In retrospect, when the tattooed gangster guero turned around on the escalator and asked me, “Hey homes where you from?” I should have been more scared. Perhaps it wasn’t until afterwards that the fear sorta sank in. I looked at him blankly and he continued, “You’re not from xxxx [I have no idea what the word was, but it sounded like gibberish, I don’t know L.A. gangs and ghetto neighborhoods that intimately]?”
I didn’t miss a beat and just looked back at him calmy and said, “Nah, man…” and he turned away and the escalator continued taking us up to the street level at the Pershing Square Red Line station this evening. We ascended in silence and finally he turned and told me, “Sorry man to hit you up like that, it’s just that I’m from xxxx.” I nodded and didn’t smile or look away. I put my best street cred on. I relapsed into that quiet, tough survival zone. Sometimes you revert to street smarts just to escape situations. The moment he dared me with the “where you from,” I began to size him up. Like I said, he was a guero, which is Spanish for a person with light features, meaning a very light palate of hair/eyes/skin. The first suspect sign was that he walked out of the elevator on the 2nd level in a very troublesome manner. I can’t really put my finger on it, but he jumped out of it and was looking around too keenly. Then got right back on the escalator which took us back to the street level where the elevator came from. I can’t remember if he wore shorts or jeans, but he had a t-shirt that was rolled up showing his fair abdominal skin, and he had street tattoos carved into his arms, shoulders and I think, neck. He had a skinhead but the fine sprouts of hair were very light. He was all banger. No doubt about it. So once on the escalator, he turns around immediately (he had been looking at me) and asks me where I’m from.
In that moment, I did experience a flicker of fear. If you watch or read the local news, you’ve heard enough stories about innocent men getting killed when they failed to answer the Magical Gangster Question adequately. “Where you from?” Posed in the middle of the night, on an empty street. The poor innocent victim stutters the wrong answer: POP POP, you’re dead. Many young men in Los Angeles die every year for less. This is the kind of narrative that is lodged in your mind so when you are on the receiving end of the Magical Gangster Question, all that shit you’ve heard suddenly rises to the surface. My first instinct after he asked was to size him up. Handguns don’t take up much space and he easily could have had one stashed in his waistband or pocket even. “Where you from?” I didn’t answer or even attempt a truce. My first instinct was to say something like, “From nowhere, I don’t belong to a gang” but something told me this was not the correct escape plan.
So I just shut up. He looked at me and then turned away. In that instant he could have just capped my ass there on the escalator (there was no one else in the immediate vicinity). Of course I’m dramatizing this. He probably was not armed or dangerous. But still. When news stories replay themselves in your mind and you suddenly find you’re the actor, you think differently.
Maybe he wasn’t even from xxxx. The point is, you don’t know this.
I’ve lived in Los Angeles all my life, and this is the first time I’ve been asked the Magical Gangster Question. It’s like a rattlesnake rattling its tail at you. It’s a horror trigger.
If only homeboy knew, I always ask myself the Magical Gangster Question and I’ve never known the answer.