Outside the picture window

While visiting my parents last June, I found my old neighborhood in Orange County awash in jacaranda blossoms. On summer days when I was growing up, kids played in the streets, often long past dusk, while the adults ritually watered and mowed their lawns. Our tract's name -- Halecrest Estates -- seemed too majestic for the modest bungalows, but our world was rich in tranquillity. Time itself seemed stalled by the pink cinder-block fences separating one yard from the next.

When my sister and her family bought the house next door to our childhood home in 1997, the arrangement seemed a quaint vestige of another era. How many Americans live that close to their parents?

Around 6 one evening, as my parents and I were heading to her house for dinner, the phone rang. While my father answered, I happened to look through the living room window and saw several men running down the sidewalk. "That was your sister calling," my father said after hanging up. "She said gangs are fighting outside and we shouldn't leave the house."

Gangs? The men I'd seen running now stood in our frontyard. Three were Latino and three African American; all seemed in their early 20s. One of the Latino men brandished a switchblade.

"Get away from the window!" my mother pleaded, but I felt compelled to watch. Unfolding with surreal velocity, the scene instantly dismantled several myths we had long embraced: that our neighborhood was eternally safe; that we were immune from the realities on the evening news; that life along our lovely tree-lined street could somehow escape change. Four decades after my parents settled into their vision of an ideal community, a colossal shift seemed to occur in a matter of minutes.

How had this happened? A few years ago, graffiti marking purported gang territories began appearing on sidewalks and fences, but further evidence of clashing factions was absent. I've heard that the police department has a "gang map" tracking each group's prevalence using a different color. My family home is apparently located in a wide swath of peach dominated by a gang that calls itself Westside Anaheim, which also describes the part of town my parents and sister live in. Back in New York City, where I've lived for six years, my once hardscrabble neighborhood -- called Hell's Kitchen by most, Clinton by savvy Realtors -- is now vibrantly cool and packed with gleaming condos, fusion restaurants and sleek salons; meanwhile, Halecrest Estates and the surrounding area have turned perilous.

Outside, one of the men stripped off his shirt and threw it to the ground.

"Oh!" my mother said. "Lock the door!"

As the men inched toward each other, two Latinas showed up; one of their male cohorts had used his cellphone to call for reinforcement. The women -- grinning, looking even younger than the men -- carried foot-long chains, swinging them in the air.

I opened the front door and placed one foot on the threshold.

"Don't go out there!" my mother said.

"I'm going with him," my father said. "This is my house, not theirs."

"You want to get killed?" my mother snapped. "Then go ahead!"

My father possesses a defiance that often thrives in those who've reached a certain age or survived life-threatening ordeals. Six years ago, at the age of 69, he was diagnosed with bladder cancer. After invasive surgery and a debilitating infection, he ended up on dialysis but beat the disease. For him, the fight outside was nothing more than a notched-up playground spat. Still, the potential violence chafed his deeply peaceable nature, and he believed a firm but kind approach would quell the feud.

As the girls swung their chains, one of their opponents said, "Let's just walk on." And, amazingly, they did just that. He and his companions turned and headed down the street; their rivals put away their weapons and left in the other direction. My father walked to my sister's house, though my mother stayed inside until she decided it was safe.

Before joining everyone for dinner, I stood awhile on the lawn. A few houses away, a neighbor came out to spray his yard with a bright green hose, and farther down a mother and her children unloaded groceries from their car. On the west side of Anaheim, it was time to be home, and I imagined that is where the young brawlers had gone.

A month after my visit, a 21-year-old man was found stabbed to death in a nearby alley. My sister, young enough and willing to move on, now hopes to relocate her family. My mother and father will never leave; they're too deeply rooted in their patch of earth. They'll stay and confront whatever surprises, threatening or otherwise, materialize beyond their front door.

At night, in my Manhattan apartment, I worry about them. I wonder if I shouldn't move back. But our myths have been demolished; there is little I can do to protect them or ward off change.


David Rompf is a writer in New York.

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