You remember when the Ralph's on Third and Vermont stretched across the entire block? Before the riots. Before those motherfuckers brought shit north, past Wilshire Boulevard. Set the best parts of the city on fire. No cops, baby. Too busy protecting Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Malibu. Like those motherfuckers from South Central had time to go that far west. Shit.
By the third day, everybody got in on it. Only people who gave a damn about their stores were the Koreans. Unlike the dumbfucks in Simi Valley, they'd been paying attention. The Koreans had guns. Patrolled their roofs, their parking lots, shot at anybody who looked like they needed it. Lucky for us, they were the only shop owners with the guts to stick around. Here's what I got when that shit went down:
1. A used toaster from the kitchen of the Jack in the Box on Vermont (pawned it at a joint on Hollywood Boulevard a few months later).
2. A brand new shopping cart from the Vons on Third.
3. A sturdy thermos from the drug store on Oxford (lost it on the twenty line going to Santa Monica).
4. A case, motherfucker, a case of Bud and three bottles of Cisco (remember that shit?) from the 7-Eleven on Kingsley.
5. A small, reclining chair I took from someone's apartment while they were off snatching some free shit for themselves.
I pushed that chair around on the cart until it became a nuisance. Then I dumped it on a bon fire burning right smack in the middle of Western and Third. Sat in the cart drinking the rest of the beer, which had gotten pretty damn warm by that point, watching those flames snap, crackle, and pop. The old fucks who stand outside the 7-Eleven, holding the door for Koreans and Mexicans, gave a ton of shit to Charlie—You better hide yourself somewhere, white boy! And Charlie, he stared at that blaze like he was hypnotized. Said it reminded him of some poor motherfucker in Bangkok.
"Just lit himself on fire," he said.
I said, "Buddhist, or something?"
He said, "No. Just a father, pissed off his daughters were giving it to American soldiers for cigarettes, instead of cash."
"Damn," I said.
"Yeah," said Charlie.
I asked if he ever fucked any of those Thai girls while he was there.
"Nope," he said. "Plenty of pussy in Saigon."
"Damn," I said.
"Yeah," he said.
The fire on Western spread, same as the riots. Spread across Third to Vermont. Long way. Crept into the parking lot of the Ralph's and, after motherfuckers tore out the side of the building, that fire walked right in and turned those empty shelves into modern art.
Everybody called him Charlie because of his long, stringy, white hair, full beard and mustache. Wore jeans and a jeans jacket so ratty they looked like they had been dipped in oil and dried in the sun. Only thing he didn't have was that goddamn swastika on his forehead. So yeah, we called him Charlie. He said he came back from Vietnam with the spike. Couldn't shake it until he married the bottle. Said that never really did the trick. "Ain't got money for junk," he'd said. "I guess Boone's got to do until the Good Lord takes mercy and cuts me down for good."
Myself, I got better with age, even living on the damn streets. Sun did me right. Rich girls from west of La Brea, they still jock me for a thrill fuck. You ever lived on the streets, you know what I'm talking about. Poor Charlie, he dried like a prune, looked like a corpse before he turned fifty. Frail, nasty. Those white girls in nice cars stopped giving him charity just before the century flipped. But everybody in Koreatown—Koreans, Mexicans, and the few white people left—they all knew and loved Charlie. Ralph's should have hired him. He stood by the door and offered to carry groceries. People would pay him ten, sometimes twenty-five cents per bag. That man never went to sleep without a bottle, let me tell you.
It was in the fall of 2004 when some boys from USC took care of Charlie. Those days, folks from other neighborhoods shopped at the Ralph's on Third and Vermont for one of two reasons—the first was the fact that the Mexican girls working the registers didn't give a shit about the drinking age. USC brats were always buying beer there. More refined people, they stopped in because word spread across Los Angeles that the deli cook, Leticia, broiled the best damn chicken in the known universe. Four wings and thighs for five bucks. No lie, baby. I don't care how good you think your mom or dad grilled a bird, this woman knew what she was doing. For most of us living on the street, we'd save for a bag on Thanksgiving or Christmas. Put away dimes and nickels for months, walk in, smell that chicken from the other side of the store, hopefully have enough for some beer to go with it (or the energy to steal some from the 7-Eleven). We'd sit in our spots, mine being a bench behind Our Lady of the Angels on Kingsley, and eat that shit like it was the finest pussy on the planet. Charlie loved that chicken, too. And he got it more often. Regulars at Ralph's would ask him if he was hungry, knowing damn well the answer.
"Chicken sure would sit nice on my belly," he'd say.
Even Koreans will buy a man a bite to eat if they know that's exactly what their money's going to. Charlie would help someone carry groceries and, just before they took off, after giving him some nickels and dimes, they'd smile and pull out a white, smoking bag of Leticia's legs and wings. He bowed, regardless of who gave him the food.
"Thank you very much," he'd say. He sounded like Elvis and he knew it. Worked it. Especially on the ladies, back when he didn't look like a Muppet. He once told me he'd come from a religious family. Alabama. Maybe Mississippi. Around here, nobody knows the difference and nobody cares.
When there was no action, Charlie took a broom the manager had set by the door and swept the walk. That motherfucker swept without being asked, without being paid. Said to me, "You don't expect me to work in a pigsty, now do you?"
Well, a trio of white boys from USC pulled in to the Ralph's. Cream-colored SUV. Looked like a Caddie. They let the rest of us know they had money and we didn't, walking around in their goddamn checkered-boxers, their goddamn golf shirts, the kind my friends and I made fun of in the '80s. Their Trojan ball caps were turned sideways and backwards, like those goofy motherfuckers were gangbangers from Crenshaw or something. Stupid-ass plastic sunglasses over their eyes. And they brought their little white girlfriends with them. Short-shorts, so damn short their ass cheeks spilled out the bottom, the kind of shit you could only see in porno movies when I was coming up. Tight, tank-top T-shirts, Greek letters inflated like balloons across their plastic titties.
Charlie stood by the south door. I worked the north with a crazy fuck named Wendell. Wendell used to blow a broken trumpet, same three notes, all over Koreatown. Folks gave him money, I suspect, just to shut him the hell up. Watched him get thrown off his spot by the Hollywood Video three times in the same night once.
Charlie nodded to the USC kids, said "How do you do," which he said to everybody.
One of the boys, let's call him Moe, pushed him back, said, "The fuck you looking at, loser?"
"Come on," said the girl closest to him. "He can't help it."
Another boy, Larry, if you like, said, "He needs to get a fucking job."
And the last one—might as well be Curley—said, "Fucking parasite."
Their women disengaged, gave them looks like, You all don't pretend to have a goddamn soul, you can forget about getting any pussy tonight.
I balled my hands into fists, imagined throwing those filthy motherfuckers through one of the plate glass windows. Wendell said, "You know them boys' daddies got a different lawyer in every pocket."
I said, "How much of nothing they going to take from me?" I moved sideways, like I wasn't paying attention. Snagged my pants on a table of rotting oranges. "Shit," I said. Took a second too long to free myself.
The college boys insisted the girls go into the store. Then Larry and Curly shoved Charlie hard enough to send him over the rail by the door. The little fuckers laughed. One of them actually called him a "douche," with that stupid-ass emphasis on the d.
Charlie's legs were caught on the rail. Maybe he'd gotten buzzed already, couldn't figure out the difference between the sky and the concrete. I heard him cussing. Hustled over and helped him to his feet. "What you putting up with that shit for?" I said.
He brushed the back of his jacket. "They're just funnin'," he said.
"Bullshit," I said. "Their daddies forgot to smack them for shitting their diapers. Somebody needs to fix that slack, know what I'm saying?"
"You slap those kids around," he said, "they'll just call the cops. You know how this story goes."
"Fuck that shit." I charged into the store. Ranchero played on the stereo. The scent of Leticia's chicken called like a damn siren. Most folks minded their own, pushing carts, grabbing cereal and whatever else. I spotted the SC kids in the booze section. "Yo," I said, walking toward them. Their women scattered, like they'd seen a herd of bison.
Moe said, "What you need, homeslice?"
Homeslice … motherfucker.
They huffed their chests, let me know they were real proud of the hours they spent shooting steroids and lifting weights.
"You best scoot your ass outside and apologize to Charlie," I said.
"Who the fuck is Charlie?" said Curley.
"You know who I'm talking about."
Larry tried to push me away. I spun him and shoved him into a stack of cases. He stopped himself, stopped the beer from collapsing on his head. His friends made a move, one from each direction. Moe swung first. Slow as fuck. I ducked, let him graze Curley's nose. They got mad at each other, spewed the only other insults frat boys have ever known:
The manager rushed over. Gustav. Skinny Salvadoran with glasses. Fought in the revolution. Let me use the toilet in the mornings. He machine-gunned some Spanish at us, then realized we didn't understand. "What is this," he said, "all of you." He gave me a fatherly kind of look, like, "You know better."
Larry sulked, like he was working on an Oscar. "This guy just came in here," he said. "He just started picking on us for no reason."
Rich folks always considered the rest of us idiots.
"This man," Gustav said, pointing his chin at me, "this man does nothing for no reason." He glanced at the college girls.
They shrugged, tilted their heads at Larry, Curley, and Moe.
Moe said, "Why would we lie? We're just here to get beer for the game."
"Go Trojans," said one of the girls, like anybody in Koreatown gave a shit.
"All of you," said Gustav, "take your problem somewhere else." He leaned toward me and said, "No bathroom for you, not for a week."
Curley slammed his fist into his other hand. "We don't get any beer, holmes …" He punched his palm a few more times.
"Let's go," said Moe. He sounded convinced he had the high road.
I kept right behind them. Made sure they passed Charlie without giving him any extra shit. We watched them climb into their SUV and drive away. Figured that would be it.
To this day, the old motherfuckers outside the 7-Eleven insist it's not my fault what happened. But I could have done something. I could have figured out what kind of car those boys were driving. Could have gotten some idea what the license plate number was. Instead, I told Wendell, "So long," and headed to my afternoon spot near the depot on Wilshire and Vermont. The ESL teachers would be going home right around then. They were always good for a handful of nickels and dimes.
Later, I cruised to Oxford, floated between Denny's and the Hollywood Video. Put together enough coins to buy a bottle of Wild Irish, a pack of Kools, and some Twinkies for the night. A breeze shot down Western as I made my way to Third. I wanted to rap with the old folks at the 7-Eleven before settling behind the church.
In the distance, Charlie hustled around the corner clutching a bottle and a bag of chicken. He booked into an alley behind a barbecue joint. A cream-colored SUV roared across the lanes, followed him. I said, "Shit," stuffed my Twinkies and smokes into my pants, and took off running. Then I heard screams. Women, shouting in Korean. Orange light danced from the alley. Got bigger and bigger, like a monster in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Koreans filled the parking lot with their cell phones raised, like weapons. They looked confused and terrified. Then I heard Charlie, howling for his life.
The SUV screeched from the alley, raced past me. The little shits from SC tossed an empty gas can at me. "Suck on this," said Larry, or Moe, I wasn't sure. He was close enough I could have reached out, grabbed the motherfucker, pulled him from the car, and stomped him into the pavement. Wouldn't have lost a moment of sleep if I had. But they were gone, racing up Western. I thought I saw them turn on Melrose.
When I made it around the corner, a couple of young Korean cats were throwing newspapers on Charlie. I'd never seen anything like it. He'd become a shadow, wearing fire like a suit. He wouldn't stand still.
"Charlie!" I said. "Drop, motherfucker, drop!" My vision blurred from the heat.
He ping-ponged off of walls and garage doors, hollering, "Lord, help me!"
I grabbed one of the Korean girls who'd been waving her cell phone like a tennis racket. "9-1-1, now!" I said.
She looked like she had been slapped.
"Please," I said, my voice cracking, "call 9-1-1."
She nodded. "Yes, yes," she said.
Charlie must have been exhausted. He finally collapsed. His body shook, as though he were cold. As soon as the Korean girl finished her call, I heard the sirens. Not nearly close enough to make a difference.
Cops showed first. Talked to me for about five minutes. I told them to go to the Ralph's on Third and Vermont. "People saw them," I said, "ask Gustav. He's probably got a better memory than me."
They asked me to describe the SC boys. I didn't know what to say. The lone white cop grunted, actually said, "Oh, so we all look alike?"
How I wanted to put my foot in his ass right there. I calmed myself and described Moe. I said, "And, yeah, the other two looked the same. Exactly the same."
"You're just full of stereotypes," said the white cop.
Stereotype … unbelievable. I'd have bet my Kools and my Twinkies that was the biggest word that cop knew. Probably heard it on a talk show. I felt like calling him a dumb piece of shit, since no one else had ever done him the courtesy.
But I still remembered what those motherfuckers did to Rodney King.
And all this went down while Charlie convulsed and died. When the smoke cleared, there was nothing but charred meat and black gravel. Like he had never been a human being.
You could make the argument that Koreatown didn't ever recover from the riots. But things got back to normal after a few months, you know, mostly. I remember in the fall of '93, Charlie, Wendell, and me were picked up by three chicks in a BMW. Two of them were actresses, said they'd just shot a movie about ass-kicking cowgirls. The other one was a weather girl named Jill. Smoking hot. They said they wanted to get dirty. Rich girls always said that. They said, "We've never done anything like this." Rich girls always said that, too.
We didn't give a shit. Women out for a thrill fuck were good for sex, booze, and food. Sometimes they had blow, too. In those days, when the women still paid attention to Charlie, I had to watch out, make sure he didn't get down with some girl who'd turn him right back on to the dangerous shit. That night, though, everything was sweet.
The ladies drove us to a beach house in Malibu. Jill, the weather girl, said it belonged to her benefactor. Charlie fucked up, said, "You mean your Sugar Daddy?" I thought they'd eighty-six us, make us walk back to Koreatown.
She said, "Don't be offensive," and shrugged, like she hadn't been offended in the first place.
The house had big, gorgeous windows looking out on the Pacific. The waves rolled onto the beach so steady, made me think of time, made me think nothing would ever really change. We went into separate rooms, per the ladies' choices, gave them what they wanted, and then spent the night drinking beer, sitting on a giant, U-shaped couch, in front of a fireplace, just talking. Wendell spun a heap of bullshit about playing horn with John Coltrane, back in the day. All that effort, and then one of the actresses said, "Who's John Cold-train?"
The women said they wanted to know how we ended up homeless. Charlie got around to rapping about Vietnam. Spoke about the Vietnamese women, the dope, and how he knew he had been afraid all the time he was there, but couldn't remember how that actually felt.
"You were in a war?" said the weather girl.
"Yeah." He looked down. He always did when he talked about the war, like he had done something so terrible, even the Padre at Our Lady of the Angels would never forgive him.
"Did you kill anybody?" said one of the actresses.
"I don't know," he said.
The weather girl said, "Hope you didn't. Because, you know, karma."
Charlie sneered. "Do you even know what that word means?"
"Duh," she said. Then she stood and said, "Who needs another beer?"
Copyright © 2014 Alec Cizak.
Alec Cizak is a writer and filmmaker from Indianapolis. His work has appeared in several journals and anthologies. Crooked Roads, a collection of his crime stories, will be published in the spring of 2015 by ADR Books. He is also the editor of Pulp Modern. Mr. Cizak is currently working on post-production for his third feature film, Kato Therapy.