When Brian French jammed the seventh round into the shotgun, it was the last shell he had. The first five he’d shot in warning. The sixth he’d fired 40 seconds earlier, and it had torn apart his roommate’s chest, sending him backpedaling into the street where he’d collapsed. That shot had stopped the raging advance of the victim, deep in the psychosis of crystal methamphetamine and with Buck knife in hand.
Then, a scene that could have been painted by Goya, I always think. A hundred people looking on in afternoon sunlight, watching as a man with a gun bends over to discharge a final shot into an unmoving head.
“The story’s a tangled web,” Brian French told me the first time I met him. The place was Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, in Blythe, California. It was April 2003. He was 51 and working on his 17th year for second-degree murder.
While every story, every life, is an entanglement of people and events, French’s has gotten bound up inextricably with the weaving of my own life. The early center remains the same: Imperial Beach. IB. That southwesterly corner of sand and ocean that’s looking through the fence to Mexico, trying perennially to transform itself into a tony Southern California beach town but never quite making it.
For some, their hometown is a place to escape. For others, it’s a place to live out their lives. Either way, it’s an undeniable point of reference, and although I went to live far from Imperial Beach — Barcelona, Paris, Sydney, New York — the slight tremblings of early memories never ceased to stir me.
By the time I was in fifth grade, my father was habitually drinking, fighting, losing jobs, and getting us evicted, in a steady push farther and farther south — from lower Chula Vista to Otay and finally to Imperial Beach. A drunk construction worker with an abused wife and three kids in tow, our so-called family landed in IB in the summer of 1957. I once counted over 20 ramshackle houses, duplexes, trailer courts, motels, and garages we lived in over the next six years. In 1963, my dad left the state on the lam, allowing me to live during my last two years of high school with a friend whose father was a Baptist preacher.
Yet, back in 1957, at ten years old, I became an acolyte of the tumbledown city with dirt streets, sucking up the local mythology, mesmerized first by the Little League heroes in white uniforms who paraded their feats at the immaculate park of sparkling grass and broom-swept infield up on Coronado Avenue. Soon the football field, track, and outdoor basketball courts at Mar Vista High School would capture countless hours of my time. I would stand quietly and ogle the irrepressible athletes at their practices — so big, so handsome, so talented, so cool in their green and gold regalia.
Among those titans there was the added honor of being tough, of being able to fight. If you could kick someone else’s ass, you went up a notch on the social scale, and that was true for the kids my age as well. It was my introduction to the primal contest for primal dominance, I suppose. James Dean and Marlon Brando had modeled the American version on screens across the nation, as well as at our local Palm Theatre. Still, I had been brought to a low-income community with a sizable Navy base — two elements that make for a tough town. Which it was, and it would get a lot tougher.
So in the late ’50s we had our role models. Jake Trammell was one. Star fullback at Mar Vista, and no one would even think about squaring off with Trammel. An old IB friend of mine recently recounted having seen Trammell in the locker room after practice spitting on the forehead of the best running back on the junior varsity team in an act of initiation. As teammates uneasily tittered and studied the glob slowly sliding down to the terrified sophomore’s eyebrow, Trammel calmly admonished him, “Don’t wipe it off.”
The advent of the ’60s brought surfers into the scene, which was a new cool and a hybrid of the athlete-battler dichotomy. At once rebellious, surfers tested manhood on 20-foot waves breaking a mile out at the Sloughs, where the Tijuana River emptied into the ocean. When the Summer of Love in 1967 ushered in the peace and love zeitgeist making haircuts anathema, it also made fighting uncool for a while — at least for a lot of the town’s youth. As in the rest of the nation, drugs soon flowed, unleashing sex and rebellion, and before long the “Imperial” of the town’s name would sometimes be replaced by “Immoral” or “Venereal.”
But it was in the ’70s that the drug wave really broke on Imperial Beach, establishing it as one of the methamphetamine capitals of the nation. Up the road in ritzy Coronado and La Jolla, the drug of choice was cocaine, but in IB it was crystal — the poor man’s high. If less cash was paid for it, meth exacted a heavy price in other ways. Crank users were staying up days and nights without sleep, taking apart radios and putting them back together or spending a day with a toothbrush, scrubbing spotless the veins in a porcelain sink. The nervous system was so fired that something had to be done: gabble a blue streak or perform senseless chores around the house. Rasped nerves led to alcohol to blunt the edge, which led to another line of energy. And on and on and on.
In that decade, bikers seemed to show up more and more, and their particular nexus with crystal was established. You could ride, you could drink, you could screw, you could fight on the stuff. You could even hold a job, if so inclined, and not worry about sleep, if that was a concern. More bars opened near the beach, more Harleys parked outside, more meth was cooked up, more skulls were cracked, and more knives and guns were carried.