In 1985, I shot someone.
It happened outside the Rustic Inn, a bar in an unincorporated section of Los Angeles near Compton, which was where I spent most of my free time back then.
Moments before the shooting, I had been in a barroom brawl. My friend George and I were drinking Heinekens and taking sips off a half-pint of Seagram’s VO we’d stashed atop a rickety wooden beam at the beer-only bar’s side-porch entrance.
Three guys walked in and began staring at us. George, a big guy quick to unleash his fists, asked them — in Comptonese — what they were looking at. It was on.
I’m not a great brawler, but I’m a good friend, and I couldn’t let George go one-on-three. The fight moved two steps down from the bar where two pool tables sat — five men punching, kicking, gouging, ducking, yelling, swinging pool sticks, hurling pool balls. My most vivid memory of the fight is an orange-and-white pool ball whizzing by my face and — amid all that chaos — thinking to myself, “That’s the 13.”
George and I got the upper hand and the three guys ran outside, one of them yelling, “Get the gun.” That was chilling, even to a drunk.
It just so happened I had an AK-47 in my trunk that night. Come on now? Really? It “just so happened”?
It did. Two days earlier, my cousin Lynn told me her husband did not want me to stash “that machine gun” at their Torrance house anymore. I picked it up and put it in my trunk.
As the three guys got to their car, I popped that trunk. I fired 17 rounds, I later discovered. I tell myself I fired to scare them off, not to hit or kill. But one 7.62-mm bullet hit a leg. Another busted a window and went into the wall of a room where two people were lying. I could have killed them both.
Witnesses led detectives to me. I was arrested for several crimes, including attempted murder. I faced 15 to life. I remember hoping, wishing, even praying I would only get six years in prison and do three.
But because my father paid $5,000 for a lawyer, because of a “them or me” argument, a plea deal, and because I’m Caucasian, I got 30 days in the county jail. Thirty days! If I was black and had a public defender, no doubt I’d have been Folsom-bound.
I quit drinking after that. In the 1990s, I was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times covering Watts and South Central. I’ve often said a political reporter should know something about politics, a medical writer should know about medicine, and a crime reporter — well, you get the idea. I became friends with gang members. When they went to prison, I’d write to them, and sometimes enclose a $20 money order or a book.
They wrote back. They were not forgotten. They appreciated it. Some shouldn’t have been in prison. Others, like me, should have.
Never one to analyze my actions too closely, it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that it struck me that one reason I wrote those letters was because it could’ve been me in there. It wasn’t that I felt guilty. I was guilty.
My sobriety lasted years. Then I decided I could handle a beer, a glass or two of red wine, and still stop. Surprise! I couldn’t. So, after a few months of drinking, I’d quit again for a month or two. This went on for years. I never intended to quit for good. I was just “on the wagon” and looking forward to tumbling off.
But earlier this year, I went on a wretched binge. Two 750s of Smirnoff ruined my balance. I tripped and cracked open the back of my head on the bedroom dresser. Blood spurted onto three walls. My girlfriend was out of town, but my sister, warned by worried friends, came to the house that day. She walked into that horrific scene. She got me to an emergency room. Twelve staples in my head.
That was eight months ago. I quit drinking. Again. But now I no longer say I’m on the wagon. I say, “After a long and storied career, I have retired.”
I know I can’t drink anymore. I also know that maybe I will. I can’t even say with certainty that I won’t be drunk when I read this in the paper. But don’t bet on it. I bring all this up because those letters I sent to prisons paid off recently. I heard from an inmate, Kevin “Big Cat” Doucette, a legendary shot caller for one of L.A.’s most notorious street gangs, the Rolling 60s Crips. Many years ago, police described him as one who “instills fear in the neighborhood.”
He’s also my friend. I’ve known him for 17 years. Somehow, Cat heard of my latest, inglorious Smirnoff defeat and sent a letter that inspired me to stay sober more than any AA testimony group session.
After two paragraphs describing life in federal prison, he switched his tone. Here’s what he wrote, as he wrote it:
“My dude, you and drinking, yall dont go together at all. ... Anything that you cant control that controls you; that aint tha set, Mike! I’ve got love for you, so when I speak as I do, know that I mean nothing but good: find you another high in life. A positive one ... try life itself. My Man, we both know that life is to short as it is for us to be twisted on anything, fo real it is.”
I keep that letter in my wallet. It reminds me of drinking. It reminds me of prison. It reminds me of two people lying in a room my bullets invaded.