Los Angeles, CA
The first time I meet Steve, he sells me a loaf of sourdough bread.
He tells me the story of Father Greg, a priest living in what the LAPD had once called “the most gang-ridden [neighborhood] in the world.” Father Greg found himself and his congregation situated between rival gangs in Boyle Heights (which would send Father Greg to over 100 funerals), so in an effort to help rehabilitate the gang members and ex-convicts of the neighborhood, he opened a small bakery and began offering them jobs.
Today, at least 200 people are employed by Homeboy at any given time – all of them ex-gang members and convicts, including Steve.
I see Steve a few more times in my neighborhood before I work up the courage to ask if I could sit and talk to him. “I want to hear your story,” I say. “Will you tell me how you ended up at Homeboy?”
Steve tells me, “The reason I’m at Homeboy is because I heard of it back in the late 80’s early 90’s.” He points to an empty spot on his left forearm. “I had another girl’s name tattooed here. And my wife told me I had to get rid of it if I expected to marry her. So I went to Homeboy because I heard it helped people get jobs even though I wasn’t into having a job back then. But I also heard they offered free tattoo removal too. But they said, ‘We’re not going to take that tattoo off unless you allow us to take off all the gang related ones. Took two years of treatment. And it was free of charge. But I didn’t go back for a long time after that.”
I ask was he still in a gang at the time of getting his tattoos removed?
“Oh yeah, I was in a gang. I was in the Hazard Gang.”
Hearing Steve say their name aloud makes me nervous. I glance over my shoulder as if he’s speaking of an Urban Legend, and any minute the Hazard Gang is going to show up, climbing out of a mirror or maybe I’d find them in the backseat of my car afterward. “Are they still around?”
“Oh yeah. They’ve been around since the 40’s.”
The lady who pops fresh kettle corn at the booth across from Homeboy starts her next batch, and I flinch. “How old were you when you got in?”
“Well, I wanted to get in at an earlier age, but they had rules. You couldn’t officially join until you were fourteen. Because they were hardcore, you know? They wanted to make sure you were never going to rank out.”
I try to recall what I was doing at fourteen. I’d kissed one girl, never tasted beer, still played with G.I. Joes, and had a 9pm bedtime. I have to ask, “Did you say Rank Out? What is…”
“Say you’re in a gang and three other members from a rival gang come to you and ask you what gang are you from, and you’re scared you might get hurt so you say you’re not in a gang … that’s called ranking out. But then your own gang might kill you if word gets back to them, you know.” Steve is so casual with everything he says, like killing a gang member for not being proud of his association was as casual as Sunday brunch. “They want to make sure you are down for the belief that we had. And our belief was in our gang.”
Steven adjusts himself in his seat and laughs. “In fact, I remember I had a girlfriend one time and she said, ‘Steve who do you love more, me or your neighborhood?’ I said, ‘Aw, don’t even ask me questions like that, man.’ But that’s where my belief was at. I was jumped in at 14.”
I didn’t even have to ask, Steve just answered, “‘Jumped in’ means three guys are jumping on you, beating you up for about a minute, and after that it’s official – you’re a gang member.”
“Can you fight back?”
“Oh yeah, you fight back. But it’s three against one, you know. You’re going to lose. But during that day, when that happened, when that occurred, it was one of the happiest moments of my life like I’d just won a scholarship or the World Series.”
Could he describe for me a normal day in a gang?
“A regular day would be getting dressed, ironed up, right?”
“…Go to school, get in fights with rival gang members, get suspended, get expelled, go home, talk to our older homeboys who were 18, 19, not in school any longer, and they would pump us up by telling us stories of other gang members who were doing life in prison and stuff. And that was fuel to us. We were like, ‘Man they are down.’ Plus, there were a lot of girls who liked gang members so girls were always around, always available, as well as drugs because that just comes with the gang scene.”
I ask if he was simply in a gang because of the neighborhood his parents chose to live. “Did everyone in the neighborhood… like, was that just the thing? If you grew up on those streets you were in the Hazards? I’m just trying to figure out what exactly made you want to join at fourteen?”
“It was an attraction, man. But first and foremost, I liked the music they listened to. I loved it.” He laughs at this and tells me he also had an older brother already in the gang before taking a break to help a customer. He leaps with enthusiasm from his chair, and adjusts the latex glove he keeps on his right hand. “How you doing my friend!”
For the duration of our conversation, Steve speaks to every customer as if they’ve known each other for a lifetime. It’s hard not to like the guy.
After making a sale, he returns to sit next to me. “So basically, bro, my thing was that there were three types of lifestyles at fourteen: Guys that were into heavy metal, right? Then gang members. And then there were just regular casual guys who wore regular fit pants, and went to school, played football, and to me, that was not me. I thought those guys were awkward and awkwardness was a sign of weakness. Everything right was wrong to me. Going to school? How dumb was that?”
“So you must have known some guys in the gang already?”
“The majority of my neighbors were already gang members. So the neighborhood alone was a strong influence. I grew up in the housing projects, and the gangs had a grip on them. The structure they had on the neighborhood was very rigid. There would be these big meetings, and they would say at the beginning of every meeting that the two rules we have are: 1. do not snitch and 2. do not rank out. Whew. Don’t snitch and don’t rank out. If you do that, don’t even think about coming back to the projects or think that you’re going to be found alive.”
“Was the punishment always death?”
“Being a rat doesn’t go down on just you. It goes down on the whole gang. Gives the gang a reputation of having rats.”
“This is a real thing that really happens?”
“They just disappeared, man. There are guys I know who have snitched, I never seen them again. And I know of some guys who ranked out, but the majority of our gang members were down, you know?”
I asked if he’s ever seen anybody since. “I mean, you’re still here in Los Angeles. Do you ever run into anybody? Other gang members?” Like it’s comparable to running into an ex-girlfriend.
“Oh, yeah. For sure.”
“Like, do you see anybody who is still in the gang? Is that a thing? Is it okay?”
“What do you mean, ‘Is it okay?’”
“I mean if guys from the Hazard Gang knew you were talking to me right now…”
“Oh, yeah, I’m okay with it because I’m not putting their names out there, you know? There’s nothing wrong with talking about gang structure. Me talking to you is like an advertisement for them. I’m telling you how tough they are. They’d appreciate that.”
When I was sixteen and a sophomore in high school, Davey Meyers tried to convince us that we should start a gang of our own. We were the whitest, skinniest, lamest boys in all of Youngstown. I asked Davey and the other guys, “But what does that even mean? What are we going to do that we aren’t already doing?”
“You know,” Davey said. “Gang stuff.”
I ask Steve how he got out of the Hazards, and he says he’s technically still in. “I never got jumped out.”
“Meaning they beat you down again if you leave?”
“Yeah, but this time they put some metal to you.”
“But I’m older now, and the gang members I grew up with – most of them are dead or in prison. So no one is looking of me. What happened was I just ended up working at Homeboy Industries after a string of incarcerations.”
Another customer arrives. Again he greets them like they are old friends. “Hey what’s up my man? Is there a particular bread you are looking for? you know what’s really good, this right here.”
Steve says he’s been everywhere there is to be from juvi to county to prison. “The first time I went to prison was for sales.”
The sale of narcotics. When Steve got out the first time, he went right back two months later after testing “dirty” while on parole. He was 21.
“Eventually I got off parole, I don’t have anyone to report to, I could do whatever I want, and I catch another crime. Just like that. It was narcotics again mixed with a bunch of other little stuff like being arrested with paraphernalia on me.”
I decide not to go down the paraphernalia road.
“It was just boom boom boom with me. Catch another violation. And another. Just again and again. That’s the story.”
I can tell Steve doesn’t want to get into this, so I ask him about his parents instead.
“My dad owns a business. Big rig tires. Truck tires. It’s my first time working, when I start working for him. He’s doing well. He earned it. That’s his stuff. Even though I’m his son, he’s not gonna allow me to mess up his business. So when I catch another violation, I go back to prison for another six months. And my dad says he won’t keep giving me work if I keep messing up. And sure enough, I get busted again. And this time I finally lose everything. My apartment. My two cars. Everything.”
“Because you went to prison?”
“Yeah. I went in for so long and had no one to take care of my stuff, man. So anyway, I get out again and I’m like what am I gonna do? I got nothing. I need money. Legit money. I’ve got a buddy named Caesar. He’d just done eight years for a dispute with his girl.”
“Eight years for a dispute with a girl seems like a long time…”
“Yeah, he must have hurt her, huh? Anyway, he’s out on the straight path, and he has a job and he says, ‘Hey Steve, you should see about this job.’ It’s a construction job, and I get it. I’m making enough money to get back on my feet again, and then I catch another number.”
“Oh come on!” I shout. “Narcotics again?”
“Nah, grand theft auto. I stole a car. I was in Corona, California. I was with some girls who didn’t want to give me a ride back to LA.”
“So you stole a car to get back?”
Steve shrugs. “I was like Denis the Menace, bro. I kept messing everything up. You want something messed up? You just call Steve, bro. In fact, my girl said she couldn’t be with me anymore after that. ‘You’re always on drugs, Steve. You’re always doing that gang stuff.’ Said she was a grown woman who needed something good in her life. I was 31 when this happened.”
After Steve gets out of prison for stealing that car, he gets a divorce and marries his second wife. “Her name was Delilah, and boy let me tell you was she a Delilah.”
“With a name like Delilah, you’re born to be a heartbreaker.” I ask if he was still a part of the Hazard Gang at this point in his life.
“I wasn’t as active in the gang at this point because I’d been arrested so many times. But I was still a gang member. But I didn’t want to put Delilah’s life at risk. We are together for a few years, we get a divorce – she wasn’t as good as my first wife – and I just had that problem where I really liked being with different girls, you know?”
“So what happened between your second divorce and finding Homeboy Bakery?”
“I was jobless. No longer working with my dad or construction. I had just finished doing some telemarketing in hollywood because I was good at sales already, obviously, and I’d just gotten out of county jail. And right across the street was Homeboy Bakery. And I was like, “Hey, I remember this place.” And that’s when I walked in there.
“What put you in county?”
“Another parole violation. But this time I’d done my time in county instead of prison. And I got out, and the first thing I saw was Homeboy. It was just a strange coincidence, I tell ya. What if I had gone back to prison instead of county, man? You know? Because I had no life changing moment in jail. I had no plan. So I just walked out of county, and walked into Homeboy because they were right there, and I remembered them from before. I said, ‘Hey how you guys doing,’ because I needed money. And they said, ‘Come on back for an interview. We are hiring.”
Steve goes on to say, “I never wanted to be someone who asked for money. Even has an addict. I worked hard for my money selling those drugs. I knew how to hustle. I would go downtown and buy colognes, and I would resell them. I was never a drug addict asking for money. I found my own ways to get money. And if I saw guys in need, I would pay it forward and tell them, “Just come with me man, I’ll get you high, no cost.”
“So you were a nice drug dealer. I can see that.”
“But finally I realized I am not going anywhere. I don’t have a job. I’ve already been through two marriages. I don’t see my life advancing. My mom is getting older and suffering.”
Homeboy hires on Steve as maintenance. Then food prep. Whatever they would have him do. He’s just grateful for a paycheck. And a second chance. Or in his case a third, fourth, and fifth chance. “And eventually they put me here at the farmers markets,” he says. “I work five days a week at all the farmers markets around LA. So basically, that’s where I’m at, man. That’s how I ended up here, talking to you. But make no mistake, my process ain’t over till I die. I’m here to help out people now. So that’s what I’m about, you know? I might not conquer the world, but I might conquer two people and one of them can conquer the world, you know what I mean, bro?” .