photo by zenat_el3ain

It’s My Birthday …Please Don’t Kill Me


Sometimes there’s a moment when two men lock eyes, weigh each other’s souls and, without word or further action, read each other’s intentions. Then, in the language of their cells — not of words or thoughts — they prepare for fight or flight. When I looked into this particular stranger’s eyes, I saw he was ready to go the distance. This was a serious problem because he was hanging onto the side of my car as I sped down a L.A. street at about thirty-five miles an hour. It was just after three-thirty in the morning.

If I wasn’t so damn worried about what he was trying to do next I think I would’ve had more time to admire what he was doing. It was pretty fucking badass! I thought: There’s no way he can hold on. But he did. So, I wondered what he might do next. And that’s how it is. The world will always surprise you.

Sometimes it’s an unexpected call from an old friend you haven’t spoken to in years, and other times it’s some drunk El Salvadoran wannabe gangster looking to act tough. That’s how it started for the two of us that night. And now here we were: him hanging off the side of my car as I sped up.

It was my birthday and I was headed home. My friend and I had stayed until closing time at a popular whiskey bar in downtown. Driving home, I was worried about cops on the prowl for drunk drivers, since I was fairly certain I was one of them. I’m not proud of this fact. I wouldn’t recommend you drive drunk, but it was my birthday and I hadn’t been driving all night. I just really needed to get home, so I made a stupid decision and drove. I waited until I thought the roads would be clear. It was half past three when I got in my car and headed home.

There was no one, and I mean no one, on the roads. Well, except for the one car next to me. It was just the two of us, block after block. I think he was also an inebriated driver. He seemed to be pacing himself to my car; it was like neither of us wanted to look like we were driving faster than our fellow car.

This is what you do in a city like Los Angeles if you go out at night. If you’re cunning you wait until the police do their 4 a.m. shift change. Then you try your luck driving home at the same time they’re headed to the station, presumably done pulling over drunk drivers for the night. Again, I’m not proud of my decision, nor do I recommend it. I just tried to do it as considerately and safely as possible. So there we were, me and the other car, driving down a wide Los Angeles street, hoping like hell we didn’t cross paths with any cops running low on their quota for the night.

The evening had gone so well. I never would’ve thought I was moments from one of the strangest encounters in my life. And I’ve had some strange ones.

Street crime feels like it comes out of nowhere. But it doesn’t. A victim is usually picked. Sometimes it’s for the obvious reason that the criminal has a physical size advantage. Other times, they con their gullible victim and rely on a misleading appearance or information. But almost always the victim is picked because the criminal has calculated the chances for success. No predator chooses to risk injury. That’s why they pick targets that look like they won’t put up much of a fight. Obviously, there are exceptions and sometimes a crime, especially street crime, is just bad luck meeting random chance. That’s how it was with me and my gangbanger co-pilot.

I guess I was distracted, only looking for police cruisers. Plus, I was still buzzing off all the hard bop I’d just heard. I love a fast be-bop jazz band. My friend, Double G, and his band did not disappoint – they made a beautiful noise that night in that little dark bar on Grand Avenue with the whiskey menu that could make grown men weep with joy. Well, ones who enjoy spirits.

At midnight, the bandleader led the band and the whole bar in a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday.” There are some moments in your life that, even as they’re occurring, you know are special. You recognize immediately that you’ll likely remember them for the rest of your oxygen-breathing days. That moment was one of them. I never throw myself a birthday party — I’m not one of those people — but having a bar full of strangers transform into a birthday party and spontaneously sing you “Happy Birthday,” that’ll make you feel good. And I felt so many conflicting things all at once: flattered, surprised, embarrassed, and honestly, touched.

All of my close friends and family know they can expect a phone call from me on their birthdays. Their annual guaranteed birthday present is some of the worst singing they’ll hear that year. I’m kinda known for it. I make hate to that poor birthday song. But they know my heart is in the right place so no one ever hangs up on me before I finish. I think some of them even enjoy my series of mangled notes. Hearing a bar full of strangers sing, all of them far better than me and accompanied by Double G’s “nine-net” jazz combo, made the song special for me. I’m always bashful about receiving something, but it’s important. You allow the giver to feel the joy of generosity. And you get to feel the love. So, I did just that. I felt the love.

That’s why I was distracted as I was driving home. I was humming one of the songs the band had played; it was their rendition of Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” symphony. It was a lurching, heavy song with bursts of solos that gave it wings to soar. I was still humming the song when I saw the two drunk El Salvadoran gangbangers walk out into the middle of the street.

I don’t know for certain that they were from El Salvador, but it was an El Salvadoran neighborhood, so that’s my best guess. Also, I don’t know for certain they were in a gang, but based on a few clothing signifiers and facial tattoos, they were either in a gang or wanted people to think they were. They didn’t look particularly threatening. I wasn’t worried when I slowed down just before the stoplight. It was green, but they were in the street, so I slowed to a stop. The traffic light switched to red. If my life were a movie, the stoplight would’ve been what professors in film school call foreshadowing.

There were two lanes going in either direction. The car next to me was to my left and I was in the right lane, closest to the sidewalk. The bigger gangster-kid stood in the left lane, in front of the other car. The smaller one stood in my lane. He was so drunk it was obvious from a distance. By the time my car was at a full stop, I was surprised the kid was standing at all. He was trashed.

He stumbled around my headlights, kinda bounced his way along the front fender and approached my open window. He asked me for a cigarette. I locked eyes with him and gauged his intent. Questions followed question like a train of paranoid thoughts.

How fucked up is this kid? What else does he want besides a cigarette? Is he looking to impress his buddy? Is he fucked up enough that he’d be willing to try some dumb shit like yank me out of my car and take it for a drunken spin?

None of these options seemed exceedingly likely. But there was something dangerous and unbalanced in his eyes – there was a hint of malevolence – but it didn’t seem like the product of intoxication. He had a secret. But first he asked for a cigarette.

I said in a slow deliberate voice that he picked the wrong car to ask for a smoke. He smiled, his eyes wet, blood-shot messes, his smile was dark. He repeated himself. He said he wanted a fucking cigarette. I repeated myself and told him he picked the wrong car. The traffic light changed. The other gangster kid, the bigger one, stepped out of the way of the car next to me. Seeing a chance for escape, the car pulled away. While the drunken gangbanger listed like a ship on stormy seas next to my open window, I saw I could drive off as well. So, I did.

Bang!

I heard it, at the same time I felt it: a loud hard concussive sound that moved my car.

Perfect! The drunken kid kicked my fucking car. I really hope he didn’t dent the hell out of it because that shit costs a ton to- WHAT-THE-FUCK!

The drunk hadn’t kicked my car. Well, technically he had. But not like I’d imagined. He’d kicked my car at the same time he jumped up onto the side of it. I saw he wasn’t in the middle of the street in my rearview, just his friend. Then I looked to my left and there he was. He was hanging on to my open window.

I was driving at about twenty-five miles an hour at this point, down Virgil Ave. It’s a popular street. I was hoping like hell I didn’t see a cop and a cop didn’t see me, especially now that I had a drunken El Salvadoran teenage gangbanger hanging off the side of my car. That’s never a good look. It’s a terrible look at three-thirty in the morning. When I turned to face the kid, he looked up at me, and he was wearing a dark smile. In his eyes, I finally saw his secret. He’s fucking crazy!

Rather casually, hanging off the side of my car as I was driving, my new buddy slurred as he repeated his request, “I said, gimme a cigarette.”

What-the-fuck-is-wrong-with-you-kid? Who needs a fucking cigarette this bad?

That’s what I was thinking. But I knew there was no point in asking him; and it’s not like we had the time to really get into all the possible things that might be wrong with him.

I looked at the drunk wannabe gangster, knowing he had to be amped on adrenaline, on top of being seriously drunk. I could see I was dealing with an alcohol-fueled superhero. Also, I wouldn’t have been surprised if he was on blow or had snorted some meth. Molly was doubtful, but you never know. For three-thirty in the morning, the kid had a lot of energy — and plenty of reckless ambition.

His left hand gripped the horizontal of my open window. His right arm was halfway shoved in the window, somewhat hooked. His body was parallel to the ground, sorta like the way people hold themselves out horizontally from a flagpole. It was impressive.

But like I said, he had reckless ambition. He thought he could go one better, and he kept trying to hold on with just his right arm as he tried to shove his left hand into his jacket.

What the hell’s so important in his jacket that he needs right now?

I had to assume it was a weapon and not a business card. But who knows? I didn’t want to find out the answer.

I told the kid, “Look, I don’t have a cigarette for you. Sorry. But you need to get the fuck off the side of my car. And I don’t want to hurt you. It’s my birthday and I’m having an awesome fucking night and I don’t need this shit. This isn’t how my night is ending so you need to get the fuck off the side of my car.”

I said that as I sped up to fifty miles an hour. The kid was still locked on, clutching the window. Only now, he no longer reached for his jacket pocket. Instead he tried a grab at the steering wheel. I couldn’t let that happen. So, I jerked the wheel to the left, then to the right and then I straightened it back out. The swerving action of the car made the kid flop out, then BANG back up against the side of the car.

I turned to him and said, “You need to get the fuck off the side of my car. Right now. I’m gonna slow down and when I do you’re gonna hop off.”

And, I shit you not, the kid looked at me with his wet, glassy bloodshot eyes and his dark grin and he said, “No, you’re gonna gimme a fucking cigarette. I want a motherfucking smoke, man.”

This bastard had the single-minded focus of a pit bull. Once he bites down, ain’t nothing gonna shake him loose. He wanted a motherfucking cigarette. How hard was this for me to understand? By this point I’d slowed from fifty down to thirty-five, and we were blocks and blocks from where he hopped on the side of my car. I’d gotten lucky, so far. We hadn’t seen any other cars pass. But we were traveling down a major street and I was approaching a freeway overpass and a few intersections that crossed other major streets. The chances of seeing a cop were escalating quickly. I need this gangbanger off the side of my car.

But I really didn’t want to hurt him. I’ve done dumb shit when I was drunk. Since he still hadn’t shot or stabbed me, I was pulling for the kid. I wanted his night to end well, too.

“All right, I’m slowing down,” I said it with all the calm authority I could muster. It was an announcement of fact. As we slowed he could see I was telling the truth. I wanted him to feel that he could trust my word. Hopefully, that generosity of spirit would be shared by both of us. But, nope the kid hung on. As I slowed, his body weight sagged and soon his feet dragged along the street. He had to run alongside my car. He did. So I reminded him of our little arrangement, “It’s time for you to get the fuck off the side of my car.”

Maybe the adrenaline was finally ebbing, I don’t know, but I noticed his grin was gone. He’d stopped demanding a cigarette. His eyes looked drained of all their crazy.

I didn’t want to slam on my brakes and carelessly send the kid tumbling. He’d likely get seriously hurt. I would’ve hated for his life to be defined by this series of dumb decisions — his and mine. Plus, if he didn’t know how to fall well, it would feel like someone threw him out of a car at twenty-five miles an hour. I slowed down to twenty. I heard the rhythmic slap of his feet hitting the street with each running step. I slowed to fifteen. It felt like he could run that fast. I timed out a count of his slapping feet and then tapped the brakes.

I watched him tumble away from my car, across the left lane and then sorta flop and roll over the double yellow lines. The kid really didn’t know how to fall well at all. He tumbled like a man who’d sold all his bones. But at least he managed to roll through it, which is exactly what you want to do. No other cars were on the road at this point. No oncoming traffic to worry about running him over in the dark of night. He was still conscious. I felt better about what I’d done when I saw him crawl to his feet, just before I drove over the rise in the road and down the other side and he disappeared from view. He was the strangest person to ever crash one of my birthday parties.

The next day, I went to the beach and ate lobster and watched the sun fall into the Pacific and I appreciated the great weirdness of life. What better birthday present is there than a sudden, surprising shift in perspective? Makes you know you’re alive. My El Salvadoran gangbanging friend kinda made my birthday — he gave me just such a birthday gift; a reminder of what we ought to keep in perspective every other day of the year: you are promised no tomorrows; so enjoy a song, savor good whiskey … and make sure you feel the love. In many ways, since he didn’t kill me, that gangbanger was the best part of my birthday.


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If you wish to enjoy more of Zaron Burnett III’s work, here’s a link to his latest collection of humorous essays: How Do I Survive This Sh*t?

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