Points West by Steve Lopez LA Times 1/18/2006
A Lucky Day for a Constant Gardener
It was Dec. 23, and Ray the gardener had a fast-approaching deadline to meet in the quiet northwest corner of Inglewood. A man named Kanoa Rivera had hired Ray to pretty up his frontyard as a Christmas present for his wife.
Pansies, agapanthus, snapdragons, roses. Ray was making good progress when the clock struck noon. He handed a $20 bill to his helper and told him to get them some lunch on nearby La Brea Avenue. Moments later, two thugs approached and demanded money from Ray.
“I don’t have any money,” said the 34-year-old gardener, who had only $1 left in his pocket.
But the two men, both about 20, wouldn’t give up. When Ray told them to bug off, they jumped him.
“They started to pull me and shake me,” said Ray, a married man with three kids. In desperation, he reached for the nearest tool.
“I had the shovel in my hand when I saw the gun,” he said.
Ray lunged for the gun, then stumbled. When he stood up, he was looking straight into the muzzle from just a few feet away.
Then came the blast.
“Somebody help me!” he screamed, blood spilling from the hole in his chest. The wound was near his gold crucifix, just above his heart.
Ray felt a burning sensation along the bullet’s path, and he was dizzy from blood loss by the time the ambulance arrived. On the way to the UCLA Medical Center emergency room, he said, his biggest fear was that his predicament would ruin Christmas for his family.
This, however, was his lucky day.
“Bullets can do the most amazing things,” said Dr. Marshall Morgan, chief of the ER and one of the attending physicians, who couldn’t entirely explain the route this particular slug took.
Ray’s bullet, probably a .22, might just as easily have nicked his heart and killed him. Instead, it tore through a pectoral muscle and sliced diagonally on a shallow course, lodging somewhere in his flank. He was released about three hours later, almost good as new, with instructions to have the bullet removed at a later date.
Ray, by the way, is not the gardener’s real name. The hospital assigned it to him for security reasons, in case his attacker managed to learn his name and try to find him. I’m using it here because Inglewood police say the shooter is still on the loose.
That’s one reason his wife flipped out the next day, when Ray woke up, put on his work clothes and headed for the door.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“Work,” he said with a shrug.
“Don’t go,” she insisted.
As a general rule, anyone who gets shot in the chest on Friday should definitely get the weekend off, she reasoned. Especially a holiday weekend.
“I need to be responsible,” he told her. “I told the man I’d finish the job before Christmas. It was a present for his wife.”
And so he drove back to the scene of the crime and unloaded his tools, only to find Kanoa Rivera wondering what he was doing.
“Finishing the job,” said Ray, who shoveled and raked for four hours, turning Rivera’s frontyard into a page from Better Homes & Gardens. Not only is a promise a promise, Ray said, but as the sole breadwinner in his family, he can’t afford to take time off, especially in the rainy season.
The Riveras were so impressed, they invited Ray and his family to come by Christmas day, when they presented him a thank-you card.
This past Saturday, after the rain washed out his Beverly Hills tree-trimming job, I met up with Ray and his wife at a McDonald’s near their small two-bedroom rental in Inglewood.
They feel blessed, they said. When the kids — 10, 9 and 8 — aren’t in school, Ray often takes one of them to work with him. But on the day of the shooting, he left them home.
“I feel very lucky for that,” he said.
When I asked why he likes to take them to work at all, he said there were two reasons. First, his landscaping jobs are always in neighborhoods safer than the one they live in. Second, he wants them to know his work is no fun, so his kids will crack the books and vow to make a better life for themselves.
In case you were wondering, Ray doesn’t have his papers, which is one reason he has no medical insurance and avoids going to the doctor. Unless he has something like, say, a bullet in his chest.
He walked across the border as a teenager in search of work and never went back, but didn’t know how to apply for amnesty when he had the chance. Now he’s hoping his wife, a legal resident, will become a citizen this year — like their three children — and bolster his chances of going legal.
He’d make a great poster boy for the “earned legalization” proposal by Sens. John McCain and Edward Kennedy, in which he’d pay fines and back taxes to buy his way out of the shadows. Roughly 11 million illegal immigrants like him contribute to an economy with a shortage of home-grown labor, and our wink-and-nod immigration policy — which benefits thousands of employers — is a mess of hypocrisy and lies.
But none of that is on Ray’s mind these days. The bullet stayed on the move, traveling to a point just under the skin near his left underarm.
“Right here,” he said, touching the slug through his shirt.
It hurts to pull a hoe or rake, so he’s thinking he better have it dug out soon, except that he’s afraid of what it’ll set him back. And as long as the sun is shining, he can’t afford to miss a minute of work.