A group of Juggalos
Looking back, what is the birthday that stands out most in your mind?
How about someone else’s birthday that is especially memorable?
Are they remembered with love or regret?
Laughter or tears?
Why do you remember these birthdays in particular?
On June 6th I will turn 59. Birthdays always make me think back to the ones before. I’ve had some doozies. Especially my 50th. In a perfect world (according to the media and celebrities and self-help gurus), turning fifty should be some sort of meaningful Zen-like epiphany, where you realize how wise you have become; you should be pleased because you are still in great shape; you have saved enough in a steady job to be looking forward to retirement, and/or those alimony checks are substantial because you weren’t one of those stupid women who signed a pre-nup; and maybe you even have a loving relationship with someone who gives you sizzling-hot sex…. You know, “fifty is the new thirty,” and all of that.
I only fulfilled one of those achievements: I was in pretty good shape. Otherwise, I was nowhere near where I thought I should be at such an advanced age. Instead of lying in bed beside a wonderful lover, or even just a warm body, by midnight of my 50th birthday, I was standing in a dingy apartment, covered in someone else’s blood and wondering what to do about it.
The day started okay. I went to a lovely, exceedingly Zen-like wedding, and a reception that was held in an exclusive gated community in Calabasas with a breathtaking view of the Santa Monica Mountains. I was high above the messy streets and dressed perfectly for the occasion, wearing a little black and white number that hugged my hips and ended discreetly just above my knees, a string of pearls about my neck, a Kate Spade purse and Stuart Weitzman heels, all carefully preserved leftovers from life before the divorce. I looked good on the outside, and I was sure none of these successful people who lived in the clouds would ever suspect how worried I was inside, as a single mother, struggling to raise three children in an apartment down on the flats of the San Fernando Valley. For a few hours, I drank champagne and danced and forgot my troubles.
Then, I went home, close to midnight, and the phone rang.
It was the mother of a friend of my eldest son and she sounded hysterical. There was a young man in her home that had been stabbed and she didn’t know what to do. She’d bandaged him up as best she could but he refused to go to the hospital.
“I can’t have him dying here,” she said. This mother was a recovering heroin addict and the last thing she wanted was the police on her doorstep. I don’t say that as some sort of judgment, I say it to explain why she was so nervous. She was a good person. She loved her son like most mothers do. She wanted to do the right thing, and mostly, she tried her best under challenging circumstances.
So, what did I do? What I always do when I get calls like that. I got in my car and drove over to where she lived in a small apartment complex in Sherman Oaks. Of course, I first changed out of my perfect outfit into workout pants, t-shirt, running shoes and a hoodie, all black as the night. I wish I could say I felt like a superhero donning my fighting clothes, well I did sort of because I have a sense of humor and a good imagination, and I did feel prepared for the fight, however it might present itself.
The mother answered the door, put the leash on her dog and walked out, saying she needed a break. That was the last I saw of her that night.
Okay. The young man was standing in the middle of the living room swaying and delirious, from drugs or loss of blood, probably both. He was shirtless and there were bandages wrapped around him like a mummy. A lot of blood had seeped through. The place looked like a crime scene. My son and a few of his friends were sitting lined up on the sofa, scared and immobilized.
I hated the direction my son was going, hanging out with Juggalos and wanting to be one. If you, Dear Reader, don’t know what a Juggalo is, I won’t bother explaining. Suffice it to say that you don’t want to know, unless you are unlucky enough to have a kid who thinks he or she wants to be one, then you will have no choice but to find out. On the other hand, I do believe that they are misunderstood in a lot of ways and I would like to write more about them. I don’t believe they are a gang so much as a kind of cult, believing in something called the “Dark Carnival” and appealing to the poor and outcasts who really cannot find anywhere else to belong. My son was and is a talented artist and writer and I understood his fascination with the dark side. I love him and have faith in him and respect his desire to be true to his art. Being an artist myself, I understand how painful is the road of raw self-expression and I admire the brutal courage that it takes to be true to one’s art.
I didn’t like the young man with the stab wounds, although such a reaction to him made me feel guilty. I worked with youth in juvenile hall who were no different from this young man. I didn’t want to be a hypocrite, but if I was honest, then I had to acknowledge that it was easy to care about those who were locked up because I could walk away and they did not invade my day to day life. If I really wanted to live what I claimed I believed, then I had to care about those people who smashed into my safe world and threatened to turn it upside down. Or did I–certainly I was allowed to draw the line somewhere? This was a complex question and certainly there were boundaries that needed to be observed, I just wasn’t sure exactly what they were.
This young man, known as Popeye, was a few years older than my son and his friends. As impressionable teenage boys, they thought Popeye was the shit. I don’t know why. Calling yourself Popeye, that right there, should throw up a red flag. He wasn’t especially smart, and he certainly didn’t have a nice temperament. He was a small-time criminal with a serious drug problem who thought he was some kind of prophet with a special dispensation from God. He enjoyed quoting the Bible, except that he quoted it all wrong. The thing is, he had charisma. In fact, in a way, he reminded me of a stunted Charles Manson. Sometimes, when he came to my house, he would look at me with an intensity that I knew he used on my son and others and was trying to use on me. He was practicing his style, trying to grow into his “calling” as a leader of the lost and downtrodden. But it fell flat with me. I saw through him, as I saw through those in the boardroom who tried to manipulate me in ways that I saw as perversely similar. Popeye reminded me of countless puffed up pastors, entertainment executives, corporate leaders and politicians I had met, except he hadn’t been given the education or even the “luck” that they had. No matter if the domain is the streets or the churches or city hall, those who feed off of power seem to share the same psychological profile, except that the well-heeled are clearly more dangerous due to their access to resources that can cause havoc and destruction on a world scale. Nobody ever stops them, however, because those who are further down the ladder are way too desperate to climb up a few pegs, grasp at a few more crumbs, fool themselves into believing that they can be powerful too, if they just kiss the right person’s ass. And oh, how the powerful use that hunger to their advantage.
I well know these worlds within worlds, and that night, I crossed, as I have done so often, from the world of the elite into the world of the downtrodden; these worlds that seem so very different on the surface, one dirty and dangerous, the other pristine and filled with opportunity. But the underlying horrors are the same. For example, on the one hand you have Juggalos, a despised and ridiculed bunch, and on the other hand you have fraternities and the god-like status of athletes. Might I suggest reading John Krakauer’s Missoula to find out more about that gruesome culture?
But back to the nightmare of Popeye’s life. He had been stabbed seven times while attempting to enter a house to attend a party. Apparently, someone took offense at his Juggalo tattoos and attacked him with a knife. Popeye kept on fighting, not realizing he was being stabbed, until someone pulled him away and pointed it out to him. Somehow, he had made his way to this apartment.
The mother had been correct in saying that Popeye was refusing to go to the hospital. Even though he wasn’t the perpetrator on this occasion, he was on probation and was afraid of being sent back to jail. And he held such sway with these kids that none of them dared to try and make him go, even though he appeared to be dying right in front of their faces.
“So you’d rather die?” I asked Popeye.
He smirked at that, ever the tough guy. He seemed to think he would be just fine if he could have a few minutes to lie down, which he did, except he fainted, his skin turning a scary gray color. That was when I ordered my son and his friends to help me drag him out of the apartment, get him in the car and to the hospital.
As it turns out, one of the knife wounds had pierced his lung and he was bleeding inside. He would have surely died if he hadn’t made it to the hospital in time. Instead, he lived to cause more trouble. Not long after that, I heard that he leapt out of a moving car on the freeway and almost got himself killed… again. Then, he assaulted a woman at an ATM machine, kidnapped her and ended up in prison for a very long time. I have to say I am not sorry that he is off the streets and out of my son’s life. He is a dangerous and unpredictable person who caused a lot of harm. And yet, I had a profound encounter with him that goes beyond the physical and enters the realm of the spiritual. I saved his life. I cannot help but pray that he is receiving the psychological care that he needs but chances are he isn’t.
As much as this memory might be considered horrible, it happened to me because I am the kind of person that those in need feel they can call on. I don’t say this with any kind of pride. In fact, I often wonder if I am not just a naïve sucker. I can’t help it, though. It is the way I was made, I guess. And going around helping people doesn’t mean that you necessarily get a prize for it or that the result is a happy ending. Nobody would have given me a prize or helping Popeye. He was a person who could well have gone on to kill someone or himself. And indeed, he did something almost as bad.
But we don’t know the future and so we can only do what we think is right in any given moment. And there have been plenty such moments in my life. And even if I had known the outcome ahead of time, it wouldn’t have changed my decision to do what I felt compelled to do.
Which leads me to my memory of someone else’s birthday. Because thinking of my 50th always leads me to think of my friend Silvia’s 18th. It was on that day that she was sentenced to twenty-five years to life for a murder committed by her older, abusive boyfriend. And there I was, in the courtroom, unable to change her fate.
In 1995 I went into Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles and started teaching creative writing as a volunteer to a group of girls who were facing life sentences for serious crimes. One of those girls was Silvia. I worked with her for three years and attended her trial, taking forty-five pages of notes. I wanted to see a trial for myself, and I picked hers because it was the most extreme and I had become close to her. I had decided that by the end of the trial I would either walk away from this difficult work, or I would make a commitment to it for the long term. After what I saw at Silvia’s trial, I was more determined than ever to do what I could to help these young people make their voices heard. And so, InsideOUT Writers was born, with the help of many incredible people.
At Silvia’s trial it was never determined that she knew a murder was going to occur. But she was there when it happened, on Dockweiller Beach, planes screaming overhead as they took off and landed at LAX. Silvia had walked away, angry at her boyfriend because he asked her to flirt with the victim so he could steal the guy’s car stereo. The others were down by the water and Silvis headed back towards the car. She turned around to see the victim falling and not getting up again. Afterwards, her boyfriend threatened that he would harm her brother, Cesar, who was mentally ill, if she didn’t keep silent. Having been abused for years, she wasn’t about to disobey his orders. I could relate to this since I had been in two abusive marriages, was still in the middle of the second one during her trial, and feeling depressed that I hadn’t learned my lesson the first time around. Silvia’s writing spoke to me in a powerful way. Mostly, she wrote about how she had allowed herself to get into abusive relationships and what she needed to do to get out of them. She went on a journey in her writing and I went with her and that journey culminated with her trial. I had entered juvenile hall with the desire to help these girls. Never did I imagine how much they, in turn, would help me to face the truth of my own life.
Seated with me at Silvia’s sentencing was the woman with whom I had started InsideOUT Writers, Sister Janet Harris, and a private investigator who was considered by many to be the foremost authority on the death penalty phase, Casey Cohen. These two extraordinary people were my best friends and mentors. I had contacted Antonio Villaraigosa about Silvia’s case. At that time, he was Speaker of the House of Representatives, before he went on to become mayor. He had put a piece of Silvia’s writing up on the wall in his office and sent a representative to speak on his behalf at her sentencing, a young man named Jimmy Blackman. But it hadn’t mattered.
On Silvia’s eighteenth birthday, despite the lack of evidence, despite the fact that she did not represent any threat to society, Judge JD Smith sentenced her to twenty-five years to life.
“I could have given you life without parole,” he told the girl with the long black hair, fading tattoos and eyes that were now hopeless instead of angry. “You should thank me.”
Silvia said nothing. She didn’t know that he actually, literally, meant that she should thank him. She was in the process of getting the tattoos removed. Besides the tear drops beneath her eye, she had been branded by her boyfriend in many places on her body, and then there was the 213 on her knuckles, the last tattoo Gerardo had made on the night of the murder. I had managed to get a court order from Judge Smith allowing her to stay in juvenile hall until the tattoo removal was completed. She would end up staying there until her twentieth birthday, I believe an all-time record for a juvenile offender.
Judge JD Smith was a big, tough white guy, white hair and a florid complexion that grew redder after lunch. His face was positively crimson after he’d told Silvia to thank him and she hadn’t, perceiving her lack of response as insolence. “I said you should thank me,” he bellowed.
Silvia turned in confusion to her lawyer, who nodded that she should obey.
“Thank you,” she said, her head bowed and in a barely audible voice.
“Thank you,” she said louder.
He nodded, satisfied.
And that was the end of Silvia. I had been so angry at the belligerent man but years later I realized that his hands had been tied and how I saw him at the trial represented my own hurt and frustration, because he really had done the only thing he could do to help her. In retrospect, I don’t think anyone in that courtroom wanted to see Silvia in jail for life, not even the prosecutor. But she was no one important in the greater scheme of things and she hadn’t stood up for herself when given the chance. She had refused to take the deal offered by the prosecution out of fear of Gerardo and so there was nothing anyone could do.
Removing the tattoos was a cleansing ritual for Silvia as at each painful session, more and more of the ink was drawn out of her body.
“It burns my skin, it really hurts,” she told to me. “But I can feel the ink going out and it’s like the poison that he infected me with is going out too.”
The State showered Silvia with honors before locking her up forever, choosing her as Valedictorian and then crowning her prom queen at the graduation for her winning essay, “Moving into the21st Century,” written about her plans to attend college, as if she were a free young woman instead of a convicted murderer. At the prom, a picture was taken of her, me and her date, all of us smiling happily. Pictures were taken of each of the youths dressed in their finery, standing in front of a limo that would never drive them anywhere. The party was held in the juvenile hall gym, decorated with balloons and streamers, a band playing. The LA Times even wrote an article about it. A bizarre party where Cinderella’s dress turned back into rags, but with a hopelessness that would never have a happy ending.
Nothing lasts forever. Life comes and then it goes, sometimes faster, sometimes slower, like the ocean tide, big and angry, small and intimate, continually turning from one thing into something else and back again. Silvia left suddenly, before her tattoo removal had been completed and I never understood why. Fifteen years later, visiting her at Chowchilla Women’s prison she told me.
“I was getting too old to be there. The pressure was too much to be the wise old lady, you know?” She shrugged. There was more there, I was sure but it was a world I really could never fully understand.
When it came time to say good-bye, we looked at one another with real, deep love, tinged by sadness. I was always having to leave her and I wished so badly that I could just take her out. Like an angel, like what happened to the Apostle Paul. But that was just a fantasy.
Saying good-bye to Silvia was always painful and the time came when I stopped visiting her because I just couldn’t take it anymore, for various reasons beyond what I can write here. But I will go again. I can’t stay away forever. I will never forget the day of our most momentous good-bye, when Silvia left juvenile hall for the “Big House.” We hugged each other in front of the chapel, the place where I had first met Janet and poured out my heart to her about my dreams to work with incarcerated youth. I couldn’t believe that it was really happening. I’d had such faith in words. I had been raised to believe in their power, by an evangelical father who was a successful writer. “In the beginning was the Word…” That verse had been pounded into my mind from a young age. Yet, my speech, so carefully prepared for Silvia’s sentencing, hadn’t done anything to save her. I had truly thought that if I could find the right words and say them with enough conviction all would be clarified, the judge and the jury would see the light and a miracle would occur. But there was no miracle, only the wheels of fate relentlessly turning with each one of us playing a small part in a bigger story, with my individual actions having absolutely no impact.
“Not on the system,” Casey told me. “But one individual can influence the life of another. Always remember that, Karen. Don’t become obsessed with the political circus and the powerful in society.” He visibly shuddered. “It’s an enticing world but a completely corrupt one, which, perversely, is much of its appeal.”
Casey impacted my life more than anyone else I have ever known. The last time I saw him, we were standing in the parking lot behind “attorney to the stars,” Charlie English’s law offices, above the bluffs of Ocean Avenue. By then, his clothes hung lose on a gaunt frame, cheeks sunken, eyes haunted and avoiding mine. He was dying of cancer. We were about to get in our cars and go our separate ways, just as we had always done, just as people were doing all around us in a normal, everyday manner.
He made his usual joking observation, “We’ve got to stop meeting like this, in parking lots and at crime scenes,” only this time, his words were choking him. “We should be going to a concert together, or shopping, how about shopping? No, what am I talking about? We should be on some small island in the South Pacific, lying on the warm sand, catching and cooking our own fish, drinking rum in some open-air bar on stilts, the ocean lapping beneath us, walking on water, we should be walking on water.”
“Only in dreams,” I murmured.
Yes, only in dreams…. And in remembrances of birthdays.
And now, here I am coming up to 59 and these are my memories, the powerful experiences that I think about in these days leading up to that moment when I magically make it to another number in a long line of numbers. The looking forward can only get shorter and the looking back can only get longer. But the memories don’t change. Not the ones that have been embedded so strongly in the mind. Casey is gone and I miss him every day. Silvia is still here, yet I miss her the same.
I think of Silvia and I think of my own son. Impressionable teenagers, preyed upon by older people who used them to feed their own egos. I understand. I have been there, too. Who hasn’t? And people like Gerardo and Popeye, those who feed upon the weak, what are their stories? What birthdays do they remember? Once they, too, were young and weak, preyed upon by those more powerful than themselves, and so they learned to do the same. The world is a place of eating or being eaten.
I don’t teach in juvenile hall anymore and it is a long story why. But those years left a lasting impression on me. After every class I would take the writing home and type it up, the words of the girls searing me as surely as those tattoos seared Silvia. Opening the folder where I kept the girls’ writing, I always looked first at what Silvia had to say, wanting to hear her voice, contemplating how it applied to me:
Me, Gerardo and Marisol were outside a friend’s house when my friend was talking and Gerardo got mad and was telling her to shut up but she was so dingy, she just kept on talking. So he took a knife and Marisol was sitting on the sidewalk and he threw the knife at her and she screamed so he kept throwing the knife at her. Then he saw me standing by the tree and he threw the knife at me and I got scared but I didn’t say nothing.
There was this lady who sells corn passing by and she asked me what my boyfriend was doing and I told her he was playing. She looked at me like I was crazy. But everyone thought I was. So she was just another person thinking I was crazy to be playing with a man who plays with knives.
Common sense should tell a girl to stay away from a man who uses her as a dartboard. Still, incredible as it may seem, it can happen to anyone if the circumstances are right. It’s easy when you’re on the outside looking in to say that a girl is crazy, that she should just get out. Or that my son should understand to stay away from a delusional criminal who quotes the Bible all wrong. Or, that a mother should be able to keep her son safe from evil.
But when you’re the one in the middle of the maze you can’t imagine the possibility of escape. Once, on the streets of London, my first husband kicked me repeatedly like I was a mangy dog and a man passing by reached out in distress, offering to help me. My husband turned on him in a mad fury and the man retreated. I stood in terror, shaking my head and mouthing no, no at the man, praying that he would just go away. It never occurred to me that I could go away with him. The only result I could imagine from his misplaced kindness was for me to suffer even worse abuse when I got home. Because I would follow my husband home, wouldn’t I? I always meekly walked into my prison and allowed him to lock me in.
If I ever tried to argue with either of my husbands, they would say “Don’t fight me.” The message was clear—you have no right. You are a woman and I am a man. I have power and you do not. That is the way of this world. Don’t upset the balance. But even in those dark days I wondered, why? Why can’t a woman, or anyone who is oppressed for that matter, stand up the way the powerful do? Don’t the oppressed have just as much right to be tough and strong, to speak freely without fear? Yes, they have the right, they just don’t have a way to be heard—and if they do happen to be heard, they must quickly be suppressed or discredited so that no one actually listens.
I went on to free myself as best I could. It took many years and I am still in the process. At the age of thirty I started training in martial arts and learned how to walk tall and without fear. I now teach boxing and kick boxing and self-defense to women and children at a gym called Tarzana Boxing. If anyone would have told me in my first marriage that I would be doing such a thing in my fifties and that I would be in the best shape of my life, I would have said they were insane.
The girls in my writing sessions never stopped wanting fighting lessons and I repeatedly had to remind them that it wasn’t allowed.
“Every girl should be able to do that,” they would say wistfully.
I remember one girl, Elizabeth, slamming the table with a fist and saying to me, “Damn, woman, you’re dangerous—a Dangerous Woman.”
I always hugged each of them good-bye; those condemned young women whose tough facades had been stripped away at the writing table, revealing fearful little girls who passively did what they were told because they never knew they could do otherwise. I understood exactly how they felt.
And that is why, when I got the phone call from that hysterical mother on my 50th birthday, I didn’t hesitate, but went out my door and into the world of suffering and danger in the flatlands of the San Fernando Valley. Honestly, I feel more comfortable in that world than in the shiny one on top of the mountain. At least on the street there is a certain honesty to the crimes, while in the clouds, the hypocrisy is as thick as a London fog.
This birthday, I will be in Ojai, relaxing and writing for a couple of days. That’s the plan, anyway, and maybe it will turn out like that and maybe it won’t. That’s what makes life interesting. I don’t regret those memories. There is sadness, there is pain, but I hold onto them as experiences that have given meaning to my life.
No doubt, there will be more to come.