Police had cordoned off the intersection of Broadway and Sixth Street, in Los Angeles’s old Jewelry District, before I arrived. I was walking aimlessly downtown that afternoon, killing time and eating tacos, when I spotted the bright yellow tape. Some men had robbed a jewelry store, and one of them had been shot.
Five police cruisers parked near the crime scene, along with several unmarked detective cars and three news vans. A Telemundo TV anchor in a tie stood in the middle of Broadway’s southbound lanes, shooting a segment. A Channel 5 anchor and her cameraman set up in the intersection as onlookers stood by watching.
“What’s goin’ on down here, man?” one pedestrian asked another. The second guy shrugged.
A third man walked up. “Someone get killed?” No one answered. The second guy, the shrugger, walked off in silence. Despite the sizeable crowd of lookers, even more pedestrians ignored the scene entirely, streaming past and barely glancing, as if everything was normal, just another day of crime and camera crews in downtown LA.
Maybe it was. The intersection was a hive of pawn shops and jewelry stores. Dave Tipp Pawn Shop stood on the northwest corner, Omid Jewelry on the northeast corner, and Broadway Jewelry Plaza on the southeast. Police buzzed around Broadway Gold Center, a corner shop with an iridescent interior that stood next door to another gold and diamond retailer called L.A. Noosha.
As if the sight of cops and news crews would make a cool keepsake, onlookers held up cell phones to shoot videos and snap photos. One young guy stood beside the Telemundo van and filmed the filming of their segment. The other talking head stood near the northeast corner by the crowd, reading her notes and discussing revisions with someone on the other end of her cell phone.
I stood on the curb beside Omid Jewelry and took in the scene. The stink of urine kept wafting by. The breeze carried the heavy scent between buildings, a dizzying mix of dirty truck stop urinal and cat litter ammonia that came from nowhere and everywhere at once. When someone walked by with a greasy slice of pizza, it briefly displaced the smell. The cherry cigar of a young kid in baggy jeans also helped conceal it, then the breeze shifted and the odor returned.
A pedestrian walked up and asked an employee at Omid, “Someone rob a jewelry store?”
Dressed in blue jeans and a dark collared shirt, the employee sat on a stool outside the store, one leg up, one down, and eyeballed the stranger. “Don’t know,” he said. That or he wasn’t telling. His job was to beckon customers. While cops surveyed the crime scene and journalists colonized the street, the man kept yelling “El pagar del oro!” in a Spanish accent, adding what sounded like, “Low price, like for gold!”
Unsatisfied with his response, the stranger walked off, and I caught the employee’s eye. In sync, we nodded.
To find out what happened, I started asking around. I leaned into a conversation to ask three strangers if they knew the details. I talked to an older man on a bike, and a twenty-something taking cell phone photos. The story was vague but simple: when two armed men tried to rob Broadway Gold Center, the security guard pulled out a gun and opened fire. The guard was an off-duty reserve sheriff deputy. When the criminals ran, he darted outside and kept shooting, hitting one in the back. “The one robber went down,” the bicyclist told me. “It hit him in the lower back, and boom, just down. His buddy kept running, just left him like that. Somehow he got up and made it to the getaway car.” A helicopter circled above downtown, searching for the suspects.
Another person contradicted the bicyclist’s account. The kid that got shot didn’t get away. He got caught and treated at the scene. And there weren’t two robbers but three. While two hit Broadway Gold Center, the other went next door to L.A. Noosha and jumped the counter to grab a handful of gold chains.
Nobody knew anything more about the guard: why was a sheriff deputy moonlighting as security? Was that common practice? “He’s a cowboy,” said the man on the bike. The guard’s actions were questionable. In late afternoon, this area was bustling. His bullets could have hit anybody, which suggests he was more interested in protecting jewelry than civilians.
I leaned against Omid Jewelry and listened to the helicopter echo between buildings.
Although the police tape left room on the sidewalk for pedestrians, it shrunk the corner of Broadway and Sixth into a tight passage. People inched between the tape and Omid like cattle in a chute, their shoulders bumping and hands rubbing as they squeezed through.
A scowling tan redhead in a blue tank top pushed through the crowd and yelled “Fuck!” Exasperated, he swung his dirty backpack back onto his shoulder after a passerby bumped it off, and he pushed into the swarm.
A city worker in a neon yellow vest came rolling up the street. Pushing a trash can with an enormous plastic bag full of trash set on top, she announced her arrival with a friendly, “Beep beep.” She stopped beside Omid and waited for a gap. One never came. “’Scuse me,” she said to no one in particular. “Comin’ through. ’Scuse me.” At first, her voice was sweet, but the longer she waited and the more people streamed past, the firmer her tone became. Finally she yelled, “Hey! You need to you move. I’m comin’.” Still, no one stopped.
A stranger emerged from the crowd and held out his hands to restrain the others. “Hold up one second,” he said in a booming voice, “someone’s coming through.”
“Thank you,” the woman said, her voice soft and genteel again. When she wheeled past, a rush of people filled the opening behind her like seawater in a tide pool, and somehow, in her wake, a tiny white Rite-Aid bag tumbled through the maze of tromping feet without hitting a single one.
“El pagar del oro!” yelled the man at Omid. “Low price, like for gold!”
Out of nowhere, a woman with long eyelash extensions and green reflective tights asked me, “What happened?”
“Robbery,” I said. “That place there.”
She looked across the street. “A robbery?”
“Two guys got away,” I said, “and one got shot.”
“Shot? He die?”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
She squinted hard at the store then turned her head so fast that her thick braids twirled and draped across her shoulders. “That’s crazy. Glad he lived. Recession havin’ hard times out here.” As she walked up Broadway, the scent of perfume mixed with the stink of piss.
Beside me at Omid, a security guard stood by the door, hands in his pockets, white text on a black windbreaker announcing his position. A man stopped to ask the guard what happened.
The security guard smiled and shook his head. “No. No know.”
“You don’t know? You’re the security guard.”
The guard smiled again and looked at the man, and then at me. “No entiendo ingles.”
“No entiendo ingles?” The stranger stood close to the guard but leaned closer, staring hard through dark lifeless sunglasses as if he were about to reach out and push him. After a moment he said, “Uh, huh,” and walked off.
Behind him, a mother in a colorful headwrap walked by, telling her two young daughters: “It’s quiet. Look how quiet it is. Why’s it so quiet when somethin’ happens?”
After filming her segment, the Channel 5 news anchor slipped under the police tape and cut through the crowd. Wearing a skirt and pink sport coat, her stilettos were so sharp that she had to take tiny, stabby steps to maneuver. Outside of Omid, she paced around the sidewalk, making a spectacle of talking loudly into her phone as if she were some minor celebrity.
Once her cameraman arrived with his equipment, a Hassidim with a thick beard and a dark suit greeted them outside the store. He paused to point to the mezuzah on the doorframe. “Here is the scroll I mentioned.” The cameraman shot footage of the exterior and the scroll. Inside Omid, the anchor held her microphone over a glass case and asked an employee questions in a voice too low for me to hear. The guy next to me kept yelling “El pagar del oro!”
After the crew finished their interior shots, the bearded man led them outside and thanked them. “Okay,” the anchor said. “Thanks.” To her cameraman she said, “Great exteriors, too,” and brushed invisible fuzz off the front of her coat.
“Let me get a shot of this gentleman here,” the cameraman said as he aimed his camera at the security guard.
I scoot away to get out of the shot, and an older businessman and a young hip kid came from different directions and stepped beside me at the same time. The older man asked, “What happened?” I told him.
The young man listened and chewed his food. He had a small bouquet of flowers in one hand, wrapped in brown paper. “Wow,” he said, “shot in the back.”
I said, “That a pork bao?”
“Yeah, from up the street.”
The other man said, “Thanks for filling me in,” and left.
A young couple walked up, arm in arm. From their blissful smiles and wobbly sway, they looked like two lovers who’d been out drinking, even though it wasn’t even four o’clock. A police officer stood nearby, tearing down the yellow tape, and the couple asked him, “What happened?”
He wore dark Ray-Ban sunglasses and tugged at the tape with the delicacy of a bulldozer. “A robbery,” he said after a long pause. He wadded the tape into a ball in his hands, then he smiled. “Watch the news,” he said. “Watch the news.”
“Ah,” the young guy said, “thought someone got killed,” and squeezed his girlfriend around the waist. They tipped forward, like two jovial drunks, and walked up the street.
It turns out that two thieves dug a tunnel into Broadway Gold Center in February of 2011 and stole approximately $3 million dollars’ worth of jewelry. The store normally locked their merchandise in safes, but it took three hours to move the jewelry from the safes into the cases, and three hours to move it back, so on this night, they left the jewelry in sight. As one local jewelry store owner, Mahvash Zendedel, told CBS news after today’s heists: “This is very dangerous. Police, police we need help, more police here on the Broadway.”
The cop tugged at the tape, and as the rest of it came down, a surge of pedestrians streamed across Broadway, a river of living bodies rushing past me and the security guard and the gold. Cop cars and black sedans pulled away, falling into formation with the meticulous ease of migrating geese. Except for the group of detectives in suits outside L.A. Noosha, the intersection looked the same as it would on any other day. Cars passed unimpeded. Pedestrian traffic flowed, brisk and blasé, as if nothing had ever happened. People’s deadpan faces and the pulse of their lives erased evidence of the event, their feet scouring the scene of this day’s bloodshed, and the intersection of its fleeting significance, but not scouring it from memory, because with all the guns and money around, and the idea of the American cowboy, nothing can cleanse the certainty of the violence that lies ahead.