Turning Darkness to Light

I know a gas station that the owner has named after his wife. Sounds old-fashioned, doesn't it? A gas station named for love in a world this weary. It's like something from another place, another time.

The attendant is named Louie. Don't you love that name? And his smile is like his name, open and kind. Were it not for that smile, his pierced eyebrow and goatee might seem scary. But on Louie they're like a friendly disguise.

May I tell you about Louie? Because I like him. I like the way he talked for 15 minutes one day about how getting a pierced eyebrow could be really expensive unless you shopped around. Over time, he has talked about the weather or his cars or his children. The other day, though, business was slow.

So Louie wiped his hands on a grease rag and leaned on the gas pump and told me the story of his life. It goes out to everyone who ever wondered if second chances have also been rendered old-fashioned, the perquisite of another place, another time.

"You know, I wasn't always like this," he began. "I didn't always have it this good. I'm in my 20s now, but for a lot of my life I was what they call gang-affiliated. I had this grandmother and she was the only one who loved me, and I didn't handle it too well when she died."

He fooled with the pump handle. "My father was an alcoholic and my mother was a cocaine addict. Our house always had the blinds pulled down so no one could see in. When I was a kid, I had to take care of my little brother and sister because my mom would always be passed out in the other room.

"The house was so dark and ugly. My little brother and sister were 4 and 2, and nobody ate unless I cooked for us. I made it all, bacon and eggs and beans and tortillas, even though I was only a little kid and the grease would fly up and burn my arms.

"But I learned, you know? I took care of everybody. Pick up the dirty clothes, put 'em in the washer, just a little kid--you don't even know how much laundry detergent to put in. My dad sold PCP. He kept the juice in the refrigerator in Lysol bottles. I was smoking cigarettes at 11, weed at 12, selling PCP on the street in junior high.

"Every day I had to get my little brother and sister breakfast, get 'em ready for school. The teachers would say, why are you late? And what am I gonna say? 'My dad's a dope dealer, my mom's a cocaine addict, last night my dad beat her until she passed out?' "

He scuffed his work boot on the asphalt. I couldn't believe this was Louie. He'd always seemed such an average guy. I thought: People don't know the half about each other. We are as distant as celestial bodies in an enormous night.

He told about the night he finally stood up to his father. Called him out, called him a dope-dealing son of a bitch. Threw him off the porch on his face, watched him stand up with his head cracked open, yelling to his mom, "The boy won't always be there to protect you!" The wound gaping over his eyes like a second mouth.

He talked about the crack pipe he smoked until his body swam in his baggy clothing, about the morning he came home and found his little brother weeping in bed. "He said, 'You said you'd never do drugs and look at you, you're a damn liar.' I went in the shower. I washed for about three hours. I couldn't get clean no matter what I did."

When he got out, he started to walk, and after a while, he found himself downtown, in that Job Corps office across the street from the old Herald Examiner. He felt ashamed, him in his baggy pants and everyone else dressed nicely. "Can I get you something to eat?" the secretary asked.

He lifted his head and couldn't see because his eyes were brimming. That was the beginning. The Job Corps sent him to a training program out of state, the first available opening. Every day since, Louie said, the beginning begins again.

"The other night I was here alone and there were, like, a thousand dollars right there in the cash box," he said. "And I thought, I could just take that money and run. And sometimes, guys wanna know if I'm still gonna gangbang, and they go, 'Oh, you're too good for us, maybe we should kick your ass,' and I go, 'Do what you're gonna do or get outta here, I'm trying to make a life.'

"I think there's, like, these two levels in the world," Louie says. "One with people who are friendly and happy, and the one where I grew up, the underground. And people just don't know how many people are out there, you know? Trying to make their way up to some kind of light."

He's right. They don't. In this vast, postmodern city, the notion of such hope and yearning seems old-fashioned, doesn't it? And yet, there it is: the dark and the timeless longing to spread your wings and rise above it, in this city named for angels, our place, our time.


Shawn Hubler's e-mail address is shawn.hubler@latimes.com

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