Where Have All the Fathers Gone?
At look at life on one block in Los Angeles.


“Everybody in my building is on drugs.”

So said a nine-year-old boy, who delivered this bit of news with a heartbreaking air of acceptance, of resignation to the way things just were. He was referring to the eight-unit apartment building where he and family found themselves living after moving halfway across the country. His assessment of his neighbors conformed with my own, for the building was known throughout the neighborhood as being home to trouble.

I met the boy one summer day while taking refuge from the heat. I had parked my police car beneath the spreading boughs of a large tree, one of the few spots in the neighborhood that offered a patch of shade. He rode his bicycle down the sidewalk past me two or three times, slowing a little with each successive pass to allow himself a better look inside the car and at all the hardware it contained. I recall doing much the same when I was his age.

On the next pass I called him over and invited him to sit in the front seat, which he did with great enthusiasm. He checked out the car’s computer and my flashlight, but of course he was most interested in the emergency lights, which he delighted in turning on and off and on and off.

We continued to meet in this fashion once or twice a week over that summer, and before long I met his sisters (one of whom was his twin) and their parents. They had moved from Colorado, they said, to be near relatives in southern California. They had heard that things were rough in parts of Los Angeles but they weren’t prepared for the life they found in this building and on this block.

They couldn’t afford much. The father was disabled, and the family got along on government assistance and charity from their church, so when they found the apartment on the tree-lined street they considered it a blessing. But they could smell the marijuana and hear the loud music coming from the other apartments all day and all night, they said, and some of the young men in the building sold drugs on the street.

The kids adopted a stray puppy, a scrawny little mutt they found wandering the street one day. They named him Lucky. But even inexpensive dog food was a luxury beyond the family’s means, so they fed it whatever meager scraps were left from their own table. I took to dropping off cans of dog food from time to time, and sometimes I chipped in for the family’s food or medicine or for some little toy for the kids. When I dropped in my presence was greeted with stony silence from the other tenants in the building.

One day I was parked in my usual spot under the tree and saw my little friend riding down the sidewalk toward me. But instead of stopping at my car as I expected him to, he just kept on riding as if he didn’t see me.

Some of the boy’s neighbors, I came to learn, took a dim view of the boy’s friendliness with the police, and they had dispatched an older, larger boy to teach him a lesson. My little friend had taken a beating, one that achieved its intended purpose. It was many days before the boy would so much as look at me again, and even then it was only when he was safely out of the view of his neighbors.

At the other end of the block lives a man named Curtis, with whom I also visit when I’m in the neighborhood. Curtis and his wife live in the very house he grew up in, having inherited the place when Curtis’s parents passed away. Curtis went to Vietnam as a young man, then came home to raise a family and pursue a career building helicopters for Hughes Aircraft.

One day I was talking with Curtis in the front yard of his home. Across the street and down the way a bit is a house that, like the apartment building at the end of the block, is known for trouble. Three or four young men sat on the front steps of the house, eying us as they often did with wary contempt. I told Curtis what had happened to my little friend. They were getting the little boy ready, he said, motioning to the young men on the steps. They were getting him ready to be just like them.

Whether he turns out that way or not I’ll never know. The family moved away last year, one hopes to a better, safer neighborhood. It would almost have to be.

The street today is much different from when Curtis was a child. “When I was growing up,” he said, motioning up and down the block, “every one of these houses had a mother and a father.” And, he said, any one of those mothers and fathers had the implicit authority to discipline any of the others’ children. “These days you can hardly find a father anywhere.”

The result, on this block and on countless others around Los Angeles, is feral packs of young men roaming the streets, governed only by their most primal of appetites.

Alarmed at a recent rise in gang crime in Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and LAPD Chief William Bratton have announced a series of new anti-gang initiatives for the city, on which they will spend millions upon millions of tax dollars. Most of it will be wasted, of course, for the government simply cannot replace what families are unable or unwilling to provide. They could spend a billion dollars, or a trillion for that matter, but unless someone finds a way to keep all those fathers involved in their children’s lives, nothing much will change. Not ever.

– Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.