“I think I’m going to rob a liquor store.” That’s what Zino said to me as we walked to the corner market to buy cigarettes. I looked at him with skeptical eyes. His glance wouldn’t settle on mine. Instead they darted ahead of us, not taking time to rest on any one thing.
“Are you crazy?” I didn’t give him time to reply. “That’s a horrible idea, bro.” “What store? Where?” I fumbled with some coins in the pocket of my sweatpants.
“My homie works there. He says it will be easy money.”
“That’s crazy man. You don’t need that shit. You’re gonna go to jail or get shot. He was silent as we walked down the alleyway behind our complex.
“You believe in God? He asked me, after taking a drag off his cigarette.
“I believe there is something out there. I don’t know what. Something has control over stuff. I don’t know though.”
“I don’t believe in God always.” He took another drag from his cigarette.
It was a hazy day in west LA. I didn’t have to go to work waiting tables. I had nothing planned except a trip to Westwood later in the afternoon to pay a friend back some money.
We smoked our cigarettes and walked along Wilshire Blvd, towards the ocean. We went south at Lincoln and headed back to the complex along Arizona St. We stepped on magnolia flowers that had fallen on the sidewalk. Some were fresh blooms and others were half rotten and looked like crushed brown plums. We never said too much to each other, probably because we didn’t feel it necessary. There are some friends with whom you talk and others with whom you don’t. There was no doubt that Zino felt like a foreigner while living in LA, and by hanging with him, I didn’t feel so alone when I felt like a foreigner too.
“You know its crazy, right man?” I reiterated my position.
“Yea, I know”
“There’s better ways to make a dollar. You don’t want that stuff on your head.”
“Yea.” Was all he said while he looked down.
“I’m going over to Westwood to meet up with a buddy in a about an hour”
“Can I come?”
“Yea.” I’ll shoot you a text when I’m about to leave.”
I was tired. My brother and I played music at our rehearsal space the night before. I stayed behind after he left, got some more beer and played guitar and sang songs until I sobered up enough to drive home. I had been doing that a lot lately. As the sun was coming up, I drove west on Hwy 10 with the commuters as they raced to their morning duties and jobs. Zino looked a different kind of tired. Like his spirit had been trapped on a track and made to run.
About an hour later we piled in my black Volvo sedan and went east on Santa Monica Blvd. I put on some music and we cruised with the windows down. It was 1:25pm and traffic was as good as it gets.
“You still valeting in Hollywood?”
“Naw, I quit last week.”
“What have you been doing?”
“You want to go for a run later?”
I had the idea that Zino had been in Hawthorne for most of the week. South Central LA was where he first lived when he got to the US, a rough place to immigrate to and then start high school. I wondered what kind of trouble he was getting into down there. It was so easy to get into trouble, I thought to myself. My brother and I were trafficking a half dozen pounds of weed every two months from Northern California to Santa Monica. We’d sell a couple to a dealer buddy, and what ever we had left over we sold out of our apartment. We weren’t very good businessmen, and therefore had grateful customers. Zino respected our humble hustle and was content to have my brother and I as friends. He was welcome to come hang if we were hanging. We would give him some herb if he ever asked, but he hardly did.
We got to Westwood and I parked the car outside of the coffee shop where I was meeting my friend Nick. Bright eyed, determined looking UCLA students and hip middle aged artist types walked along the sidewalk. Zino stayed outside and smoked a cigarette while I went inside and got some coffee and a sandwich. Nick came in couple minutes later, we got to talking, and I gave him the five hundred dollars he had loaned me the month before.
I met Nick three years prior in a shared house on Kelton Ave, near Pico and Westwood. A woman named Sandy packed twelve beds into a three-bedroom house and rented them out to college students, medical interns or struggling artists. I fitted in the latter category while Nick, landing in LA after deciding to go back to school, was at UCLA. Nick had lived many lives up until that point. He had excellent stories of past crusades, debacles and triumphs. He was good seven years older then I, but we got on well. Nick had a knack for numbers and capacity for the thinking behind the numbers and yet he was personable and unassuming about it. His father was once nominated for a Nobel Prize in Economics.
After living together for a year, I left LA and moved to Italy with a girlfriend. Nick and I kept in touch and when I moved back to LA a couple years later, without the girl, we reconnected. Now he was on his way to getting his masters in economics, had quit drinking and was a dedicated distance runner. He knew about me dealing weed. He had his feet in the game at one point back in the day and had even tried to drum up some old contacts of his for my benefit. Nothing materialized. He was fine on his path. His new life, minus drama and adrenaline seemed to suit him well.
Zino stood outside leaning up against a signpost. He was talking on the phone and smoking a cigarette. He hung up the phone, came inside and walked over to Nick and me.
“This chick is coming to pick me up.” Zino said.
“Okay man. Nick, this is my buddy Zino, we live in the same apartment complex.”
Nick and Zino exchanged quick greetings and then Zino went back outside to smoke a cigarette and wait for his ride.
“Zino told me that he’s gonna rob a liquor store tonight.” I told Nick.
“That kid?” Nick said looking up from his bowl of soup, holding a piece of bread and nodding his head towards Zino standing outside. “That’s some sketchy shit man. Why’s he here now?”
“He wanted to get a ride down here, I don’t know. I don’t think he’s really gonna do it. Maybe he will, I don’t know.”
“And you hang out with this guy?” Nick looked at me not impressed.
“He’s a good kid, man. He’s a little lost. I told him he’s crazy if he even considers it. That he’d be checking himself into prison.”
“Sketch man, you gotta ditch him.”
“Yea, you’re right man.” I felt sheepish now. I had the feeling Zino wasn’t going to go through with the robbery, but what did I know. Nick was living straight laced now and I didn’t even consider that he’d sweat over my sharing what I did. I guess a man has the right to enjoy his soup without hearing about a proposed crime.
The mood was a little stiff at the table. We both noticed when Zino got into a sedan and left. My head was worn out.
“I hope your boy gets some sense” Nick got up to go to the bathroom and tossed his napkin on his plate.
Two weeks before was the last week of Ramadan and Zino had been around the apartment complex a lot. It was his home, but he didn’t always stay there. When he was around, he slept on a mat in the living room of his older brother, Mo’s apartment, up the stairs and across the courtyard from the apartment my brother and I rented. Mo had lived in LA a decade longer then Zino. He was a Mercedes Benz mechanic and a kind, gentle, curly haired man. He looked youthful and yet had aged, tired eyes. He had recently come back from Algeria where he met his soon to be bride for the first time. After their arranged marriage she would eventually move to LA to live with him. Zino was younger in every way. It frustrated Mo that Zino was always going to meet up with some girl, was always leaving a job, going to a new one, was always onto a new hustle as a security guard or a hotel clerk or parking lot valet.
During Ramadan, the smell of Lamb and spices, stewed lentils and sweet fruits filled the courtyard air in our little complex of twenty apartments. I had a standing invitation to join in evening meals with Mo and Zino, and whatever guests were also there to break bread and celebrate with them. A small, bald, well dressed, middle aged man named Amour was often there. He drove a nice car and didn’t speak a lick of English but had a big smile that seemed almost too large for his head. Ahmed was another friend who visited for Ramadan and stayed the whole month. He would sit outside on the shared balcony and play a stringed instrument with a pear shaped body, similar to a guitar but with the second and fourth frets divided in half, as to make quarter notes so that he could play the Arabic melodies that were familiar to him.
I remember that Zino was excited about fulfilling his obligation of fasting from dawn until sunset during Ramadan. I remember he told me he wasn’t smoking either, or drinking any alcohol during that month. I don’t know if he abstained from all that. I never asked him if he prayed.
I don’t know where Zino is now. After that afternoon when we parted ways in Westwood, we never did connect the same way again. He didn’t stay with his brother very often after that. During the next year’s Ramadan, I didn’t see him at all.