A guy eating potato chips at the buffet they laid out, a second guy steps up next to him. The second guy, across his back is the number “206,” not only felt-penned, but tattooed in thorny, fat blue letters, the two on one shoulder blade, the zero on his spine, the six on his other shoulder. The guy cramming his mouth with potato chips, chewing and swallowing as his hand brings up more from the buffet table, a steady crunch-crunch loud as somebody walking on gravel, his arm lifting chips has “206” scribbled down the bicep.
The tattooed guy stoops a smidge, bending his knees, then stands fast and backhands the first guy across the face. Putting his whole body into the hit, the tattooed guy’s hand, the clap sound, leads a long spray of spit and potato crumbs toward the ceiling. The smack echoes, dull with the impact of hard knuckle bones knocking skull bones with almost nothing in between. Those knuckles padded by only a glove of hairy skin. The skull only cushioned with a cheekful of chewed potato crud and salt. With the potato-chip guy coughing on the floor, the tattooed guy twists his shoulders sideways. His slapping hand still raised high in the air, he points his gun finger down at the numbers spread across his back. He says, “Two-oh-six . . . my number.” He bends to meet the eyes of the man on the floor and says, “Get other number.” Still twisting one arm to point at his own back, he says, “Is mine.” A red wash of blood pulsing out his nose, the potato-chip guy keeps chewing. Swallows. He wipes his lips with one hand, smearing red across one cheek. Wipes again, making a blood mustache straight across both cheeks. The girl carrying the clipboard and wearing a stopwatch on a cord around her neck, she walks over to the two guys and says, “Gentlemen.” Taking a handful of paper napkins off the buffet table and giving them to the guy with the bloody nose, the girl says, “Let me settle this.” The nosebleed guy sniffs back the blood and reaches for another handful of potato chips. His lips, swelled up with salt, split open and leaking blood. As the girl’s flipping through the papers on her clipboard, the guy numbered 137 steps up beside me. The guy from television. With the autograph dog. He says, “Someone certainly wasn’t breast-fed ...” The stopwatch girl is crossing out the number on the potato-chip guy’s arm. She’s writing a new number. The tattooed guy lowers his arm, watching them. Rubbing the knuckles of that hand in the palm of his other hand. “Him with the tattoo,” I say, “the guy’s in a Sureno street gang from Seattle.” I tell number 137, “He killed somebody, served twelve years in prison. Been out since last year.” Guy 137, hugging his autograph dog to his chest, he says, “You know him?” I tell the guy, “Look at his hand.” On the web of skin between the thumb and gun finger of one hand, the tattooed guy has two short parallel lines with three dots along one of the lines: the Aztec symbol for the number thirteen—Aztec numerology and Nahuatl language being popular with the Sureno gangs of southern California. On his lower back, just above the waistband of his boxer shorts, is a scrolled fancy tattoo of the number “187”: the California Penal Code section for murder. Next to his bellybutton is a tattoo of a tombstone with two dates, twelve years apart, recording the sentence he served. Guy 137 says, “Are you in a gang?” My adopted dad taught me. Other guys around the room, I point out their tattoos. The Asian guy with black stripes tattooed around his bicep, he’s a member of the Japanese mafia, the Yakuza, and each black stripe stands for a crime job he’s done. Another Asian guy, the “NCA” tattooed across his back brands him as a member of the Ninja Clan Assassin crime family. Standing, walking around, waiting their turn are guys with a little crucifix on the skin between their thumb and gun finger. Three little lines sticking up mark the tattoo as a Pachuco Cross, the sign of Hispanic gangs. Other guys have three dots tattooed to form a triangle on that same spot. If they’re Mexican, those three dots mean Mi vida loca. “My crazy life.” If the guy’s Asian, the dots mean To o can gica. “I care for nothing.” Guy 137 says, “Your dad was in a street gang?” My adopted dad was an accountant for a big Fortune 500 corporation. Him, me, and my adopted mom lived in the suburbs in an English Tudor house with a gigantic basement where he fiddled with model trains. The other dads were lawyers and research chemists, but they all ran model trains. Every weekend they could, they’d load into a family van and cruise into the city for research. Snapping pictures of gang members. Gang graffiti. Sex workers walking their tracks. Litter and pollution and homeless heroin addicts. All this, they’d study and bicker about, trying to outdo each other with the most realistic, the grittiest scenes of urban decay they could create in HO train scale in a subdivision basement. My adopted dad would use a single strand of mink hair to paint the number “312” across the bare back of a tiny street-gang figure. To make a member of the Vice Lords of Chicago. It’s how gangsters declare their turf— they get a tattoo of the telephone area code, usually across their upper back. Sometimes their chest or belly. The guy who hit the potato-chip guy, he’s laid claim to the Seattle area code—what should be Norteno turf. I say it’s no wonder he’s so defensive. Members of the Blood gang always cross out the “C” in any of their tattoos. To deny any allegiance to the rival Crip gang. If someone has a tattoo with a “B” crossed out, that shows he’s a Crip. “Your dad taught you that?” says guy 137. My adopted dad. Working on his model-train set. He never cheated on my adopted mom, but he could spend days photographing hookers and painting tiny figures to match them. He’d never take illegal drugs, but his tiny junkies or meth freaks, each one was a little masterpiece. Using a needle-thin paintbrush, my adopted dad would tag the walls of dinky factories and miniature abandoned tenements and flophouse hotels. I tell guy 137 I’m sorry his TV series got canceled last season. Number 137 shrugs. He says, “So you’re adopted?” And I tell him, “Only since I was born.” Waiting his turn with Cassie Wright, a flabby blond guy with a long beard stands with both arms folded across his chest. His yellow beard so stiff and coarse the hair juts straight out from his chin, not falling down with gravity. Maybe so dirty. His pale forearms are blotched with blurry black As and B’s, swastikas, and shamrocks. Prison tattoos pricked with a broken guitar string, inked with the soot from burned plastic forks and spoons mixed with shampoo. The Aryan Brotherhood. Tattooed spiderwebs cover both his big, freckled elbows. Near the Aryan guy, Mr. Bacardi hooks a finger in the gold chain around his own neck. At the lowest point of the chain, dangling over his throat, hangs a gold heart. A locket Cassie Wright’s worn in a zillion scenes. Bacardi pinches the gold locket between his thumb and gun finger and slides it back and forth along the neck chain. “My real mom,” I say, “she’s a big star in movies, but I can’t say who.” I say how I’ve written tons of letters to her, care of her production company and distributors, even the agent that handles her, but she’s never wrote back. Guy 137 looks down at the flowers I’m holding. “It’s not that I want money or for her to love me,” I say. “All I’m after is just to meet her. How I figure it, right now I’m the age that she must’ve been when she had to give me away.” If her agent or somebody is intercepting my letters and trashing them, I don’t know. But I have a secret plan to someday meet her. My real mom. Number 137 says, “You know your real dad?” And I shrug. Across the room, a black guy, the back of his shaved head is tattooed with a flag rippling, the flag bearing the number “415,” symbol for the Kumi African Nation, a spin-off of the Black Guerrilla Family. At least according to my adopted dad, who’d recite these details as he held a magnifying glass in one hand and a paintbrush in the other, doctoring the little train figures that came from Germany as doctors, street sweepers, policemen, and hausfraus. Poking them with specks of new paint, he remade them as members of La eMe, the Mexican mafia; the Aryan Warriors; the 18th Street Gangstas. If I stood next to him and put my hand on his basement workbench, if I held still, my adopted dad would paint the “WP” and “666” for White Power at the base of my thumb. Then he’d tell me, “Hurry and go wash your hands.” He’d say, “Don’t let your mother see.” My adopted mom. Right now, up those stairs, the lady behind the door, she’s neutral territory. A shrine where you pilgrimage a thousand miles on your knees to pay tribute. Same as Jerusalem or some church. Special to white supremacists and Bloods, Crips, and Ninjas, a lady who transcends turf wars for power. Who transcends race and nationality and family. Every man here might hate every other man, outside of here we might all kill each other, but we all love her. Our Holy Ground. Cassie Wright, our angel of peace. Next to me, guy 137 dumps a pill out of the bottle of blue pills he bought. Holding his autograph dog tucked under one arm, he dumps the pill into the palm of one hand and tosses it into his mouth. Somebody’s stepped in the nose blood puddled on the concrete floor. Different sizes of bare feet track bloody, sticky trails in every direction. I ask what he’s doing—right now, I mean—to restart his TV career. And number 137 says, “This.” And he shakes the little bottle of pills.