Shoot, I’m happy,” said Ms. Jones, 33, a single mother who spent her youth as a foster child and gang member. She was dealing drugs on the streets of South Central Los Angeles before she hit puberty. “I’m making do. At least I’m not in three rooms anymore.”
has just written a book, “Love and Consequences” (Riverhead Books), a heart-wrenching memoir that was released this week.
Ms. Jones is five feet tall in jeans, a pink camouflage hoodie, a toe ring and a fresh set of artificial fingernails. Besides being a consummate storyteller and analyst of inner city pathology, she is one of the few people who in the same conversation can talk about the joys of putting up her own jam (“I’m going to give you a couple of jars!”) and the painful business of getting a tattoo of a large, weeping pit bull across her back the day the state of Nevada set a close friend’s execution date. “It’s the most ghetto thing on my body,” she said.
Her memoir is an intimate, visceral portrait of the gangland drug trade of Los Angeles as seen through the life of one household: a stern but loving black grandmother working two jobs; her two grandsons who quit school and became Bloods at ages 12 and 13; her two granddaughters, both born addicted to crack cocaine; and the author, a mixed-race white and Native American foster child who at age 8 came to live with them in their mostly black community. She ended up following her foster brothers into the gang, and it was only when a high school teacher urged her to apply to college that Ms. Jones even began to consider her future.
“Why take out loans? I figured I’d be dead,” she said. “One of the first things I did once I started making drug money was to buy a burial plot.”
She got a partial scholarship to the University of Oregon and used it to hoist herself out of the streets.
Ms. Jones’s foster siblings have met with a range of fates. Her brother Terrell was killed by the Crips at 21. Her brother Taye, 36, has three children and lives in Tacoma, Wash. The last she heard, he worked for Sprint. Her youngest sister, NeeCee, killed herself three years ago. Nishia, another sister, works at a day care center in Los Angeles and braids hair on the side, but they stopped speaking several years ago after a financial dispute, Ms. Jones said.
Unlike several other recent gang memoirs, all written by men, Ms. Jones’s story is told from a nurturer’s point of view. Along with grit and blood, every chapter describes tenderness and love between people as well as the rites and details of domestic life.
“The reason I wanted to write the book is that all the time, people would say to me, you’re not what I imagine someone from South L.A. would be like,” she said, curled up on her living room sofa, which was jacketed in a brown elasticized cover from Target. Her feet rested on a chunky coffee table from World Market. The house smelled of black-eyed peas, which were stewing with pork neck bones — a dish from the repertory of her foster mother, known as “Big Mom,” whose shoe box of recipes she inherited.
“I guess people get their ideas from TV, which is so one-dimensional and gives you no back story,” she said. Long stretches of unrelieved violence shut a viewer’s brain down, she added, “but one of the beautiful things about a book is you get to put in all the little things that touch people. If you can find a way to combine ordinary moments like being at a birthday party or making dinner with the kind of violent things that people can’t even wrap their brains around, then people can relate.”
With its shootings, pimps beating prostitutes in the street and drug deals plainly transacted in front of children, the Los Angeles neighborhood where Ms. Jones lived is light years from her tame life now.
More than any neighborhood, her house, which she shares with a changing cast of family and friends, is now her world. “Whatever I do in this town has to be more fun than hanging out at home with my friends and dogs,” she said. “There’s not a lot of things.”
For a long time she rented out rooms to people — “college students, hippies, whoever, to help pay the mortgage,” she said. “When the check from the book deal cleared, I got rid of the housemates and set up little college funds for the kids” — her daughter and Masai, the son of another foster sister, Christi. For months at a time, Masai, 6, comes from Los Angeles to live with Ms. Jones so he can attend a better school. “He’s family,” Ms. Jones said. “But to me, family is a little broader than to the average person.”
She often holes up in her office, where a metal sign over the door reads: Writer at Work. There, on a soft black vinyl chair, she sits wearing iPod ear buds with the device turned off, a ruse to keep people from talking to her. A shelf above her desk holds an altar of family snapshots, with many more black faces than white. “This is my brother who’s dead, back when he was in juvie,” she said, pointing out Terrell’s face in a picture frame.
Ms. Jones gave birth to her daughter while she was still in college, then graduated with a degree in ethnic studies, She stayed on in Eugene. Rya’s father, she said, was “the first white guy I ever dated, and she was the first white baby I ever saw. I said, she looks sickly, is there something wrong with her?”
During her senior year of college, one of Ms. Jones’s professors asked her if she would agree to be interviewed by a feminist friend working on a book. Ms. Jones initially said no — “I wasn’t interested in the whole South Central as petting zoo thing” — but then reconsidered. She liked the interviewer and gave her a five-page short story she’d written. The interviewer passed the story to her agent, Faye Bender, who asked Ms. Jones to write 100 pages and then parlayed them into a book contract.
In 2000, while working at a Starbucks, Ms. Jones bought her four-bedroom house in the Whiteaker neighborhood, considered the ghetto of Eugene, she said. “But it’s the nicest place I’ve ever lived. This little ’hood is safe. Schools are great. The neighbor kids come over to play, Mexican and white. I feel cool — I walk my dogs at two in the morning down to the river.”
As comfortable as her life is, she’s often homesick for Los Angeles, which remains her cultural wellspring.
“If it were just me? I’d go back to L.A. in a second,” she said. “But my child deserves to be near her father, and I wouldn’t put her in second-rate schools in South Central. It’s not so much that it’s boring here. I’m a boring person! But there, I could have a purpose, help people.”
Is Ms. Jones still a gang member? “If you make a choice to do it, it’s forever,” she said. “Once a Blood, always a Blood. Am I an active member? No.”
She keeps up with gangland style, slang and people from her old life, many of whom are in jail. Until two and a half years ago, she said, she bred pit bulls and sold them locally and in Los Angeles, where red-nosed pit bulls are the favorite dog of Bloods, largely because of their reputedly aggressive nature. (Ms. Jones hotly defends the breed, maintaining that they are friendly unless abusively trained.) Pit bulls function as a Bloods symbol, as Rottweilers do for the Crips. Ms. Jones said she sold puppies to gang members and others for $200 apiece.
Every year, she said, she gets a little farther from the streets. Recently, she started a gang truce organization called International Brother/SisterHood to help youths move away from gang life.
Without financial help, “selling drugs is the only way you get out of the ghetto,” she said, and then only if one forgoes a flashy car and pays for an education and a house before renouncing drug-dealing income.
“It was different for me because I’m up here where you can buy a house for $130,000, with a 3 percent down payment.” She came up with her down payment by cashing in Starbucks stock options, she said.
Sometimes it’s so quiet in Eugene that she feels panicky. The other day she heard an airplane and thought of the police helicopters that were always overhead in Los Angeles. “We used to say they were chopping up the air so we could breathe,” she said.
“The first time my o. g. visited me here” — meaning original gangster, the gang’s leader — “he slept 20 hours straight. In L.A. your anxiety is so high you sleep three hours a night.”
That visitor, whom Rya calls Uncle Madd Ronald, is now in prison in California. The ways Ms. Jones and her daughter responded to the news reflected their vastly different childhoods. “Rya was just shattered,” Ms. Jones said. “I told her, don’t worry about it, he didn’t do anything bad. He just got caught up selling drugs.”
“I’m not saying it’s right, but there are a lot of worse things,” she said. “But she was just so upset. She thought about it real hard and later she wrote him a letter saying, ‘I love you even though you’re a drug dealer.’ I said to her, wow, you can’t send that to jail, it’s like saying I love you even though you’re ugly — it’s just not nice.”
As night fell, Ms. Jones’s pets, including two pit bulls, a Chihuahua, a cockatiel and three cats, kept silent. A friend let herself in with a key, found a bowl in a cabinet and quietly dished up some gumbo that Ms. Jones had left on the stove top. Another friend, Steven Moore, sat in the living room playing video games. (He is staying with Ms. Jones indefinitely while he recuperates from a gunshot wound to the leg that he sustained in Los Angeles.)
Ms. Jones stood in her big kitchen near a small art table she had set up for the children under a poster listing the Ten Commandments. She offered everyone the house cocktail: Hennessy and Coke. Then she mixed up a batch of perfect buttermilk corn bread without measuring anything. “I make it so much I can eyeball it,” she said. “I’m working on a cookbook right now. Big Mom would roll over in her grave, knowing I’m giving her recipes away.”
A film agent has shown interest in her book, she said. What if the film rights were sold and she were to see some bigger money?
“I’d probably buy a building in the ’hood in L.A. and open a community center and some boxing rings,” she said “There’s nothing for kids to do. I don’t really need that iPod that shows movies.”