Category Archives: Streets


GANGS: Are gang members gay?

Talking with a transgender woman the other day, I was informed of the following:

Tiny Lexington Avenue in Hollywood is known as a strip for transgender prostitution. Gang members from Central America tax the streetwalkers for permission to work. Sometimes they beat them, but not infrequently, they have sex with them.

“Mainly, the girls are Central American themselves; many of them have an arrangement with Salvadoran and Honduran gangs where they’re allowed to work and afterward they pay them and in many cases have sex with these Central American gang members,” she told me.

“I don’t know how these Central American gangs do it but many of them like to have sex with men in dresses. That’s an area where you see a lot of men with beards, with Fidel Castro like beards – they look like a young version of Castro, Castro in the 1950s.

“Ironically despite the extreme homophobia you’d find in these gangs, these Central American gangs, for some reason, they prefer boys in wigs to the more womanly types. I believe probably these gang members are some type of closeted cases that prefer to be in bed with a man with a beard and a wig. They might have these issues and they want the wig on top of the guy so they’d be able to say `I’m still straight because the guy was wearing a wig. If the dude was wearing a wig like a founding father, that makes me straight.’

“I think these gang members,” she said, “if they were in another situation, they’d be like West Hollywood folks themselves. Probably they’d be out of the closet.”

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STREETS: Virgin of the Carniceria


Virgin of the Carniceria, Beverly Boulevard

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STREETS: `It’s like Vietnam around here’

Earlier today, I was covering the aftermath of the shooting/fire in East Hollywood that took the lives of two people (the shooter being one) and left four people wounded Thursday afternoon. (Here’s the LAT story)

I was leaving when I was approached by Sherman Werner, the self-proclaimed “only Anglo for three miles around,” which I believe, as East Hollywood is largely Central American, Mexican (Oaxacan mostly), Filipino, Thai and others.

Mr. Werner, turns out, lived in Porter Ranch then sold his house and moved into an apartment building he owned seven years ago, a few blocks from the fire/shooting.

One of the interesting parts of LA scenery are the last remaining Anglos in areas that have gone through enormous demographic change and are now largely immigrant communities. From these folks, whom I’ve occasionally come across,  you’re likely to get a highly unvarnished view of things.

Mr. Werner was no different, commenting on the women, the numbers of murders — “One there, one next door to me, now this one, and they’re all about infidelity.” He was wearing no shirt — of course not. he’s 71. who’s he got to impress any more? — and his dogtags from his Marine days.

In 1965, he was drafted, on Lyndon Johnson’s birthday and sent to Vietnam,which he compares to the neighborhood where he now resides. “I haven’t seen this much action since the Vietnam War,” he told me.

He had choice words for the MS gang whose graffiti we saw a few yards away. He had that horse laugh of a long-time smoker, and showed me where he’d taken shrapnel. I hardly had to do any talking.






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GANGS: Where’d all the gangs go?

The Virgin of Mount Vernon

Not long ago, I was in the West Side Verdugo and Mount Vernon neighborhood of San Bernardino. An old barrio dating to the 1920s, it has long been home to several gangs.

Yet when i was out there, there was no gang graffiti on the walls. I saw none. A few years before I’d done a story on an upcoming trial – a notorious gang killing known as the Dead Presidents case, for the murder of two charismatic brothers who presidents of their respective gangs. The graffiti was there.

This time, I spoke to an old lady and she told me the “the OGs told everyone to stop. That it was bringing heat. The kids can’t do it no more.” This was largely due to a gang injunction the county had brought against several gangs in the area, according to this lady.

Southern California is in the midst of a radical shift in gang behavior. No longer do you see gangs on the street, hanging out, commandeering liquor stores or parks the way they used to.

They still exist, and are still deadly, but mostly they’re not as public. My impression is that there are fewer of them, too. So the classic expression of gang culture that LA has been famous for and exported to many parts of the US and other countries is distinctly fading. I’ll be reporting on this occasionally, as I believe it’s a big deal.

There are a few reasons for this. Gang injunctions, whatever their constitutionality, have forced them indoors. Greater penalties for graffiti seem to be another factor. I think in some cases gangs have teamed up with drug traffickers from Mexico who aren’t interested in working with cholos with tattoos on their faces and baggy pants fighting with rivals over territory and who’ll bring police heat. So dress codes are changing; so, too, are spats over this kind of territory that once were the reason for being for a lot of gangs.

One place they’ve gone, as this AP article from Elliot Spagat makes sadly clear, is Central America.

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STREETS: More on transgender style and Latinas

I love my job. Yesterday I was talking with Brenda Gonzalez, a transgender woman from the state of Michoacan, who works in Hollywood. I’d gone to her nonprofit service agency because they host a meeting of Latina transgender women every Wednesday.

Anyway, we were talking more about the case of the transgender woman, Nathan Vickers (or Cassidy, or Chassidy), who was murdered in November and again the topic turned to how Latina immigrants, mostly from Mexico, had changed transgender culture.

As I’ve written here in an earlier post, Latinas dove into surgery in a big way. Part of it, Brenda told me, was due to the fact that they were illegal and had no work and street was all that was available and guys with large breasts, high cheeks, round buttocks made more money. It was also because many came looking for a transformation that was denied them in Mexico — much like other immigrants, from small, benighted villages.

“Part of the transition is transforming yourself emotionally, spiritually, and physically. You have to be beautiful, up to date, you have to look beautiful, sexy, voluptuous,” she told me.

But with so many girls in the same situation, all competing on the street, “part of the competition becomes obsession. You see some little Lupita on the corner with a new nose, then you want one. If she gets a nice bust, you want one, and now not just size 40, but 44dd.”

Plus, their world is very small, she said. “I live in East LA but I hear when someone in Hollywood gets an operation. If I live in Hollywood, I hear when someone Long Beach gets operated or someone in Van Nuys gets a sex change.” So that adds to the demand for surgery.

Most important are breast implants. Breasts being the most obvious sign of being female, implants are the transgender’s American Dream, Brenda said.

“Part of the transition and acceptance and feeling happy and content with ourselves, what makes us feel even more secure and more like women, is when we have breast augmentation. It’s why most of us have our breast surgery. Some view it from the sex market: There’s more demand for those who have them, and then you can then get more surgery and send money home to mom and dad. It’s a fundamental part of the transition that make you feel secure are implants, breast surgery that gives you a large and beautiful bust. It’s part of your own feeling of security. It’s essential.”

Man, you just don’t hear this kind of stuff that often.

Sorry no photos from the interview. So here (above) are a few when I lived with the girls in Mazatlan as they prepared for what was then the oldest gay beauty contest in Mexico (from my first book), including one who is getting her breasts injected with baby oil, which was the only method they could afford on the money they made hooking down in Mazatlan.




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LOS ANGELES: Valentine’s sales

Maria, Valentine's Day vendor, Santa Monica & Western, LA

I was coming out of an interview this afternoon and headed to lunch when I came upon a vendor named Maria, from the town of Mitla, Oaxaca, selling Valentine’s flowers and gifts at Santa Monica and Western.

We had a long chat, after I bought some flowers. As festive as Maria and the women selling with her looked, Valentine’s Day to them was less about love than desperation.

After 25 years in the United States, working as a maid, Maria told me she’s been without domestic work for months. Her construction-worker husband is down to only a couple days work in the best of weeks.

So a few days ago, she and a battalion of women went downtown to the Toy District for Hello Kitty dolls. She spent the next few days assembling Hello Kitty Valentine’s packages, and was now selling them from between $10 to $20 each. Then, she went to the Flower District downtown, bought flowers in bulk, and put them together in bouquets for $20 apiece.

“I really haven’t done this before, and it doesn’t make a lot of money, but what else do I have,” she told me, standing at the busy and sun-splashed corner Tuesday afternoon, surrounded by women, unemployed maids, just like her and selling the same kind of stuff.

Reports are that the  economy is returning. Remittances to Mexico from immigrants in the United States are up. Maria and her friends at Santa Monica and Western don’t see it.

A friend, who gave her name only as Magdalena, pointed to a 99-cents store on Santa Monica that closed and was replaced recently by a swap meet, which she helped open. Still, “there’s just no business,” said Magdalena, an unemployed maid and a migrant from the tourist resort of Acapulco.

Maria figured to be out selling until 6 pm, hoping to get rid of the flowers and Hello Kitty dolls she bought. She’s worried, though, because Friday her landlord filed eviction papers from the house she and her husband have rented for 18 years and raised her four children when they couldn’t pay the rent on time. they’d been late before, apparently, and it appears this time her mother fell and required stitches, so the rent had to wait.

“We’re thinking of going back home,” she told me as I was leaving.


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STREETS: Latinas and transgender style

Luisa Rivera

As I wrote earlier, I’ve been doing a story on the murder of a transgender black woman named Nathan Vickers, who also went by the names Chassidy, Chase and Cassidy.

I believe homicide gives reporters an opportunity to write about how a person lived, and less about how she died. As part of that, I’m trying to write about the transgender prostitute subculture in Hollywood.

One person I talked to was Luisa Rivera, a transsexual who has lived here for many years and who comes from Guadalajara. Latina transgenders changed a lot about the culture, which was really about drag queens until they arrived. They began coming in large numbers in the 1980s, mostly from Mexico, she said. As it happened, this coincided with the emergence of plastic surgery, which kept dropping in price as the years passed.

Far more so than other groups, Latina transgenders went for plastic surgery in a big way, she said. Enormous breasts, cheek and buttock implants, lots of silicon and hair weaves. Rivera said. In Hollywood they had surgeons here and in Tijuana to choose from. (They also had a vast, monied john clientele here, who insisted that they remain “fully functional” men, as the back-of-the-book ads in Hollywood sex throw-aways relentlessly put it.)

As we spoke, it occurred to me that Mexican transgenders were very much like other Mexican immigrants, but with a twist.

Mexican immigrants, generally, have spent the first dollars they’ve earned here in establishing themselves back home, mainly by building large houses. So it’s not only a house; it’s a way of showing everyone else how the person has done, that he is no longer the humble, shoeless kid who left the village at 15, who was humiliated for simply being poor. His transformation is complete.

Mexican transgender women also come here for a transformation — wanting to live as women after years of beat-downs and humiliations. They, too, want to show success publicly and quickly. Instead of houses, they spend on their bodies, to show the world, and maybe themselves, that they are not who they were when they were run out of their hometowns and country. Their breasts especially are monuments (pardon the pun, if that’s what it is) to the person they have become and always wanted to be back in Mexico.

Very much enjoying this story. More interviews to come.



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STREETS: Sgt. Dwight Waldo


Sgt. Dwight Waldo, national expert on tagging, San Bernardino PD

One joy of journalism is the distinctive people you meet. Sgt. Dwight Waldo is among them.

I’ve gotten to the know the good sgt, out of San Bernardino PD lately. He is a national expert on tagging — those incomprehensible graffiti scrawls, often mistaken for gang graffiti. You see it on overpasses or warehouses or flood channels.

The kids who do it possess a drive bordering on obsession for scaling astonishing heights to paint their monikers — and thus achieve Mt. Everest-like renown among the tagger underground. One crew Waldo knew had its smallest member practice painting upside down so they could hang him from his ankles over freeway overpasses to paint their crew name.

Waldo has spent most of his career studying and arresting kids who do this. He’s written a book, taught classes to cops — all about kids who will do almost anything to get to impossible-to-reach places to then paint, etch their names.

A few years ago, Waldo, as a respite from this bleak world, took up music. With a drive bordering on obsession, he learned instruments, six in all.

He now plays his music (violin and bagpipes mostly) in the most astonishing places: strolling his neighborhood (see photo above), atop a rock at Gettysburg, in front of the Queen Mary or the Alamo, and on the roofs on countless hotels.

The similarities here to the taggers he pursues is, of course, not lost on Sgt. Waldo, who sees a little of the kids in the challenge he presents himself of finding the most out of the way, unexpected places to play his Scottish reels and Civil War waltzes.

Story drops in a few days. Had such fun doing it. Like tagging, and his music itself, Waldo was an unexpected find.


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GANGS: Conviction in death of Pico Rivera grandmother

This story culminates a sad case that I wrote about when it took place: Pico Rivera grandmother Maria Hicks shot and killed by some gang members tagging a wall.

The house where they lived was tagged top to bottom. Angel Rojas, 21, was said to be mentally handicapped to some degree.

I remember having a long, quite enjoyable chat with Hicks’ brother, Ruben Quintero, in the backyard of the family’s house, planted with fruit trees by their father years before.

Quintero is a literature professor at Cal State LA and had written about parody in English literature.

He’d also played football for one of SoCal’s legendary coaches, Ernie Johnson, at El Rancho High School in Pico Rivera, in the mid-1960s. I think the 1967 team was one of the best to ever come out of the region. Ruben told me they used to all do jumping jacks before the fourth quarter to psyche out the other team and would never accept a drink of water on the field.

As Ruben smoked a cigar by a lemon tree, we had a long talk about Aristotle, Vietnam, football and Ernie Johnson, neighborhoods, and murder.

Among the highlights:

– ON HIS FATHER:  “My father [a fruitpicker] cherished the book. He hadn’t reead a lot. But he understood that education was an important tool and he kept affirming that. he admired people like J Robert Oppenheimer.

-ON WHY HE WENT TO VIETNAM:”I wanted to become a physicist. I went to Harvey Mudd [in Claremont] for two years. Played football for Claremont Mudd. I was always among the top in math and science in school. There everybody’s bright. They have the advantage of having fathers who were chemists. Like a fool, I left and, joined the Army for two years. I was a combat veteran. Recon unit. Nobody tells you that your mind is going to get a little bit scrambled. I came back from Vietnam, went to USC. But at USC from Vietnam, I couldn’t connect. I took a thousand showers. It took a while. I became a flattened emotional creature.”

-ON WHY HIS SISTER INTERVENED: “We have lived here since 1953. That’s part of the neighborhood; that’s part of where we live. It’s not necessarily any bourgeous social sensibility that’s been cultivated. It was just very much apart of her character. My mother and father just instilled this thing where we just don’t take crap. Something is wrong, you say it’s wrong. Be honest, direct and not be afraid to stand up for things. This is a quality of life that I want to live. I want to be able to drive from my sister’s house and drive home without seeing these [jerks] putting marks on the wall. They have no right to do that: they should know not to do that. She wanted them to understand that nobody wants them to do that. So she did that. When you realize this is your house in a sense, or your home, you’re not going to allow somebody to come over and do a metaphorical urination on a wall over here.”

An interesting conversation for a reporter in search of a murder story.

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STREETS: Looking for Amber

Troy Erik

I’m doing a story now about a young fellow, Nathan Vickers, who was a drag queen or a transgender woman, and was shot to death on  a street known as a prostitute hangout in Hollywood in November.

Part of the story is exactly who Nathan Vickers – or “Chase,” or “Cassidy,” or “Chastity” – was, or intended to be. He’d come from the Bay Area and seemed to seeking a transformation of one kind or another.

Helping me figure out Nathan’s world is Troy Erik, a former queen and current activist. A woman named Amber, he told me, knew Nathan well in the days leading up to his death. We went looking for her, as we’d heard she was just out of jail.

We looked at Donut Time (Santa Monica and Highland) and at the adult bookstore  (no name) behind it, and in front of the $1 Chinese Express, whose prices didn’t keep it from going out of business.

We never did find Amber. But Andre, a sociable street fellow, said he’d known Chase or Cassidy. “She always dressed as a woman when I knew her,” he said.

We also happened upon “Grace” – a queen who enjoyed enormous renown in the 1980s because she looked, in drag, exactly like pop diva Grace Jones, and is now homeless. That’s next post.

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Out on the story about Nathan Vickers, the transgender woman shot and killed in Hollywood in November, we came across Grace.

Grace says he’s from Ogden, Utah — where growing up black and gay in the 1960s must have been … a real story. He told me he had the pleasure that few in California have had of ice skating on a real frozen pond in Utah.

She was once legendary on the streets of Hollywood as a drag queen who looked remarkably like pop diva Grace Jones. Then it was parties, and a wild life, and nightclub shows where she was the center of attention.

“She was the queen of them all,” said my guide, Troy Erik. Then? “Well, drugs,” said Troy.

Now Grace lives in the back of a Hollywood Park, with a man he calls his husband, and a shopping cart full of stuff and can talk non-stop, like free-form jazz, of the stories of when she was beautiful and everyone wanted her.

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Pay Phone Virgin – Broadway & 42nd

Xochilt Market at Broadwway & 42nd Street

Another in my campaign to shoot every Virgin of Guadalupe in LA. This one protects the last pay phone in town.


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