Nice Day For A Drive(by)

It’s a rare day that it rains in Los Angeles, and a rarer one that Tim and I spend the afternoon together at home, not running errands or otherwise careening about. The rain had been coming down in sheets for a good part of the morning, and we were cosily tucked at our computers, working away. ‘Round about 3 o’clock we started to get hungry, and I needed to get out of the house and get some fresh air, so I suggested that we go have some lunch at Pure Luck, our neighborhood vegan joint. Tim was reticent to leave the warm house and go out in the (California version of) cold, but they had posole as their soup of the day, so we grabbed our Sunday NYT and piled into our car for the short drive to Hel-Mel, the nickname for the neighborhood just past the freeway at Heliotrope and Melrose.

As we drove up to the cafe, we both noticed — but didn’t mention to each other that we’d noticed — a group of guys hanging out in front of the smoke shop across the street. Some of them had tattoos crawling up the sides of their necks and their shaved heads. They didn’t quite look like the types that hung around that neighborhood, but I didn’t think much of it after we pulled into the parking lot.

Heliotrope is a short street in East Hollywood that borders one side of Los Angeles City College. The Hel-Mel area has become hip-ified of late, with two bicycle shops, a coffee house, a couple of galleries, a tattoo parlor, and Scoops, a hipster ice cream shop that makes its own odd flavors and shows work by local artists. On certain days the street teems with bicycle nazis working on their fixies at the Bicycle Kitchen, decked out in long dickies shorts, hoodies, bike shoes, and those dinky little cloth bike caps that don’t do anything but signify that the wearers want to be taken seriously as bicycle hipsters. My secret name for that area is “Little Berkeley”. Still, I like to hang out there on occasion.

We settled into our booth and ordered posole and craft beer. The food was incredibly delicious and warm, and we happily relaxed into our afternoon repast, Tim reading the Arts section and I the article in the Travel section about Iberian acorn-fed ham. The white hipsters scattered about the cafe were involved in their conversations, the girls in the corner talking around their lip-rings, the bike dudes carefully wiping their mustaches clean of the drippings from their jackfruit tacos and discussing the latest cranksets.

We lingered awhile after we’d finished eating, and eventually Tim mentioned that our meter was just about to run out, but rather than rushing home, we thought we’d go across the street to see what flavors Scoops had on offer. We took our time putting on our coats and settled up the bill.

As we rose to leave, we heard what I thought was loud firecrackers outside the cafe window. People in the cafe were looking in the direction of the noise, and thirty seconds into it Tim started yelling, “Get down! Get down!” About half of us hit the floor, but quite a few continued just staring out the window. We lay on the floor for a good few minutes until the popping subsided. It felt like a game. A guy at a table window yelled that someone should call the cops, and eventually a couple people took out their phones. Several people, including Tim, had seen a blue van drive down the street, and a guy step out and start shooting into the small crowd of guys in front of the smoke shop. One of the gangsters returned fire, and there were murmurings and rumors that he’d been hit in the leg.

The couple that had been sitting at the table in front of the window remained there for the entire incident. The man made a joke about the neighborhood being safe, and did his dining companion still want to be his roommate. He complained loudly that the cops probably wouldn’t even show up, and while they eventually did, it took them about 10 minutes to get there, far too long considering the fact that there was a police station blocks away, and the area was usually crawling with cops. The chef came out from the kitchen and had 911 on the phone, but it wasn’t until he mentioned that somebody had been hit that they considered sending out a squad car.

Some of the guys outside began picking up the spent shells from the ground. It looked like one of the guys was pocketing them, while one of the bystanders was apparently just curious (and stupid, as we pointed out to ourselves, since he was getting his fingerprints all over them).

As we waited for the cops to arrive, we talked about being surprised that even though we were in East Hollywood, there were gang shootings on this particular street. One guy said that he saw “MS13” tattooed on the neck of one of the guys in the crowd, although we were dubious that he could see that from across the street.

Somehow we all feel shielded from this sort of violence – by what? Our economic class? Our color? The street that we live on is frequently being tagged by MS13, but I’ve never seen anything worse than that. While I’m aware that getting hit by a stray bullet is a possibility, it’s not one that I dwell on very often. Had we left the cafe a minute earlier, it’s quite possible that one of us would’ve been hit by a stray bullet, and this story would have taken a different turn, or perhaps not be told at all.

Eventually a couple of police cars showed up, and the rest of the gang members sauntered into the smoke shop, as if they suddenly had something else to do. The cops began questioning some of the bystanders, and after a few minutes more we deemed it safe enough to leave the cafe and go to our car, which was parked a few doors down from the incident. As we left the cafe, one of the other patrons admonished us that MS13 are bad news, and that it would be best not to talk to the cops. We hurried across the street and checked the side of our car. There were no bullet holes.


12 responses to “Nice Day For A Drive(by)”

  1. Jeremy says:

    Whoa. So glad you two are OK. And, wow, I’m also rather surprised at the location–I had my birthday party at Pure Luck a few years ago!

    This brings back memories of my one and only experience of a drive-by, which was in Palm Springs of all places. I was at a party at some random house, back in high school, and suddenly shots were being fired directly into the house–a group of us huddled in the kitchen until the shooting ended and we could hear the requisite burning of rubber as the car sped away… no one was hurt, as far as I know, but we didn’t even wait around for the cops to show, in case the perps ever came back. Scary.

  2. ScottyGee says:

    Crazy! As Swells and I are considering different places to travel over the summer, I usually have the safety question in the back of my mind, but I rarely think about it here any more. I think you’re right, we do feel insulated by something.

  3. Rachel says:

    I used to work with a guy whose young daughter was shot in a drive-by, sitting right in her own living room. It’s hard to attach any meaning or context to such events. I guess that’s one of the reasons they’re called what they are.

    Still, if you want to hurt somebody, can’t you just hurt them? Why spray bullets into a crowd?

    I know I’m missing the main point here.

    Anyhow, glad you are OK. It’s worth remembering that any day something really shitty *doesn’t* happen is a great day.

  4. Very interesting post, Jen. Los Angeles really is a collection of cities, each playing by its own set of rules, that all occupy the same footprint.

  5. Dave says:

    We had one drive-by at my high school; I don’t remember anyone being hurt. It happened on the side of the school near the Lottaburger, which I rarely went to, so I didn’t really worry about my own safety.

    When you look at crime stats, you basically are shielded from this kind of violence by your class and color if you’re middle-class and white. It’s freaky to have that shield pierced, but it’s also freaky to reflect that a lot of people live every day in a much more dangerous reality than most of us here do.

  6. swells says:

    Wow. Awful! This post sent me down a very unsettling wormhole researching MS13. I know some of it is overblown by the media and all, but still. Some is not. Ugh. So glad you’re okay!

  7. trixie says:

    I’m so glad you are both (and others) are OK!
    Sorry that the lovely afternoon got trashed.
    Lots of love.

  8. J-man says:

    I was thinking today about how ironic it is that MS13 is a Salvadoran gang, and many of the kids in the gang are in the U.S. because their parents left El Salvador to escape death squads. Now those kids are back in the death squads.

  9. J-man says:

    It’s also eye-opening and scary to read how many of us have had close-calls with drive-bys. Jeremy, that party incident is particularly scary – it sounds like it was a random shooting.

    Dave, I think a lot about that shield because I live in a diverse neighborhood, and I thought a lot about it in particular the other day. Even though I live right next door to a Salvadoran family, my daily experience must be totally different from theirs. I wonder if their kids are being pressured to join a gang – they seem like good kids, and smart, and I usually see them hanging around their apartment playing ball or skateboarding. It’s not something I really thought about until the other day.

  10. LP says:

    It’s interesting to note how people respond in the face of potential danger – some diving to the floor, others sitting there like nothing has happened. I just read a book called “The Unthinkable,” which examines people’s behavior during calamity, and it’s apparently quite common for people to respond the latter way. They either don’t believe something dangerous is really happening, because it’s so out of the normal experience, or they think something might be happening but are more fearful of looking stupid by possibly overreacting.

    Once, in DC, I heard shots coming from down the block. When the noise stopped, I stepped out onto the front stoop and peered down the street to see if I could tell what was going on. Stella wasn’t home, but when I told her about it she was not too happy with me. It didn’t really occur to me at the time that what I was doing was stupid.

    Glad you’re both okay!

  11. Dave says:

    I’m totally with you, J-man. I can go long stretches feeling totally safe in my racially and class/income diverse neighborhood and city, and basically I am quite safe. But, you know, there are two big housing projects down the street, and I’m sure I have no idea the struggles for simple personal safety the residents face.

  12. Nat says:

    I’m so glad you guys are OK!