When I'm in my bedroom, which is connected to the living room and one bedroom away from the bathroom, I can hear the growls. They start low, then grow menacing, until climaxing in a snarl. They sound as if they're in the room, although they're coming from the floorboards. There's a two-foot crawl space beneath the house where the dogs Tigger and Starlet sleep, and sometime cats or even other dogs end up in their makeshift beds and a standoff ensues. If hissing and growling doesn't settle the issue, they start clawing and biting, and the sound of wounds wakes me. Sometimes I've imagined that it's the house that's making the noise, it's so unearthly and frightening, or that this is the neighborhood's way of telling me I don't belong here, of trying to frighten me off, send me packing. ‘Cause sometimes this neighborhood growls at me, you know, it growls.
I've lived in this Los Angeles neighborhood of Exposition Park for two months now, a neighborhood of cholos and niggas, and with my cracker skin I don't fit in. Not color-wise, that's for sure. Or in terms of education. Or economics. First night that I moved in, someone helped themselves to the CD player and two bottles of water in my car. I came out to my Mazda the next morning and before I opened the door I saw crumpled papers on the front seat and felt sick ‘cause I knew I didn't leave them there. Inside the car it looked like the trash bag sneezed—they rooted through every piece of trash, just to make sure, I suppose, that I wasn't hiding jewelry or rolls of cash underneath used Kleenex and orange peels.
No marks on the door very clean job. It looked like they saw a new car on the street, or saw me hauling all my stuff out at eleven last night, and went to the garage and fetched the jimmy, hanging between the hammer and the wrench. Maybe the new kid left something in there, they thought. Maybe the new kid doesn't realize what type of neighborhood this is. The job, it was a Welcome To The Neighborhood kind of thing. Guess they hadn't heard about leaving a basket of cookies and coffee on the front porch. Or maybe that's the style of welcome that I was used to, back in suburbia land with identical houses and upper-class folks.
I've been parking in back since then, next to the concrete wall spray painted JESUS in blue and green bubble letters. Jesus saves, I know, and I also hope he protects from burglary.
I forgot to tell you my street—it's 37th Place, which is between 37th Street and 37th Avenue. You'll get lost finding it—everyone does, even when I tell them it's the middle 37th. Right outside my front door are two burly Juniper bushes, like bouncers guarding the door to the club, and apparently they do a good job because whoever tried to break in the month before I moved in wasn't able to crack the deadlock, although they splintered all the wood around it.
If you walk out a bit farther, past the stubbly grass out to the potholed street, you can see the beer triangle. Three metal bottle caps pressed deep into the asphalt—Michelob Light, Corona, and a blank silver unknown, arranged like the Bermuda, saying, you walk in here, new kid, you might never be found again. So I stay outside the lines and gawk, smoke a clove, watch the planes. The LAX planes fly low, directly over us, as though they're using this street for a navigational marker, and their underbellies are perfectly exposed. At night their headlights shoot out funnels or make clouds glow like lampshades. But enough scenery. You want to know more about robberies, about my safety, about how I kept my eye out for the shifty eyed and quick fingered. I'll tell you.
A week after my vehicle was looted, I was washing cutlery in the morning, staring out between the Basil and Aloe Vera plants, when a man walked up next to my car. I dropped the sponge and pressed closer to the glass. Tigger and Starlet were at the fence, but wagging their tails, not barking. Some security. Then the man reached over the fence and dropped something into our yard that the dogs immediately scarfed. He's drugging them, I thought, and my next thought contained the words "idiot" and "I am a". The man walked back to the blue dumpster and stood on his shopping cart to vault himself back in. Boy, once you get your car broken into, you're suspicious of everybody.
Twice a week I received emails from the university's local list serve, detailing crimes in the neighborhood. Armed Robbery: Suspect Hispanic, late 20s, wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt, because baggy clothes hid body type and didn't hinder running. Corner of Mercer and 28th Street, because university kids hung out there. 12:08 p.m., because every single crime in the neighborhood occurs directly after midnight, like witching hour turned robbing hour. The funny ones were when the student was alone, intoxicated, and had counted all the way down to 42 Bottles Of Beer On The Wall. The scary ones were when the student was bashed in the face, kicked in the ribs, left gasping for breath on the ground while the blurry figure ran away under the streetlamps. File a report, cancel the credit cards, buy a new phone, live in fear.
I thought these kids were stupid for being out so late, but then one night I went to fraternize with professors and colleagues over cocktails at Brandy's. I stayed too long, and by the time I left, I had to walk four blocks back in the dark and walk fast to get there sooner and to burn off my buzz. As much as I'd condemned those disembodied "complainants" in the crime reports, you can blame me for this trip. Hazy from alcohol, on foot, at robbing hour.
A block and a half in, three black men were hanging out on the sidewalk, across from the construction site where the streetlamp was out, talking quietly. I didn't want to cross the street, because it would seem too obvious, and the last thing you want to do in these situations is attract attention. So I kept walking, tried not to walk slow, tried not to walk fast. They stopped talking when I came near, and two of them looked at me while the other one fingered something in both hands. I walked past them and could feel the weight of a gaze on my back, dreaded the sound of quick footsteps rapping the pavement behind me. Fear burned my chest like a hundred proof shot.
You want to know what happened? Nothing happened. A car pulled up beside them and they all got in. They were waiting for a friend, nothing more, nothing less. I got home, turned in with the covers pulled up over my head. Slept like I was dead.
Next week, I got an email every day from the university security, detailing crimes, robberies, beatings, extortions, threats. Sites: seven blocks away from my house, five blocks away from my house, four blocks, three blocks, at an intersection I pass every day. The Trojan paper headline covered the crime wave, interviewed the hapless victims, offered suggestions to keep safe. Appeared to be two sets of robbers, one working solo, the other in a team. Both armed. Considered dangerous… blah, blah, duh.
On the back of our toilet seat one of my roommates left a sporting store advertisement. I flipped through all the guns while on the pot—purse pistols, .22's, shotguns, magnums, big-game rifles with scopes and shoulder pads, semi-automatics that look as though they could mow down crowds with feather-trigger ease, military rifles that you have to wear a ghillie suit just to buy. On the back cover were two kinds of Tasers, which were attractive barring the price—$650 and $950. It'd be a hell of a lot cheaper to be robbed and beaten. They didn't advertise mace, but it was what I wanted, not only because it was cheaper but because it was lighter and I could carry it in my backpack.
Found a sporting goods store, walked back to the weapons section. Three kinds of mace available, and I read the packaging and the price. Picked out the cheapest one, and bought it from a bored overweight woman who didn't say a word.
That night I dreamed violent fantasies. Walking down 37th between streetlamps, man approached, demanded my wallet. I told him it was in my bag, pulled out the mace and sprayed him. While he was down, tried to pull out a gun, I kicked him in the ribs, wrestled it away, called the cops, and got the guy who has been robbing all my friends and colleagues locked in the slammer. Or: woke up at 2 a.m. to get a drink of water and saw the guy who's been robbing cars out by my vehicle, helping himself again. I walked out, he started running, I tackled him and when he pulled a knife I maced him right in the eyes, called the cops. Good citizen's win. Houses protected, fear abated.
Few weeks went by. Started riding a bike: BMX Stalker, 18 speed, saddle-seat, all black. So now I could bike to Brandy's, have a couple, pull a BUI on the way home. Nobody robs a man on a bike, especially when he's on the highest gears going thirty down the middle of the street. So nothing could happen until I got home, got off the bike, and fumbled with my keys in front of the door. Because then, behind the cover of the Juniper bushes, which provide a screen between the street and the house, a man with a bat or a gun or a knife could hide in the shadow and come up behind me and not be seen or heard.
I fumbled with the keys. Turned around, saw a man walking down the street. He was a Hispanic man, early 40s. He was carrying a bag. He casually checked the back door of a parked Honda civic. He walked forward and checked the front door. I put the kickstand down on my bike. Thought: it's only his car, he's just checking to make sure he locked the doors. He walked to the next car on the street, tried the rear door, locked. Tried the front door, locked. Thought: Maybe he owns two cars. Maybe it's his and his wife's. He walked to the third car, pulled the door handle and it snapped back as well. I stepped off the porch and walked down our sidewalk. My hand was in my bag, grabbing for the mace. "Sir, what are you doing?" I asked. He said: "I live there." He pointed to the house next to mine. "Oh." "These are my cars. Mine. Wife's. Son's." He pointed to each one. I let go of the mace, took my hand out, wiped off the sweat on my jeans. "Sorry," I said, "I was just checking, you know, to make sure." "They not lock them, often," he said. "I make sure are locked. Many people steal." "Yes, I know." I said. "I was broken into." "Well, I live there," he said. "We are neighbors." "Nice to meet you," I said, and shake his hand with the hand that didn't grab the mace.
I walked back into my house feeling small.
Now I know what you want. You want me to go back into my room and have some kind of epiphany or grand realization. You want a lesson I've learned. That's how it's supposed to work, right? A reader's-digest bildungsroman? Protagonist grows, changes, advances to next stage of the seven-story mountain. Maybe something vanilla, like I learned not to generalize according to race, or I learned that violence wasn't the answer and threw away my mace.
Well, I'll tell you what actually happened. I went back into my room and went to bed. I didn't even think about my neighbor again. Late at night, growling half woke me up—sounded like dog on dog tonight, menacing growls in a canine O.K. Corral. But this time I didn't get all metaphorical and crap—I didn't imagine it was some anthropomorphized voice of the house, or the neighborhood that was against the white kid and his hegemonic power, or a representation of impeding violence hanging over my head like Damocles sword, oh no. Just got tired of the damn dogs and growled back. Well, it was more of a growl/yell. And you know what? They quieted down.