So Robert spoke to them.And they welcomed him back.
He took a job as an artist with the Postal Service in Oakland to support his wife and children. He painted a huge mural titled "Journey of a Letter" in a post office lobby in Fremont but eventually quit so he could pursue the T-shirt business full time, refining his barrio creations.
Then a manufacturer called him about making plastic figurines of his comic strip characters.
Meanwhile, after his garage chat with David, Robert patched up things with his parents, enrolled in vocational school, graduated with honors and took a job at a savings and loan. But, as David would feel years later, Robert sensed something was missing in his life. There had to be, he decided, a reason he survived the attack. One day, he called his parents into the living room and announced that, at age 24, he wanted to become a priest.
"He was the last person I expected to be a priest," his mother said. "When you think of a priest, you think quiet and studious. Robert was so rebellious."
In 1989, the year the Homies figurines made their debut, Robert took his religious vows and a new name, Masseo, after one of St. Francis' followers. When Robert was ordained as a Franciscan priest seven years later, David read a speech.
"Knowing Father Masseo . . . I'm sure he'll be dealing with a lot of problems facing young people, such as drugs, gangs and teen pregnancy," David said. "He'll be an important part of a lot of baptisms, first communions and confirmations. Those will be his children."
Soon enough, David would need Masseo for his own talk-in-the garage moment.
He was making lots of money. By most accounts, Homies were the best-selling character brand in vending-machine history. But police and prosecutor complaints were wearing on him. Many stores stopped selling Homies, and lots of people thought he was glorifying gangbangers and profiting from it.
The Homies, with names such as Chuco, Joker and Poco Loco, were just his humorous tribute to a subculture of Latino life, he said. "I'm not going to stop gangs, and I didn't create them," David said, sounding slightly exasperated. "They exist. Just like they exist in the regular Hispanic community, they exist in the Homie world."
David fired off a frustrated e-mail to his brother, saying that he was thinking of going back to the Postal Service. He found it hard, David said, to accept that "God blessed me with all this . . . artistic talent for that job in life."
"God didn't give you this talent for nothing," his brother replied.
The priest also reminded him that even a toy maker had a larger responsibility. Not every Homie had to be vato, a dude in the barrio.
So David kept at it. He created El Paletero (the ice cream vendor), who works to bring his grandchildren from Mexico. And Officer Placa, a rotund, doughnut-loving cop who "worked the barrio for about 20 years and knows all the Homies by name."
Robert suggested he create a figurine of a homeboy in a wheelchair -- a common sight in gang-afflicted neighborhoods. Willy G. became the most popular Homie ever. Soon, David got calls from the Special Olympics and from people who coached youngsters with disabilities.
He also created a homeless man, a young student and an activist. But no character would have a life of its own, and bind the two brothers, so much as El Padrecito ("the little father") -- a Franciscan priest with robes, sandals and stylish sunglasses who "acts like a second father to many of the Homies" and looks a bit like Robert.
The Padrecito turned out to be more than just a figurine. Masseo adopted him as his personal logo and found that the Homie helped him reach young people in need. Robert created El Padrecito's Online Church, where he fields questions, offers upbeat advice, counsels the troubled and sometimes delivers a religious message in rap.
"My life would probably be a lot more boring without the Homies," the priest said.
Robert talks optimistically about his dream of opening a monastery in the town of Guadalupe and reaching ever more people through the cyber-church.
To help Robert along, David sold him the rights to El Padrecito for $1 and gave him permission to use all of the Homies in his religious efforts. And last year David created Santos, a line of figurines of saints and religious figures, such as Pope John Paul II. David also donated $20,000 to his brother's growing cyber-church.
Last year, a young woman from Houston e-mailed El Padrecito to say she was about to earn her college degree. She wanted to thank the father for helping her cope with the execution of a family member on death row years before.
"Crazy as it sounds," she wrote, "if I hadn't written to you so long ago, my life may have turned out differently and I could have been just another statistic, just another face on the welfare line."
Could the priest have reached out to the young woman without El Padrecito? Probably, but the Homies certainly made it easier, Robert said. And the priest brought the artist a measure of redemption as well. "He helped the Homie family stay on the right path," David said. "It was reaffirming for me, and it let me know that I had not gone too bad."
And who would have ever expected that from the creator of Chuco, Joker and Poco Loco?