By Francine Rodriguez

The parking lot in front of King Drew Place of Family on Central Avenue, was nearly full that morning in 1994.  I didn’t recognize any of the cars filling the lot, stacked one behind the other. Gangster cars, black Suburbans, Escalades, and lowriders, like the ones in my neighborhood, like the 61 Impala my Dad left when he died.  The one I drove for two years and didn’t find out was stolen until I tried to sell it.  They sported the same metallic blue or red paint jobs, gleaming in the sun, and the prized twenty-inch rims.  All chrome trim. But none of the homeboys from my neighborhood came up here. To the west the population was almost all African American, all the way up to the Jordon Downs Project.  Things hadn’t changed yet.  The great relocation of the Latino community to South Central was still in its infancy.

Place of Family was an outpatient clinic where substance abusers were sent by the courts for treatment in-between stays in jail, or a place where they ended up after being released from the hospital, dead broke without any resources. It was also a place where counseling was provided to pregnant teens, most of them HIV positive, a lot of them homeless.

I was working there, counseling, part time, to supplement my full-time job. It was Monday, so I was on my way to start Monday Morning Group, an exercise in absorbing the flood of anger, fear, and confusion that the women released when they shared the horrors of their daily lives. That day I had my youngest with me, I think he was about five. I was taking him along because he had a doctor’s appointment in a few hours, and I didn’t want to drive back home to pick him up. We were armed with his picture books, a coloring book, and crayons, and a paper bag filled with an apple, an orange, a granola bar, and a bottle of water, enough entertainment and food I figured would last an hour during the group session. 

Usually by the time I got there the lobby was empty, most of the participants had moved on to the group rooms. But it was different that day.  There was a large sign on the wall that said, “Gang Summit, Grape Street, Rolling Eighties.”  Young men stood around the lobby eyeing each other carefully or sat in the recreation room on opposite sides surrounding the pool table. The air hummed with tension. The music that generally played over the PA system was missing, so was the sound of laughter and muted voices. “What’s going on?” I asked the receptionist who sat behind a glass screen. 

She pointed to the sign.  “Gang Summit. Some new thing they’re trying. They’re coming from all over the county, all the way down to Long Beach. Some bigwig called it, so the words all out on the street. And they aren’t allowed to come strapped. They check what they’re carrying with the security next door and get patted down.”

“Are we still having group today?”

“Yep, as far as I know. The women are all in there.”

I looked around. I hadn’t planned on bringing my son in with me to the group room. He didn’t need to hear about the kind of things we talked about. I was planning to leave him in the recreation room that was always empty at this time of morning. Now I didn’t think it was such a good idea.

Suddenly my son spotted the pool table and ran over to it, ignoring the guys standing around the table, the Rolling Eighties on one side and Grape Street on the other, arms folded across their chests, dark glasses, and sagging pants, do-rags, and huge tee shirts that hung to their knees.  “Look, Mom, a real pool table, like on television!” He touched the green felt in reverence.

I ran after him and snatched his hand back. “Don’t touch the table, you might scratch it.  It’s very expensive.” I remembered that some politician had donated it to the Center.

He stepped back, looking sad, and then hopeful, as he saw a pool cue lying across the side.  “Could I play, just for a minute.  Please!”

“No. No. You don’t know how to play, and you’ll scratch the table. You come with me, and we’ll find a place for you to wait.”

Putting his head down, my son backed away from the table defeated, his shoulders slumped.

“Hey, just a minute there.  If the little homie wants to play.  He can play!  I’ll teach him. We got time before the meeting.” I heard a few murmurs of agreement from both sides of the table. Kneeling down next to the table was one of the largest guys I’d ever seen. He had to be over six foot six and must have weighed in the high two hundreds, easily the size of two offensive linemen. He had a black handkerchief tied across his forehead, a large diamond in his ear and wore the requisite black shades that seemed to be part of a dress code. He was bent down tying the laces on his Timberlands.

“That’s okay,” I said. He’s too little, and he’ll probably scratch the table. I was sure I knew what I was talking about.  I’d scratched the table the first time I tried, and after that time too. “I’ll take him with me.  I’m running the women’s group today.”

The guy with the black handkerchief stood up to his full height. “You wanna play Little Homie?”

My son nodded eagerly. Looks were exchanged between the guys around the table. They all turned to my son, a red-haired, blue-eyed, multi-racial Mexican child, about forty-three inches tall. Most of them smiled.  My son looked around at all of them and smiled back.

“You hungry Little Homie?” 

“Oh, he had breakfast, and I brought him food.” I assured the guy with the shades.

“I think it’s time for a morning donut? You think so Little Homie?”

Of course, my son nodded in agreement, not quite believing his good luck. Apparently the guy offering, was the leader of Grape Street and asked one of the members of the Rolling Eighties if he would go and buy donuts, and graciously handed him a folded bill. “We’ll take care of him, and feed him too,” he reassured me.  

I watched for a few minutes while the members of Grape Street and the Rolling Eighties took turns lifting my son up to the table and helping him line up his cue to make a shot. They all applauded when he managed to touch the ball.

“You can go to work, Mommy, I have a lot of babysitters,” he told me.

And so, I did. When I finished my group and came out, chairs had been arranged around the table, two deep.  Their meeting had started, and a gang worker was moderating. At the corner of the table, my son was sitting in one of the nicer chairs that somebody had brought in from the director’s office. He sat in between the leader of the Rolling Eighties and the leader of Grape Street, like a smaller version of the reigning monarchs. He’d obviously had a donut because his mouth was smeared with powdered sugar, and apparently whatever they were talking about had lulled him to sleep.  Before their meeting someone had snapped a polaroid and pinned it to the bulletin board. In the photo, a smiling little boy stands on top of a pool table surrounded by two gang factions.  He has his arms outstretched hugging the guys on either side of him. Everyone in the photo was smiling. One of the guys carried my son to my car and told me to bring him back again any time I wanted. 

I fully intended to take that photo the next time I was there as a memento for my son, so that one day he could recall that he was accidently part of one of the first gang summits in Los Angeles, and without knowing or understanding it, he became a small part in what happened that day. 

But, like a lot of things that pass through our lives, the photo that froze that day in time and place wasn’t there the next week I came to work. Sometime later King Drew Place of Family was torn down because they weren’t able to get the grants they needed, and a lot of the people that were helped there returned to the streets. But every time I handled mediations in the government facility located on Central Avenue, I always looked to the empty lot where the building once was and remember my son standing on that pool table with some of the roughest looking dudes I’d ever seen with some of the worst reputations preceding them. For that moment at least, they were all smiling.

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