For the first half of the 1990s I worked at a hospital near downtown Los Angeles.
The hospital itself is an old, fine institution that provides excellent care. I was proud to work there. The neighborhood, however, was dangerous. The Pico-Union/Westlake district, otherwise known as the LAPD’s Rampart Division, had the worst numbers for population density, low income, and violent crime in the entire city.
Drug sales and gang gunfights were common, and strongarm street robberies were a constant threat. Central American, Mexican, Filipino and even Japanese gangsters were all competing for drug territory.
For the last two years of my employment I lived in hospital-provided housing. The commute was across the street and the rent was subsidized: great deal! But I had to deal with the neighborhood: not great.
Around the corner from my building (“The Pink Palace”) there was another hospital-owned apartment building. It was used as a kind of hotel for patients’ families who had to come from afar, and also housed some aged poor people per the donor’s charter. You could see these old folks lurching about the neighborhood looking frail, and I was always afraid they’d be killed and eaten by the locals.
There was a lot of graffiti. Most of it was incomprehensible but I enjoyed trying to figure it out. I knew what a crossed out name or 187 meant, but most of the rest was a blur. The gang members’ names were great too. But I was unable to predict oncoming battles or anything neat like that.
One day I noticed a new graffiti pattern. Near the hospital, on sidewalks and news boxes and transformer cases, I saw sharpie’d tags of the typical kind, but with a weird message: GRINGOS WORLDWIDE. Some of them said GRINGOS WORLDWIDE KILLERS.
What the hell? I’d never seen an obviously white gangbanger around here, except maybe some guys who got in one of the Spanish-speaking crews. And who would call themselves gringos? That’s not even proper street talk! I wondered if some college kids were commuting in to prank, or if the LAPD had finally snapped and gone into surrealist mode.
Coming back from the liquor store that week I saw one of our impoverished senior citizen tenants strolling down 6th Street He was a typical old white guy: polyester sansabelt pants, old sneakers, nylon windbreaker, fishing hat. He stopped in front of a transformer box, whipped out a Sharpie, and wrote GRINGOS WORLDWIDE FOR LIFE on the green metal. He then turned and looked at me defiantly.
I avoided his gaze and just strolled by, murmuring “sup.” Because that’s what you do with gangbangers. Otherwise, who knows what might happen?