In late May 2008, I woke up in my sister’s house in Indianapolis. I was getting ready to leave for the airport, and I saw a commercial on TV about visiting San Diego. The commercial was showing the beach in La Jolla, with lovely young ladies on red beach-cruisers.
The beautiful beaches, the race track in Del Mar, and the nightlife in the Gaslamp were the highlights of that commercial, and while I was on a plane headed home to San Diego, I remembered those things, and I thought for a second that this was the city I was returning to. But I knew better than that. I was going back to the piss-smelling sidewalks of downtown, where I work, and the trifling streets of Southeast, where I live.
San Diego is a beautiful city, but being born and raised out here is weird. I have relatives all over the U.S., and the questions I get are usually the same. Do you live close to Snoop Dogg? Do you see dolphins at the beach? Oh, my gosh is what I think when asked these silly questions. People have no idea what it’s like being from San Diego. It’s not all sunny days and palm trees. Life can get rough in our city by the bay.
One weekend, my buddy T-Twise (his stage name) invited me to one of his rap shows. It was a Friday night in Point Loma, far from my ghetto neighborhood, yet it seemed like things just follow us. We finished up the show and then hung at the bar for a couple of drinks.
“What’s hatnin’, Vic? You ready to hit this other show?” T-Twise asked.
“It’s another show?”
“Hell yeah, nigga, we ’bout to leave in 30. The show is right down the way at Brick by Brick.”
I finished my conversation with a young lady at the bar, drinking the rest of my Hennessy and pineapple juice. Then we hopped in my boy James’s (not his real name) 2008 hemi-engine Dodge Charger and took off. But before leaving the scene, James hit two clean-ass doughnuts in the middle of the street, leaving the whole block smoked out.
Approaching the other show, we noticed that the ghetto-bird (police helicopter) was out, along with what seemed like a million patrol cars. T-Twise got a phone call on his cell, saying somebody got shot at Brick by Brick. So we pulled over to a local gas station and got our plan together and decided to go to Déjà Vu strip club on Midway Street. Later that night, we heard that some gang members from the Brims were shooting inside Brick by Brick and hit two rivals from a Crip gang called West Coast 30s.
Being born in Southeast San Diego, these type of things happen all around me. I played Pop Warner football for the Valencia Park Hornets, and when we played the Skyline Tigers, gang members would start fights at the park and even start shooting. It’s not that you can’t escape the negative things that go on in San Diego, it’s the fact that they happen often. A lot of people who are tourists don’t see it.
Working in downtown San Diego as a safety ambassador, I see all kinds of crazy stuff. From the drunken guys in the military to the shootouts by rival gangs, my day is never dull.
So it’s a nice breezy afternoon downtown in February. The sun has just hidden in the back of the brand-new lofts and towering business buildings, and it leaves off for a beautiful mix of orange, purple, and red across the sky.
Yet sometime between 4:30 and 5:00 p.m., a downtown safety ambassador witnessed a brutal stabbing of a homeless man by two other transients. The stabbing occurred in East Village, minutes away from Petco Park.
I arrived at my job, and one of my female colleagues said to me, “Vic, you wouldn’t believe what I just saw. Two guys were whooping this one man’s ass, but you know what? He came up with something for they ass, he split him up from his forehead to his chin.” The woman who eye-witnessed the stabbing said the victim reacted in self-defense. The attacker suffered serious injuries to the face and back. This vicious crime is only one of many in San Diego every day.
You also meet people who recently moved out here thinking it was the place to be financially, for job opportunities. Then there are families that have been here for decades. I have a friend whose family has been in San Diego for more than 50 years. He happens to be an active gang member from Skyline Piru. We grew up together at the Boys and Girls Club in the Encanto area.
We never attended the same schools until Morse High, where I got into gang-banging too.
High school was a trip. I graduated, but I missed over 30 classes in my tenth-grade year. Ditching school was an everyday thing. Smoke a blunt right before school, ditch fifth period and smoke another one. Being a gang member at Morse High only meant one thing, that you hated people from Lincoln Park Bloods. Many of the times we ditched school, we went to go seek out students from Lincoln High, who often were members of the Bloods. These encounters were not friendly at all. People getting jumped to people getting shot. It was going down.
My Piru friend and I hang out often, even though he’s still an active gang member. We smoke an occasional blunt and drink a couple brews, maybe watch a Lakers game.
But on this particular day, he was uneasy about something. I asked him, “What’s hatnin’ wit you, boy? You got something on ya mind, blood.” He said, “Nigga, I just got laid off from my job because they said they’re downsizing and they have to start with the people who have less seniority.” We talked back and forth for a while, and then I asked him, “What are you going to do next?” He explained to me that unemployment was going to take a couple of weeks to get, so he might just have to hit someone over the head for some cash.
It’s April and that only means two things in the Rice house: my mom’s birthday and playoff basketball. While watching the Lakers play, I started thinking about my friend that recently got laid off. I hadn’t heard from him in a couple of days. I didn’t follow up on my thoughts and never called him. But at work one day, I got a phone call.
The sound was muffled. “Hello? Hello?” the voice on the phone said.
“Who is this?” I didn’t recognize the number, nor was it saved in my phone.
“It’s me, boy,” the voice said.
After I heard that, I knew exactly who it was, my friend that got laid off. I asked him what happened to his phone, because we both had Sidekicks and we usually AIMed each other.
“I’m using that phone downtown.” Damn, what happened? He didn’t go into his criminal charge or anything. He just told me he wouldn’t be looking at a long time. Only like 180 or something.
“Light-weight vacation” was the phrase he used to describe it.
A few days later, I called his father, whom I knew from the Thursday-night Bible studies we used to have at his house when we were kids.
“Hey, how you doing? It’s Victor, I’m calling to get the scoop on your son.”
He didn’t go into detail. But he did tell me that his son was sentenced to 120 because of a probation violation and would be serving it at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego.
I couldn’t help but think my friend from Skyline Piru was a victim of this economic crisis. Or did he just go out and do some dumb shit? Either way, if he would have never been laid off, he would have been a lot more focused on staying out of trouble, instead of having idle hands. Is he a victim? Or is he just a thug? He might seem like a lowlife to others, but to a young San Diegan like me, he’s just trying to deal with the high price of housing and everyday life in the city.
My everyday life in Encanto changed on a sunny afternoon on May 2, 2007. After having a wonderful time fishing at the beach with friends and family the day before, I threw a fish fry at my house. The night was real cool. There were about 20 people, from my girlfriend of three years to my brother and his wife. Some high school friends, ladies, and some active gang members were among the other people who attended the function. The night was full of fish, hot sauce, booze, and bud. After most people left, a few friends stayed the night for a few more drinks and some conversation with the ladies.
The next morning my Skyline Piru buddy and a couple of other good friends came to the house and wanted to play some PlayStation. My nephew and his grandmother pulled up to the house with her fiancé named Meredith, who drove a burgundy Jaguar. He parked in the driveway and stayed in the Jag. A green-colored car pulled up and stopped in front of the house, and I asked my sister-in-law if she knew who it was. “Damn, Vic, I don’t” is what she told me.
Right as I looked back, two men approached both sides of the burgundy Jag, exchanged a few words with Meredith, and started shooting through the windows. I pulled my nephew to the floor and rolled with him behind the wall, because we were standing in the doorway when the shooting occurred. Everyone was stunned for a second; I don’t even think my sister-in-law moved away from the front door while they were shooting. The shots that were fired sounded similar to metal chairs being thrown.
Meredith died on the way to the hospital in that burgundy Jag driven by his fiancé. I didn’t really know the guy, but the next day, his son and a couple of his nephews came over and confronted me, thinking my friends and I had something to do with it. Eventually, they caught the shooters. I went to high school with one of them at Morse. The outcome of this tragic event led my parents to get a brick wall with two electric sliding gates and one buzz-in door for our house. This is how close this stuff can get real fast. These guys who shot Meredith followed him from the Hometown Buffet on University and waited for everybody else to get out the car at my house to execute him. Sounds like a hit to me, and the fact that one of the shooters lives near me and went to the same high school made me feel real vulnerable.
The years following the shooting were filled with interrogations by the detectives handling the case. I was bombarded with questions about stuff that I could not remember. The first encounter I had with the detectives was a surprising one because they chose to pop up at my house like I was some sort of suspect. I saw the two of them approaching the door dressed in black suits and dark glasses. I stepped outside because you never let the police in your house willingly. It’s sort of an unspoken rule. The conversation was about what I saw that day, and they also explained how they were able to apprehend the suspects. While we were in the middle of the interrogation, my father came to the door, and he wasn’t very happy.
“How are you doing, sir?” one of the detectives asked my dad.
“How did you get in my driveway?”
The detectives look at each other, bewildered, and said the gate was open, so they walked right in.
“It won’t be next time,” my dad said in disgust.
We finished the conversation, and they informed me that I would have to go to court and testify to what I saw that day. Immediately after they left, I phoned my brother and alerted him that the fuzz was on the way, so he wouldn’t be caught by surprise.
The court date was set for sometime in March 2008, and I was not looking forward to it. The whole part about being on a witness stand is not a good look for a former gang member. I decided to catch the trolley to the courthouse, because parking downtown is scarce and expensive. When I reached the designated floor, I saw my sister-in-law and her mother sitting on the wooden bench, crying their eyes out. I knew when I saw them that it was going to be an emotional day. I was first to hit the stand, and boy, was I nervous. Not about the questions or anything. I was more worried about who was going to be in that courtroom. Was the defendant going to have other gang members in there? What if they thought I was a snitch? My mind was filled with these thoughts because I was worried about my life after leaving the courthouse.
I was surprised to see only a few people were in the room, whom I believed to be the defendant’s parents and a couple friends of his family. The other shooter was not in court because he took a plea bargain. I put my hand on the Bible and said my oath, and 15 minutes later I was finished. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. The only thing that shook me up was looking my old high school classmate in the eye. It wasn’t an intimidation thing; it was the look of desperation that caught me. I don’t know if he expected me to lie and say that I saw him do it, or if he expected me to exonerate him. Regardless of what everyone wanted me to say, I went up there and told the truth. As I was waiting on my sister-in-law and her mother to finish, I heard crying and screaming. When they came out of the courtroom, they both looked exhausted, as if they had been swimming for miles. Their hair was wet, and their eyes were swollen and red. On the trolley ride home no one said a thing; everyone just looked outside the windows as San Diego passed us by. This whole experience was a lot to take in, from the detectives asking questions like I was a suspect, to the constant pop-up visits like I was on parole. I was glad it was over.
Don’t get me wrong. San Diego is a very beautiful city. I love being here. It’s not the gangs and homeless downtown that bother me. It’s not the police who pull people over because of racial profiling. It’s the fact that I saw this totally incorrect commercial that the bureau of tourism ran about San Diego. But many of these tourists don’t know that gang fights happen at our beautiful beaches, stabbings happen in and around the Gaslamp district, and weapons are often found by the metal detectors at the Del Mar fairgrounds. So enjoy your peaceful vacation at any of these spots in San Diego. Just do your homework and figure out things for yourself. Don’t get confused about the hoopla that our city by the water is America’s Finest. It might be, but we do have things that go on here that people don’t know about. Be safe and enjoy my San Diego.
Listen to Victor Rice discuss this story further on Reader Radio!