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Why National City is called Nasty City

A secretive, nihilistic war

Officer David Espiritu: "A man was shot dead there last year. A gang execution. But look at it now — flowers outside." - Image by Robert Burroughs
Officer David Espiritu: "A man was shot dead there last year. A gang execution. But look at it now — flowers outside."

On Highland Avenue, in the heart of National City — a mile-and-a-half-long boulevard along which the city's gangs conduct their lethal parades on weekend nights — a red car sits in a small parking lot under the red and blue glare of a patrolman's lights. A semicircle of glass splinters lies around the tires, and it is drenched in blood. However, the liquid has half dried and soaked into the tarmac, leaving the scene curiously colorless, like a photograph from which the color has been, not added, but removed.

"As they begin to control the drugs and make money, they turn into organized crime."

Little flecks of detritus are woven into this mess of glinting pieces and dull vermilion: a crushed cigarette pack, scattered papers, pieces of what seem to be the fabric stuffed into the seats. The would-be slayer and the victim (hit only in the shoulder and therefore probably alive) have both disappeared. In primitive feuds of honor — which gang murder so often resembles now — neither killer nor killed will ever allow himself to be dishonored by capture. Like the feuds of 19th-century Sicily, these ones are deadly, widely feared but ultimately secret.

"For all I know he lives on that curb there. That might be his home."

At midnight, the squad cars chasing the dozens of leads provided by loquacious citizens (who contradict themselves but who nevertheless just love to talk on the telephone) have returned to their normal beats or to the National City police headquarters a block north of National City Boulevard on Eighth. The swooping, circling helicopter has been called off. And the night sergeant now only has to deal with the woman in white canvas shoes and large spectacles who has dragged — accidentally? because she was on her way to her film developing class? — a huge, telescopic-lensed Nikkon.

Espiritu. A reported burglary east of Highland. The burglar's coffee was still standing on the table.

"They went south," she says emphatically to the officer, pointing in three different directions simultaneously with her hand. "Definitely south."

The officer looks at her blankly.

The dealer then had his pupils examined and his pulse taken. A hundred fifty heartbeats a minute and no pupils. High on methamphetamines.

“Well, actually, we think they went north, Madam."

“No, south, I’m telling you. Two Hispanics in black jackets."

“The three Hispanics in red jackets went north, or so we’re told."

"Who told you that?"

"Madam..."

"They have their spies looking for patrol cars, so we rarely see them around here. This is the enemy when it comes down to it."

The sergeant looks wearily at her, then over her shoulder while he rolls his eyes and clucks. It is midnight, Tuesday night, and the roller coaster of National City's nocturnal crime is underway. The evening’s entertainment has begun with the red car on Highland Avenue, but as the night wears on and the streets become lonelier, far crueller and more surreal things will almost certainly happen.

The woman waived her Fourth Amendment rights and allowed one of the officers to rummage through her purse. Inside the purse were several tubes crammed with "crystal."

With the anxiety of under-equipped guardians waiting for the gates of a menagerie to be temporarily opened, the police wait by their telephones and walkie-talkies with a fatalism bordering on disinterest. And sure enough, within minutes another shooting has taken place at an Alberto's Taco Shop on Sweetwater Road. The normal tit for tat is underway.

National City, halfway to the Mexican border, is a relatively small area of eight square miles crammed behind San Diego's gigantic naval base. Like most Californian townships, its surface of spacious avenues, neat garden-fronted units, Victorian mansions, and — by East Coast standards — clean, garbage-free sidewalks do little to betray those phenomena associated with the talismanic word "ghetto." This was once a farming flatland, and its complicated, prosperous fin-de-siecle houses bear witness to an industrious and stable past.

The hinterland just behind the base is packed with small businesses. And compared to the gang-infested wastelands of Los Angeles. the homicide rate is relatively low: only one a month. Yet the Crips and the Bloods have their chapters here in the labyrinths of semi-tropical alleys, and the curb-stones at certain corners are marked with the shamanic symbols and initials of other, more local gangs: O.T.N.C., Old Town National City; I.B.S., the Insane Boys; O.B.S., the Olden Boys; etc. These cryptic initials, almost unnoticeable at first sight, are the territorial border posts that shape the ebb and flow of a secretive, nihilistic war. And like other, less fanciful borders, transgression of them can sometimes mean death.

The National City police headquarters has a lobby that at first could be mistaken for that of a local enthusiasts’ society: the Swiss Army Knife Club, perhaps. A large glass case contains the department's sports trophies: target-shooting awards (a silver figure crouching with pistol extended) and inter-department baseball cups, and next to them, a lyrical scroll describing the soul of a Policeman. “A policeman," it says, "is a composite of what all men are, a mingling of saint and sinner, dust and deity.” And next to that stand the memorials to murdered officers, the most prominent of which is the one dedicated to Robert Medina, shot dead June 24,1987. The police, like all fraternities — like the gangs themselves, for that matter — remember the names of their dead. And the dead are always an unquenchable source of bitterness.

A Tuesday night is a quiet one; the quivering civilian on his first ridealong is less likely to be plunged into the numbing mayhem of, say, a weekend night — a night when those immemorial young male gangsters, overheated families, and lone hit-and-run armed robbers of countless crime sagas seem to leap over the edge of sanity all at once and into the abyss. Nevertheless, there is the red car on Highland. And after that, the debacle of Alberto’s Taco Shop. Even Tuesday nights have their allotted interludes of barbarism. At midnight, David Espiritu comes on duty for the graveyard shift and spends the next seven hours cruising the streets of National City.

Our Virgil for this night out in the Inferno is a 24-year-old professional who has been in the force since he was 16 and who is now an acknowledged narcotics expert. He is an embodiment of that strange calm certain people locked for a lifetime into a uniform often have. Officer Espiritu has no swagger or rollicking threat compatible with that image of badged authority that every bien-pensant liberal carries around with him like a soiled handkerchief and into which he occasionally discharges a little disdainful mucous. He is — and he knows it — a kind of finely balanced surveillance machine that nevertheless has, at every moment, to make irrational and indefensible judgements. Much like a fish with a "lateral line" running through its body that makes decisions upon "feeling” tremors in the water.

"If ever anyone had a sixth sense, it is a policeman," he explained in an educated voice that carefully dissimulated its annoyance at our failure to understand this delicate point. "It develops very slowly, but after five or six years on the street, you know a great deal about how people work. You know just by looking at them who they are and what they’re doing. Sometimes you are wrong, but nine times out of ten your intestines never lie.

"Most police work is like this — driving around at random, checking the streets as you feel like it — and it depends on hunches about things so tiny that most people wouldn't even notice them. A door open here; a car parked oddly there — I don’t know, hundreds of different things. And then again, at night you also know certain things. Who is up at night? Who is walking around National City at one in the morning with his hands in his pockets instead of sleeping in his bed? What do I do at night, what do you do? We don’t wash the car. We don’t prune the hedges. We sleep. And so what are these guys doing up?"

The answer to this question seemed unpleasantly self-evident, and I had to think guiltily of my own predilection for wandering the streets at night without any explanation whatsoever. If Officer Espiritu came up in his squad car and beamed his spotlight on my face, what pathetic and idiotic excuse would I stammer out? But just as we were turning into the smaller residential streets off the Boulevard, a kind of living reproof of the officer's argument appeared out of nowhere: a doddering old fellow in checked pants with a walking stick, wild-eyed and merry, mouthing what seemed to be some garbled lines of Walt Whitman to himself. As he stood there half lit up by the car’s lights on the corner like some horrible perambulatory phantom, he waved his stick at the car and screamed: "Hiya, officer! ”

Wasn't he a suspect, then? Well, now, the officer explained, we do have our little eccentrics. That particular gentleman...he’s always out at night walking round and round, utterly unafraid of the prowling nocturnal crack dealers, the after-hours parasites who might be tempted to do him in. I breathed a secret sigh of relief. Thank Cod for the man in checks. For otherwise the streets of National City are menacingly deserted at night, and even on the Boulevard there is now a small white sign that orders "No Cruising’’ — any car passing the same spot within four hours on a certain night is tailed and booked. This is not a place for whimsical insomniacs.

12:23 a.m.

The first call from H.Q. reported three white males apparently attempting to jump-start a possibly stolen car on the edges of the military base. The semi-industrial wasteland adjacent to this area is forbidding at night: empty plots of waste ground, deserted warehouses, and shadow-covered factories. At the end of a small road abutting the military perimeter fence, the three alleged car thieves were indeed there poring over the innards of a motorbike: pink-faced, Stetson-wearing, Southern naval boys with a broken toy, already surrounded by a terrible ring of MPs with slightly outlandish uniforms. The latter look like a kind of secret Mitteleuropean army from a Kafka kingdom, one whose markings no one can quite identify and whose jurisdiction is defined but nevertheless ambiguous. The three in the black hats were able to explain that the bike was theirs, and Officer Espiritu was called upon to do nothing but examine a military identification card. The two police forces in general nod at each other distantly and go their separate ways with hardly a word.

We cruised along for a few minutes afterwards along the fence and came across another suspect, this time a dishevelled drug-user sitting forlornly on a curb in the middle of a fantastic emptiness of bewildering roads. The torchbeam flashed into his face, bounced off two blood-red eyes, and shifted him onward. The police will always say "Move on" to a person who must, in any case, move on, though to nowhere, for no reason and with no result. But in this case we followed him to make sure he was walking. As soon as the car swerved off, the addict sat down on the curb again and waited for the next cop.

“He sits there all night," the officer said with no expression whatsoever, sounding (however much he would hate the comparison) like a character in a predictably absurdist play with no props but empty warehouses. "For all I know he lives on that curb there That might be his home. A lot of the homeless live around the railway tracks here. I just have to move them along. It's as simple as that. I don’t mean him any harm, I just have to keep the street quiet."

It seemed a quiet beginning to a police night shift. But that was soon to change.

12.56 a.m.

"You see all these businesses?" he explained, waving with one hand at the endless plots. “We’ve spent a lot of money attracting them here. During a recession, the cheap rents attract them in droves, and in fact there is a huge upheaval in National City: it's turning into a business city. This side of the freeway, it’s all going to be business space, and the other side, the east side, well, that's what it's always been, residential. But we couldn't leave things the way they were. There were blocks here where the gangs had absolutely taken over. Look at this house."

We were passing a neat colonial white heap with a bed of petunias outside. The patios and gardens that would usually be filled with lounging kids were unnaturally empty.

"A man was shot dead there last year. A gang execution. But look at it now — flowers outside. Quite unbelievable. That shows what can be done with the correct attitude. Here in National City we used to have what we called a Primary Response team, which I worked in for a long time. This team found the gang members jobs and generally got on top of them when they misbehaved. We worked undercover on that block for months to clear the gangs out. We worked it over with a rake. In fact, it was part of a larger operation headed by the FBI aimed at gangs in San Diego. The first operation was called Operation Bluerag against the Crips — because, you know, their color is blue — and the second was Operation Redrag, against the Bloods. Now, as far as National City is concerned, we share a border with S.D. Southeast, so we get the gang spillover from there — gangs coming in to fight with our gangs.

“But in the end the Primary Response thing was axed because of lack of personnel, lack of money, whatever...and that's a disaster because cleaning the place out block by block is the way to do it That, and the kind of community policing they’ve had in Philadelphia and other places. As it is, gang violence is escalating. More drugs, more weapons. And the drugs are changing. The rules of the games are changing very quickly."

The cackling messages on the radio are little doors that open out onto completely unexpected and potentially terrifying adventures. The next call was about an altercation between a cab driver and a young client who was refusing to pay the fare demanded. Only three blocks away from the petunias, it demonstrated how fragile and fragmented "urban regeneration” turns out to be. Reversing flight from the cities is a matter of image and confidence as much as anything else, and no one wants to think about living next to the following scene.

The police usually approach these flammable and possibly lethal situations slowly and, as it were, from the rear. An argument is actually a state of extreme delicacy because its scales can suddenly dip one way or the other — towards amicable and nervous reconciliation or towards immediate death.

The cab was parked by the curb, and a young black male was standing in the grass nearby, having aborted a precipitous attempt to clear out before the squad car got too close. Too late. The beam nailed him and — feeling safe once again — a fat white man in a dirty vest got out of the taxi literally wobbling with rage.

“That son of a bitch didn't pay his fare from downtown!" he bawled, waving his arms like a windmill and striding into the light for a moment. “He came with this friend —" a tartly made-up face peered out of the rear window of the cab on cue “— and now he says I took the long way 'round and won't pay. Look at him, son of a bitch."

A howling altercation ensued. The two lobbed obscenities at each other. The fat man looked ready to try his luck with a blubbery fist but seeing the cosh in the policeman's hand probably thought better of it. The youth was a crack dealer, and Espiritu knew him. The leering face in the rear window turned out, on closer inspection, to be a transvestite.

“He short-changed me, motherfucker. Look at him, motherfucker. He took the wrong exit on the freeway, yeah, motherfucker, he exploit my ass and now he say I owe him?"

And he burst out again, shaking his head tragically as if at a meeting.

“Yeah, he caw me nigger, motherfucker."

In the end, the officer had to come down on the side of the cab driver because he, at least, didn't push crack. The kid was ordered to pay up or go to prison for the night. The racial electricity in the air was so palpable that everyone in this curiously multiracial gathering of litigants and enforcers seemed relieved when a decision was made. The dealer then had his pupils examined and his pulse taken. A hundred fifty heartbeats a minute and no pupils. High on methamphetamines. Normally he would be taken in, but he was at the end of his high, and there are always more important things to do. The officer dismissed him with this immemorial injunction of the lawman to the lawless: leave town and never show your loathesome, misshapen face in my fiefdom ever again. But both of them seemed to know that they would meet again according to some inevitable but unfathomable law of moral mathematics. And so, just as he was loping off into the dark, the youth turned and winked. His eyes were totally white and his hands were still shaking. A small fleck of foam seemed to glint in the corner of his mouth.

"Yo caw me nigger, motherfucker," he murmured and disappeared.

1.28 a.m.

The city rapidly loses its topographical identity at night, and from the inside of a police car in constant motion, the disorientation is at its greatest. The names of streets are quickly forgotten. There are merely “zones" delimited by their degree of danger, the type of crime practiced in them, and the dim but (to the cop) instantly recognizable faces on the sidewalks.

National City’s gangland is like this. The streets appear resolutely ordinary until the markings appear on the curbs. Espiritu occasionally leaves the relative safety of the main suburban streets and coasts through the narrow alleys covered with graffiti, where gangs melt like tiny sea-fish into an alveolate coral. That night he went in for a casual look at a Bloods' lair — a disused garage area sandwiched between flimsy houses whose lights were on.

"Some of them live in those houses," he said, very obviously whispering. "You can see where they make their fires. They come here to get high. They may have been here just a few moments ago. They have their spies looking for patrol cars, so we rarely see them around here. This is the enemy when it comes down to it. And they’re increasingly organized, getting bolder. We catch kids walking brazenly down the street with weapons hidden in socks and grocery bags. They have no fear of us at all. No respect and no fear. And whereas traditionally you could say quite confidently that Hispanic gangs fought for territory and black gangs fought for drugs, now the both of them are fighting for neither. It’s really just tribal revenge: one revenge killing for another. It's totally insane. At some point, someone is just going to have to go in there and disarm them. Because as they begin to control the drugs and make money, they turn into organized crime. And what are we supposed to do, arrest them all?"

Back on the street, odd loping figures darted in and out of the lights with the rapidity of startled sharks, and the officer was moved to point out that any innocent taking a walk at night in this part of National City was guaranteed an unpleasant surprise. The next call then came through abruptly: a fracas in a motel used by prostitutes and the local cross-dressers. We put the siren on and the dazzling blue light and crossed the city in five minutes. Outside the Nitelight Motel — one of those $10-a-night slums that reek of desultory transgressions — a distraught owner was pointing in exasperation to a first-floor room at the back of the courtyard, while a group of flashy black prostitutes in gold belts studded with false rubies offered the story six at a time, all of them pointing madly into the air. The worst of all Gordian knots: a domestic tiff.

Domestic tiffs in seedy motels usually involve locked doors, bluffs and counter-bluffs, and a liberal sprinkling of lethal weapons. They are also so complicated, tortuous, and generally incomprehensible that the police begin scratching their heads after a while and wonder what they are doing there. The people in the locked room in this case were pretending not to be there, which led to a rather surreal conversation with the two officers squatting outside their door with drawn pistols. Scruffy fat men in mesh vests wandered out into the corridor in their stained shorts eager for a tidbit of live violence. The prostitutes down below ran away. And the gangland pimps lurking about in the background also melted away in case projectiles began to fly. Everywhere the police go, a strange emptiness seems to follow them.

Half an hour later, the three in the room unlocked the door and explained with some hysteria that X had robbed Y who had called Z to extract revenge, who has visited X who had declared that he had been robbed by Y who had then menaced Z. The plot was incomprehensible. The police made them promise not to behave like cannibals and decided to leave — the smell of nihilistic futility soon alerts an instinct in the patrolman's brain.

But just to make sure that all was quiet on the transvestite motel front, we cruised down the road to a larger, more dilapidated establishment at the end of a cul-de-sac and took a terrifying turn around a parking lot filled with lounging whores and gang members armed like Beirut militias. They were not in the mood to be interfered with.

"This is a bouncing place," Espiritu said, barely able to contain his contempt for the warriors in baseball caps and hairnets. "A real paragon of virtue. I can’t remember the number of homicides or beatings we've had here. All I do is keep an eye on it."

And he sounds, in his genuine annoyance, like a man hired to guard a cageful of Sundersban tigers. One false move on either side and the tigers eat the guard or the guard shoots the tiger. After a tour lasting about 15 seconds, we left.

2.14 a.m.

In the wake of the Rodney King debacle in Los Angeles, it might be assumed that the police would feel a sense of embattled bitterness, of confusion and demoralized uncertainty. But Espiritu is not confused at all.

"When some cops rampage like that, it actually makes our job more difficult. We don't spend our time beating traffic offenders up with electric prods and truncheons. Most of our time is spent doing paperwork. It's grinding and exhausting. And as for brutality, no brutality is acceptable.... The L.A. Police Department shot dead 23 people last year, all right, you find that shocking; but in the same period there were 1300 violent deaths in the same city. Seven hundred gang murders. Work it out per day. No police force in the world should be asked to deal with that kind of behavior. It’s absolutely incredible. Do people walk around with machine guns in their pockets in England? No policemen there have to put up with automatic gunfire from people hauled over for a speeding ticket. People forget that we are not scapegoats for their own lunacy. If people want to behave like beasts, we have to deal with them, that's all. But lecturing the police about 'brutality' is nothing short of amazing.

"We sometimes feel like saying, 'We're no different from you. Why is your brutality any more acceptable than ours? Because we wear a badge and you don't? How insane can you get?' Of course, I know people are afraid of us. You feel it sitting in the car, don't you?"

It is true — the passing faces suddenly adjust to assume artificial expressions of craven and theatrical innocence, and the sensation of being the object of this instantaneous subservience is disturbingly satisfying.

"But that's not the point at all. The kids we have to deal with show us no respect whatsoever. It's a constant irritation, a constant threat. People are armed like amateur militias. And when they’re high, they have no hesitation shooting. You have to use every primitive instinct in your body because there’s never any time to think about anything. It's very primitive altogether — we’re like stoneage men living off our wits. I pride myself on knowing within seconds of looking at someone's face exactly what they are. It's as simple as that."

San Diego is the methamphetamine capital of the world, producing and refining more tonnage of the super-crack "crystal" (so named because it bears a resemblance to white crystals) than any city in the United States. Crystal and PCP (short for Phenocycladine, a horse tranquilizer) are the drugs most feared by the police because they produce highs that last up to 12 hours as against a 20-minute average for crack. And not only that, but a fearlessness and insensibility to pain that effectively renders the taker a berserker. People high on either have been known to absorb two or three bullets from a police revolver, lift themselves from the ground, disarm the officer, and murder him with the same weapon. On average, it is assumed that four men can just about physically subdue an addict on a high without the use of weaponry. If, on the other hand, the user is himself armed, the outcome is likely to be mortally dangerous. The man "wired" on crystal is a walking bomb.

“I'm more afraid of that than anything else. That's why you’re always prepared for violence. Always. They're completely unpredictable. We have so much weird stuff knocking around now: crystal, 'ice,' PCP — not to mention a new rise in heroin — that the tension is bound to be rising. Not many people realize that cocaine cannot be manufactured in the U.S. It has to be manufactured somewhere else, then brought in. But crystal can be assembled from materials here. It's a homegrown product. And that means it’s going to be the boom drug of the '90s, however lethal it makes its addicts. When you have thousands of people hitting the pipe with 'ice' or whatever ["ice" being a venomous, smokeable variety of methamphetamine], you’re going to have a lot of madness on the streets. That's the way I see it. Drugs plus guns equals Hell."

As these gloomy things were being explained and the drug-crazed pedestrians' wild gazes flashed in and out of the beam (giving their faces the tortured look of Fuseli's mad horses), a strange call from the National City force's only woman officer interrupted the sinister chain. There was no explanation of the call for assistance. Just a demand that Espiritu join her in a deserted parking lot where she had encountered a problem she was unable to resolve herself. It concerned a wounded bird. When we arrived, we saw nothing at all in the lot but the officer's car and an enormous seagull sitting with a smashed wing on the tarmac. The officer had come across it accidentally, had no idea what to do with it, and was distraught.

"Don’t laugh," she kept saying, as if certain mocking sexual assumptions were going to be made about her compassion. "Don't laugh." Should she file a report on a disabled seagull? Should it be taken in a plastic ornithic body-bag to the all-night animal emergency clinic? Should she call an ambulance? The absurdity of the discussion that followed (mitigated only by its compassionate dimension) threatened to collide with everything that had preceded it. Methamphetamines and seagulls? Bird handlers and pimps?

Fortunately, there was another call on the car radio. An armed robbery at a Texaco gas station on Highland. Thus, within minutes we were propelled from a transvestites' motel to a bird drama to a possible shootout at a gas station. It is a shame that policemen do not turn frequently into novelists. Or perhaps, on the whole it is a relief.

2:23 a.m.

To be propelled through a silent city at 80 miles an hour in a bulletproof police car sounding its sirens and flashing its lights is an experience that the designers of Disneyland might like to simulate with their wizardry. Naked fear rises through the system and results in a gradual moistening of the palms. The suspect is already being watched and monitored by another car: he is coming out of the shop, he is wearing a white seersucker jacket and black jeans, he is making his way towards a mulberry-colored jeep; the station is empty, and the chances are that he has just robbed the cash till. The scenario invents itself as you progress towards it and each detail weighs down upon you. In a minute, after all, you will be there, too, under the hideous orange light of gas stations, face to face with the seersucker jacket. What will happen then? What kind of nightmare will explode around your ears?

Gas stations have alarm systems connected to police stations, and when these go off, patrol cars arrive on the scene within minutes, prepared for battle. Espiritu parked our car just out of sight from the Texaco entrance, went to the back of the car, and pulled out a shotgun. He then crept into the trees bordering the entrance drive and went down onto his haunches with the barrel of the shotgun pointed at the station's cash booth, barely visible through the leaves.

On the radio, it was possible to hear the two officers talking each other through a pincer movement, each one approaching from a different angle as they watched a white male climbing into a jeep. They could not tell if he had just robbed the booth or not. At the last minute, making a blind decision, they rushed up to the booth, weapons primed, and immobilized everything living in the station forecourt. A few seconds of horrible silence followed. The whole scene, desolate and frigid, bathed in the orange glare, could not have been more idiotically menacing.

But not all alarms end in violent chaos. Sometimes a clumsy night operator sets one off with his foot without realizing it and then has to talk his way out of the ridiculous situation he has created for himself. Sometimes, in fact, the officers come back smiling, tensely relieved, a little annoyed at the expenditure of time. There will be a few moments of wind- ing down, a brief and functional meditation on the possibility of a playful brush with death, and then a coffee at a 7-Eleven.

By three o'clock, the night has certainly established its rhythm, and the fatalistic calm of the patrolman becomes more and more impressive. At any point, you might be reminded of a forest boar-hunter in the Congo waiting patiently under a tree for his moment of action. No useless expenditure of energy. No panic. You cannot help wondering if this feline implacability requires a nervous system radically different from your own...

3:15 a.m.

"Everything is intuition,” the officer said as we were cruising the edge of National City along the freeways. "For example, I have just had a call from an officer who has just seen two people talking outside a bar. One of them walked away too quickly. He is suspicious. He knows in his gut there is something wrong. We’re going there now to see what he thinks is happening. But I can tell you right now that he's probably right. That feeling in the stomach is hardly ever wrong."

After a tortuous drive through a landscape of endless, formless, low-rent blocks, down streets that a few years ago the police, by their own admission, hardly ever dared wander, we arrived at a lonely crossroads on the edge of what seemed to be empty fields. On one side of the crossroads stood a low, bunker-like structure with shuttered windows and the only illumined light in the vicinity. Telegraph wires meshed overhead, picked out by a moon that had suddenly come out of its envelope of lugubrious cloud The cicadas shrilled in the wild grass, sprouting out of the sidewalks and dilapidated wooden fences. The bunker was a bar. and the patrolman waiting quietly some distance from an adjoining street had watched what he thought was a drug transaction take place next to one of the cars parked outside.

Espiritu then walked to the bar’s door, knocked four or five times without an answer, then peered through the window. He could see shadows moving about inside. They were not going to open the door despite the threats backed up with badges. The officers therefore moved around to the side of the building, where a small door gave onto the street and where, by outrageous luck, they stumbled upon an elderly Hispanic couple, laden with vulgar gold jewelry, walking off with the agility of a pair of rabbits.

The man, in his 60s, looked like a faded Mexican television host in his reptile shoes and medallions. The woman, in a rash moment of panic or terrorized ignorance, waived her Fourth Amendment rights and allowed one of the officers to rummage through her purse. A moment earlier, they had been seen desperately trying to hurl small plastic containers over the circumambient hedges. Inside the purse, slyly sandwiched between the make-up mirrors and Estée Lauder lipsticks, were several tubes crammed with "crystal." She turned two kohl-smeared eyes on her captors, then on the civilian among them writing furiously in a notebook. She began pleading with him: she didn't take crystal, she didn't deal it, it had all been given to her by friends. Her stilettoes and lips colored Crimson Morning were trembling with hushed anxiety. She had mistaken me for the ferocious young detective out for his nocturnal killing. And as she was gently cuffed, frisked, and led away, she kept her eyes fixed on my face, waiting for a sudden twitch of autocratic mercy. Dictators must be used to that gaze.

Contrary to that livid myth that has cops smashing their way like latter-day gung-ho Visigoths through a world of fleeing, victimized civilians, the police have procedures — which in exactitude, thoroughness, and consideration are sometimes nothing less than astounding. Anyone familiar with the forces of law and order almost anywhere else in the world can only be flabbergasted that a woman suspect can only legally be examined by another woman. That a suspect can legally refuse to have his or her possessions searched by officers That the civilian has any rights at all relative to an agent in uniform. In countries governed by the implacable will of the Napoleonic Code, the suspect is plasticene to be disposed of whatever way the agent thinks fit.

When drug dealers are shot dead by the French police in backstreet toilets, the event is usually reported on page 23 of Liberation in about three lines with no questions asked. But even when dealing with this pathetic couple and their little vanity bags stuffed with methamphetamine, the reviled and feared American cop, the sweating (if usually heroic) beast of screen and print, the "legalized Mob” of radical anecdote evaporates in a flurry of pedantry and procedural manners. There is not even any abuse. Is this an act put on for the guest? As soon as the latter’s back is turned, do the menacing truncheons and stun guns come out and go into frenzied action? It does not seem likely in this case.

Even forcing an entry into the barricaded bar is out of the question because it is the Sheriff's jurisdiction, and there can be no entry without a search warrant, which in this case would be difficult to obtain. And without "sufficient grounds" either to enter or obtain a warrant, the officers will time and time again let sleeping dogs lie, just as they will pass over criminals on the street because the time needed to book them outweighs the usefulness of arrest.

Within minutes the scene will have cleared, the dogs will still be barking behind the suburban fences, and the dealers in the bar will have returned to their subterranean routines. By four o’clock, mid-week National City loses its criminal energy and settles down seriously to sleep. Even the Lucky Galore empties and closes down. The wide streets fringed with verbena, laurels, and palms; the vast car salesrooms of the Boulevard; the two struggling sex cinemas and the eery, nervous military fences lie transfixed by a dull, smokey moon. The Victorian houses look fabricated from some perdurable gingerbread, all slumbering behind their dainty gardens, where swings and flagpoles and lattices can be seen, picked out by the same light. This is how the policeman likes his city: calm, ordered, and empty. Ideally, children would be playing peacefully in those swings, just to give the place a breath of life, but since we know that they are sleeping in the gingerbread houses, all is well. And perhaps, after all, no behavior at all is better even than the misbehavior of children.

"I can’t go on being a patrolman forever," Officer Espiritu finally confessed.

"Before, as I said, I worked in narcotics in the Primary Response team. Now I want to work with dogs. Yes, that’s right. I have a dog at home, and I want to work with dogs. There’s all kinds of things dogs can do which humans can’t. Incredible potential in dogs. So I want to be a canine handler. From crack addicts to dogs...I will have done it all."

The station was quiet when we got back. The reception area was empty apart from the photographer who had taken a picture of a bullet hole in a gang member's scapula bone. There didn’t seem to be anything to do, and so I went to the police toilets, expecting Officer Espiritu to be calmly drinking a cup of coffee on my return. When I came out, though, the car had gone. A reported burglary east of Highland. His coffee was still standing on the table, hot to the touch.

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Officer David Espiritu: "A man was shot dead there last year. A gang execution. But look at it now — flowers outside." - Image by Robert Burroughs
Officer David Espiritu: "A man was shot dead there last year. A gang execution. But look at it now — flowers outside."

On Highland Avenue, in the heart of National City — a mile-and-a-half-long boulevard along which the city's gangs conduct their lethal parades on weekend nights — a red car sits in a small parking lot under the red and blue glare of a patrolman's lights. A semicircle of glass splinters lies around the tires, and it is drenched in blood. However, the liquid has half dried and soaked into the tarmac, leaving the scene curiously colorless, like a photograph from which the color has been, not added, but removed.

"As they begin to control the drugs and make money, they turn into organized crime."

Little flecks of detritus are woven into this mess of glinting pieces and dull vermilion: a crushed cigarette pack, scattered papers, pieces of what seem to be the fabric stuffed into the seats. The would-be slayer and the victim (hit only in the shoulder and therefore probably alive) have both disappeared. In primitive feuds of honor — which gang murder so often resembles now — neither killer nor killed will ever allow himself to be dishonored by capture. Like the feuds of 19th-century Sicily, these ones are deadly, widely feared but ultimately secret.

"For all I know he lives on that curb there. That might be his home."

At midnight, the squad cars chasing the dozens of leads provided by loquacious citizens (who contradict themselves but who nevertheless just love to talk on the telephone) have returned to their normal beats or to the National City police headquarters a block north of National City Boulevard on Eighth. The swooping, circling helicopter has been called off. And the night sergeant now only has to deal with the woman in white canvas shoes and large spectacles who has dragged — accidentally? because she was on her way to her film developing class? — a huge, telescopic-lensed Nikkon.

Espiritu. A reported burglary east of Highland. The burglar's coffee was still standing on the table.

"They went south," she says emphatically to the officer, pointing in three different directions simultaneously with her hand. "Definitely south."

The officer looks at her blankly.

The dealer then had his pupils examined and his pulse taken. A hundred fifty heartbeats a minute and no pupils. High on methamphetamines.

“Well, actually, we think they went north, Madam."

“No, south, I’m telling you. Two Hispanics in black jackets."

“The three Hispanics in red jackets went north, or so we’re told."

"Who told you that?"

"Madam..."

"They have their spies looking for patrol cars, so we rarely see them around here. This is the enemy when it comes down to it."

The sergeant looks wearily at her, then over her shoulder while he rolls his eyes and clucks. It is midnight, Tuesday night, and the roller coaster of National City's nocturnal crime is underway. The evening’s entertainment has begun with the red car on Highland Avenue, but as the night wears on and the streets become lonelier, far crueller and more surreal things will almost certainly happen.

The woman waived her Fourth Amendment rights and allowed one of the officers to rummage through her purse. Inside the purse were several tubes crammed with "crystal."

With the anxiety of under-equipped guardians waiting for the gates of a menagerie to be temporarily opened, the police wait by their telephones and walkie-talkies with a fatalism bordering on disinterest. And sure enough, within minutes another shooting has taken place at an Alberto's Taco Shop on Sweetwater Road. The normal tit for tat is underway.

National City, halfway to the Mexican border, is a relatively small area of eight square miles crammed behind San Diego's gigantic naval base. Like most Californian townships, its surface of spacious avenues, neat garden-fronted units, Victorian mansions, and — by East Coast standards — clean, garbage-free sidewalks do little to betray those phenomena associated with the talismanic word "ghetto." This was once a farming flatland, and its complicated, prosperous fin-de-siecle houses bear witness to an industrious and stable past.

The hinterland just behind the base is packed with small businesses. And compared to the gang-infested wastelands of Los Angeles. the homicide rate is relatively low: only one a month. Yet the Crips and the Bloods have their chapters here in the labyrinths of semi-tropical alleys, and the curb-stones at certain corners are marked with the shamanic symbols and initials of other, more local gangs: O.T.N.C., Old Town National City; I.B.S., the Insane Boys; O.B.S., the Olden Boys; etc. These cryptic initials, almost unnoticeable at first sight, are the territorial border posts that shape the ebb and flow of a secretive, nihilistic war. And like other, less fanciful borders, transgression of them can sometimes mean death.

The National City police headquarters has a lobby that at first could be mistaken for that of a local enthusiasts’ society: the Swiss Army Knife Club, perhaps. A large glass case contains the department's sports trophies: target-shooting awards (a silver figure crouching with pistol extended) and inter-department baseball cups, and next to them, a lyrical scroll describing the soul of a Policeman. “A policeman," it says, "is a composite of what all men are, a mingling of saint and sinner, dust and deity.” And next to that stand the memorials to murdered officers, the most prominent of which is the one dedicated to Robert Medina, shot dead June 24,1987. The police, like all fraternities — like the gangs themselves, for that matter — remember the names of their dead. And the dead are always an unquenchable source of bitterness.

A Tuesday night is a quiet one; the quivering civilian on his first ridealong is less likely to be plunged into the numbing mayhem of, say, a weekend night — a night when those immemorial young male gangsters, overheated families, and lone hit-and-run armed robbers of countless crime sagas seem to leap over the edge of sanity all at once and into the abyss. Nevertheless, there is the red car on Highland. And after that, the debacle of Alberto’s Taco Shop. Even Tuesday nights have their allotted interludes of barbarism. At midnight, David Espiritu comes on duty for the graveyard shift and spends the next seven hours cruising the streets of National City.

Our Virgil for this night out in the Inferno is a 24-year-old professional who has been in the force since he was 16 and who is now an acknowledged narcotics expert. He is an embodiment of that strange calm certain people locked for a lifetime into a uniform often have. Officer Espiritu has no swagger or rollicking threat compatible with that image of badged authority that every bien-pensant liberal carries around with him like a soiled handkerchief and into which he occasionally discharges a little disdainful mucous. He is — and he knows it — a kind of finely balanced surveillance machine that nevertheless has, at every moment, to make irrational and indefensible judgements. Much like a fish with a "lateral line" running through its body that makes decisions upon "feeling” tremors in the water.

"If ever anyone had a sixth sense, it is a policeman," he explained in an educated voice that carefully dissimulated its annoyance at our failure to understand this delicate point. "It develops very slowly, but after five or six years on the street, you know a great deal about how people work. You know just by looking at them who they are and what they’re doing. Sometimes you are wrong, but nine times out of ten your intestines never lie.

"Most police work is like this — driving around at random, checking the streets as you feel like it — and it depends on hunches about things so tiny that most people wouldn't even notice them. A door open here; a car parked oddly there — I don’t know, hundreds of different things. And then again, at night you also know certain things. Who is up at night? Who is walking around National City at one in the morning with his hands in his pockets instead of sleeping in his bed? What do I do at night, what do you do? We don’t wash the car. We don’t prune the hedges. We sleep. And so what are these guys doing up?"

The answer to this question seemed unpleasantly self-evident, and I had to think guiltily of my own predilection for wandering the streets at night without any explanation whatsoever. If Officer Espiritu came up in his squad car and beamed his spotlight on my face, what pathetic and idiotic excuse would I stammer out? But just as we were turning into the smaller residential streets off the Boulevard, a kind of living reproof of the officer's argument appeared out of nowhere: a doddering old fellow in checked pants with a walking stick, wild-eyed and merry, mouthing what seemed to be some garbled lines of Walt Whitman to himself. As he stood there half lit up by the car’s lights on the corner like some horrible perambulatory phantom, he waved his stick at the car and screamed: "Hiya, officer! ”

Wasn't he a suspect, then? Well, now, the officer explained, we do have our little eccentrics. That particular gentleman...he’s always out at night walking round and round, utterly unafraid of the prowling nocturnal crack dealers, the after-hours parasites who might be tempted to do him in. I breathed a secret sigh of relief. Thank Cod for the man in checks. For otherwise the streets of National City are menacingly deserted at night, and even on the Boulevard there is now a small white sign that orders "No Cruising’’ — any car passing the same spot within four hours on a certain night is tailed and booked. This is not a place for whimsical insomniacs.

12:23 a.m.

The first call from H.Q. reported three white males apparently attempting to jump-start a possibly stolen car on the edges of the military base. The semi-industrial wasteland adjacent to this area is forbidding at night: empty plots of waste ground, deserted warehouses, and shadow-covered factories. At the end of a small road abutting the military perimeter fence, the three alleged car thieves were indeed there poring over the innards of a motorbike: pink-faced, Stetson-wearing, Southern naval boys with a broken toy, already surrounded by a terrible ring of MPs with slightly outlandish uniforms. The latter look like a kind of secret Mitteleuropean army from a Kafka kingdom, one whose markings no one can quite identify and whose jurisdiction is defined but nevertheless ambiguous. The three in the black hats were able to explain that the bike was theirs, and Officer Espiritu was called upon to do nothing but examine a military identification card. The two police forces in general nod at each other distantly and go their separate ways with hardly a word.

We cruised along for a few minutes afterwards along the fence and came across another suspect, this time a dishevelled drug-user sitting forlornly on a curb in the middle of a fantastic emptiness of bewildering roads. The torchbeam flashed into his face, bounced off two blood-red eyes, and shifted him onward. The police will always say "Move on" to a person who must, in any case, move on, though to nowhere, for no reason and with no result. But in this case we followed him to make sure he was walking. As soon as the car swerved off, the addict sat down on the curb again and waited for the next cop.

“He sits there all night," the officer said with no expression whatsoever, sounding (however much he would hate the comparison) like a character in a predictably absurdist play with no props but empty warehouses. "For all I know he lives on that curb there That might be his home. A lot of the homeless live around the railway tracks here. I just have to move them along. It's as simple as that. I don’t mean him any harm, I just have to keep the street quiet."

It seemed a quiet beginning to a police night shift. But that was soon to change.

12.56 a.m.

"You see all these businesses?" he explained, waving with one hand at the endless plots. “We’ve spent a lot of money attracting them here. During a recession, the cheap rents attract them in droves, and in fact there is a huge upheaval in National City: it's turning into a business city. This side of the freeway, it’s all going to be business space, and the other side, the east side, well, that's what it's always been, residential. But we couldn't leave things the way they were. There were blocks here where the gangs had absolutely taken over. Look at this house."

We were passing a neat colonial white heap with a bed of petunias outside. The patios and gardens that would usually be filled with lounging kids were unnaturally empty.

"A man was shot dead there last year. A gang execution. But look at it now — flowers outside. Quite unbelievable. That shows what can be done with the correct attitude. Here in National City we used to have what we called a Primary Response team, which I worked in for a long time. This team found the gang members jobs and generally got on top of them when they misbehaved. We worked undercover on that block for months to clear the gangs out. We worked it over with a rake. In fact, it was part of a larger operation headed by the FBI aimed at gangs in San Diego. The first operation was called Operation Bluerag against the Crips — because, you know, their color is blue — and the second was Operation Redrag, against the Bloods. Now, as far as National City is concerned, we share a border with S.D. Southeast, so we get the gang spillover from there — gangs coming in to fight with our gangs.

“But in the end the Primary Response thing was axed because of lack of personnel, lack of money, whatever...and that's a disaster because cleaning the place out block by block is the way to do it That, and the kind of community policing they’ve had in Philadelphia and other places. As it is, gang violence is escalating. More drugs, more weapons. And the drugs are changing. The rules of the games are changing very quickly."

The cackling messages on the radio are little doors that open out onto completely unexpected and potentially terrifying adventures. The next call was about an altercation between a cab driver and a young client who was refusing to pay the fare demanded. Only three blocks away from the petunias, it demonstrated how fragile and fragmented "urban regeneration” turns out to be. Reversing flight from the cities is a matter of image and confidence as much as anything else, and no one wants to think about living next to the following scene.

The police usually approach these flammable and possibly lethal situations slowly and, as it were, from the rear. An argument is actually a state of extreme delicacy because its scales can suddenly dip one way or the other — towards amicable and nervous reconciliation or towards immediate death.

The cab was parked by the curb, and a young black male was standing in the grass nearby, having aborted a precipitous attempt to clear out before the squad car got too close. Too late. The beam nailed him and — feeling safe once again — a fat white man in a dirty vest got out of the taxi literally wobbling with rage.

“That son of a bitch didn't pay his fare from downtown!" he bawled, waving his arms like a windmill and striding into the light for a moment. “He came with this friend —" a tartly made-up face peered out of the rear window of the cab on cue “— and now he says I took the long way 'round and won't pay. Look at him, son of a bitch."

A howling altercation ensued. The two lobbed obscenities at each other. The fat man looked ready to try his luck with a blubbery fist but seeing the cosh in the policeman's hand probably thought better of it. The youth was a crack dealer, and Espiritu knew him. The leering face in the rear window turned out, on closer inspection, to be a transvestite.

“He short-changed me, motherfucker. Look at him, motherfucker. He took the wrong exit on the freeway, yeah, motherfucker, he exploit my ass and now he say I owe him?"

And he burst out again, shaking his head tragically as if at a meeting.

“Yeah, he caw me nigger, motherfucker."

In the end, the officer had to come down on the side of the cab driver because he, at least, didn't push crack. The kid was ordered to pay up or go to prison for the night. The racial electricity in the air was so palpable that everyone in this curiously multiracial gathering of litigants and enforcers seemed relieved when a decision was made. The dealer then had his pupils examined and his pulse taken. A hundred fifty heartbeats a minute and no pupils. High on methamphetamines. Normally he would be taken in, but he was at the end of his high, and there are always more important things to do. The officer dismissed him with this immemorial injunction of the lawman to the lawless: leave town and never show your loathesome, misshapen face in my fiefdom ever again. But both of them seemed to know that they would meet again according to some inevitable but unfathomable law of moral mathematics. And so, just as he was loping off into the dark, the youth turned and winked. His eyes were totally white and his hands were still shaking. A small fleck of foam seemed to glint in the corner of his mouth.

"Yo caw me nigger, motherfucker," he murmured and disappeared.

1.28 a.m.

The city rapidly loses its topographical identity at night, and from the inside of a police car in constant motion, the disorientation is at its greatest. The names of streets are quickly forgotten. There are merely “zones" delimited by their degree of danger, the type of crime practiced in them, and the dim but (to the cop) instantly recognizable faces on the sidewalks.

National City’s gangland is like this. The streets appear resolutely ordinary until the markings appear on the curbs. Espiritu occasionally leaves the relative safety of the main suburban streets and coasts through the narrow alleys covered with graffiti, where gangs melt like tiny sea-fish into an alveolate coral. That night he went in for a casual look at a Bloods' lair — a disused garage area sandwiched between flimsy houses whose lights were on.

"Some of them live in those houses," he said, very obviously whispering. "You can see where they make their fires. They come here to get high. They may have been here just a few moments ago. They have their spies looking for patrol cars, so we rarely see them around here. This is the enemy when it comes down to it. And they’re increasingly organized, getting bolder. We catch kids walking brazenly down the street with weapons hidden in socks and grocery bags. They have no fear of us at all. No respect and no fear. And whereas traditionally you could say quite confidently that Hispanic gangs fought for territory and black gangs fought for drugs, now the both of them are fighting for neither. It’s really just tribal revenge: one revenge killing for another. It's totally insane. At some point, someone is just going to have to go in there and disarm them. Because as they begin to control the drugs and make money, they turn into organized crime. And what are we supposed to do, arrest them all?"

Back on the street, odd loping figures darted in and out of the lights with the rapidity of startled sharks, and the officer was moved to point out that any innocent taking a walk at night in this part of National City was guaranteed an unpleasant surprise. The next call then came through abruptly: a fracas in a motel used by prostitutes and the local cross-dressers. We put the siren on and the dazzling blue light and crossed the city in five minutes. Outside the Nitelight Motel — one of those $10-a-night slums that reek of desultory transgressions — a distraught owner was pointing in exasperation to a first-floor room at the back of the courtyard, while a group of flashy black prostitutes in gold belts studded with false rubies offered the story six at a time, all of them pointing madly into the air. The worst of all Gordian knots: a domestic tiff.

Domestic tiffs in seedy motels usually involve locked doors, bluffs and counter-bluffs, and a liberal sprinkling of lethal weapons. They are also so complicated, tortuous, and generally incomprehensible that the police begin scratching their heads after a while and wonder what they are doing there. The people in the locked room in this case were pretending not to be there, which led to a rather surreal conversation with the two officers squatting outside their door with drawn pistols. Scruffy fat men in mesh vests wandered out into the corridor in their stained shorts eager for a tidbit of live violence. The prostitutes down below ran away. And the gangland pimps lurking about in the background also melted away in case projectiles began to fly. Everywhere the police go, a strange emptiness seems to follow them.

Half an hour later, the three in the room unlocked the door and explained with some hysteria that X had robbed Y who had called Z to extract revenge, who has visited X who had declared that he had been robbed by Y who had then menaced Z. The plot was incomprehensible. The police made them promise not to behave like cannibals and decided to leave — the smell of nihilistic futility soon alerts an instinct in the patrolman's brain.

But just to make sure that all was quiet on the transvestite motel front, we cruised down the road to a larger, more dilapidated establishment at the end of a cul-de-sac and took a terrifying turn around a parking lot filled with lounging whores and gang members armed like Beirut militias. They were not in the mood to be interfered with.

"This is a bouncing place," Espiritu said, barely able to contain his contempt for the warriors in baseball caps and hairnets. "A real paragon of virtue. I can’t remember the number of homicides or beatings we've had here. All I do is keep an eye on it."

And he sounds, in his genuine annoyance, like a man hired to guard a cageful of Sundersban tigers. One false move on either side and the tigers eat the guard or the guard shoots the tiger. After a tour lasting about 15 seconds, we left.

2.14 a.m.

In the wake of the Rodney King debacle in Los Angeles, it might be assumed that the police would feel a sense of embattled bitterness, of confusion and demoralized uncertainty. But Espiritu is not confused at all.

"When some cops rampage like that, it actually makes our job more difficult. We don't spend our time beating traffic offenders up with electric prods and truncheons. Most of our time is spent doing paperwork. It's grinding and exhausting. And as for brutality, no brutality is acceptable.... The L.A. Police Department shot dead 23 people last year, all right, you find that shocking; but in the same period there were 1300 violent deaths in the same city. Seven hundred gang murders. Work it out per day. No police force in the world should be asked to deal with that kind of behavior. It’s absolutely incredible. Do people walk around with machine guns in their pockets in England? No policemen there have to put up with automatic gunfire from people hauled over for a speeding ticket. People forget that we are not scapegoats for their own lunacy. If people want to behave like beasts, we have to deal with them, that's all. But lecturing the police about 'brutality' is nothing short of amazing.

"We sometimes feel like saying, 'We're no different from you. Why is your brutality any more acceptable than ours? Because we wear a badge and you don't? How insane can you get?' Of course, I know people are afraid of us. You feel it sitting in the car, don't you?"

It is true — the passing faces suddenly adjust to assume artificial expressions of craven and theatrical innocence, and the sensation of being the object of this instantaneous subservience is disturbingly satisfying.

"But that's not the point at all. The kids we have to deal with show us no respect whatsoever. It's a constant irritation, a constant threat. People are armed like amateur militias. And when they’re high, they have no hesitation shooting. You have to use every primitive instinct in your body because there’s never any time to think about anything. It's very primitive altogether — we’re like stoneage men living off our wits. I pride myself on knowing within seconds of looking at someone's face exactly what they are. It's as simple as that."

San Diego is the methamphetamine capital of the world, producing and refining more tonnage of the super-crack "crystal" (so named because it bears a resemblance to white crystals) than any city in the United States. Crystal and PCP (short for Phenocycladine, a horse tranquilizer) are the drugs most feared by the police because they produce highs that last up to 12 hours as against a 20-minute average for crack. And not only that, but a fearlessness and insensibility to pain that effectively renders the taker a berserker. People high on either have been known to absorb two or three bullets from a police revolver, lift themselves from the ground, disarm the officer, and murder him with the same weapon. On average, it is assumed that four men can just about physically subdue an addict on a high without the use of weaponry. If, on the other hand, the user is himself armed, the outcome is likely to be mortally dangerous. The man "wired" on crystal is a walking bomb.

“I'm more afraid of that than anything else. That's why you’re always prepared for violence. Always. They're completely unpredictable. We have so much weird stuff knocking around now: crystal, 'ice,' PCP — not to mention a new rise in heroin — that the tension is bound to be rising. Not many people realize that cocaine cannot be manufactured in the U.S. It has to be manufactured somewhere else, then brought in. But crystal can be assembled from materials here. It's a homegrown product. And that means it’s going to be the boom drug of the '90s, however lethal it makes its addicts. When you have thousands of people hitting the pipe with 'ice' or whatever ["ice" being a venomous, smokeable variety of methamphetamine], you’re going to have a lot of madness on the streets. That's the way I see it. Drugs plus guns equals Hell."

As these gloomy things were being explained and the drug-crazed pedestrians' wild gazes flashed in and out of the beam (giving their faces the tortured look of Fuseli's mad horses), a strange call from the National City force's only woman officer interrupted the sinister chain. There was no explanation of the call for assistance. Just a demand that Espiritu join her in a deserted parking lot where she had encountered a problem she was unable to resolve herself. It concerned a wounded bird. When we arrived, we saw nothing at all in the lot but the officer's car and an enormous seagull sitting with a smashed wing on the tarmac. The officer had come across it accidentally, had no idea what to do with it, and was distraught.

"Don’t laugh," she kept saying, as if certain mocking sexual assumptions were going to be made about her compassion. "Don't laugh." Should she file a report on a disabled seagull? Should it be taken in a plastic ornithic body-bag to the all-night animal emergency clinic? Should she call an ambulance? The absurdity of the discussion that followed (mitigated only by its compassionate dimension) threatened to collide with everything that had preceded it. Methamphetamines and seagulls? Bird handlers and pimps?

Fortunately, there was another call on the car radio. An armed robbery at a Texaco gas station on Highland. Thus, within minutes we were propelled from a transvestites' motel to a bird drama to a possible shootout at a gas station. It is a shame that policemen do not turn frequently into novelists. Or perhaps, on the whole it is a relief.

2:23 a.m.

To be propelled through a silent city at 80 miles an hour in a bulletproof police car sounding its sirens and flashing its lights is an experience that the designers of Disneyland might like to simulate with their wizardry. Naked fear rises through the system and results in a gradual moistening of the palms. The suspect is already being watched and monitored by another car: he is coming out of the shop, he is wearing a white seersucker jacket and black jeans, he is making his way towards a mulberry-colored jeep; the station is empty, and the chances are that he has just robbed the cash till. The scenario invents itself as you progress towards it and each detail weighs down upon you. In a minute, after all, you will be there, too, under the hideous orange light of gas stations, face to face with the seersucker jacket. What will happen then? What kind of nightmare will explode around your ears?

Gas stations have alarm systems connected to police stations, and when these go off, patrol cars arrive on the scene within minutes, prepared for battle. Espiritu parked our car just out of sight from the Texaco entrance, went to the back of the car, and pulled out a shotgun. He then crept into the trees bordering the entrance drive and went down onto his haunches with the barrel of the shotgun pointed at the station's cash booth, barely visible through the leaves.

On the radio, it was possible to hear the two officers talking each other through a pincer movement, each one approaching from a different angle as they watched a white male climbing into a jeep. They could not tell if he had just robbed the booth or not. At the last minute, making a blind decision, they rushed up to the booth, weapons primed, and immobilized everything living in the station forecourt. A few seconds of horrible silence followed. The whole scene, desolate and frigid, bathed in the orange glare, could not have been more idiotically menacing.

But not all alarms end in violent chaos. Sometimes a clumsy night operator sets one off with his foot without realizing it and then has to talk his way out of the ridiculous situation he has created for himself. Sometimes, in fact, the officers come back smiling, tensely relieved, a little annoyed at the expenditure of time. There will be a few moments of wind- ing down, a brief and functional meditation on the possibility of a playful brush with death, and then a coffee at a 7-Eleven.

By three o'clock, the night has certainly established its rhythm, and the fatalistic calm of the patrolman becomes more and more impressive. At any point, you might be reminded of a forest boar-hunter in the Congo waiting patiently under a tree for his moment of action. No useless expenditure of energy. No panic. You cannot help wondering if this feline implacability requires a nervous system radically different from your own...

3:15 a.m.

"Everything is intuition,” the officer said as we were cruising the edge of National City along the freeways. "For example, I have just had a call from an officer who has just seen two people talking outside a bar. One of them walked away too quickly. He is suspicious. He knows in his gut there is something wrong. We’re going there now to see what he thinks is happening. But I can tell you right now that he's probably right. That feeling in the stomach is hardly ever wrong."

After a tortuous drive through a landscape of endless, formless, low-rent blocks, down streets that a few years ago the police, by their own admission, hardly ever dared wander, we arrived at a lonely crossroads on the edge of what seemed to be empty fields. On one side of the crossroads stood a low, bunker-like structure with shuttered windows and the only illumined light in the vicinity. Telegraph wires meshed overhead, picked out by a moon that had suddenly come out of its envelope of lugubrious cloud The cicadas shrilled in the wild grass, sprouting out of the sidewalks and dilapidated wooden fences. The bunker was a bar. and the patrolman waiting quietly some distance from an adjoining street had watched what he thought was a drug transaction take place next to one of the cars parked outside.

Espiritu then walked to the bar’s door, knocked four or five times without an answer, then peered through the window. He could see shadows moving about inside. They were not going to open the door despite the threats backed up with badges. The officers therefore moved around to the side of the building, where a small door gave onto the street and where, by outrageous luck, they stumbled upon an elderly Hispanic couple, laden with vulgar gold jewelry, walking off with the agility of a pair of rabbits.

The man, in his 60s, looked like a faded Mexican television host in his reptile shoes and medallions. The woman, in a rash moment of panic or terrorized ignorance, waived her Fourth Amendment rights and allowed one of the officers to rummage through her purse. A moment earlier, they had been seen desperately trying to hurl small plastic containers over the circumambient hedges. Inside the purse, slyly sandwiched between the make-up mirrors and Estée Lauder lipsticks, were several tubes crammed with "crystal." She turned two kohl-smeared eyes on her captors, then on the civilian among them writing furiously in a notebook. She began pleading with him: she didn't take crystal, she didn't deal it, it had all been given to her by friends. Her stilettoes and lips colored Crimson Morning were trembling with hushed anxiety. She had mistaken me for the ferocious young detective out for his nocturnal killing. And as she was gently cuffed, frisked, and led away, she kept her eyes fixed on my face, waiting for a sudden twitch of autocratic mercy. Dictators must be used to that gaze.

Contrary to that livid myth that has cops smashing their way like latter-day gung-ho Visigoths through a world of fleeing, victimized civilians, the police have procedures — which in exactitude, thoroughness, and consideration are sometimes nothing less than astounding. Anyone familiar with the forces of law and order almost anywhere else in the world can only be flabbergasted that a woman suspect can only legally be examined by another woman. That a suspect can legally refuse to have his or her possessions searched by officers That the civilian has any rights at all relative to an agent in uniform. In countries governed by the implacable will of the Napoleonic Code, the suspect is plasticene to be disposed of whatever way the agent thinks fit.

When drug dealers are shot dead by the French police in backstreet toilets, the event is usually reported on page 23 of Liberation in about three lines with no questions asked. But even when dealing with this pathetic couple and their little vanity bags stuffed with methamphetamine, the reviled and feared American cop, the sweating (if usually heroic) beast of screen and print, the "legalized Mob” of radical anecdote evaporates in a flurry of pedantry and procedural manners. There is not even any abuse. Is this an act put on for the guest? As soon as the latter’s back is turned, do the menacing truncheons and stun guns come out and go into frenzied action? It does not seem likely in this case.

Even forcing an entry into the barricaded bar is out of the question because it is the Sheriff's jurisdiction, and there can be no entry without a search warrant, which in this case would be difficult to obtain. And without "sufficient grounds" either to enter or obtain a warrant, the officers will time and time again let sleeping dogs lie, just as they will pass over criminals on the street because the time needed to book them outweighs the usefulness of arrest.

Within minutes the scene will have cleared, the dogs will still be barking behind the suburban fences, and the dealers in the bar will have returned to their subterranean routines. By four o’clock, mid-week National City loses its criminal energy and settles down seriously to sleep. Even the Lucky Galore empties and closes down. The wide streets fringed with verbena, laurels, and palms; the vast car salesrooms of the Boulevard; the two struggling sex cinemas and the eery, nervous military fences lie transfixed by a dull, smokey moon. The Victorian houses look fabricated from some perdurable gingerbread, all slumbering behind their dainty gardens, where swings and flagpoles and lattices can be seen, picked out by the same light. This is how the policeman likes his city: calm, ordered, and empty. Ideally, children would be playing peacefully in those swings, just to give the place a breath of life, but since we know that they are sleeping in the gingerbread houses, all is well. And perhaps, after all, no behavior at all is better even than the misbehavior of children.

"I can’t go on being a patrolman forever," Officer Espiritu finally confessed.

"Before, as I said, I worked in narcotics in the Primary Response team. Now I want to work with dogs. Yes, that’s right. I have a dog at home, and I want to work with dogs. There’s all kinds of things dogs can do which humans can’t. Incredible potential in dogs. So I want to be a canine handler. From crack addicts to dogs...I will have done it all."

The station was quiet when we got back. The reception area was empty apart from the photographer who had taken a picture of a bullet hole in a gang member's scapula bone. There didn’t seem to be anything to do, and so I went to the police toilets, expecting Officer Espiritu to be calmly drinking a cup of coffee on my return. When I came out, though, the car had gone. A reported burglary east of Highland. His coffee was still standing on the table, hot to the touch.

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