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DODGE CITY : When What You Do Unto Others Can Get You Killed, Think About Leaving Them Alone

October 25, 1992|Patt Morrison

We are disciplined soldiers, we in L.A. We follow a manual of arms written by wariness. We are schooled in the etiquette of caution. Our eye contact isn't really eye contact; it is reconnaissance.

"Hello" is what we say to strangers when proximity demands acknowledgment, like the password-and-countersign of World War II movies in which two soldiers, unknown to each other, meet in the dark. The GI says "apple," and the Nazi answers "pie." "Pie" is always wrong. The countersign is "cobbler." And then the shooting starts.

So we say "hello," and we do not speak again, to the man in the elevator muttering about the CIA or to the woman in line who rocks and hums. We say "hello" to establish our humanity and mollify theirs. Apple . . . (please don't hurt me) . . . cobbler.

All this shrivels our civility. To be human is to be vulnerable. One morning, following the rules of disengagement, I ignored a persistent honking as I crossed a street.

Later, I learned that it had been my editor. He had wanted me to see his new car. He was apologetic; he had been wrong to honk, he said, and I had been quite right to ignore him. After all, he could have been anyone. What he said--and what I did--proved that if you live in terrible circumstances long enough--in an iron lung, in a POW camp--you begin to find ordinariness even in that.

But elsewhere, we still like to fancy, strangers still practice the courtesies fearlessly. They practice them in places like Stockton. Kelli Freed lives--lived--in Stockton.

She was 29, a school office manager and the daughter of a sheriff's lieutenant. She threw a barbecue one evening last month for her new roommate. Then the two young women and two young men went dancing.

In a rented '92 Camaro, they stopped at a red light alongside a Pontiac Grand Am. The Camaro driver looked over. It was after midnight, and the Grand Am's headlights were out. He motioned toward them--a universal gesture: Your headlights aren't on.

The Grand Am's passenger, a teen-ager, shrugged. The Camaro driver shrugged, too, and figured that his point had been made.

Hours later, after Kelli Freed had died, after the teen-ager and his cousin in the Grand Am were arrested, they reportedly told police they thought the people in the Camaro "were being disrespectful to them."

So one of them lifted a semiautomatic pistol. It belonged, police later said, to the gunman's mother. The Camaro driver, aghast, floored it; the Grand Am driver gave chase. In the parking lot of a discount store, one shot went through the Camaro's taillight and into Kelli Freed's back--she cried out that she felt it--and into her heart. She died somewhere between the back seat of the car and the emergency room.

On the morning when it seemed as if half the town was at Kelli Freed's funeral, Stockton Police Officer Dave Dooley answered the phone at the police station, still trying to puzzle things out himself: "Everyone does that. People would normally say, 'Hey, you left your lights on.' When you try to reason that out, you and I, how in the world can that be disrespectful? . . . You'd almost think, 'I don't want to say anything to anyone any more.' It's one thing if you're talking about Central L.A. There's a war zone down there. But this is supposed to be clean-living life up here."

In Stockton, an abrupt and unseemly death can still shock. Here, each one makes it a little harder for death to move us the next time. Several years ago, a 12-year-old getting gunned down was big news. Now the victim has to be a toddler at a birthday party or someone sitting in church to make us pause and shake our heads and deplore our condition before we turn the page or change the channel. To live with our horrors, we have had to embrace them.

A creepy map that recently landed in my mailbox--"The Bulletproof Guide to Los Angeles," with illustrations of large-caliber weapons--advises under "survival tips" that "if someone cuts you off in traffic, forget it. Flipping them your middle finger may earn you a bullet between your eyes."

But there is nothing about telling someone that their headlights are out. We passed that stage of intercourse here long ago.

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