When we were kids growing up in Los Angeles, our favorite thing to do on weekends was to walk around the corner from our mother’s Mid-City duplex and spend all our money on snacks and candy from three small stores all within blocks of one another on Pico Boulevard.
Our first stop was always the Pico Meat Market, where the owner would sell us giant dill pickles from the jar sitting on top of his meat case. We’d hand over our dollar, and the Korean man behind the counter would hand back a pickle in a plastic sandwich bag, smile and wave us on our way.
The next stop was Okay Liquor at the corner of Carmona and Pico, where the owner was used to having a store full of indecisive kids who couldn’t make up their minds about how many 10 cent packs and Now and Laters they wanted and which flavors they should get. He was patient and kind and usually threw in a few pieces of licorice for free because we spent so much of our allowance in there.
We always saved Century Liquor on Hauser for last. The owner was mean, rude and grumpy, and his wife followed us around the store constantly, as if we didn’t come in there all the time to buy potato chips and honey buns. It seemed like even waiting on us was an issue for him, and he became the butt of a long-standing joke between my siblings and me the day he angrily threw my $3 back on the counter, refused to sell me a bag of chips, pointed at the door and yelled, “It’s your money! You take it!” in an accent so thick, we laughed all the way out the door and kept repeating those words over and over to each other on our way back home.
The relationship between blacks and Asians in the city of Los Angeles has always been tentative and tenuous, with a hint of suspicion and outright distrust. Asians have always existed in our neighborhoods and run the businesses that we frequent on a daily basis, but after delivering their goods and services to us, they go home to wherever it is they live. We don’t socialize, and despite how the small talk and pleasantries make it seem, we aren’t friends.
This was true before the 1992 riots, and it is still true now, 25 years later. The only thing that seems to have changed since the riots is that the mutual suspicion and distrust is more overt, and a lot of the liquor-store and beauty-supply owners have installed black employees to serve as either a bridge or a guard dog between them and the neighborhood blacks who frequent their businesses.
When I go to my favorite beauty supply on Crenshaw Boulevard, the owners always greet me loudly and with big, happy smiles on their faces, but it is the young black women working there who help me select my products. The owners sometimes make small talk or offer information about when a particular product I am looking for will be back in stock, but it is the black employee who is following me around asking if I need help with anything.
She’s installed there to make sure I get what I need and to serve as a translator of sorts when I’m looking for something they don’t have. As much as the owners trust her to dig hair and products out of boxes, they don’t trust her enough to handle their money; the only people ringing up purchases in that store are the Asians who own it.
You will never see the black woman behind the counter.
At the liquor store around the corner from my old apartment in Leimert Park, an older black man works behind the counter with the Asian owners. He is mean and gruff and does not look me in the eye when I buy my AriZona iced tea. When I walk in the store and say “Hello” to let them know that I’m in there and I mean no harm, the Asians in the store speak to me, but he doesn’t.
His behavior is code for his role as enforcer. They have put him there as a sort of overseer, and this becomes evident when a drunk stumbles in, grabs a bottle of beer from the cold case and promptly drops it, sending broken glass and foamy malt liquor across the store floor, creating a mess.
“Getcho drunk ass outta here!” the black man yells. We don’t know his name because he’s never told us. He doesn’t care to. He’s not here to be our friend, and neither are his employers. This is a space for conducting cash transactions and nothing more. “Get your shit and go” is not just an attitude; it’s a way of life.
And so we get our shit and go. There’s no need to build relationships with people whose only investment in the community is the one funneling money into their pockets. This is how it has always been.
They will continue to hire a black woman to work in the beauty supply so that we always see someone who looks like us, and their knowledge of the women who come into that shop will be limited to the type of weave she likes to buy or what products she uses most, but they are not trying to forge more than a transactional relationship. Pay for play, if you will.
The grumpy black overseer in the liquor store is not trying to get to know me or anyone else, for that matter, because he is operating in that same transactional space. The only thing he needs to know is whether you have that $5.25 for those two tall cans of Colt 45. That’s it.
These relationships exist in a vacuum that is clogged in the middle of South Los Angeles. As time progresses, the faces in the neighborhood become a more organic mix of black and brown, but the attitudes of the shopkeepers and store owners remain the same.
It’s your money. They take it.