"May I ask the problem, officer?"
The woman stood, almost invisible, behind the black steel-mesh door, her eyes bright and searching, as she listened to Police Sgt. Ron Leanderts' polite spiel about the crackdown on rock cocaine sales that have turned six blocks of homes in South-Central Los Angeles into a round-the-clock drug shopping mart.
"OK--just a second," she said, vanishing into the darkened room and finally reappearing a few moments later. "You coming in to search or anything?"
Leanderts shook his head. Behind him, the other police officers nudged one other significantly.
For at least a few hours Thursday, the roads along Main Street--at 87th Street, 88th Street, and 88th Place--were washed clean by rain and scoured clean by 14 officers on special foot patrol in an area that has probably not seen foot patrols since Tom Bradley was in uniform.
They called it STRAP, "Stop The Rock, Assist Police," and from the moment nine patrol cars rolled up Main Street at 10 a.m. Thursday, into an area of 127 drug arrests in the last three weeks, there was nothing subtle about it. Subtle wasn't the plan.
As his men hammered a stake with its handmade poster board sign--their only sign--into the rain-wet ground, the sign's photogenic green-and-blue warning covered with plastic to keep off the rain, Capt. Stephen Gates told reporters: "We've made literally thousands and thousands of arrests . . . and that's not working."
"My officers thought they had a mushroom farm going," said Lt. Don Irvine. "You'd put two (dealers) in jail one day, you come back the next day and there are four taking their place."
Even an operation like this is like squeezing a capped toothpaste tube: tighten the grip in one spot and it will show up somewhere else. Thursday's effort was a single volley being fired in a city where last year police seized 6 1/2 tons of cocaine that on the street would have brought more than $2.5 billion.
What they were after Thursday was disruption, and they got it.
- Four suspected cocaine dealers who heard that the patrol was coming moved their operation a couple of blocks away, but were arrested by undercover police around 7 a.m., Irvine said.
- A juvenile who had declared earlier that he wasn't dealing any more, but when he had, he had made $700 a day, was arrested for alleged cocaine possession, police said.
- And late Thursday afternoon, police said Officer Bruce Nelson saw what he thought was a marijuana sale, chased a man along 88th Place and into a house, where police said they eventually found seven guns, marijuana and an open safe containing $60,000 to $100,000. Four men were arrested, police said.
It took a lot of "stretching and borrowing" and overtime money for Thursday's show of force, which police hoped would slash the Gordian tangle of guns and gangs and drugs, frighten customers out of the area and drive dealers indoors.
Indoors is where most residents say they must stay anyway, especially at night. Walk door to door among the barricaded homes and if the doors get opened at all, that is what the neighbors say.
"I just lock myself in," said Bennie Mae Williams, who has lived here for 18 years and has had her house shot at, her son's jaw broken, and "my life has been threatened."
"You can't sit outside or they shoot the . . . out of you," said neighbor Al Dedmion, 67, who felt bold enough Thursday to sit outside and feed the pigeons with crumbs of Wonder Bread, one hand on a battered aluminum cane. "Twenty years ago, it was very nice and quiet around here. Sometimes it makes me feel like getting out and I know damn well I can't."
For 90 minutes, police made the Fuller Brush man look like a sluggard, trooping from house to house with photocopied flyers, asking for anonymous calls from witnesses to drug dealings.
"I want the same spiel to that dope dealer at his front door as everyone else," Irvine had told them at roll call that morning. "I want you to tell that dope dealer right to his face."
Sometimes, they did.
Randy Cochran and Jim Larkin have worked this area before, and keep a usually amiable symbiosis with neighbors and ne'er-do-wells alike. They know that when the Ping-Pong table is set up in front of a place a few blocks away, it means there is rock cocaine for sale. They know that the trade is so frenzied that a uniformed officer once peeked over a fence and joked "Got any dope?" to a man who promptly sold him some.
By 11:30 a.m., the streets were nearly empty. Many of the police officers were back on their regular patrols. Several officers stayed behind, and will for a few days, Irvine promised, with some foot patrols after that.
The people left behind, who live there and watch both dealers and police come and go, were pleased and hopeful Thursday.
But they are not naive.
For years, they have picked drugs out of their backyards, dropped by some dealer as he was being chased by police ("I sit right here and kill myself laughing" as the dealers run, Dedmion said).
They have walked their children to school in the winter and locked them in on warm summer nights, when they want to play outdoors. They've called the police before, too.
"Sometimes it does good to call (police) and sometimes it doesn't," whispered a woman who lives uneasily between two houses where deals "for the white stuff" are made. As for her neighbors' doings, "You see, but you don't see . . . that's how I survive." She has seen two people put in wheelchairs by drive-by shootings on her street; "if you stand in front, you take your life in your hands."
She figures that it is bad just about anywhere, but "everybody says they've heard of this street."