I HAVE SEVERAL FRIENDS in prison. They are all black street gang members and shot callers who I've met over the past three decades, both as a crime reporter and as a fixture of the Fruit Town section of Compton in the 1980s. For the record, there is nothing “fruity” about Fruit Town. One of the roughest sectors of Compton and the home of the gang known as the Fruit Town Piru Bloods, it is so named because of the streets there: Cherry, Peach, Pear.
Fruit Town, like so many neighborhoods in ghetto America in the 1980s and early ‘90s, ran on crack cocaine. The economy of Cherry Street was dominated by the drug.
At 707 W. Cherry Street, where I lived on and off for several years, crack ruled with an iron pipe. The household was headed by a grandma with four daughters, one son, one daughter-in-law, and many grandkids. My memory is fading, but, let’s see. Daughter Jackie had two kids, Kathy had three, Cynthia, two or three, I think, and Addie Irene, my girlfriend, had three, the youngest being born in 1988 and named Michael Krikorian, Jr.
There were times, before Li’l Mike came along, when all four sisters were on the pipe. I dabbled myself, enough to know it was not for me. (I preferred my Jack.) To get away from the household where sometimes more than 20 humans slept in the small two-bedroom house, Irene and I would go to motels in Compton. There was and is a motel on Compton Boulevard, just west of Central, that didn’t have a name and where I – and I bragged about this to the boys way back when, and still do to this day – had credit. One time I didn’t have any money, but Irene and I went there. I asked the manager for the room — it was $12 for two hours — and told them I’d pay tomorrow. To my delight, they said ok. The next day I came back and gave them $15. In Compton, way back when, my credit was black label.
The routine was we’d rent a room, get a $20 rock, smoke it up, maybe fuck, often not, maybe get another rock, come back to the room, smoke it and go back to Cherry Street. One of those nights at the no-name motel, I watched TV and learned that Len Bias had died of a coke overdose. It wasn’t the death of the so promising basketball player that convinced me crack wasn’t shit. It was the realization that I was going to motels not for sex, but for a high that didn’t exist, except for the act of getting it, coming back to the room and smoking it. Inevitably, gloom descended as the rock dwindled. I’ve seen many portrayals of drug addicts on TV and in film — the heartbreaking Bubbles of The Wire, the fidgeting Breaking Bad speedsters, the Spicoli stoner from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I have never seen an actor nail a crack head. Usually the on-screen crack addict behaves like a meth freak. Unlike marijuana or booze or — and, I’m assuming heroin — crack provides no obvious, stereotypical high. The only remarkable thing about crack is the overwhelming urge to get more. I’m pretty sure that less than an hour after I heard about Len Bias, I made Irene’s radiant smile bloom by telling her I would go get another 20.
Fruit Town had some dull moments, but not many. People usually exaggerate when they describe a neighborhood as a place where there are shootings “every night.” In Fruit Town, there were shootings every night. Most of those shootings did not result in injury. The street was full ...