"El Centro’s not so bad, just be watching yourself on Friday night pay day. That’s when the cowboys will be going wild."
Along El Centro’s Adams Avenue, the only pedestrians at night are the streetwalkers. Small moving shadows on this wide boulevard turned nocturnal strip, they brave the heat to stand under the crackling motel neons, waiting for the trucks that furnish El Centro’s giant sugar factory. You see them slipping by the bungalow walls, under the blue neon Baptist cross and under the brilliant yellow and green sign of the Kon-Tiki motel, a palm tree that sputters all night long.
The first call of the evening comes in. Stolen car in a parking lot.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
No one interferes with them. The police cars sail by unconcerned. They come to El Centro, they explain, because it’s the only town in California where they are left alone. And because the sugar factory is so big that there is an unending flow of truckers. “El Centro,” the two who stand almost all night outside the Kon-Tiki exclaim, “is a gold mine for johns. The sugar...the field workers. There’s nowhere like it. The border is the best place to be to make a buck.”
“El Centro is a gold mine for johns. The sugar...the field workers. There’s nowhere like it."
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Having come to El Centro to investigate its nightlife, I considered the Kon-Tiki the ideal place to stay. It’s the usual desert motel. A creaking tiled walkway that undulates as you walk along it, dark rooms with fake antique lamps, a gravel courtyard filled with cicadas. A painting of a weeping puppy in the bathroom. Air conditioners that howl. The Chinese owners keep a wary eye out for the hookers from the depths of an office plastered with Hong Kong calendars, plastic horses, and views of Honolulu. The daughter plays classical violin behind the bead screen. Outside, the family grows Chinese herbs in the plant box.
"This town has about 35,000 people and that we’ve arrested about 3000 of them at one time or another."
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Almost all the Adams Avenue motels are owned by Indian or Chinese families, part of the recent immigrant rush into the Imperial Valley. Like the hookers, they came because in a frontier desert town few people bother you. Although, as the Indian owner of the Sunset told me, Indians first came here in the 1920s because the climate was exactly like that of the Punjab.
“It’s a nice town, El Centro, “ he said, staring at me hard in case I look skeptical. “Oh, sure, it’s being a bit dusty, but fine. The only problem is being the heat. Frankly, in summer it’s a most terrible place to be. Worse than Bombay. Worse than anywhere!”
He rolls his eyes horribly. “Being 110 in the shade today. Tomorrow, 118. A heat wave. A heat wave in El Centro!” His laugh is raucously knowing. “That’s why I’m curious you came. No one comes here, ever, except agriculture people. And sugar truckers.”
"I know it looks like a real weird place at first, but the people are not weird. Really, they’re not."
Photo by Robert Burroughs
The reason, I explain, is to do a ride-along with the El Centro police. The motel owner looks mystified, then anxious. “Ah. I see. Police? El Centro’s not so bad, just be watching yourself on Friday night pay day. That’s when the cowboys will be going wild. And don’t be going near Imperial Avenue South. That’s where the gangs hang out. And be keeping out of Eastside. They kill white men there. Oh, and one other thing. When you are walking in the back streets here, carry stones. The packs of stray dogs will sometimes be attacking you. But apart from that...oh, yes, it’s safe. Most safe. Safe. A really, really safe place for being. Look! I have my children with me!”
Saturday night is the dangerous night, and by midnight, the bars are getting restless and fetid. The big party scene on the weekends is at Sammy’s Place at Broadway and 8th.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
FRIDAY, 8:00 P.M.
The El Centro Police Department sits in a nondescript ’60s building a few blocks from Imperial Avenue.
In a town whose post office is a structure of Paladian grandeur, it might seem a little unfair to house the police in so cramped a place. The lobby is not air conditioned either, and visitors sweat as they watch the expressionless faces of the El Centro cops of 1928 posed by their sedan with machine guns as spiders crawl over the lobby’s concrete ceiling.
"Most of our violence calls are domestic, like everywhere else. But the kind of people who live in El Centro are sometimes what you might call unique."
Photo by Robert Burroughs
No one is here. Likewise, the street is deserted. I press the night bell and wait. Police stations are the same all over America — the hand gun target-shooting trophies, the medals to slain warriors, the Officer of the Month announcement. But this is a small town in the middle of nowhere, and the photos of the police chiefs dating back to 1925 mounted on the walls have an ethereal. Twilight Zone feel to them. It is, after all, the kind of place Bonnie and Clyde would have loved.
The officer who comes to the front desk with the keys to his car is one Zinn, a burly German-American in his middle years, scion of one of El Centro’s old farming families. There is, he says proudly, a Zinn Road, where his father’s land used to lie. It was there the grain silos were torched in a locally famous case of arson in 1962. And without preamble, as we are getting into the car, he launches into an immensely complicated expose of the explosive chemical properties of flour.
“It goes up,” he explains in great excitement, “like TNT. That’s why there are always explosions in flour mills.” As we move off into El Centro’s suburban streets, a huge, subdued network of Kmarts, neon signs, watered lawns, and palm-fringed Baptist churches, I begin to wonder if flour crimes are a significant problem in this part of the world. Zinn promises to show me Zinn Road and the site of the silos, an essential part of local lore.
“So,” he beams, very curious, “you’re a city boy, eh. From New York? I’ll bet this is your first time in these parts. Yeah, you look apprehensive. Hot, isn’t it? Basically, you know, this town is an agricultural town, always was. Like a lot of people of my generation, my dad was a desert farmer. But me, I didn’t grow up the whole time on the farm. I grew up on Northside. That’s one of our neighborhoods that I would call ‘grey territory.’ It was nice back then, but now it’s a ghetto. We could start with a look at that. You want to see it?”
And we are about to do just that when the first call of the evening comes in. Stolen car in a parking lot. A Mississippi license plate. A few minutes later, we turn in to the Desert Park RV camp just as the sky begins to darken into the first moments of a desert dusk.
Here is a scene particular to the place: a vast, empty parking lot with, in the background, golfers on an irrigated green that with its contrived groves of palms looks like some strange Babylonian garden. And in the center, the car from Mississippi. Next to it stands a security guard armed to the teeth, adorned like Pancho Villa with belts of bullets, peering through the windows with a flashlight. An eery, gloaming light saturates everything, including the man’s tense but utterly blank face.
Zinn explains, “This is nothing. Guy left a car with out-of-state plates and vanished — could be legal, could be something else. The point is though that in El Centro we get a large number of drifters from outside. Not just Arizona and New Mexico either. We’re known all over the country as a nice town for bums to be in. Good welfare, good climate for the homeless. Well, not now, of course. If they come in in summer, it’s for a particular reason. Like this one, maybe.”
A bloated, flat moon rises over the freeway, over the great phalanxes of Imperial palms. Officer Zinn does his perfunctory paperwork and then moves off, relaxed, unconcerned, perhaps even a little bored. No sign as yet of those packs of rabid dogs. We turn onto the freeway, and almost immediately the second call comes in. This time it’s violence. Zinn raises his eyebrows.
“Yeah. It’s Friday, after all.”
At the top end of Adams Avenue, in the center of a palmy park now inevitably notorious for drugs and homelessness, the Salvation Army has its modest HQ. There, or rather a few yards away among the trees, we come across a half-naked black guy gesticulating wildly toward the houses on the far side of the avenue. The story: drug associates tried to squeeze $100 out of him, then beat up his wife to put pressure on him.
“Yo, they put a blade on her. Go find them.” The lethargic Zinn sighs, and we drive off to the Kmart on the other side of Adams. And there, sure enough, is the doughy white girl who has been waylaid. She is screaming mad, flecked with blood. The knife hit her lightly in the back.
“Four of them, and they dissed my man!”
She seems on the point of tears but completely oblivious to the gash in her back. Almost at once, the police radio announces a pursuit of a pickup truck with four occupants through the back streets.
Zinn asks her if she’ll do an I.D., and we rush to a half-built street on the edge of the desert. The pickup truck is there, forced into the scrub by a squad car that has it fixed in its high-powered beam. Zinn parks on the opposite shoulder, and a voice comes from the other car, “Snake charmers in the toolbox.”
Zinn takes out the girl, who has been quickly bandaged up, and makes her walk up to the line of dealers...one white, two blacks, and a Mexican. She identifies one of them as the knife-man and turns back to the car. The knife-man swears at her and calls her by a street name.
“See,” says Zinn, “they all know each other. It’s the same people month in and month out, with the exception of the transients.
“These people hang out at the Salvation Army and trade crack. The deal goes sour, and they beat up the wife. We found guns in the car, so we can book them on that too. For all the good it does.”
Back at the Salvation Army shelter, the couple is reunited and told to stay indoors for the night. In case the knife-man gets bail and comes looking for them.
“And what’s bail set at?” the girl asks.
“The usual. He might make it, so just stay indoors. Promise?”
“Hopeless,” he mutters as we pull out onto Adams and turn toward the Southern Pacific freight yard, the railroad lines, and the ghetto beyond. “It’s like it’s in their genes."
As we move on, through miles of light industrial warehouses and blocks of empty scrub, he points out that the visible violence is only half the story.
“You see the Mexican gangs, they’re very visible. But out here we have the Aryan Brotherhood too. They’re the invisible ones.
“A lot of professionals out here are members, they’re not just bikers. I think the AB could cause a civil war in this country overnight if they had a mind to. Strange stuff goes on in the desert. We recover bodies from there all the time, and no one will ever know what really happened. There’s a lot of submerged activity, shall we say. It’s a secretive place. All we do is scratch the surface.”
We drive slowly around the pitch-black streets, past the new malls and supermarkets that are springing up all over the desert suburbs. Past old Zinn Road and the fabled silos, into the neighborhood called Northside, where the curbs are occasionally marked with gang insignia.
“This was always a rough neighborhood, but recently the place has changed completely. It used to be a kind of white underclass-working class place, where German immigrants like my family lived. A lot of Germans came out to the desert looking for opportunities in the farm business, because they irrigated the desert in the ’20s and there was a big agribusiness.
“Then, in the late ’60s, it became Mexican. El Centro is about 60 percent Mexican now, which I suppose is inevitable given that we’re ten miles from the border, and Northside is wholly Mexican now. And because urban or suburban neighborhoods all over the country are losing their cohesion, there’s a feeling of loss about this place. At least for me there is. There’s no self-regulation. People just kill each other for no reason at all. It’s become a jungle.
“Then, of course, there’s the change in El Centro itself. God, this place used to be a spot on the map, nothing else. Hollywood people like Clark Gable used to come out here to hunt, and it was something of a picturesque watering hole. They used to have this parade every year and the celebrities would join in. Not anymore. Now it’s becoming a city.
“The official population is about 35,000, but with the influx of people during the day it swells to about 100,000. Even in terms of residents, I reckon it’s more like 50,000. They began building huge new prisons in Imperial Valley, and the dependents of the prisoners moved into El Centro, swelling the population and giving the place, shall we say, a slightly different character. When you combine it with Calexico and Mexicali, which is of course just down the road and which has over one million people now, you see what’s happening here — the creation of a desert metropolis. It’s absolutely incredible the amount of building that’s going on here. Look at all these mega-supermarkets!
“Still, the metropolis hasn’t arrived yet, just the crime problems. We have one of the highest auto-theft rates in the U.S. — kids from Mexicali slipping over the border and stealing cars in better-off neighborhoods like Ross Avenue and then driving them back over the line. They’re so young that the car dealers in Mexico pay them $300 to do it, knowing full well that if they’re caught, they’re too young to be prosecuted. And unfortunately that goes for teenage assassins too."
The early evening shift is often a quiet one because the bars are still open and the clients are not yet drunk. We receive a false armed-robbery alarm at a Texaco station and a call from a security guard at a parking lot, who says three white youths have been pelting his No Parking sign with stones. A few minutes later, we stop a cherried Camaro with one taillight out and drag two Mexicans with no licenses onto the sidewalk. They stand there dazed in the cloud of moths attracted by the spotlight, wondering how they are going to walk all the way home.
“It’s like fishing,” Zinn says, when we are back in the car. “You see a ripple in the water, something minutely out of the ordinary, and you close in. Like a shark.”
At 11:00, the graveyard begins, and a new officer takes over the beat. It’s a younger man, Mark Hemicke. Zinn takes me through the jailhouse to the station lobby to fill out more disclaimer forms, and through the bars we see the white eyes of gang members seated far back in the gloom. A few sarcasms fly back and forth between jailer and jailed, and as Zinn shakes my hand, he jerks his thumb in their direction. “If we’re the sharks, though, what are they?”
I stroll outside for a moment, waiting for Hemicke to show up, and breathe in the baking, motionless air. A man walking a dog passes me, gives me a scrutinizing look, and says, “Hi! I’ve never seen you before. You from Brawley?”
Suddenly feeling faint, I welcome the air conditioning inside Officer Hemicke’s car with what can only be called a loud gasp of redemption. The driver is a handsome fellow in his 20s, who seems quite anxious to go catch some criminals.
“Don’t like the heat, eh?” he says gently.
Officer Hemicke has a different style altogether. Hungry for convictions and zealous in the pursuit of civic order, he revs the squad car hard and takes his “fishing” seriously. By now the town has perceptibly changed tempo and character. More cars in circulation, the small town spectacle of flashy pickup trucks loaded with airbrushed girls and boys in gold jewelry.
Along the huge Imperial Avenue, these convoys of trucks become comically dense, reaching a point of solid mass in the parking lot of J.C. Penney. Here, so Hemicke says, an anthropologically curious ritual enacts itself every weekend night. A passeggiata conducted in cars, a Latin paseo converted to the machinery of suburban America.
“Want to see the gangsters run?” Hemicke asks, turning slyly into the lot with his lights off, then suddenly turning the flashers on and roaring into the throng. At once there is a stampede for the exit, tires screeching. Within a minute the entire lot is empty save for Hemicke and his thoroughly unnerved passenger.
“Imperial,” he explains, “is where they mass for the weekend, all down here. They hang out on practically every street comer for a mile or two. There are hundreds of them. And a lot of the houses here are gang houses run by their mothers! Yeah, listen to that...” the radio running a message for all cars around Imperial, an assault alert. “That’s a real typical call for a late Friday night. Hear it? Kids attacking passing cars with baseball bats. We’ll go see.”
With the lights still flashing and siren wailing, we tear down Imperial South. Sure enough, half hidden in the suburban foliage surrounding their Spanish Revival bungalows, crowds of kids can be seen watching the squad car with a mixture of amusement and indifference.
“Before we get there, let me explain something about the gang situation in El Centro. Most of the gang culture that has become so visible here is the result of a reform program aimed at getting gang members from Los Angeles out of the inner city and into healthier, small-town environments. Well, one of those nice towns they chose was El Centro. They probably figured that out here in the middle of nowhere they’d be away from harmful influences and better able to start a new life. It was a nice idea. Problem was, the gangsters themselves just weren’t interested in the nice idea.
“When they got here, they looked around and said to themselves, ‘Hey, what a great place to recruit new members!’ It’s incredible, but that’s exactly what they did. They started the gang culture all over again here, so that within 18 months of their arrival here, we had gangs erupting all over the place. The houses the welfare agencies put them in were the headquarters they used to expand their operations.
“As a matter of fact, El Centro has always had gangs and Mexican Mafia-style outfits. There was the Nuestra Familia, the Mexican Cosa Nostra, and La M. Those are the old guard guys, doing drugs over the border since the ’60s. They’ve declined a bit now, with the new gangs on the scene. We have people like the Northside Godfathers, Bloods, and Crips getting in on the narcotics side.
“Before, gangs were racially segregated, so you had the Mexicans, the blacks, the Aryan Brotherhood, and so on. Now, the Bloods and all are recruiting across the racial board, and that makes them that much more dangerous. And then you add the breakdown of the family and all that...you’ve heard that stuff. People don’t realize that gangs are all over the place now. Even in small towns. Maybe even especially small towns.”
We have arrived at what the police know is a notorious gang house on a corner of the avenue. The squad car pulls up, and there under the palm trees on one side of the garden a gang of 13- or 14-year-olds sprawl about on the curb.
Hemicke gets out of the car and asks them who was swinging the baseball bat. They laugh. Some hostile homies drove by, they waved the bat at them, that was it. The confrontation is curious — Hemicke with his smart hairline, bulging tanned muscles, sparkling badges; the floppy, sneering kids standing around him threatening at any moment to explode into one of the more distasteful scenes from Lord of the Flies.
Eventually, in an absurd climax, he points out to them that by standing on the sidewalk, they are infringing upon a “public place” and, therefore, loitering. Somewhat fazed, they all withdraw en masse to the perimeter of the garden and stand there in a line, glowering. It is pure Theater of the Absurd. Hemicke smiles with satisfaction and walks back to the car. It is, it seems, the only victory possible under the circumstances.
“And mind you, stay there,” he snaps at them futilely. Hemicke drives off, but slowly, as if by instinct knowing that within a few seconds another call to this area will come through on the radio. It does. This time, it’s a gang house three blocks away. And this time there is no soft approach. The car wheels around into the alley that cuts between the houses and comes face to face with a middle-aged woman in a decrepit Suburban about to make a getaway. Over the roofs, we see the dim forms of kids running helter-skelter away from the scene. They disappear with lightning rapidity into the shadowed interstices between the gardens.
“Jesus, they’re like fucking monkeys!” The woman, though, has no choice but to sit it out. But her papers are in order and there is little to do but let her go. “See? That’s a gang mom. It’s the mothers who are organizing it! But there’s nothing to book her on, unless we find the dope we were tipped off on.”
The garden is by now deserted, as are the abandoned garages that the gang uses as a meeting house. The walls are daubed with gang insignias; the remains of a fire scars the concrete floor. The officers root through the blasted bits and pieces of furniture with flashlights, find nothing, and shrug the whole thing off. The house has been hit a dozen times this month, with no result whatsoever, and there is a feeling of weariness about the officers’ concern with it.
Outside, among the dark jacaranda trees heavy with flowers, the policemen disperse back to their cars while the woman sits on the hood of the Suburban with blank, stony eyes and watches them leave. Hemicke looks half amused.
“It’s always the same,” he sighs. “The kids are too young to be prosecuted by the courts anyway. The revolving-door system just sucks them in one end and spews them out the other. That’s why I much prefer dealing with older criminals. I mean, they’re kind of afraid of us because we can actually send them to jail! But the kids are the worst. We get no respect from them because they know damn well we can’t touch them. They know it and we know it.
“That’s why the 14-year-olds out here are the most dangerous. They’ve really got nothing to lose. They’re literally like animals on the loose. One day, I’m afraid, this country is going to have to wake up to it. They’re going to have to have curfews and just shoot them as if they walk around with guns like they’re doing now. It’s that or total mayhem.”
SATURDAY, 12:10 A.M.
We are driving through the neighborhood called Eastside, El Centro’s small black ghetto, just before the next call comes through. In a dilapidated parking lot, crack dealers mope about under a floodlight desert moon, and around a roaring fire they sit about on purloined sofas, their raised naked feet picked out by the lunar light. It’s a well-known place, Hemicke says, for stuff stolen from the residential area right next to it.
“I’d say there’s quite a bit of aggression and hatred between blacks and Mexicans, more than between anyone else. Drug disputes are only part of it. The drugs are really pouring in here, though, because we’re right near Signal Mountain, where a lot of the cocaine from Mexico comes through on the desert trails. The Border Patrol have sensors put into the ground to pick up the coke convoys, but in a desert that size, it’s hit and miss, nothing else. Most of the time they get through. This town is like a drug depot of sorts. A great place for a dealer to be!”
The next call, when it comes, is an unusual one. Youths have been spotted on the roof of the Rex, El Centro’s main movie theater, which lies in the heart of the old town.
This area is a dusty cross of concrete arcades from the ’20s in which you can still see the swing doors of saloons. By day, the arcades are a respite from the burning heat, filled with half-silent little shops with Eastern European-style clothes displays and windows filled with hunting guns. They always have a spookily empty feel to them, especially in the hot months when the temperatures make walking impossible. Not so long ago, Hemicke assures, El Centro was a Wild West town pure and simple. And to some extent, it still is. At night, though, the arcades are utterly deserted.
The roof of the Rex can only be approached via the rubbled back streets and a long, dark flight of stairs crammed into a brick passageway. It’s an unnerving place, and out comes the regulation revolver. At the top of the stairs is a wire fence, which we have to clamber over to reach the large white-plaster domes of the roof. These, too, have to be climbed over, but with infinite slowness, because the Rex, it transpires, is a favorite gang haunt where crack and meth deals are cut. In the grooves behind the building’s parapet, needles, crack pipes, and bullet cases litter the ground. But no one is there.
Word of a squad car on the block travels like lightning. And so we sit for a minute on the dome, which is high enough for us to see the whole moonlit town spread out below us like something from the Arabian Nights, and we regain our breath.
Far away, picked out by the brilliant light, we can see the desert, ripple upon receding ripple, and lights moving along the ribbons of lonely roads. The whole place looks spectacularly and surprisingly tiny, a jumbled circle of shacks, cables, neons, placed for absolutely no perceptible reason in the middle of a furnace-hot wasteland. But Hemicke feels not an iota of visceral panic faced with this, to my mind, terrifying panorama. On the contrary.
“I moved here from San Diego and I like it I mean, I actually prefer it. I really do. I married a Mexican girl and settled down. I know it looks like a real weird place at first, but the people are not weird. Really, they’re not. They’re the best people I’ve come across yet in California. Certainly the most kind. I just hope they stay that way.”
Along the great, shadowy avenues, we pass the endless stream of trucks laden with watermelons and dates. On the desolate sidewalks, skulking figures hug the walls and the dark spaces of the parking lots — the drug peddlers whom the cops know by name and whom they merely scan with the high beam for a second.
Hemicke knows all their court records by heart. Some he put in prison himself, and when their eyes meet, there is a peculiar, complicit acknowledgement between them.
The whole night could pass like this, fishing for motorists with dysfunctional taillights, stopping the occasional dealer, cruising around the empty, gang-infested malls. But then, as we are passing for the umpteenth time the all-night Kmart on Euclid (where gangsters sit out the hot night with cans of Olde English malt liquor), we receive a distress call from a distant residential block on the edges of town.
It seems a father has called in to complain about a missing daughter. Hemicke knows the man and the daughter and makes a grimace of moral distaste.
“We get this call every two weeks. Most of our violence calls are domestic, like everywhere else. But the kind of people who live in El Centro are sometimes what you might call unique. This is one of them. You’ll see.”
Although I could never confess it to Officer Hemicke, I have been wondering since my arrival why indeed anyone would live here. What type of human is he referring to? The house is in a cheap unit in a semi-desert development given over to semi-marginals.
A disheveled white man, youthfully middle-aged, answers the door naked to the waist and looks the two newcomers over with an inane grin. His 14-year-old daughter has run off, the bitch, with some undesirables and seems to have vanished for the night.
“Probably screwing them all,” he murmurs, and grins even wider.
We step into the crowded two-room unit, where another daughter sulks in a corner with her baby. The father seems amused to see a stranger without a uniform.
“Oh, a writer? Very nice. I’m a writer too, actually.”
“No, not yet. They got something against me. But I’m prolific.
“Short stories. Ever write them? I wrote two collections. About digestion. It’s an important subject. I mean, I came out here to write and got inspired. That’s why I love the desert. The second collection was called The Intestine. It was 12 pieces divided into three sections: Constipation, Vomiting, and Regurgitation. Well, I thought it was fascinating. I mean, we all vomit, don’t we? You gotta have a universal subject, don’t you?”
During this increasingly unreal exchange, Hemicke is looking more and more anxious. It also becomes obvious why the daughter has run off with the bad boys. There is a whiff of sexual abuse in the air. Hemicke sweet talks him and persuades him to stop calling the emergency services, then takes me back outside and pushes his forefinger into his left temple.
“He’s probably been abusing them both for years. Last year the 14-year-old slashed him with a razor. No one knows in what context. And all that shit about his stomach stories...I’ve been listening to that for months. Ugh! Some people...” he suddenly looks comically serious, “are really, er, you know, sick. Really.”
We drive to the nearest 7-Eleven and pick up two raspberry-chocolate coffees, acrid and half-burned. A lone prostitute walks past the harshly illumined windows and raises a pink handbag in greeting. The moon begins to grow softer. Hemicke looks at his watch and wonders if that is going to be that for the night.
It is now almost 3:00 a.m.
“Come back tomorrow night for the Saturday scene. I’ll put you in with a good guy, Mike Crankshaw, for the 11:00 graveyard. I promise you I won’t have to meet any more of those sick writer types. There aren’t too many of them here anyway, thank God. I guess it’s just too hot for them. See, the heat has something going for it!”
Driving me three blocks back down to the Kon-Tiki, whose neon signs are now crackling violently, he points out that El Centro sometimes feels like the last place on Earth. And that, he explains, trying hard to be philosophical, attracts both the good and the evil.
“Like New York, huh? I can imagine. I went to Los Angeles once.”
Mike Crankshaw is also one of the young blades on the El Centro P.D. But with spiked, oiled hair and pierced ears, he cuts a weirdly hip figure on the nocturnal beat. A native of El Cajon, where he started with the El Cajon P.D., he moved to El Centro after a ruinous divorce.
“I arrived with my skateboard and punk hair, and the guys here were not amused. They thought there’d been a mistake. But if you can get over the heat, El Centro is an okay place. Totally incestuous, of course. But all towns with 40,000 people are.
“It’s like El Cajon in the early 70s. On the other hand, this is the fastest-growing city in California, and it’s changing as we speak. Into what, God knows.”
Saturday night is the dangerous night, and by midnight, the bars are getting restless and fetid. The big party scene on the weekends is at Sammy’s Place at Broadway and 8th. Inevitably, we get a fist-fight call there and crawl into a parking lot pullulating with a crazed, small-town crowd of white bikers, Mexicali girls, black clubbers, and San Diego college preppies out for a voyeuristic thrill. The cowboys are revving their big bikes, and the local thugs sneak out quietly in their Jeeps before the police get too tight. A squad car has already arrived, out of which a huge creature in slick black gloves has climbed. Like a Mafia henchman, he stands with his hands folded in front of him and a large circle of empty space around him.
“Yo, Bossman!” Crankshaw calls over to him.
Inside, there have been not one but two simultaneous fights, and there is blood all over the floor. The combatants, however, are already drinking it up together, unconcerned.
“Any snake charmers?” Crankshaw asks Bossman.
“Naw. No weapons.”
Crankshaw hangs out for a bit with the tough boys and then pulls out as the bouncers begin to close the place down for the night. It seems that Sammy’s Place disgorges the same drama every week, and there is cause for concern only when guns are pulled or when the Pagans are in town.
“The Pagans are the worst,” Crankshaw admits when we’re back in the car once more. “They wear this badge that says ‘The Best 1%,’ or something like that. I hear of a guy who went up to one of them one night and asked him what it meant. The Pagan takes out a piece and blows him away on the spot — just like that.
He says, ‘We’re the best one percent in this country, and you don’t ask us anything!’ I believe it. Those guys will kill you for nothing. You don’t see them in the city, like the Angels. But out here they’re around. Aryan Brotherhood and all that.”
We move off into the unusually crowded avenues through which a veritable caravan of vehicles is moving. Crankshaw seems to be enjoying himself. Like an irrepressible little boy who, against all the odds, gets to ride at top speed with a flashing light through a busy city while adults stand around helplessly. When he spots a painted ex-cop car being driven by a face he doesn’t know, with a hooker he does know in the passenger’s seat, his face lights up.
“Gee, I love this bit!”
We follow the car around the block two times, and it becomes clear that it is going nowhere in particular. We pass into a leafy residential street and Crankshaw hits the lights. The car pulls over kind of lazily, and as soon as it stops, a plump Latino clambers out in a neat pressed white shirt. He holds up his hands in mock surrender.
Crankshaw bawls at him to stay in the car with his hands on the wheel, but the genial curb-crawler simply ignores him.
“Hi, officer, what a lovely night!”
He swaggers up to the squad car and voluntarily puts himself behind it, grinning all the time. Another police car arrives and an older officer gets out. Immediately, a curious but familiar patter springs up between them.
“Hi, Jim” (suspect to officer). “How’s Frank down at the court? Haven’t seen him in years. Still the best judge around, and a good golf player, too. How’s his tee? That bad? He’s outta shape.
“Fourteen years in local government I was, and they still owe me my pension. Hey, officer. You should know me...everybody knows me.”
Crankshaw doesn’t and is nettled. The hint of small-town corruption is difficult to manage, and he handles it by being suddenly cold and officious. The hooker has been loaded onto the grass verge, where she sits impassively, smoking a cigarette. Crankshaw searches the car and out comes a Smith & Wesson .38 handgun and a box of hollow-point shells. The latter are enough to book him.
Meanwhile, the smooth pimp turns to the on-the-scene-writer and gives him a sweeping head-to-foot look.
“From New York, huh? What, may I ask, brings you out to our little town? You want to have a nice stay? We should talk. I have something for you — you’ll see.”
Crankshaw comes back with the hollowpoints and waves them tauntingly in his face.
“Out for a little rabbit shooting?”
“Sure,” says the hustler, not missing a beat. “I love a little rabbit stew.”
The older officer, somewhat embarrassed, walks off, and we take the pimp down to the station to fill out the paperwork.
By now the jail is full of doped gangsters throwing their
three-digit hand signs. Crankshaw looks at them leering through the bars, taking in the apprehensive pimp who is about to be locked up with them, and rolls his eyes.
“You know what? They’re all fucking mad. Look at them. Out of their fucking minds. But this one’s the scumbag. Something’s off there. You can smell it a mile off.”
SUNDAY, 2:10 A.M.
“When you think,” he says later, when we are on the streets again, “that this town has about 35,000 people and that we’ve arrested about 3000 of them at one time or another...man, that’s ten percent of the whole population! In El Cajon, or San Diego, crime is very different from here. It’s random but also tied to crime areas.
“You know what the crime areas are. But here, it just isn’t so. Here, although we do sort of have a crime area, it’s much more diffuse. At carnival time, the white kids always get rolled in Eastside when they look for dope. But otherwise, everyone is basically interrelated. That means that whatever happens here happens between people who are related, have some kind of kinship relation, or who know each other pretty well. It’s incredibly incestuous. And it also means that you have to know how to steer yourself through it.”
We pull into one of the gas stations of Imperial and look over the baby-faced gangsters fooling around at the pumps. Nothing much seems to be happening. Cruising past the endless neon-lit courtyards, sprinklered gardens, and 24-hour donut stores, it is easy to feel calm. For all its frontier-town mayhem, El Centro does have a calm emptiness and stolidity to it. Or else it is just too hot outside to do anything (102° at 3:00 a.m.).
We stop two or three Mexicans in beatup cars and book them on no-license charges, eat a hamburger on Broadway, and crawl out to the edge of town, the outer streets of Eastside, where there are always drug deals going down on the comers. But even here it is quiet. The streets are empty. The billboards advertising the Farmers Insurance Group and Sharma Homes look as if they had just been planted on the surface of the moon.
“People are sitting at home in a cold bath. Feel that air. That’s why I couldn’t work during the day. But also the hot weather makes people crazy. They come out at night and drink. It’s just that tonight it’s especially hot. You just pass out if you exert yourself.”
At four a.m., we come to rest at the Adams 7-Eleven, where the last of the small-time Mexican hookers collect for a final coffee before waiting for a ride home from their pimps at the traffic lights. The moon has turned a sinister honey color as it lowers itself toward the horizon. The truckers are still pounding away along Adams on their way to and from the border, but they will have to wait till Sunday night for a girl. Crankshaw sniffs the air and expands his lungs. “Yeah, smell that. Desert smell.”
All I can detect is the sensation of infernal heat in my windpipe. The air is still oven-hot. As I walk down Adams, back toward the Kon-Tiki, I see Crankshaw turn his car and follow a limping ragged pimp into a parking lot by the Baptist church.
JESUS SAVES screams the blue neon. What happens next will hardly go noticed by anyone, one way or the other. On the way into the courtyard, I see a couple of dogs tailing me, heads down, waiting to see if I might be a playful target. I remember the Indian motel owner’s advice and pick up a piece of broken paving stone. As the two animals near, I see that they are — of all things — stray Dobermans! It is the last drama of the weekend. I throw the stone at them, hear the yelp and the snarl, and flee up the shaking stairs to room 16 as they chase me across the loose gravel. And it seems quite likely, after all, that in the last wild town in California, white men are not infrequently eaten alive by dogs.