run-ins. “The cops came up to me and took my roll – 8 grand – I say, 'No problem, take it.' They take my Buick, I say, 'No problem, take it.' Then they want a cut and I didn't trust them, and I said, 'No way.' So they busted me.”
That's Bone's version, anyway.
Charged with racketeering and extortion, Bone did a month at the High Power unit, but his case was thrown out by the D.A., he says, because no one really wanted to press charges. “The Asians were happy, said it was services paid, and as soon as I went in, boom, their businesses start getting torched.” But soon after, Bone was nailed for assault with a deadly weapon, and exited the streets for a long stretch.
Eight years later, he tried to restart his old racket, but times had changed. “The Asian gangs took over,” he says ruefully.
Fifteen years after his heyday, Bone doesn't cut the dashing, slash-and-burn figure he did in the Reagan era. He's staying at the one-bedroom apartment while trying once again to kick various opiates.
Instead of a three-piece suit, Bone is stripped to his shorts, and even with the A/C at full tilt, he's baking like a spud, his nose running like Flo Jo, scratching like a cat, and utterly miserable. Gangly and completely tatted from neck to hip, he's completely unable to find a comfortable sitting or lying position. His glazed eyes, in true prison fashion, rarely meet mine.
He's less than clear-headed this day, looped out of his skull on a Xanax/Clonidine/ Klonopin cocktail. Too bad, because when he's totally lucid, he's a crazy combination of childlike joviality, cerebrally cautious spiritualism and brutal mania, a kook, a joy to hang out with, though a Boy Scout he ain't.
Today, his priority is to shake this jones, and get back to the as-yet-unnamed band that he fronts, screaming his prison poetry over their breakneck riffs and beats. Because of his state-diagnosed “institutional posttraumatic stress” – caused by 10-plus years in the hole – he's on disability, and that meager check is what he lives on.
“I could make a hundred grand at the drop of a hat dealing,” he says. “I don't know nothing else, man.”