How To Get Lost In Notoriously Dangerous South Central LA (or How To Get A Free Ride From The Police)


I’m at LAX on the way to Sydney, Australia via Auckland, NZ on Air New Zealand.  I thought it would be fitting to write about 2 interesting events that happened last time I was in the area.

These events both happened within 1 week of each other on a trip to LA in 1999-2000.  My girlfriend at the time and I were staying in Redondo Beach with her cousin, which was about an hour on trains to Hollywood.

On their own these stories are short so I’ve combined them into one longer post.

Part 1: How Not To Get Shot For Your Shoes

Late December, just before New Year’s 2000:

Making our way back to Redondo Beach after sunset from a long day in Hollywood we had to get off and switch trains in Watts.  Home to the Watts Riots of 1965 and with more than 500 homicides between 1989 and 2005, Watts isn’t known as a particularly safe city.

But we’d made this trip a few times before so I didn’t expect this experience to be any different.

There we were on the train platform with 30-40 others waiting for our respective trains when across the platform I noticed a kid, about my age, staring me down.

I ignored it and continued talking to my girlfriend.

But I felt the eyes still staring at me so I did one of those “hey, there’s a girl checking you out, so turn around and look but don’t make it seem like you’re turning around to look” moves.

He started walking towards me.

My first thought was “OK, no big deal, he’s probably not even walking towards me.”

Within a few seconds he was within 12 inches of my face staring into my eyes.

I didn’t know yet what to think, but this kid did not seem very happy to see me, and as far as weapons go all I had was my hands.  (Which, fair enough, are LETHAL!)

“Nice shoes, what kind?”

Taken aback, I looked down at my shoes, because I had no idea what they were, while simultaneously thinking “Oh sweet, I’m about to get mugged.”

“Oh, New Balance running shoes.”

Still staring laser focused into my eyes he said, with a very serious tone, “I like them.”  Then he turned around and walked away.

I’m still not sure what this experience says about me.

I didn’t feel uncomfortable being one of only a handful of white people on the train platform until I was approached rather ominously.

But why did I assume I was going to get mugged when the kid asked about my shoes?  He was obviously just a big fan of shoes.

That said, had he been more cheerful it might have helped to ease my tension.

Part 2: If A Cop Offers You A Ride, You’re Probably Not Safe

“I don’t need a map, I know how to get there.”

I’m going to speculate that those 11 words have resulted in quite a few good stories over the years.

Here’s mine:

We decided to spend the afternoon at the California Science Center near downtown LA in Exposition Park.

We’d been in that area a few days earlier so I knew the correct train stops.

After breakfast in a nice little Redondo Beach diner we headed out.  The first train station was a 15 minute walk and, as luck would have it, the train arrived at the same time we did.

As per usual for our sojourns to LA from Redondo we switched trains in Watts and headed on our way to the California Science Center.

After riding on the train for a few stops I decided the upcoming stop was ours.

We got off the train.

And we were the only 2 people to get off the train.

That seemed a little odd, but nothing necessarily out of the ordinary.

Walking away from the train into a neighborhood I didn’t feel sure this was the correct stop anymore. Maybe it was just my mind playing tricks on me.

The neighborhood looked so normal I can’t even describe it well.  Normal looking stores.  Normal looking streets. Normal looking houses.

Except for one minor detail.

There were no people in sight. Anywhere.  Nobody in the stores, nobody in the streets, and nobody outside the houses.

We’d been walking for 10 minutes and we were completely alone somewhere in Los Angeles.

But we pressed on.  The California Science Center had to be somewhere around here, right?

A few minutes later I spotted a gas station down the road and made out an LAPD cruiser.

We hurriedly walked to the gas station, I walked up to one of the Officers and asked, “Excuse me, do you know how to get to the Science Center?”

He gave me a once over and responded authoritatively, “Get out of here.”

“What?” I responded, a little confused.

“You shouldn’t be here.”

“Well, then how do we get to the Science Center?” I still didn’t understand what he meant.

“You shouldn’t be here, do you want a ride?”

Oooooohhhhhhh.  That’s what he meant.

“Uhh, we’ll just walk back to the train.”

“That’s probably a good idea, but be careful.”

“OK, thanks, bye.”

I guess I didn’t know the correct train stops.

And we never did make it to the Science Center.


Your turn: Any good “stranger in a strange land” or “wrong place at the wrong time” type stories of your own?  Comment or shoot me an e-mail.  Just please don’t shoot me. ;)


  1. Karol,

    Great stories! It’s amazing the feelings that flush through our bodies in moments like this. Less fear and more hyper-alertness.

    Several Summers ago 3 friends and I were traveling through Europe. On our 3rd day we ended up staying in Epinaye sur Seine which we later learned was the most dangerous area of Paris and quite possibly all of France.

    We were mugged on the way home from a bar which set off a fairly extraordinary course of events that involved us working with what we believe were ex-gang members and French Police to finally retrieve her bag.

    I blogged most of the trip, so if you’re interested, you can read the whole saga in these two posts. (And if you scroll through the header images, you’ll find one of us and the superb Police Municipale).

    It was a dramatic experience, but to be honest, I look back on it only with fondness.


  2. My experience didn’t involve another person. I just sat down and read what the bus security described as a suspicious person. The thing was that at one point in time, I had fit every single one of those descriptions without even doing anything shady.

  3. Karol — that’s a great story. Two very interesting perspectives from LA. I like the city, but haven’t spent enough time there to truly fashion an opinion. Loving reading through your archives though. Thanks!

  4. Karol, I just discovered your blog yesterday. I gotta say, I really enjoy reading your posts. I’m a little late to the party on this one, but I figured I’d go ahead and share a VERY similar experience I once had in NY.

    I had taken a 2-week trip to Ireland with a couple friends and we had an overnight layover in Newark, NJ on the way back to Florida. Since I had never been to NY City (and since I can’t just sit in a hotel room when I’m somewhere I’ve never been), I decided we would take a train to the city for the night/early morning and get back to the room in just enough time to freshen up for our early morning flight. My friend bought tickets to a Yankees/Red Sox game since it was the last year of the old stadium and we spent the time leading up to the game just wandering around the city. We eventually jumped on the subway so we could make the nightgame in time, and that’s when the fun started…

    When we bought our ticket, I asked the gentleman at the station what stop we needed for the stadium. He gladly told me and we went on our way, sharing the car with others dressed in Yankees apparel. We came to the stop suggested by our generous subway guide, but paid no attention to the fact that NOBODY else in gameday gear exited with us. Turns out our guide had directed us to the southside of Harlem, but we did not know it at the time. No big deal for me. It was, however, a little awkward for my friend, who was truly dressed the part of a cowboy (tight jeans, boots, big belt buckle, and hat). Why dress like this on a trip? I don’t know, but the ladies in Ireland apparently loved it. Needless to say, his attire garnered much attention and many serious, intense stares. He even had people coming out of buildings to just watch us as we walked by. I figured it was just sideshow-esque curiosity, but it really started to freak him out. To make a long story less long, we found a fire station and asked for directions to the stadium. The firemen asked us what we were doing there, then gave us the long way around since we were walking and it was already getting dark. We made it to the game no worse for the wear (except the fact that I was wearing Red Sox colors in Yankee Stadium), and had an interesting story to share with friends and family when we got back.

    Sorry this turned out to be so long, but reading about your experience definitely brought back memories. I look forward to reading more of your material. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do!


  5. Hey Karol –

    I am reading all your old posts and just read this one. I worked at the Dog Psychology Center of Los Angeles with Cesar Millan for nearly 4 years. It was on 61st street between Gage and Slauson just off the 110 Freeway …. not too far from USC and that whole area with the museums.

    I remember when I first started driving to work I felt a bit out of place and a little unsafe with the characters on the streets. I would drive around running errands in the area and would often realize that most days I would come home thinking I was the only white chick I had seen all day. I never had an incident but it was always the middle of the day. And, while I was at work I usually had 30 – 50 dogs out in the yard so no one was gonna even try to come in and mess with us. After a few months I just realized these were basically neighborhoods with people living in houses and apartments, getting their kids to school and trying to make a living.

    After a few years things neighborhood changed with better markets and a Starbucks and a Quiznos and stores like that. Old buildings have been torn down but it is still pretty industrial. I don’t think I would go walking the streets in that area on a Saturday night but all in all it was a good experience and opened my eyes a bit.


  6. Hey Karol,

    First off, I’ve never had to deal with anything like what is explained in this story so I’m fairly intrigued to say the least, can I just ask a question?

    Why was it unsafe to get a ride with a police officer? I would have jumped at the chance, this really confuses me!


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