For those who don’t know me, I was once young and dumb (as opposed to the current old and dumb version), which led me to make a questionable decision back in the day that resulted in a very memorable car ride.
Join me in the Way-Back Machine
It was August of 1989, and I was a bright-eyed senior at Arizona State University, and there were big changes afoot in my life. I’d recently moved out of my parent’s place and was contemplating a new job. For two years, I’d been shelving books at ASU’s Hayden Library part-time except during the summers when they worked us like indentured servants for forty-hours a week on special projects — such as tearing down, moving, and reassembling countless shelving units and relocating all 3 million books. All for five bucks an hour.
I was done with that bullshit.
Plus, I was dead-ass broke and needed something more than a part-time student job to help pay for the tiny room I was renting from my friend Becky. But in spite of all the reasons I just listed, it was actually because of a girl that I applied for a position as a reservation agent at America West Airlines. See, we had hooked up a couple of magical times that year (well, magical for me; for her, I’m not so sure), and I was desperately infatuated with her, while she seemed glad to see me on occasion in between her other romances.
When a group of friends was hanging out drinking one night, the object of my affection suggested that everyone present should attend the job fair the airline she worked for was holding. The main perk was being able to take free flights. She thought it would be fun for us all to travel around and party together. Sounded pretty awesome to us. The reservation gig was potentially full-time and paid a dollar more an hour than my current one. Plus, it was located near campus, had a flexible schedule, and I already had several friends working there. All great selling points. However, to be honest, my main goal in applying there was to increase my odds of getting laid. What else can I say? I was 22, and I had a laserlike focus. Everything else was a secondary consideration.
All for one! And one for…? Hey!
Everyone was super enthusiastic about applying at America West (probably because we were all drunk). Naturally, when it came time for the airline’s job fair at the Mission Palms hotel, I was the only dumbass from our group who showed up. Pam the punk rocker, who needed a job worse than I did, was so massively hungover when I stopped by to pick her up that she declined to go on humanitarian grounds.
Sober and on my own, I was no longer as keen on the job anymore. But what the hell — I was dressed up and had printed my resume on high-quality linen paper at Kinkos. So I showed up and interviewed, and wouldn’t you know it, they hired me.
Next came two-weeks of unpaid training. Yep, that’s right, unpaid training. (This was my first experience of a corporation blatantly hosing me — but not my last.) Gotta love American capitalism.
Setting the stage for the drama
After a couple of days of training, I stopped by my friend Todd’s off-campus apartment near Rural Rd. Todd was an introverted stoner from a privileged background who had lived in numerous exotic countries and gone to boarding school in Athens. I figured that was why he’d never bothered to learn how to drive, which meant I carted him around a lot while he bitched about my lack of driving skills. (“For Christ’s sake, just ram him and get it over with!”)
We had met in a writing course taught by author Mark Harris of Bang the Drum Slowly fame. Todd worked as a flunky at the ASU bookstore and was as broke as I was. Possibly his current circumstances were due to his parents’ divorce after his dad came out of the closet, but that was just speculation. Anyway, Todd’s main hobbies were smoking weed, playing video games, following obscure bands, and attacking the unworthy with ruthless sarcasm.
That day, when he opened his door, Todd looked and sounded like a plague victim. Unshaven, he had on shorts, a t-shirt, and a grubby bathrobe that looked like a hobo had thrown it away. Too sick to walk up to the store for food, he begged me to order him a pizza and pick it up. For some reason, Todd didn’t think a home phone was a necessity. And since the only people who had cell phones in the late ’80s were druglords and CEOs, that meant I had to use the pay phone in the apartment complex’s tiny Laundromat to call in his pizza order.
Enter Eijah. Stage right.
Returning with the pizza, I was in the main courtyard when a black guy about my age approached me. He sported a scraggly goatee and a Jheri curl, and despite the blast furnace of the Arizona summer, he had on a blue, long-sleeved plaid shirt and wrapped around his head he wore a blue bandana folded kamikaze style and a black ballcap. He looked like an extra from the gangsta movie Colors.
Now, I wasn’t a racist, but my Spidey Sense sure was, and it was tingling. I’ve always tried to judge people by their actions and character, but let’s be honest — this guy’s appearance had me on alert. I was, after all, a product of a society where you could still find bestsellers with nigger jokes* for sale up at the B. Daltons bookstore in the mall, and positive images of young black men in the media were few and far between. I’m sure unconscious racial bias was at play; however, what really set me on edge was that I was an introvert, and I didn’t want to deal with this outspoken stranger who didn’t appear to be a student.
Also, as a skinny guy, I was used to getting fucked with by guys of all colors, creeds, and races. It’s the social dominance game that goes with the territory of being born a male — so I tended to be more aware of guys who were possibly going to do me wrong. White guys, black guys, brown guys, yellow guys, rich or poor, I had been demeaned, picked on, punched, or taken advantage of by all of them at some point. But poor guys with a long list of social grievances could be prime offenders, though I reminded myself this was Tempe, after all — no way he was a gangbanger.
So, as he walked up, I was on guard. He was fast talking and overly friendly to the point of being ingratiatingly fake, and he was angling for something.
He introduced himself as Eijah, and he was looking for a ride.
It turned out Eijah had just moved to Tempe from Los Angeles. Pointing vaguely at the cars parked outside one of the breezeways, he claimed he needed to register his Cadillac before he could drive it, but to do that, he needed to collect some money from a guy who owed him. Apparently, the guy was just down the street, but since it was Arizona in the summertime and a million degrees out, it was too far to walk. Hence the ride request.
My new acquaintance was working my good nature hard, cajoling me to help him out. Eijah assured me it would be no more than five minutes of my time.
Beneath his plastic smile, I could sense Eijah had an edge to him. In my internal threat calculations poorer guys, regardless of skin color, are a greater random risk factor. Oh, well off guys will do shystery shit too, but they’re usually sneaky about it and typically steal all your shit by manipulating the system in their favor rather than beating your ass.
Fuck, I didn’t want to give this guy a ride, but several things undermined my resolve. First, I’m by nature a pleaser. Second, I still was waiting for a spine transplant. And third, as a former punk rocker, people had judged me solely on my looks. So, I was self-aware enough to recognize my own biases, and how white folks tended to unfairly paint minorities with the same broad brush dipped in tried and true stereotypes. So, to prove to myself that I wasn’t a shallow bigot, I reluctantly agreed to help him out.
Off on our quest
I gave Todd his pizza and explained my errand. Todd looked at me, then at Eijah standing outside of his door, and then at me again like I was mentally deficient.
Eijah, sensing that Todd could fuck things up for him, took off a gold chain he had around his neck and handed it to me with the understanding that Todd would hold it as a sign of good faith until we returned. Todd, however, wanted nothing to do with it, so I stuck it in my pocket.
I drove Eijah over to some apartments near University and waited while he went into one. When he eventually came back out, he didn’t have his money. Apparently, the man wasn’t there but was down south of Broadway. So we set off again, chatting about weed and L.A. Near Broadmore, he directed me to pull into a small, secluded parking lot screened from the main road by tall bushes. I parked but he made no effort to get out of the car. Instead, his friendly demeanor dropped away and that’s where we had our heart-to-heart talk.
“Yo, man. You heard of the Crips, right?”
Duh. Who hadn’t? The Bloods and Crips were white society’s new boogeymen and a scourge frequently featured on the national news. They had been warring for years in L.A. to the point that drive-by shooting and gangbanging were now well-accepted additions to the English language. I indicated I was, in fact, familiar with them.
“Well, I’m a Crip.”
Apparently, my initial unease had been well-founded. Cue the sounds of me figuratively shitting myself.
He told me in no uncertain terms that as long as I didn’t “fuck with him “and did what I was told, he “wouldn’t fuck me up.” Even though I was scared shitless, I appreciated his candor. In situations like that, it is always helpful to know the ground rules.
What’s in a name?
People typically ask me two questions.
First, was Eijah a real Crip? Honestly, I don’t know. I didn’t even know if Eijah was his real name. He could have been some random crackhead, but I didn’t feel like I was in a position to be able to call bullshit. I mean, what was I going to do — ask him for his gang affiliation I.D. card? No, for the moment, I was totally willing to take him at face value.
The other question I get was did he have a gun? No idea. As far as I was concerned, what self-respecting gangsta doesn’t have a gun tucked in his waistband. Making him prove he was packing heat hardly seemed like the best way to improve my current situation. In fact, if a gun appeared, things were definitely going in the wrong fucking direction. Therefore, I was perfectly willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and keep his gun possession on a theoretical level.
Besides, he didn’t need a gun — he’d already said he would whup my ass and that’s a handy piece of information to have. And I was perfectly confident in his ability to do so because I was spindly and not built for brawling. No, I was just going to play it cool, get him to where he needed to go, and call myself lucky when we parted ways.
“Awright, le’s go,” he commanded, and I asked where.
“Meet the rest of the Crips,” he replied.
I really hoped he didn’t mean the ones back in L.A.
And so started our journey.
*I was ambivalent about using a racially offensive term to describe the jokes, but I think saying “a best seller with racist jokes” would have watered down the impact. Same with “a best seller with n-word jokes” which also seems clunky. The book categorized them as Black jokes, but the n-word did appear in them.
Copyright: asphoto777 / 123RF Stock Photo