There was only me - hiding behind the woven sweater hump of a hunchback woman in a doughnut shop – and two men tangled in violence like spider crabs over the counter.La Brea Blvd and Hawthorn Ave., circa 1988.
Most Sundays, before my dad would bring me back to my mom’s house for the school week, we would stop by the local doughnut shop for doughnut holes. I forget which franchise. I could make up some cheesy revelation about how it was symbolic that we cultivated the missing pieces of doughnuts, as we cultivated our time together as the missing pieces of a broken family – but the truth is they were cheap for a dozen.
The shop was run by a Vietnamese family, and their teenage daughter minded the counter. Every once in a while an older family member would poke their head out from the kitchen area to check the store, or get a supply.
If it was odd to be a native living in this part of Los Angeles, I couldn’t imagine how it must’ve been to be a foreign family trying to make their way here. I imagine it must’ve taken a great deal of effort and desire to move to the famous Hollywood, land of dreams and potential. But then what do you do when you buy a ticket to the land of Oz, but arrive three decades too late and find Munchkin Land replaced by pawn shops? I suppose you do what you can, and sling doughnuts to local kids and winos.
My dad always tried to bring some sunshine. He does to this day. Within his 6’3” looming presence, there is a field of dandelions. He studied martial arts through the 70’s, earning a black belt, and several 70’s-tastic photographs featuring spot-on Karate poses, a serious mustache, and a glorious, gravity-defying Afro.
But he was the real deal.
Since I was 4 years old, he’d been teaching me how to stand, block, punch, kick. He told me that the most important things were timing, and to follow through with your action, to be decisive and conservative with movement, to fight for a definite reason, not to show off but to be in service – and to be quick. Always quick.
When I followed my dad into the doughnut shop I was not nearly so high-minded. Thoughts of honor, and right action took a far back seat to the coin-operated video game machine in the corner. I had ranked on the Centipede game machine outside the Pacific Theatre up near Cahuenga Blvd., and I was on a roll. When we entered, I bee-lined to the machine, brushing shoulders with an old, hunch-backed black woman waiting in line.
Hollywood Blvd is what happens when a location loses its grip on the passage of time. The boulevard seems to have gone supernova sometime in the 1960s, and had since become a black hole, churning in on itself, and drawing in other souls who had slid behind. Though by now I’ve learned to see her lovely bones, at that time I was only aware of the surface of the corpse – and those who creep along her. One such treasure, serpentine in his path, entered the doughnut shop one Sunday evening.
I’m not sure when it started. I heard some slurred speech, and I sensed my father’s aura changing a few feet away. The drunken voice was persistent,
“Hey, I’ve seen you before.”
The girl behind the counter was trying to do her job, she was avoiding eye contact with the man.
“Is that all, sir?”
“Hey – you’re so pretty, you know that? I’ve, seen you in here, oh yeah.”
“That will be $2.50, please.”
My dad had become very still and grounded, he was in line right behind the man. I looked for a moment, and turned back around to my game. The man continued,
“How old are you?… so pretty. Oh I’m gonna… I’m gonna wait for you-”
The charge in the air snapped. New velocity. New voltage. I turned around and the man was on his back over the counter, my father was on top of him. There were no feet on the ground.
The hunch back woman stepped in front of me, holding me in the corner, “Stay back, honey, stay back.”
I pressed my hands into the hill of her spine, trying to see above it. Her knit sweater was a dark purple, interwoven with dark greens and greys, she smelled sweet and ancient. I understood what she was doing, but I needed to see – I needed to see what was happening.
I heard the scuffle of fabrics, soles of shoes, the fitful, breathy grunts of men beyond words. By the time I got a sight line, feet were back on the floor and the drunk was willowing towards the door from someone else’s propulsion. He shouted something as he tumbled out, I couldn’t decipher it.
Fights are not glamorous. There was no theme song playing, no witty banter. No acrobatics or stiple-shaded dramatic poses. From the first thunder clap to the tumble out the door, all of this took place within twenty seconds.
The charge in the air hung, crackled to static, and settled.
When the man was gone, the hunchback woman stepped out of my way, I didn’t go very far. I didn’t know what to do. The teenage girl had had her back against the coffee mugs behind the counter. Her mother was at her side now. The girl stepped forward,
“Thank you, thank you so much. He comes in here sometimes and… says things to me…”
“Well, I hope he doesn’t come back.” My dad took out his wallet to pay for the doughnut holes, but the girl stopped him,
“No, no take them for free. Please.”
She even gave us an extra bag. “Are you sure?”
My dad, nodded to her. “Thank you.”
As we walked back to the car, my dad wrapped his arm tightly around me. He told me that he had taken the man down, not because he was a drunk, but because he was abusive to the young girl – it was rude and dishonorable. She was practically a child, she reminded him of me.
We didn’t eat the doughnut holes for a while, and I don’t think we told my mom about it for months. We continued going to the shop, and until they closed, they always gave us extra.