A South Central L.A. Memoir Essay
There’s no bench at the bus stop. Most days, my mom and I perch on a small edge of concrete landscaping that juts out from under the fence of the house behind us. We hold our bags on our laps, crane our necks to see if the bus is nearby. On weekends, we ride it to run errands—to the mall or church or the cemetery to drop off flowers for my dad.
Some evenings, when I’m already home, my mom calls our landline to ask me to meet her at the same stop, to help her carry the groceries home. It’s one of those evenings when my cousin drags me out of the house. We pass the barking dogs next door, duck our heads under the heavy bougainvillea drooping over the neighbor’s gate. We avoid the large cracks in the sidewalk, the fallen palm tree husks. He hardly talks. An ice cream truck passes by, which I recognize because of its refrain: a cheery “hello!” in between classic childhood songs.
The neighborhood feels calm and at ease. I know its duality by now: a familiar face that can turn dark.
I learn these things young. In my elementary school, the kids start passing around important bits of information, like how a pair of shoes hanging from an electrical cable means someone was killed on that block. Clothing is important, too—you need to avoid wearing red or blue, the hues of the warring gangs. The same goes for bandanas in those colors. We file these coded symbols away, a language we learn to speak early on. Our minds become repositories for basic math and for avoiding violence; we exchange info then go back to playing tetherball.
That evening, my cousin and I wait at the corner diagonal from the stop, looking for the orange of the bus approaching. I stand there oozing grief—for my dad, and for the more innocent time when the fear of losing people I love didn’t even cross my mind. I long to get back to my room, where I can journal and play guitar badly.
Almost no one walks on our block, unless they live here. And you definitely don’t walk around after dark, unless you’re fearless. We feel safer inside the house, even while we can hear the cacophony of sirens, helicopter blades, yelling, and distant pops around us.
A group of people, mostly women, gather on the corner directly across from us, near the car wash. They’re loud and energetic, seemingly excited about something. We don’t pay them much attention at first. In our neighborhood, people often congregate outside their houses. They work on their trucks; water their lawns; sip on beers and let the empty ones clink down to the sidewalk.
But the group across the street gets louder, harder to ignore. Two or three people break off from the pack and walk in our direction. As they move slowly past us, one of them lets out a stream of spit that lands on the sidewalk near my feet. So close that I know it’s not an accident. It’s a challenge.
When I see her in my peripheral vision, the girl is not much taller than me but she stands out because she's so much younger than the rest of the group—much closer to my age. Neither of us looks old enough to buy cigarettes, but we’re wizened enough to know the implications of this interaction.
I keep my gaze steady, looking forward. Maybe we exchange words, but my memory falters here. On the broken sidewalks of my neighborhood, two girls can fight on any corner—especially when the anger of their respective lives threatens to boil over. I’m furious at the swift truth that sometimes people die without warning; angry that I can’t mend my mother’s broken heart; resentful that our neighborhood holds such beauty but also so much danger. A certain anger seems to pulsate from the girl, too. We are two magnets with the same poles, bristling against each other.
At this age, I wear my anger like regalia: black clothing, black nails, chunky boots, thick wristlets with spikes on them. A chain wallet in one of my pant pockets. I crown myself as someone who knows the truth now, that life can be cruel. I model my look after the alt rock and punk bands I play on repeat. I leave behind my love for Jordans and thick shoelaces tied around my hair for something darker.
She tugs on the chain of my wallet. I realize she’s poking fun at my effort to look tough. I turn to her and hiss.
“Ooh,” the girl says, circling around me. “She hisses.”
Suddenly, her arm hits the side of my neck. She keeps walking, as if she didn’t even hit me in the first place.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see the bus has arrived. My mom crosses the street just as the girl gets closer to me. My mom tries to mediate the situation, to create some space between the two of us. The other women the girl crossed over with stand in the background and watch. My mom speaks to the girl, tries to calm her down.
“Shut up, you pussy-ass bitch,” the girl says to her.
Everything boils over. My mom and I are hardly talking at this point—my dad’s death caused a rift between us—but a line has been crossed. I know she’s tired from work and weary from carrying her grief. I’m angry, too, and I hate that I have to steel myself against this interaction when I really just want to be home, in my room with my grief and no one to bother me.
“Don’t call my mom a bitch!” I scream.
I lunge at the girl but my mom and cousin hold me back. I will myself forward, trying to wrench myself away from them and hurl myself towards her. Looking back, I can’t remember if someone held the girl back, too. I can’t remember how we end up walking away, but we do.
When we get home, my mom turns all three locks on our two front doors. An automatic movement I’ve also been taught to complete each evening. My body eventually stops shaking and I retreat to my room, the adrenaline slowly leaving my body as I sit against the headboard of my canopy bed, the one with white frilly sheets in a unicorn print. I feel older now, out of place.
Around this time, I dream that a man on the street threatens me in some way, just around the corner from our house. He tries to hurt my mom or family. I don’t see the events unfold but I
know this, in the strange way you hold knowledge in your dreams without explanation. I manage to get the upper hand in a struggle with him and I grab him by the hair. It’s just long enough for me to wrap my fingers around it and get a really good grip. He’s lying on the sidewalk suddenly, unable to get up.
I slam his head repeatedly into the sidewalk.
He tried to hurt me.
He tried to hurt my family.
He can’t get away with it.
When I wake up, this unbridled violence scares me. Would that spark actually turn into a flame in a moment of danger? Am I just looking for an excuse to let out something darker?
I wonder how I got him on the ground. Why I couldn’t stop bashing his head into the concrete.
That evening at the bus stop, my mom and cousin kept me from releasing this rage into violence. This girl was right in front of me, and I was practically begging her to give me reprieve from the loud thoughts in my head. Part of me, lusting, for our fists to sort it all out.
After I leave my childhood neighborhood for graduate school—and even after I return to L.A. but live in a string of different neighborhoods—she often comes to my mind.
I wonder what went through her head, what she wanted, what she needed. I wonder if they groomed her, precisely for this moment. A rite of passage, an initiation. I could’ve been on the corner with that group, too. The same neighborhood, just a short walk away from her, but worlds away. I wonder who she’s lost, who hurt her, who promised her protection and affection and gave it to her in all the wrong ways. I want to know if when she crossed back to the other side of the block, and rejoined the group on the corner, they congratulated her and she felt accomplished, proud.
We were so close in age. She couldn’t have lived that far from me. We could’ve been friends, sat next to each other in class, chatting over the soundtrack of our nearby crushes rapping their knuckles rhythmically against the tops of their desks. We could’ve shared all the ways the city and the people in our lives broke our heart. How we loved our neighborhood but not the men who leered at us.
How we soaked in the sun on weekends but were only allowed to ride our bikes to the end of the block and back. How we marveled at kids from other parts of the city: the multiple parks and grocery stores walking distance from their homes; the undisturbed silence in their neighborhoods at night; their swimming pools and multiple bathrooms; the way they only worried about homework and chores, never about violence.
The headlines and thinly veiled comments from people outside of our block would paint us as two girls in a rough part of town—no manners, no guidance, no real future. No chance of making it out. People only pass through this part of the city. Reporters get back in their news vans, and we stay behind.
As I got older, I started dreaming of leaving my neighborhood—of buying my mom a bigger house in a quiet area of the city. But my heart also broke a little at the thought; this was the only home I knew. I entered its threshold as a newborn and slammed its doors as a pre-teen. The rooms still had imprints of my father’s presence; I couldn’t imagine leaving it all behind. It’s not uncommon to hear the refrain in songs or in movies about leaving your neighborhood and never turning back. But there’s also the yearning to make it something better, to not leave it behind.
We grow up underneath the palm trees, some of us left to our own devices, others warned against the dangers in the street. We learn to both love and fear these streets made of anger. Doused in sunshine, they look almost serene. Keepers of our secrets, witnesses to our small deaths.•
Eva Recinos is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles. As an arts and culture journalist, her work has been featured in Hyperallergic, Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, and more. Her non-fiction writing has appeared in Electric Literature, Catapult, Marie Claire, and more.