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Flava of the Month

At the Chateau Marmont with Margaret B. Jones, L.A.’s memoirist of gang life.

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"Gang Memoir, Turning Page, Is Pure Fiction," said a New York Times headline last month. How many first-time authors make it onto page one?  

Duck!”

I’ll admit that I was a bit reluctant when I got the assignment to interview Margaret B. Jones about her new book, Love and Consequences, a disturbing yet refreshing tale of life as it’s lived on the mean streets of Los Angeles. Not another memoirist profile, I thought. Haven’t we had enough of those?

But here I am, following her lead and diving under a table. Clutching my Mr. Pibb, I look into the street and see the slowing car, the window rolling down. Even a pampered upper-middle-class journalist like me knows what that means: Drive-by.

The seconds pass. I gaze into Margaret B. Jones’s flinty Cherokee eyes, and I’m calmed by what I see there. They’re eyes that say, “I’ll take care of you.” After what seems like an eternity, the gray Volvo rounds the corner and is gone.

“Reflex,” she says as we resume our lunch on the patio of Paco’s Chick ’n Waffle in Compton. “You never really get out of the game. When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way. There ain’t no getting out, homey. I saw that guy behind the wheel and thought, He looks like a Shark, I better duck.

Margaret joined the Jets when she was 9. A half-white, half–Native American orphan taken in by a proud working-class black family, she had to enter a gang in order to pay for her adoptive mother’s foot operation. Now, I’ve interviewed princesses and viscounts, moist young starlets and the most formidable Hollywood doyennes, but none of that is preparation for meeting Margaret Jones in the flesh. It’s hard to reconcile the brutal passage about her initiation with the inscrutable creature sitting before me, gnawing a chicken wing. After the initiation, they had a group hug and handed her a windbreaker and tight dungarees: She was in. But at what cost?

That’s just the first ten pages. What follows is disquieting and haunting, but it’s not all Glocks and body bags. There are moments of warmth in the sections dealing with her adoptive family, the Evanses, headed by the dignified matriarch Big Florida. As Margaret puts it at the end of the chapter “Ghetto-Ass X-Mass,” when things get financially dire right around the holidays: “J.J. had his paint, Michael had his books, Thelma had her sass, but I only had one talent: slinging rock. I stuck out like a white sheep in a black flock.”

We get in the car so she can show me the prison, not wanting to leave anyone out. She wants to introduce me to her friend Avon, a real “O.G.,” as she describes him, but visiting hours are over. He’s the one who gave Margaret her nickname, Pebbles. “I was in the game, slinging rock, smoking rock. Whenever we re-upped with the Greek, Stringer put that big rock in the middle of the table, and I’d chip away at it to make little rocks to put in them vials, you dig?” She demonstrates this for me, stabbing the steering wheel with her iPhone. “I was so good at it, only pebbles be left. That’s why they started calling me Pebbles.”

Pebbles. How fitting. Webster’s defines a pebble as “a small, usually rounded stone, especially when worn by the action of water.” Looking into Margaret’s face, I can’t help but think, maybe the nickname contains more truth than they knew.

As we return to the city, I ask her why she thinks people respond so strongly to her book. “Most people live comfortable lives, and that makes them uncomfortable.” She notices my expression and says, “That’s like a Zen koan, right, homey? Think about the times you’ve said, ‘My life is so boring—why can’t I have olfactory hallucinations or a flesh-eating disease?’ How many times have you thought, ‘Where are the killer bees, and will I be trapped alone in a desperate fight for survival when they come?’ ” I shake my head and smile: She has my number.

“There’s no shame in being average, you jive turkey,” Margaret says. “The only shame is in doing nothing about it.”

Average. That’s one thing Margaret most definitely is not. I broach this subject with her friend Misha Defonseca, author of Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years, which describes how she hid out in the forests of Europe to escape the Nazis and was taken in by a gang of wolves. Whenever Misha makes it out to the States for a visit, she and Margaret go shopping for Levi’s, which are difficult to come by in her native country. She resells them to aspiring hipsters in her village at a dreadful markup.

I visit her tiny cottage, a few kilometers outside a large Eastern European city. Misha is a little Cabbage Patch doll of a woman, with an energy beyond her years. It’s not hard to see her nestled in with the other cubs, fighting bravely for the teat of the she-bitch. I ask her if it’s harder to be adopted by black people or wolves. She chuckles at my question and sips her tea. “We tease each other, Margaret and I. She says, ‘At least we had cable and White Castle—you had to forage for nuts and berries.’ But the wolves, I tell her, the wolves have”—and here she turns her eyes to the ceiling—“they have La Vida Lobo. The Wolf Life!” It is a brief audience, and she soon dismisses me to return to work on the prequel of her memoir, about her time on the run from the Armenian genocide, when she was taken in by ferrets.


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