It’s ironic that in my hometown, I never see the gangster life firsthand. My own neighborhood is of lower economic class, but there are not a whole lot of gangs around here. I know the Los Angeles too well to wander into sections best left to dark journeys of the imagination of urban nightmares. I know this city well enough to stay away from those recesses of civilization. It’s no surprise that I had to travel 400 miles north in order to get a glimpse of the hardcore ghetto life that I overlook in my own backyard. People warned me about Oakland. Staying at a cheap motel near the airport was intellectually lethargic on my part, I realize. But there I found myself in beautiful Oakland this weekend. Gangsta’s have many ways of signalling their kinship, but many signs are not foolproof. Most involve clothing or personal grooming or body art. But there was a new one I learned after driving around “O-town’s” blighted neighborhoods and business districts: a preponderance of ridiculously over-sized rims fitted onto passenger cars. 20″ monstrosities which look gaudy even on large SUV’s, much less on Buick Regals. Gaudy is a distinctly ghetto manner. What appears overstated and tasteless to most of us is quite the beacon of ghetto/gangsta conformity.
I noticed that 20″ rims which overwhelmed the wheel wells of most passenger cars suited to 16″ wheels were the most overwhelmingly reliable signal of gangster affiliation. More than certain tattoos and their placement, more than shaved heads or baggy jeans; more than the wearing of certain colors. Nothing seemed a more viable and dependable signal of true gang immersion than 20″ rims.
Friday night I got lost in Oakland’s airport region near the bay, an urban jungle which is doubly frightening and dubious at night. Exaggerated by the fact I had no idea where I was and the same landmarks kept showing up in my big circular arc of unfamiliarity. Suddenly I noticed I was attuned to the presence of Buicks and other mid-sized cars propped by 20″ glittery rims. I was frazzled and turned the other way whenever I saw one. Don’t acknowledge and act like you belong there. I drove in circles and I finally found the freeway entrance and raced out of the neighborhood toward my motel which was really in the same shitty neighborhood. Even motel rooms offer a bizarre and mistaken sense of security. Every car I saw with 20″ wheels elicited apprehension. One evening I came back to the motel and saw that an Oldsmobile Aurora, of all cars, with some horrendous and inflated 20″ rims, was parked in one of the stalls. Someone in this motel, one of my fellow guests, was driving this monstrosity. And he would kill me in a minute if he knew my opinion. In fact, I would have photographed this spectacle but I thought I had best not chance being caught taking photographs of King Gangsta’s ride in the parking lot of a cheap motel with pimps and pushers lurking nearby. Just envision a large, sedate Aurora sedan sitting atop flashy chrome 20″ wheels. It’s better than a photo, isn’t it?
I recalled the last time I saw such a neighborhood. This was back in the late 80s and early 90s when I hung out with a buddy who lived in northwest Pasadena which is about as rough a neighborhood as you can find that no one knows about. Gangs, prostitutes (baseheads they called them, prostitutes who accepted drugs as payment), Mexicans, Blacks, all jockeying for the same gutted territory. The streets were perpetually dark and had speed bumps the size of Mount Everest (mounstrous speed bumps are a serious indicator of rough neighborhoods. Maybe it’s the effect they would have on equally monstrous rims). Going back to this Oakland neighborhood conjured frightening memories which chilled me now but which didn’t seem to have an effect on my reckless abandon when I was 25. It’s amazing the change in perspective you experience when you are driving with your child. Nothing is quite as pleasantly dangerous as it was when you had nothing to lose.
Back then, 20″ wheels would have had no significance other than than being very big.
Now they represent an affront to my civilized and self-protective sensibilities.
What became of us?