There’s a restaurant in Los Angeles called Homegirl Cafe, one of the Homeboy Industries businesses created to provide jobs for former gang members. Gregory Boyle, the Jesuit priest in back of that project, was having lunch with Diane Keaton at the cafe one day. When the waitress came to the table she gave Keaton a look and said she thought they knew each other. Not wanting to call attention to herself, Keaton said she didn’t think so. The waitress wasn’t buying it and each time she returned to the table she brought it up again. On her last trip to the table she said she’d figured it out. “I know where I know you. We were in lock-up together!”
In a heart wrenching and also unexpectedly hilarious book, Boyle goes into the heart of Los Angeles gangs and uncovers universal kinship, a kinship that crosses gang lines and all other lines. In one of many stories from Tattoos on the Heart, Boyle has a conversation with an abandoned and abused homie from his graffiti crew, asking him what he did for Christmas a few days ago.
“I invited six other guys from the graffiti crew who didn’t have no place to go.” He named them. They were enemies with each other. I said, “What’d you do?” He goes, “You’re not gonna believe it. I cooked a turkey.”
I said, “Well, how’d you prepare the turkey?” He says, “Well, you know, ghetto-style.” And I said, “No, I don’t think I’m familiar with that recipe.” And he said, “Well, you rub it with a gang [sic] of butter, and you squeeze two limones [sic] on it, and you put salt and pepper on it, put it in the oven. Tasted proper,” he said. I said, “Wow. Well, what else did you have besides turkey?”
“That’s it, just turkey. Yeah, the seven of us, we just sat in the kitchen, staring at the oven, waiting for the turkey to be done. Did I mention it tasted proper?” I said, “Yeah, you did.”
What could be more sacred than seven orphans, enemies, rivals, sitting in a kitchen, waiting for a turkey to be done? [Excerpted from Tattoos on the Heart]
As a young, newly minted Jesuit priest, 30 years ago Boyle became pastor of the poorest church within the Los Angeles archdiocese, an area also recognized as being the gang capital of the world. In the decades to come, he crisscrossed gang lines on his bicycle, becoming the life-salvaging touchstone for some of the country’s most discarded human beings. He created Homeboy Industries, a network of businesses including Homeboy Bakery, Homegirl Café, Homeboy Silkscreen, Homeboy Maintenance and Homeboy/Homegirl Merchandising, among others, as a means of employment for people who are virtually unemployable. He has helped thousands of gang members remove their tattoos, get clean, go to school, get jobs and shock themselves by becoming productive members of society. And he has witnessed their amazement in the moment they realized they were somebody.
Tattoos on the Heart helps the world see into the heart of people who are unreal to many of us. Get a taste of Tattoos on the Heart with NPR’s Krista Tippet’s podcast interview.
It Tasted Proper is a mini book review (as much as I can cram onto the one page I limit my wellness tips to in my work as the runner of an employee wellness program) on the spirit of wholehearted living, and is not part of my memoir, The Organization Project. I’ll be back next Friday with Just Tell Me, another story from The Organization Project.