By Cristian Vasquez
El Camino College stands on 26 acres, between the 405 and 110 freeways, southwest of Los Angeles.
It opened in 1947 to hundreds of World War II veterans looking to benefit from the G.I. Bill. Today, the school is the stomping grounds for students from wealthy cities in the South Bay and cities like Inglewood, which are their opposite.
I was living in Inglewood and El Camino was my ticket to the unknown.
I met my best friend Robert Sanchez there. We were both aspiring sports writers eager to finish our weekly articles and complete the three sports pages so we could go out and drink. Our first night drunk together, he was the only one in the newsroom who accepted my invitation to a party in Watts. Didn’t give it much thought that out of 20 students only one person said they’d go; just picked him up and off we went.
A few weeks after that one-person response to my invitation, our staff was invited to a party in Palos Verdes. My first thought was, “Where the hell is Palos Verdes?” Robert said he was down to go, so I volunteered to cram my 1987 Honda Accord with as many people as possible and drive us there.
Turns out that Palos Verdes is a straight 10-mile drive south on Crenshaw Boulevard from El Camino. Robert was in the passenger seat and three other people in the back, the radio was blasting and I was smoking and we had booze in the trunk. I was trying to keep up with the quick flash of businesses we passed. These places were as unfamiliar: Islands, Hoff’s Hut and Coffee Bean. Even the veterinarian clinics looked fancy.
We drove through the residential area looking for the address. There was just enough sunlight to read the numbers on the houses, but dark enough to realize there weren’t any street lamps. We found the house and parked in front at an incline. The street pavement was smooth; no potholes or tire marks, it almost looked new. There were no sidewalks, just a patch of well-groomed grass between the fence and clean streets. It was dark and quiet, without traffic noise. There was no screaming from the neighboring houses, no helicopters, no sirens – just silence.
We found the house, but Jeff Todd, the guy who had invited us, wasn’t there yet. Still, the guy who lived there was cool enough to let us come inside. We were led into a converted basement that was now a game room. There were more than a handful of young kids between 18 and 21, all with a different fashion sense. One surfer-looking guy with shaggy hair was watching two kids that looked like they were part of the math club play ping-pong. A few blonde girls were in a group talking and laughing, pretending to watch the game.
The basement was like walking into a homemade Chuck E. Cheese but for people not old enough for a bar. Alongside the ping-pong table was a small basketball shooting game, and the music played loud enough to enjoy without forcing people to yell for a conversation. The refrigerator was full of beer, there were two guys playing catch with a football but what caught my attention was the random items along the wall: skis, snowboards, what I later learned were lacrosse sticks and a television mounted on a wall. I thought it was interesting that they mounted the television on the wall. I had only seen that in a waiting room of a clinic or the ER.
After a few drinks, I was in need of a smoke and asked the kid who let us in if there was somewhere I could go. He led me up the stairs, through a den with soft carpet and wooden furniture, and out of a sliding glass door.
“We can smoke here,” he said. “How do you know Jeff?”
“We met in the El Camino Union. He was cool enough to invite us. How long have you known him?”
I noticed we were sitting atop a hill and we could see Downtown L.A. shine in the distance. To the right the Vincent Thomas Bridge stretched from San Pedro to Long Beach.
“So you’ve known him since high school?” I missed half of his response but repeated what I heard. “That’s great. So what do you do now?”
“I’m in Boston College, but just visiting for the weekend.”
“That’s cool. What are you trying to do there?”
I went back to the view. I had never seen my city like this before. Glowing lights hid its flaws. You couldn’t see the gangs: no homeless people in sight, the aroma of street vendor food was out of reach; the sights and sounds that were a part of my city didn’t exist here.
“So what’s your timeline for graduation?” I asked, still unsure of a word he had just spoken. He didn’t seem to notice.
I turned around, away from the view and looked at his backyard. It looked like all of the worksites my dad and I had set foot in — except this time I came in the front door.
* * *
On the job, Dad and I would wake before the sun rose. We were greeted with mom’s voice telling us it was time and the sound of her boiling water for coffee. I’d kiss mom goodbye, jump into dad’s van; we’d pick up my uncle and off we’d go. As dad drove and drank his sugarless coffee, my uncle read La Opinion. The radio echoed in the insulation-deprived metal van making it difficult to catch a nap. The workday began at 7 a.m. with leftover, lukewarm coffee and a cigarette.
With the housing boom of the early 2000s, work was available everywhere throughout the Inland Empire. Most days felt like hot summers, but there were plenty of bone-chilling mornings. We’d finish our cigarettes with one final drag and get to work. Dad and my uncle argued all day about being the fastest at digging, but as the heat intensified, their banter waned. The Marlboro 100s didn’t help us catch our breath but they justified our break every hour and a half or so. During our lunch break we’d find a place with shade, or set up a tarp to eat under for the entire week. After eating, we’d light up again and take guesses at what the nice house was like inside. If the Willie, the foreman, ate with us he’d give us details about the kitchen, or bathrooms, but only if he thought the house was impressive.
Then we’d get back into that dirty van, smelling of sweat and dirt and drive home, stopping only at the closest liquor store for cold beer, junk food and more smokes.
Now I was looking at this yard as a guest. All I could think was, “We can build a tennis court in here.”
“You play tennis?” I asked.
“No. Not my thing, but I do rowing at school.”
I felt bad not being able to remember the guy’s name. He was genuinely nice.
“Are you on the rowing team?”
“Not varsity but it’s only my first year there so I’ll get there.”
I had never met a rower so couldn’t say if his thin, 5’5” frame was a rower’s body; but he spoke about it with confidence.
“Let’s get another drink,” he said.
* * *
My family and I had been living on Eucalyptus Avenue in Inglewood for 11 years. We moved into that one-bedroom apartment in 1993, escaping Watts and the aftermath of the L.A. Riots. It was safer than our old neighborhood, but violence still broke out. Less than two months after moving in we experienced the first and only drive-by shooting on our block. I was sitting in the top bunk bed, right next to the window, watching television when I heard the gunshots. I jumped off the bed and lay on the carpet.
The shooting stopped, but it was followed by the sound of a car screeching away followed in turn by a few gunshots. We looked out the window and saw a crowd standing in a circle. On her knees, face down on the pavement in the middle of the circle, was a 12-year-old girl. She had been playing in front of a group of rowdy teenagers who were being shot at, and she didn’t get out of the way.
After that, the shootings on our street stopped but you could hear them one street over on Inglewood Avenue. Our local Bloods kept things quiet, so even when I came home late at night, they recognized me as a local, and left me alone. Walking past their building, I’d nod and say “what’s up?” and they’d nod and carry on. I’d hear their chatter as I walked home.
* * *
We left the party past midnight. The silence in P.V. was unsettling. The noise from inside the house died when the door closed. Everyone spoke softly as we made our way back to the car. We crammed in and everyone got louder. I lit a cigarette and let the car warm up before remembering our route. We made our way through the pitch-black streets before coming to the first intersection. Before our light turned, a local police officer drove past us, slowed down and just stared at me. I smiled and nodded as he went on his way, but the officer’s face was aggressive. It said get out.
He pulled passed us slow, staring, as I pulled away and drove the speed limit, with both hands on the steering wheel.
His stare made the drive nerve wracking, though I wasn’t drunk. Now I was afraid. The farther from Palos Verdes we drove, the more comfortable I felt. The more cigarettes I lit, the less stress I felt.
Walking up the shaky steps of our apartment building, I was thankful the cop didn’t pull me over. I was relieved to be in my neighborhood with the loud music, the sidewalks, and with high-tension wires overhead. I could smell Astro Burgers less than half a mile away; I could hear traffic on La Brea and, from the parking lot, I could smell my neighbors in apartment 6 smoking weed.
I felt safe.