Cowboys of the New Age: Status & Respect in the American Ghetto


Don’t tell me these guys aren’t packing.

We’re pulling in to the zone at Rainier and Othello northbound, where folks are still roaming about in the wee hours, like ants in the urban dusk. You may have heard of the intersection; I describe it here. Teenagers can be loud or willfully obnoxious, trying to stake their claim of identity in the bewildering world around them, trying so hard to appear like they don’t care…  but they’re still children at heart, and the more they try to hide it, the less they’re able to.

The men gathered about now are of an altogether different stripe. Older, harder, tougher round the caustic edges, masters of the face that feels nothing. Leroy once asked what the difference is between Rainier Valley and South Central Los Angeles. American ghettos share many superficial similarities, especially those two, but South Central* stands alone for several reasons you might find interesting.

For one, it’s absolutely massive. The Jungle stretches a distance comparable to that between Downtown Seattle and Federal Way, and the Blue Line (the 7 of LA!), which bisects it, takes an hour from end to end.

Secondly, it’s always warm there. We know crime spikes during the summers here, as folks stay out later than usual and roving packs of teens wander about unsupervised. In no Seattle neighborhood besides Rainier Beach do I hear the approaching summer spoken of with dread. Christopher Koch, in his 1978 novel The Year of Living Dangerously, wrote that people are crueler to each other in tropical climes, and summer nights on Rainier are a smaller version of that.

The thing about LA, though, is that it’s always warm. It’s always summertime. There is no wintry seasonal lull where sleepers appear and all other street folk mysteriously evaporate. South Central is never playing anything less than the fullest version of itself.

Thirdly and most crucially is the fact that South Central is the only American ghetto with a continuous high-profile media presence. Everyone’s heard of it. Compton has a name recognition value comparable to Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Place names like Watts, Crenshaw, Slauson, Inglewood… these words have histories upon them, lives and memories writ large.

South Central’s vast tracts have spawned an entire musical genre, and the place boils over with racial tension, an exaggerated microcosm for the nation as a whole. Disenfranchised souls in neglected corners the world over mythologize the place, responding to the voice it gives their frustration.

Those of us who’ve spent extensive time in South Central know this reputation is both deserved but also manufactured. The first thing you’ll notice, should you ride the Blue Line down to Compton or take the 111 to my hometown neighborhood of South Gate, is that 1) there are plenty of people over thirty-five, meaning we’re not in war-torn Timor-Leste, and 2) not everyone is listening to rap music. They’re listening to Earth Wind & Fire and Donny Hathaway. Or Beyonce. When a home at the intersection of Florence and Crenshaw still costs $500,000, you know you’re not in Scampia or the favelas of Rio… but even so, you must leave before dark.

The fact stands: as far as ‘hoods, South Central LA is it in the public consciousness, the top of the pyramid and the towering apex gangsters everywhere secretly aspire to.** They look up to it, standing aside in awe, in mingled fear and respect. South Central is the only ‘hood that isn’t trying to be like another ‘hood, if you know what I mean. It doesn’t take notes from other places. We in the Western world concern ourselves mightily with status, and in the business of status and ‘hoods, the yardstick of measurement ends with South Central. The image of the place is what we’re discussing here, the mental reality, and it is appropriate that South Central is in LA, that most image-obsessed of American metropoli.

All of which is to say, these five men at Othello personified what South Central represents for the world: the high end of the street cred bar. They, far away in another psychology, coiled and distant. They, humorless and towering as Easter Island statues, swaggering about the territory, theirs. Teens wish they could look this hard, squeeze themselves out of being what they consider as forever second-rate. Musical personalities pretend to have histories this flat, this pitiless. Sergio Leone would have loved their stony faces, these cowboys of the new age. “Realer than real-deal Holyfield,” for better or worse, as Snoop Dogg once wrote.

But though they may do a bang-up job impersonating those Easter Island busts, you and I know they are as human as anyone else. How to bridge the gap?

Pretend to be confident.

That’s what I told myself as a new 7 driver back in 2009. People can smell green from a mile off, and I did my best to affect total comfort and capability in my job. That I’d ridden the 7 many times certainly helped, coming from LA helped, but driving a trolley is overwhelming, and green is green. Over time the funniest thing happens: all that pretending turns into real confidence. Personally, I think this qualifies as magic. I don’t know how it works, but it does.

Pretend to be confident. Not confrontational, you understand, just confident. Nothing will catch a certain type off guard like being fearless and friendly all at once.

“Hey,” I said.
“Hey, how you doin’,” one of the men replied. In their pursuit of fulfilling a type, they were all dressed similarly, dark colors, blues and blacks, oversized, skullcaps and unzipped hoodies, sweatshirts worn in layers, sagging low with deep pockets.
“Good doin’ good. Thank you,” I answered, as the first man paid his fare. The others were still outside the bus, largely motionless. “Hey guys, come on in.”

A woman’s voice in the middle distance, shrieking.

“How’s it goin’,” I continued. I’ve been driving the 7 at night, five nights a week, for the last two years straight. Most people on Rainier Avenue have at least seen me by now. This fellow hadn’t. He replied with stolid silence, no eye contact, not quite sure what to do with me. An authority figure who levels with you?
I ignored his silence and kept right on talking. “Happy Sunday, ‘ppreciate it.” To the third man: “Hello.”

“Dis th’ right transfer?” Man Three asked, peeking out from a blue sweatshirt I could use as a sleeping bag. His transfer was a different color than today’s preferred choice, orange.
“Here, lemme give you the right one. There you go.” He nodded a thanks and continued walking past. To the fourth gent: “hey, how’s it goin’.”
“Alright. And you?”
“Doin’ good, thanks for askin’.”
“Hey, how you feelin’?”
Man Five: “Uggnh.” It was neutral in tone.
“Right on. Here’s some a this,” I said, tearing off a transfer as he put in two bills. “‘Ppreciate it, thank you.

I closed the doors and intoned into the mic, “Alright, here we go!”

At this point the second fellow, the only one who hadn’t greeted me, returned, showing me a crumpled scrap of orange transfer.

“Thanks man, that’s cool,” I said, appreciating his gesture, especially given that I’d already let him aboard. It could only have been a gesture of respect at this point, and I wanted to offer something in return. “D”you wanna trade it out?”
“Yeah, let’s trade it out. Fresh off the press right there, Night Owl for ya.”
“God Bless,” he said loudly as he walked to the back to join his friends.
“You too, man!”
“You didn’t have to do that!”
“Thank you. My pleasure!”

I think we won another one over, I thought to myself.

What I love about this entire communication is that strictly in terms of words exchanged, we don’t see thugs, wannabes, Leone cowboys, or non-emoting statues. We see five people, six including myself, performing a basic societal interaction with civility and kindness. Nothing about their behavior was oppositional. Bob Dowd, my trainer in part-time driving class, told us something I’ll never forget: treat everyone with respect, especially the people who seem like they deserve it the least. Because those people may not be getting much in the way of respect from anyone, and your attitude may resonate.

They are not so coiled, nor so distant. They, rather, the people of the cluttered and chaotic now, you and me included, doing our best in uncertain times.


*Please don’t ask me to call it “South LA,” as City Hall implored everyone to do in 2003, in an attempt to de-stigmatize the place. As a former resident I just can’t abide! They didn’t change the name of Watts after the riots, now did they? Or rename Wendy’s after the chili soup finger lawsuit? Also, ignore the Wikipedia article, which humorously tries to define the borders of SC as excluding Compton, Inglewood, Lynwood, Hawthorne, and Willowbrook. Um, no; we’re discussing the beast itself, which in common parlance means everything south of the 10 on down to the Long Beach city limits.

**The irony here is that I’m from the place, and look and dress nothing like the expected type. To come upon a bunch of teens in Kirkland who for all intents and purposes are trying to emulate someone from South Central, and to stroll past them unbeknownst in my fitted t-shirt, dress shoes, and belted, hip-high jeans is a source of amusement!

Note: the image is the interior of the 210, northbound on Crenshaw Boulevard, one weekend afternoon circa 2006.

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Nathan Vass is an artist, filmmaker, photographer, and author by day, and a Metro bus driver by night, where his community-building work has been showcased on TED, NPR, The Seattle Times, KING 5 and landed him a spot on Seattle Magazine’s 2018 list of the 35 Most Influential People in Seattle. He has shown in over forty photography shows is also the director of nine films, six of which have shown at festivals, and one of which premiered at Henry Art Gallery. His book, The Lines That Make Us, is a Seattle bestseller and 2019 WA State Book Awards finalist.