In 1992, when the infamous “Rodney King” verdict came down, San Diegans watched the riots on TV, thankful to be spared the sudden violence that strafed L.A.
We had a bit of random trouble, but the media didn’t pay much attention, so neither did we. Only those caught in the small net of atavistic acts, perpetrated in the name of Rodney and explained away as “heightened racial tension,” were affected in any significant way.
I grew up in our nation’s capital, 14th Street, Southeast, Foggy Bottom. If you’re not familiar with the area, just think “ghetto,” and you’ll be close enough. I landed in San Diego years later and looked for places that felt like “home”: in those days, downtown had the right vibe. When my daughter was born, we moved to a little house in City Heights; from there places in Logan Heights, Encanto, Southeast. Living in “minority neighborhoods” where we were the “minorities” was neither intimidating nor strange to us. Long before white folks grabbed hold of the term “’hood,” we had names for where we lived: “the neighborhood.”
Do people even realize that’s what “’hood” is short for, that it’s what barrio means? Before such words became synonyms for “ghetto,” they meant something. These were neighborhoods, not just places people lived in. While I was hailed by strangers (“Hey, white girl!”), got double takes on the street and questions at public transportation stops — “What’re you doing here? You got a black boyfriend?” — I never felt challenged or threatened. Token whitie status begat local recognition: just more broke people and plenty of real help nearby when you needed it. Southeast Counseling Center, the neighborhood-assist project sponsored by St. Stephen’s COGIC (Church of God in Christ), treated me like a human being (try asking for a hand when you’re down and realize how unusual that is) and provided the best emergency food rations anywhere, I’m convinced (Budget Gourmet, fresh vegetables, better than Wonder Bread).
The new owners of my “community” had crews of guys working to fix the structures, which needed lots of repair. They advertised their intentions to rent to families and seniors; create a safe, clean environment; absolutely NO DRUGS OR GANGS: SIN DROGAS, SIN CHOLOS. Looked like a nice place to settle down. There were problems, but when reported, managers brought someone in posthaste.
The resident manager at the time we moved in was an observant, fearless man with a passing resemblance to Mike Tyson, accustomed to walking the grounds at 3:00 a.m. with a MAC-10, stop ping trouble before it was trouble. Why the owners replaced him with a wimp who hit the deck when some body “threw peace,” I don’t know. Maybe “Mike” was too intimidating for the nice families and old folks they hoped to attract. Not only did loud partying, shootings, and fights increase, so did the time it took to get things done.
So when the bathroom window crank broke, leaving the window stuck open, I wasn’t surprised nobody responded right away. I’d mention it, be assured it was “on the list,” then wait and remind the wimp again the next day.
By May 1, we’d all heard about Rodney, the cops on trial, the all-white jury, the riots, Reginald Denney, the whole nine yards. The acquittal wasn’t something my neighbors held against me, but people I didn’t know looked hard at me and muttered. That wasn’t what made me feel, for the first time in my life, unsafe in my own neighborhood. It was what happened that night. I don’t think it had anything more to do with Rodney or “racial tensions” than busting windows and hauling off stereos did, but my life was changed on 5/1/92, and it was changed forever.
I think any single mom living in the neighborhood without owning a firearm is a flat fool, and I had a 9mm that stayed, locked and loaded, in a dresser drawer.
Since I slept on the floor, it was about a four-foot reach, which was four feet too many that night. I guess I was tired — obviously I slept sound, since two men climbing in the bathroom window, stepping in and out of the tub, and walking down the hall must’ve made some noise. I imagine they whispered or even talked loud; maybe joked, jostled, or stumbled on the way down the hall. I imagine. I didn’t hear any of it.
What woke me was a hand over my face, over my mouth and nose: the pres sure, the instinctive still asleep panic of being unable to breathe; someone’s hands yanking my arms over my head; a body on mine, knees crushing my chest and stomach. Then a face right up in mine, breathing the smell of booze and a warning, “Don’t fuckin’ scream, bitch, don’t make a fuckin’ sound.” Waking to adrenaline and confusion, in the darkness, my first thoughts were I’m buried alive, I’m dying, and then, That guy looks like Jimi Hendrix....Jimi Hendrix is telling me not to scream. I was awake enough to know I should nod. The hand moved a bit, clearing my nose. I breathed.
Jimi had a red rag over his head. So did his partner, the one holding my arms: Pancho Villa. Jimi Hendrix and Pancho Villa in my house, threatening me, and I didn’t know why. What I did know was that my daughter was asleep down the hall; that I didn’t want to die before she grew up; and that most of all I didn’t want her to wake up, didn’t want Pancho and Jimi to find her. So I was still and quiet, thinking about the gun in the dresser, thinking how god damned far four feet can be.
Because the apartment had bugs and because it was cold, I was as close to fully dressed as most sleeping people get: leggings and T shirt and socks. Pancho let go of my arms to pull the shirt up over my face. I swallowed the panic, willed myself not to move as one of them pressed something sharp against my stomach, beneath the waistband of the leggings, not bothering to yank them off, but cutting, me thinking with the logic of those beyond the logical, My favorite bum-duds are trashed, I won’t be able to sleep in those again, then realizing what was going to happen, what was happening, asking if I could take out my tampon first, shutting up quick when the side of a fist slammed against my covered face. Beneath the cotton shroud, all I saw was stars and thought of cartoons: stars and chirping birds whirling around ’toon heads. How weird it was; you really do see stars when someone hits you hard enough.
Later, a doc at a hospital removed wadded bits of cotton with a tweezer-thing from my cervix and uterus. I know it was Jimi Hendrix who went first, because he muttered something as he forced his way in, leaving scrapes and tears on my vaginal walls, forcing the tampon up where it’s not supposed to go. He grabbed my hair and turned my head and stated his reason: “This is for RODNEY, bitch.” I
didn’t believe him. He didn’t take long.
Pancho apparently didn’t want to fuck a menstruating woman, so when Jimi was done, they rolled my body, pressing my face into the floor. I wasn’t crying and hadn’t tried to speak again. Blood trickled over my chin; I’d bit through my bottom lip to keep from making any noise to wake my child. Pancho asked something, I don’t know what, don’t know if I ever did, but I know how I answered: Anything. Any thing you say. Anything you want.
Pancho was afraid he’d hurt himself, and Jimi laughed as he said, “Just spit on it, Blood,” while I hoped the distance down the hall, the closed door, would muffle his words enough so she wouldn’t hear; while I thought, If there is a God, any god, I’m not asking you to stop it — just please, please don’t let her wake up, don’t let her see me like this, don’t make me see her like — the thought uncompleted, the idea beyond contemplation.
At the time, the physical pain seemed worse than anything humanly endurable, but there didn’t seem to be a choice beyond enduring, hoping to be amusing enough that they wouldn’t look elsewhere. In technical language, I had been raped, and now I was being sodomized.
Both complained that I wasn’t a good fuck; one of them smacking the back of my head, telling me to show some enthusiasm. I wanted to obey, but I was confused — did they want me to pretend I liked it? Or did they want me to cry, plead, show more terror? Whatever they wanted, that’s what I would do — but I didn’t know, so I lay there, praying to something I didn’t believe in, reaching deep for the strength to stay quiet; wishing, just wishing I knew what I was supposed to do, to feel, to be.
Once more, it didn’t take long. I found myself pulled again, tugged to my knees. Jimi pulled the T-shirt up over my face, banding it around my eyes and fore head, like his own rag, slapped me, said I’d made a mess, so “clean it up.” Sodomy is the legal term for that as well: oral sodomy. I started to gag and remembered that was how the real Jimi Hendrix died, choking on his own puke, and that maybe there was a God after all, because I wasn’t choking, I was still alive, she was still asleep, they were still busy with me.
I don’t know how long they were there because I have no idea what time they woke me, what time it started. It was just before dawn when they left. I expected to die, but I didn’t. I was very lucky.
“We’re going out through the front door,” Jimi told me. For some reason, that seemed a point of pride to him. He said I’d better not say anything to anyone, unless I wanted to fuck with the East Side Piru or the Sangra, commonly known to middle-class people who watch the news as “the Bloods.” I promised. The sense I was stuck in a dream increased when Pancho said he’d like to “see” me again. Now that it was over, he was complimentary. I was a nice girl; he’d like to take me out. Jimi laughed. They didn’t rob me. They left through the front door, left it stand ing wide open. I didn’t try to see where they headed.
I took my clothes and blanket, shoved them into the back of the closet, then ran down the hall to check on my baby. She breathed deeply, regularly...sleeping with angels. I gave thanks, closed and locked the front door, then turned on the shower and lay in the tub, the water stinging my open eyes. I lay there that way for a long, long time.
That afternoon I threw everything I owned into a pickup and moved back in with my ex-husband until I could find another place to live. Didn’t take long before I found something in a low rent section of the suburbs. It seemed important not to see gangbangers for a while, to have a place with doors and windows that locked — to be away from the house, the street, the block, the whole area where “it” happened. The kids in the old neighbor hood said they knew guys who matched the descriptions, guys who hung out with a woman who lived in one of the triplexes. The two in question quit hanging around that May. No one was busted.
I don’t let myself think about it too often, because when I do, all the things I wouldn’t let myself do at the time start to happen. I shake. I cry. I scream. I panic. Then I switch off and think about something else, FAST. I deal. We’ve all got to deal with something.
My life today is very good, and the story has a happy ending, but it didn’t happen in 1995, or ’94, or ’93. My happy ending occurred during the last hours of May 1, 1992, when I found out I was enough of a good time to keep two men occupied; when I found out I was strong enough to chew through my lip instead of giving into instinct and yelling, waking my child. That night, she was spared the ordeal too many of us have endured. That was what I’d prayed for, and my prayer was granted. And it was enough. It had to be.
My degradation was triumph. And triumph is Joy.