Jeff Smith 4 p.m., Dec. 20
- Community Blog
- Memorial Life
Stairway to Heaven
WARNING: The content of this thread is graphic and may be upsetting to some readers.
“Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow? And did you know Your stairway lies on the whispering wind?” -- Led Zeppelin, Stairway To Heaven
When I was in high school, there was a young guy, three grades below me, who had been friendly with my little brother when they were children. The family lived in the middle of the next block up from us, I passed their house on an almost daily basis as a kid when I walked to the store on the corner of the next block. The mother was a devout Catholic, very active and involved at St. Anne’s, the parish church across the street from our house. I’d seen the boy around since forever hanging out with my brother and the other boys in the neighborhood, and at church. He had attended Catholic schools (I remember seeing him in his really ugly uniform), but now he was at San Diego High School, a freshman when I was in my senior year there, cute, quiet and polite; I would see him in the halls at school, and if he wasn’t with his friends, I would say hello in passing.
One day, this young man came over to my house. I invited him in, but he wanted me to come outside, so I came out onto the front porch; he wanted to ask a favor. There was a girl who lived around the corner, she was part of a big family that owned a house across the street from the neighborhood library where I spent a lot of time in the afternoons and during the summer. He liked her, and wanted me to talk to her on his behalf. I knew her from the library, a friendly girl his age, and I knew her older sister and oldest brother (someone who later went into politics and whom I still see often), so I agreed to do it. We talked a while longer, then he left. He may have come by again, I have a slight memory of that, before I got a chance to talk to her. Anyway, some time later, I either ran into her at the library or went to her door, and we talked, then I mentioned this boy; she barely knew who he was. When we got into talking about him, it was clear she wasn’t interested. I felt her out about it, advocated for him a little, she was nice about the whole thing, but she wasn’t having it.
When he came over again, I sat down on the porch steps, he stood there, hands in pockets, and I told him, gently as I could, what had transpired. He took the rejection quietly, but naturally it must not have been pleasant to hear. I felt bad for him. We hashed it out a long while, just letting him get it off his chest; the conversation moved on to other things. A few days later, he came around again, and we spent another long time talking. There may have been more visits, I don’t recall, with him standing with his hands in his pockets while we talked. On the last visit, I was sitting out on the porch steps and for once he sat down. It was late in the day, and as we talked, turned to evening, and the stars had begun to glow. I mentioned it, looking up. He leaned over and kissed me. My grandmother came to the door, which broke us apart after what had been only a moment (it occurs to me now that she must have been spying on us, that was too well-timed), and he left and I went inside. My grandmother chewed me out, and I was embarrassed, but also a little buzzed. Damn, he was a good kisser, but Lord, he was just a boy, my baby brother’s friend, was the way I saw it.
Some time went by. One evening I was going across the street to Mass, and he was there in the dark, waiting on the corner, he came over and caught my hand and drew me away, off to the side of the church next to the cars parked along the sidewalk, where he tried to get into some serious messing around; I didn’t like this at all, just couldn’t get past the fact that he was my little brother’s friend, a youngster I’d seen practically in diapers, someone who had approached me to help with a girl, now this whole hot teenage boy thing was happening; that time, the situation felt dirty and wrong, almost incestuous if that makes sense, so I quickly broke it up and walked away.
It must have been close to the end of the school year by then, and I was starting a summer job with the Department of the Navy. Where he went, I have no idea, I just know I didn’t see him after that. There were other boys, -- there were always other boys, and then there were men at the place where I worked, so this boy was eventually forgotten, except for the memory of what had happened between us every time I passed his house or when I saw his mother in church or around the neighborhood.
I did see him one other time, a few years later, when I was doing volunteer work at the Salvation Army store downtown; by then I knew he had married his pregnant girlfriend and they were living above his mother’s house back in the old neighborhood, as I recall he was working in his father’s construction business. When I saw him in the store, I went into the stock room where I hung out for a good long while, hoping he hadn’t seen me. Figuring he had left, I came out -- there he was, waiting for me. He was a man now, full grown and quite handsome. He smiled and started talking like we were good old friends and I was blushing and stammering and backing away, trying to figure a way to get out of his orbit; finally I said I had to go back to work and went into the office and closed the door. That was the last time I saw him in person.
The next time I saw him was on the television, this was maybe three years ago. His son, the child his girlfriend had been pregnant with when they married, had been involved in a notorious local crime -- if I gave you the details here, you would know immediately who and what I was talking about. -- and he was on television, at first concerned for his son’s life, then later when it was clear beyond any doubt the young man had been deeply involved in serious criminal activity, stonewalling.
Watching this whole thing unfold, I thought, that could have been my son, that could have been my husband, that could have been my life.
When I was a young mother, one of my children’s aunts on the paternal side was sent off to prison and I took in her three children, two nieces and a nephew; the family doubled overnight from three to six, then I had my son, which made seven. I enrolled my nephew in the local Little League; he was a nice polite young kid and like most of the males in that family, a gifted athlete, it was a real pleasure going to his games and watching him play. I knew many of the officials from the League, and some of the volunteer coaches, from years back, mostly by virtue of living across the street from Memorial Park and being involved in the Memorial Recreation Council. I was too busy to go to practices; the brute liked to hang out at the field with the other guys and watch the kids practice and play, he knew the League people better than I did, and he and my nephew often spoke of them by name around the house. This was our neighborhood, and these were neighborhood kids and people.
One of the volunteer coaches was an avid adult softball player, he played on organized teams and played pick-up games as well. He was a salesperson at a big department store in Horton Plaza, so I would see him there when I went into the store, besides seeing him in the neighborhood and on the playing field, which was right across the street from my then home, and I also knew that he was active at St. Anne’s church, friendly with the priest there, and served as an altar boy. I remember talking to him a few times, once about an article I had read about the priest at St. Anne’s, and getting the impression that he was a person we call in Spanish percinado, the kind who would get a little look on their face at suggestive language or derogatory comments about anything to do with the Church. My nephew, and my children’s father, knew him of course, not just because he coached with the Little League, but because the children’s father would sometimes play softball with him and the other guys; once, when a ball cracked the brute in his face during a game knocking him bloody, it was this guy who brought him home. He had been in my house a couple of other times as well, but even though he tried to be a guy kind of guy, he was wrapped too tight and so it wasn’t easy to have him as company.
One morning, years later, who do I see doing the perp walk on television? Yep, this guy, the altar boy and Little League volunteer. He was accused of molesting a number of the boys he had been coaching, now he had been arrested and eventually was sentenced to one hundred and thirty five years in prison for his crimes. Shortly after this guy’s arrest, I was at a meeting where I asked the local Little League officials about him, and as I recall they said that they had run him off as a volunteer some time back, they had long felt there was something strange about him. Apparently, the boys he molested were not from this area, they were from another playing field, so that let my nephew out of what had happened, as far as I knew. By then it was years since my nieces and nephews were no longer living with me; if their mother was ever contacted, I don’t know. Had my nephew been involved, I would be telling you a far different story now.
For reasons I won’t go into here, I lived in that house across the street from Memorial Park for fifteen years, the last ten hellish in every way you can imagine. A number of different people moved in and out of the house behind mine in those years, tenants that went from nothing could be worse to yes it could be worse to God help us. In the last category, was a woman who was notorious around this community for being the mother of all evil b*tches; she brought in a roommate, a woman with something like thirteen children, different ones shifting in and out of the house in various groupings to live with her or their fathers or various relatives. Two of the older boys were gang-bangers. One of them had a nice older model car he would park in the driveway under my bedroom window. One day, he came and knocked on my door and asked me to step over to look at his car. There were cat footprints over the hood and roof of his car. He asked me what I was going to do about it; I told him I wasn’t going to do anything about it. He tried asking me for money, I refused. He tried the intimidation thing, I just walked away. He would talk smack when he saw me, I just blew him off. Whatever.
One night, I was falling asleep. I heard a sound, the repetitive metal zip and chink sound of automatic gunfire, coming in bursts, and then a car horn blowing on and on and on; I had rolled over and grabbed my phone, dialing 911, just as I heard the door to the back house open and heard the mother walking then running down the driveway past my window, screeching her son’s name and wailing what happened, what happened: I knew it was too late, and when the dispatcher answered I told her the address and I told her it was automatic gunfire and she doubted me and I said Lady, I know what I’m telling you, and I hung up and ran to the children’s bedrooms, and then ran outside, down my front path, looking from there over to the driveway but I couldn’t see anything, it was too dark and I wouldn’t get any closer because I didn’t want to see. I could hear the mother screaming her son’s name, and her roommate from hell was with her, telling her to pray to God because God could do anything, she had to pray, and the mother was trying to pray but she couldn’t in her shock remember a prayer to say, by this time all the neighbors were outside and we were all standing back and waiting as the police cars came and the ambulance came and the helicopters came and the detectives came and last the coroner’s van came.
The car was at the end of the driveway, under the police light and the flashlights and the helicopter’s beam. I couldn’t see that the car and the body, slumped against the steering wheel, were riddled with bullets. The shooter had hidden and waited behind our minivan and when the boy had stopped at the driveway to get out and open the gates the shooter had opened fire with an automatic weapon, then disappeared. The neighbors told me later that when the police moved the body, the bullet holes ran up his spine, there were so many bullets they were falling out of his nose. It was the boy who had been hassling me about my cats. Him and his pretty car.
People in my family, in my neighborhood, and others, friends, or merely acquaintances, or not known to me at all, transgressors and transgressed against. People that smiled in my face, people I loved, people I despised, beaten or beaters, molesters or molested, raped or rapists, killers and dead. The litany is so long that I have never attempted to chronicle even the major stuff, the minor stuff alone is enough to fill a book. The three stories above are merely curiosities, little proofs that our roads are full of switchbacks and dead ends and tricky curves and blind spots. Whenever I talk to Hispanic people about this, we say the same thing, conclude the same way: It is well said that we are walking around and we don’t even know where, or among whom, we are walking. Where I used to live in that house across the street from the park, you could stand on the corner at night and look down a steep broken hill and then up into a valley of stars. Perhaps the stairway to heaven is under our feet, and we brush by fate and death every day as we climb and fall, climb and fall, climb and fall.