In the 1980s, my boyhood best friend in Boyle Heights and I chatted about gangs. Particularly about starting one.
The idea was absurd since me joining a gang was a little like Potsie from “Happy Days” driving south of the border and becoming a hit man for a Mexican drug cartel. It wasn’t in my hard-wiring, nor did my life experience lend itself to me going from a bookworm to “Smiley,” vato loco at large.
But there was something almost approaching mainstream about gangs a generation ago. Starting even something that weakly mimicked a gang — minus the hardcore commission of crimes, getting shot at and arrested — didn’t seem like the craziest thing ever. At the time, gang members didn’t try very hard to hide the fact that they were gang members. They hung out in corners and on stoops, and advertised their loyalties with tattoos inked to their visible skin like NASCAR racers.
Gang members were part of the scenery, like the shrubs finely coated by the freeway emissions from the nearby East L.A. interchange.
My friend Jesse recalled that he, his uncle and a couple of other kids from the neighborhood formed a group called the Rebels.
“We would have never formed that group if there were any real gang around us,” he said. “I think it was more like an identity for the group…. It didn’t last very long. Once we heard there was a club called the Rebels out of Rosemead and they were going to come down and kick our asses.”
But in fact, there were real gangs around us. They just hadn’t fully breached the core of our particular little neighborhood on Pomeroy Avenue, just a block from L.A. County-USC Medical Center. The closest we had to a resident gang in the 1980s were the Lord Boys, named after Lord Street — “altar boys in comparison to some of the killers running other streets and blocks … beyond the wall,” Jesse recalled.