In the mid to late 1980’s, East Palo Alto’s crime rate was soaring, reaching a pinnacle in 1992 when it earned the auspicious distinction of having the highest murder rate in the United States. Paradoxically, East Palo Alto was perched on the northern stoops of Menlo Park, Stanford and Palo Alto, three of the most affluent zip codes in the nation.
The San Francisquito Creek marked its southern border. By midsummer in the 80’s, the creek’s course past East Palo Alto to the bay was nothing but a series of last gasp ponds and puddles blemished with bottles, cans, syringes, car tires, shopping carts and the occasional corpses of a rare Steelhead trout cut off and beached between spawning and hightailing it home to the Pacific. Casualties of uptown overdevelopment.
“Because it’s only $400 a month” was the musician logic I had used to explain to my father why I had rented a home on the tip of East Palo Alto. “It’s more like a buffer zone,” I explained, 5 blocks on the preferred side of the 101 freeway. “It’s the other side of 101 where it gets really bad.”
I had grown up on a street 6 miles west, one block and about 5 acres east of the 280 freeway, a buffer zone between the half a million dollar homes and the multimillion dollar ones.
“Only $400 a month,” I had repeated, exasperated that my real estate coup had been met with so much skepticism. “2 stories, 2 bedrooms, a living room, kitchen, bathroom AND a yard.” In the eyes of a jazz pianist squeaking by on sporadic club gigs and wedding receptions, it was the Ritz.
“There is a reason,” dad countered “that it’s only $400 a month.” He offered several. Then he demanded a refund from funding 4 years of a college education that had obviously been squandered.
The house was directly next door to a 76 gas station which closed at midnight, at which point traffic picked up considerably. It became an adult drive-through worked hard by the dealers and prostitutes that shared the phone bank between my driveway and the garage. Dealers sold powdered courage to the nervous Johns. Others would treat themselves to a quick high after the low of an even quicker carnal romp in a car behind the garage of the station. It was a veritable late night mini-mart, frequented and funded by many of the same BMW’s, Porches, and minivans that cluttered the Stanford Shopping Center lot just a couple of miles up the street.
It was trickle-down economics in action. The hopelessly hooked and “hookered” uptown elite drove thru, snorted, cavorted, and drove on, climate deniers of East Palo Alto’s perpetual dark spiral. By legal standards, the corner went unnoticed, business as usual in the buffer zone. Live and let live. Police interventions were rare and almost never involved more than a quick flash of the lights and a “move it along!” which scattered cars, dealers and hookers like minnows in a pond before they regrouped 5 or 10 minutes later.
One July 4th weekend night, my girlfriend woke me, excited about what she thought was fireworks. “Listen!” she said, stepping out of the bed and walking to the window, “Fireworks.”
The fireworks had been gunfire. As the local paper would report a day later, two rival gangs had settled a financial misunderstanding by shooting a dealer at the phone booth over 40 times before driving over him on their commute 5 blocks back across the freeway to the part of town that was really bad.
“Isolated incident,” I had told my folks when they called.
“But your house was on the news,” my mom lamented. “The TV reporter was pointing to the phone booth, the broken glass and the mess on the street, and your house was the backdrop.”
“I want a refund from the University” my father had added.
In March of the following year, I returned home late from a gig, parked in the back yard and put the key in the top of the two dead bolts on the downstairs door. As the key entered the lock, I heard the warning tone of the alarm sound.
“Odd,” I remember thinking, drawing on all 4 years of my liberal arts education, “usually turning the key doesn’t trigger the alarm tone.”
I unlocked the other dead bolt, punched in the security code, and walked up the back steps, not even bothering to turn on the lights. It was after 2:00 AM, and I was played out, burned out and headed for bed.
The back steps led to the kitchen, and when I crossed in front of the sink, I felt a crunching under my feet. I assumed the kid who rented one of the downstairs garages had used the kitchen and spilled popcorn or chips on the floor. Screw it, I thought, I would deal with it in the morning. But then, in the soft glow of the street lights and the orange 76 station sign, I noticed that the living room TV set was half way off of the table. To the right of it, in the shadows of the corner, was a man.
Every hair on my neck and head stood on end. My skin tingled, and I froze, as if somehow the unlocking and relocking two deadbolts, the alarm tone, and my stomping up the stairs and across the crunchy floor had gone undetected. In hindsight, I think the intruder and I both desperately hoped that if we just didn’t move, the other one would somehow not really be there.
“RUN!” should have been the overriding imperative. RUN back down the stairs and to the phone booth. GUN, however, is what jumped into my head. The owner had left a shotgun in the back pantry, “just in case,” he had said. It was a massive 10 gage side-by-side. Add a couple of wheels to it and you would have an artillery gun. It and the box of ammo that sat next to it had been a fixture on the shelf at the top of the steps leading up from the back yard. Until that moment, I had never really thought about it.
I unfroze, raced to the pantry, grabbed it, tore open the box of ammo, dropped in two shells, and snapped the gun shut. Then, barrels leveled at the shadow, I hunkered behind the door frame of the kitchen, just under the only phone in the house, which, in 1998, was hard wired to the wall. Gun pointed unsteadily at the intruder and taking cover behind the door frame, I reached up with my left hand and started dialing the police. It was a rotary phone. You put your finger in the dialer, spun it to the right, and it would click back. In the time it took to dial just a “0” on a rotary phone, you could learn a foreign language.
“POLICE ARE COMING.” I shouted, sounding very much like a prepubescent teenage boy. “You can leave anywhere but though the kitchen. If you come near me, I will fucking shoot you.” I recall that I may have put the word “fucking” at the wrong place in the sentence. It’s very possible that I actually said, “if you come near fucking me I will shoot you.”
I quickly added, “I HAVE A GUN,” which in hindsight might have been the better sentence to have lead with.
The problem was, the only upstairs egress was the front door. It had two dead bolts, making it impossible to get in or out unless you had a key. The large bay window in the living room didn’t open. The kitchen window he had broken to get in, thus the crunchy floor, wasn’t an option given me and the 10 gage. We were at an impasse, and he knew it too.
He eventually broke the tense and silent stalemate and stepped out of the corner. I stopped breathing and pulled the gun tight against my shoulder. I didn’t have a shadow of a doubt that if he came at me, I would shoot, reload and shoot again.
Without saying a word, he grabbed a lamp and slammed it against the bay window. The lamp and the window shattered, the sound of which made me jump, nearly pulling the trigger by accident. He kicked away the remaining shards, and then without a word, climbed onto the roof and jumped down to the street.
I stood trembling in my nook aiming steadily at the gaping hole until I heard the sirens and saw the lights from the police cars. Thinking that it would probably be best not to greet them with a raised shotgun, I lowered the gun toward the floor. When I did, both shells slid down the barrel and landed at my feet.
The shells that had for years been loyally sitting at the side of the side-by-side were the wrong size. I would have pulled the trigger, and nothing would have happened.
That weekend, I went to the local shooting range, bought the right sized shells, and took a quick course in skeet shooting. For a week, I slept side by side with the loaded 10 gage side-by-side. The possibility of rolling over in my sleep and shooting off one of my legs seemed preferable to getting surprised by another intruder. After a couple of weeks, when the fear subsided, I slid it under the bed.
Though I never fired it outside of the range, I used it twice after that, increasingly emboldened by the double barreled siren song of invincibility and power. A month or two after the first incident, I was awakened by the sound of someone trying to jimmy the window off the back porch. I pulled the loaded gun out from under the bed, put on a pair of jeans, and tiptoed out to the back porch. I didn’t even call the police. I stepped onto the deck and shouted “GOTCHA” at the top of my lungs, shotgun aimed at his chest. He screamed and leapt off the porch into my neighbor’s yard where he bounced off the fence and was then promptly attacked by neighbor’s two Dobermans.
A few weeks after that, I was awakened by a car pulling into my driveway, the bass lines from the stereo system blaring loudly enough to rattle the windows. I opened my upstairs bedroom window and pointed the gun directly at a guy who had stepped out of his car and was urinating on the side of my house. When he looked up and saw the gun pointed at him, he backed right into the open door of his car, still peeing, saying “whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa…” One of the dealers looked up from the phone booth and gave me a smile.
I stood at the window in a pair of boxers cradling the loaded gun and gave a timid wave to the guy at the pay phone, the same spot where that dealer had been shot 40 times. I hoped the guy I had just pissed off didn’t have armed friends on the other side of the freeway. I closed the window and slipped the gun back under the bed, as sheepish and ashamed as most of the John’s that scurried away after they came and went from the cars behind the garage.
“We have to stop seeing each other,” I thought, staring down at the butt of the gun that stuck out from under the bed. In another week, I would be calling it “my precious.”
I packed up the gun the next day and sent it via UPS to the owner in San Diego. I never had another reason to use it, not that reason was ever really part of the equation. I put the box of ammo back on the shelf in the pantry where it sat alone until I moved out several years later, a potent memento of how the lust of a fiery but ill-fated relationship can drive you borderline insane.