It was my first day on a six-week stint in The Times' main office in Los Angeles when the assignment editor walked over to my desk calmly and dropped onto it a short computer printout. The walk was too calm to make this a big story, I was afraid; the printout, too short.
"Can you make a few calls on this?" the editor said. "There may be a story there."
Welcome to the Big Show, I thought, picking up the wire-service report without too much enthusiasm.
What have we got today--a celebrity fund-raiser in Santa Monica, maybe? Or a three-car accident snarling traffic on the San Diego Freeway?
No, it was this: A birthday bash among 200 kids the night before had turned into a wild shoot-out in Paramount among rival gangs. Two young people were dead, victims of semiautomatic gunfire. Another was on life support. Another in critical condition. Four others wounded and hospitalized.
Were Paramount in Orange County, the melee would have matched the worst gang casualties ever seen here: the La Bonita Avenue shootings in Santa Ana last year.
In Orange County, the newspaper would have had half-a-dozen people on the story, up against reporters from every other media outlet in the county to get the latest details on the slayings and get them on the next day's front page.
In Orange County, where I've spent the last two years as a reporter, the first signs of gang graffiti and vandalism in some areas--far short of violence--are enough to prompt media scrutiny and city commission meetings. The faces and names of the victims--such as 4-year-old Frankie Jr., killed in the La Bonita Avenue drive-by last year as he waited to go to the movies with his family--are still few enough to linger as horrific reminders of what gangs can do.
And here in Orange County, people can still search for answers to the gang problem without a numbing, overwhelming sense of futility.
Not so in parts of Paramount and other neighborhoods in South-Central Los Angeles where gangs rule, and not so on the 15300 block of Castana Street, where I visited after the birthday blowout a few months ago. There, violence is a way of life.
In September, when a 2-year-old in Los Angeles appeared to have been intentionally wounded by gang gunmen, it was big news across the Southland, a shocking development even in the context of daily gang warfare. But when police concluded a few days later that the boy was, like dozens before him, the innocent and tragic bystander of another drive-by shooting, media interest faded.
For the reporter covering the Los Angeles gang activities, the challenge is to go beyond the numbers and weekend "wrap-ups" of violence--reading like mundane Monday football line scores--to explain the context of the gangs' hold on the neighborhoods.
In an Oct. 5 piece, for instance, Times reporter Louis Sahagun detailed how life insurance salesmen have capitalized on the fears of crime-racked residents in selling policies door to door.
Still, as I discovered firsthand during my stint in the Los Angeles office, the task of covering the gang war zone in a way that reveals fresh meaning is daunting. With more than 300 gang-related killings in Los Angeles County as of earlier this month, the deaths become numbing, the details familiar, the victims faceless.
And the question that has confronted every editor in its various forms arises: After how many attacks does "Dog Bites Man" stop being news?
So this is why, when I got out to the scene of the Paramount shootings that September afternoon, it was just me--no other reporters, no TV cameras, not even police.
Just me and a ring of dried blood where people had once stood, a couple of bullet-riddled cars and a few dozen residents mulling it over, some scared, some still reveling from the night's activities.
One machinist pondered aloud about what had happened to his once-stable neighborhood. Another resident wondered why the gang members had picked his car to dismember.
And Pancho Villa--that was the only name the young man in the black baggy pants and gang attire would give me--worried about whether the bust the night before would ruin his party plans.
It would not, he finally told me.
"Next party, next Saturday!" he yelled, slouching against a house just a few feet from the spot where a friend of his had been killed hours before. Fellow gang members, examining bullet holes in a parked van, cheered in support.
Welcome to the Big Show.