In 1990, I read a story in The New York Times about a young gang-banger who turned his back on an opposing gang knowing he would be shot. Though I don’t remember the full story, I do remember that his gang had been in the other’s territory by mistake. When a car full of that territories gang met his, a stand-off ensued. The young man I am writing about whose name I don’t remember so I will call him Michael decided on the spot that he had had enough. He told the opposing gang he was going to walk away. They said they would shoot him if he did. Michael turned and walked away, and they shot him. I remember the gangs were the Crypts and the Bloods. I don’t remember which gang Michael was part of as gangs are gangs and it didn’t matter. What mattered to me in reading the story was the astounding bravery and foolishness of his act. Maybe he wanted to die, but he didn’t. The bullet hit his spine, severed it and he was permanently disabled. The Times reported that he was in a medical facility in South Central LA specifically oriented to gang violence injuries.
I was overwhelmed by his story. Over the week since the story was printed, I read it perhaps twenty times when I concluded I had to meet him. I called the facility and asked if I could speak to him. He came to the phone, and I told him I had read the Times story many times and for some reason, unknown to me, I felt the need to meet him. Did that seem weird to him I asked? I told him I was a white woman in her early 40’s with two daughters. Was that offensive to him? I told him it wasn’t a bizarre white person mercy thing, rather I was struck by his decision to walk away, by his courage to say no more knowing he could be killed. He said he didn’t mind at all. I booked my flight to LA. The staff told me how to get to the hospital, where to park as it was very important I park in the correct gang guest spot and to come before dark. Undaunted I was entering renowned gang territory as a white person, I made my way to the hospital.
Entering the facility was like entering a well-guarded prison. My purse was checked, and I was patted down for weapons – a bit unnerving. I was escorted to a wing of the hospital for gang violence recovery. The room was divided. On one side were patients from the Crypts and on the other side were the Bloods. Michael was in a bed at the end of the room on the right-hand side – I didn’t ask which gang was which. The middle of the room was the demilitarized zone. They pretended the other side didn’t exist. I wondered why they weren’t in separate wings. I didn’t ask. The left-hand side eyed me suspiciously. The right-hand side did the same. Clearly neither side trusted me or my motives, but I was ok with that. The nurse told me that Michael and I could talk in the reception room.
The reception room had no chairs, no tables, nothing that hadn’t been bolted to the floor. I was brought a chair and Michael sat opposite me in his wheelchair. He had the thousand-yard stare that war combatants get after too much battle. We talked. I liked him. He didn’t know why he turned his back. He didn’t understand why a newspaper would be interested in his story. As we talked, I noticed what looked like an owl eye peeking out from under the bolted down bookshelf. I excused myself and told him I needed to see what it was. I pulled out the cover of a magazine with a Great Horned Owl photograph on its cover from under the bookshelf. I almost fainted.
I told him the story of the Owl dive-bombing me in Westwood, California in the winter of 1988. I told him about the magazine I found called Shaman’s Drum and the ad announcing a drumming circle to find one’s power animal. I told him what I knew, at that point, about power animals. I told him that I could turn my back on everything I knew in New York and not be shot. He told me he wanted to go back to school and learn things so he could try and stop fucked up kids like him from gang-banging. We talked a long time about are opposite worlds that weren’t internally so opposite. He took the photo of the owl from me, folded it and said he would like to keep it, he liked my story.
It was getting dark, and a nurse came in to say I had to leave. I took Michael back to the DMZ. I gave him my phone number and said I would visit the next time I was in LA which would be a couple of months. He told “his guys” to escort me out of South Central, which they did, one car in front and another in back. We hugged to the astonishment of everyone I assumed because of the catcalls from both sides of the aisle, I curtsied to everyone, and left.curtsied to everyone, and left.
I did call about a week before I was returning to LA. He wasn’t there anymore. I asked if I could get a forwarding number and they told me they wouldn’t give out that information. I never saw him again. I don’t know if he is ok, if he went back to school or if life was simply too hard; yet, as I remember the meeting all these years later, the Owl was the message and the meaning for two souls trying to make sense of their world.