Primitivo Estrada stood alone at the portaled entrance
to the Our Lady Queen of Angels Church. Killing time,
he rocked back and forth on the heels of his highly
polished Stacey Adams shoes. Time was something he'd
had plenty of ever since he'd been kicked out of high
school in his sophomore year for having a gun in his
locker. He had never held a job of any kind. Everyone
called him Payaso.
Because of the August heat, the ruffled blue shirt and
mothballed tuxedo jacket he'd rented for the wedding
were soaked through. Above him, the sanctuary's multifoil
window reflected the surrounding jumble of apartment
buildings, prewar bungalows, gas stations, taco stands,
junkyards, and graffiti-adorned public housing projects
that was East Los Angeles.
Payaso moved closer to the sanctuary door and opened
it a few inches. Inside, it was standing room only.
Father Mendoza, who the other vatos believed was a fag
because he lisped, stood at the altar chanting religious
bullshit. Kneeling in front of him were Smokey Salazar,
vice president of the White Fence gang, and his cross-eyed
bride Linda Medrano, whose gang nickname was Parrot.
Careful not to make noise, Payaso eased the door closed
again. A loyal White Fence homeboy, Payaso had earned
the rank of veterano, having served time in jail and
reached his twenty-second birthday without being killed
by an opposing gang.
Payaso had volunteered to stay outside and perform lookout
duty. He figured he might as well because he always
cracked up in church. He'd kneel like everybody else
and it would be all silent and everyone would like be
praying. Then for no apparent reason he would just get
the urge to laugh like hell. It was weird. It would
start with a giggle and it wouldn't stop. He would like
really crack fucking up during any church service. He
used to think he was the only person in history with
this inexplicable urge until he saw a movie at the Floral
Drive-in Theater called College Vacation. In a scene
he remembered vividly, all these college dudes laughed
like motherfuckers during a church service and pissed
off the minister. Payaso identified with this behavior
and went back to see the movie four times.
Rocking back and forth, Payaso surveyed the line of
customized lowriders parked at the curb in front of
the church. The cars were all washed, polished, and
decorated with paper flowers and streamers. At the conclusion
of the church service the White Fence wedding party
would be transported in fine style to the Knights of
Columbus Hall on Soto Street for the reception.
Keeping his eyes on the street, Payaso lit a Marlboro.
He took a long drag and gently blew a perfect smoke
ring at the church door. He turned, aimed another ring
at the wood framed house across the street, and for
good measure, on more at the dingy El Cholo taco stand
catercorner from the church.
For no particular reason, he thought of his mama, a
fiery-eyed woman who showed her love by lying to the
cops when they came to their tiny one-bedroom house
on Ortega Street looking for him. At age thirteen, when
he'd been a White Fence peewee, he'd learned his father
really wasn't in the Army like Mama told him, that Madre,
with her long raven-black hair and her White Fence teardrop
tattoo was full of shit. His father had most likely
been one of the beer-bellied Cabrons from the meatpacking
plant on Los Angeles Street she invariably brought home
on Saturday nights.
He recalled years of being carted next door with his
brothers and sister to Mrs. Valladolid's place to spend
the night huddled together on her rancid living room
rug. On Sundays Mama always served menudo and treated
the kids extra nice. Payaso eventually figured this
was to assuage her guilt for getting laid.
His first trip to the L.A. County Juvenile Hall had
been when he was twelve years old. He and some other
peewees had been dropping bricks onto cars from the
Soto Street freeway overpass. When the cops came, he
and the others ran. He took a shortcut through a backyard,
but his T-shirt got caught on the edge of a chain-link
fence. A motor cop, whom he remembered as being ten
feet tall, laughed when he found him, called him greaseball,
and slapped him hard enough to make him see stars.
At Juvenile Hall, a bearded gringo counselor tried to
reach Mama by telephone, but, as luck would have it,
it was Saturday night and she was off somewhere getting
a piece of ass. So Payaso was placed in a padded isolation
cell with a small window on he door and remained the
night, intermittently jacking off to kill time. At about
noon the next day mama picked him up. Subsequently,
he made six other trips to Juvie Hall and served both
a thirty-day and a ninety-day sentence at the Fred C.
Nelles Juvenile Detention Center in Whittier.
At eighteen, he was convicted of car theft and sentenced
to a year in the Los Angeles county jail. He received
a sentence reduction due to jail overcrowding and, with
time off for good behavior, served three months and
twenty-one days. While he was there, he used the guile
he'd developed at Nelles and managed to negotiate a
job in the jail kitchen. Most of the mess duty was scrubbing
institutional-sized pots and pans and cleaning out the
kitchen's overflowing grease pit, but the position had
distinct benefits. He was able to steal spoons and other
utensils easily whittled into shanks for other White
Fence homeboys serving time. He even provided weapons
to prisoners in other cellblocks in exchange for Marlboros.
He always checked out these buyers, though, to make
sure he wasn't selling to a member or associate of a
rival gang, who'd use one of Payaso's sharpened forks
or spoons against him.
Another benefit of mess duty was that he was able to
spit or urinate into the food served to the deputy sheriffs
on the jail staff. Everyone knew the deputies would
beat him to death if they ever found out, so this gained
him respect from his comrades and moved him several
notches higher in White Fence gang hierarchy.
Bored, Payaso wandered out of the shade to his Chevrolet.
Parked fourth in line behind Smokey's, the car was a
highly lacquered blue and had been lowered to within
four inches of the street. Its seats were covered with
pleated leather upholstery referred to in East L.A.
custom-car circles as "tuck-and-roll." He
reached through the window opening, unlocked the glove
compartment, and took out a $1.98 spray can of Four-star
paint and a cotton athletic sock. He looked about furtively
to make sure no one was watching, then dropped down
on his haunches to hid from passing cars. Holding the
sock over the spray-can nozzle, he pressed the trigger
firmly and allowed the spray can to hiss a healthy amount
of gold paint into the sock. He set the paint can down
on the sidewalk and, using both hands, cupped the sock
like an oxygen mask over his nose and mouth, and took
Toluene-induced lightheadedness spread from his nasal
passage to forehead, to his spine and the very center
of his brain. Dope TV came on and his mind flipped though
the channels. For brief, flashing moments he was relaxing
comfortably in a dentist's chair with his mouth open
wide, standing on the corner of Brooklyn and Soto streets
watching the Cinco de Mayo parade, sitting anxiously
in the principal's office at Castelar Elementary School
waiting to get spanked with a thick wooden paddle, cavorting
about while dressed as a monkey on Halloween, screaming
while holding tight to the restraining bar in a roller
coaster at the Magic Mountain amusement park.
He sprayed another shot of paint into the rag and sucked
more paint fumes into his lungs. It was like sliding
into soothing, tepid water as the high changed to the
lighter-than-air, everything-is-OK sensation he'd first
experienced as a nine-year-old when he'd inhaled model
airplane glue. Clearly, as if the radios of a fleet
of lowrider Chevys were playing simultaneously he could
hear his favorite tune:
Earth Angel, earth angel, will you be mine?
My darling dear, love you all the time.
I'm just a fool. A fool in love with you.