For several weeks I’ve struggled with images that recall a time in my life, where the fortune of not being a young black male allowed me to live in relative peace the last 30 years.
I’ve spoken of it to total strangers this month. A failed attempt to ease my stress. I understand what has triggered everyone. It’s triggered me, as I see young people reacting in the present, what I reflect in my past. The fear. Anxiety. Stress. It doesn’t go away.
I’ll try again by the written word. See if it can clear the discomfort and emotion that this time in our collective lives has brought roaring back.
That’s Herman, the Austrian Bodybuilder who I briefly met one afternoon 30 years ago on Sunset Boulevard in the Tower Records parking lot. He sold me that car, a 1969 Olds 98 convertible. It nearly caused the end of my life.
I’d totaled my truck on Coldwater Canyon recently. Herman wanted $3600. I needed a car. It was over in 10 minutes. My proclivity for not asking too many questions would betray me.
Within a few weeks on a Saturday night, my friends Bobby Kennedy and Michael Paul joined me for a June cruise, top down. Turning right off Stanley, eastbound down Sunset Boulevard we saw some young ladies on the sidewalk that distracted from seeing two LAPD cruisers on my rear. They got my attention when they lit their lamps.
I heard a booming order from the heavens “put your hands up in the air! do not move!” In the rearview mirror I could see several officers, guns drawn shielded behind opened car doors. I was then commanded to use my right hand to open the door to my left, lay face down on Sunset Boulevard. My companions were ordered the same. A third cruiser arrives. Commander? Their doors still opened. Guns drawn on us prone on pavement.
At that time there wasn’t a moment to consider what would happen if we were young black men, young brown men, or if we moved indiscriminately in any manner. This was preRodney King.
For whatever protocols these four officers did not approach rather they had us crawl into the sidewalk gutter, only then allowing us each slowly to stand, fingers interlaced on our heads. Individually proceed to the brick facade of a store steps away. They approached, searched and started the questions.
Staring straight forward I heard, “driver you ever been arrested before?” Briefly I thought, damn that’s an Ice-T rap. I responded in that deep Ice-T vocal , “no neva”. Bobby wanted to giggle but swallowed it.
The questions continued but thanks to the reflection in the store window, Michael Paul broke my concentration, alerting me that the other officers were “going in your trunk, Max.” I couldn’t dare tell him, I can see that. And that it was fine. (Michael and I had spent the prior weekend up the coast shooting my guns. Guess he thought they were still in the trunk.)
As Michael repeated the warning, a very large LAPD motorcycle cop who had joined the interrogation fun stepped up behind Michael. In one fluid motion he asked, “what are you nervous about punk?” while simultaneously grabbing Michael’s interlocked hands a top his head and pulling them slowly behind Michael, as he tried to tell the cop, “you’re hurting me. You’re hurting me. You’re hurting me” until Michael’s left shoulder popped out of place and the cop pulled him down to the sidewalk.
Bobby Kennedy and I remained quiet. Michael wiggled and wailed in pain on the concrete. Watching in the reflection, several officers emerged from searching inside my new ride and another emerged frustrated, slamming the trunk shut and throwing my wad of keys on it for affect.
We couldn’t catch badge numbers. We just tried to survive the episode. Finally, in the reflection, officers securely seated in cruisers and on motorcycle, the one, the questioner half in, half out the passenger door, threatened us to never be seen by him again on “his streets”. He sat and they all drove off.
It wasn’t until Monday morning that I found the punchline that almost killed me. I went to my mechanic in Norh Hollywood. He fixed the cars of DEA and LAPD officials. I had him ask to run my Arizona plates.
Herman, the Austrian Bodybuilder hadn’t disclosed that he acquired my car at a LAPD Impound auction. He flipped it to me without putting it in his name. My new car had been used by the last registered owner to commit a spree of liquor store 287s around Hollywood until his apprehension.
The plate traced back to the title holder in Phoenix. When I called him asking for the title, he informed me that, “ I want nothing to do with that car.” He added “LAPD [had] detectives knocked on [his]door a month ago. I knew I shouldn’t have sold it to that guy! Who uses traveler’s checks at a car show?” and hung up on me.
How had the LAPD data processors not clear that all points broadcast for my Olds after the perp was arrested and the asset impounded and sold?
A data processing error had us on the wrong end of 9mm barrels. It had injured my friend, Michael. (And for Bobby it played out again outside my apartment months later when he and a friend had a LAPD cruiser miss identify his license plate, receiving a false positive that he was in a stolen car. Laid out again at gun point on my street until it got clarified.)
As the years of police killings of unarmed young black men and women pass, the PTSD of such moments in my life come raging back. The absolute absurdity that if I was perceived differently by virtue of my skin, I could have never lived to tell you this story.
Epilogue: Weeks later some Crypts stole my car from that mechanic’s lot. His insurance policy paid me $3600. I was cool with it. But randomly a week later, LAPD called me that it was recovered. Like a bad penny it was back in my possession. In an attempt to scrub the crazy arch of this whole nightmare, I had it renovated and painted for the boys of blue.