Santa Monica, California
It's mid afternoon on a sunny day. My brother and I are walking over to Pico Boulevard from my apartment on 15th and Michigan and we decide to take the shortcut through the cemetery.
I've been living across the street from Woodlawn for a while and haven't seen or heard anything really odd around here. Usually, when I tell someone where I live they'll ask if it's creepy. I used to wonder the same thing when I'd see homes and apartments next to cemeteries, but now I know that having a cemetery next door is not a problem. Best neighbors you'll ever have. Nice and quiet and they never complain.
The people who live on my side of the street are fine, too, and a good deal more animated; mostly day laborers from the state of Jalisco who work sunup to sundown and sometimes like to sit out back late at night, burn wooden crates in a little fire pit, drink beer, play guitars and sing corridos in harmony.
Some have brought their families with them. The women tend to stay inside with the children and sometimes I can hear them gossiping and laughing while the TV plays some Spanish soap opera or game show and the incense of carnitas, refried beans and corn tortillas floats heavenward to my flat upstairs. When I'm lying in bed late at night with the window open, I'm a gringo on vacation somewhere south of the border and very glad for their company. These are solid people who know how to end the day and their easy ways inspire comfort and rest.
But a few blocks east it's not so cozy. Here's where the tough guys live; young, black and latino; locals only, natives all. They live in a shadow world outsiders only know of from the news and the movies, and they have ambitions and rules most people don't understand. Not everyone over there is in 'the life' and few if any are hell-bent to kill or be killed; but for some of these vatos, there's little doubt that Death is their guardian angel and the only referee they respect.
There's been an on-going battle for turf that sometimes leads the players to winning their own little patch all to themselves right across the street in the cemetery, and I've seen a few funerals from my window. It's a life I know little about firsthand; to their credit they tend to keep the worst of it amongst themselves, but everyone around here knows you don't go in their neighborhood at night and you keep your eyes and ears wide open during the day, in case some cowboy from another hood is a little unclear about boundaries and decides to cut loose in yours.
I haven't had to deal with any of these guys in a bad way so far and I'm not expecting to. It pays to be polite and let things pass if need be (not all of these guys are hard cases looking for a fight). But what if I got in a tight spot somehow? What would I do? I'm not a coward. But I'm not a fool either.
+ - + - +
We stroll through the gate and up the hill, staying on the roadway, turning left near the little babyland corner. We pause to look at all the little stones marked with tiny names that will never be heard by the named. It's a bright little corner, decorated with little ribbons and toys and flowers here and there.
Now we're heading east. We'll turn by the mausoleum, go past the Odd Fellows section, and exit on Pico Blvd.
"So'd you hear about that girl they found over on 20th and Pico? People saw her lying there in broad daylight and they didn't lift a finger, just walked right by..."
"Yeah man. The people on that corner are f***ing animals. Filthy, flat-out animals."
"Yeah. It's been quiet over here during the day, but someone's always screwing around after dark. ... Hell, the other night some lunatic down the street went full auto with a cannon, maybe an M-16. I had to jump out of bed and get down in the hall. Walls won't stop that kind of firepower. ... And the cops won't come out unless someone's already been shot. It's time to move on ... I'm thinking about the Bay Area..."
"Yeah. I've had it with all the crap in this town. I'm thinking about heading south. Redondo Beach or San Diego, maybe ... something quiet ... away from all the punk motherf-"
Suddenly we hear someone charging right up behind us, their hard soled shoes scraping hard and fast on the pavement, as though they snuck up at a full run across the grass, broke close behind, and now they're moving in. We both spin around at exactly the same moment to take on our attacker. No thoughts, just action. Knees bent, arms forward, pumped, ready.
The sound stops as we turn.
There is no one behind us, or anywhere in sight. It is (ahem) dead quiet.
My brother and I look at each other and without a word understand that we both heard exactly the same thing.
"So who was that?" asks my brother, straightening up.
I look around and see nothing near or far that could explain the sound. We're practically in the center of the cemetery.
"Dunno, but it sounds like they were in a hurry, huh?"
"Yeah...we must have scared him more that he scared us. I was about to whip some ass. You looked ready too, Kung Fu."
Yes I was and how about that. Some instinctually respond to an unknown threat with fear. Others respond with action. Either occurs before thinking can kick in. Fight or flight and sort it out later. My brother and I are squarely in the fight zone.
We grin and continue on without a word. We really got each other's back. That's a cool thing to learn about your brother. And yourself.
Photo: 'Tiny' (Greeley) and 'Pablito'--Woodlawn, 2004
+ - + - +
So did a ghost come charging up behind us? Hmmm... We didn't see a ghost. We saw nothing. We heard what sounded like someone running up behind us and it was, acoustically speaking, spatially precise enough to provoke the same reaction from both of us at exactly the same time.
I've kicked this one around for a while. We were on the crest of a hill so it is physically possible that the sound might have carried from some other location, but the public streets were far away, there was absolutely no one around and no place to hide, and most importantly, there was nothing nearby that could have bounced a sound off the pavement directly behind us.
And I can't imagine what would naturally produce the sound of someone running in hard soled shoes, near or far, other than someone running in hard soled shoes. The clopping noise had in it the sound of grit scraping under the soles, and the direction, volume, and speed, though brief, was crystal clear. Clear enough to leave no doubt, until our eyes told otherwise, that someone was running up at full speed right behind us.
So what was it? A shadow homie who didn't like how we were talking about his carnales and thought he'd just throw a scare into us? (Just a creative guess, wholly unwarranted.) Or was it a simple aural illusion--a naturally occurring echo coming from some place we couldn't detect and happening at exactly the right time, place, volume, direction and duration?
I'll grant the possibility that it was some weird echo, because that's the most reasonable explanation, but when you take into consideration everything else, then that explanation just doesn't "sound" right, does it?
(I heard that groan...)