How A Simple Errand Put Me In The Middle Of A Gang War
I was 14, visiting family in Los Angeles, when my cousin and I decided to duck our overbearing Mexican parents and go out joyriding. What happened next was like a soul-scarring, over-the-top after-school special made to warn children about the dangers of both joy and riding. On TV, drive-by shootings are full of excitement and ethnically appropriate soundtrack choices. In reality, they're mostly full of bullets.
A Forgotten Sweater Put Me In The Crossfire Of A Gang War
My father and I drove down from our home in Northern California to visit the hodgepodge of aunts, cousins, uncles, and other distant relatives living in Southern California. One afternoon, we ended up at my father's cousin's place, and he had an older teenage daughter named Sarah. She was the first person I'd seen in a week even remotely close to my age. Plus she had a car, a license, and the most perfectly worn-down Converse sneakers. She was an instant rock star in my eyes, and seeing that we were getting on quite well, the adults encouraged us to go hang out at the mall. First, however, Sarah informed me that she needed to stop by a friend's house to pick up a sweater. A friend's house in East LA.
Our parents had warned us about East LA. Even as we walked out the door, Sarah's mother -- still in hot rollers, with a dishrag wrapped around her thick neck -- explicitly forbade us from going there. But Sarah was unfazed and told me we would only be there for a minute. After all, we were just going to retrieve a sweater. What's the worst that could happen? Sweater-mites? Moth attack? Drive-by shooting?
Spoiler: It's the last one.
Sarah parked on to the right side of the street, in front of a small house with a chain-link-fenced yard. She blew the horn, and shortly after, her friend -- complete with worrying-to-a-14-year-old shaved head and tattoos -- came out with a sweater in his hand. Sarah introduced me, I nodded, and sat idly by as they talked about school, how this one bitch was acting like a bitch, and other notable world events. I stopped paying attention.
And then there were gunshots. I started paying attention again.
It's a sound that tends to focus your thoughts.
I looked over to the driver's side and Sarah's friend had disappeared. Sarah had thrown herself over the parking brake between our seats and, figuring that was as good a reaction as any, I decided do the same. I didn't exactly know what was happening, but I knew that I had to make myself very small, very quickly. Then, like the funny guy in a war movie who you just know isn't going to make it, Sarah threw herself over me. Everything went quiet.
It Wasn't Until Afterward That I Found Out How Close I'd Been To Death
Luckily, Sarah wasn't quite funny enough to serve as dramatic cannon fodder, and we both made it through unharmed. As we lay there, hunched uncomfortably over the parking brake, we tried to shift to see out the window. Sure enough, Sarah's friend was gone. I found out later that he did survive. (I mean, I didn't assume he'd been disintegrated by bullets or anything, but he could have been hit and bleeding out for all we knew.)
Sarah desperately started to twist the keys in the ignition. She began to hyperventilate, but finally managed to bring the car to life and peel out. Before we turned the corner, a woman came out of her house with a cordless phone, and waved us down. Sarah slammed on the brakes and attempted to explain what had just happened, and why we were fleeing in terror, but only sobs and wild gibberish came out. The woman with the cordless phone just stood wide-eyed and perplexed on her front porch, until Sarah once again hit the gas pedal and we tore out of the neighborhood.
In retrospect, it should've been pretty clear from context what she was trying to say.
Sarah found a random freeway ramp and took it, then an off-ramp into an unfamiliar neighborhood. She flung her car door open and began to pace around the car, mumbling and cursing at every bullet hole she found. (We would later learn that there were 10 spent bullets in total, most of which went clean through the car.) Sarah was mostly worried about how angry her mom would be, and kept screaming, "How am I going to hide the bullet holes?!" Not "Holy shit, we almost just got killed," but "Holy shit, my mom is gonna kill me."
"Could this day have gone any worse?!"
When I got out of the car and closed the door, the window shattered. That didn't ease Sarah's panic -- a bullet hole might go overlooked for a second, but missing windows were a dead giveaway. That's when I realized that the bullet hole that broke that window was exactly where my head had been before I ducked.
I Couldn't Remember A Damn Thing About It
Not too long after we got out of the car, two young police officers pulled up. They asked us if we had been the ones involved in the drive-by earlier, and Sarah explained that we were just visiting a friend and these random guys started shooting at us. They asked us what the men looked like, and Sarah did her best to remember, but mostly sobbed unhelpfully. As opposed to, say, helpful, practical sobbing. You'd think you'd remember every detail of your attacker after something like that, but traumatic events are where your memory is at its worst. After she finished, the officers looked to me to confirm her story. "Is this true?" Still processing my own mortality, I muttered a brief, "Yeah, I guess."
Which maybe isn't the most helpful response for cops investigating an attempted murder.
Pro-tip: Cops don't much appreciate guesswork. Clearly annoyed, he asked me again what I had seen. I told him I saw a couple of shaved brown heads, but I couldn't remember if their car was dark grey, silver, or brown. He grew even more impatient: "So, you're telling me that you just got shot at and you didn't even see who shot at you?!" I can't remember if I verbally answered him or not, but I know I at least nodded before I resumed picking almost-my-head glass out of my hoodie.
East LA Cops Aren't Funny
It started to rain, so the officers advised us to get into the backseat of their squad car. I didn't realize how much attention two brown girls sitting the in back of a cop car could generate. Some passersby simply gawked, while others shook their heads disapprovingly, and for some reason, I felt ashamed. Hell, maybe we were gangbangers. Was it possible I'd accidentally ganged a bang and didn't even know it?!
The judgmental glares of so many bystanders can't all be wrong, right?
The officers did try their best to lighten the mood, but their efforts only made everything even more tense and awkward.
"So what, are you two like a couple of gangbangers or something?"
"You two ever been in the back of a cop car? Probably not the first time for a couple of gangbangers like you, huh?"
"Oh, so one of you is from NorCal? Bet you see a lot of drive-by shootings out there, huh?"
When you still have tinnitus from gunfire, it tends to drown out most punchlines.
Granted, there isn't a comedy portion on the police exam, but here's a tip: When in doubt, maybe just don't.
At some point, the dispatcher got confused and began describing us as the suspects. Apparently, a witness saw us fleeing the scene and thought we were the shooters. Of course, the officers practicing their improv on us knew we weren't the suspects, but they did use this as an opportunity to make even more jokes about our situation. I remember faking a lot of smiles and just looking out the window at all the people driving past, staring at us.
"Don't worry. One day, you'll look back on this and laugh ... while crying ... in a therapist's office."
The cops eventually let us go, and I mean that literally. After fleeing for our lives down a multitude of random freeway ramps and side streets, we were kicked out of the backseat and left to our own devices in an unfamiliar neighborhood in East LA. It's also important to note that this was pre-GPS, so it took us hours to find our way back home.
The Drive-by Lasted For Minutes; The PTSD For Years
For years after the shooting, I couldn't walk down a street without flinching every time a car passed. I would duck down and pretend to tie my shoes beside cover. I took to lingering behind trees. I would cringe and shake for no reason whatsoever. I hated parties because they had balloons and the mere threat of a sudden pop was enough for an anxiety attack.
A PTSD flashback can kill a party faster than an East LA patrol cop.
I was eventually able to move on with my life, and I'm grateful to say that much of that PTSD faded with time. However, after rereading the court documents and revisiting the events in my head, I can't help but think how very close I came to actually dying that day, and for absolutely no reason whatsoever. In all, ten spent 9mm bullet casings were found at the scene of the shooting, yet none hit us. But if Sarah hadn't yanked me down like I was an oblivious president and she my faithful Secret Service agent, the bullet that went through the front passenger window would have hit me right in the head. I've lost touch with Sarah over the years, but if she happens to be reading now: Thanks for chokeslamming me into your parking brake. They uh ... they don't really make a card for that.
"We got you." -- Cracked Layout Dept.
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