8. Hollywood Handgun

 

I’ve never been shot, or even shot at, but I did have a gun pointed at me, and not just for laughs. This was on a Hollywood street in the late 1990s. I’ll never know if that dude actually intended to shoot me or not, but he certainly acquainted me with the terror of imminent grievous bodily harmI’d been mugged twice before back in San Francisco—the first assault in the Mission involved the taste of another’s hand, which wasn’t that tasty, and the second in Lower Haight was an awkward extended scuffle. Both of those events were unsettling and anger-fueling, with some minor injuries, including a major fat lip, but the L.A. encounter was completely different. This time it seemed like the aggressors’ intention had little to do with getting some quick and easy cash. This time it felt like murder.

I had taken the bold action of moving to L.A. without a car—it was possible!—especially with the newly installed Red Line subway to downtown, where I was doing office temp work. One night I was walking back from the Drawing Room, a quasi-divey bar on Hillhurst, along Franklin Avenue, back to my apartment on Alexandria Avenue. It was a short walk. It wasn’t that late, before 11 p.m., and a pleasant night. As with my first two urban sallies, the confrontation happened in a poorly lit area with overgrown trees and fenced or gated areas along the sidewalk. I saw a man walking toward me. He had a bulky gray hoodie pulled far over his head, which was slanted forward in a forced way, something that didn’t make sense, like he was looking for coins on the sidewalk. Besides, who walks around L.A. with their head down and vision obscured? He had both hands in the pockets of his sweater. Everything about him was wrong, felt dangerous. After my previous experiences, I’d implemented a personal policy stating that when I felt like someone was shadowing me or coming at me with any sort of hostile air, I would either cross the street or look and walk directly at them—my research indicating that most muggers rely on the element of surprise and they weren’t going to jump a guy who’s ready for it. I chose the street-crossing option. I walked straight out between two parked cars onto Franklin, which had only light traffic at that time of night. That’s when I ran right into the hoodie dude’s partner, who tried to push me back toward the sidewalk. I pushed through him, but he tripped me up and I landed ear-first on the street. A car drove right around me—in fact, I think he or she even honked. I got up on my knees and saw the man in the hoodie coming toward me. He’d also walked out between the cars further down where he was. Since I was on my knees, I figured it was time to just give up my wallet. I told him what I was doing. I pulled out my wallet and tossed it at his feet, about a car’s length away. He kicked my wallet aside. I noticed he was wearing expensive Nikes. His whole build and manner, in fact, was mature, early to midtwenties, I’d guess. He didn’t say a word, but he kept coming at me, as though the wallet had nothing to do with anything, like I was missing the point. That’s when I saw his pistol. It was a nickel-plated gun, probably a .9mm. But he wasn’t holding it up. He was holding it down and to the side, angled, using both hands, like you see in cop shows. He was holding it like the safety was off and he was ready to shoot. When he was about five feet away, he started to raise the gun. I remember the feel of smooth pavement, the weird lights, more cars passing by like we were pieces of trash in the road, the glint off his gun as he moved it into position. His partner, now behind me, said something along the lines of just do it. I’m going to be shot right now, I thought. Then, a motorist, not really understanding the situation—he was later shocked when I explained to him that the man had been brandishing a handgun, something he hadn’t seen—stopped his car and put on his bright lights right at the guy. He honked aggressively, repeatedly. The hoodie guy hesitated, slowly backpedaled, grabbed my wallet, and then took off. I didn’t see where his buddy went, only that he was gone. 

Afterward, I was a bit shaky. The accidental Good Samaritan called the police and insisted that I wait in his car. I didn’t want him to call the police—seriously, how often are muggings actually solved?—but the man persuaded me that they might pick up the assailants later, and just reporting it would put the cops on alert, which made sense in case they weren’t finished for the night. And, really, I owed him one, and that was what he wanted to do. I believe he was also concerned they might’ve gotten his license plate number. Sitting there, it became clear to me the partner was sneaking along the cars to come up behind me, so I would’ve been trapped on the sidewalk, between a car and the stone fence along the sidewalk, obscured by tree canopies, one guy in front and one behind me. There, cars passing wouldn’t have noticed us, and the houses, which had decent-sized yards, were well off the street. What they intended to do, who knows, but I had little reason to think it was a simple mugging.

Of course the LAPD was as much an interrogator as anything. Police, it seems, must always assume there’s a reason for the crime, that you had it coming. Who walks down Franklin alone at night? Better to drink and drive! When I told him it felt like something more than mugging, maybe a gang initiation, he was dismissive. He said I had no idea what their motives were, they could’ve just been on drugs, etc. He was a jaded Hollywood cop, and he didn’t have the time or inclination for niceties. He took my report and dropped me off at my apartment. Sure, he was right, I didn’t know what was going through their minds. All I know is what it felt like to see that handgun while kneeling on an unyielding Hollywood street and feeling like the mystery man intended to use it. That’s all it takes: pop . . . pop, pop. 

In some twisted way, I felt close to Paul Allen Hayes, my father, to his experience. Had the event swung differently, I might’ve also felt the sting, a flash of searing pain before the consciousness of self dissolves into the vast obliterating expanse from which it came.

 

Billy Interview, 5

 Bob “the Bear” Hite and his wife at their cabin near Cactus Flats, California, about 1977. Bear was the lead singer/harmonicist for Canned Heat. Dad knew Bear from his Topanga Canyon days.

Bob “the Bear” Hite and his wife at their cabin near Cactus Flats, California, about 1977. Bear was the lead singer/harmonicist for Canned Heat. Dad knew Bear from his Topanga Canyon days.

So Bear from Canned Heat’s kids were playing down by this boxcar near the creek and I was down there. Then I heard a rattler. I ran over and a rattlesnake was sunning itself on the warm metal of the boxcar floor, so I caught it and quickly cut its head off. His kids were looking at me like, “Wow, did you see that?!” Then I held on to the head and the body, and went back up to the bar. You always had to make sure and take the head with you. It’s dangerous to just leave it lying around ’cause that venom stays lethal. So I went in and told Bear, “Hey, man, I caught this fucking rattler down where your kids were playing,” and showed him the head, opening the mouth and showing the fangs. And Bear’s like, “Shit, man, you saved my kids’ lives,” and I said, “Oh, it’s nothing anyone else wouldn’t have done.” After that little episode, that’s when most people in Topanga started calling me Rattlesnake. So Bear took me to this party up in the Hollywood Hills and I partied with all those crazy fuckers up there till dawn. It was a good time. Sometimes, at the bar, I’d take the rattlesnake meat, cook it up, cut it into tiny squares and put them on these fancy fucking toothpicks they had at the bar, those colored ones, and set it out like it was some kind of delicacy. It was funny, people would take a bite of it and say, “Mmm, that’s good, what is it?” and I’d say, “It’s rattlesnake,” and then they would run outside and puke all over the place. A lot of people were pretty stupid and thought you could get poisoned by eating rattlesnake, just the same as getting bit. I thought it was a riot. I wasn’t a very sweetguy in those days. Such is life. This guy hired me once—he was a fucking trip, collecting exotic animals and exotic drugs. He was a devout vegetarian and said he’d only hire me if I didn’t kill the rattlesnakes. He had all kinds of strange animals, ostriches, weird birds, I don’t even know what. He had an African lion chained to this big oak tree in his backyard. No shit. The thing was huge, just sitting on its giant slab of rock, looking at you like you were a piece of prime cut steak. Its roar would scare the shit out of you too, though he was usually quiet. Had this crazy-ass purr. It was a hard job, not being able to kill the snakes. But I respected his wishes. I got bit a couple of times on that job. By then I’d been bit so many fucking times that I was pretty much immune to rattlesnake venom, so it just gave me a major high. I could usually keep working. I must have caught a dozen snakes on his property. Speaking of highs, he paid me mostly in coke for that job. It was the first time I’d tried it. A rich boy’s drug, but it was fine. Tom and I took a bunch of it down by the beach near his pad. We found a couple of chicks that wanted to party and they showed usa thing or two about coke. That was one beautiful sunset that night. Those were some good times.