Apr 23 2011 12:43pm
San Diego Noir:The National City Reparation Society
San Diego is home to miles of beaches, Balboa Park, a world-famous zoo, and some of the country's most expensive home and resort real estate. Yet the city also houses a few items that aren't actively promoted by the visitor's bureau: a number of the country's most corrupt politicians, border-related crimes, terrorists, an the occasional earthquake. In the 50-plus years since Raymond Chandler set Playback in Esmeralda, his name for La Jolla, the population has grown by more than a million, and crime has proliferated as well. San Diego of the past and present offers the book's contributors a rich selection of settings, from the cross on Mount Soledad to the piers of Ocean Beach, and perpetrators and victims from the residents of its wealthiest enclaves to the inhabitants of its segregated barrios.
“National City Reparation Society” is an exclusive short story by Luis Alberto Urrea from San Diego Noir, edited by Maryelizabeth Hart (Available June 1, 2011 from Akashic Books)
It wasn’t like Junior Garcia only hung with white people now. But he didn’t see much Raza, he’d be the first to admit. Not socially. That’s why you leave home, right? Shake off the dark.
As soon as he picked up the clamoring cell phone, he had that old traditional homecoming feeling: why’d I answer this? He didn’t recognize the number—some old So Cal digits. He stared at the screen as if it would offer him further clues.
When he answered, an accented voice said: “Hey, bitch.”
“Said: Hey. Bitch. You deaf, homes?”
“You must have the wrong number,” Junior said, about to click off. Homes, he said to himself. What is this, 1986?
“Junior!” the guy shouted. He used the old, hectoring fake-beaner accent the vatos had affected when mocking him in school: Yoo-nyurr! “I bet you got some emo shit for a ringtone. Right? Like ‘The Black Parade,’ some shit like that.” The guy laughed.
“I’ve been talking to you for, like, almost a whole minute, and you already insulted me. I don’t even know who you are.” His ringtone was Nine Inch Nails, thank you very much. Emo? Shit. “I’m out, homes.”
He clicked off and pulled on his Pumas. Got his jog on along the beach. It was one of those rare sunny days, and everybody was out, looking in their Lycra and spandex like a vast, roving fruit salad. He tucked the celly in his shorts pocket. Who’s the bitch now? he wanted to know.
His nemesis caught him again as he was cooling off, jogging in place beside a picnic table, breathing through his nose, pouring good clean sweat down his back—he could feel it tickling the backs of his legs. “You let me penetrate you,” his phone announced. “You let me penetrate you.”
“You again?” Junior said.
“It’s me. Damn!”
Junior wiped his face with the little white towel he had wrapped around his neck. “I should have known.”
“That’s what I’m sayin’.”
Junior could hear him smoking—he still must like those cheap-ass Domino ciggies from TJ. They crackled like burning brush when the guy inhaled. “Why you calling me, Chango?”
“What—a homeboy can’t check on his li’l peewee once in a while? I like to make sure my boyz is okay.”
“I haven’t talked to you in ten years,” Junior said. He sat on the table and lay back and watched the undersides of gulls as they hung up there like kites.
“So?” said Chango. “You think you’re better than us now, college boy?”
Apparently, the 1,000-mile buffer zone was not enough barrier between himself and the old homestead.
“Nice talking to you, Chango. Be sure to have someone send me an invitation to your funeral. So long. Have a nice day.”
“Hey, asshole,” Chango said. “I’m gonna live forever. Gonna be rich too. I’m workin’ on a plan—cannot fail. You gon’ want some of this here.”
“A plan?” Junior said.
And when he said it, he felt the trap snap shut over him and he couldn’t quite figure out how or why he was caught.
It was a short flight. Lindbergh was clotted with GIs in desert camo and weepy gals waving little plastic American flags. Junior caught the rental car shuttle and grabbed a Kia at Alamo. No, he wasn’t planning to take it across the border. Put it on the Visa, thanks. Oh, well—the homies were going to give him shit about the car. It would be badass if they rented ’67 Impalas with hydraulic lifters so he could enter the barrio with his right front tire raised in the air like some kind of saluting robot. He didn’t smile—he was already thinking like Chango! He poked at the radio till he found 91X and the Mighty Oz was cranking some Depeche Mode. At least there was that.
On his way south, he hopped off on Sports Arena, but Tower Records was gone. What? He pulled a U and tried again, as if he’d somehow missed the store. Gone? How could it be gone? Screw that—he sped to Washington and went up to Hillcrest and looked for Off the Record. He was in the mood for some import CDs. Keep his veneer of sanity. It was gone too. Junior sat there in the parking lot where the Hillcrest Bowl used to be. He could not believe it—all culture had vanished from San Diego. His phone said, “You let me penetrate you.” Chango. Junior didn’t answer.
He’d only come to check it out. It was a crazy adventure, he told himself. Good for a laugh. Chango had picked up a magazine in a dentist’s office. New dentures: our tax dollars at work. He thought it was a Nat Geo, but he wasn’t sure. Some gabacho had written an article about abandoned homes along the I-15 corridor. Repos. Something like six out of ten, maybe seven out of fifteen or something like that. Point was, they were just sitting there, like haunted houses, like the whole highway was a long ghost town, and the writer had broken in to look around and found all kinds of stuff just laying around. Sure, sad shit like kids’ homework on the kitchen table. But it’s on a kitchen table, you catch my drift, Chango demanded. There’s whole houses full of furniture and mink coats and plasma TVs and freakin’ Bose stereos. La-Z-Boys! Hells yeah! Some have cars in the garages. And it’s all foreclosed and owned by some bank. But the kicker—the kicker, Yuniorr—is that the banks can’t afford to resell this stuff, so they send trucks to the houses to haul it to the dump. Friggin’ illegals driving trucks just drag it all out and go toss it. A million bucks worth of primo swag.
“You tell me, how many freakin’ apartments gots big-screen TVs that them boys just hauled home? You been to the swap meet?” And Chango had noted, in his profound research (he stole the magazine from the dentist’s) that the meltdown had banks backed up. Some of these houses wouldn’t be purged for a year or more.
“Ain’t even stealin’, peewee. Nobody wants it anyway. Worst case is breaking-and-entering. So I got this plan and I’m gonna make us a million dollars in a couple of months. But I need you to help.”
“You know how to talk white. Shit! Why’d you think?”
Junior motored down I-5 and dropped out at National City. He was loving the tired face of America’s Finest City—San Diego was a’ight, but National was still the bomb. The Bay Theater, where he used to see Elvis revivals and Mexican triple-features. He’d kissed a few locas up there in the back rows. He smiled. He checked the old Mile of Cars—they used to call it the Mile of Scars, because sometimes Shelltown or Del Sol dudes would catch them out there at night and fists would fly between the car lots. That was before everybody got all gatted up and brought the 9s along. Junior shook his head; he would have never imagined that fistfights and fear would come to seem nostalgic.
He drove into the old hood, heading for West 20th and Chango’s odd crib over the hump and hiding behind the barrio on the little slope to the old slaughterhouse estuaries. He wanted to see his old church, maybe light a candle. He didn’t mean to go bad in his life. He didn’t mean to go so far away and not come back, either. Or maybe he did. St. Anthony’s. America’s prettiest little Catholic church. He smiled. They’d sneak out of catechism and go down behind the elementary school and play baseball on the edge of the swamp. There was a flat cat carcass they used for home plate.
He turned the corner and beheld an empty lot surrounded by a low chain-link fence. He slammed on the brakes. It was gone, like Tower Records. Things seemed to be vanishing as if all of San Diego County were being abducted by aliens.
He jumped out of his car and beheld a man watering his lawn, surrounded by a platoon of pug dogs.
“Where’s the church?” he called.
“Church? Burned down! Where you been?”
“Long time, long time. Say, ain’t you that Garcia boy?”
“Not me,” said Junior, getting back in the car.
He drove past his old house. Man, it sure was tiny. Looked like all his old man’s gardens were dead. He didn’t want to look at it. It had a faded For Sale sign stuck in the black iron fence.
The barrio had a Burger King in it, and a Tijuana Trolley stop. Damn. All kinds of Mexican nationals sat around on the cement benches savoring their Quata Poundas among squiggles of graffiti. Junior shook his head.
He dropped into the ancient little underpass and popped out on the west side of I-5 and hung a left and went to the end of the earth and hung another left and dropped down the small slope toward the black water and there it was. Chango’s house. His dad’s old, forgotten Esso station. Out of business since 1964. Chango lived in the triangular office. He’d pasted butcher paper over the glass and had put an Obama poster on the front, with some Sharpie redesigns so that it now said: CHANGO YOU CAN BELIEVE IN.
He’d given the prez a droopy pachuco mustache and some tiny, irritating homeboy sunglasses—Junior knew that Chango, ever the classicisist, would still call the glasses gafas. He knocked on the glass until Chango woke up from his nap.
“Car’s for shit,” Chango noted as Junior drove.
“Where we going?” Junior said.
“You remember the Elbow Room? That’s where we’re goin’. Down behind there. Hey, the radio sucks, ese. What’s this? You should be listening to oldies.”
Junior punched the OFF button.
“Damn,” Chango muttered. “Shit.” He looked like a greasy old crow. All wizened and craggy, all gray and lonesome. His big new teeth were white and looked like they were made out of slivers of oven-safe bake wear. His fingers were yellow from decades of Mexican cigarettes. “For reals,” he was saying. It was apparently a long-standing conversation he had with himself. His various jail tattoos were purple and blurry and could have been dice rolling snake eyes and maybe a skeleton with a sombrero and on the other forearm an out-of-focus obscenity. He had that trustworthy little vato loco cross tattooed in the meat between his thumb and forefinger. “Tha’s right, you know it,” he added.
He’d shown Junior the article. It was by Charles Bowden, and did, indeed, confess to uninvited recon sorties into the creepy abandoned homes. One found these places by looking for overgrown yellow lawns and a sepulchral silence.
“This guy’s a great writer,” Junior said. “I can’t believe you read him.”
“Who?” Chango replied.
“This guy—the writer.”
“I was mostly lookin’ at the pictures, homie. That’s what caught my eye.”
They pulled around the old block where everybody used to go to drink at the Elbow Room, except for Junior who was too young to get in. They rattled around into a dirt alley and Chango directed him to stop at the double-door of a garage. They could hear Thee Midnighters blasting out.
“That’s some real music, boy,” Chango said, and creaked out of his seat, though he managed to sway pretty good once he got erect, swaggering like an arthritic pimp.
Inside, a Mongol associate of Chango’s had dolled up a stolen U-Haul panel truck. He wore his vest and scared Junior to death, though lots of vatos liked the Mongols because they were the only Chicano bikers around.
“Sup?” the Mongol said.
“Sup?” nodded Junior.
“Sup?” said Chango.
“Hangin’,” said the Mongol.
There was a time when Junior would have written a poem about this interaction and turned it in for an easy A in his writing workshop. Oh, Junior, you’re so street, as it were.
The van was sweet, he had to admit. It was painted white. It had a passable American eagle on each side, clutching a sheaf of arrows and a bundle of dollars in its claws. Above it: BOWDEN FEDERAL and some meaningless numbers in smaller script. Below it: Reclamation and Reparation/Morgage Default Division.
“You misspelled mortgage,” Junior said.
“So what?” Chango said. “Cops can’t spell.”
“The plates are from Detroit,” the Mongol pointed out. “An associate UPS’d ’em to me yesterday.” He turned to Chango. “Your sedan is out back.”
Chango bumped fists with him.
“Remember, I want a fifty-inch flat screen.”
“And any fancy jewelry and coats for my old lady.”
“And any stash you find.”
“You get the chiba, I got it. But I’m drinkin’ all the tequila I find.”
Chango, in his element.
Junior had to admit, it was so stupid it was brilliant. It was just like acting. He had learned this in his drama workshop. You sold it by having complete belief. You inhabited the role and the viewers were destined to believe it, because who would be crazy enough to make up such elaborate lies?
He followed the truck up I-15. It was a sweet Buick with stolen Orange County plates. Black, of course. He wore a Sears suit and a striped tie. His name tag read: Mr. Petrucci.
“Here’s the play. We move shit—we’re beaners,” Chango explained. “Ain’t nobody gonna even look at us. You’re the boss. You’re Italian. As long as you got a suit and talk white, ain’t nobody lookin’ at you, neither.”
To compound the play—to sell the illusion, his college self whispered—he had a clipboard with bogus paperwork, state tax forms they had picked up at the post office.
Three guys in white jumpsuits bobbed along in the cab of the truck—Chango, a homeboy named Hugo, and the driver—Juan Llaves. Hugo was a furniture deliveryman, so he knew how to get heavy things into a truck. They banged north, dropping out of San Diego’s brown cloud of exhaust and into some nasty desert burnscape. They took an exit more or less at random and pulled down several mid-Tuesday-morning suburban streets—all sparsely planted with a palm here, and oleander there. Plastic jungle gyms in yellow yards, hysterical dogs appalled by the truck, abandoned bikes beside flat cement front porches. Juan Llaves pulled into the driveway of a fat faux-Georgian, half obscured by weeds and dry grass and looking as dead as a buffalo skull.
Junior took his clipboard in hand and joined Chango on the lawn.
“This is it, Mr. Petrucci!” Chango emoted. Junior checked his papers and nodded wisely. Nobody even looked out of the neighboring houses. It was silent. “I can’t believe we’re doing this shit,” Chango muttered with a vast porcelain grin.
They tried the front door. Locked. Chango strolled around back. Some clanging and banging, and in a minute the front door clicked and swung open.
“Electric’s off. Hot as hell in here. Fridge stinks.”
The associates went inside.
The bank notices were there on the kitchen table. Somebody had abandoned a pile of DVDs on the carpet. “Oh yeah!” Chango hooted. “The Godfather!”
Llaves and Hugo hauled the table and chairs out to the truck. Plasma TV in the living room; flat screen in the bedroom. Black panties on the floor looking overwhelmingly sad to Junior. Chango put them in his pocket. “Chango’s in love,” he told Junior.
In the closet, most of the clothes were gone, but a single marine uniform hung at the back. They took the TVs, a rent-to-own stereo system with about fifty-seven CDs, mostly funk and hip hop. Chango found a box of Hustlers and a Glock .40 that had fallen behind the box. For the hell of it, they took the dresser and the bunk beds from the kids’ room.
In the garage, there was a Toro lawn mower and, oddly, a snowblower. They took it all. As they were leaving, Chango trotted back into the house and came out with a blender under his arm.
In and out in less than three hours. They were home for a late supper. The stuff went into the garage.
Wednesday: three TVs, a tall iPod dock, a long couch painting, a washer and dryer, a new king-size bed still in plastic wrappers, whiskey and rum, a minibike, and a set of skis.
Thursday: a Navy peacoat, a mink stole (fake), six rings, another TV, another bed, a recliner chair and matching couch in white leather, a shotgun and an ammo loading dock, a video porn collection, a framed swirl of blue tropical butterflies, golf clubs, a happening set of red cowboy boots.
Friday: aside from the usual swag—how sick were they of TV sets by now—they found an abandoned Mustang GT in the garage. Covered in dust, but sleek black. Chango wiped that baby down and Llaves hotwired it for him and he drove back to San Diego in style.
It was a massive crime wave, and the only witnesses so far had been two kids and an ice-cream man, and the ice-cream man had called, “Times are tough!” and Chango, into some Robin Hood hallucination, took him a thirty-two-inch flat screen and traded it for Sidewalk Sundaes for his gang.
After a month of this, after dealing the goods out to fences and setting up a tent at the flea market, Chango and Junior were rolling in it. They paid their associates a fair salary, but their folding money was in fat rolls held together by rubber bands. Chango had the old repair bay in his house converted to a gym. Nordic Trak, an elliptical, a Total Gym As Seen on TV, three sets of weights, and a shake-weight that nobody wanted to touch because it looked like they were wanking when they were ripping their biceps.
“You don’t make this kind of money selling dope to college girls,” Chango said.
“No,” Junior confessed. “Not lately.”
He hadn’t planned on selling pot to anyone. He had hoped to teach a good Acting 101 class. Maybe write a script or some poems. And there was a gal . . . well, enough of that happy horseshit. He wasn’t going there. Then he chided himself for thinking a cliché like “going there.” No wonder he drank—it was the only way to shut his brain down. Fortunately, Chango had collected seven kinds of rum. Junior doctored his Coke Zero and lounged.
He had a cot in the corner of Chango’s gas station. It was a little too close to Chango for comfort, and he had to put in his iPod buds to cancel out the old crow’s snoring. But it was free, and the snacks and booze were good.
The Mustang sat out on the street. Junior kept telling Chango it would get him busted, that it was too visible. But Chango was invincible. Chango told him: “Live, peewee. Ya gotta live!” There was a tin shower rigged up in the restrooms. Junior’s stolen iPod port was blasting “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.”
“Stones suck,” said Chango, swallowing tequila. “Except for Keith. Keith’s ba-a-ad.”
Junior was thinking about the old times, how when they’d gather at the bowling alley to play pinball, Chango would smoke those pestilential Dominos and force Junior to lose by putting the burning cherry on his knuckle every time he had to hit the bumpers.
“Fucker,” he said.
“You got that right, homes.”
“So, Chango—what’s next?”
“We, um, steal a lot more shit.”
“Shouldn’t we cool it for a while? Let the heat die down?”
“Heat!” Chango shrieked. “Did you actually say ‘heat’? Haw! ‘Heat,’ he says. GodDAMN.” And then: “What heat?” He laughed out loud. “You seen one cop? We is invisible, homie. We just the trashman.”
“I’m just being cautious,” Junior said.
“I got it covered, peewee. Chango’s got it all covered.”
“Next stop,” Chango announced, “Arizona! Don’t nobody know us over there in ’Zoney!”
* * *
They should have never crossed the border. That’s what Junior thought as he escaped. They didn’t know anything about Arizona. Someone had seen them, he was pretty sure. It was probably at the motel outside of Phoenix. They’d probably been made there.
Whatever. It went bad right away. They drove around looking for abandoned houses, but in Arizona, how could you tell? All the yards were dirt, and the nice yards looked to them exactly like the bad yards. What was a weed and what was a xeriscape?
In Casa Grande, they felt like they were getting to it. A whole cul-de-sac had collected trash and a few tumbleweeds. Junior couldn’t believe there were actual tumbleweeds out there. John Wayne–type stuff. They pulled in and actually rang the doorbells and got nothing. So Chango did his thing and went in the back and they were disappointed to find the first house completely vacant except for an abandoned Power Ranger action figure in a bedroom and a melted bar of Dial in a bathroom.
The second house was full of fleas and sad, broken-ass welfare crap. Chango found a bag of lime and chili tortilla chips, and he munched these as he made his way to the third, and last, house. He went in. Score!
“I love the recession!” he shouted.
They drained the waterbed with a hose through the bathroom window. Hey—a TV. These debt monsters really liked their giant screens. Massaging recliners. Mahogany tables and a big fiberglass saguaro cactus. “Arty,” Chango said. Mirrors, clothes, a desktop computer and printer, a new microwave, two nice Dyson floor fans, a sectional couch in cowhide with brown and white color splotches. They even found a sewing machine.
It had taken too long, what with the long search and the three penetrations. After they loaded, pouring sweat except for “Mr. Petrucci,” who sat in his AC so he’d look good in case any rubber neckers came along, it was four in the afternoon, and they were hitting rush hour on I-10.
The truck was a mile ahead. Junior liked to hang back and make believe he was driving on holiday. No crime. He was heading cross-country, doing a Kerouac. He was going back down to National City to find La Minnie, his sweet li’l ruca from the Bay Theater days. He should have never let her go. He hadn’t gone to a single high school reunion, but his homeboy El Rubio told him La Minnie had asked about him. Divorced, of course. Who in America was not divorced? But still slim and cute and fine as hell. Junior knew his life would have been different if he’d done the right thing and stayed on West 20th and courted that gal like she deserved, but he was hungry. Trapped like a wildcat in somebody’s garage, and when the door cracked the slightest bit, he was gone.
These things were on his mind when the police lights and sirens went off behind him.
He had to give it to Chango—the guy played his string out right to the end.
The cops blasted past Junior’s Buick and dogged the white U-Haul. Two cars. Llaves knew better than to try to run—the truck had a governor on the engine that kept it to a maximum speed of fifty-five. He puttered along, Junior back there shouting, “Shit! Shit! Shit!” Then he hit his blinker and slowly pulled over to the shoulder, the police cars insanely flashing and yowling. The associates were climbing out when Junior went by. He could see Chango’s mouth already working.
He didn’t know what to do. Should he keep going? Book and not look back?
He hit the next exit and crossed over the freeway and sped back and crossed over again and rolled up behind the cop cars. He set his tie and pulled on his jacket with its name tag and even picked up his clipboard.
There were two cops—one Anglo and one Hispanic.
The associates stood in a loose group against the side of the truck. The cops turned and stared at Junior.
“Officers,” he called. “I am Mr. Petrucci, from Bowden Federal in Detroit. Is there a problem?”
“Petrucci,” said the Hispanic. “Is that Italian?”
“It is,” said Junior.
“This dude,” Chango announced, “is some kinda Tío Taco!”
“Shut it,” the cop snapped.
A Border Patrol truck pulled up behind the Buick.
“Sir?” said the cop. “I need to ask you to leave. You need to call your bank and have another team sent out to deliver these goods.”
“Fuck!” shouted Chango.
“Is there a problem with . . . the load?” Junior asked.
“No sir. This is strictly a 1070 stop.”
“SB 1070. Immigration. We have reason to believe these gennermen are illegals.” The BP agent was eyeballing Chango.
Junior almost laughed. “Why, I never!” he said.
Chango called, “He don’t know shit. Fuckin’ Petrucci. He’s just a bean counter. Never did a good day’s work in his life! That asshole don’t even know us.” He was playing to the crowd. “I worked every day! I paid my taxes! I, I, I served in Iraq!” he lied.
The cop held up two licenses in his fingers, as if he were making a tight peace sign or about to smoke a cigarette. Llaves and Chango—Hugo didn’t have a license.
“Do you have citizenship papers?” the BP man asked.
“I don’t need no stinkin’ papers! This is America!”
“Have they been searched?” BP asked.
“What are you, the Gestapo?” Chango smiled a little. He felt he had scored a major point. “I’m down and brown!” he hooted. “Racial profiling!”
“I ain’t being searched by nobody,” Chango announced.
The BP man wagged his finger in Chango’s face.
“I’ll break that shit off and jam it up your ass,” Chango hissed. “You think some wetback would say that?”
“We ran your license,” the cop said. “Your address seems to be an abandoned gas station in San Diego.”
The cops and the BP agent smirked at each other.
“Goddamned right I live in a gas station!” Chango bellowed. “My dad owned it!”
“Uh-huh.” The cop turned to Junior. “I have to insist, Mr. Petrucci—you need to leave the scene. Now.”
Junior stared at Chango and got into his Buick as the cops tossed the guys against the side of the panel truck and he saw, or thought he saw, just as he pulled into traffic, the Glock fall out of Chango’s pocket and the cops draw and squat, shouting, and he hit the gas and was shaking with adrenaline or fear or both and didn’t know what happened but he never slowed until he was in front of the old station. He was stiff and sore and scared out of his mind. He ran into Chango’s bedroom and tore open his Dopp kit and took his roll of cash. He thought for a minute and went out, locked the door, and slipped into the GT. The wires sparked when he touched them and the big engine gave a deep growl and shout, the glasspacks sounding sweet, like coffee cans full of rocks. He was going to go. Going to go. Just get out. Break the ties once and for all. Never look back. He was in the wind. Junior rubbed his face three or four times. He revved the big engine and put his foot on the pedal and stared. Night. Streetlights shining through the palm trees made octopus shadows in the street. Junior rolled down the window. He could smell Burger King. Two old women walked arm in arm, speaking Spanish. He could hear a sitcom through the open window of a bungalow above Chango’s station. Junior knew if he headed down toward the old Ducommun warehouse, he could find La Minnie’s mom’s house. It was funky twenty years ago. With its geraniums. Minnie could be there. Or her family could tell him where she was. She used to like a nice ride like this. Maybe she’d like to feel the wind in her hair. They could drive anywhere. He thought he could talk her into it, if he could find her. The way things had changed around town, the old house might not be there at all. Probably not. Probably gone with all the things he remembered and loved. But . . . he asked himself . . . what if it wasn’t?
He shifted and moved steadily into the deeper dark.
Copyright © 2011 Akashic Books
Luis Alberto Urrea, 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist for nonfiction and member of the Latino Literature Hall of Fame, is a prolific and acclaimed writer who uses his dual-culture life experiences to explore greater themes of love, loss and triumph.