One warm summer evening in 1984, I was working on my computer when I heard what sounded like a series of shotgun blasts – BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! – that kept coming from the alley behind our apartment building in Santa Monica, California, where my wife and I were renting our first apartment: a rent-controlled two-bedroom on 17th Street, across from a cemetery, and down the street from Santa Monica College. The neighborhood was populated mainly by working-class or unemployed Latinos and blacks, along with some unemployed or low-income whites (including myself, at the time making $8 an hour teaching in a small private ESL school). It also had a lot of gang graffiti, and gang activity. More on that later.
My computer was a portable Kaypro with a CP/M operating system and two 540-K floppy drives. On it, I was working on the first chapters of a spy novel that I was co-writing with Gerry Keston, an elderly British gentleman who told me he had been an assassin for Her Majesty’s Royal Air Force Intelligence (RAF Intelligence, or “A.I.”). The novel was set after World War II, and it was a white-knuckle thriller about hunting down and killing German scientists who had been dispersed throughout the Middle East under the auspices of ODESSA.
I was on Chapter 3, where our fictionalized protagonist, Jason Reece, is being trained for his first mission, when I heard the “BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!” coming from the alley. It sounded like somebody was firing off a shotgun; but the blasts kept coming, and I thought, That couldn’t be a shotgun, because shotguns only hold a maximum of maybe eight or ten rounds (I knew this because I owned a Mossberg shotgun and was very into guns), and so far I’d heard at least a dozen blasts. I figured it must be a car with no muffler and only one or two cylinders working. It was around 11:30 PM, and whoever was making all that noise was being very inconsiderate. My wife (who worked at a bank and had to be up at 7:00 am) was in bed. Being kind of a George Zimmerman type at the time, I grabbed a .22-calibre automatic pistol, shoved it in my pocket, and went outside to investigate.
As you’re probably thinking, and as I now realize, this was this kind of stupid, in a neighborhood with at least two street gangs vying for dominance: the Santa Monica 20th Street boys, and the V-13 (“V” for Venice). Since we moved into our apartment, the following events had transpired:
- Gang members had harassed my wife and me as we stopped at a local convenience store. One of the guys sitting on the wall nearby said, “I like your girlfriend.”
- Gang members had carved “SM” on the roof of my car with a knife.
- A small-calibre bullet or pellet had made a hole in our living room’s picture window.
- A young man on a bicycle had been shot numerous times in front of our apartment.
- Up the street, a gang member had been gunned to death in the parking lot of a strip mall.
In light of all the above, I had started buying guns: the small .22 automatic pistol; the above-mentioned Mossberg shotgun; a Ruger 10/22 rifle; and a Smith and Wesson Model.357 magnum revolver with Pachmyr combat grips (see photo above). When I showed my guns to a visiting friend, who was a devotee of meditation and Indian philosophy, he said, “You know, John, the tragedy here is that you will probably never get to use any of these guns, except for target practice.”
Well, I’d had some target practice, driving with friends up to Soledad Canyon to shoot bottles and cans from our trash (this was before L.A. started its citywide recycling program). One time, when a couple of buddies and I were taking our guns to my car, our neighbor Francisco Lewis – a friendly black dude who lived on a first-floor apartment under us – saw us with the guns and said, “What’s up?”
I said, “We’re gonna shoot up some cans.”
He said, “Like, Mexi-cans? Afri-cans? Puerto Ri-cans? Jamai-cans?”
I laughed. Francisco was a laid-back fellow who was at the time on welfare. His daily routine consisted mainly of smoking weed, drinking wine, and scoring some coke when he had a little extra cash. One time when we were kicking back in his apartment, he told me about trouble with gang members who hung out in the alley behind his apartment; his rear windows faced the alley. He was a sweet, mellow guy who rolled the best joints. His best friend Marvin, who was disabled with kidney problems, lived next door. The night before, Francisco had told me that Marvin wanted to talk to me about something.
I went to Marvin’s apartment, where Marvin showed me an old 9-shot .22 revolver. It was tarnished, but clean, with a wooden handle. I said, “Nice.”
Marvin said, “You want it?”
“I don’t have the cash right now, maybe next week.”
“OK, but it might be gone by then.”
Francisco and Marvin’s .22 revolver played a key role that fateful night, when I slipped my .22 automatic pistol into my jacket pocket and went down the concrete stairs from our second-floor balcony to the small courtyard and headed back towards the alley so I could have a word with Mr. Boom-Boom-Boom. At the courtyard gate, who should be coming out of the alley, through but Francisco, who looked very pissed.
I said, “What’s up?”
He muttered something about an asshole in the alley; he was obviously in a bad mood and didn’t want to talk about it.
With some trepidation, I went out through the gate into the alley, where the “BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!” was still boom-boom-booming.
In the middle of the alley sat an old gray Toyota that needed paint. The engine was running. Obviously the car was having problems, both with the muffler and with the engine.
In the driver’s seat sat a Latino guy I vaguely recognized from a house two doors up 17th Street, a ramshackle bungalow from which much trouble had originated. They had a pit bull that sometimes got out and almost bit passers-by. The couple who lived there –a Chicano Vietnam veteran and his Mexican immigrant wife – had several sons in their twenties who had reputedly been in and out of prison. From our second-floor window, I could sometimes see one of the sons in the backyard lifting weights, without a shirt and showing lots of tattoos, like he was in a prison yard. The man in the Toyota kind of looked like that guy. Another son, who had a big scar across the bridge of his nose, had once threatened me when I called police and Animal Control after the pit bull got loose and chased a little girl on roller skates. After the police left, he came up to me and said, “You’re real brave when the cops are here, but sometime when they’re not, we’ll get you.”
Anyway, the driver of the Toyota was sitting behind the wheel, window open, giving me a mad-dog stare. If I had been in prison, I would have known better than to talk to this guy, but I had never been in prison, so I said, “Excuse me, it’s after 11:30 and my wife is trying to sleep.”
He stepped out of the car and got right up into my face. He said, “What’d you say?”
“I said, it’s after 11:30 and my wife is trying to sleep.”
“Your car is very loud.”
“What’re you gonna do about it?”
“I guess I’ll just have to call the police.”
What happened next, I’ve only been able to figure out by doing some research after the fact, because after everything went black, I kind of regained consciousness, covered with blood, standing next to Francisco at the door to our apartment. My Chinese wife opened the door in her bathrobe, looking at me in shock. “Oh my God. What happened?”
“I’m not sure.” Trying to remember, I got only blurred images of me on my hands and knees on dirty pavement, looking for my glasses, my .22 pistol there also, me grabbing the pistol, facing a small circle of young gang members with the pistol in my hand, one of them with a sharp nose saying, “We don’t like having a gun in our face,” and me saying, “Then stay back, because I can’t see too well and if you get too close, I’m gonna shoot you.” Then my memory faded out again.
My wife took me into the bathroom and I saw my face covered with blood, my white polo shirt covered with blood. I smiled and said, “I guess I’m not going to work tomorrow.”
She made a face and told me to take off the shirt. She wiped the blood off my face, neck and chest. Apparently all the blood was coming from a huge gash on the left side of my mouth, where I’d obviously been hit.
There was a knock on the door. A cop in black. An Officer Steiner, of Santa Monica P.D., asked: “Are you the person who was assaulted?”
“Could you come with me please?”
My wife gave me a clean shirt and followed us down to the alley. There two police cars, facing each other, had their flashers and spotlights on, illuminating the trash-strewn, graffiti-scarred alley with its abandoned cars, makeshift fences and battered gates. In the spotlights, between the cop cars, the guy who hit me was handcuffed and squatting between two officers.
Officer Steiner indicated the squatting guys and said, “Is this who assaulted you?”
“Do you want to arrest him?”
“Sure, arrest him.”
“No, do you want to arrest him? We can’t arrest him. We can only hold him. You would have to place him under citizen’s arrest.”
“I don’t understand.”
Officer Steiner took me aside, with my wife listening closely: “This is a misdemeanor assault, which means the injuries are minor, and it was not witnessed by a police officer, so you would have to make a citizen’s arrest. You have to go over there and say to that guy, ‘I hereby place you under arrest for assaulting me.’ But if you do that, understand that he’ll be out of jail tomorrow morning with like fifty dollars bail. Is that what you want to do?”
My wife said, “No. Forget it.”
I stood there with my brains all mushed up and not knowing what to do.
Officer Steiner said, “So you want to forget it?”
I said, “I’m having trouble thinking. I think I have a concussion.”
He clenched his jaw muscles, as if it had been a long night for him already: “I’ve seen about ten people this week who were much worse off than you.”
My wife said, “Forget it. Let’s go.” She was pulling my hand.
I went with her. She took me to Emergency at St. John’s Hospital, where I got thirty-three stitches in the left side of my mouth. An X-ray showed a fracture to my temporomandibular joint (TMJ). A plastic surgeon wired my jaw shut. For six weeks, I would have to get all my food through a straw.
Back in our apartment, the next day, I did some research with our neighbors. (My jaw was wired shut, so I could only ask questions with my teeth clenched.) Our neighbor on the second floor, a UCLA doctoral student named Ed Schumacher, told me that he witnessed the assault from his second-floor window. He’d heard the “BOOM-BOOM-BOOM” and looked out to see me talking to the Toyota driver, who suddenly swung at me with something in his hand and I went down like a rock. Ed said the guy was bending over, and it looked like he was going to hurt me some more when Ed yelled from his window, “Don’t do that! I’m calling the police.” Ed told me the guy looked around like he didn’t know where the voice was coming from, so he got into his car and drove a short distance, then the BOOM-BOOM-BOOM stopped. Ed called “911.” I was still on the ground when Ed left the window to make the 911 call.
Francisco told me he looked out his window – apparently a few minutes later – and he saw me getting to my feet, surrounded by five or six teenage gang members, like a wounded bear encircled by a pack of wolves. He saw the gun in my hand, and the gang members staying back, but one of them was coming around behind me. Francisco said he grabbed an axe handle and ran out into the alley, where the gang member behind me was climbing onto the hood of an abandoned car to jump onto my back. Francisco knocked that guy off the car with his axe handle, right around the time the police cars came screaming down the alley with sirens blaring and flashers flashing. The gang members scattered.
From all I can gather, Francisco Davis and Ed Schumacher very possibly saved my life. They were like my guardian angels. This is one of numerous instances during my life in which people I scarcely knew stepped in and made all the difference. I kind of owe my life to them – the human angels of this world. In reading the news, even the most jaded cynic must confess that there are many of these human beings who act bravely and selflessly to help their fellow human beings, or animals, or society, or the planet as a whole. The cynics might call them fools. I call them heroes.
In my sixty-four years, I have personally met too many heroes to count. But in this, an account of my life so far, I’ll tell you about as many of these unsung heroes as I can remember and as many as I have time to tell about. These people are my role models, and – I truly believe – our hope for the future of the human race. In my own flawed, and sometimes stupid and arrogant way, I’ve tried to follow in their footsteps and even be a role model for others. As you will see, this effort has been met with mixed results.
A day or two after the assault, I was taking our trash into the alley when I saw a guy who looked just like my attacker. Blood rushed to my head, and I hurried back to our apartment, where I got out my Smith and Wesson .357 magnum revolver with Pachmyr grips and loaded it up with hollow-point bullets. One of those bullets could splatter my attacker’s brains all over the graffiti-scarred wall behind his head. I figured I’d use all six bullets and wait for the police to arrive.
Then I closed my eyes and started thinking. During the previous thirteen years of my life, I had done a lot of meditation and yoga, and a lot of praying. I decided to pray. In my mind’s eye, I imagined what would happen if I went out and shot the guy. I would go to prison. My wife would be alone in the world, possibly subject to retribution from the guy’s friends, who were probably gang members. My entire family would be shocked and traumatized. My friends who meditated and followed peaceful ways would be terribly disappointed. Perhaps worst of all, I would have a very bad time in prison, especially since this guy probably had friends and possibly family members there, as well.
I put down the gun. I packed it away. Within two months, my wife and I had moved out of the neighborhood and started a new chapter in our lives.
In retrospect, this was a wise decision.