I heard the ring through fuzzy sleep. Groaning, I opened one eye and groped for the receiver.
"Hel-lo Eve Diamond," said a cheerful voice on other line. "Miller here."
My editor was oblivious to, or else ignoring, my sleep-logged voice at 10 in the morning, a time when most reporters were already at their desks, rustling through the daily paper and midway through a second cup of coffee. I swallowed, and tasted chardonnay, now a sour reminder of last night's excess.
"...slumped in her new Lexus, blood all over the place, right there in the parking lot of Fabric World in San Gabriel," Miller was saying. "Guess the bridesmaids won't be wearing those dresses anytime soon."
I cleared my throat.
"Can I have that address again, my pen stopped working."
"Why suuure," he said. "Hold on, let me see what the wires are saying."
I would hold forever for Matt Miller. He was my hero, known and loved throughout the paper as a decent human being, a trait the Los Angeles Times rarely bred anymore in its editors. Most of the real characters had long ago been pushed out of the profession or early-retired to pickle themselves slowly and decorously in hillside moderne homes. They had been replaced by gray-faced accountants with more hidden vices. Funny thing was, Matt didn't seem to drink too much, and he was happily married.
After a quick shower, I was out the door of my Silverlake apartment. I lived in a funky hillside community 10 minutes northwest of downtown. Silverlake's California bungalows and Spanish-style homes harkened back to an earlier era when the neighborhood had bustled with some of Hollywood's original movie studios. And though the studios had long ago given way to the public storage facilities and mini malls that infested the rest of the city, a whiff of 1920s glamor still clung to our hills and attracted one of the city's most eclectic populations—lately it had been a wave of boho hipsters. They settled down, living cheek by pierced jowl alongside multi-generational Latino families, third-generation Asian-Americans, Eastern European refugees from Communism, 1930s-era Hollywood Communists and a smattering of liberal white yuppies, all of whom somehow managed to get along. Plus it was freeway close.
Within moments I was chugging along the ten-lane expanse of asphalt, looping around downdown Los Angeles and heading east on Interstate 10. Steering with one hand, I flipped the pages of my Thomas Brothers Guide with the other, looking for Valley Boulevard and Del Mar. Out my window, the bony spines of the San Gabriel Mountains were already obscured by a thick haze. The San Gabes were a scrubby desolate range northeast of the city, from which bears and mountain lions emerged with regularity to attack the inhabitants of tract houses gouged from the hills. Each year, flash floods and icy ridges claimed a dozen or so hikers. You wouldn't think that could happen so close to the city, but it did. The way I saw it, nature too, demanded its pound of flesh. It was only we who called it accidents.
The cars ahead of me shimmered in the heat. The forecast was for 102 degrees in the Inland Valleys, with a Stage 1 Smog Alert. Already, perspiration pooled in the hollows of my body, and I cursed the fact that the A/C was out again in my nine-year-old Acura.
Oh, it happened at THAT place, I thought, as the mammoth shopping center loomed into view. It was an anomaly that only the Pacific Rim fantasy aesthetic of Los Angeles could have produced. Built in a Spanish Mission Style, with dusky earth tones, the three-story shopping center catered exclusively to the exploding Chinese immigrant community, although on occasion, a looky-loo gringo would wander through, bug-eyed at the panorama of this Asian Disneyland.
At San Gabriel Village Square, a name developers clearly hoped would evoke a more bucolic time, you could gorge on Islamic Chinese food, buy designer suits from Hong Kong, pick out live lobsters for dinner and $700 bottles of French cognac for dessert or take out a $ 1 million insurance policy on your cheating spouse.
Or, as 17-year-old Marina Lu had done, you could order custom dresses for the 10 bridesmaids who would precede you down the aisle the following June, the wedding day Marina had planned for years with the boy she had known since junior high.
Except on this stultifying morning, fate had backed up and pulled a U-turn, and now Marina Lu lay dead, brains splattered all over the buttery leather seats of her status car, the two-carat rock on her manicured engagement finger refracting only shattered hope.
I picked my way past the yellow police tape that cordoned off the murder scene, waving my notepad and press pass and standing close enough to a burly cop so that my perfume-spiked perspiration got his attention.
"Looks like an attempted carjacking that went bad," the cop said, squinting into the sun as he recited the facts. "Witness in the parking lot heard the shot, then saw an Asian kid, about 15, take off in a late model Honda with two accomplices. Fifth carjacking here this month, and the first time they flubbed it. She must have resisted." The policeman punctuated his commentary with a huge yawn that bared his fleshy pink palate.
"And here's why," his partner said, watching the homicide detective retrieve a Chanel bag and pull out a matching wallet stuffed with hundred dollar bills. "She was gonna pay cash for those dresses. Those immigrants don't believe in credit."
Nudging the Acura back onto the freeway, I headed for my office in Monrovia, a white, formerly WASPy town at the foot of the San Gabriels, where the Times had established a bureau in the halcyon years when it was busy stretching great inky tentacles into every Southland cul de sac. The Valley was gritty and industrial, filled with the vitality of colliding immigrant sensibilities that were slowly squeezing out the blue and white-collar old-timers. All the big Rim cities were morphing into 21st century Third World capitals. But in the San Gabriel Valley, the future was already here. I made a mental note to ask the police reporter from the Chinese Daily News out for lunch on the Times Mirror tab. I had seen him again today at the mall carjacking, scribbling madly into his notebook. Skinny with bad teeth, he looked like he could use a good meal. And I could use some fresh story ideas.
"Metro wants 12 inches," Miller called out when I stepped inside the fluorescent light of the office, letting the cool air blast my hot skin.
I wrote it up, then dawdled at my desk. Until there were some arrests, it would be just another murder in the City of Angels, which on prickly summer days averaged more than one each hour. Sure, there was the sob factor about the bride mowed down as she planned her wedding, and I milked it for all it was worth. But it was more from habit than any vestigial hope that I would shock readers into doing something about it. The dead woman in the car was no more gripping than the 2-year-old toddler killed by a stray bullet in South-Central L.A. as he played in the living room. The elderly widow clubbed to death in Long Beach by the transient she hired to weed her lawn. Or the 17-year-old honor student in El Sereno whose single mother had changed neighborhoods to escape the gangs, only to have her son shot when his car broke down on the freeway. For reporters and cops alike, a sort of battle fatigue had set in. We had lost our ability to be shocked. My brain flickered to the next story as I ate cold sesame noodles from the plastic bento box I packed each morning. Then it was back in the sweltering car to interview a man named Mark Furukawa for an education story.
In a small bureau, everyone wore several hats. I also covered the schools. Frankly, the education beat didn't thrill me. Single, without kids, I couldn't relate to the obsession with SAT scores and dress codes. Now a kindly teacher had referred me to Furukawa, hinting that the youth counselor for troubled kids at the Rainbow Coalition Center could dish up something more spicy.
Their offices were in a decaying mini-mall in El Monte, a small municipality 20 minutes away. A scattering of Asians sat in the waiting room, resignation and boredom etched across their faces. Some filled out forms, while others stared out through the grimy Venetian blinds into the parking lot, ignoring the dust that clung to the metal slats and balled in the corners of the room.
Soon, I was ushered into a functional cube of an office. A framed photo of an Asian woman stood on the desk. She was clad in a vintage 40s cocktail dress, with a string of pearls and a low-cut décolletage. Her hair was done up in long curly waves and her eyes were big and limpid.
Behind the desk were bookshelves crammed with medical journals and psychology texts and a guidebook to Los Angeles County gangs. Wedged in between was a blue and white can of something called "Pocari Sweat" whose cursive lettering evoked the Coca-Cola logo.
I checked it out for a while, then glanced at my watch, wondering when Furukawa would show, until a man appeared in the door. He was in his early 30s, exuding an attitude that started with his Doc Martens, traveled north up the jeans to a jutting hip and ended with pony-tailed hair tied back in a colorful Guatemalan scrunchy. A little too street for his own good, I thought, and probably a recovered drug addict or gangbanger to boot.
"Be with you in a sec," the man said, and disappeared. I had been expecting a middle-aged guy with a paunch, not some hipster near my own age. Well. I made my way back to the other side of the desk and settled into a plastic chair, feeling the fabric stick to the back of my skirt. Now I took a closer look at the girl on his desk. She smiled into the camera, her eyes shiny with love. It figured he would have a stunning girlfriend. Nobody displayed a picture like that without intending to telegraph something.
He came back into the room and we shook hands and traded business cards. I told him my predicament and asked whether he was seeing any trends with kids in the San Gabriel Valley.
"There are a million good stories out there, but the real interesting ones, I can't talk about." Furukawa lit up a cigarette. In the San Gabriel Valley, everybody still smoked, and no one asked you to put it out. That would have been going against the culture.
He bit down on a pen and thought for a moment. "I do see a lot more straight A kids living a double life in gangs."
"In the Asian community, hhmmm. I wouldn't have thought."
"Yeah, that's the problem with us, the model minority myth."
"I didn't mean..."
"You're not the first. But dig, most of the kids I see are immigrants. Mom and Dad may live here now but their brains are hard-wired to the old country."
Furukawa leaned back in his chair and described kids caught between traditional Asian values and permissive American culture and fully at home in neither. The schools sent him all their problem cases and he jive-talked them into listening, which was always the first step, he said. He spoke their language. It didn't matter that he was a Sansei and they were Overseas Chinese and Southeast Asian.
"No offense, but I thought the Chinese didn't like the Japanese on account of World War II."
He appraised me anew.
"This is the New World. We all get along. They'd like Hirohito himself if he paid attention to them."
I scribbled as he spoke, filling page after page in my notebook. He saw I was lagging and stopped, puffing impatiently on his cigarette and staring out the window until I caught up. In another, more quiet corner of my mind, I wondered how often he gave this spiel to ignorant whites and how he felt about it.
Soon he seemed to grow impatient and ambled over to the bookshelf to pull something down. Now he turned and lobbed it at me.
I dropped my pen, extended my hands and found myself holding the blue and white can of Pocari Sweat I had been staring at earlier.
"Nice reflexes. You'd be good in a pinch."
He walked back to his chair and sat down and I wondered what kind of game we were playing.
"What the hell is Pocari Sweat?" I asked. "Do you squirt it under your arms?"
"Japanese sports drink. Think Gatorade. The name is supposed to evoke a thirst-quenching drink for top athletes."
"Who's going to want to drink something called sweat?"
"Exactly." He looked pleased with himself. "No one in America. But it's only marketed in Asia. Lots of stuff has English names. Asians don't get the negative cultural connotation of the English words, so you end up with something that doesn't quite translate."
"I see." I wasn't sure where this digression was going.
"A lot of the immigrant kids I counsel are like Pocari Sweat. Caught in a culture warp they don't know how to decode. The parents are even worse off. They expect their children to show filial piety, excel in school and come straight home when classes let out. Meanwhile the kids want to date, hang out at the mall and yak on the phone. They want all the nice consumer things they see on American TV. So they find ways to get them. The parents only wise up when a police officer lands on their door."
"And they're not collecting for the police benevolent fund."
"You got it." Furukawa stubbed out the emphysema stick. "The kids get beaten or grounded for six months. So they run away. To a friend's house to cool off, if they're lucky. If not, to a motel room rented by some older pals from school, maybe a dai lo. Where they can drink and party with their girlfriends. And when the money runs out, it's easy to get more. The dai los always have work."
"A dai what?'
"That's Chinese for older brother. It's a gang term. The dai lo recruits younger kids into gangs. Shows them a good time. Takes them out to a karaoke bar when they're underage and buys 'em drinks. Drive them around in a fast car. The good life. It's very seductive when you're 15. And these kids feel that once they've left home and disgraced their parents, they can never go back."
He might have been talking about the weather, or how his car needed gas. To him, this was mundane, everyday stuff. To me it was a glimpse into a suburban badland I hadn't considered before.
"What do you mean, there's always work to do?"
"Muscle at the local brothels. Drug runners. Car-jackings. You name it," Furukawa shrugged. "One homie told me he gets $1,000 for each Mercedes he delivers."
"Car jackings? I was out on one of those today. But it got messy," I spoke slowly. "Young bride who'll never see her honeymoon night. It'll be on the news tonight."
"Can you introduce me to some of these kids?" I tried to keep the hope out of my voice.
"'Afraid not, darling."
Why not? Now that you've told me." I was miffed.
"They're minors. There are all sorts of privacy issues. And these are fucked-up kids. They don't need any more distraction in their lives."
It was a tantalizing lead, but I needed his help to pursue it.
"Wait a minute," I said, "I thought the Vietnamese were the ones who joined gangs. A society brutalized by war, years in internment camps, families torn apart and killed.."
"Yeah, they sure do. But they ain't flying solo. You got Cambodians, Filipinos, Samoans, Overseas Chinese. It's the Chinese usually call the shots. Local offshoots of the Hong Kong triads: White Crane, Dragon Claw, Black Hand. They're equal opportunity employers," he grinned. "And unlike your black and Latino gangs, they don't advertise it with baggy clothing or shaved heads. Your typical Asian gang member dresses preppy. Neat and clean-cut. Sometimes they're even A-students. Total double life, like I was saying. But sooner or later something cracks."
Yeah, like today in the shopping center, I thought. I looked out the window, where the sky was streaked with red and purple.
"This could be a really good story," I told him. "But I would need to meet some kids, then use their stories to illustrate the larger trend."
His eyes swiveled from me to the manila files piled atop his desk, then back to me. He put his hand on the top file, then shook his head.
"I just finished telling you that these are screwed up kids. And I know that ultimately, Eve Diamond, you don't give a rat's ass about the slash marks on their wrists or the gang rape they suffered at age 13. You just want the lurid details to add spice to your story. Then after you've gotten them all heated up reliving it, you'll toss the mess back into my lap and expect me to fix it."
"That's why you're a totally simpatico counselor and I'm a heartless reporter." I tossed back the can of Pocari Sweat. With an almost imperceptible flick of the wrist, he extended one hand and caught it.
"Of course we'd change their names. We're not intrusive like TV. Think how a Times story would get people talking. The Board of Supes might even cough up extra funding." I leaned forward and locked eyes with him. "I can see you're protective about your kids, Mark. They're lucky to have you on their side. But for the record, we're not all automatons."
I stood up.
He stared at me with a look I couldn't decipher.
"Drink?" he said finally. "I know a great Italian place."
"Italian?" I said in mock-horror. "The least you could do after insulting me is offer to take me to a sushi bar you know tucked away in one of these awful strip malls."
"Not too many of those left on this side of town," he sighed. "They've all moved West and gone uptown. Besides, what you got against Italian?"
"Nothing. I just have this thing for sake."
He considered this.
Suddenly nervous, I rushed in to break the silence.
"Maybe some other time. You probably have to meet your girlfriend."
"I pointed to the photo on his desk. "I couldn't help noticing. She looks just like Gong Li."
He laughed. "My mother, who is Japanese, by the way, not Chinese, will be flattered."
"That's your mother?" I hoped my voice didn't show relief.
"Yes. Right after she got married. My father took the photo."
"Sorry," I stuttered. "I just assumed that since it was on your desk..."
He was staring at me again. I knew I was turning crimson. I hadn't meant to get all personal. Now he would think I was nosy as well as a heartless exploiter of damaged kids.
"Don't be," he said. "It's there for a reason. There's a lot of transference in my line of work. Some of these teenage girls, they're really searching for their lost daddies but they'll settle for me. So I put Mom here to keep an eye on things. I've found she wards off the weirder stuff."
Now I was doubly intrigued. And oddly ecstatic that he didn't have a girlfriend. At least not one whose picture he put on his desk.
He was all business as he showed me the door.
© Denise Hamilton