Tupac and Dr. Dre’s “California Love” is more than just a song. To many, it is a sense of affection and loyalty to California and is the inspiration behind this show. Join host and New York Times writer Walter Thompson-Hernández as he takes us through his personal journey back to his hometown of Los Angeles. Part autobiography, part reportage, this show is a richly sound-designed audio tour that takes us into the homes of communities that are touchstones to Walter’s life.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: What do you have for lunch today?
Ellie Hernández: Arroz blanco estilo de mi Mama.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Are we speaking in Spanish today?
Ellie Hernández: No.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: I mean, I'm cool with that.
Ellie Hernández: [laughs]
Walter Thompson-Hernández: This is my mom, Eleuteria Hernández. Her friends call her Ellie. She’s one of my best friends, a big homie, big sister, and so much more.
Ellie Hernández: I made rice the same style as my mom used to make it. Usually you know when we eat white rice, it's just white. Pero mi mama will put a little bit of milk and onion and garlic, and one chile. And it's really delicious. Not a lot of milk, just a little drop.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: My mom and I are sitting in her sister’s room in Huntington Park. We’re in my aunt’s room because they have these two tiny white dogs that never stop barking and a blue macaw that never stops talking. There’s at least fifty different religious candles around me. And pictures of different santeria saints that my aunt keeps by her bed. There’s also the remains of a green apple on the dresser. My mom’s hair is almost fully white at this point in her life. She’s wearing these cool pink and black Nike running shoes that I bought her a few months ago.
Ellie singing in
Ellie Hernández: My mother, whenever she felt sad, she will sing.
Ellie singing out
Ellie Hernández: And whenever she was happy, she will have a beer. She was not a borracha. No. But she will have a beer.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Really?
Ellie Hernández: Uh-huh. And she was an activist.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: But this isn’t just a trip down memory lane. This whole show is about my relationship to this city, and I wouldn’t be here if my mom hadn’t decided to make LA her home, too. It’s been a while since we sat down and spoke like this. But it feels like everything — for me — begins and ends with my mom. This is California Love, and I’m Walter.
Ellie Hernández: I still remember I was about five or four years old and in our neighborhood, we didn't have an elementary school. So all of the kids will have to walk almost a kilometer to go to the elementary school in the downtown area. So my mother organized all of the mothers from the neighborhood. We all walked from our neighborhood, to The City Hall, La Presidencia. All of the women were walking, protesting to talk to the president of the calde, de pueblo, so that he could build a elementary school in our neighborhood. I was like four or five, but I felt so powerful, so proud of my mom because my mom was the organizer. I was in the front walking with all the kids and the mom. My mom was holding my hand. I feel like my mom is chingona.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: what do you think your life would have been like if you would have stayed in Magdelena?
Ellie Hernández: I will probably now looked really old. Have a lot of kids. No husband.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Why no husband?
Ellie Hernández: Because I don't think I will be able to, to stay with someone who didn't treat me right, who was having kids all over town. The only available man in the town were the narcos, so probably would have married a narco guy, honestly. And probably I would have gotten involved with selling drugs. And probably I would have been in jail, a lot of my friends, female friends, that's what they did.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: My mom was 14 years old when she was sent away from Magdalena, Jalisco. Her older sisters were already living in LA, and she left to join them. She filled up a light blue suitcase with all of her things and left home for the first time.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: So why do you think my grandma, your Mom, why do you think it was important for her to send you to LA?
Ellie Hernández: So that I could have a better future. She didn't have a happy marriage life but she was so Catholic, she was so spiritual that she couldn't leave my father. She didn’t want that for me.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Do you remember the day that you left for LA for the first time?
Ellie Hernández: I was sad and I remember we took a picture. I remember I put on very nice clothes: White suit with white top. Very elegant. Because you know when you take a plane, you had to dress nice. That was the mentality. Not comfortable shoes, not comfortable dress. No, no, no, it was a suit. My father didn't give me the bendición because he was really upset. I was coming to the United States. So I came without his blessing.I lived in Bell, California, with my sisters.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: What's your first impression of LA?
Ellie Hernández: A lot of traffic and a lot of people. I never seen so many different people in my whole life. So for me, I used to be like mirona, you know, like looking at people like, see how they look like. You know, Asian people, people from Africa, Cubans, people from Spain. You know, so they were very different from me and that was nice. I didn't like the fact that I was far from my mom. But I knew that I had to sacrifice that.
But it was nice to–I felt like I was wealthy.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Why’d you feel like you were wealthy?
Ellie Hernández: Because only wealthy people will go to different countries to study. So even though I was living with my sisters I feel like oh, “Soy rica. Vienen a otro país para estudiar inglés”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Mom went to Bell high school, a city in Southeast LA. She was in the 10th grade.
Ellie Hernández: I was taking only ESL courses– English as a second language. So we used to watch I Love Lucy. That's how I learned English and it was really interesting to understand the, ah the Cuban guy. Como se llama va?
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Ricky Ricardo
Ellie Hernández: Ah, Ricky. Ricky! But you know, my level of comprehension was a little limited but I was ready for the challenge. Then, on my second semester, I got into tennis, and guess what?
Walter Thompson-Hernández: What, Mom?
Ellie Hernández: You're not gonna believe this.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: What happened?
Ellie Hernández: I wanted to be a cheerleader.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Hold on. You've never told me this before. So you also wanted to be a cheerleader?
Ellie Hernández: Yes. Because they look so cute with the little skirt. And they were so popular and I wanted to follow the Archie, you know, the comic book. But I was not selected. I was a little gordita. I couldn't jump and then my English was very limited.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Damn.
Ellie Hernández: I know. But I still remember one cheer. “At the beginning of the world, nobody knew how to...except the eagles!”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: [laughing] Wait, wait. Is there more? Wait! No wonder you didn’t make it.
Ellie Hernández: “At the beginning of the world, nobody knew how to...except The Eagles!”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Oh my god! Wait, I mean, mom, no wonder they didn't select you because you didn't remember the cheers. You know, I'm not mad at them for that.
Ellie Hernández: It was 40 years ago okay? So, please, give me a break. My impression of the American life was Archie. My introduction to the American life, quote unquote American life, was Archie. So for me being a cheerleader was the biggest accomplishment. Maybe if I have a granddaughter, she will be a cheerleader
Walter Thompson-Hernández: When she was a senior, she and a close friend went to see their guidance counselor. They wanted information about how to apply to college.
Ellie Hernández: The counselor told us that since we were ESL students, because we were still classified as ESL students, we were better off going to a trade school. And we left very sad. He wanted to be a doctor. And he said, “I'm going to apply to colleges.” And I said, “Me too.” We went to the Career Center, and we submitted applications. I was admitted to several schools, but I was not ready. My English was still limited and I was afraid to go to college so I decided to go to a community college, Los Angeles Trade Technical College right there on Grand and Washington Boulevard. I took all of the courses to transfer because my goal was to transfer to become an engineer. So that's what I did. I played tennis there and I was a very good tennis player so I met a tennis player in the team.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: She’s talking about my dad.
Ellie Hernández: We became the number one mixed doubles couples in community college. We fell in love, and we were dating, and then he went to UCLA. He transferred to UCLA and then I transferred to UCLA. We had a very nice relationship. Our whole life was around tennis. Like on the weekends when we're not playing any tournaments. We will play in the Huntington Park, Salt Lake Park and play tennis the whole day. Or we will go to Rancho Park and play tennis the whole day. Being the only non black around the African, Afro-American tennis circuit was hard. Because the girls will look at me like, “What are you doing with my man?” So it was hard, because I was Mexican, I am Mexican, and he was black, and he was very good looking.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: How’d the relationship end?
Ellie Hernández: I still remember very clearly when I went to see him at his job in Fox Hill Mall. He used to work in a shoe store. I dress really nice. Muy bonita, muy elegant. I was already three months and a half, four months pregnant. And he said, “You know, I cannot be a father right now.” So I said, “Well, thank you for letting me know. I'm gonna have my child.” That was the end of our relationship.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: So, my dad says this is a really simplified version of what happened and he wasn’t around when I was growing up. But we reconnected when I was twenty-three. Stories have multiple versions but this episode is about my mom. My mom was pregnant with me when she was going to UCLA. She was first studying to become an engineer but then dropped that major and chose literature instead.
Ellie Hernández: So I was taking math, calculus 31B or 31C. I don't remember. So I used to sit in the front of the, of the lecture hall, because that was the closest for me to like, you know, I could move the the table so that I will fit because I was big. So, oh, my God. Every time I will go into this particular lecture...you will start kicking me and moving all over so I couldn't even stay put in the seat. I had to get up and walk around so that you could be happy.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Why do you think I was doing that?
Ellie Hernández: Because you didn't like numbers.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: I was like, “Get me out of here now!”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: My mom had me when she was a junior in college, and then she started contemplating dropping out. We didn’t have a lot. We lived in Huntington Park with my aunts and uncles and cousins. Everyone picked up cardboard boxes in the city of Vernon and took them to the recycling center for money. That’s how we survived.
Ellie Hernández: After you were born, I was on welfare. I was receiving food stamps and all of the benefits from the government. So I decided that I didn't want to do that. I didn't want to be the stereotype that all single moms are always living off the government. So I wanted to, I decided that I was gonna quit UCLA and just go to work. However…I still remember very clearly, I was coming back from, –I don't remember where I was coming back. But we were in the bus, number 60 coming from Downtown to Huntington Park, and it was around three, four o'clock. And all of the ladies – todas las señoras – they will get on the bus really tired. They will just fall asleep, because you know, they were coming out of the factories. And I said to myself, “No, I'm not gonna quit.” To me, college was something that my son was going to be proud of me. And I knew he was going to be proud of me, even if I had become a factory worker, but I wanted more. So I decided not to quit and go back, still receive benefits from the government. But as soon as I could, I was off welfare. It was not easy, but it was my goal, and I made it.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: I'm so proud of you, Mom. You have no idea.
Ellie Hernández: Thank you, Mijo.
MIDROLL - 16:38
Walter Thompson-Hernández: We moved to the west side in ‘92 because of the uprisings and because it was easier for my mom.
Ellie Hernández: I wanted to be closer to school, and I wanted better schools for you. My whole family was against that idea but I needed to become a grown up. I needed to be independent. I remember the first night we went to the supermarket in the white neighborhood in the west side. And you and I were the only brown people in the supermarket. It was late in the afternoon and everybody was looking at us, or maybe it was just my assumption that everybody was looking at us. So it felt really weird.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: You were really active with, like, demonstrations and hunger strikes and protests, you know, like when we moved to the west side. And I'm wondering if, if my grandma, you know, if her early activism, if that inspired you in any way?
Ellie Hernández: Yes, I was very involved with a lot of protests. My friends used to say that if I will see a protest, I will stop and support them even though I didn't know what the cause was, and I feel like I have always been like that, since my mom took me to those demonstrations in Presidencia.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Why was it important to take me to those?
Ellie Hernández: I will take you everywhere. What, what else? I didn't have a babysitter. So there was no choice, Mijo. No, but it was important for you to learn about las injusticias out there, social injustices. So it was important for me that you were aware of that.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: You remember any demonstrations that you took me to?
Ellie Hernández: Of course, the most important one, the hunger strike at UCLA. They wanted to dismantle the Chicano/Chicana Studies program. And all of the students, the Brown students, the Black students, American Indian students–the few of them, Islamic students, Asian students, we all got together and organized ourselves. So we left from La Placita Olvera, all the way to UCLA walking. So there was another group coming from Loyola. There was another group coming for Northridge, and it was so much fun. It was so beautiful to walk down Wilshire Boulevard. There is a point in Wilshire Boulevard when it's a little higher, like a little hill. And when you could look back and see the waves of people. It was like an ocean of people walking and walking and walking. And you know, when you're in a PhD program, you have to do all of that. Because if you're just go there to get an education, and you don't get involved, you know, what's the point?
Walter Thompson-Hernández: What about LA now feels special to you?
Ellie Hernández: Taking the metro, taking the bus, but especially the metro. That's where I met so many beautiful people. And I also have guided so many parents, moms and dads, how to help their kids in high school, how you know, I connect with the students. I guide them. I don't even know them. But I'm a mentor in the metro.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Like a metro mentor.
Ellie Hernández: Oh, I like that Metro Mentor. MM. I’m an MM.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: You’re an MM. A big reason why I wanted to interview was because so much of what I know about LA is through you, right? It's through the experiences that you first helped me learn about. So I felt like it was, I felt like it was really interesting to, to ask you questions, you know, to kind of bring it, like, full circle, you know, like in the sense where it's like, I'm really coming back home to, like, learn more about my city. But I'm also coming back home to learn more about you.
Ellie Hernández: Well, thank you for giving me credit that you know the city through me. But we never left. We never left Huntington Park. We never left southeast, because I found out that the markets in the west side were very expensive. So I will come back to Huntington Park to go to the market here. I will come back also because my mother was here at that moment. We will come back on Friday night, stay in the south east for the weekend.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Every weekend, yeah.
Ellie Hernández: And we were able to, like, come back home and be able to combine the two worlds.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Yeah.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: You know, I don’t know if I would be a writer or a journalist if it wasn’t for my mom.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: What parts of yourself do you see me?
Ellie Hernández: You know what you've been doing lately? And I don't want to give myself credit for that. But I think I do deserve some credit.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Go ahead, go ahead.
Ellie Hernández: Because of me, you were introduced to a lot of books.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: That’s right. You’re right.
Ellie Hernández: Okay, so please. [laughing] No, no, no, I'm just being funny. That was the only thing I could share with you, you know. I could share with you my books. You could see me reading until late at night. You could see me having conversations with my colleagues from the PhD program and I think that's why you got hungry for books, hungry for words. And I see that part of me.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Do you remember me asking you for a college fund in elementary school?
Ellie Hernández: [Laughs] Mijo, if I’m 90 years old...
Walter Thompson-Hernández: What happened?
Ellie Hernández: I will still remember that. We were in the kitchen. We were gonna have dinner. You were about eight, seven. And then you said, “Mom, do I have a college fund?” I looked at you with this big, big, wide open eyes. And I said, “Cabron, that’s mal favor. We barely have money to eat hot dogs, and you want me to have a college fund for you.” And I said, “Where did you get that idea?” And you very innocent. You say, “Mom, everybody at school were talking about college fund. I just wanted to know if I have one.” Ay, Mjjo. But I totally understand. You wanted to find out. Why wouldn't you have a college fund when everybody was talking like, like having a pair of tennis shoes? You know, that was everybody, everybody's conversation was so normal. But no, our conversations were different. They were not about college fund. They were about survival. And you know if we had enough food stamps to go and eat and buy the food. But it was cute. I never forget that.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: What parts about me inspire you?
Ellie Hernández: You know, when you turn your life around? To me, that was a sign of...endurance?
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Perseverance?
Ellie Hernández: Perseverance. That was such a powerful moment. I knew that you were going to go far, mijo, because you made the decision to change your life.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: The reason why I changed my life around is because, like, at 14, 14 and a half, almost 15, right, like, I understood that you made so many sacrifices for me. And I felt like the path that I was going down, you know, I was either going to be dead or in jail. But I also thought about you and I thought about how you felt at 14 or 15 when you came to this country. We were the same age, essentially. Right? So for me, it was really important, you know, to think, “Wow, my mom was 14,15 when she came to LA, and I'm 14,15 now, you know, and what am I doing?” I felt like I was, like, throwing it all away.
Ellie Hernández: It's very nice how you compare your age at that age when I came to the United States. That's really nice. I never thought about that.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Did you ever want to leave LA?
Ellie Hernández: No. When I compare with the life that I could have had in Mexico in my hometown, I feel that I'm wealthy here. I have everything. I have a car, a house, I have a job. I have a family. I have friends. I, you know, I could go to the stores, and I don't have to be super wealthy to buy new things. In Mexico, I will have to be really wealthy to go to the stores. The fact that I have options makes me feel powerful.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: What kind of options are you talking about?
Ellie Hernández: I'm talking about economic options. I'm talking about job options.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: How do you feel about where LA is now?
Ellie Hernández: I wish I could see more like what's going on right now with the protest. I wish those things could be implemented. The police doesn't have to treat us bad just because we have a different skin color. So it's different now, very different.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Do you still think about the comic book, Archie?
Ellie Hernández: Of course. It’s cute. And sometimes when I want to laugh, I think of Beverly Hills because Beverly Hills was represented in that comic book. It was not South Central. It was not La Puente. It was not Whittier. It was not, no, it was Beverly Hills with those big mansions. So yes, I still think about that. So when I want to laugh, I think that, “Oh, Beverly Hills. It's Archie.”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Has your idea about Archie changed over the years?
Ellie Hernández: Yes, of course. Look where I live. It’s not
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Not in Beverly Hills.
Ellie Hernández: It’s not Beverly Hills. We don't have any big mansions on, you know, with big walls around the houses. No. Of course this is a reality. This is my reality. Sorry.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: It's our Beverly Hills, right?
Ellie Hernández: Yes, this is our Beverly Hills.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: What’s up mom. The older I get the more I realize what it took to raise me. You had to wear so many different hats and sometimes you wore them all at once. You were mom, friend, big sister, mentor, father, and so much more. There wasn’t a handbook that we followed and it felt like we were both growing up at the same time. Learning from our mistakes and cherishing our small victories. Sometimes I think back to those Friday nights we used to stay up late watching the X-files and eating pizza. I really miss them. Or I think about the old white Volvo we used to have — the one I filled the backseat up full of my toys. It was the same one that I used to ask you to drop me off two blocks away from school because I was embarrassed of how old our car looked. Mom — I’m really sorry I was embarrassed. There was nothing to ever be ashamed about. The Westside often felt like a distant world — and full of strangers who didn’t look like us. I really missed my friends, Alex, Brian, Matthew, and the rest of our family when we moved. I’ve never told you this, but sometimes I used to cry at night wishing we had never left. I felt really alone. But I always had you. And we had each other. At this age, it’s even harder to comprehend having a child in my early twenties would feel like. I don’t know how you did it. Some of your classmates went home for the summer. Or, had internships. But you had me. I now see what you did. And, more importantly, your why. I’m so thankful that, in this lifetime, we were able to call each other mother and son. I’m really thankful you chose to come here. Because without LA, there is no me. Thank you, Mama. I love you.
Elizabeth Nakano was the lead producer for this episode.
Supporting producer Tamika Adams.
Our editor is Arwen Nicks.
Valentino Rivera is our engineer.
Original music by Andrew Eapen.
Our senior producer is Megan Tan.
Executive producer is Angela Bromstad
This episode was written by me, with help from Elizabeth Nakano and Arwen Nicks.
Before we end this series there are a lot of people involved in making something like this — the list is long — so here we go.
A huge thank you to:
Associate Producer - Tamika Adams
Producer - Elizabeth Nakano
Senior Producer - Megan Tan
Our editor - Arwen Nicks
Every episode was mixed and engineered by Valentino Rivera
Original Music is by Andrew Eapen
Angela Bromstad is our Executive Producer
Our website was designed by Andy Cheatwood & the marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio
Our episode artwork - by Theo Lambert
Our show artwork - by Leo Gomez, Kristen Hayford, and myself
The team at LAist Studios includes:
Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo Gomez.
Our website is:
California is a production of LAist Studios.
I’m your host Walter Thompson-Hernández
A huge thank you to my friends and family whose voices and sounds can be heard throughout this show.
When I first thought of making this show, I was thinking about you. I appreciate you — more than you may know. Thank you so much for listening.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: It’s a Sunday afternoon. It’s 1991 and my mom and I are driving down Alameda street. It’s a year before we moved to the westside.
Ellie Hernández: And I said, Mijo look look. Mijo look outside. Mira mira. Los cowboys, they’re black cowboys.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: And I see these two older black men on horses. I was only six. These cowboys seemed magical and wondrous, and their horses seem like they're from another world.
Ellie Hernández: I remember your face. Looking through the window with this big smile.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: And I look at my mom, and I say, “You knew about this?” You know, it’s really hard to process things at that age. It felt like I had been missing out on something that I now know is a sacred mythology but was completely erased from the history books in my school. And I wasn’t alone. The other black and brown children in my school were also being deprived of this story. We didn’t know we could be cowboys.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: “Turn right to South Alameda Street”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: And 25 years later, I’m back on Alameda Street and I’m driving to meet a group of childhood friends who call themselves the Compton Cowboys. They live in a farming community called the Richland Farms, an oasis in the heart of Compton.
GPS: “Your destination is on the left.”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: I started coming to the ranch in 2018, when I was working on a New York Times Story about the group. It was only supposed to be a 2000-word story, but it got way deeper and I became friends with the cowboys. And I realized these men and women, and the ranch potentially held answers for redemption and healing.
This is California Love and I’m Walter.
It’s 4:30 a.m., Tuesday, beginning of December 2019. Anthony’s an early bird — just like me. He’s the only person awake in Building 12 of the Imperial Courts in Watts. It’s one of the largest housing projects west of the Mississippi.
Anthony Harris: And this is all I do, what I’m doing right now.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Anthony has an early morning routine and when I jump in his truck, he’s right in the middle of it. He lights up a black and mild and adjusts his mirrors. He’s on his way to a ranch inside the Richland Farms where he cares for horses. It’s home to the Compton Cowboys. He takes a giant puff, releases the smoke in the air, and then drives off.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: And so this is your route every single morning, right?
Anthony Harris: At first I used to stop right here, at the light and go down Willowbrook. But I had to switch it up because a big truck hit my mirror. I always be in my mirrors, so I don’t let nobody follow me.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: It’s really early, but Anthony’s head is already on a swivel. And he’s constantly looking around.
Anthony Harris: The Mexican’s ‘ill come from that corner, next to that … The mail truck at.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Right.
Anthony Harris: They be all right there. On both corners.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Chill?
Anthony Harris: Chilin. Just sitting there.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Anthony sits high above all the neighborhood drama in a truck he calls “BIG RED.” Big Red is huge. It looks fit for a really tall person but Anthony’s a short guy. On a good day he’s maybe 5’5’’. We pass by different neighborhoods and stop at a gas station at the intersection of Alondra and Acacia Avenue. We’re deep in the Acacia Blocc Crips’ Territory, where many of his friends have lost their lives to the Compton Varrio 7 Oh’s, a local Mexican gang.
Anthony Harris: Now, if you a black coming to this gas station, they’ll come and rush you. Oh you from Acacia (a-ca-ci-a) that means Acacia (a-ca-sia). They try to beat up on you or they try to shoot at you. So, the homies that had to make ‘em leave killin ‘em and shootin em...ain’t none of them out there no more, none of em…
Walter Thompson-Hernández: This hurts to hear but I understand both sides because I’m the son of a black father and Mexican mother, and I’m no stranger to Black and Brown violence in LA. This gas station is where his best friend, his day one, Black, was murdered three years ago. Each landmark that we pass holds a lot of memories. The beauty salon with the tias in front of it, the Mexican meat market with the cows on the roof, and Mom’s Burgers on the left, compton High School’s on the right. These Compton landmarks have seen loss and violence.
Anthony Harris: The street sign say, Acacia, so….
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Acacia is the name of Anthony’s old gang and the name for his only daughter. He first read about its meaning in The Bible when he was incarcerated more than 15 years ago.
Anthony Harris: I’ll be like.. What’s that? I’m right there! That’s my name Daddy! Now, she loves her name...
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Acacia means two things: Renewal and resurrection. Anthony prayed he would have both when he got out of prison. These streets are a part of him and he’s loyal.
Anthony Harris: My nigga TR, I can’t forget about youuuuuu…
Walter Thompson-Hernández: TR was murdered last year. As a child, Anthony was either on the streets or on the ranch.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: When Compton was founded in 1888, a part of it was zoned for farming. The area was called The Richland Farms and it was home to the cowboys I saw as a child.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: The ranch was started by Mayisha Akbar, a member of the Hook family, and it sits on an acre of land. In 1988, Mayisha started a nonprofit called the Compton Jr. Posse. and she used it as a way to keep her children and their friends off the streets. And it all started in her backyard. There are four single family homes surrounding it, and when they look out their back window, there’s horses, cows, dogs, cats, llamas, chickens, and right in the middle, there’s an oval shaped riding arena filled with soft, loose dirt. People say, if you make a wrong turn down the right street you’ll run into it.
Keenan Abercrombia: Once you find the hidden secret, it’s like, “Oh this is here.” “Oh, you have an oasis.”
Randy Hook: back here on the ranch, it’s like, I can breathe.
Mayisha Akbar: Just like a deep breath of fresh air.
Kennan: Yeah, it’s like the world just chills out for a minute.
Keenan Abercrombia: When you come back here, you don’t see the rest of Compton.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: hahah… who’s your top eight? That was drama back in the days.
Keenan Abercrombia: Why’d you took me out of your top eight?
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Right
Keenan Abercrombia: Why’d you took me out? Why’d you put ol’ girl up there?
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Well, I’m seeing her now… I mean, you know. We’re together.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: A lot of cowboys come to the ranch. There’s T-Man, Kiera, Tre, Carlton, Lay lay.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: What about Kennan?
Anthony Harris: Kennan, ah man he’s like me. Workaholic. “Whatchu need help with bro? I got you man.”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Anthony knows every single one of them.
Anthony Harris: Only thing Kennan needs… is his beer.
Keenan Abercrombia: She’s the number one on my Top Eight.
Walter Thompson-Hernández:She’s the number one right now.
Keenan Abercrombia: Two days later…
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Two days later… ahhahaa.
Keenan Abercrombia: All the homies back up there.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: All the homies back up there...Like that one homie that got pushed out.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: While Keenan and I are talking about our old Myspace Top Eight, Anthony’s busy raking. Anthony is the first cowboy at the ranch every morning. He tends to the horses and he oversees the entire property. He’s been doing this for almost ten years. He loves it.
Anthony Harris: I’m happy. I’m at work. I love hearing my animals. Especially my cat Gangsta, he follow me everywhere. Look, he way up there...
Walter Thompson-Hernández: The ranch means different things. It’s a sanctuary and it feels like a secret that the cowboys have dedicated their lives to protect. It’s also a place where people can go and feel safe. The racial violence that exists down the street, at the gas station, doesn’t exist in the farms. Black and brown people here, ride together and are connected through a love of horses. The Ranch is where Anthony feels closest to his true self.
Anthony Harris: Everytime I go there, it’s like you free. Nobody be on you, nobody hounding you. It's like a free world.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: It feels like there are no limits to what can happen inside of the ranch.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: You’d be cool being a pony?
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Cowboy’s are even allowed to be ponies.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Hold on, Like if you had a choice, you would be a pony instead of a thoroughbred?
Anthony Harris: Heck yeah, I rather be a pony.
Keenan Abercrombia: It’s like the middle life of like freedom. If you were a full-blown horse, you got to deal with too many responsibilities.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: That’s deep as fuck.
Keenan Abercrombia: The quarter horses, the horses? Yeah, they have to deal with the adults.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Ant wanna be a pony he said.
Anthony Harris: I wanna be a pony.
Everyone: Ant, he already a lil nigga.
Anthony Harris: I’m little so I’m coming through. [feet moving] I’m a little pony.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Would you rather be a pony Randy, if you had a choice?
Anthony Harris: A pony, a big horse, which one?
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Be honest bro.
Randy Harris: I rather be a big ass horse. A stallion.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Oh, here come Randy.
Randy Harris: My hooves hitting the ground hard. Bloca, bloca, bloca. Hair swangin’.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: The big ass stallion with the hair swangin? That’s Randy.
Mayisha Akbar: That’s down at the creek… there’s Randy.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: He’s Mayisha’s nephew. Mayisha’s the founder of the ranch.
Mayisha Akbar: This is from the City of Los Angeles… [audio duck under]
Walter Thompson-Hernández: As she stands beside her walls, her voice is light and soft and her spirit is calm. This calmness wasn’t available to her when she led the Compton Jr. Posse for almost 30 years. The toll of the work was a lot on her body and it eventually caused an aneurysm. Forcing her to hand over The Ranch to her nephew, Randy. It wasn’t easy letting go of The Ranch. Mostly, because horses have been a part of her entire life.
Mayisha Akbar: Well, as a child from the time I can remember my dad and I used to every Saturday morning watch Westerns. John Wayne, Randel Scott, High Noon, Gary Cooper. Just all those old westerns…
Walter Thompson-Hernández: When she jumped on a horse at the age of eight, the horses became real.
Mayisha Akbar: So it just felt like... Ahhhh, I’m a movie star now. I’m actually doing it. Not just watchin it.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: That feeling stuck with her. When she moved to the Richland Farms, she passed down the same feeling to her children and their friends in the neighborhood.
Mayisha Akbar: All the kids always say… it’s like flying. It is.
Anthony Harris: It was... it took a breath like, “Whoa, I'm on horse.”
Keenan Abercrombia: You know, I’ve been trying to figure this out my life. Like what is it about you…?
Randy Harris: Because when you’re on a horse you’re elevated. People are literally looking up to you. It’s like man — you just feel invincible.
Reagan: From the beginning of our administration, we’ve taken strong steps to do something about this horror.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Ronald Reagan’s administration expanded the war on drugs, but some Compton residents believed it was a war on black people.
Reagan: And by next year, our spending for drug law enforcement will have more than tripled from its 1981 levels....
Walter Thompson-Hernández: When Mayisha first moved to The Hub City, black middle class families were moving out of Compton. Jobs that were available to black families in the 60s and 70s were now being shipped overseas. It left the community with some of the highest rates of unemployment in the nation.
Mayisha Akbar: Oh man, back in the days it was such a big war.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: While there was a war going on in the Middle East in the 90s, there was also a war going on in Compton. The crack cocaine epidemic was in full force. Compton’s Bloods and Crips and Mexican gangs, they were all wrestling for control over drug territories.
Mayisha Akbar: So many of the kids were getting killed. I mean we lost over 40 kids’ lives.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Mayisha’s kids were often targets and so were their friends.
Mayisha Akbar: And so my mission was to be more competitive with the gangs.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: These gangs needed young people to survive. So they recruited. The gangs brought them in with love, support and respect. Mayisha did the exact same thing. The Compton Jr. Posse provided tutoring, clothing, food, and free horse riding lessons. She gave these kids love — and they sometimes didn’t know how to respond to it.
Mayisha Akbar: You know I would keep talking to them and they would say, “Why you keep talking to me Miss Mayisha, you know I’m gonna be dead by the time I'm 15. My mama’s a gang banger, my daddy's a gang banger. I am gonna be dead pretty soon so don't even worry about me.” That would just wrench my heart, you know. So no, you know you're not gonna be dead. We'll keep you busy. We’ll get you doing something. Find something different to do….
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Mayisha had three kids. They were all in elementary school. And she met Anthony through them. Anthony became one of the kids she was trying to protect.
Mayisha Akbar: And he was always happy to be there, always smiling. So you’re always happy to see ANTHONYYYYYY [hahaha]...
Anthony Harris: [hahah] “BOY WHAT THE…” yeah, she one of them… [AH laughs]... What you… da da da…
Mayisha Akbar: Most of them were afraid of me. They said I was like their grandmother GRRRRR….
Anthony Harris: She seen me go through a lot on these streets.
She like put me under her wing, like ok you don’t have to do that… like a mom.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Anthony’s own mom — was absent from his life. When he was in elementary school, Anthony’s father moved him to the Acacia block. Anthony senior worked multiple jobs to support his son, he was hardly ever home. Anthony spent a lot of time alone and like most kids, he sought out love and attention. He found it in front of his apartment complex, where the O.G.’s would hang out. Anthony, he looked up to them — I mean, who wouldn’t? They looked fly, had money, and drove around in Buick Regals. It only took a matter of months before he was initiated into the Acacia Blocc Crips. He was only eight years old. It was almost like he never had a choice. It’s either you were part of the gang or you were against them.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: What did you do in prison to pass time? How do you make sense of all that?
Anthony Harris: Mainly drawing…. Drawing characters, horses.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Anthony was incarcerated for more than two years in a California federal prison for the possession of narcotics with the intent to sell. He passed the time by drawing, writing, and painting. At some point, his hobby turned into a daily ritual. But prison isn’t a place with a wide range of art supplies, so Anthony had to make his own using his favorite candy.
Anthony Harris: You gotta mix your water in skittles to make your color. Nobody know about that color.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Anthony used the color of skittles to create vivid horse paintings. He sent them and handwritten letters home to his family.
Anthony Harris: Hey LoLo Baby.
LoLo : Hi Anthony, I’ve been thinking about you. Me and the baby’s fine, the kids are good.
Acacia: Hi Daddy. I miss you. I wish I could hold you in my arms.
Anthony Harris: I hope to see you soon.
LoLo: I miss you.
Anthony Harris: I love you baby.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Anthony also sang to LoLo on the phone.
Anthony Harris: “Meet me at the altar in your white dress... “
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Those horse paintings helped Anthony in more ways than he could ever imagine.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: What’d your cellmate think about this?
Anthony Harris: He thought it was cool because I was drawing him stuff. Sendin it home.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: You were drawing him horses?
Anthony Harris: I was drawing him characters, horses. Whatever you want it. I colored it. “Ah Thanks, man. That’s a soup.”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Anthony’s paintings became his own personal currency. He traded them for an extra soup at lunch, a Snickers bar, or anything else he wanted. Everyone started calling him “The Horse Man” and it was an alter ego that kept him safe. The first few weeks after his release were the toughest. He was physically free but the structure of prison still confined him: The barking orders of correctional officers, the constant threat of violence, and the early morning wake up calls, they all haunted thim. But being around his baby mama and his daughter, that’s what he had dreamed about in prison. And now — he had it. But his phone didn’t stop ringing and every time someone from his past called, he would tell his daughter or wife to say he wasn’t home.
Anthony Harris: The hood is me. I can’t never give it up. But the streets didn't teach me nothing but to go to jail.… Like now, if I could take you through here… The gang banger, my homies, they always in the same spot doing the same thing.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: His friends were still hanging on the block. But he and LoLo chose to stay away from it. The phone kept ringing. They kept saying he wasn't home, and then Mayisha called. She needed help running the ranch and offered Anthony a job. Anthony hadn’t stepped on the ranch in more than 10 years.
Anthony Harris: When I walked to the back it was shocking because it was like, “Woah, I’m at home.”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: After that phone call. He became its full-time groundskeeper. And he’s never looked back.
Anthony Harris: My home is like my life back there. If you call the police, I’m not gonna leave.
Anthony Harris: My horse is taller than you horse… AHHHHHHHH! I can see over the gate, you can’t.
Keenan Abercrombia: I can!
Walter Thompson-Hernández: It’s not just the horses that keep him here, it’s also the relationships with the other cowboys.
Anthony Harris: WHOAAA. boyyyyyy.
Randy Hook: Compton Cowboys, Good Morning…
Anthony Harris: WHOAAA. Boyyyyyy. HAHAHAHAHA
Walter Thompson-Hernández: The ranch isn’t just a ranch. Beneath all the jokes and shit talking, is something more profound taking place. That can maybe help Compton heal from some of its wounds. And it all begins and ends with the horses. But the ranch, it’s actually not doing so well.
MIDROLL - COMMERCIAL BREAK - 20:42
Anthony Harris: Get em’ Red Dog, watch ‘em.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: There is something so special between the cowboys and the horses here. It feels like they speak the same language and also share a similar story.
Anthony Harris: You can’t let ‘em stay in a stall all day. That’s just like you standing there, not moving your bones, get cramps and get stiff. So you gotta let them out, to stretch they bones. Let ‘em play.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Almost every horse on the ranch has a troubled past. Some were abused and malnourished, and then eventually sold at horse auctions for little money. Who they are today, is not who they were when they first arrived.
Randy Hook: You know the hood hardens you from a young age and when you’re hard, you can get yourself into shit.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Randy knows what it’s like to get into shit. Like this one time with Slim, his best friend.
Randy Hook: And his mom used to call him Sweet Boy. Nice kid… But he’s one of them dudes that — hyper aggressive.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Slim was always getting into fights with people for no reason. Like at the corner of Wilmington and Alondra.
Randy Hook: And I remember walking in there with him and we was walking in and some Samoan dudes was walking out. They was from Park Village Crips.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Randy and Slim were affiliated with a different gang because of where they lived.
Randy Hook: You could, you could feel the hood shit when you walk in, it's very profound you know what I mean?
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Randy wasn’t ever one to fight people but Slim was always ready. So Randy and Slim walk past these guys, they walk into a t-shirt store, and then they walk out.
Randy Hook: They still standing there waiting. One of the dudes was looking at Slim like, “Hey nigga why you was looking at me like that for?”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: And then Randy is thinking...
Randy Hook: There we go again here with this shit. So...
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Neither of them said anything.
Randy Hook: Cause I’m, I’m confused...Slim was behind me when we walked in so I didn’t see what he did. But in my head I’m like, this is all clicking in in real time happening like “Damn… I know Slim and he be on some extra shit.”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: So Randy just looks at him…
Randy Hook: I knew he knew what they were talking about. The dude he asked again, “I said why you, why you looking at me like that for? Where you from cuz? Where you from?”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Man, so many people have been here before. I know I’ve been here before. And this situation, can turn out in so many different ways. Sometimes it just takes a look, and that look can mean your life.
Randy Hook: “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t pop you right now?” And then flashed his gun. “Like nigga I’ll shoot you right here, bro.” I'm going to de-escalation mode immediately. I'm like, “Oh Nah, man, you know it ain't nothing like that bro. We just came to get a shirt.” Like we ain’t in on no gang banging shit. At that point I’m like man come on Slim. Let’s just go back in the store. So we just backpedaled a little bit, just walked into the store and stayed in there for a little while.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: They ended up leaving and Randy and Slim left too. Nobody’s born hard. Most black and brown men in the hood are taught to be hard. It’s almost like you have no choice. Cause being soft — might get you killed. Randy was quick to deescalate things because of what he learned with the horses.
Randy Hook: Horses react to human energy. Which is in the hood, you know, we like the hood, you animated. But then the horses kind of make you be like okay, I can’t be waving my arms all around. I can’t be doing all this, doing all that. Let me chill out, let me calm my voice down. “Hey... hey....”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: It’s not just a soft voice.
Randy Hook: This is a therapy center. Like when you go to counseling this has that
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Equine therapy has tremendous impacts on people. The ranch provides some of that.
Randy Hook: So you know, you might be one of the people that’s doing all this and, yo wa wa, let me slow myself down. Soften yourself and then, now you have success with the horse.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Success with the horses can mean a lot of different things. For someone who has experienced trauma or ptsd, it can mean being healed. It can also mean: Taking control of a situation, de-escalation, or building trust. For Randy…. it’s meant learning how to navigate the streets.
Randy Hook: It's easy to take a life when you don't get life. But when you spend time watching and a horse grow, you feeding it, its loving you, you learning love, you learning life, that translates. Before you shoot somebody, you might think like damn, man, this somebody taking care this somebody that somebody love.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Love is what drove Mayisha, and love is what continues to drive Randy.
Randy Hook: 15 mins we out of here.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: And sometimes the love is tough.
Randy Hook: 15 minutes we outta here. 15 minutes!
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Every time Randy walks around the ranch, everything seems to be running smoothly. There’s horses in stalls. Every stall has a roof. And the youth program is up and running after a three year hiatus. Randy’s in charge now.
Randy Hook: I sometime I really felt like Mayisha. I even felt myself telling myself, damn you sound like Mayisha.
Mayisha Akbar: And if you don’t do what you’re supposed to be doing, you’re going to get that finger.
Randy Hook: Hey Carlton, can you grab Red Dog for a minute cuz the barking is loud… matter of fact tell Kennan to hold on for a minute. Tell Kennan to STOP. STOPPPPP! WAIT! Tell him to stop, Carlton…
Walter Thompson-Hernández: But, ultimately, love won't pay the bills.
Randy Hook: I'm always thinking about the worst case scenario. I look at the bank account every day just because, you know, look at every day, just to make, just to look at it. I'm always like, Man, what if I, what if I look at it one day and it’s almost zero? And this thought crosses my head all the time. But then I’m like, it’ll never be on zero if I keep working hard.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: And working hard means finding $20,000 a month to keep the ranch running. The cowboys are still receiving donations, they’re modeling, and they’re receiving brand sponsorships. You’ve seen them before:
I feel like I was destined to be a cowboy.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Boot Barn, Abercrombie, Adidas
So when I’m a horse it’s just...sky’s the limit
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Levis, Wrangler, Guinness
Did I save the horse? Or did the horse save me?
Walter Thompson-Hernández: They’ve been everywhere and these aren’t small brands. The revenue streams are there but unfortunately they’re not always steady.
Randy Hook: I have to hustle it every month you know what I’m saying. And that’s a lot.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: I feel Randy — that is a lot. Listen, I may be way out of line here, but it seems like the cowboys were set up for failure. Because when Mayisha retired, she closed Compton Jr. Posse, the board dissolved, and donations stopped pouring in and the people who were once invested in the Posse — weren’t invested in the Cowboys in the same way. But to be honest, it’s way deeper than that. When the cowboys took over, it was obvious they weren’t the children they once were. Donors didn’t see black men and black women as safe investments, at least not in the same way they saw black children. It kind of felt like white guilt kept the ranch alive for so many years. But at some point, the white guilt, like most things, had to come to an end. But again, this is just me, and maybe I’m trippin’? Horses, supplies, and equipment, they all started to be sold off. Their trailers, too. It left the ranch and the cowboys with very little to succeed. They basically had to start over. But it really forced the cowboys to be creative and it’s part of the reason why Randy never takes a day off. There’s too much riding on his shoulders, and not everyone always appreciates it.
Randy Hook: You know I said to the group before. I was like man, you know, it would be really nice if y'all would say thank you sometimes, ‘cause it's hard on me and I just want to know that y'all see and appreciate how much I'm put in it. ‘Cause maybe they just don't see. I don't be crying in front of everybody. But when I lay down on my pillow at night, I'm stressing.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Randy doesn’t cry in front of everybody but this isn’t the first time he’s cried in front of me, and when he talks about stress, I know he’s not just talking about money.
Randy Hook: I got friends that got killed.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: I have friends that have been shot and killed too.
Randy Hook: My friend Marcus got killed
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Like my friend Roach.
Randy Hook: In the day time at the burger stand over there. And my cousin got shot in front of this house right here.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Like Oscar.
Randy Hook: Slim got shot.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Brian.
Randy Hook: Black got murdered.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Like my uncle.
Randy Hook: Leeble got murdered. This is all like right in the same, like couple blocks like from right here. So it’s not far-fetched to say that I could get killed. Think about that every day. Thinking about that all day, every day.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Like Randy, the names of my friends and family hold different memories. It’s something that we share. Randy really believes in the power of the ranch. It’s why he wants to replicate the ranch model in black communities throughout the U.S. And he’s not the first… because they already exist. In Houston, Philly, Baltimore, Atlanta, and other places. If it saved him and his friends, he thinks it could save others. And it’s already happening. The Compton Cowboys have started a massive movement.
[clip: I’ve seen you before. You from Compton, right?...]
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Lil Nas X, Solange
[clip: Solange song]
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Meg Thee Stallion.
[clip: Megan Thee Stallion]
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Back on the ranch, there’s a lot up in the air right now and Randy feels the weight. The other cowboys feel it too. Keenan just had a baby and he’s unemployed, Anthony’s step-grandson just got locked up. Keiara, the only woman in the group is recovering from back injuries as she prepares to compete in rodeo again. But at least the cowboys have the farms and the streets to ride on. And they have each other.
Keenan Abercrombia: Technically, nah… technically I’m not.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Keenan and Stona are having a huge debate. They’re arguing about drinking and riding at the same time.
Keenan Abercrombia: This is a self driving vehicle bro… look. This is all horse power. Natural horse power.
Stona (Kenneth Atkins): This is some shit you got to break down in court.
Keenan Abercrombia: Hahahahaha...Pretty much
Walter Thompson-Hernández: If I could go back and talk to young Walter, I would tell him that there were black cowboys all along, long before he was surprised to see them that day on Alameda Street. I’d tell him that black cowboys had a big part of the American West and that they came here to be free. Just like my grandfather, Walter Thompson — and thousands of other black men and women. I’d tell him that one out of every four cowboys — was black. And that they were some of the most daring and adventurous riders. And they had names like Bill Pickett, Nat Love, and John Ware. And thousands of others whose names we’ll never know. But whose stories continue to live on today. They’re embodied in people like Anthony…
Anthony Harris: Every kid out here, lookin’ up to somebody. And it can be you, Walter, me, T-Man. So it’s like you gotta set a example. You know, a different path. That’s what I love. See I love doing that, ‘Cause I’m changing they life to be okay, what you do like?
Josh González: I like small horses, I like fast horses, I like that are used to like cattle…
Walter Thompson-Hernández: They’re embodied in people like 10-year-old Josh…
Josh González: Hey you guys rather want to go home and sit on your iPad, or you want to be in the Compton Cowboys and walk and be in the parade?
Kids: Be in the parade! Exactly!
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Like young Keenan…
Kennan: When you’re on top of the horse, yes it’s like the world just chills out for a minute. It’s like you’re in control of something.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: And they’re embodied in the city of Compton.
Announcers: Compton Cowboys… yay! Lookin’ good, Compton Cowboys. Lookin’ good.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Black cowboys were never far from my home. If little me asked why he didn’t learn about them in school, I’d say that some people in the world really wanted to erase the experiences of black cowboys from the history books.
[Clip: When the lights shut off
And it's my turn to settle down
My main concern
Promise that you will sing about me
Promise that you will sing about me
I said when the lights shut off…]
Walter Thompson-Hernández: When the first part of the chorus for “Sing About Me” hit, it spoke to my five-year-old and 32-year-old self.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: “When the lights shut off and it’s my turn to settle down, my main concern, promise that you will sing about me. Promise that you will sing about me.”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Kendrick’s words really made me think about the legacy of the Compton Cowboys. It made me think about those who have come before us and now passed. I think he wrote this song to honor those who have died, while we’re still here. You know — I’ve heard that in life, we die twice: the moment we physically die and the moment they stop singing about us. Kendrick’s song is for those who couldn’t sing anymore. The Compton Cowboys don’t sing though, they ride. They ride to ensure that their story lives on forever. So that they aren’t the last black cowboys in Compton. And that the work they put in — mattered. And for the most part, I feel the same way. But it’s hard sometimes. Because we’re all just good kids in a mad city.
[Clip: ...Promise that you will sing about me
Promise that you will sing about me…]
The lead producer for this episode is Megan Tan
Supporting Producer Tamika Adams.
Our Editor is Arwen Nicks.
Our Producer is Elizabeth Nakano.
Valentino Rivera is our sound engineer.
Original music by Andrew Eapen.
Angela Bromstad is our Executive Producer
This episode was written by me Walter Thompson-Hernandez with help from Megan Tan and Tamika Adams.
I’m your host Walter Thompson-Hernandez.
Oh — one more thing, I also wrote a book about these guys. You should check it out. You can find it wherever you buy books.
California Love is a production of LAist Studios.
Thank you for listening. I really appreciate you.
Elizabeth Nakano: This is California Love. I’m clearly not Walter. I’m Elizabeth. You’ll hear more from me later. In LA, we have a large and noisy population of green parrots. Maybe you’ve seen them, they’re almost fluorescent and look like they belong in some tropical forest. It can feel shocking to see them using power lines as a perch but where they came from, and why, is often a tangle of urban legends. We decided to find out. So today, we’re bringing you a parable called, “Why The Sky is Green,” a story about how Los Angeles came to be home to a pandemonium of screaming, green parrots.
James Maley: We’re probably at about a hundred now, and we’ll probably get to 800 if not over a thousand parrots here within the next ten minutes...So it’s about to get insane...
Walter Thompson-Hernández: I’m going to tell you a story about how we turned the Los Angeles sky green.
Jorge Obregon: I hear these birds, man, in the morning. And they’re so loud.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Why we’re here…
James Maley: Can you imagine being exorcised from your home when you’re a baby and like stuck in a cage for ten years?
Walter Thompson-Hernández: ...and where we were before.
Martha: To save the birds, they let them fly off free.
Lee Smith: They had seventeen acres up on Colorado Blvd.
Phone recording: Thank you for calling Anheuser Busch.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: This story starts in what the humans call the 1970s, back when most of us green parrots still lived in our original home. Back then, we lived in Northeast Mexico... in the tropical woods of Tamaulipas, in a really small town halfway in between Cuidad Victoria and Reynosa. A town nestled in a valley next to a river. We called it the Purple River because of its beautiful purple flowers. Our homes were in the cavities of tall trees. My family was close but there was no one I admired more than Uncle Ramon. He’s the kind of bird who flies higher than the rest of us and returns from the sky with grand stories and the best berries. He was charming and had the kind of laugh that’s more contagious than a yawn. Everyone loved him. My dad liked to tell everyone that it was Uncle Ramon who had first introduced my parents when they were teenagers, near the mine on the other side of town. Dad told everyone he used to catch Mom staring at his muscular wings when he picked berries by the Aguilar family farm. Dad was pretty tall for a parrot. He was little over a foot long and, like other parrots, had a horn colored beak and black highlights. He was a really handsome bird. And his wings? They stretched further than anyone else's. But my mom, well...she told a different story. She said my dad used to awkwardly fly next to her, and offered her a different kind of fruit berry every single day for an entire year. He was really determined. And she? She was kind of annoyed. My mom said she got tired of him one day and finally accepted his offer. She did like his choice in berries and said that what drew her in... not the size of his wing muscles. Anyway, one night, Uncle Ramon didn’t come home. I thought the flower monsters got him. The ones by the river. I wasn’t old enough to go to the river alone. Mom always said, “It’s too far from our tree and said your wings aren’t strong enough yet.” So I’d never seen the monsters but I knew they came out once a day to find food. I knew they weren’t that much bigger than a carrot, but if anything got within five feet of their flower...They’d shoot this sticky substance out of their mouth and catch you and eventually eat you.
They preyed on small children, like me, like you, little parrots. And just the thought of those monsters kept me as far away from the river as possible. So when Uncle Ramon was missing, I thought the monsters had for sure gotten him. We were panicked. You have to understand, Uncle Ramon always came back. So my mom and dad and our neighbors formed a search party and set out to look for him. They flew up and down the Purple River, all over town, and over by the highway where he sometimes liked to hang out. And... nothing. Uncle Ramon was gone.
As days without him passed, other parrots would come by and squawk their theories at us but no one knew what happened...until we heard that more parrots had gone missing. They were captured by men who had large nets in the dark of night. It was only once in a while at first, and parrots across the trees thought they would be safe but when the net men came more and more frequently and took fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, and lovers with them, nobody was safe. Some parrots left for other reasons, reasons my parents tried to keep from me. Like when my Tia Martha also went missing one day. Esperanza, the older nosy lady who lived alone, spent most of her days cleaning her hole with Fabuloso cleaning products. She lived on the other side of the tree and started talking about my tia. She was running her mouth, telling people that my Aunt Martha had eaten too many berries and had fallen in the river and drowned.
But I didn’t really believe her, because she was drama and it didn’t really add up. And we knew Esperanza hated my tia ever since they fought over a piece of mango on the steps of the church a few years back. The fight was so scandalous and caused such a huge disruption that the priest had to rush out of a noon service to break up the fight by throwing holy water at them and scolding them at the top of his lungs, hoping to get the demons out of the both of them. So, for all we knew, Esperanza could have been making the whole story up.
Another neighbor said that she had last seen my tia with her old boyfriend, Hector, a parrot who lived on the other side of town, by a row of sugarberry trees. Now, Hector? He didn’t really have the best reputation in our roost. He drank too much, always got into fights with other parrots, and hung out with a really sketchy group of guys. And the worst part about Hector? Sometimes he’d show up to our tree in the middle of the night after drinking fruit nectar, yelling, begging Martha to take him back. This one time it got so bad that my dad and my uncle had to restrain him from entering our home. Hector and my tia definitely had a toxic relationship, and they aired out all of their drama for everyone to see. You know the type? But apparently, Hector had sold my aunt on a dream and he persuaded her to take him back — again — and fly to Cancun. I guess he had a cousin there who had extra space in a palm tree right next to the beach. At least, that’s what our neighbor had said. And it seemed like something that my tia would have done because she really loved the beach.
But I digress. Where was I? Oh right...the kidnappings.
Well as you know, soon after we’re born we’re tucked away in trees, hidden from plain view of danger before we know how to fly. It’s only the first few days but so much can happen in those few days. It’s why so many children go missing. Sometimes it’s hawks or skunks. But a new predator came along — poachers. They would have lookouts and know when our babies were born. That’s how they got me.
It was night and the air was crisp. The last of the spring rains had passed the week before. I was curled in my nest. The next thing I knew, a large human hand reached inside of our hole, the shadow from its flesh turning the night into darkness. It grabbed me by the neck, pulling me from the tree and threw me inside of a metal cage. It all happened so fast. When I looked up, I was in the back of a pick-up truck, and in the bed there were hundreds of other young parrots around me, also in cages. As the truck began to move I looked up and saw my parents chasing overhead, calling to me. But as the truck sped off into the mountains, my parents, they couldn’t keep up.
It was an eerie and dark night, but the moonlight provided a little light as we drove further and further away from the valley. The valley where generations of parrots in my family had lived before me. In the moonlight, I could see a kid next to me. He had a red crown on his forehead with blue streaks behind his grey eyes. Just like me. There were a few others in our cage who also had red crowns. Some of the others had blue crowns on their heads. They had divided us by the color of our crowns. And we were all from different parts of the same valley. I imagined that our families had sometimes competed for the same berries and seeds from the same trees. I pictured our father’s fathers racing through the sky in a dance of competition but at this point in our lives, none of that really mattered. We were all in cages. Someone in a nearby cage said that we were all going to a place that had angels in it. Angels have wings, I thought to myself. They’ll for sure understand me. My mom always said that anyone with wings was, in some way, related to us. So maybe everyone in this angel's place was a part of my family.
Someone overheard one of the drivers say the place we were going was a half desert city next to a big, blue ocean filled with lots of cars and other parrots and animals and trees who had also been brought there and that the angels had all fled long ago. The chirps and the squawks grew silent as night went on. I couldn’t sleep that night. My adrenaline had worn off and I had nothing left to quiet the fear that I felt throughout my whole body. I think I was the only parrot still awake when the sun rose. I had lost track of days. The sky still had the night’s blue on its edges and I could still see the sun and the moon and the stars. The same moon and stars that I know my mom was also looking at back home. The truck finally came to a stop, and in an instant a tarp was thrown over, shattering the slumber of all the other birds, blocking out the sky. We sat, in near silence, seeing nothing but the reflection of our fear in each other’s faces. A big red crown with a light scar on the left side of his cheek said, “It isn’t just the animals they put in cages. They do it to their own. Even the young.” And that is how I came to Los Angeles.
For the next few weeks, I would live inside of a windowless room in a small cage with the rest of the red crowns. They called it The Warehouse, and each day the humans would bring more parrots to fill more cages while we all sat in the dark together. Hundreds of us, maybe even thousands.
MIDROLL --- 14:53
Walter Thompson-Hernández: There are three popular legends as to how we took over the skies of L.A. The first legend is called “The Gardens.” The second legend is called “The Release.” And the third legend is called “The Fire.” And they all start just like I told you: with parrots like my uncle or me being taken from Mexico and put in a cage and smuggled here. But after that? Well, according to the first legend, we were taken from those who had first taken us. It’s said that one day, men from the human government found out about the warehouse. We watched as they circled our cages. They didn’t know what to do with us. We weren’t supposed to be here. So the men asked the people at a place called Busch Gardens to take us in. They said, “If you care for these parrots, we’ll give you money.” So we went to live at Busch Gardens, in a city called Van Nuys. We lived near lots of other birds from all over the world, and every day, hundreds of humans with cameras and fanny packs came to look at us. And life at Busch Gardens was really unhappy. The company that owned the gardens back then is called Anheuser-Busch and our story isn’t one they love to talk about today.
Elizabeth Nakano: Anheuser Busch has declined my request to talk about the parrots. My name is Elizabeth Nakano, and I am a producer for California Love. I called the company…I wrote an email to them...and the response that I got back reads, quote, “We won’t be able to participate in your story at this time.”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: But there are records about what happened to us.
Elizabeth Nakano: Anheusber-Busch filed a claim against the U.S. government for the cost of taking care of the parrots, and there is a written decision from the acting comptroller general at the time that gives details about the case. A few newspapers also covered the settlement.
Now, we don’t know for sure if the parrots that Busch Gardens had were the same green parrots that are all over Los Angeles now. They were described as Amazon parrots that were “greenish and about the size of an overweight pigeon”...which could be our parrots?
Okay, so, back to my research: In 1978, Anheuser Busch filed a claim against the government for $109,550. That was the alleged amount it cost the park to house and care for the parrots for the three and a half years that they had them. And the bill was a surprise to some people in the government. According to the Washington Post, some officials admitted they had completely forgotten about the birds.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: At Busch Gardens, most of us parrots didn’t make it.
Elizabeth: 205 Amazon parrots were given to Busch Gardens in 1974. And then, by the time of this legal claim in 1978, 91 were still alive.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Some parrots, the legal document says, starved to death. Some were stolen. And some...they escaped. The second legend says our community was started by humans who wanted us in their homes.
James Maley: It's the steady release of pets that's happened over the last hundred years.
James Maley: So you can kind of see what the collection’s about...
James Maley: I'm James Maley. I'm the collections manager of the Moore Laboratory of Zoology at Occidental College in Northeast LA. The Moore Lab is the largest collection of Mexican birds in the world, is primarily what we're known for.
James Maley: Let me show you over here. So...
Elizabeth Nakano: It looks so futuristic. This is the sort of lab you would see in a movie, with like these lights would all go on slowly in a row.
James Maley: I know. We’re trying to lose that Apple Store feel a little bit
James Maley: The pet trade really picked up steam in the, I'd say like the 50s 60s and 70s, for whatever reason. But it's also, you know, one of these places where so many people have been coming for so long and a lot of them people brought the birds with them. And so then they got out and are living around here in LA.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Some of us parrots were sold at pet stores in LA.
The humans gave us many names...ones like Red-crowned Amazons, Red-crowned Parrots, Green-cheeked Amazons, or Mexican Red-headed Parrots. But, we’re all the same bird. Other parrots moved from Mexico with their human families.
James Maley: A lot of these birds that we see here are from Latin America, which is what you would expect, right? Then there's also a bunch of birds from Southeast Asia.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: But us green parrots? Our community became the most visible.
James Maley: What's really wild is the former curator of the Moore Lab, Bill Hardy, actually studied the parrots of Southern California when he worked here, and he wrote a paper in 1973 where he said that there was a single pair of free flying Red Crown Parrots in all of Los Angeles and that is by far the most common parrot now.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: The legend many people think is true says we became free like the phoenix: freedom born from fire.
Martha Jackson: When I sit in my dad's backyard in South Pasadena, a couple times a day we will see the parrots fly overhead and we will hear them because they're quite vocal. I'm Martha Jackson, and I went to PCC in 1971.
One day, I said something to my dad about these parrots, and he said, well, he was the insurance adjuster on the fire claim that happened which was the cause of the birds being let loose in the Pasadena areas.
Bill Suter: I was an insurance claims adjuster. And I was the chief adjuster for property claims. I’m Bill Suter. I'm 97 going on 60, ‘cause I feel like I'm still in my 60s and I can do just about anything that I did when I was in my 60s. We insured, Liberty Mutual insured, a huge nursery on Foothill Boulevard in Pasadena. The nursery was called Simpson’s Garden Town Nursery and it burned. I made the initial contact to be certain there was no issue of arson, and once I could assess the extent of the damage and that arson was not involved, I turned the nuts and bolts of ascertaining the extent of the dollar damage to a staff adjuster. My adjuster sat there with him going over item by item, ascertaining the cost. And Mr. Simpson was a delightful individual, perfectly easy to deal with, he had excellent records, and so it was not too difficult, and that would be an item for the final settlement.
Elizabeth Nakano: Do you know if it was the green parrots that they said were released?
Bill Suter: That’s my recollection that they were green parrots. Yes.
Lee Smith: They had 17 acres up on Colorado Boulevard on I believe the corner of Orange and Colorado. There now, there's a science Cadillac agency and a home improvement center. I don't know if the home improvement center is still there or not. And then the freeway. They had two fires in Pasadena at the nursery. One was in 1959. That was the first fire. And the thing is they went through and opened all the cages, and let all the animals out. That's when they had their famous parrot Poncho. And he survived. And then in 1968 they had another fire but Poncho didn't survive that one.
Elizabeth Nakano: Was Pancho one of the green parrots that’s become synonymous with the parrots of LA?
Lee Smith: He was a Macaw. Yeah. They even did — when the second fire Poncho passed away–they did an obituary in the paper on Pancho. When the nursery burnt down, the children, kids would send Mr. Simpson a dollar to try to help rebuild. And the second time they didn’t allow him to rebuild. They took the property to put the offramp for the 210 freeway. The freeway took 10 acres of the 17 acres, and when they took the property, that's when he moved to San Diego and retired. But he couldn't sit still. So he started back up in the nursery aspects when he was almost 65 or 70, and then his granddaughter, which is my wife Cathy, went to work for him. And so, that's how we, we met. I used to sell plants to ‘em.
I’m Lee Smith. I would be...let’s see...I would be the grandson-in-law. That’s the rumor of where a lot of the parrots came from. It’s nice just to have people still think of the business and stuff after all these years.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Maybe all the legends are a little true. We don’t know but each of them leads us here, where we now live. In fact, more of us green parrots now live in L.A. now than in Mexico.
James Maley: A recent estimate put the number in Mexico to be at about 2000. And it's estimated that there's maybe 10,000 here in Los Angeles ‘cause for a variety of reasons, mostly, mostly the pet trade, but then again, habitat destruction.
If you get a parrot that was taken out of its nest cavity and you know, brought across the border and sold here in Southern California, which is illegal now, it has been since the 90s, that parrot could live 40, 50, 60, 70 years. That bird may have never flown outside before.
Can you imagine, like being exercised from your home when you're a baby and like, stuck in a cage for 10 years, and then all of a sudden, you just get released into the world? Here you go survive, and these parrots are doing it. It's amazing, and so, and that's one of the things that really I find fascinating watching parrots is trying to find the ones that were pets in the flocks. I found one the other day that had a weird ring on its leg. So clearly it had been tied to a post for some proportion of its life and now it's just going free.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: But the people here, don’t all love us.
Jorge Obregon: So I hear these birds man in the morning. And they’rer so loud, you know, they're not like these little chirping birds that are kind of cute and beautiful, like, no, they fucking scream and they're just screamers you know, it's like, rrrrrrr, and you can't even see him because they just blend in with the green trees. You just hear them and you see all these berries falling and leaves fucking falling on the ground. They're shitting everywhere.
My name is Jorge Obregon, Pasadena resident for the last three years.
To me, they always tend to show up at the worst possible moment. Like, whenever I have a fucking hangover, they show up in the morning. Like they're always there when I have a hangover right at like 6am. RRRRRR... It's like screaming and like fuck, man. It's like they know I drink the night before.
Any time I have like some kind of gathering, like the day of — fuck, man — I got to clean up all the shit, all these leaves. And, man, have you ever tried to take bird shit off a picnic table? Shit’s impossible, man. I have one in the backyard. To remove that you better have a scraper, man. That shit is tough.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Some people throw things at us. Some yell up to the sky as we rest in trees and on telephone wires. Others will shake their fists at us and tell us to go back to where we came from. Some of the people who yell are the same ones who built this city from stolen goods. The palm trees that let us rest atop their crowns are not from here. The Black Mustard. The Eucalyptus. And all the other parrots.
James Maley: There have been 24 different species of parrots recorded in Los Angeles.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: I’ll warn you that some people will call you invasive. They’ll say you are taking resources away from those who were here first.
James Maley: That is a common thing that I hear is that invasives are all bad, and I would argue that the parrots are not bad. There's a bunch of different reasons for that. One of them is, you know, we're a kind of oasis in the desert. As the parrots, they're not going to fly to like, you know, Bakersfield. There are escaped parrots in Bakersfield. They're actually South Asian. They're called Rose Ringed Parakeets but our parrots are not going to escape LA. They're not going to fly up over the San Gabriels and get out. So they're sort of confined here, which means they're not having a kind of broader impact on our native wildlife. And then the other thing, too, is they're occupying a niche that previously didn't exist, right? So they're not coming into some sensitive environment and just disrupting birds that are trying to do their thing. They're taking advantage of, of this environmental heterogeneity that we created ourselves. And so I think it's great that they're here, especially since we can potentially use them for conservation.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: I’ll tell you one final secret about us birds who fly through the skies of LA, blocking the blue with our green. That? It’s an illusion.
James Maley: They're not really green. We see them as green but that color is from the structure of the feathers themselves. So these feathers themselves are actually structurally blue and pigmented with yellow. If you get them wet, they turn bronzy red. It's like a penny. It's like a metallic bronze. And then you dry them out again and then they turn bright green again.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: The humans — they are the green ones. They envy our songs and our flight and our beauty. And it seems like all they care about is green money. And not each other. Or Mother Nature.
James Maley: We’re watching the parrots come in to roost for the night.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: We may be far from the birthplace of our ancestors, but we’re here, and we belong.
Elizabeth Nakano: So this park has a skatepark nearby with maybe like a couple dozen kids. Some people playing basketball. Families playing at the little playground.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: We rest in trees that our parents and grandparents never saw in Mexico. We eat food they never ate, and we sleep in places they would have never imagined, places like this park in the middle of Pasadena — with busy streets on three sides...vendors selling chips...and a playground where kids climb up rope ladders while their parents watch from concrete picnic tables.
Elizabeth Nakano: It’s crazy. I’ve never seen so many of these one bird.
James Maley: Oh, this is nothing
Elizabeth Nakano: WHAT!
James Maley: It’s gonna...We’re probably at about a hundred now, and we’ll probably get to 800 if not over a thousand parrots here within the next ten minutes...So it’s about to get insane...We might actually get hit by a parrot. That’s probably the biggest threat to us right now, getting physically hit by a flying parrot.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: We fly all over L.A. and we see everything. This city is so big and it feels endless. It attracts so many people from different parts of the world. It seems like people come to L.A. for different reasons — some come to escape, while others come to chase a dream. Sometimes, during the evening, we see what the humans are watching. They open their windows and the sounds from their TVs fill the skies.
Trump: Taking precious resources away from the poorest Americans who need them most...
Walter Thompson-Hernández: The voice of a man who lives out East. A man who doesn’t understand that no living thing should ever be in a cage. And I think of the parrot in the truck that night who told me, the big red crown with a light scar on the left side of his cheek. Remember him? “It isn’t just the animals they put in cages. They do it to their own. Even the young.” This city is our home. We’re here. We’ve built communities where none existed. We bring beauty, and we’ve made a home for ourselves. And, we’ve made the sky a lot greener in the process. So if they shout at you from the ground, little bird, fly proud and remember, this is just as much our home as it is theirs.
Elizabeth Nakano was the lead producer of this episode.
Supporting Producer is Tamika Adams.
Arwen Nicks is our editor.
Our Sound Engineer is Valentino Rivera.
Our Senior Producer is Megan Tan.
Original Music by Andrew Eapen.
I wrote this episode, with help from Arwen Nicks and Elizabeth Nakano.
Angela Bromstad is our Executive Producer.
For more information on this episode of Parrot: A Parable go to L-A-I-S-T.com/California Love.
California Love is a production of LAist Studios.
I’m your host Walter Thompson-Hernández. Thanks for listening.
I really appreciate you.
Jack Thomas: There's 40 million people in Southern California that remember how Kobe made them feel. Kobe made people feel as confident as he was he made people feel like, “Don't worry, I got this. We're going to be okay.”
Zach Woolridge: Because remember it was a Sunday morning, looking into the sky and going like, this is very unusual fog.
Zuhair Al-Shawaa: It was devastating and I felt the vibe even when I came back how the whole city got really — like they missed a member of a family.
Ileana Tejada: I don’t know, I was just… I was paralyzed like I couldn’t move, I couldn’t respond to anything.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: It’s late at night, and there’s a cop standing in my room. He looks nervous and uneasy about the whole situation. He’s a young guy, maybe in his early twenties, and to me, looks like someone who never planned on being a cop. Like a high school athlete who figured joining the force would give him the same rush that football once did. I doubt he pictured getting called to settle domestic violences cases. Maybe he imagined getting called to like, bank shootouts and high speed chases on the 10 Freeway. Instead, he’s right here, in my bedroom making small talk with an eleven year old kid who just got into a fight with his mom’s boyfriend.
Voice (Zack Furniss): “What do you think of Kobe?”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: The cop said while grabbing the sports section of the paper on my desk. Kobe’s face was on it.
Voice (Zack Furniss): “He’s too young to be in the NBA, right?”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: “I don’t know. I think he’s gonna be, OK.” This is California Love. And I’m Walter. KOBEEEEEEE!
“Channel 9’s regularly scheduled programming will not be seen in order to present the following sports special..”
“ABC’s sports, brings you game number five of the NBA, championship playoffs with the Los Angeles Lakers, leading in the series.”
From Inglewood, California another capacity crowd 17,5 - 0 - 5 to see the fourth game....
Walter Thompson-Hernández: It always seemed like the Lakers were the NBA’s best team and always had the league’s best players.
The Lakers come away. It’s Magic in the middle. Quick hit to Nixon.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: I mean, shit we had Magic.
Tapped in finally by Magic Johnson
Kareem, 6 for 6 from the field.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: We had Kareem.
THe Lakers get it. They go to Wilt with it.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Wilt. Jerry West.
Van Exel for three.. TIE!
Walter Thompson-Hernández: And we had Nick Van Exel too. It felt like having a winning team was a big part of our city’s magic.
Buzzer … banks it in! OHHHHHH he banks in the three!
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Almost like each player and each era gave us something different to be proud about — something to look forward to every night.
David Tripler: Everyone wanted the game on. My grandmother would always turn into the specialist, the expert on why the Lakers weren't playing, right. And it would always be a running joke that, you know, if she was coaching instead of Phil Jackson that she would figure it out… and it’s like… [chuckle]
Walter Thompson-Hernández: It could have been a break from a busy work week, or something to talk about with co-workers. We all had the Lakers. And it felt like we were a part of them.
The ball comes in Kobe’s got it, above the three point line and a little bit of time, one dibble pull up — FOR THE WIN HE GOT ITTTTTT! THE LAKERS WINNNNNN!
… and Kobe Byrant, making his first appearance in Madison Square Garden. 18 years of age and he’ll go to the free throw line.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: The week the cops showed up at our home, is the same week I first heard about Kobe. The same summer I used to record California Love when it came on the radio. Most people in L.A. were saying the same thing the cop said that night...
Police: He’s too young to be in the NBA (reverb)
Chuck Hearn: Kobe Bryant. Last night you get your first start as a pro, how’d it feel?
Kobe: It felt good, it felt good. Going out. With the starting line up, I tried to keep a straight face and keep a serious look but you know I can’t help but crack a little smile.
Loureen Ayyoub: I remember a lot of discussion with relatives of like, “Was it the right move? He should have went to college...should he have not went to college?”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: They said Kobe is too young, too inexperienced, too cocky.
Chuck Hearn: Speaking of high school, how big was the gym that you played in Marion? How many people?
Kobe: About 500 people.
Chuck Hear: 500?
Kobe: About 500 people.
Chuck: This seats 26,000.
Kobe: Yeah, I’m looking forward to it.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Kobe is this, Kobe is that. Maybe, he was all those things. Maybe, that’s why I liked him so much.
Chuck: What’s the difference?
Kobe: The difference is you have to make a contribution early on. You gotta go in there and produce right away and get the ball to the big fella … [fade]
Walter Thompson-Hernández: I didn’t know what it meant yet. That he would actually be a part of our lives for the next twenty years. And, he would change us — forever.
Stolen by Parker, here comes George to Kobe Bryant. Bryant inside! It’s GOOD!
Walter Thompson-Hernández: The same summer Kobe was drafted was the same summer that the Lakers traded for Shaq.
SHAQ: In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’ve signed with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Chuck: What about Shaq?
Kobe: Me and Shaq talk everyday. Everyday. Whether it’s in practice and he’s blocking one of my shots or I’m getting a lay up on him or something like that, you know, we’ll talk and we’ll give advice to one another or pumping each other up at the same time. He’s like my older brother.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: As an eleven year old, it was all music to my ears. Basketball was everything and my entire room was filled with posters. I had Michael Jordan, Eddie Jones, and a UCLA basketball National Championship poster. I played in the park everyday, all day. Sun up to sun down. And would take some money with me that I would hide in my socks to buy a hot dog and soda for lunch. And if you were a real one like I was, when your t-shirt got dirty, you flipped it around and you kept on playing but in hindsight, that was kinda nasty. But, anyways….
Ellie Hernández: For me, it was like, a golden door, because I knew you had the ability to play and you were very athletic since you were little. So to me, that was the golden key to make it in life.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: You remember the first time, you saw me play basketball, in High School?
Ellie Hernández: Ay Mijo — I remember that so clearly.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: What happened?
Ellie Hernández: so that every time I go by that high school. Ay — Yo lloró. Por que, It was very emotional. It was your first JV game and you were playing your first half. And you were playing AMAZING — oh my god! You were doing the Kobe style, I don’t remember what it’s called Mijo…? Como se llama?
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Finger roll.
Ellie Hernández: Finger rolls yes! Ohhhhh and everybody was clapping, I was so happy! And then after the half, you sat down on the floor. All I knew was you were sitting down and to me it was a very sad moment because that was my opportunity to see you become a good student and a basketball player. And after the game, I went up to you and said, “Mijo what did you do? Why didn’t you play?” And then you gave me a big hug. And I say, well, what's going on? And you said, “Mom, I made Varsity! So coach took me out of the game because I made Varsity! I'm in the Varsity team now!” Oh my God. First I was crying because I was sad. Now I'm crying because I was happy.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: My mom was able to send me to UCLA basketball camps. It’s where I met college stars, and people who I looked up to UCLA players who had just won a National Championship that year. I learned how to become a better basketball player. We played in games and did drills all day long.
I was in the dorms, I had my own room. And it felt like a resort. It was like, almost like a teenage Sandals, you know it was so much fun, we had pizza for every meal.
No — I’m not joking though that’s literally what it was.
Let’s see what happens this time, jumping from the corner. It’s good by Thompson. Thompson is a very good three-point shooter off the bench.
On the wing — Thompson!!!
Walter Thompson-Hernández: All that training came in handy years later when I played division one basketball, and then professionally. Kobe was only six years older than me. Close enough to feel similar but old enough to look up to.
Defense! Defense! Oh up shot by Kobe right over Yao! OH MY GOODNESS!
Walter Thompson-Hernández: He was smooth, handsome, and had confidence unlike any other seventeen year old I knew. And, he had just taken Brandy to prom that year.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Mo-to-the-e-to-the….. Moesha. Yep, Brandy. He was a star in my eyes from the first moment that he arrived in L.A. and he felt like an older brother. He was fearless and that’s something that all of L.A. could relate to. It didn’t matter where you lived: The Westside, Downtown, South Central, or the Eastside. It was all the same. Even though Kobe had his doubters, after only a few years, he proved them wrong. But I mean, I’m not saying he was a perfect player.
5 seconds left — 4 Bryant drives pull up — Kobe on the intersection, no one else in sight. OHHHHHH! He blew up.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: He did airball a few times during the Lakers-Jazz playoff series.
Zach Woolridge: I was kind of like, “Yo, like, really? You're just going to keep air balling?” like, crazy, but I don't know if Kobe becomes Kobe who Kobe is...
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Oh and that one time… when he got a coooold two piece from New York Knicks guard, Chris Childs. Pow pow
And now a fight breaks out between Kobe Byrant and Chris Childs. Chris Childs punched him twice.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: That was crazy. But it also didn’t stop him.
Jack Thomas: When they played the Sacramento Kings that was hate! And the way he used to fight with Doug Christie. And Kobe's sitting there. Just bobbing and staring at Doug Christie face to face. He goes to make Kobe flinch and Kobe does not flinch. He does not bat an eye. It's the most singular moment that tells you everything you need to know about Kobe Bryant. In the face of somebody gonna pop them in the face, he’s not even moved.
Chanting LETS GO LAKERS... A let’s go Lakers chant
------------------------------------------------ MID-ROLL 13:11 --------------------------------------------
Walter Thompson-Hernández: During my sophomore year in high school, racial tension between students really exploded. They were all over LA county. The root of the violence was unclear, but one thing was: black and brown students were getting swept up in them. People were fighting on the way to school, at school, and after school. Me and my friends wanted to stay clear of it all, so we stayed in the gym and played basketball. I carried my basketball wherever I went as a form of communication. I carried it on the bus, dribbled it down the street, and had it by my side all day long. It felt like it became a part of my body. Because I knew if people saw me with it they would be like, “Oh — he just plays basketball. He’s cool.” And it worked. People were fighting outside the gym. But inside, black and brown teenagers were trying to be just like Kobe.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: We all wore his jersey. Kobe was easy to love. He took us to the finals. And we won again.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: And again.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: And again.
Loureen Ayyoub: I think the Lakers were so important because they gave us just an opportunity to celebrate victory that everyone could be a part of. You know, when it comes to sports, yeah, there's no divide there. Coming from, you know, an immigrant Arab American family, my uncles and my dad like that's how they learned English watching the NBA.
Ileana Tejada: By the time I was in seventh and eighth grade. It was just like everyday Kobe Bryant Laker T-shirt. He was plastered all over my walls. I would save every single newspaper clipping that came out and people didn't know me by my real name. My friends called me Kobe or Mrs. Bryant.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: We yelled: KOBEEEEEEE. Whenever we shot paper into trash cans during class. Man — I got in trouble for that so many times in class. We yelled it on the courts in Venice and out in East L.A. You didn’t need to love basketball to love Kobe.
Kobe and Vanessa met in 1999 when he was twenty and she was seventeen. He was trying to be a rapper and met her on the set of his music video. You do remember he recorded a song right? For some reason, I was really involved in their relationship gossip.
Kobe: It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly makes a person the one for you but you just know. Love is a funny thing. I can’t explain it. I don’t understand it. But all I know is… she caught my heart and I just knew that she was the one.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: I wanted their relationship to work. Maybe it was because it was something I had wished my parents had. Vanessa also felt really relatable to me. She reminded me of one of my cousins and was only a couple years older than me. But when they married, and the city’s biggest hero had these Black-Mexican daughters — I felt an immediate emotional attachment to them.
[JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE INTV]
Walter Thompson-Hernández: I saw parts of myself in their daughters, in Gianna, in Natalia. In the identity questions I knew they had because I had them too. Those girls and I probably had different lives but seeing children like them was really beautiful to me. Kobe and Vanessa’s family didn’t solve our city’s racial problems but it sure did something to our spirits.
At times, Kobe flew higher than any human I thought could, and then there were also moments, like at a resort hotel in Eagle, Colorado, that he felt human, flawed, and to some, even a villain.
Kobe: I sit here in front of you guys, furious at myself for making a mistake of adultery…
David Tripler: Like No. Not, not the not the person that I've felt so passionately defends my values.
Lisa Kwon: I've learned that the people that I look up to so many of them have found ways or have done things that disappoint me in the end. So here I am tempering the way that I look up to somebody.
Loureen Ayyoub: I want to say back then I had this generalization that the culture of the NBA was a womanizing culture, and so I almost wasn't surprised. Later, when you start to understand the details, and you're like, you understand how heavy this is, of course, it's disappointing.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: As a high school senior, it was hard to reconcile the image of Kobe and the reality that he had been charged with sexual assault. Part of me really wanted to ignore the allegations, while a different part of me wanted to understand what would lead Kobe to commit adultery and force himself on a nineteen year old woman. He even admitted to understanding that for her, it was not consensual. It was in stark contrast to the wholesome image that so many of us believed in. That I believed in.
Zach Woolridge: When he lived, and people don't want to talk about this, he was very polarizing. Right? So as a ballplayer, he could be marked as selfish. As a companion in marriage, he could be marked as a cheater. In the court of law, if you know, some people don't forgive people and he could be looked at as a rapist.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Sports heroes are a form of escape and can allow us to enter a world removed from our day-to-day. It’s like they’re a vessel to help us travel back to a time when all the dreams we had as children still seemed viable and like they had a chance of becoming true. Kobe was that for a lot of people. The news that he had been charged with sexual assault forced people to really question their beliefs and even question their own dreams. He had a long way to fall and when he fell, and it felt like we all fell too.
Kobe: I’m so sorry, for having to put you through this, for having to put our family through this.
[Announcer: Walter Thompson Senior from Venice, California…]
Walter Thompson-Hernández: When I was a student athlete at the University of Portland, I would come back to LA every summer. I came back home to be with friends and family and to train for the upcoming season. I played in summer pick-up at UCLA. And It felt special to be there. With people like Baron Davis, Carmelo Anthony, Paul Pierce, and other well-known NBA players. The gym was filled with agents and fans and students who watched as we played inside of the three-court hardwood gym. I’d sometimes play in a few games a day with all these people I admired, but who didn’t know who I was and would mostly refer to me not by my name, but by the color of my shirt. They used to be like: “Hey Blue, Hey Red, or Hey Grey.” It took months, but the first time one of those NBA players called me by my name — man, it felt great.
But something even more unbelievable happened next.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Oh shit that’s Kobe.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Kobe walked in one day. Sneakers stopped their squeaks. Basketballs were caught and held. The echo of laughter, stopped dead in the air. The silence made you more aware of the smell of the place: sports creme, old spice deodorant, sweat. And we were all looking at Kobe. He was wearing black sunglasses, a track suit, Jordan 3’s. Literally in my mind, I watched him walk and I’m like — ohhhhhh ---- with the golden ora.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Oh shit that’s Kobe.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: What the fuck that’s Kobe — shit was crazyyyyy. Shit was wild. He might have been floating. I don’t know. He probably was. The guy was definitely floating. He walked up to our group and greeted the people he knew, like Coach Hazzard, my high school basketball coach, who at that point in his life was the Lakers scout. I hoped he would shake my hand, too. But instead, he just gave me a quick head nod.
A half hour later, first game was under way. I was playing against Kobe. I wasn’t even mad that I wasn’t on Kobe’s team. I was just happy to be there.
So I’m on the court and I’m trying to do my job. I’m trying to guard my guy and I’m failing cuz I’m just watching Kobe the whole time. And he is so in control of his body, it’s Crazy. It felt like watching the most highly trained Broadway dancer. It felt poetic. About 10 minutes later, Kobe accidentally starts to guard me. Next thing I know, I’m under the basket. It’s just me and Kobe and he’s grabbing on my t-shirt. So I fake going left, I spin away, releasing his grip, and use a screen set by one of my teammates to get open. I sprint to get the ball. He’s right behind me. He’s on my tail. The ball lands in my hands. I square my feet and I set my eyes on the rim and release the ball high into the air as Kobe struggles to get over the screen.
Swish. Bucketsssss. So we actually ended up losing the game but scoring on Kobe was a big win for me. An hour after that game we had all called it quits and began cooling down. Hundreds of UCLA students had heard that Kobe was on campus. In a matter of minutes, the entire gym was swarming with students. A group of campus police approached Kobe and formed a human barricade around him while he put his tracksuit back on.
So Kobe looks at Coach Hazzard and he goes, “Ey Shead… Can you walk me to my car?” And Coach Hazzard goes, “Yeah, let’s do it.” Seconds later, I join them.
I found myself on Kobe’s left side, as we made our way through campus on a bright summer’s day. And I’m looking at Kobe the whole time. Earlier, on the basketball court I was trying to play it cool but walking next to him, I lost my shit. I was that 10 year-old kid again. Bright eyed, excited, hyped to be walking next to Kobe Bryant. And in what universe do I get to score a basket on Kobe and walk next to him on the same day? This was the craziest moment of my life.
And I’m looking at Kobe walking and his eyes are staring at the whole campus. And he’s like so observant of everything going on around him. But he doesn’t see me or maybe he does but he plays it cool and doesn’t show it. But then he looks at me and like my whole like just stopped. And he opens his mouth and he says, “Man — college would have been fun and all, but I don’t know about all that fucking school work.”
And then like a minute later, Kobe gets in his car and drives off.
But I’m still shook that Kobe looked at me and spoke to me, and it’s a moment that I’ll never forget ever.
Good afternoon from New York, we’re coming on the air with breaking news, very sad news to tell the sports world the LA Times has reporting that retired Los Angeles Lakers Basketball star Kobe Bryant has been killed in a helicopter crash. It happened this morning
Walter Thompson-Hernández: On January 26th and Kobe and his daughter and seven other people were in a helicopter. They were flying above Calabasas and on their way to host his basketball camp. The helicopter crashed around 10 am.
Ileana Tejada: Cuz at that point I kind of knew that it was true. I got a message from one of my classmates in seventh grade. I have no idea how this dude got my number, but he was like, You were the first person I thought of…I don't know, like I was just, I was paralyzed. For a good six hours after, I couldn't move, I couldn't respond to anything.
Nicholas Rose: … My body like it just like not went numb. Like last feeling like I started shaking like there's just like, no way. Like, never thought like, I couldn't believe that I my heart was like shattered. I was like, there's no way.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: What's crazy is that, you know, that text tread that. It's me, you Jordan and mint. Like, that's how I found out like...
Zach Woolridge: Oh, wow, yeah…
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Like men texted that thread. Like some like TMZ you know, story and like, that's how I found out and man, I could not believe it.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: I cried for almost three hours in my room — alone and thought about Kobe. Then I went outside. Within hours of the news breaking, I saw so many people wearing Kobe jerseys. Number 8. Number 24. It felt like the whole city had one on. People who looked like they had never played a day of basketball in their lives but they all had on his jersey. And drove by a woman who cried as she bought roses from a man on Slauson. I think she was crying for kobe. On a different street corner, I saw the same guy who sold RIP NIPSEY HUSSLE shirts, now selling RIP KOBE ones. When Nipsey was killed, I felt like South Central mourned. But when Kobe died, it felt larger, it felt like the whole city felt it. And the world.
Ellie Hernández: I lost it. I was crying. Couldn't believe it. You were the one who gave me the news, I knew you were sad. And I knew inside of me that I lost like, like a family member. it's just like you've lost your role model. Somebody important in my son's life. Someone who helped me change my son.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Honestly, sometimes it feels like the only time we come together in LA is in extremes. It’s like we’re great at celebrating. And we are great at grieving. But nothing in between. We come together in grief after disasters, fires, earthquakes, and pandemics. When we are shaken, we reach out to help each other. Kobe wasn’t a fire or an earthquake, but his death definitely changed us. Some rumors say that Kobe held on to Gigi as the helicopter crashed. And, maybe, there’s something beautiful to take from that. Maybe that’s one thing that we can do moving forward, is hold each other.
Loureen Ayyoub: You know, when I was at the memorial service, in particularly just the days after he died in the areas outside the Staples Center when they were putting flowers out for him. I mean you just saw a beautiful picture of L.A. You had the Latinos, you had the Armenians, you had the Russians, Middle Eastern, African American, Caucasian you saw every color, Asian Americans, and that just brought me so much joy because that was Kobe. Kobe's legacy is restoring the unity that L.A. was always intended to have.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: When Kobe was good he was great. When L.A. is good, it’s also great. Kobe — This is a thank you. A really big thank you. Thank you from that kid on his bed in his room talking to a cop, who didn’t know what you would mean to me. Thank you for giving me something to root for. Thank you for playing and making me want to play. For keeping me on the court and out of trouble. You really saved my life, man. And, my mom, wants to thank you too.
Ellie Hernández: Thank you, Kobe.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Thank you.
And thanks to:
Dr. Lareef Idroos
All these people helped us remember Kobe. And remind us of who we are. And who he was.
The lead producer for this episode is Tamika Adams
Supporting producer is Megan Tan.
Our editor is Arwen Nicks.
And our producer is Elizabeth Nakano.
Valentino Rivera is our engineer.
Original music by Andrew Eapen.
This episode was written by me, Walter Thompson-Hernandez with help from Tamika Adams and Arwen Nicks.
Angela Bromstad is the Executive Producer.
California Love is a production of LAist Studios.
Thank you for listening — I really appreciate you.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Eh hold up, hold on... there will be sex in this episode. Just felt like you should know. Cool?
Yesika Salgado: I dial 213-620-8838. And the little guy answers…
Operator (Zack Furniss ) “You've called the Hollywood Party Line”
Yesika Salgado: “The number where something, something, something, something something…”
Operator (Zack Furniss): “ You must be 18 years or older to continue”
Yesika Salgado: Get ready to join the fun.
Operator (Zack Furniss) Guys press 1. Ladies press 2.
Operator (Zack Furniss): Please hold
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Telephone party lines have been around for a while. They first became really popular in the 1930s. But this was because people had to share a phone line. And then, the 1980s hit and everything changed. You could actually call into these. You get the number from a friend, you would call, and boom.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: You’re now on the phone with tons of other people. I started calling in the late 90s. I was just 13 the first time I called the p-line.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Ey what’s up y’all, it’s me Lil’ Brownie.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: This was pre-Myspace, pre-Facebook, pre-everything, really.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Who’s all up in here?
Walter Thompson-Hernández: So look — in real life I was a goofy 13-year-old. But on the P Line — I was someone else. I was an eighteen-year-old mechanic who lived in Culver City.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: I’m 6’3’’ I’m in the gym everyday. You know — looking buff.
You know, I really thought that’s what girls wanted to hear. The P LIne gave me a rush, and to be honest, it’s where I learned how to talk to girls for the first time. You see — I was pretty shy, I had a lisp - I still do. I stuttered, and I didn’t have the courage to approach girls I liked. But on the P Line — I could be Little Brownie.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: I’m looking fresh you know.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Little Brownie didn’t stutter.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Damn you sound good where you stay at?
Walter Thompson-Hernández: That’s why I called, and kept calling. I was young and trying to fit in. But looking back — I can see that the P Line was SO much more than a bunch of teenagers just hanging out on the phone.
Guadalupe Rosales: Chaoo — Hey, what's up? It’s Lupe. Also known as Adorable. From East LA’s Aztec Nation...Latez
Guadalupe Rosales: I mean I grew up in the fucking hood. So — This is a time when a lot of violence, a lot of like, incarcerations, gang violence, specifically, was on the rise, you know, so we're already being criminalized. I'm already being, like handcuffed by police. I'm already being told that brown kids are criminals. I do think that for most people The Party Line is a safe space. And we can be who we want to be.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: For me, and for Lupe — The P Line felt like we were entering an entirely different world.
Zack Furniss: For room 1, press 1.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: It’s lil Brownie — who’s all up in here?
Erick Galindo: How you doin’
Angela Aguirre: Are there any girls in here?
Angela Aguirre: Hi I’m Victoria. Oh play this song play this song.
Megan Tan: EYYYYYYYYYY
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Oh shit I love that song bro — turn it up. Turn it up. Bro, whatchu know about that song? — You way too young.
Walter Thompson-Hernández:Oh what’s up girl you sound good.
Yesika Salgado: What’s your name?
Yesika Salgado: What’s your name?
Guadalupe Rosales: We live in this fantasy world —
Yesika Salgado Man Impersonation: Hollywood, what do you look like?
Yesika Salgado: Well I’m short.
Yesika Salgado Man Impersonation: How short?
Yesika Salgado: 4’11’’
Guadalupe Rosales: You have a bunch of teenagers and trying to like, describe ourselves, you know, rather than like, well, how do people see us?
Yesika Salgado: I’m not thick, but I’m not like super thin.
Guadalupe Rosales: I’m wearing a crop top
Guadalupe Rosales: I mean even if I’m wearing fucking sweats, I’m not going to say I’m wearing sweats and chanclas… hahahaha
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Damn you sound good, where you stay at?
Erick Galindo: Eyyyyy yo — where all the hyenas at?
Yesika Salgado Man Impersonation: So do you have a big butt?
Yesika Salgado: Yeah you know, I don’t have any complaints
Angela Aguirre: I have big boobs.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Oh, is that right?
Walter Thompson-Hernández: On one of the p-lines I used to call there were about 10-12 different rooms. If you wanted to switch rooms, you’d press a number on your phone.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: And every time you pressed that number you would switch from room to room.
Operator (Zack Furniss) For room 2 press 2
Walter Thompson-Hernández: And when you entered a room, you announced yourself.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Ey what’s up y’all it’s me Lil’ Brownie
Angela Aguirre: How do you dress?
Walter Thompson-Hernández: I’m lookin fresh.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: I got Jordans on my feet. I got a fresh fade all the time
Guadalupe Rosales: This person sounds hot to me.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Well, let’s kick it — let’s go to a private.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Getting someone’s private number was always the goal of The P Line. Because if you go into a private room you can talk to that person without anyone else being in there. But man — getting someone’s private was also one of the hardest things to do
Voice (Valentino Rivera): Ey — what’s your code, what’s your code?
Voice (Tamika Adams): 562!
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Because every room had its haters.
Voice (Tamika Adams): My code’s 562!
Walter Thompson-Hernández: The way to make sure no one would hear anything was to blow on your phone as loudly as possible.
Voice (Tamika Adams): Meet me in there, meet me in there, 562!
Walter Thompson-Hernández: For me, the goal was to meet up with the people from the P Line. Sometimes it would be at a kick back or at some rave or a warehouse party. Some would meet to hookup, while others would meet up to fight. But a lot of times people would got catfished and stood up. But we all still called. And for some of us — getting off the phone — was actually the hardest part.
[Phone pick up]
Ellie Hernández: Walter — GET OFF THE PHONE!
Walter Thompson-Hernández: MA come on — PLEASE — just five more minutes. Come on come on.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Sorry about that. This is California Love — And I’m Little Brownie.
Operator (Zack Furniss): For room three - press 3.
Erick Galindo: Oh you’re down on Florence?
Angela Aguirrea: What’s up. This is East side cloverettes.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: I used to call from the phone in my mom’s room. And honestly, I was on there to flirt.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Drop that zero get with a hero girl
[Tai French laughing]
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Flirting, pretending, trying to have game.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: So what’s up are we gonna link up or what?
Guadalupe Rosales: I don’t know, well... are you gonna come pick me up [fade]
Yesika Salgado: Hey!
Yesika Salgado Man Impersonation: Hey baby you sound good, what’s your name?
Yesika Salgado: Hollywood.
Yesika Salgado Man Impersonation: Are you single?
Yesika Salgado: Sometimes.
Yesika Salgado Man Impersonation: What do you mean sometimes?
Yesika Salgado: : Sometimes I’m single, sometimes I’m not.
Yesika Salgado Man Impersonation: Well, then what are you today?
Yesika Salgado: mmmmm I don’t know yet, we’ll see keep talking.
Yesika Salgado: Oh, I'm Jessica. But my Party Line name is Hollywood.
Yesika Salgado Man Impersonation: Where are you from?
Yesika Salgado: Heaven. Laughing.
Yesika Salgado Man Impersonation: Oh I bet you’re an angel.
Yesika Salgado: Sometimes… laughing
Yesika Salgado: I was the weird girl with the parents that wouldn't let her hang out with anybody. I didn't know how to brush my hair. I couldn't figure out the right product to put in it — I felt like I was a sore thumb, like I was just this odd creature.
Yesika Salgado Man Impersonation: Hollywood what do you look like?
Yesika Salgado: Slim but not thick, athletic. I’ve done track and field my whole life.
Yesika Salgado Man Impersonation: You sound so sweet, you sound so beautiful.
Yesika Salgado: I'm on the Party Line and I'm talking to a boy. Finally, I'm beautiful and everything I do is the right thing. I’m funny enough, and I'm beautiful enough and I'm smart enough and there's something really special and magical about me that he can't understand, and he just feels honored to have me in his life and I'm this little treasure he discovered.
Yesika Salgado: [laughing]
Voice (José Paz): [laughing] Pretty much yeah.
Yesika Salgado: The appeal of The Party Line for me is that I'm the popular girl here. I’m the girl who sets the standard, I’m the beautiful girl. And I would rather preserve that — then tell him the truth.
Zack Furniss: For room four, press four.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Ey so where do you stay at?
Yesika Salgado: Sometimes here, sometimes there
Erick Galindo: [Breathing] Heyyyy what’s up?
Walter Thompson-Hernández: But where?
Yesika Salgado: In my house
Erick Galindo: Oh my godddd I’m so fadeeeeed.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: But where?
Yesika Salgado: Where I’m at.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: EY — Where do you live?
Yesika Salgado: In my house.
Yesika Salgado: And then it’ll just be an endless loop of that. Until either they laugh or get fed up and start cussing me out.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Ey — you ain’t better than me though.
Yesika Salgado: I don’t think that, you think that. Cuz you’re the one who said it.
Erick Galindo: Hey Yoooooooo
Walter Thompson-Hernández: EY if you were a dude I’d fuck you up.
Yesika Salgado: Oh that’s great to know, that you go around fantasizing women are men.
Yesika Salgado: Just being able to say whatever I want without somebody making back, well you're fat. I’m fat, that's considered the biggest sin. That's considered the biggest insult. And the fact that that's not a possible thing when I'm on The Party Line makes me feel like I can say or do whatever I want, because I can say and do whatever I want because I have it I don't have an easy x on myself.
Operator (Zack Furniss): For room five, press five.
Guadalupe Rosales: That’s what’s uppppp
Tai French: Heyyyyyy
Erick Galindo: What's up it’s Pistol Pete from Paramount…
Voice (Walter Thompson-Hernández): Pistol Pete — fuck you BRO — you a leva homie
Erick Galindo: But really my name is Erick. I’m here to entertain myself. Because I’m really bored.
Erick Galindo: What’s everyone wearing?
Tai French Man Impersonation: I got Jordans on my feet. I got all the new Jordans always.
Voice (Walter Thompson-Hernández): I got a green flannel right now
Guadalupe Rosales: Right now I’m wearing these black Ben Davis or Frisco Bands.
Voice (Tai French): Hi my name is Caramel Cutie, I’m small in the wait, cute in the face and ready to party.
Voice (Walter Thompson-Hernández): Ey what’s up Carmel! You brown and smooth or what? I like that name.
Erick Galindo: If it was a girl who for some reason sounded very attractive to me,
Voice (Tai French): Hi It’s me, Pieces Queen.
ERICK: I might spit some game. I don't know what I would say though cuz I don't really have game. [laughing] Cuz, it’s difficult to pick up when you can’t see the person. Because if you can see the person you can say, oh man, baby looks so beautiful or you’re the most beautiful woman in this room — And it’s a busy room.
Angela Aguirrea: Hey, what’s up?
Erick Galindo: How you doin?
Angela Aguirrea: What are you guys up to?
Voice (Guadalupe Rosales): Ey — What’s up Mija?
Erick Galindo: Is that your daughter? Is your father on the party line? [laughs]
Voice (Walter Thompson-Hernández): Dang somebody’s Daddy’s on the PLine…
Angela Aguirrea: [Laughs]
Erick Galindo: Yeah, humor would probably be my attempt at trying to pick up a hot girl.
Voice (Guadalupe Rosales): Ey Mija so what’s up are we gonna hangout?
Yesika Salgado: Ahhhh this is so annoying.
Voice (Yesika Salgado): you wanna go one-on-one?
Yesika Salgado: Yeah, let’s go one-on-one. My code is 1-1-3 what’s yours?
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Ok, so imagine you’re a teenager and you can do ANYTHING you want on the Pline — Come on, you know exactly what’s about to happen.
Operator (Zack Furniss): You are now in a private room.
[Please dial your code]
[BEEP BEEP BEEP]
Operator (Zack Furniss): you have dialed your code. Please hold.
Yesika Salgado: When I’m on the Party Line, I like to think of it as me being like ultimate, feminie, goddess powers.
Yesika Salgado: Hey — I missed you today.
Voice: I missed you too.
Yesika Salgado: Hollywood got pregnant at 18 and had a kid with a man who is a Marine. And Hollywood and this Marine, eloped. She was in college. Hollywood had degrees…? None of that was happening in my life. [laughing] As time went on, the story grew...Goodness. I had a friend once tell me, there’s some truth behind every lie.
Operator (Zack Furniss): A guest is entering the room
Yesika Salgado: Every time I was on The Party Line I talked to a lot of boys.
Yesika Salgado: laughing
Yesika Salgado: There’s just something about him that feels very familiar. He feels like the boys I grew up with. He is a Latino kid from L.A. that is into graffiti just like my first actual boyfriend.
It’s always late. And I lower my voice as much as I can. I slow it down... and I sigh a lot.
Yesika Salgado: Oh — I wish you were here with me.
Voice: Me too
Yesika Salgado: And I toss and turn. [laughing]... it’s funny, I’ve never actually talked to anybody about this outloud… ok. When you turn yourself over to somebody else for sex. You're always worried like, are they gonna see this part of me or they're not gonna like this part of me. I did — did I shave — did I do this? Did I do that? You know. And then during phone sex, none of that is present. It’s this… it’s the most reciprocal kind of sex I’ve ever had. Because we’re both contributing to the story. And we’re laying in bed and it starts with…
Voice: So what are you wearing…?
Yesika Salgado: Oh — a t-shirt and panties
Voice: If I was there next, to you, what would we do?
Yesika Salgado: If you were next to me, I would kiss you.
Voice: I would look into your eyes. I would caress your back. I would run my hand down the curve of your body.
Yesika Salgado: I feel — myself getting wet.
Voice: I would take a rose and slide it from the top of your head down your nose
Yesika Salgado: Getting aroused.
Voice: Down your lips, down your neck,
Yesika Salgado:Them breathing heavy for you.
Voice: between your breast to your navel.
Yesika Salgado: Your heart racing for them.
Voice: And then you would open yourself up to me.
Yesika Salgado: And I was just like, What was that!?! Like I don’t know what just happened [laughing]. And he laughs and he said, “Oh you came.” I’m like what do you mean I came? And he was like, that’s what an organism feels like. And then after that… I was having them 2-3 times a day…
Walter Thompson-Hernández: I told you it went down on the P LIne. I wasn’t playing.
Erick Galindo: The only thing I knew about sex was from like TV, you know? From movies from porn. And so I was just imitating what I had seen, what I had heard. Like I remember just just following the lead of this person who seemed to be very, very experienced in both actual sex and phone sex. So she's describing what's being done. And I'm just repeating what she's saying. She's got my penis in her mouth, and I'm like, “Okay, my penis is in your mouth.” It was probably not great, you know? [laughing]. First of all, it's like, the family phone, you know? Like, I don't know if I want to be holding my penis in one hand and holding my family phone against my face?
Angie Aguirre: Listen to it for a little while and then skip to the next room.
Operator (Zack Furniss): Don’t hang up, you’ll be connected after this message.
[MIDROLL] @ 16:06
Operator (Zack Furniss): Welcome back to the Party Line
Walter Thompson-Hernández: The P Lline sometimes got real, especially as people got older. You wanted to meet these people in real life but you also didn’t want to ruin the fantasy. So, sometimes the line between fantasy and reality got blurred.
Erick Galindo: By the time I was 17 and 18, we're still going on The Party Line and then the stakes are a little higher. We had money, we had part time jobs, we can go out and act on these experiences. At that point. My friends were using it to get dates. So my friend, José, calls me, he wants to go on The Party Line. He's addicted to the party line. He wants to go on, I say sure.
Erick Galindo: I'm on three-way now.
Voice (Valentino Rivera): Hey yo — what’s up?
Voice (Tamika Adams): Hey… What’s your name?
Erick Galindo: And he says…
Voice (Valentino Rivera): Ey what’s up girl — I’m Eric, from Downey.
Erick Galindo: I’m Eric from Downey
Voice (Tamika Adams): Ey — you sound cute, Erick from Downey
Erick Galindo: And that was the first time I ever heard that he was using my name as his alias.
Voice (Tamika Adams): What you wanna meet up or what?
[Duck under: ...You can come here if you want, my son has a basketball game and then you can take me out.]
Erick Galindo: He's having an entire relationship with the woman from Long Beach, who's got a kid who's like 40 years old, and she thinks his name is Eric from Downey.
Voice (Tamika Adams): You want to come here?
Voice (Valentino Rivera): I’ll do that.
Erick Galindo: I’m like “Fool, stop using my fucking name. So you're fucking this girl and she's yelling my name like, that's weird. Like, don't you get creeped out by that?” And he was like, “Nah, I don't care.” Like, he was on a mission to get a girl. That's all it was. And this was his like outfit. You know, this was like, he like he was wearing a shirt. Like, I
was like a T-shirt to him, you know?
Walter Thompson-Hernández: OK, so you have all these teenagers flirting, pretending to be older, probably some gross older dudes trying to be young too. But there were two rules on The P Line. Number one. You do not fuck with kids. Like we were kids but you know, like little kids who you could tell were like 10 years old trying to be older. Number two. Don’t get caught catfishing. Even if we are all making up identities, using our friends' name or whatever, you don’t get caught. Because if you did, someone would put you on blast. There was a P Line blog. And if you got caught pretending to be someone you weren’t, they’d put your picture up there and it was like, that was it, you’re outed. Exposed.
Operator (Zack Furniss): Press 9 to go to the back nine rooms.
Yesika Salgado: I didn't want to end up on the party line blog, where they quote unquote, expose people, which was where they put their pictures.
Voice (Yesika Salgado): When can I see you? Why can't I see you?
Yesika Salgado: My parents won’t let me.
Voice (Yesika Salgado): Why can't you email me a picture? Why can't you add me on my space?
Yesika Salgado: I don't have a computer.
Voice (Yesika Salgado): Why can’t I go to your school to pick you up?
Yesika Salgado: I — I can't go. I have to do XYZ.
Yesika Salgado: I...
Yesika Salgado: When a man finds out that I’ve been lying to them about who I am, that I’m not what they thought they were signing up for? All of the intimacy and everything gets pulled out from under me. Instantly… And I’m left with myself and all of the feelings that brought me to The Party Line. And I’m still the girl that has to lie to feel romantic love. And then I’m still like... sorry it took me back. You know I’m still the girl that has a really complicated life that I can’t even begin to untangle it and the other life that I built for myself isn’t real and it’s a reminder of how much of a mess I am.
I didn't think that what I was doing wrong was lying. I thought that what I was doing wrong was getting men to fall in love with a fat woman.
Operator (Zack Furniss): For room 10 press 1-0.
Guadalupe Rosales: I don't even know if it's lying, like lying sounds like, “Oh, you did something bad. You're lying.” It's more like this ideology of who we think we are. You know, or how much information we're going to put out there. As a 15-16 year old, I wasn't out. You know, as a brown queer person, I’m not out. So, I feel like my awkwardness, my shyness, stems from that because I am trying to be someone who I'm not. But I don't know this, you know what I mean? I don't know that I'm supposed to be someone else.
Operator (Zack Furniss): For room 11 press 1-1.
Voice (Yesika Salgado): What’s your name?
Yesika Salgado: Oh, I’m Hollywood, who are you?
Voice (Yesika Salgado): Oh, I’m Robert.
Voice (Walter Thompson-Hernández): Robert you sound like a broke ass fool Robert. You pick Robert homie — you a Bitch…
Voice (Yesika Salgado): No you sound like a bitch. Come to my pad.
Voice (Walter Thompson-Hernández): Drop the addy right now. Drop the addy. I’ll pull up — it’s nothin foo.
Voice (Walter Thompson-Hernández): Pull up bro
Voice (Yesika Salgado): No, you give me your address
Voice (Walter Thompson-Hernández): pull up foo
Yesika Salgado: Do you really need a hug that bad? That you’re going to drive all the way across town just to go hug somebody? I think you like him.
Voice (Walter Thompson-Hernández): Don’t be scared. Don’t be a leva.
Erick Galindo: Come down then… like
Voice (Walter Thompson-Hernández): You’re a bitch Homie.
Erick Galindo: Getting your life threatened by someone that can't really hurt you is the most fun thing. I think. it's like, if a fly could talk, you know, they're just like yelling and screaming.
Voice: What’s up what’s up, this is big bad Highland Park — representin all the Avenues.
Erick Galindo: Oh yeah — Motha fucka
Voice: Where you from? Fuck your barrio.
Voice (Walter Thompson-Hernández): Pull up fool.
Erick Galindo: The way I see it, If I’m in this room and I’m just like a little nothing, then you’re probably just a little nothing, you know? What are the chances that like, the head of Florencia Tresa is banging on the party line, you know? The guys who are on going on the party line, who are really gangsters. They're going on to escape. Here's where they're gonna pretend to be the nicest guy you've ever met. The love of your life, a sweetheart.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Pistol pete. I don’t know if I agree with you — I got hit up by those guys all the time and they weren’t being sweet to me or girls on the pline. I never got beat up. But I knew people who got jumped and did the jumping.
Operator (Zack Furniss): For room 12 press 1-2.
Guadalupe Rosales: Like gang banging on the telephone, like maybe there were 13, 14 year old boys who found that they could do that and not get shot.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Yeah, I’m pretty sure I was one of those kids. I was trying to be hard in the streets and on The P Line, way harder than I really was. Entire friendships would form on The P Line, people who you swore had known each other their entire lives. The friends I made when I was young were different. It felt like the stakes were really high for us and like the only people who understood us were the other people on The P Line. It's like we were all part of a special club.
Guadalupe Rosales: I've experienced a lot of dangerous kickbacks. We're hanging out in like, maybe in the park and someone starts to fight and then they leave us there. They leave us stranded, like far away from our house so then we have to figure out how to get home.
Also, this is like, also when we were hanging out with cholos, and you know, like rival gangs. Cops would fuck with us all the time, they were hanging out on the street. So yeah, it wasn't safe. But at the time, we were not thinking about that, we're not thinking about is this safe or not because that's what it was. We didn't know what wasn't safe.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Look — I'm not going to blame The P Line for things that happened in my real life. And nothing bad really happened to me from The P Line. Because, I followed the rules. Don’t fuck with kids. Don’t get caught catfishing. But some of the people on The P Line were bad people and they broke the rules.
Operator (Zack Furniss): For room 13 press 1-3.
Angela Aguirre: Hi, I’m Victoria or Alejandra.
Angela Aguirre: [laughing]… The goal was to always sound older [laughing….] So I'm 12 years old in sixth grade. I was like the older version of Dora the Explora and I was just like, just kind of dorky, I don't know and artistic and silly. There would be times where we got caught like giggling and then the guy would get mad like — “AHHH y’all are some little ass girls.” LAUGHING… Yeah, I knew what we were doing was bad. I knew we weren’t supposed to be doing that. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have to hide. One other girl that lived in my apartment building came over and she was always the like, more adventurous one. Teresa was talking to a guy and he started like being really specific about where we were.
Voice: Have I seen you in the neighborhood?
Angela Aguirre: ha
Voice: So, You live over by the payless right?
Angela Aguirre: ummm..
Voice: I’ve seen you. You’re in those grey apartments.
Angela Aguirre: And it was weird because it was like, How the fuck could he possibly know that?
Voice: You live alone?
Angela Aguirre: And I hung up the phone. And she got mad, but I was like, Teresa, how did that not scare you? Playing on the phone is one thing, but being in person with somebody is a whole different thing.
She met up with someone from The P Line and um… she said no and he didn’t listen and.... I don't think she felt like she could tell anybody else. So I just didn’t say anything, I just hugged her and it was just so sad… I just hugged her. I did say promised me I'll never get on it again. And I won't either. It felt like there was no more childhood like after that.
Walter Thompson-Hernandez: For me and most of my friends, you just got jumped.
But it seems like it was more dangerous for girls than it was for me. Not just in L.A. and not just because of The P Line. I got off The P Line when I was 15, when I changed my life around and started going to school again but I remember having withdrawals from the p-line because I was addicted to the fun and to the rush. Lupe left The P Line for real life and started going out with her party crew more, she was only on it for a couple years. Erick stopped calling after he got a car. Of all my friends who used party lines, Yesika aka Hollywood, was on it longer than anyone else I knew.
Yesika Salgado: It’s a character - uh - I nurtured for 15 years.
Walter Thompson-Hernandez: 15 years and no she wasn’t on the phone 24/7 but she was on it enough that she was leading a double life. On the phone she was Hollywood, in Silver Lake she was Yesika, the poet.
Yesika Salgado: Poetry has always been the most important thing to me ever.
Walter Thompson-Hernandez: Yesika started going to poetry open mics when she was 23 and she loved it. She is an incredible writer and performer. She would get up and read and 200 or more people would be in the audience.
Yesika Salgado: Getting complimented meant so much to me because I had just never connected my body and my writing at the same time in the same space. And so for me to know that people were still listening to my poems past my physical me — was so encouraging for somebody with the body dysmorphia that I had and with how much I was running away from myself at the time. But I was still coming home to be on The Party Line and I remember thinking why do I keep doing this?
Walter Thompson-Hernandez: Being Hollywood gave Yesika a lot. She sharpened her wit. She formed deep relationships with men. I mean, she even had her first orgasm on the pline. And for 15 years she could handle it, she managed the fantasy world where she was this queen. But year 15 she is talking to this one guy and he asks for a picture. I mean — they all asked for pictures but this time she was tired of lying. And she just came clean.
Yesika Salgado: I was at work and I took a break and I was sitting on the curb, crying. I couldn’t get myself to send this man a picture of myself. And I was like, when you see me, you're going to hate me. When you see me, you're going to hate me.
Walter Thompson-Hernandez: And he was like, “Okay, let me see your face.”
Yesika Salgado: I finally sent him a picture. And then he was like, why didn't you give me the option of choosing? And then I told him, “If you knew what I looked like from the beginning, you would have never talked to me.” And he said, “How do you know that you took that choice away from me?” Like I don’t give myself the option for the real me. I could, I would pick the other I would pick fake Yessica. Oh, shoot, I freakin really hate myself. So then I found a therapist. And then I quit everything cold turkey.
Walter Thompson-Hernandez: And that’s why Yesika got off the P Line.
Zack Furniss: For room 14 press 1-4
Yesika Salgado: My code is 113 what’s yours?
Operator (Zack Furniss):You are now, in a private room. Please dial your code.
[BEEP BEEP BEEP]
Operator (Zack Furniss): You have dialed your code. Please hold
Operator (Zack Furniss): Yesika is now entering the room.
Yesika Salgado: If I could speak to younger Yessica on the Party Line, I will tell her that everything that everybody else has, she can have too. So go ahead and have fun on the party line and enjoy it. But your universe could be so much bigger than this. You know, so much bigger than this. And you deserve it all. You deserve everything you told yourself. You don't deserve and your body is not something you apologize. And your body doesn't determine whether people get to treat you as a person or not. And your body isn't an excuse for you to do ugly things that will hurt you in the long run. Nobody's keeping you on the phone other than yourself.
[Phone pick up]
Ellie Hernández: WALTER GET OFF THE PHONE!
Walter Thompson-Hernandez: Shit, sorry, I gotta go
The voices on this episode are, and we are so thankful for them:
The lead producers on this episode are MEGAN TAN and TAMIKA ADAMS
Our editor and is ARWEN NICKS
She also helped write this episode.
Another producer on this show is ELIZABETH NAKANO
Our Engineer is VALENTINO RIVERA
Original music by ANDREW EAPEN
Our Executive Producer is ANGELA BROMSTAD
And our party line voice is ZACK FURNISS
I helped to write this episode and I’m your host —
Lil’ Brownie aka Walter Thompson-Hernandez.
Thanks for listening. I really appreciate you.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: It’s Spring 2017 and I’m on the 733 bus line, heading west on Venice Boulevard. I’m sitting in the back of the bus. It’s the early afternoon, and there’s nobody else sitting next to me. I’m listening to music on my headphones when I notice an old friend hop on. It’s Ivan. And we used to be in the same circles when I used to tag in the early 2000s. Ivan hasn’t changed one bit. He’s still wearing oversized t-shirts and still speaks from the side of his mouth like he used to when we were teenagers. His hair’s still cut really low, too. It’s been more than fifteen years since we last saw one another.
Ivan: “Oh shit, what’s up man?”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: We dap each other up and hug. He sits next to me.
Ivan: “Ey……..you still write?”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: “Yeah……..I do still write.” This is California Love, and I’m Walter.
[Scared Straight ambi]
Walter Thompson-Hernández: I was twelve years old, and I was wearing the grey crew neck sweater and matching sweatpants that the officers had issued to me. My last name was written on the back of my sweater to identify me. In ‘97, the Scared Straight program met at the downtown L.A. Central Police Station three times a week. Twice a week we had classes, and on Saturdays that’s when we had boot camp.
They made us do push-ups, burpees, squats, sprints, and more burpees, and all on the station’s hot roof. About two dozen of us, all under the age of 17 were in the program, usually because a judge had ordered us to attend for some crime we had committed. One of the guys was a graffiti legend named Sight, a South Central writer whose name could be seen throughout the city. He was, what writers called, an all-city bomber. His stuff was everywhere.
I was like, “Damn, that’s Sight!”
Sight: What I do remember is um — all the cops getting mad at me, screaming at me in my face. The saliva all in my face.
[Scared Straight ambi]
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Some people were there for skipping school, fighting, or violating probation. But Sight and I? We were both there for graffiti vandalism.
Sight: I had about 10 or eleven warrants for graffiti, all kind of stuff…
[Door slam, footsteps]
Walter Thompson-Hernández: I started tagging with a group of friends I had met in middle school. And once I learned how to tag, I began to go out and paint the streets. Maybe it was all the things I was seeing and experiencing at home that drove me to be as far away from it as possible. My mom had a boyfriend at the time — this white dude — who was unemployed and smoked weed and drank heavily every single day. He was abusive and controlling towards me and my mom. And he and I would often physically fight, which led to numerous visits from the police. Home was definitely somewhere I didn’t want to be.
And Sight’s home life? It was just as rocky as mine.
Sight: Me and my mom were sleeping in parks in the car, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for night. We slept in a lot of back streets in South Central L.A., like Western, Imperial. And then the sheriffs will kick us out.
Sight: And we’ll move on one block over.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Graffiti was a lot of things for me. It was an outlet — a way for me to take out the rage, pain, and the hurt I was experiencing at home. The streets and walls, they were basically my therapy.
Sight: I existed when I did graffiti. I existed, and that’s why I started doing it, that sense of awakening, rebirth.
[Scared Straight ambi]
Walter Thompson-Hernández: The first Saturday that Sight and I were there, the inmates and guards took turns yelling at us. And he and I smiled at each other the whole time. (AW-HA). We thought they were suckers. Our moms were both with us that day. And we knew the guards couldn’t put their hands on us. So we felt safe. And we talked our shit.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Punk-ass cops.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: But Scared Straight? It actually didn’t scare me straight. In fact, it got me deeper into graffiti. About two years after I finished the program, I started catching spots with a guy named Aloe. He was pretty well known in the graf world — and the crazy part? He looked just like one of my favorite rappers.
Aloe: Yeah, everyone used to call me Tupac.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: In just a few months, we became like brothers and we joined the same crew.
Aloe: You were young and willing to do graffiti, so I was like, “Hey, we could be besties. And let’s do this together.”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Aloe’s talking like an old head right now, but he’s really only three years older than me. He and I spent everyday together painting the city. This means going out and tagging.
Aloe: I remember there were times I’m like, “Uhh, I don’t really feel like doing this.” You’re like, “Come on, let’s go.” And I’m like, “All right. Let’s go.” And we would go, and then it’s like once we’re there, it’s like, “Ah, like I’m so glad like I did this.” There’s a lot of people, too, like I knew a lot of people too and not everyone — like, they’ll say, “Oh, yeah, yeah. Let’s go. Let’s go.” But like who really wants to go, you know what I mean? Who’s really gonna go?
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Aloe and I spent a whole summer together. And our bond was stronger than any relationship I’ve had as an adult. ‘Cause he was also unhappy and tormented by his home life. We were just kids, but we understood each other’s pain, and how ignored we both felt.
Aloe taught me how to tag on the Venice Boulevard bus lines. We caught spots on the panels and the overhead lights.
Aloe: I taught him how to do everything that he knows.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Shut up!
Aloe: [LAUGH] So you're scribing into a transparent case. So people wouldn't be able to see it. There has to be some way to make what you just wrote pop out into the world. So usually what we would do is we would take like dirt from somewhere.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: So we’d lick our fingers and rub the tops of the lights
Aloe: You would smudge that on the spot. The dirt would end up filling the spaces of the graffiti spot that you just caught.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Bam.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Now your spot is going to be seen.
Aloe: I used to show him like different slap tags and how you write on a slap tag. For those of you that don't know, like Post Office used to have like stickers that people use for mailing. And graffiti artists just go and grab them. They’re free stickers. We could just write what we want on them.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: We’d sometimes go back to Aloe’s house after painting and lock ourselves in his room.
Aloe: Just smoke and drink in there, play music. Lot of Wu Tang. Lot of Tupac.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: All eyes on me
Aloe: Lot of Nas, lot of Biggie. And just write, just write, just write.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: We wrote our names all over the city because we felt invisible and it was fun.
Sight: I existed when I did graffiti. I existed.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: We painted freeway overpasses: National Boulevard, Robertson, Crenshaw. We painted billboards on Venice Boulevard. We painted at the Belmont yards, the L.A. River, and the motor yards. We were everywhere. But our names rarely stayed up for more than a few days.
For four years I tagged, and for four years a white guy named Joe Connolly painted over our spots. 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2001. This guy, Joe, made it his mission to buff out tags using paint and equipment he had purchased himself. Seeing him buff out my throw ups wasn’t a good feeling, because creating that art took a lot out of me. Like this one time, when I spent an entire night doing a piece with large bubble style letters on a rooftop near Pico and Robertson, and it was gone the very next morning. And I knew it was Joe. And it wasn’t just us, it was all of us. There was a whole city of kids putting up spots, trying to be seen, and then this white guy named Joe would come out and erase us again.
Joe was definitely a villian. It felt like he was our villain.
Joe Connolly: You could write all day long but you're never going to get up in the morning and see your shit ‘cause it’ll all be buffed.
Joe Connolly: “You couldn’t even read the sign earlier. You could not read the sign.”
Joe Connolly: My name is Joe Connolly. They call me The Graffiti Guerilla, among other things.
Joe Connolly: “Look at that! Isn’t that beautiful? I mean, it’s not like it was the day they made it. But it’s nice. Isn’t that nice looking?” Scrubbing sounds fade under.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Joe was a one man anti-graffiti unit. You may have seen his infamous sign up at Pico and Fairfax. It says:
Joe Connolly: Graffiti no longer accepted here. Please find a day job. Thank you. 1993. Joe Connelly, The Graffiti Guerilla.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Joe used to chase us out of the motor yards and paint over our spots. We all thought he was a city employee, but really Joe acted alone.
[Sounds of painting ambi]
Joe Connolly: After the King riots, a neighbor organized up. The building was still burned out, trees didn't want to get planted. All these people want to fix the neighborhood. Helicopters were everywhere.
So I went to this meeting, and they had all these things that people — they wanted people to do. There’s only like 7 or 8 of us there. So I'm sitting there and I'm thinking I'm not gonna say anything. I'm not volunteering. I mean I’m working seven days a week. I got two little kids. I'm making money. I'm not...
So they said uh graffiti was the last thing on the thing. They said, “You're taking graffiti.” I'm like, “Yeah, cool. That'd be excellent. ‘Cause there's no graffiti around.” I go out the next day. And I start driving around. I'm like, Oh my God.
Joe Connolly: “Kay, we out, right”?
Walter Thompson-Hernández: It was late summer 2000. Aloe and I spent a night catching spots all over the Westside before going back to his house to chill. And then, at 4 a.m., I got a weird craving for Hawaiian Punch. So we decided to walk to Ralph’s.
Aloe: And then you took a streak, and then for some some stupid reason I was like, “Hey, let’s record this.” And I took this video camera that I had.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: We didn’t make it to the store.
[Marker scribbling ambi]
Aloe: We cross the street, and you decide to start tagging on a trash can. And my dumb ass – instead of looking out, looking back – I’m looking in through the lens at you, and –
[Police radio ambi]
Aloe: Police pulled up on us.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: The cops handcuffed us, made us sit on the curb, and then separated us for questioning. I was already on probation for a previous graffiti offense. I thought I was for sure going to juvie.
The cops says to me,
Voice: “What’s your name?”
Back then, I hadn’t started also using my mom’s last name, Hernández. So I said, “Walter Thompson” and the cops were like,
Voice: “That’s not your name.”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: They thought I was lying to them. They thought Walter Thompson sounded like an eighty-year-old white dude’s name. And, now that I’m thinking about it, they were kinda right.
Aloe: I remember them asking me about that.
Voice: “So what’s your friend’s name?”
Aloe: And I was like, “Bezoe.” [laughing] ‘Cause I’m not trying to give up your name. I didn’t know what you said. So I was like, “Bezoe.” And the cop was like,
Voice: “Stop fucking around.”
Aloe:I was like, “I don’t know. I don’t know his name.” ‘Cause I was like, “Maybe he’s not gonna give his name.”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: So Aloe and I start laughing at the cops for not believing me. But the cops? They didn’t think it was funny. They got mad, and they got frustrated –
Walter Thompson-Hernández: And put us in separate cars and took us back to the station. I went home after three hours. But Aloe? He was there for almost 3 days.
[Spray can ambi]
Sight: People can just know me as Sight. S-I-G-H-T.
My mom kicked me out when I graduated from high school. She kicked me out because she felt she couldn’t afford to take care of me anymore. So here I am thinking I'm about to get ready to go to community college. Nope.
I used to sleep in my homie’s garage. I used to sleep in the garage with the dog right here on Normandie and 76th, ‘cause he couldn't let me stay in his house but he was like, “Hey, I got a garage.” And me and sometimes me and the dog would fight over who would sleep on the couch.
That's where graffiti really kicked into high gear because I was out, depressed, lonely, hungry. And this is the only thing that kept my spirits up, letting that trauma out, doing graffiti.
There’s a human need to express yourself. Unfortunately, the lower classes and the impoverished don't have the spaces and the walls to just be creative. They don't own nothing. They can't write on their own apartment building, they gonna get kicked out. They don't have a house to do it in the backyard. So where they gonna do it at? The streets are they canvas.
Ambi of Joe scrubbing graffiti fades under: “Look it: they got stars, and they got — they got can control. It’s popping at the top. This is somebody that’s been in the game for a while. This is nice.”
Joe Connolly: Once I started noticing it and all that, I got interested in it. And then I started studying it and going out mainly with taggers.
Ambi of Joe cleaning graffiti: “Isn’t that some shit?”
Joe Connolly: I said, “Look I just want to travel with you guys.” They’re like, “Oh, fuck you stupid white boy.” I’m like, “Okay. Well, I’m gonna learn about this no matter what.” I said, “I just want to learn.”
Ambi of Joe cleaning graffiti: “See that? See where it’s skinny and it goes up like that and it pops right there with that little circle? That’s called ‘can control.’”
Joe Connolly: There’s nobody, I don’t think there’s anybody in the world that gets graffiti like me. I don’t-I don’t-it would take a lot.
Ambi of Joe cleaning graffiti: “Oh, man. Look at this. This stuff is–this is stuff on top of stuff on top of stuff.”
Joe Connolly: A lot of people get — they don’t get that graffiti has to start with all these tags, and then it moves to a throw up and then it can be a mural, then it can be a burner, it can be a — a production, you know, and so only a small amount of people are gonna be able to get the art side of it, the real art side of it, whatever that might be and then make a living at it, and that’s cool. But if they aren’t allowed to tag, they won’t get there, and the world would really suck if we didn’t have graffiti.
Ambi of Joe cleaning graffiti: “I mean okay yeah some of this stuff takes a while to get to. But if you get out every day it takes no time.”
Joe Connolly: I don’t get excited by graffiti. It doesn’t bother me that it keeps going up. It has to go up, otherwise the artist can’t emerge, and they should be entitled to emerge. I mean it’s-it’s-and a lot of them their stories are interesting to hear.
Ambi of Joe cleaning graffiti: “Well, kind of can read it.”
Joe Connolly: So why would I keep painting out graffiti if-if I enjoy it? Because A) they have to do it. 2) They expect it to get painted out. And 3) kind of gives them a fresh canvas to keep going.
Ambi of Joe cleaning graffiti fades out
Walter Thompson-Hernández: It all sounds like bullshit to me, too. How could somebody love graffiti soooo much and spend every day destroying it? It just doesn’t really add up — right? It sounds like something he says in front of taggers so that he won’t get beat up.
Voice: “Hey, Thompson. Your mom’s here. You’re out.”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: After getting arrested that night with Aloe, I changed my life. My mom was the reason. She picked me up from the station at 6 a.m. And it wasn’t the first time. But there was something about that night that was different. She looked worn out. She looked like a mom who had no more fight in her. I was really tired of disappointing her. I was afraid of her being afraid for me. And I knew I had to change things up.
Aloe: I remember trying to call you, and like you were avoiding me. And then I finally got ahold of you, and then you said something like, “Oh, I’m just kind of busy right now.” And I was like, “You? Busy? For me? What the fuck’s wrong, what’s going on right now?”
[SFX of answering machine: “Please leave a message after the tone.” Beep.]
Walter Thompson-Hernández: I stopped answering his calls.
Aloe: Yeah, like you pretty much ghosted me from right there.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: I started going to class again.
Aloe: It was just like, yeah, what the hell, dude?
[Answering machine: beep]
Walter Thompson-Hernández: I started playing basketball again.
Aloe: So I’m getting teary as I’m s-saying this right now.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: And I quit weed and stopped drinking, too.
Aloe: After that, I just-I think I couldn’t find anyone else to really connect with. And then I actually started getting more into like fighting for some reason. I was never like a big fighter, but all of a sudden I’m like Mr. Macho Man, and I want to fight everybody.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: My best friend and I wouldn’t see or talk to each other for 17 years. It was one of the hardest choices I ever made. Because I left friends behind who I considered family. And it hit the hardest when I’d see their names on the walls and not my own. It felt like they had carried on with their lives and forgot about me. And it was harder because deep inside I knew that it was something that I brought upon myself.
I left a world where I was completely seen only to re-enter a world where being seen wasn’t guaranteed. And for a 14-year-old, it was all really confusing.
I wanted to change. And soon the entire L.A. graffiti world would also change.
MIDROLL BREAK - 18:28
Walter Thompson-Hernández: By 2006, Sight had briefly stepped back from graffiti. He was no longer homeless, but his mom was. He was working to save money to buy his mom a home because he wanted to rescue her from the parks she was sleeping in. He was going to school at a community college and working two jobs.
Sight: And my grandmother was like, after she saw how productive I was and how serious I was, she was like, “Look, why don’t you just live here?”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: About the time I walked away from graffiti, what used to be a misdemeanor offense was now a felony. Graffiti artists started doing hard time for their art. Some people in L.A. referred to this time as a “Terror Campaign.” It’s when taggers’ homes were reportedly being raided like they were drug dealers, or members of a violent gang.
Sight: It was a perfect sunny day at South Central L.A., as Ice Cube would say, and a couple days before Thanksgiving, 2006.
Sight: You hear loud bangs on the door. I’m-I’m in the bed neked, asleep. My auntie go open the door. I told her, “Don’t open the door. I don’t know who that is.” She opened the door anyway.
Sight: Police come in looking like they’re in war gear. There’s like seven, eight of them. They got assault rifles with beams coming out of them.
They pull me out, and into the main den. And they’re like, “Where are the drugs, and where are the guns?” I’m like, “There is no drugs and guns here. You got the wrong person. You guys raided the wrong house. There is no drugs or guns.” They’re like, “Where is the guns and the drugs?”
They’re tearing up the whole house. They put some shoes on me, no socks. Pants, no belt. Shirt. Handcuff me.
Sight: They walk me outside. They got a whole neighborhood outside watching. You know how nosey people be.
[Car door closing, car starting and driving away. SFX of police station and white noise]
Sight: They took me down to the Sheriff’s station in um Watts, and they were high-fiving, man. They were high-fiving. They were like, “Yeah! We got this dude. We’ve been looking for this dude forever.” I’m like, “Wow.” And through my head I’m like, “I didn’t know graffiti was this serious.” If I knew graffiti was this serious, then I would have not have been messing with it.
Sight: They get me into an interrogation room. I don’t know no law. Sit me down.
Sight: They sit down a folder of paperwork about 6 inches tall, all photos of stuff I did in L.A. And they open the folder, they show me pictures. I’m like, “Dude, this is all, stuff is all, stuff is old, dude.” They were like, “If you date these to a more recent date, we’ll let you out today.” I’m like, “For real?”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: But it wasn’t for real. Sight was charged with multiple counts of non-violent felony vandalism. He says the evidence he signed ended up being used against him in court. According to him, they had him date pictures of his tags to a more recent time, to land within the statute of limitations. Sight was facing around 30 years in prison. So he did what he had to do and took a deal for eight years and eight months. His sentencing was just part of the city’s draconian anti-graffiti movement. And multiple hometown heroes like him were arrested.
Archival: City attorneys say it’s about time taggers are treated like criminal gang members.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: In ‘09, then-LA City Attorney, Carmen Trutanich, had a mission to go after writers. He and his staff began to gather street-level intelligence, and prepared injunctions targeting graffiti crews.
While Sight was in prison, a lot of taggers reached out to him to provide support, including one he didn’t know that well...but who I used to be really tight with.
Sight: Aloe wrote me while I was in prison. I met him only once in person on the Venice bus. I never hung out with him like that.
Aloe: He went to he went to prison for something that we were all doing. Like we-that could have been any one of us is what I'm saying. So it's like, you got to pay respects-respect to him.
Sight:For him to only meet me that once or twice and then want to be like, “Hey, I'm gonna reach out to this dude.” All I can say is graffiti did that.
Aloe: We wrote together every yeah like three weeks or so.
Sight: What am I doing, how’s everything going?
Aloe: Just trying to see where his mind was at.
Sight: It felt good, man. I felt like I wasn’t alone and I felt like graffiti is bigger than what, it’s more than what people think it is.
I was in there for about five years ‘cause I was like good behavior. Fire camp. All that stuff.
And then he was like you know, I think a year or two before I got out, he was like, “I’ll-I’ll pick you up from um prison.” And he did that. He picked me up, got my first meal, took me down to Venice Beach.
Sight: Breathe in the salty air, hear the crash of the ocean, put my feet in the water. It was good, man, but I felt-I felt broken. I felt vulnerable.
Sound of Joe showing off his cleaning supplies fades under: “This is just all of our stuff to get rid of that-that graffiti. We think. We think this is all we need. We’re not 100% sure.”
Joe Connolly: Well, the city, you know they-they I hate to say it. They killed my kid. To this day they never apologized about that.
He went on a school field trip and-and uh died in a drowning incident. They had told all of us there was gonna-there was never gonna be any swimming up there. The way it happened and all the things that happened in the city, the city could have helped me, and they never chose to help me. They chose to desert me. They’ve never said, “We’re sorry about your son.” That’s-that’s I think one reason why I stay in graffiti abatement is because I’m not able to fix my life because you can never control...it’s like trying to herd cats. You can’t control shit.
So I can control graffiti, which makes people’s lives better. So for me it just, I spent probably a small fortune on it, but it really saves me mentally.
Joe showing up cleaning supplies back up
Walter Thompson-Hernández: By 2015, I was working as a journalist, and writing about race and identity. One day, I received a call from a childhood friend, Niki, telling me about the company she had just started in Compton. Niki’s company was primarily hiring undocumented workers and formerly incarcerated people – two groups of people who live with the most stigma. I walked inside of the lobby and saw a framed newspaper article featuring a black man standing in front of a graffiti wall. I took a step closer and he looked really familiar. I took another step forward and noticed that the wall read: S-I-G-H-T in big and bold letters. It was Sight. “Oh, damn. That’s Sight from Scared Straight.”
“Do you know, Sight?” I asked Niki.
“Sight?” she replied. “Yeah, he works here. He’s actually in the back driving the forklift. Let's go see if he’s back there.”
What are the odds?
The three of us went out to lunch that day and we began reminiscing about Scared Straight and graffiti. Something told me to ask Sight about Aloe because there weren’t a lot of other black graffiti artists, so what do I have to lose? “Aloe?” Sight quickly replied. “Yeah that’s my boy.” And my jaw dropped to the floor. “Give me his number,” I said.
I called him, and nobody answered.
I went home after lunch, and later that day received a phone call from an unknown number. I answered and this mysterious voice asked: “Hey, is this Bezoe?” Aloe and I met up a week later at Urth Caffe in Downtown L.A. I was nervous and I was scared. Because even though a lot of time had passed, I didn’t know how he felt. Maybe he felt abandoned by me.
When I saw him he didn’t really look like Tupac anymore. He now had a fro and he tattoo sleeves half way down his arms. Honestly, he looked like he had been through a lot. But he still had the same charming smile and that same laugh.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: So much had happened since we last saw one another. He had gotten married. He had survived two drug overdoses. He was vegetarian. And, of all things–like of all the things in the world–he was studying to become a lawyer. A lawyer. We talked about our families, about food, and our friends. And towards the end of the night he looked at me and said he had something to give me.
Aloe: I was just like, “Hey, do you remember this?” And I remember your face was just like, wow.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: He handed me a slap tag — remember those post office stickers he talked about earlier? Well, I had filled this one out the same night we got arrested. Before that weird Hawaiian Punch craving. This slap tag had our names on it. It said Bezoe, it said Aloe, and it said our crews. And he had kept this one slap tag–through the years, through everything.
And now I have that slap tag. And it’s one of the most important things in my life.
Meeting up with Sight and Aloe prompted me to go see what our old nemesis, Joe, was up to. Maybe it was closure that I was seeking, I don’t know. So I found Joe on the internet, I contacted him, and I spent a few days with him.
Walter: How you doing, Joe?
Joe: I’m good.
Walter: I’m Walter. Nice to meet you.
Joe to dog: Hey!
Walter: She’s good? She’s a pit mix huh?
Walter Thompson-Hernández: It turns out that Joe hasn’t changed. He’s still covering up graffiti, and he’s still doing it for free. I was wrong about Joe. This dude really surprised me. He lives in South Central with his wife and cares for an abused pit bull. I really expected Joe to greet me at the door with a red MAGA hat on but he didn’t. He does have an award from Trump, though. For graffiti abatement, of all things...
Tape of Joe showing off his award: “President Trump. Best guy in the planet for community-in the state of California. 40 million people and I’m the only one that’s got one of those in the state of California.”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Anyways, Joe actually hates the government.
Tape of Joe Connolly complaining about the government: “These people don’t give a shit about our people.”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: What he means are everyday people -- working class folks and especially people of color. And Joe’s also really into fitness: he’s an avid bike rider, and a former football player from the Southside of Chicago.
Joe Connolly: Rudy, that fucking guy stole my story.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: What do you mean he stole?
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Remember the film Rudy? The classic?
Joe Connolly: That motherfucking guy stole my story.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: How?
Joe Connolly: That was my thing, man. I wanted to be a walk-on football player
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Where? At Notre Dame?
Joe Connolly: At ND.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: And then what happened, Joe?
Joe Connolly: He got there three years ahead of me and took my shit. Craziness.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Oh, well. Here we are.
Joe Connolly: Yeah, here we are.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: I decided to bring Joe and Sight together because I wanted them to talk about how they perceived one another.
Sight thinks Joe was part of the problem, you know, just another white dude who was a part of the system to lock up black and brown people. Joe, on the other hand, had never met Sight, the human. He buffed out a lot of his pieces, but he didn’t know the man. He thought Sight was just another dude from the ‘hood who got caught up in the system. So I invited them both to my aunt’s house to talk because it was a neutral space. I wanted both of them to feel as comfortable as possible.
I mean, I really didn’t know what was gonna happen. Sight’s like, you know, somebody who is really chill and really mellow, but–
Joe Connolly: Sight! Get your ass in here!
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Joe’s kinda out there.
Joe Connolly: Let’s talk! Come on! How are you, man?
Sight: All right
Joe Connolly: So you still putting shit on the walls?
Sight: Yeah, yeah.
Joe Connolly: Are you really? That’s good. I like that.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: They sat at my aunt’s dining table and talked about what they agreed on...
Sight: Graffiti, when you're when you're looking at the outside of it is ugly, it's horrible. It's this and that. But once you...
Joe Connolly: Get in.
Sight: Step foot into that world, it’s a whole nother-a whole nother perspective on the matter. You will never be able to relate unless you hang out with graffiti artists or are a graffiti artist. You will never be able to relate. It will just be judging from the outside in.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: And Sight wasn’t messing around. He came ready. He even reached out to the graffiti community on facebook to see if they had any questions for Joe.
Tape of Sight reading a few questions ending with “But that’s Cal Trans…”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Some of the questions were really angry. Sight told Joe he was really hated.
Sight: A lot of people plotted on you. Uh, they plotted on your family.
Joe Connolly: Wow.
Sight: A lot of people went after your kids secretly. I can’t say who.
Joe Connolly: Ok.
Sight: And so it's almost similar to like, I don't want to say it...
Joe Connolly: Say it.
Sight: ...I don’t want to be disrespectful but like, you know how a cop goes out and shoots a kid or arrests kids. Um...and people feel that pain forever?
Joe Connolly: Yeah.
Sight: This is-it’s kind of like the same.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: It seemed like the news that people went after Joe’s kids really affected him. Especially since Joe had lost his son. He was physically shaken, and he really let down his guard. Joe revealed a different side to him that people weren’t used to seeing. It didn’t feel like a performance anymore. It felt like we were finally getting the real Joe.
Joe Connolly: After I lost my son, I lost my grandmother, my parents, my brothers, my in-laws, my sister-in-laws. A lot of artists, a lot of people I knew, a lot of people in my community. I mean, there was a time in, like, ‘99-’07/’08 where there was a lot of funerals. There was just so many funerals and it just, I mean, it's-it's a lot. And so I just-and then with a lot of things that mainly with my son, and there's still fallout from that, which is now almost-it's almost 21 years. You know and-and so I then I just really became a loner.
Sight: I don't mean to cut you off.
Joe Connolly: No, no, no.
Sight: You know, I've-I met a lot of different graffiti artists, and um at least about 1000 of them that I know or more have the same story as you, or similar.
Joe Connolly: Yeah.
Sight: And I'm listening to you. I’m listening to you. And what people don't know and people forget is any kind of painting is therapeutic.
Joe Connolly: Yeah
Sight: Um painting, doing art activates one side of the brain that helps heal trauma.
Joe Connolly: Yeah
Sight: You've been through some trauma. I feel that the more-the longer that person paints reflects how much healing they need and how much the ther-therapy that that painting provides. I still do it because I still suffer through trauma.
Joe Connolly: Yeah.
Sight: That has not been rooted yet, uprooted, so...and I see it in you. You might not be doing graffiti, but you are painting over it.
Joe Connolly: Oh, yeah.
Sight: Yet it is still in a way therapeutic and provides a sense of relief. And the other side of that it’s fun. It’s competitive.
Joe Connolly: It is fun.
Sight: And there’s some people that are game. And some people that are not.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: In that moment, I think Joe finally felt seen and heard too. He wasn’t the in-your-face Joe, the wild Joe, the ra-ra-ra Joe, you know. He was soft. And gentle.
And Sight? I’m pretty sure he felt the same way, too.
People see walls with graffiti on them and think that the people responsible for the tags are criminals. But It’s hard to know that there’s a whole life behind the spray paint that emerges on the wall. And to be real, it’s impossible to see the things that people are dealing with at home. It’s already hard enough being a teenager. But imagine not having a way to express yourself. That’s really hard. Some see it as property damage. But what about the damage people are experiencing in their own lives? Each piece of graffiti is a window into someone’s life. Sometimes though, the window is hard to see through because there’s writing on it. But each window and each wall tells a different story. The walls are the first thing I see when I travel to a new place. They tell me everything I need to know about where I’m at. They alert me of danger, tell me who lives in that community, and who I need to be aware of.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Let’s go back to that bus. Spring 2017. I’m on the 733 bus line, and we’re heading west on Venice Blvd. I’m sitting in the back of the bus. It’s the early afternoon, and there’s nobody else sitting next to me. I’m listening to music on my headphones, when I notice an old friend hop on. It’s Ivan. And we used to be in the same circles when I used to tag. Ivan hasn’t changed one bit. He’s still wearing oversized t-shirts and still speaks from the side of his mouth like he used to. And his hair is still cut really low. It’s been more than fifteen years since we last saw one another.
Voice: “Oh shit, what’s up man?”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: We dap each other up and hug. And he sits right next to me.
Voice: “Ey……..you still write?”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: When Ivan asked me if I still wrote, I paused. Because, the truth is, nothing’s really changed. I am still writing. I’m just not writing on walls or buses or freeways anymore. But, I’m still writing to be seen.
“Yeah…” I told Ivan. “ I do still write.”
The lead producer for this episode is Elizabeth Nakano.
Supporting Producer Tamika Adams.
Our Editor is Arwen Nicks.
And our Senior Producer is Megan Tan.
Our Sound Engineer is Valentino Rivera
Original music by Andrew Eapen.
This episode was written and reported by me, Walter Thompson-Hernandez with help from Elizabeth Nakano.
Angela Bromstad is our Executive producer.
For more information on this episode of Scared Straight, go to LAist.com/CaliforniaLove.
California Love is a production of LAist Studios.
I’m the host Walter Thompson-Hernandez. Thanks for listening. I really appreciate you.
[LAist Studios Sonic ID]
[Flipping through the radio]
[“California Love” song comes on]
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Do you remember this song? Summer of ‘96. I was 11. A distant, synthesized, otherworldly voice says, “California Love…” I ran to the radio to record the song on a cassette tape, every time I heard Dr. Dre’s intro: “Now let me welcome everybody to the wild wild west.”
It felt like Dre was introducing everyone to the place that we called home. And then he said: “A state that’s untouchable like Eliot Ness.” And I eventually learned who Eliot Ness was, a pretty well known Prohibition era agent. Dre’s voice eventually listed places and landmarks throughout the state and made the song feel not just flashy, and cool, but also informative. I felt like a social studies class that I always wanted, but never had.
In ‘96, my mom, and I were living in our first apartment. She was 31 and had just moved us to the Westside from Southeast L.A.. We didn’t have much, but we did have one of those tv’s with the vhs cassette player inside of them. We bought it at Circuit City the first night we moved to the Westside. I also learned what a bagel was that night. And I saw string cheese for the first time.
Man — Memories are wild.
[California Love Song]
But when Tupac’s voice came on though halfway through the song. That really did something to me. I twisted my fingers in the shape of a W -- for the Westside of course -- like I had seen Tupac do. My right arm flew high in the air like I had seen rappers do in music videos. “California Love” got me hyped up everytime I listened to it. I felt larger than I was -- and that’s exactly what the song was meant to do.
But I’m not here to just talk about that song though. I’m not.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: I eventually left L.A., twenty years later, and became a New York Times writer. And I traveled all over the world. I wanted to find how people lived outside of LA. lived. What made them different? What made them the same?
I got to see Japan, Brazil, Mexico.
I did a story about fatherhood in Madagascar and rode trains all over the country. I wrote a story about black communities in Peru. I worked on a story about multi-racial identity in Belgium. I felt like I was one of the lucky ones. Because none of my friends and family could ever join me. Sometimes — I felt a sense of deep guilt.
I was flying in airplanes — the same ones I used to look up at in the sky and dream about as a kid in southeast la. But I had to leave L.A. to learn about the world. And L.A., taught me so many things.
It taught me how to survive, how to read people, and how to spot a dangerous situation from a mile away. Like that one time in Madagascar, when a police squad robbed me at gunpoint. I somehow got out of that. Or in Peru when our bus driver abandoned us in the Andes Mountains and I had to save a clown’s life — a real clown — that’s a long story. But me and the clown — we both survived.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: As I grew, and changed, L.A., I heard, was also changing. Friends were being forced out of homes that they had lived in for years. Like my friend Robert, who had to move out of Venice because the price of rent got too high. Or like my friend José, who had to move to Arizona. My other friend Michelle — she also had to leave the Westside.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: The places that I grew up loving were all closing down. The cork in Mid-City, one of the last black owned bars in the city — closed. Cha Cha Cha in East Hollywood — closed. La Fiesta Brava in Venice — closed. The elotero man by Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park — he had to go too.
Even Mission Hospital, on Florence Boulevard, where I was born, it changed, too. It’s now a Smart and Final. And I was born on aisle six. That’s weird, right?
Now, I know this may sound privileged, but traveling really started to wear me out. Because I started living through the online and social media experiences of my family and friends. I liked and commented on their photos while I stood in TSA lines at the airport. While I sat in lonely hotel rooms. While I ate the nasty turkey sandwiches that Delta gives you on their flights.
And the food poisoning — damn — the food poisoning, I don’t miss that.
You know what I really missed though?
I missed buying white tees and gold chains at the slauson swapmeet. I missed hopping on the blue line train on Florence and taking it downtown. I missed that one dude on the train. You know — the guy with the Hustler hat — who sold snacks, speakers, and bootleg iphone chargers. That nobody ever buys. I missed him.
And on top of that — The people in my family who raised me. My mom...
My tias. My tios. And my cousins. They were all getting older and their bodies were becoming more vulnerable. And one thing about me, I’m an only child. And I’m one of the first of my family to have been born here. And there’s a lot riding on my shoulders. My family didn’t have much but they gave me everything. I was expected to come back and help out my family, to be there for them because, at the end of the day, I am my family’s safety net. Some people would call this a burden, but, I don’t —
I call it responsibility. You know what though? It wasn’t just about my family, it was also about my city. I began to feel an obligation to tell real L.A. stories.
The missed birthdays, the missed family gatherings, the missed baptisms, it all became too much to bear. I had to come back home. I moved back to my Tia’s house in Huntington Park — two years ago. To take care of her mostly. The same house that I was raised in. Every time I leave this neighborhood, I feel like an outsider and like someone who doesn't belong. All the rumors that I’ve heard — I’m seeing — are now true.
The cork in Mid-City, one of the last black owned bars in the city — closed. Cha Cha Cha in East Hollywood — closed. La Fiesta Brava in Venice — closed. But I’m back now. And L.A., something happened to you while I was gone.
I try to go back to Venice every Sunday where I lived as a teenager, and the Venice that I knew full of black and brown people, beautiful black and brown people has now changed. And you know what — damn — everywhere you turn there are tech bros.
Every place I traveled to I praised you, showed you love, and spoke highly of you, L.A. You were supposed to withstand gentrification but instead you embraced it.
Your streets don’t really look like they did anymore. There’s a lot more white people and less people who look like me here. You’re really flawed. You’re not a perfect city. There’s so many things that you have to work on. Like how you treat your homeless. Access to public transportation. Providing more affordable housing. How we treat people of color in this city.
I’ll stop here. But I could go on.
I know it’s complicated but there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. And I’m not the only one who feels this way about you… Because even though you sometimes feel like a stranger to me — I still really, really, love you. I do. And I want to show everyone why.
Kathy Davis: Most of my life, I’ve lived here in Compton and I never knew this was here.
James Maley: Probably get to 800, if not over a thousand parrots here within the next ten minutes.
Angie Aguirre: I was like, you know, like, how do you dress? He's like, you know, like a casual gangster… [laughing]
Ellie Hernández: And I said, “Mijo look look. Those cowboys, they’re black cowboys.”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: I want everyone to see who you are to me. This is California Love. And I’m Walter.
A new episode drops every Thursday, this summer on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
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Walter Thompson-Hernandez was born and raised in Los Angeles. He is a former New York Times global subculture writer and host who has reported from nearly every continent. He just wrote a book called The Compton Cowboys: The New Generation of Cowboys in America’s Urban Heartland, which can be found wherever you purchase books.
Tamika Adams is an independent audio producer who has worked on KPCC’s daily show, Take Two with A Martinez and APM’s national show The Dinner Party Download. When not collecting sound, she’s sleuthing internet archives and scaring herself sh*tless with horror in any and all formats.
Elizabeth Nakano is an independent audio producer who has worked on shows at Stitcher, Spotify, and Radiotopia, and contributed to shows such as 99% Invisible and Twenty Thousand Hertz. A radio documentary she helped produce–Two Years, Diaries of a Divided Nation–recently won a regional Edward R. Murrow award. When not telling stories, she can be found outdoors.
Megan Tan is a photo taker turned audio maker. She’s the creator of Radiotopia’s Millennial and has produced shows and episodes for Gimlet Media, Pineapple Street Media, TED, WNYC’s Radiolab, NPR’s Planet Money, NPR’s All Things Considered, and KALW’s The Stoop. For her fifth career, she wants to be a park ranger and a ceramicist.
Arwen Nicks is an independent podcast producer and editor and the founder of Channel 2 Productions. Arwen has worked in journalism for a dozen years and is most known for her work on How’s Your Day, The Sub Pop Podcast, Tell Them, I Am and The Big One. When not telling stories, she can be found indoors.
Valentino Rivera is the mixing/mastering engineer for LAist Studios. His adventure in sound started in radio and music recording. He loves the art of storytelling and using sound to amplify the emotion of the story. He’s always reading about new audio gear and software. Don’t ask what his favorite microphone is, he can’t choose.
Andrew Eapen is a music composer, sound designer, and mix engineer based out of Los Angeles, CA. He has composed music for a number of podcasts including: Moonface, The Thing About Pam, & Murder on the Towpath. His music has also been featured on Shameless, To All The Boys I've Loved Before, Jane The Virgin, and many other TV and film projects. Some of Andrews greatest accolades have been written about in Rolling Stone, Billboard, Vice, and Consequence of Sound. Andrew is driven by his passion for music & sound design, and how he can connect others through these arts.
Angela Bromstad is an Executive Producer and former television executive. She spent 17 years at NBCUniversal, and most recently held the position of President of Primetime for NBC Entertainment and NBCUniversal Television studios. Prior to that she was President of International Television Production in London for NBCU International. Shows under her tenure include Friday Night Lights, 30 Rock, The Office, Downtown Abby, Parenthood, Southland, as well as many others. Bromstad has several projects in development including The Burying Place at AMC and Gangsterland at Amazon. She has spent the last year consulting in the podcast world at KPCC/LAist working on California Love and Norco ’80.
LA is the heart and soul of the new America. A minority-majority city driven by power of diversity, inclusion, hard work, impossible dreams and an obsession with the future. But beyond its geography, LA is a state of mind, and we aim to connect with anybody who shares it, wherever they may be. LAist Studios exists to tell LA stories to the world.