I meet my beautiful friend, Bird, at Peet's coffee in the posh Ventura Boulevard valley area.
We have our lattes and oatmeal with dried blueberries and hop into her car and onto the freeway. Bird is driving because I always get lost when I go downtown, especially near Chinatown and Alvaro Street, even though I am a native Angeleno. I just don't frequent downtown, except for a Staple Center event, or a MOCA exhibit, or dinner at Bottega Louie near FIDM.
We are off to her service commitment that she's been trying to get me to know about for ages. "You are gonna love this place," Bird tells me. I smile and think about our friendship for over 25 years. I'm so proud of her.
We park and Bird reaches in the back and grabs her bag that contains a portable coffee pot for our group. She gets out to put money in the meter. I stay in my seat and examine the huge glass windows that make the bottom floor of this big building. The room is filled with seated people.
"That's not where we go," Bird says. "We're upstairs."
She leads the way. We pass a few clean-cut but tough looking hombres smoking on the sidewalk. They nod to us. "How ya' doing today?" Bird says. We enter.
"How long has this place been going on?" I ask. I can immediately sense a purposeful operation as we walk in. I see hourly schedules posted on walls, from drug and alcohol counseling to anger management, job training and placement to legal services.
"About twenty years," Bird answers. "They have a restaurant and a bakery over there, where the kids can work. We'll have lunch after; the food is amazing!" Bird points to the far side of the building. "Jobs not Jails, that's the motto here."
All I had heard about Homeboy Industries was they sold chips and salsa to markets and the money helped kids in gangs. "This is the largest intervention community for gang-recovery," Bird says. "Father Boyle speaks about 200 times a year to law enforcers, university students, educators, and social workers."
I see a sign over another door: Tattoo Removal. I had noticed this place was filled with people who had more ink on them than I had seen at a lifetime of rock concerts. "Hard to get a job with F*^k You tattooed across your forehead," Bird says. "Tattoos are removed for free. It's especially good to get rid of the different gang related signs... everyone works side by side. Its a gang-free zone here."
Bird is greeted by everyone as we walk up the stairs. She knows their names and asks about their families.
"Every Monday, there's a table downstairs with new candles lit for the ones that were lost over the weekend," Bird whispers to me. "This place is the real deal. These are hardcore lives from generations of vicious gangs."
I feel my heart flinch.
"Its also a vicious circle," I say. "And it sure takes a lot more love...to love the unlovable."
"Father Boyle quotes Mother Teresa," Bird says. "'The problem is, we forgot we belong to each other.'"
The group gathers so anyone can share and be heard in a safe environment. I realize, I thought I had come to share with them -- parolees, others on probation, and a few that just want to have fellowship -- but it is me who has been inspired by their examples, by Homeboy Industries example.
"Look! Father Boyle's here today," Bird says excited.
She introduces me to him. He is a pleasant but serious man in a denim blue shirt with the Homeboys Industries logo silk screened on the pocket, beige trousers, and a well groomed white beard to match his hair. He signs his book to me, Tattoos on the Heart, and dashes off.
I hand my merchandise and credit card to a tall, thin man about 20 years old, who is being taught how to work the credit card machine by another. He has ink everywhere I can see on his skin, including red lips on his neck, and when he closes his eyes for a minute, his lids read, one word on each in script: The End.
"Oh," I say, tearing away from my mental vision of him lying in a casket with his eyes closed. "Well, great! Now that you're here, those words can mean the end... of a day, or the end... of a problem."
130 W. Bruno Street. Los Angeles 90012
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