Monday, October 10, 2011

Guns of Palo Alto

I’ve always been an adrenaline junky.

1972 – I am 13.  I found my brother’s snub nosed Smith & Wesson .38 Chiefs Special.  I unload it and replace one cartridge then spin the cylinder.

I pull back the hammer.

I’m a pussy, so I look to where the shell is in rotation.  I put the gun to my head and pull the trigger.  Snap!  Case-hardened steel hits an empty chamber.

I spin the cylinder again.  Snap!

And again.  Snap!  Snap!  Russian roulette is dull if you know where the bullet is.  I’m not nuts enough to play it any other way.  I’m not suicidal.  I’m bored.  Through sheer gauze curtains I look out on Hamilton Avenue.  Palo Alto is suburbia to the tenth power.  A teen rides down the street.  I track him with the revolver nestled in the crook of my arm, like some TV cop.   I pull the trigger and make a bang with my mouth.  I pull the trigger again.  The roar is deafening.  Flame shoots from the barrel singeing a hole in the curtain.  The window pane explodes out.  Where the bullet lands is anyone’s guess.  But the kid on the bike rides on, unaware of how close he came to a real bad day.  The crook of my arm is bleeding from the nick the bullet left exiting the barrel.  The powder burn leaves flecks imbedded in my flesh.  They will scar for life.

1974 – Kool and Gang’s Jungle Boogie thumps.  I am 15.  It’s Saturday night.  My 17 year old brother Lark and me are running My-O-My, a teen disco.  It attracts a largely Black crowd into lilly White Palo Alto.  Lark is working bounce.  Moms is behind him at the front door.  A candy red dropped Chevelle stops in the middle of the street and a cat in his early twenties gets out of the passenger seat and moves with intention toward the door.  He’s street hard, prison buff.

“Sorry sir, no one over eighteen allowed.”  Lark’s voice is flat.

“Fuck it.”  The man pushes.  Lark stumbles back, but doesn’t fall.  He squares himself and moves in, his hands are in fists.  He can sense how this will go down.

“Motherfucker, white boy please.  Get the fuck-”  The man cocks his arm.

“Stop it this mo-”  Moms steps between them.  The guy’s fist is already flying.  It connects with a five foot nothing older white woman.  She recoils back into Lark, moaning.  Her arm hangs limp.  The guy susses the situation.  He just hit a white woman in Palo Alto.  Instantly he is back in the Chevelle and gone.


The cops are called.  The club is shut down for the night.  Some of the rougher kids are pissed.  They all want their money back, even the ones I know snuck in the back door.  Seeing Moms get hit hasn’t put Lark in a forgiving mood.  He’s barking.  Snapping.  Paul our friend and sound tech takes Lark into the office for some strong rum therapy.


Lark, Paul and me all go to the hospital.  Moms shoulder is dislocated.  She has a spreading hematoma in the shape of a fist.  Lark stares at the bruise.  We get Moms home and in bed, loaded up on Vicodin for her pain.  We each borrow two for our pain.  You can tell a good drug one of two ways, you have the doctor’s Drug Reference Guide, or you read the label, Vicodin take 1 every 4 hours for pain.  Do not take with alcohol.  Do not operate heavy equipment.  Bingo!  We chase the pills with rum.  Not an MD in the group, but we know our medicine.


“They can’t skate on this little brother.”

“No, they can’t.”

“Cops won’t find them.”

“Cops won’t try.  They think it’s our own fault for bringing Bloods into their city.”

“Then it’s on us.”  I have no idea what he means.  I doesn’t matter.  I’m down.


Affluent Palo Alto is separated from ghetto East Palo Alto by the Bayshore freeway.

On our radio Curtis Mayfield sings Freddy’s Dead.  The Firebird moves like a predator.   Paul is riding shotgun.  Behind him, I am loading my .44 with homemade hollow points.  He looks back, fear in his eyes.  He sacks up and keeps it to himself.

“There they are.”  I look up and across the street to Speedy Liquors.

“You sure that’s them?”  Lark is the only one who saw their faces.

“It’s their car.”

Lark pulls into the parking lot.  His headlights sweep across four hard men.  He parks the car so that the passenger window faces them.

“Josh, one thing.”


“Don’t hit me.”  He winks.  We are running on the perfect combination of Bacardi, Vicodin and adrenaline.  I watch Lark move around the hood of the car.  The men are smoking and drinking forties.

“Paul, roll that window down, now and get on the floor.”  He doesn’t ask why, we are traveling way outside his four dots.  I cock the revolver.  I lock in on the men.  The tall one in the middle is clearly the alpha.  He goes first.  I am rationally deciding who I will shoot and in what order.  Lark is careful not to put his body between me and them.

Lark is speaking to them.  I can’t hear them over KSOL, The O’Jays are playing in every car that passes.


Lark turns and walks back to the Firebird.  I don’t let my focus leave the men until we’re rolling.  “Wasn’t him.”

“You sure?”

“Said it didn’t I?”

We cruise East Palo Alto for two more hours and never see the guy.  I have no proof, but I suspect the guy in front of the liquor store was the man who hit Moms.  I don’t ask Lark.  He doesn’t offer.

In bed that night I fall apart.  All the fear floods into my head.  Tears run down my face.  Somewhere inside I am broken.  Not a moral man.  My father and other Quakers went to jail defending nonviolence.  My grandfather was proud to have never discharged his service revolver.  Me, I’m in a car calmly planning who’s life to end first.  I am afraid of what I am capable of.   Afraid of arming the beast.  Afraid I won’t need the beast to act with dark intention.