Photo by J. Emilio Flores

on my way downtown to the Central Library as I wait on the Kenneth Hahn Platform at 103rd Street (Charcoal Alley) in Watts for the Metro Blue Line train, I suddenly sense movement behind me, feel a breath on my neck, catch a chill. Think: “A goose walked over my grave.”

I turn to see a black youngster, no more than 16 years of age. There he is, on my heels. I look down and he’s got his hand on a gun butt sticking out of the front of the traditional severely drooping pants.

Now, he doesn’t pull the burner yet; he’s just got his hand on the gun butt. I try to get my bearings, since the door has just come open. I turn toward the passengers on the train and see two Mexican women with toddlers in strollers.

There is another black youth on the train. He is eyeballing the first guy’s buddies on the platform. Those two have their hands on pistols too. I’m not looking at them as youngsters anymore because of the guns — these are men, and I plan to treat them as such. This kid on the train is decked out in a black do-rag and a huge silver cross hanging on a silver chain around his neck, and a pant leg rolled up, hip-hop style. He looks to be the same age as the kid on my heels, who is inside the train now and standing in the doorjamb so the doors can’t shut.

I’m caught up there in a human sandwich between the two youngsters. I look out on the platform and see two more black teens. But nobody has skinned his smoke wagon yet. My heart skips a beat — a couple of beats — as I stand my ground and steel myself for the next moment.

“I’m from Insane Crip — Long Beach, fool,” the youngster on the train says to the guy with his hand on the gun blocking the doors. “What’s up?”

“Get your ass off the train, fool,” the gunslinger on the platform shouts to the guy claiming he is from Long Beach, “You’ll see what’s up!”

The two babies in the strollers sense the tension in the voices that have gone up a few decibels, and begin to cry out loud. Neither of the Mexican women speak English, but they’ve both seen the guns. I understand enough Spanish to hear that they are pleading for somebody to help them.

Many of the passengers on the train are watching this, since the gunmen won’t let the doors close. Some have already moved quickly out of the way, since they can sense that somebody is about to get shot.

The guy on the train is trying to get past me, and the one on the platform is still standing in the doorjamb with his hand on his pistol preventing the train doors from being closed. I’m standing there saying to both of them, hold on a minute. I’ve got my hand on a piece of steel in my pocket — feeling its edge, metal and firm there — between me and eternity. I have both eyes on the kid in the door with his hand on the pistol butt stuck there in his pants. And I’m thinking how this is nonfiction.

Everybody is talking at the same time. The babies are crying louder, and the two Mexican women are speaking Spanish faster than two jackrabbits in season can make a litter. I’m telling everybody to calm down and just hold on a minute.

“Stay outta this, O.G.! This our business and you ain’t in it,” the kid with his hand on the gun butt tells me. “You got nothin’ to do with this.”

I’m pointing to the crying children in their strollers now: “Bullshit! Y’all got me in a sandwich here, ’n’ that puts me in it! Can’t y’all see you got these poor li’l babies scared, man?” I’m watching his hand — firm there — on the pistol butt. A beat and a breath — just a moment, but that is all I need.

“Listen, man, I’m going to tell you something,” I say, speaking plain and even, since I know this boy has got a gun and it took him a long time to get this crazy. “You see, you guys got life all fucked up in your heads. The Klan has gone and done a job on y’all.”

He asks if I didn’t see his credentials — meaning his hand there on the gun. “I mean, you hate yourselves,” I say. “There it is in Jasper, Texas, that the Klan can tie brother James Byrd to the back of a pickup truck and drag him all around till his body brays all up and his head comes off. Tell me, now. How come I don’t see you gone down there to put no gun on the Klan?”

He says, “The Klan ain’t in my hood!”

“Oh, no! You wouldn’t do that,” I say. “You see, that’s too much like right. But here is a guy the same color as you — a guy you never saw before in your life and you ready to shoot him dead here on the spot. That’s what I mean when I say that you hate yourselves, that what you doing here is self-hatred. Feel me?”

Then two things happen at once. First, the kid looks as if I had just awakened him from a sound sleep. Second, he slowly steps back onto the train platform. And I think: I’ve got to get myself a car.

The train is moving now. I’m shaken by the rock and sway of it. My head is spinning. I look out of the window and see the guy — still out there — still got his hand on the gun. I see him out of the window still on the train platform, as he and his friends pass — they’re back south, as the train goes north in the motion. He and his friends are still flashing gang signs, haranguing the do-rag guy on the train to get off. The guy in the do-rag wants to talk to me.

“I don’t want no conversation with you, man,” I say, as the kids in the strollers stop crying. I walk past them to the back of another car.

This is useless information for an essay, I say to myself. And I make myself believe this — believe it right up to the point that I ask myself whether any of the teenagers involved can or do read books. I sit down and begin to read with different eyes.

We see that whether the kid can read or not becomes irrelevant. In fact, everything becomes irrelevant if one is murdered on the way to the library.

Is this hyperbole? Yes, we may believe this too — believe it until we do the body count. There were 647 homicides in Los Angeles in 2002, of which 271 were gang-related, black-on-black murders.

The next time a so-called rap artist steps on a stage hell-bent-for-leather on spewing a chant invoking gratuitous violence, as he rolls his pant leg up to pick the scab from his scar, he would do well to have read this from the Nobel Prize–winning poet from Trinidad, Derek Walcott, this appetizer-mantra for the Hip-Hop Materialist of Postmodern Thug Life: “For some extra silver, under a sea-almond/he shows them a scar made by a rusted anchor,/rolling one trouser leg up with the rising moan of a conch. It has puckered like the corolla/of a sea-urchin. He does not explain its cure./It have some things worth more than a dollar.”

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