Some ironies are especially painful for those who yearn for a different lot in life. Anthony Blair had the name of a former British prime minister and a job that spoke for itself. He drove a bus between LAX and Highland Avenue, mostly along Florence Avenue and surrounding streets in South Central and usually at night, unless called in to replace a driver on another route. His was one of the deadliest routes in L.A. On a couple of occasions, bullets punctured the windows toward the rear of Anthony’s bus as it moved east on Florence, and once, a pair of teens robbed Anthony at gunpoint when he came off the bus to investigate a noise resulting from the bus hitting a trash bin. It was the crudest kind of ploy to get him off the bus so the hoods could jack his wallet and his shoes. The police never arrested anyone. Anthony could only be of so much help here. He’d wisely avoided looking into the hoods’ faces as they robbed him. Fuck it, the cops don’t give a fuck about a black bus driver in South Central, Anthony thought.
Once there had been hope for the area around Florence and Normandie, the flashpoint for the riots in ’92, when crowds gathered on the corners and watched with glee as thugs chased drivers from their cars and beat Reginald Denny hard enough to cause brain damage. The area began to recover in the years after the riots, when it got attention from gifted teachers as well as millions of dollars from bleeding-heart foundations. But now a youth center that offered after-school activities and a staff eager to share information about jobs were nearly impossible to find under a mess of graffiti and trash, while youngsters who approached its doors risked getting shot or targeted for later. Anthony felt weary of the nihilism that drove teens to quit the basketball courts and the Chinese takeouts in favor of a chance to walk to a stranger, ask “Where you from?” and squeeze the trigger. Much of the time, those teens were killing members of their own race, but they loathed the whites, the parvenu South Asians, the whites were degenerates with big houses and loose morals. Rabble-rousers went around the poor neighborhoods fomenting hatred. At the moment, everyone was afraid of riots over the potential acquittal of two UCLA football players who’d beaten a black parolee named Jermaine Wilson after a failed attempt to steal their car. Yes, Anthony heard strangers and acquaintances voice vengeful thoughts daily.
Anthony walked into his one-room apartment in a decaying building on Slauson. The place felt even duller and lonelier than usual. He didn’t have a shift or a date with Jasmine tonight, so he opened a can of Schlitz and tried to catch the end of a game on his old TV bearing a faded $30 price tag from the garage sale where he’d bought it. He might get around to checking the answering machine for messages from Jasmine before crashing out on the bed, bought at a yard sale and positioned so that Anthony’s body always lay perpendicular to the street, his head protected by the rusting faux brass frame. Under his pillow was a .45 he’d bought down at Florence and Normandie for $50 but hoped never to use.
There wasn’t much to see on TV, but it wasn’t too late to head out for the comedy club in West Hollywood, near the corner of Laurel and Sunset, which had one of the most popular lineups in L.A., including a comic by the name of Max Rose. A few of Max’s routines were crude and vulgar, and some of them Anthony didn’t find all that inspired, as when Max pretended to meet a professor in a bar, and to reply to the professor with non sequiturs: “What do you mean people aren’t interested in how the other half lives? I’ve been spying on my female tenants for years!” But Max had his moments, enough to make Anthony laugh his way through three or four beers.
Anthony went into the club and sat down at a table near the center of the room, ordering a whiskey and getting primed for the next couple of acts. The guy on the stage at the moment was a total ass. Brain surgeons or airline pilots couldn’t be bad at what they did, but comedians got away with it all the time, Anthony mused. When people are in a mood for comedy, they just aren’t in a critical, discerning state of mind, they lap up any material. Anthony gazed around the room at the citizens of West Hollywood, the actors or screenwriters between jobs, the heirs who owned mansions in the hills and had brought their girlfriends here after dinner at Magnolia or The Hungry Cat. They liked Joey Winerip’s act, which told Anthony all he needed to know about their taste. Anthony raised his eyes to that coarse, heavy-set buffoon shuffling back and forth behind the microphone, rubbing his hands, grinning, pausing to emit a one-liner in his croaking voice, words coming out with their consonants shorn off so as to pass more easily from his throat. Though Anthony didn’t want to appear rude, he never joined in the applause. At length, he sighed, got up, and sauntered over to the bar, leaving his prized white cashmere jacket with velvet fringes slung over the top of his chair. People barely noticed the thin bus driver as he slid between the tables.
Anthony moved up to the end of a line formed by six or seven young black men who’d entered together and were trying to order drinks, to the annoyance of the comedian on the stage. The pause in his routine said How dare anyone interrupt me. Then Joey resumed:
“You believe those guys over there? I guess you can’t take a bunch of ghetto kids and expect them to behave like gentlemen!” he cracked, with a gesture in the direction of the bar.
Anthony thought the comedian was parodying a low-class bigot’s attitude. He certainly hoped that was the case. But the joke didn’t go over well with the guys in front of him, who became the object of dozens of gazes as one patron after another turned back toward the bar. Don’t stare at me, I just got up to get a drink! Anthony wanted to yell. But the eyes of the strangers fixed on him as if he were a prop in the comedian’s act. Anthony could feel his blood taking on that restive, darting quality it had when his boss chewed him out or when he became the target of taunts from a passenger who presumed to know the route better than Anthony did. At first, there were sighs, murmurs of “Oh, God!” from the group at the bar. Then “What?!? Fuck you!” came from a couple of the guys ahead of him.
“Fuck you, fat slob!” added a third. If any heads had still been watching the act before this point, they had all turned now.
“How dare you say that shit!” another guy ahead of Anthony said.
“Get out of here! Out before we call 5-0!” some of the white guests began calling.
“Fuck y’all!” cried one of the young black men.
“Fuck yourselves! Leave before we have the cops on your asses!” added a thirty-something white man with a crew cut sitting near the west wall.
Anthony didn’t say anything, but he felt the kind of queasiness that a false accusation can rouse. He could feel his pulse in every vein, as if his blood were crying to escape his body. At this point, the bouncers started from opposite sides of the club toward the bar. Both were white and both resembled pro wrestlers.
“Fuck all of you! White cunts!” one of the guys in front of Anthony screamed. Anthony wanted to have words with that visitor, to get him to chill out, but now the guy bellowed even louder.
The bouncers didn’t wait on the sidelines any more. Upon reaching the bar, one of them got the loudest of the disruptors into a headlock and began pushing him toward the exit, while the other indicated that those remaining at the bar, including Anthony, better leave fast. When Anthony began to protest that he didn’t know any of these guys and had just got up to get a drink, the bouncer ignored him. The grip on Anthony’s collar bone felt like a butler’s grip on a cloth containing a dead rat, a thing the employee was loathe to touch but didn’t want to fall to the floor in view of the distinguished guests.
“Hey! My jacket! My jacket’s over there at my table!” Anthony shrieked, but this information didn’t register on the bouncer’s stony face or dull eyes.
“My jacket, you fucking idiot!”
Anthony was suddenly out on the street, rubbing his shoulder and muttering every variant of every curse he’d heard in his life. The six other young men lingered in various poses between the club’s façade and Sunset Boulevard. Anthony was about to speak when the door flew open and someone tossed Anthony’s jacket out, then slammed the door. He picked up his dirtied and torn jacket, dusted it off with the flat of his right hand, and began walking to his car.
These days, Anthony frequented clubs with signs on their doors asking patrons to remove their shades and hoodies before entering. It suited him all right, but rarely could he persuade Jasmine to come along. Well, he thought it unlikely that they’d still be going out in six months anyway. He’d have to get a better job to keep her interested, he knew. If their life together didn’t get better, she might settle for seeing it all come apart. Such was the mentality of the terminally hopeless.
One night, Anthony reclined in a bar on Slauson near Normandie, sipping his eighth Stella, wondering whether Jasmine was thinking of him now, or whether she was in the arms of a guard he’d caught her smiling at one day as they walked through a mall at La Brea and Sunset. The guard had been a handsome enough black man, around Anthony’s age. Anthony beckoned to the girl on the other side of the bar to bring another beer as the rhythms of the Delfonics lulled him and the harshness of his words with Jasmine eased in his mind. That dumb comedy club didn’t want Anthony around. Well, fine with him. He’d long been aware that the condescension many whites showed him had little to do with his being a bus driver. Around him, forms sat in the dim light, sipping liquor and talking about their almost inexpressible loathing for people in other neighborhoods. At one table sat a bald man in a wheelchair, in the company of two younger people who resembled one another. At another was a man with a pair of odd ridges on his forehead, between a cleft where he’d no doubt failed to get stitches after a wound. The man talked to a woman who might have been his girlfriend, but whose eyes betrayed a borderline indifference.
Anthony noticed a presence silently watching him from across his table. A man of about thirty years old with a closely shaven face wore a green beret like John Wayne in that Vietnam War movie, and his eyes were concealed behind a pair of shades with silver lenses as lustrous as a Rolls Royce hood ornament. Though drunk, Anthony had the presence of mind to know that here was someone he shouldn’t provoke. In a leisurely motion, he raised his bottle a couple of inches off the table, then put it down.
The stranger looked in his direction. The shapes flitting in Anthony’s peripheral vision were distant, preoccupied, like wraiths on a lower circle of hell coping with a punishment crueler than Anthony’s.
Yes, the stranger was considering Anthony.
“Don’t mind if I smoke?” he asked.
The bus driver shook his head.
As the stranger lit up, he sank back into his chair, his air growing both comradely and glum, as if he and Anthony were the last hands on a waterlogged vessel.
“Ain’t real cheap to get these where I live. Nor to get a pint of vodka or scotch, neither.”
“It’s gotta be the biggest source of revenue around here by a damn sight, the taxes on drinks and smokes and playing cards. Thinkin’ we should have ourselves a tea party one of these days,” the stranger added in a tone only half jocular.
“It’s killin’ me and killin’ every unemployed chump I know.”
“Ain’t nobody’s fault but theirs that they’re unemployed,” Anthony replied, realizing too late he’d uttered what the stranger might construe as fighting words. But the man in the beret and shades remained cool.
“That may be. That’s a little beside the point, if you get me.”
“No, I’m afraid I don’t,” Anthony said in a gentle a tone. The Delfonics were inquiring as to whether they’d blown your mind this time, baby.
“Economic enslavement’s no better than any other kind,” the stranger said.
“We ain’t the only ones that got to pay the taxes on all of the stuff.”
“No, but you know where they direct the marketing campaigns for the malt liquor and the Uptown cigarettes. And as long as we got to pay twice what the products should sell for, we ain’t never gonna pay for new cars or nice clothes or vocational school—”
Anthony wanted to object. But he sat patiently as the stranger continued in this vein:
“Ain’t no burden if you’re making $100,000 a year. But if you make less than twenty grand, then it tends to eat into your ‘discretionary income’ a bit, don’t it?”
Again Anthony wanted to object, but decided he’d rather not get into a circular argument. He said nothing, drank his beer, looked around for the girl with the cone of frizzy hair and the tan dress falling just below her skinny knees. At the other tables, the outlines of a few other patrons stirred in the dimness.
“Have you got a name, my friend?”
The stranger stared, blew smoke at the ceiling.
“Call me Drayton. Of course that ain’t my name, it’s the name of some slave-lord back in Georgia.”
Anthony nodded. That girl seemed to be making an effort to ignore his table.
“Damn it. If I ever saw a white face in here, you know fuckin’ well how I’d react. How most of the fellas here would react,” the stranger added.
“Black power, man. This ain’t just talk. It’s my creed, and it makes me nobler than a lotta chumps out there. Great are the lengths to which we must go to be worthy of a creed.”
“You think we’re gonna see riots over this Jermaine Wilson business?”
“If those jocks get off, I have little doubt.”
Even as Anthony processed all of this, he didn’t grasp the truth of what Drayton said. Not until weeks later would he learn how Drayton went around inciting the poor and unemployed on the corners and in the parks of South Central, teaching them to despise the privileged devils in their big houses in the safe neighborhoods and inciting them to riot. If you fight for years but can’t bring about one kind of change, switch tactics. Perhaps if he’d been sober, Anthony would have asked immediately why the stranger was telling him all of this, but he’d been content to let the knowledge come when it came.
“I know someone who could use a hand getting the products from LAX to Normandie Avenue, and I know you drive a bus round that way.”
“Oh, Jesus. I . . . I don’t know. I really truly don’t know about all that.”
“What are you, afraid? We bring that shit to the ’hood, we sell it without the sales tax. They won’t ever catch us. It’s a much better arrangement. What are you not certain about?”
“Nobody has to buy it in the first place.”
Again the stranger studied Anthony calmly, with detachment, assuming nothing and overlooking nothing.
“So you’re willing not to take a drink or a smoke ever again?” he asked.
Anthony meditated on what life would be without these comforts. In spite of himself, he was beginning to see rhyme and reason here. The stranger went on:
“If you think ’92 was just about Rodney, I don’t know what to tell you. Can’t nobody be that ignorant.”
“Let me think about it.”
“That ain’t no answer at all.”
“You haven’t convinced me there’s enough demand.”
“Oh, I see. And ’92 was a reaaalll long time ago, wasn’t it?” the stranger replied, as a grin spread across his smooth features.
“Let me think about it.”
The stranger described the parks, the basketball courts where young men who couldn’t nearly afford cars or car insurance loitered on hot weekends, in zones overlooked by the architects of the subway and even the bus lines. Developers had snatched up the tiniest parcels of land abutting the red line wending through Hollywood and downtown, to say nothing of the green and orange lines, so now the slum lots were full of poor young men who looked out from the squalor at a vista of gleaming ultramodern buildings practically near enough to spit on, but, in a way, as distant as China. The parks, basketball courts, and alleys on the fringes of the developing areas were recruiting grounds for the Crips, the Bloods, the Mexican gangs.
Anthony looked at the empty glass before him.
Even now the man didn’t leave. He stared at Anthony.
“I said I’d consider it.”
“Well, don’t think about it too long, brother. We know where you live.”
The stranger grinned widely, revealing a pair of golden upper and lower dentures behind which his tongue lurked like a serpent in a gilded cage.
Nothing decides an issue quite like an ocean, Anthony mused as he drove east with Jasmine on Slauson Avenue. Confusion rages all the time about just how far L.A.’s West Side extends, but at least we can say that only its eastern border is in question. On the other side was the vast glimmering Pacific. Well, even with that natural border, there was controversy enough. Things are out of whack. Anthony cruised along on a street like this one, and he felt as if he were in Liberia or someplace, what with palm trees and squat concrete buildings utterly defaced by graffiti, plus young gangstas with pants rolled up just below their knees, waving or gesticulating or threatening each other on the sidewalk. There are houses with just enough room to doze or stare at a TV. Then you reach an intersection, turn right in the direction of Wilshire, and find yourself on the fringes of Echo Park, where the artists and the hipsters can consider themselves to have roughed it, but before you know what’s happening, you are passing by the new residences where a commune of artists could work comfortably and industriously in the attic alone. The attic of such a building is a glowing elongated cylinder that would put the hangers on most airfields to shame. Beneath it is a kind of structure you might have seen in Germany if the Nazis had kept Walter Gropius there and forced him to design buildings for their foul-weather rallies. In this sunny corner of the city, the palm trees are radiant and plentiful, and the only painted words are where people advertise a bake sale. Here Anthony was remote from the graffiti-fouled youth center, the gangstas who used violence or the threat of it to bar anyone from passing through its doors.
On this occasion, Anthony resisted the urge to drive north to Echo Park, focusing his eyes on the road where child soldiers, or rather, Crips and Bloods, carried on their war by firing at drivers and passengers. The area was grim, yet here were even more construction sites. Here the palms and the blazing concrete were far from any ocean, and Anthony sensed that the ambiguities would grow rapidly in the months and years to come. Anthony and Jasmine headed to her sister’s house, where Adia Walker was hosting a celebration to mark her having completed an IT training course at one of the community colleges. It looked to be a nice event where Jasmine’s parents would really begin to get a sense of Anthony, whom they’d rarely seen in person, such were the demands of his job.
“Anthony, is there something you want to tell me?” Jasmine asked, in a gentle voice.
He shook his head, stared at the road. He wasn’t going to tell her about his second encounter with Drayton. But in his mind, the experience had such immediacy, it was as if he were sitting now in that dark, dingy bar on Slauson Avenue.
“Have you thought about my business proposal?” Drayton asked.
Anthony shook his head.
“What is it with you, man? Too afraid? You won’t open up. I feel like I’m talking to a fuckin’ oreo.”
Shapes flitted around in the darkness, silent, preoccupied. He had to say something. God knew what he’d been thinking when he walked through these doors again. Then again, avoiding this one place was hardly an effective means of avoiding Drayton or his associates.
“You know, about these kids that ain’t got nothing to do—”
Drayton stared, inscrutable as ever behind his dark shades.
“—they have opportunities at Job Corps and in the local industries. That’s not economic enslavement as I understand it. They can work, and they can go to the white neighborhoods,” Anthony said.
“So they can be just like all those white folks in the Valley? San Pornando? Silicone Valley?” Drayton asked, his grin revealing the gold inside his mouth again.
“Come on, it’s not all about porn—”
“Have you ever walked on Sunset Boulevard toward the ocean, and looked up at those houses in the hills, and asked yourself who lives there?” Drayton asked.
“No. No, I suppose not.”
So the circular argument continued. At the end of it, Drayton warned Anthony not to continue to blow him off. By conventional measures, that experience was two weeks ago, but in a sense Anthony faced Drayton in that remote dusky place.
The event at Jasmine’s sister’s place came off more or less as Anthony expected, except that Adia’s tiny boy, Matthew, burst into tears when Anthony removed him from his lap and announced he and Jasmine had to go. It was hardly a secret that Anthony did not have to leave right away, but was jealous of whatever time he could get alone with Jasmine. Her parents wrapped up cake for them to take away, thanking him profusely for coming.
“Jasmine said you witnessed something pretty ugly at the comedy club,” Adia’s mom said.
“I more than witnessed it. But in the scheme of things, it was nothing. A riot, now that’s a bad experience. I’m here for Jasmine if things ever do get real ugly,” Anthony said.
Adia’s mom smiled.
In the car, his genial mood melted away fast. As they drove home through the dark streets, Jasmine decided she had to know what was wrong.
“Just a guy named Drayton who’s been riding me.”
“Didn’t you just tell Adia’s mom you’re not susceptible to silly things like that?”
“I want her to know I’m not a coward.”
“I don’t think she implied that.”
“Forget it, okay, Jasmine?”
He had no idea how to tell her what the talk about Adia’s vocational training had done to him. It would have felt humiliating to say,
“You know, I’m thinking maybe I’ll take a course.”
When they finally got to Anthony’s apartment, on Slauson near Normandie, Jasmine sat down on a flimsy chair across from Anthony, who reclined on the edge of the bed. She reached her hand out to his knee, then withdrew it, feeling his tension like buzzing inside a hive she’d nearly knocked over. But she didn’t want to lose the image of Anthony sitting and joking with the child on his leg. Anthony shifted uneasily, preempting any attempt at intimacy.
“I think I’ll move to New Orleans two years from now when the property values are way up and I’m stuck with the same old job.”
“Anthony. Remember what you said at the party. We aren’t in the midst of a riot or anything.”
“No. Not yet.”
The first bullet that came through the wall grazed Jasmine’s head and whined past Anthony’s ear before hitting the south wall. The next bullet tore through her shoulder just as she screamed and began to rise off the chair, ripping out a hunk of bloody tissue before it embedded itself inches below the first. Before either of them realized what was happening, more rounds tore out the remaining panes of the window and splinters and dust from the south wall raked their flesh. Anthony tackled Jasmine and covered her skull with his palms, deducing that the shots came from a Glock 9mm such as he’d heard fired on nights without number in this neighborhood. Cursing, yelling, yet trying to soothe the woman beneath him, he fished hurriedly in his pocket for his cell phone. He quickly called 911 and informed the dispatcher he suspected a thug named Drayton of having committed or at least ordered the shooting, but the police weren’t quick to respond. A jury had voted to acquit the athletes who beat Jermaine Wilson, and parts of the city were in flames.
As rioters moved up Normandie and branched out west into Crenshaw and east into University Park, Anthony made his way back to the bar on Slauson. It was pretty dim inside, but after a few steps, he could discern a brooding figure in a beret at a table near the back. Yes, the same table where Anthony had met Drayton, on an evening when he’d craved privacy, when the thought of Jasmine’s company made him deeply uneasy. The handful of other patrons whispered to each other. The waitress hovered a few feet from the bar. Anthony walked right up to the table but didn’t sit down. Drayton looked at him expectantly, curiously it seemed. But Anthony posed the first question.
“You get any white devils tonight?”
Drayton chuckled. “Yep. Me’n my boys got three of ’em. We pulled a white bitch from her car and blew her fuckin’ skull open.”
“I went to a warehouse on Melrose where a whole lotta devils was hidin’. Talked to one of ’em through a grill and asked her how she was doin’, if it was too cold in there for her.” Drayton laughed long and hard.
“But you didn’t torch it.”
“Nah. Just had a little fun.”
Anthony nodded. He drew in some of the murky air, the smell of sawdust. “Like when you opened fire on my apartment. Just for the record, Jasmine’s going to make it.”
“Ain’t that nice.”
“Great are the lengths to which we must go to be worthy of a creed.” Anthony withdrew the .45 that had lain under his pillow for nearly a year, aimed, and fired. Drayton’s brain tissue splattered on the wall. His body pitched backward in the chair, then slid sideways and fell on the floor. The waitress screamed and dropped her tray, but others in the bar went right back to drinking and brooding.