A Gang Member on a Bicycle

by Gautam Raja

C runs a small bicycle shop in my new hometown of Azusa, in Southern California. He’s close to the Gold Line Metro station and while things are slow right now, he’s gambling (as we all are) on the area getting more upmarket and busy in the next few years.

I always try to shop at what cyclists called the LBS, or local bike shop. Though this is increasingly difficult in the new retail market, it’s a matter of pride among cyclists to give the LBS business, and develop a relationship with the staff, rather than simply order online. C’s shop is family and commuter orientated, so he doesn’t have many of the parts I’m looking for, but I often check in at his shop before going to my usual online sources.

C is deeply connected with community, so his business is a gathering place of sorts for the more interesting people of Azusa. C himself is quite the talker, with lots of great stories, so I often end up staying and chatting for an hour or more. He used to be a video stringer in Los Angeles, a difficult, dangerous job that exposes you to a good selection of the worst of humanity, or the worst days of other peoples’ lives. Watch the Jake Gyllenhaal movie Nightcrawler, or even better, the Netflix documentary Shot in the Dark, to know what this job entails.

C exudes a street sense and confidence that make it easy for him to connect with a range of people. Recently, a customer in his store casually mentioned to C that he was a member of a gang.

“I still have to be aware of which neighbourhood I’m in,” he said as we talked about some of the sights and sounds of East LA. “I’m older, so they’ll probably leave me alone, but it could get dangerous. Now I mainly mentor younger people.”

Gang violence might be a much smaller problem than it used to be 20 or 30 years ago, but these street groups are still the entire world for so many people. You or I could spend a lifetime in Los Angeles and only superficially encounter gang culture because by nature it’s deeply territorial, and confined to disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Though some relatively affluent areas, such as Pasadena, have gang activity, the borders of the territories are clearly defined not just down to the street, but sometimes the specific bus stop or shop or light pole where the gang’s influence ends. Also, unless you’re in the very worst neighbourhoods, most activity is by night.

The Bloods, the Crips, and MS-13 might be the more famous, or should I say infamous gangs, but LA has a long complex history of street factions. I only recently learned about the American Mexican gang White Fence, said to be the oldest in LA, with a history going back to 1910. I was surprised to learn of a violent Armenian street gang in the Glendale neighbourhood, and also of several violent gangs from Asian “model minorities”.

When you encounter a gang member at a bicycle shop, however, you are talking to just another human being, albeit one with a lot of tattoos and a certain non-smiling force of being. He collected the new bicycle he’d brought in to be set up, and we all went out while he tested it. I watched as this 43-year-old man, who’s probably seen terrible violence, got onto a small-wheeled folding machine, and rode up and down the pavement. I realised it’s likely that this is the first time in his life he’d be able to be just a kid on a bicycle.

First published in Gulf News, April 10, 2018