Dedicated to all of us that went through Peary Junior High School and Gardena High School during the 1960's.
Today I touch my chin in retreat
and in these momentary trousers I tell myself:
So much life and never!
So many years and always my weeks!
1. Eisenhower and John Glenn
Your eyes, I say your eyes
May look like his
Yeah, but in your head, baby
I'm afraid you don't know where it is.
Somebody To Love: Grace Slick (Sung by The Jefferson Airplane)
Two Secret Service men were sitting on my mother’s plastic orange couch wearing grey suits in one hundred degree heat - it was August 1967 and the weather, even for LA, was unusually hot, dry and sticky. Sometime later the whole year would be canonized by the popular media as the "summer of love" - a strange epithet for anyone that actually lived through it. I had come in from the public pool six blocks from my parents' two bedroom apartment on Denker Avenue in Gardena. The "Avenue" was a misnomer as it was then a small nondescript suburban street with mainly beige tract housing from the post-war era, and newer modern apartments to accommodate the growing population, that in an earlier period had been primarily Japanese immigrants. By the late sixties it was a volatile mix of Latin Americans, Mexicans, African Americans and whites that had emigrated for the new jobs available in aerospace and retail. My mom worked in a sweat shop near the elementary school, about ten blocks from our apartment where she sewed all day and my father was looking for a job but was unsure if he was going to stay and stick it out.
I was wearing red swimming trunks, a yellow towel around my neck and bright blue flip flops. The Secret Service men introduced themselves but it went in one ear and out the other - as it often did then. After a brief silence there was an introduction in which my mother spoke for me and explained that I would never write a letter to President Johnson threatening to kill him. Not possible. I sat down in the dining room which was just large enough for four avocado green plastic chairs and a white formica table. My dad had bought the set new, with the plastic furniture wrapped in plastic bags, in the Roadium Swap Meet. Everyone looked at each other as if I had to speak but I had nothing to say. The seriousness was palpable and made me uneasy, something I feigned off by appearing relaxed.
-They say you wrote a letter to president Johnson saying he should be killed because of the war in Viet-Nam! You didn't do that! My son would never write a letter like that! Never!
-How do you feel about the war son?
The older man asked the question as if he knew the answer. He resembled Eisenhower from the photographs of him when he was still a general, and the younger man looked exactly like John Glenn, the American astronaut that had only recently traveled in space. The moon landing was two years away.
-I’m against it but I never wrote any letter. Why would I write a letter?
-Well...if you didn’t just keep on denying it son, but if you did, we’re going to find out sooner or later so you might as well speak up now. Save everyone time.
-We saw the anti-war posters in your room!
-So you might as well speak up now. It’ll be easier on everyone.
The idea that Eisenhower and Glenn had been in my room made my head start to swim with paranoid fantasies of bugging devices and entrapment that made my mind a blank. The letter had been accompanied by a piece of toilet paper with the words “fuck you” scrawled with a marker. The toilet paper was the same brand that my parents had in the bathroom we all shared. My room was full of markers and art equipment that also matched. Eisenhower and John Glenn asked me to spell some words and I misspelled them in the same way that they were in the letter. They asked for a sample of my handwriting and it didn’t match as the person who wrote the letter was left handed. Maybe I had tried to disguise my handwriting, but then why had I signed the letter with my own name? Eisenhower and John Glenn took me out to their car - a new Chevy Impala. I got in the back seat, with Eisenhower at the wheel and Glenn seated shotgun. I could see myself in their rear view mirror. My swimming trunks kept sticking to the seat and sweat kept pouring down my back.
-You can’t threaten the President of the United States without there being some very serious consequences involved - such as prison!
-Such as juvenile hall!
-Such as deportation!
-Where’s you father son?
There was a pause in which both men communicated with each other without speaking.
-Do you like it here - Gardena I mean?
They both spoke in a monotone voice but John Glenn was understanding and friendly and Eisenhower was threatening and aggressive. Glenn spoke very slowly and as deliberately as my teachers in school:
-I want you to tell us - in your own words - what do you think of President Johnson?
2. Run For Your Life
Left school with a first class pass,
Started work but as second class.
School taught one and one is two.
But right now, that answer just ain't true.
My world is spinning around,
Everything is lost that I found.
People run, come ride with me,
Let's find another place that's free.
Ride, ride my see-saw,
Take this place
On this trip
Just for me.
I worked like a slave for years,
Sweat so hard just to end my fears.
Not to end my life a poor man,
But by now, I know I should have run.
Ride, take a free ride,
Take my place
Have my seat
It's for free.
Ride My See-Saw: Charles Lodge / John Lodge (Sung by The Moody Blues)
Gardena High School is located in the South Bay section of Los Angeles and was, throughout the 1960's, a Vo-Tech school which was short for Vocational Technical. These schools were spread throughout the working class areas of Los Angeles, and going to them was mandatory if you lived in those areas - places such as Lawndale, Carson, El Segundo, Lomita, Inglewood. There were classes on car repair and air conditioning and refrigerator repair, shop classes where you learned woodworking, plumbing and electrical work. My mother encouraged me to go into air conditioning as with the heat in LA I would be sure to always have work. You could, if you were ambitious, take your final year of High School working in “real life” (as we called any space outside of High School) and earn minimum wage as a typesetter or a carpenter. My major, despite my mom's urgings, was car repair, because I loved cars and was enthralled by all aspects of car culture. I would drive to Bakersfield to see car racing. Ascot Speedway in Gardena was a frequent stop. There were also auto shows at the Sports Arena and the Pomona Fair had a good display of classic cars and gear. For my final in auto shop I had to dismantle and re-assemble a brake cylinder from an 1960 Ford truck which I did relatively well for someone not really gifted in anything mechanical. Jobs in garages were easy to get then and I thought the pay was good - something to look forward to.
But my central passions then were ping-pong and films. I was completely obsessed by ping-pong and would play for hours - the Japanese community had ping-pong tables in the nearby park where most people concentrated on football and baseball - particularly since Gardena High was known for its football team throughout the state and stories of the players featured regularly in the local newspaper. At age 17 I won a ping-pong championship at that park and was given a small blue rectangular ribbon that I still have somewhere. My other passion was films - I didn't really care what the film was as long as the images moved - the only films I didn't care for were the serious dramas that usually won Academy Awards - I preferred B-Movies and European films that were difficult for me then because of the episodic narratives and oblique style. Theaters were preferable to television only because a full immersion was possible, especially if one sat in the front row as I loved doing then - 2001: A Space Odyssey seen from the first row seat was the ultimate film experience. I could also watch films repeatedly - even mediocre films were seen many times - as if I wanted to absorb American language and culture as quickly and as profoundly as possible and this repetition would somehow make it stick. Belonging to a place was incredibly important to me and I felt that if I soaked up American culture, by whatever means, I would find the stability and certainty of "home." Of course I discovered that "home" was already inside me lurking, but in bits and pieces, always shifting and morphing. Meanwhile television was already a social media, that is, the meeting place where people could exchange their ideas and feelings without much anxiety and a high degree freedom and play.
My father called us the Three Stooges: Steve Tibbs, Ed Anderson and I spent our lunch every working day for three years of Junior High School and three years of High School apart from the rest of the students in a short clearing made of cement, chain link fence and stucco between the cafeteria and the gym. We spent time together because we made each other laugh and because we felt that we did not belong there. Some horrible mistake had been made! What could be done? This last line was always repeated and got a huge laugh. It was not so much a sense of superiority as a sense of alienation that fluctuated wildly between egoism and self hatred. Ed developed the most acute sense of ironic self-loathing I have ever seen. Funny lines were repeated like mantras and Ed had what we considered the best joke of all time:
Doctor (With the voice of “authority”): Mr. Anderson I have some great news for you. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with you! You have fifty, maybe sixty years of life ahead of you. What do you plan to do?
Ed: Well, I guess I’ll have to see how I can stretch out two or three minutes of life into sixty years.
Doctor: How’s that?
Ed: Sleep a lot!
This was his response to “Run for Your Life” a popular television series starring Ben Gazarra which always started with Ben being told that he has only one year to live. With appropriately fast music there was a one minute credit sequence montage of Ben racing cars in Europe, Ben wearing a tux while gambling in Vegas, Ben skiing, Ben sky diving, and Ben partying with beautiful women in an exotic beach location. Ed pictured himself in a montage that was as elaborate but that would depict his situation as it was then: Ed working in a furniture factory named Virco, where he cut wood all day and was paid by the unit, which meant everyone worked at insane speeds, and where he was known as “Buzz Anderson;” Ed at a McDonald’s ordering a Big Mac and fries; Ed driving his father’s beat up car for groceries at the car’s top speed of twenty-five miles an hour; Ed asking a woman on a date in the greeting card section of a local department store - to complete incomprehension; Ed swimming at the local public pool surrounded by pissing children. There was more but by then we were in tears - choking with laughter. This was, as we knew even then, a defense mechanism against our reality - or what Ed Anderson would always call "our all too terrifying reality."
3. “Now that doesn’t sound right...”
I don't care how many letters they sent
Morning came and morning went
Pick up your money
And pack up your tent
You ain't goin' nowhere
Whoo-ee, ride me high
Tomorrow's the day
My bride's gonna come
Oh, oh, are we gonna fly
Down in the easy chair
Buy me a flute
And a gun that shoots
Tailgates and substitutes
Strap yourself to the tree with roots
You ain't goin' nowhere
Whoo-ee, ride me high
Tomorrow's the day
My bride's gonna come.
You Ain't Goin' Nowhere: Bob Dylan
-He’s just the President, I don’t think about him one way or another.
Lyndon Johnson was a part of the American landscape in those years, he was embedded in the consciousness of everyone in the same way that would happen in later years only to famous singers or movie stars, but in a much darker insidious way. I think it was because we saw his old wrinkled face nightly between images of young men in combat and commercials with young women selling products. He became an icon of father time coming back from the dead talking to us as if we were still children only partially awake. My mind was still a blank and I could not articulate all the mixed feelings I shared with so many others of my class and my generation about Lyndon Johnson whom we despised because we saw that he was the chief ward in the plantation. It was as clear as day - he was the boss in the suit - and he was going to get you killed. As it turned out we were confirmed to be right many years later, when tapes were released of all of the White House conversations and debates about the war and it turned out Johnson knew the war was a lost cause but refused to pull out. He didn't want to be the first American president to loose a war. It was all about image - exactly as we thought - although at the time we could not articulate why we hated Johnson because it was only a feeling. But even if we had known our hatred and would have been able to say exactly what it was down to the smallest detail it would have made no difference to us. Our response was an emotional one that was more powerful than any rhetorical point. We didn't give a shit about rhetoric or ideas - pro or con. For some reason it was easy to see through him - as if he were made of glass. For us he was comically transparent and those that couldn't see it were a joke, or they were on the payroll and in on the joke.
-Now that just doesn’t sound right Mr. Porcari.
It was the first time I had been called that and it sent chills up my spine that they say you get when a person walks over your grave. Eisenhower wanted to leave because he said we were only wasting time.
-He knows the story I saw it in his eyes when he first saw us. You knew why we were there didn’t you?
He was right I did know, but not in the way he imagined. The moment I saw those men in suits in the living room I knew it was the boss coming to check on an attitude problem. I didn’t even write letters to people I loved such as my family because I didn’t want to be hurt again by being separated once again, much less letters of hate. John Glenn gave me a card to call in case I wanted to talk, and encouraged me to stick to my story, if it was the truth. Eisenhower just grimaced and shook his head. When they walked off they looked like brothers from the back.
4. My Girl Has Gone
Can I walk beside you?
I have come here to lose the smog
And I feel to be a cog in something turning
Well maybe it is just the time of year
Or maybe it's the time of man
I don't know who l am
But you know life is for learning
We are stardust
We are golden
And we've got to get ourselves
Back to the garden
Woodstock: Joni Mitchell
To be cool was the highest aspiration a boy could have. To be cool meant one had to impress girls by psychologically abusing people with as little effort as possible. That was the thing - maximum violence with minimum effort equalled class. Every boy had a sour look of contempt, that was a defense mechanism, a sarcastic response to our own fear and a badge of honor. We wore that look not just on our faces but on our bodies, in that particular way of walking, that I can still spot. Striding through halls lined with tan walls and grey lockers we all sensed that we were superior to our teachers because we had that glow from suddenly “knowing everything” that comes with adolescence. We sensed that the intelligence of our teachers came from having memorized received knowledge which was something that we instinctually distrusted. We didn’t take the little academic exposure we were given seriously. The only thing that was worth spending some time with was our sexual feelings, having fun, and music. Our hormones combined with the boredom of High School turned everyone into a daydreamer passing shy notes and giving glances and then taking them back with a cool arrogance that we all saw through but that was still impressive and impenetrable. Girls wore short skirts of bright colored cotton fabrics and tight fitting tops with flowers or stripes. To boys, girls always seemed to be moving in packs, always in the same direction at the same time, the way underwater plants move. I once saw a slow wave of beautiful arms moving to Smokey Robinsons' My Girl Has Gone. The down on their arms was visible in the intense desert light that baked the patio at every lunch period. That blinding white light made everything appear as if it could de-materialize at any moment. Masturbation was the subject of jokes and insults and everyone staunchly denied participating but one saw traces of it everywhere. Globs of dried sperm underneath desks and chairs in gym clothes and in notebooks. I masturbated at least once a day using my legs while staring at the back of a girl’s neck, or a shoulder, or a face.
Even though it was the height of the sixties music in school was prohibited, which only added to its visceral appeal. Music was not something you listened to, it was an immersive liquid that went through your body and your consciousness - you absorbed music and it stayed and became a part of you. While The Doors and Jimmi Hendrix, Beefheart and Zappa, were highly regarded and appreciated - the music we most listened to came out of Mowtown and Stax records in the sixties. Aside from those groups there was Aretha Franklin whose record Soul 69' was everywhere then as a soundtrack to that convulsive year for the country and for us as well - our last year of High School. The Beach Boys were the local South Bay band that had made it but their music was heard mostly in cars, not in record players. When a new recording by the Beatles came out you could hear that music come out of various windows as you walked down the street - everyone was playing the same LP - and at times the same song - a surreal experience that I have never seen again. This was particularly true after Sgt. Pepper when even people who could not possibly have cared much about contemporary pop music were playing it - as if they wanted to join in just for fear of being left out. When A Hard Day's Night was released we waited patiently for it to play the Park Theater, an old legitimate theater with a balcony and a stage. The premier, that happened in Gardena about 9 months after the film was released, was a packed house of screaming teenage kids that perfectly mirrored the film itself. You could barely hear the movie but it made no difference - Richard Lester's genius perfectly captured the Fab Four and their music. The film brilliantly collaged the techniques of Cinema-Verite (treating it as a style), the spontaneous improvisations of the French New Wave and the attention to the details of everyday life that were the heart of the Kitchen Sink Films from Brittain. While we were all unfamiliar with these recent innovations in films we responded to them emotionally with wholehearted, ecstatic delight. It was our first introduction to what would be called the "art film."
But the more typical fare of the Park theater was Mars Needs Women and Roustabout and The Atomic Brain and Mary Poppins and The Big Bounce and Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine. I would often stay and watch the film again to not go back home and see my parents fighting. In the theatre there were other kids staying for the same reason and we became friends, getting slightly drunk on beer smuggled in, usually one can that had to be shared, and pounding on the chairs in front of us with our feet for no particular reason. Some kids would throw peanuts or cups from the balcony to the people below to screams and ruckus. They were always thrown out and they always returned through the emergency exit next to the screen. We applauded and screamed until the ushers came to threaten us with cops, but they never called the cops. Aside from music there were a mass of prohibitions at Gardena High in the sixties: long hair, skirts that were too short, halter tops that were too revealing, pants that were too tight, tennis shoes, blue jeans, sexual activity of any kind, smoking, running, screaming, spitting, hair-pulling, fighting and kissing. The tension from these rules turned everyone into a pathological beast, inscrutable and sarcastic, paranoid and self-deprecating, aggressive and sycophantic, exhausted and energized.
-What are you looking at dork?
-It’s got a 396 Hemi with a pan head!
-What’s a Hemi?
-Hemispherical Cylinder Head!
-What’s a pan head?
-What are you a beaner?
-That fucker just put his fingers in his ass and now he’s smelling it!
-You ain’t got no mama motherfucker!
-Did you write Kay Threthaway on your desk?
-The Boogalues did this chicken thing in the car you know where they put it in reverse and without looking slam on the gas and fuck man you’re just going, and everyone in the car is screaming it was great I thought we were gonna die!
-Don’t you know what a beaner is? - Godfuckinghelpme!
-Janet Soga thinks she’s sooo bitchin’ cool!
-What you can’t carry bury dude!
-I've got this perfect match - your face and my ass!
We spoke the argot of the farm and of small towns despite the fact that we were in Los Angeles because our parents were immigrants from small towns in states that we had never seen such as Wyoming and South Dakota, Georgia and Michigan. I had come the farthest being from Peru. I was always explaining where Peru was and it seemed that to some the very concept of South America was so other worldly that there was not much to say after that, but to congratulate me on my excellent accent. Peru? But no one bothered to explain something as complicated as "origins" - it was deemed pointless. The present and future were the spring.
We made enough mistakes
But you know we got what it takes
We can get in while the getting is good
So make it on your own, yeah, you know that you could
We got to make the break
'Cause we got too much at stake
Oh, we ain't got nothin' yet
No, we ain't got nothin' yet
We made enough mistakes
But you know we got what it takes
Oh, we ain't got nothin' yet
No, we ain't got nothin' yet
(We Ain't Got) Nothin' Yet: Ron Gilbert, Ralph Scala, Mike Esposito (Sung by The Blues Magoos)
James Tasaka was caught one Friday night fucking a plaster cow in front of a drive through dairy. It became a legend that was repeated so often that after a certain amount of time one began to wonder if it was true. Tasaka - everyone only used his last name - was known as a wild man who was already having adult experiences on a regular basis in the "real world" and mingling with people in the music industry. He was familiar with bars and the club scene on the Sunset Strip which was something we had only read about or saw on television, despite the fact that the famous Strip was only a few miles from Gardena - that distance was, psychologically, an infinite space - the Sunset Strip might just as well have been in Tokyo. Tasaka would go days without bathing, explaining that his parents had thrown him out of their apartment and he was living on the street. Was this even possible? His appearance took on an American pioneer look - as if he were in a Western film that was yet to be made. That is, he was from the past and the future, but the present was not there. That look made him stand apart from everyone I had ever seen. His clothes were a mess except for one day a year when Gardena High School let everyone dress as they please - it was called "free day." Of course we took advantage and dressed in jeans and tennis shoes and the girls were in tank tops and mini-skirts - but Tasaka would come dressed in a black suit. Everyone laughed but the administrators, who normally wore suits and that day came in freshly pressed khaki pants and an open collar shirt instead of the usual button down shirt. They knew what he was up to and gave him a look that said: “we’ll get you sooner or later, you don’t stand a chance.” Tasaka would return that look with one of his own that retorted plainly: “I don’t give a shit - FUCK YOU! Of course, Tasaka was doomed. This partially explained why he was so popular.
Tasaka was also funny but not by telling jokes - he would just point out things that were absurd. He would just casually acknowledge a mimeographed print-out with new rules for dress or behavior, and just say "Oh, hey "new rules." That was it. No commentary was necessary. It was just the way he said it - and we knew the rules were total bullshit. Not only did he know it - but his voice implied that everyone knew it - and here was a man who had less power than anyone for miles and he was saying it, and then just casually throwing it away. I admired him but never understood why and never told him as it would have made no sense. The legend, as it was told to me that Monday morning in the cafeteria went like this: Tasaka and two older friends had gone to the dairy after hours, climbed up on a plastic chair, made a hole in the plaster cow’s rear end with some car tools and had stuck his penis inside. His friends looked on laughing and drinking beer. After he was finished he tipped the cow over and broke it cleanly in half. The police came and they took him away to juvenile hall and sent him to a psychiatrist. He returned and said that juvenile hall was much better than High School because you meet cooler people and you learn things that are actually going to be useful later in “real life.” We agreed with him and we thought he was crazy at the same time. “Tasaka” quickly became a code term for sex-crazy.
-He tried to “Tasaka” Kay after class!
-Sandy went to a “Tasaka” party! and she threw herself at Dennis Wilson; this guy thinks he’s so cool just because he’s with The Beach Boys!
-Liar liar! Your pants’ on fire your nose is longer than a telephone wire!
-He pulled a “Tasaka” on the bus and got caught by a monitor!
-Aughhhh! Gross! Tasaka me out!
6. The Strand and Ascot Speedway
And now our meeting you avoid
And so my world you have destroyed.
Just a minute ago your love was here, oh baby
All of a sudden it seemed to disappear, yeah
The way you wrecked my life was like sabotage
The love I saw in you was just a mirage.
The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage: Smoky Robinson, Marvin Tarplin, William Robinson Jr. (Sung by Smoky Robinson and the Miracles)
The prettier girls in the school went off to the beach and found college boys in bars or on the Strand, a three mile stretch of two-lane road in Hermosa Beach with the ocean on one side and houses and apartments on the other. One of the girls even got pregnant with a DJ from one of the local rock stations that she had met on the Strand creating a web of intrigue and rumor that lasted a very long time. The street on Friday nights and weekends always smelled of carbon monoxide, frying hamburgers, tar, suntan lotion, the ocean, and human skin. The guys with the best cars would take the lead cruising the Strand on Saturday night. The lesser cars followed as in some pre-arranged pecking order. Some of the people who owned apartments there would set up a bar-be-cue and drinks on their balcony and have a party every summer night, and other places would be empty with the lights out. But every so often you would see a mysterious human form walk around inside these dark, luxurious apartments and occasionally come out to see what was happening, and then quickly go back inside. Who were these shy people who lived here but wanted no part of this party? The girls were dressed in bright colored tank tops and Levis short shorts, or bikinis with a transparent shawls wrapped around the waist. The different music from the open cars would compete for volume, sometimes blending strangely into a single symphony that would at certain moments become transcendent, just incredible, but you had to listen. Be My Baby blending in with In My Room and a trace of I Saw Her Again, with, way off as an afterthought, Under the Boardwalk. The car horns and car radios and screaming girls, and cop sirens, combined with power bursts from muscle cars that traveled at about ten miles an hour, a little faster than walking. When dusk came people would split off into pairs or smaller groups - others disappeared - and the cars became more irregular. When night fell the crowd was smaller still - and the sounds more subtle and secret. The cars were gone but you could still smell them.
On weekends many of the guys went to Ascot Speedway in Gardena - a makeshift dirt track with some stands made of planks of wood covered in brown plastic. We watched dirt track racing. Many of us were car freaks, or “greasers," and knew more about cars than about anything else in the world. Men who flunked every class they had could spot the kind of car and the year from just a glance at the corner of a fender; they knew the timing ratio of cars made before they were born; they could explain the kind of tire best suited to every kind of weather condition; they could look at the detailing job on a car and know the part of the country it came from, or even the person who had done it; they could listen to an engine and tell you its history; they could spot talent in a driver by watching how his head moved when he drove; in short their knowledge was awesome because it was connected to passion. The kids would get pumped up from watching the races at Ascot and would then spend the evening racing in parking lots after hours, or in suburban streets. You could always spot the” greasers” by their fingernails black around the edges, or from the bald tires on their cars, or from some finicky little detail on their car that would only be put there by a greaser and would only be noticed by a greaser: Rims with counter weights. Raised springs so you could see the care taken with the differential. Customized functional air intake ports. Extra heavy duty struts and shocks to handle the overhauled engine. A roll cage inside the car (always a luxury). Fleck paint and decals from racing companies in the lower back window arranged in a row according to size, with the largest in the center. Custom tail pipes and a custom dash, but with the original chrome left intact.
- From stop sign to stop sign.
- No dude, from the Wiennerschnitzel to the Dunkin’ Donuts.
- No no. From the Pit Burger to the 76'...
7. Either/Or and The Lighthouse
Stopped into a church
I passed along the way
Well, I got down on my knees (got down on my knees)
And I pretend to pray (I pretend to pray)
You know the preacher like the cold (preacher like the cold)
He knows I'm gonna stay (knows I'm gonna stay)
California dreamin' (California dreamin')
On such a winter's day.
California Dreamin': John and Michelle Phillips (Sung by The Mamas & the Papas)
Hermosa Beach was also where the Either/Or Bookstore was located, a block from the Strand on a steep hill so the store was built on four separate levels. Of course each level was for a separate category of book. As their name implied they specialized in philosophy with an emphasis on modern works. The store was both meticulously curated and cluttered with piles of books precariously piled on the stairs that took you from one level to another. They featured comfortable chairs to sit on and large open windows that let in the ocean breeze. The clientele was often barefoot and dressed in shorts - the sounds of the street, often kids playing, or music from cars, came in throughIt the open windows. There was a little box to wipe off the sand from your feet as you walked in but the floor was still covered in sand. It was a marvelous place to read and was easily the best bookstore in Los Angeles; only The Westwood Bookstore came close, but that was a more proper and serious venue that was quiet, like a library. I spent hours in the Either/Or, and it is where I first discovered Beatnik literature, Sartre's Nausea, Camu's The Rebel, along with The Myth of Sisyphus, de Beauvoir's Ethics of Ambiguity, Hemingway's In Our Time, Joyce's Dubliner's, Celine's Journey to the End of the Night, Dickens' David Copperfield, Colin Wilson's The Outsider, Joseph Heller's Catch-22, and Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays - they were all favorites then. Hemingway and Didion - whom I saw as bridging a certain, very American, continuity in time, had a deep influence on my thinking. Reading was the perfect compliment to the beach and Either/Or was the perfect name for the store - as was The Lighthouse, a jazz club a few feet from the Pacific Ocean that Steve Tibbs introduced me to and where the "three Stooges" - Steve, Ed Anderson and myself - would spend hours listening to Dexter Gordon and other masters of American classical music. It was the best education a person could hope for and it was all on the beach. Once when seeing maestro Dexter, dressed in a consciously absurd fake leopard skin vest, we were so close to the stage that Steve Tibbs got saliva from Dexter's saxophone on him - but he didn't mind at all - as he explained later: "It was DEXTER GORDON!" After playing, LTD (his nickname: Long Tall Dexter), would hold his saxophone horizontally as an offering to the audience, slightly raising it in front of him to his own eye level, and then walk off to have a drink at the bar, smiling as if this was the best life a person could have. I believe he was right.
8. The Roadium
If the sun refused to shine
I don't mind, I don't mind
If the mountains fell in the sea
Let it be, it ain't me
Alright, I got my own world to look through
And I'm not going to copy you
Now if a 6 turned out to be 9
I don't mind, I don't mind
If all the hippies cut off all their hair
I don't care, I don't care
Dig, cause I got my own world to live through
And I ain't going to copy you.
If 6 Were 9: Jimi Hendrix
At night we would go to the Roadium Drive In Theatre where they were not particular about ID's and so we could see adult films. The Roadium was on Redondo Beach Boulevard which was six lanes wide and full of used car lots, fast food stands, gas stations, tire stores, insurance companies, laundromats, banks and apartment buildings with names like Pacifica and Kahuna. I still remember a sequence from one of the films I saw at the Roadium: a dark haired olive skinned woman comes into a house wearing a full-length fur coat which she takes off revealing that she is naked. As she throws the fur on the floor she opens her arms and throws herself on the man that has opened the door.
-I wish I were that guy!
-Look at the tits on her - the nipples are huge my God!
-I’d fuck her for sure!
-You haven’t even fucked a fake cow!
Two guards patrolled the area to make sure there were no fights, no drunks destroying the equipment, no sexual activity and no kids sneaking a look at the films for free. When they would catch guys (it was always men) that had climbed the fence they would grab them by the coat near the back of their neck and physically drag them out. Sometimes people would flash their lights as a sign of solidarity and then others would honk their horns in protest because they were upset by the lights as they interrupted their full immersion in the film - but this beautiful interplay would only last a few seconds. While Drive-In's have gotten a reputation for only showing "B" movies this was never the case. They showed European films, adult sex films, and traditional Hollywood fare with no care or worries about confusion or transgressions of mixed "content." They didn't care. Antonioni's Blow-Up showed alongside The Trip and Two Lane Blacktop played with Easy Rider, Ingmar Bergman's Summer With Monika (a favorite at the Roadium) played with How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, and my own favorite combination: Cool It Baby and Satyricon. I learned a lot at the Roadium.
9. Lynda and Taco Hell
I'm gettin the spirit in the dark
I'm gettin the spirit in the dark
People movin, aw, ain't we groovin?
Just gettin the spirit in the dark.
Tell me sister, how do you feel?
Tell me my brother, brother, brother, how do you feel?
Do you feel like dancin? Then get up and let's start dancin.
Start gettin' the spirit, spirit in the dark.
Spirit in the Dark: Aretha Franklin
Many of the guys were all on the football team and would take cuts in line whenever they felt like it. It was protocol - if you were on the football team you took certain privileges as the norm. There was also a built in segregation that was not mandated by a rule of law but simply enforced by social ritual. White kids feared and mistrusted African-Americans and would say the most outrageous things in a near whisper that was also a snarl invoking the most racist abuse. But at the same time those same people would love listening to Mowtown and Stax Records. People lived those contradictions in their bodies. The violence was feigned, being a strange kind of ballet. They pretended to push and then would back away arms opening, making that gesture to make room for a fight, and then they would move in again as if it were a game, and then back again, all the time staring someone down. A crowd would gather and then just casually disperse, and if it looked like it was really going to happen, a tight circle would form where the energy was electric and terrifying. The white kids were usually scared of articulating any verbal abuse literally - it was all in subtext. There was one exception. His name was Alexander and he was a very short black skinny kid who took the brunt of the hatred that the white boys were afraid to articulate to anyone but him.
-Why don’t you go back to Africa sponge head?
-Why don’t you go back to Europe white trash?
The only time I actually saw real violence was when a white man too old to be in High School shot another white student in the stomach leaving a little black hole the size of a small coin on his shirt. The student whom I did not know seemed to fall where he stood, his knees buckling under him, and to double up on the cement floor of the outdoor cafeteria. Everyone ran in a different direction. Some girls screamed and boys jumped over tables. The principal, whom we had nicknamed Bluebeard, ran against us toward the shooting asking what had happened but no one stopped to answer him, we all just pointed in the same direction with our mouths open. The boy survived and the man who fired the shot was found to have been double crossed in a scheme to steal money from the local Taco Bell, known then as Taco Hell, a fast food restaurant between a Japanese supermarket and a Shell gas station. That was the same Taco Bell where sometime earlier I had seen Lynda Martinez for the first time. A few days later, while we were in an open area with trees on the way to class, she had explained very carefully, while holding my fingers very lightly as if we were in the middle of a game, "Lynda with a y." She wrote it with her finger on my palm. She was in that Taco Bell with her smirking boyfriend, a very pale biker riding a Harley, with a black leather vest and a barbed wire tattoo on his right wrist, something I had never seen before. He was older and strangely indifferent to Lynda's attention. She looked very self-assured buying some food for both of them, and he was saying, in that familiar South Bay smart-ass way: Aren’t you COMING?!
-Lynda retorted with her usual one line punch: Fuck me dead!
Lynda screamed in a high pitch sarcastic howl - a cross between Bruce Lee and a lone-wolf - while holding a pink glob of gum with a tuft of hair stuck on it. This was when we had first met in Junior High School and the hair was from my head. It was one of the things she did - pull the hair off boys with her gum. She would expose her thighs while pretending to show me a run in her nylon stocking, but I had fallen in love with her earlier when I had seen her buying a milk shake in the cafeteria. She was in love with Bruce, a pale blond boy that became a successful contractor in Gardena. One time during a boring history class in which everyone was half sleeping or daydreaming Lynda sat down in her desk curving her body making it slither in slow motion into the ridiculously small desks made for children in which we were all forced to sit. As she sat down she made a sound with her mouth as if the air were being sucked out of the room. Suddenly everyone, boy and girl, was wide awake. It was as if she were making fun of the furniture and the very institution that was meant to hold us, and it was erotic. Having something be funny and sensual at the same time was a new and liberating experience, a glimpse into another kind of life that everyone applauded, but we only succeeded in getting Lynda into trouble. The teacher was incensed with rage, his pink face red, screaming in a high pitch we had never heard before. It seemed out of proportion to what had happened but we all knew that it was probably because he was also aroused by Lynda. We never listened to what teachers said but looked at their faces and the way they moved. We looked for weaknesses, we assessed the strengths, and we absolutely never showed any mercy. It was obvious in this teacher’s face that Lynda had used a power greater than his, and he had to teach her a lesson. It was as close as he would ever get to fucking her. It was also clear this lesson would be pointless. Over and over, the refrain of the wars in Los Angeles in 1969.
10. Mr. Murphy
I picked up my bags, I went looking for a place to hide
When I saw old Carmen and the Devil, walking side by side
I said, "Hey, Carmen, c'mon, let's go downtown"
She said, "I gotta go, but my friend can stick around"
Take a load off Fanny, take a load for free
Take a load off Fanny, and you put the load right on me.
The Weight: Robby Robertson (Sung by The Band)
Mr. Murphy in the High School wood-shop had gone deaf from the constant screaming of machinery and always replied to what people said with the same words: "Sand it all over." He also had a strange, somewhat sadistic smile on his face whenever he sawed wood, especially a new plank that he got from a pile of wood inside a cage that also had sheets of colored plexi-glass that used to fascinate me as they were reflective and transparent making anything within reach psychedelic. For some reason we all found Murphy's smile hilarious and would point to it convulsed in laughter. He was the mad professor in every horror film we had ever seen, but instead of torturing beautiful women it was pieces of wood. When he caught us laughing at him he would always say the same thing, more to himself than to anyone in particular: "Oh-boy! Boy, boy! You'll be all-right in a few years! - but right now? Oh boy!"
Making day-glow plexi-glass rings was all the rage then because girls were impressed by them and would accept them as gifts without any conventional commitment to "accepting a ring." As we liked to say it was a "win-win" situation giving those rings as gifts, so Mr. Murphy’s class had become very popular.
-Mr. Murphy World War Three has just been declared and I want to go home!
-Feels a little rough - sand it all over!
-Mr. Murphy I just shit this - what do you have to say about it?
-Sand it all over.
Then that strange smile - I didn't know what to make of it. I made a ring with Tai-Dyed colors in the spirit of The Grateful Dead and gave it to Lynda - she thanked me politely, which I found annoying, while grabbing my arm and holding it tenderly in a way that completely negated the politeness - and then put it in a small round can with the Mickey Mouse logo, along with several other rings, all neatly arranged in gold paper foil.
11. Mr. Bartel
Some may come and some may go
We shall surely pass
When the one that left us here
Returns for us at last
We are but a moment's sunlight
Fading in the grass
Come on people now
Smile on your brother
Everybody get together
Try to love one another
Get Together: Chester Powers (Sung by The Youngbloods)
Mr. Bartel was an older teacher who still wore dark suits to class and had a long thin pointer made of wood with a black rubber tip. He taught photography showing us how to print negatives, how use a camera, how to measure time in fractions of seconds, how to arrange a still life so it conformed to something called “the golden mean” that all great artists from the past used. He emphasized that it was available to everyone “democratically,” and that this “golden mean is within your means.” We were all bored to tears by it but we didn’t hold it against all those artists as it must have meant something to them a million years ago or they wouldn’t have bothered with it. Mr. Bartel pointed with his pointer to the various ways that photographers used the golden mean to create their work. He showed us the photographs of the Work Progress Administration and I saw the portraits of Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee and Walker Evans for the first time. For us the portraits and the landscapes were boring but nudes were always met with applause and whistles.
-This is not a woman! What you are seeing is not a woman! It’s a photograph!
-Sure looks like a woman to me!
-That's a woman and that's all there is to it! What you talking about?
-It’s an Edward Weston! A great photographer! You see how Weston used the golden mean to create his composition?
-That is not just a woman but a FINE looking woman you understand?
-Right on - I wouldn’t kick her out of bed.
-You wouldn't kick your own mama out of bed!
After Tasaka let out a wolf whistle that bounced around the room Mr. Bartel hammered his pointer on the table. He instructed Tasaka to get into a broom closet and shut the door as punishment. He did as he was told with slow sarcastic deliberateness because for years he had routinely spent whole classes inside the broom closet. This was a bad teaching strategy because it was impossible after that to think of anything but Tasaka in that closet. What was he doing?
-Enough! Can’t you people see the art here? Look! It’s right in front of you! Open your eyes!
We wanted to know more about this girl. Was this Edward Weston's girlfriend? How old was she? Did she live in the desert all the time? Poor Mr. Bartel just became very red and held on to his pointer very tightly.
12. Mr. Reardon and Bobby Kennedy
I'm a rock in a landslide
Rolling over the mountainside
How deep is the valley?
It kills my soul
Hey hey hey
I'm a leaf on a windy day
Pretty soon I'll be blown away
How long will the wind blow?
How long will the wind blow?
'Til I Die: Brian Wilson (Sung by The Beach Boys)
In Junior High School, which was what they called Middle School then, there was a teacher who taught a class in Agriculture, and he had a large piece of land near the teacher's parking lot where students had small plots that they were in charge of. Mr. Reardon ran his class like a bootcamp from which a student might not survive. He would physically attack students and throw pots at them when they did something he deemed irresponsible, or when a student seemed to be disrespectful, or when one of the many rules of agricultural production were being manhandled by us, who knew nothing about farming. He either terrified students or made them laugh - he preferred the first as the second only made him mad. Ed Anderson was terrified of Reardon but Steve Tibbs and I, for some reason that I still do not understand, found him hilarious. He was the only teacher that had a phone in his classroom, that also served as a tool shed. He would threaten to call a students parent's and tell them what lazy, good-for-nothing, wimpy, sorry-ass student we were! To add insult to injury he was true to his word and when parents complained about his rudeness he asked them - screaming into the phone - to "come down here so I can kick your ass!" The terrified students were frozen in terror - the other group were holding our sides to keep from laughing as we knew that if he saw us even smiling - that was it. It was as if he had been in the army and something had broken inside of him - he adopted that life as the only true reality - and often expressed pro-war, anti-liberal rants. He sometimes also talked about his life outside of school - something teachers rarely did then. He once went on a very long tirade against Mexico but also told us how much he enjoyed going to Tijuana on weekends and getting smashed and crazy - because "it was allowed down there since they had no laws to speak of."
No one dared to contradict him or his politics but most of us were liberal. When a speaker had come from the "Communist Party" to our auditorium to try to convince us about the wonderful realities of life in Soviet Russia, we had booed him off stage - only to discover that he was an actor who spoke in various High Schools that invited him, attacking the US and praising the Soviet Union, until students started to ask questions and contradict him with the facts. My own political orientation then was with Bobby Kennedy and I followed his campaign closely until the evening when he gave his victory speech, after winning the California primary, and shortly after was shot in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. I stayed up until the early morning hours of the following day, when his death was finally announced on television, showing a picture from the period he was attorney general under John Kennedy. The anti-war rallies and the Paris riots of May of 68' seemed to finally be bringing the much anticipated collision of political ideologies to a head, but after Kent State in 1970 and the election of Richard Nixon the New Left splintered into various factions from which it never recovered its collective soul. I signed up to join SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) but near the end of its existence. I felt that I had somehow missed the "60's" even though I had lived through them - in fact when they began I was a child and when they ended I was an adult. While Mr. Reardon might have very pointedly expressed the majority view of the time by the 1970's I was radicalized and a staunch supporter of the anti-war effort, the Black Panther Party and Salvador Allende - I was what Noam Chomsky would come to call an "Anarcho-Socialist." The murder of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy really put an end to various roads the country might have taken - and the one outlined by Nixon and his henchmen was written very clearly in Vietnam, Chile, Argentina and all the rest of it. The US was a completely different place in 1970 from the place that I came to, as a ten year old child, in 1962. The eight years had destroyed that America - seen, with some nostalgia, in George Lucas' wonderful film American Graffiti - and the country that came to be in 1970 was in the throes of a collective nervous breakdown. America's decline started then and it was bound to take a lot of people with it. In the late 1970's Mr. Reardon's land was paved over with black asphalt, to expand the school parking lot, and there is no trace of the student farmland that once stood there.
13. The Coach and Vietnam
There's something happening here
What it is ain't exactly clear
There's a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
I think it's time we stop, children, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down.
For What It's Worth: Stephen Stills (Sung by Buffalo Springfield)
Across an overpass encased in chain link fence was “The Field” and “The Coach”. He was always making us run around the track the giving us tips on how to improve our running skills - assuring us that if you "know how to run the rest comes together easily - it all falls into place." He was also always telling us that he was training us to go to Viet-Nam because:
-As things stand most of you boys would be killed a very short time after arriving in Nam! Now why is that?
He paused for effect looking at each man in the eye.
-I’m going to make it short and sweet... Because you’re pussy! It breaks my heart but you boys wouldn’t make it out of there in one piece! You gotta get tough...
He would punch himself in the head and not flinch to show how tough he meant.
--so tough they can’t hurt you. You understand me God damn it they can’t hurt you!
-Down in Khánh or some shit hole some boys were killed last year when there was a fire on board their ship and these young men could not climb a rope! Can you imagine such a thing? Well that’s not going to happen with you boys. No sir! All of you are going to know how to climb a rope like a fucking monkey before you leave here. Thomas Jefferson spoke up and asked the coach if he could climb that rope himself. Thomas Jefferson was a very large African-American football player who could have easily become a star player in College, and then in professional football, but he didn’t have the drive, the killer instinct, or as the coaches called it, “the eye of the tiger.” Everything he said seemed to be ironic and meant to be funny but it wasn’t. Aside from being incredibly gentle he was also very soft spoken, as if afraid he might wake somebody up who was sleeping nearby. He was the only person to have the guts to talk to the coach in that way.
-No Thomas I don’t have to learn how to climb that rope because I’m too old to be going off to Viet-Nam but you…?
The coach knew that we would all be cannon fodder if we did go, and some of us did, and we were. And he knew that dumb luck would be more likely to keep us alive than knowing how to climb a rope, but that was all he could give us, and it was painful for him, but that was what he had to give. He was an honest man so you could see all this written on his face. We liked the coach.
14. The Letter To Lyndon Johnson and American Bravo
Lock up the streets and houses
Because there's something in the air
We've got to get together sooner or later
Because the revolution's here, and you know it's right
And you know that it's right
We have got to get it together
We have got to get it together now
If you hear the song I sing
You will understand (listen!)
You hold the key to love and fear
All in your trembling hand
Just one key unlocks them both
It's there at your command
Come on people now
Smile on your brother
Everybody get together
Try to love one another
Something In the Air: Thunderclap Newman
The letter to Lyndon Johnson caused innumerable trips to downtown Los Angeles and the Immigration Department and to the offices of the Secret Service. These offices looked exactly like the Employment Offices spread throughout the city that I would get to know a few years later when I worked unloading trucks for a place in Gardena called American Bravo that imported rattan furniture from China. Those sorts of rattan chairs in particular were everywhere and very inexpensive so hugely popular. There was a picture of Bobby Seale, one of the leaders of the Black Panther party, sitting on a throne made of rattan - a poster seen often in record stores and underground press locations. We unloaded the containers that held the furniture, covered in a strange plastic embedded with natural fibers, being careful not to let the spiders and bugs get on us. Some, including me, would tie our pants around our ankles so spiders could not crawl up in there. Many of my colleagues on those jobs were veterans who claimed that Vietnam was just a business enterprise, "like everything else." I had no idea what they meant at first but over time It became clearer. Sometimes we would hang out after work and go to strip clubs - South Bay Girls and Jumbo's Clown Room. In the Employment Offices everything was grey and beige. The metal chairs always faced a partition of posters promoting community spirit and drug abuse services. Women came with their children and fell asleep on the hard chairs that I could barely sit on. Men stared at the same piece of wall for hours turning their heads in a haze and getting up very slowly when their names were called by obese women who dragged their feet. Always last name first and first name last. The letter to the President had been written by a friend from elementary school that I had grown distant from in High School whose brother had gone to Viet-Nam and been killed; he had used my name to get me into trouble so they would send me back to Payroo, which I remembered is how he pronounced Peru. I never found out why. He helped out his dependent mother financially so they never sent him to reform school or prison. I remember listening to records with him in my room as he didn't have a record player. San Francisco Girls by Fever Tree and Somebody to Love by the Jefferson Airplane were favorites. Soon after that experience with the Secret Service he moved out and I never saw him again. Eisenhower and John Glenn also disappeared - they had promised to come by one more time and explain the situation but they never did, writing a short matter-of-fact letter that my mother kept for years, just in case they ever came back.
15. The New Vagabond
The room was empty as I staggered from my bed
I could not bear the image racing through my head
You were so real that I could feel your eagerness
And when you raised your lips for me to kiss
Came the dawn
And you were gone
You were gone, gone, gone
I had too much to dream last night
Too much to dream.
I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night: Annette Tucker & Nancie Mantz (Sung by The Electric Prunes)
Through the late sixties and into the seventies my favorite place to go was located in the McArthur Park area of Los Angeles, where there was a theater called The New Vagabond. The park then was a poor area of the city with high unemployment, drugs, gang violence and homelessness. It was also the home of several anti- war protests that escalated into confrontations with police that required tear gas and helicopters. The park at night was a no man’s land that was strangely beautiful – the perfect place to film The Black Dahlia. The theater had black and white murals on its interior walls from ceiling to floor of scenes from Eisenstein’s Odessa steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin. The murals would sometimes glow very beautifully from the light of the projector, and at times one’s gaze was prone to drift to the murals and then back to the film as it acted as a kind of oasis during the more difficult screenings. The programming was eclectic, mixing Hollywood classics with foreign films ranging in time from silent films to contemporary works, but the emphasis was on mid-century European films. The programming borrowed a page from Henri Langlois’ Cinémathèque Française, having marathons of a particular director that would go into the morning hours, or they combined unusual films that were thematically linked. While there were no program notes, the theater was, like the Cinémathèque, a church of cinema in which devotees would spend long hours absorbing films, taking notes and dreaming. That is where I delved into ritual and romance with La Dolce Vita; where I first saw that alternative realities could be photographed in Carl Theodore Dryer’s Vampyr; where I discovered the world of novels by reading Kafka’s The Trial after seeing Orson Welles’ version; where I grasped why movement could be a form of magic with The Bandwagon; where I began to grasp what was meant by “humanity” with Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly; where I began to understand the word “identity” after seeing Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s Performance (in a double bill with Ken Russell’s The Devils!); where I realized that not taking yourself seriously was an absolute must in Jerry Lewis’ The Nutty Professor; where I started to understand something about time and death with Chris Marker’s La Jetée; where I finally understood what people meant by the word "poetry" with Jean- Luc Godard’s My Life to Live; where I discovered Shakespeare in Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet; and where I fell in love with Louise Brooks in Rene Clair’s and Augusto Genino’s Miss Europe. In short I got an education.
16. Lynda and the Del Amo Mall
The rules have changed today (Hey)
I have no place to stay (Hey)
I'm thinking about the subway (Hey)
My love has flown away (Hey)
My tears have come and gone (Hey)
Oh my Lord, I have to roam (Hey)
I have no home (Hey)
I have no home (Hey)
Now the time has come (Time)
There's no place to run (Time)
The Time Has Come Today: Lester Chambers (Sung by The Chambers Brothers)
Five years after graduating from High School I ran into Lynda selling expensive men’s clothes in a department store inside what was advertised as the largest mall in the USA: the Del Amo Mall. I was working at American Bravo unloading trucks and shopping for Christmas presents to take with me to Peru. Lynda looked very different. Her long hair had been cut short and there was something demure and almost apologetic about her body and her manner. The glow was gone. It was as if she had been beaten regularly for as long as it took to break her spirit and suddenly it was gone. Had it ever existed? I remembered Lynda’s clenched fists as she was escorted from class for wearing too much make up or for wearing skirts that were more than three inches above the knee, or for laughing at teachers right to their faces. She war fearless. She would dance by herself in the cafeteria without music in a trance, and the rest of us - men and women - would also be in the same trance linked symbiotically in this ritual that was visceral, powerful and grounded. But what was this ritual? What were the rules? It was exasperating and drove me crazy. Sometimes with her female friends they would sing, a cappella, the Aretha Franklin song with fists in the air:
“R.E.S.P.E.C.T. find out what it means to me...”
She was arranging men’s clothes on tables that did not need arranging as they were in perfect order.
- George? Oh my God! What are you doing here?
-Nothing much - how about you?
-I’m Okay. You remember me?
-Of course I remember. Lynda with a “y.” Can’t forget that.
-I’m just working here for now until something better comes along.
-This place is kind of creepy.
-I tried working in a mall too - selling photo equipment in a JC Penny but it didn’t quite work out.
-You don’t seem like the salesman type to me.
-No. I’m not either though and here I am I guess...
-Your boss looks like Mr. Bartel!
-Seems like a long time ago.
-Only five years.
-A lot can happen in five years. My attitude was soooo bad.
Lynda explained that she had gotten a job during High School in a place called Clark Drugs as a cashier, had then moved on to Music Plus, a record store that catered to top 40 music; she then got a job in a warehouse assembling plexi-glass cabinets for cosmetics with adhesives that made her nails and hair smell like plastic. Finally she had become a cashier again at Robinson’s, a fashionable department store, where she had been promoted to sales. I had heard from other students at Gardena that she had worked as an exotic dancer in one of the local clubs but she didn’t mention it and I didn’t ask. Had I ever seen her in South Bay Girls and not recognized her? I told her about some of my job experiences unloading trucks but she didn’t find any of the stories funny that I was sure would make her laugh. The conversation seemed to die quietly and the silence became a little uncomfortable. She finally broke it by asking me what I was shopping for. I told her that it was a present for my father who was in Peru with the rest of my family.
-I never knew that you were from Peru!
After that she started to speak in Spanish saying that I was so quiet and always showed such respect to teachers that I seemed very polite and boring. In Spanish she seemed to get some of the old fire back and she laughed that laugh full of anarchy and comradeship like a sailor on leave who’s just starting to relax and enjoy themselves. I laughed too and told her she was right but that was all just a front because I was afraid. She said that it was like that for most people. Her family came from brick layers in Chiapas and that they were all afraid. It was funny that we were talking now between stacks of men’s clothes. The boss that looked like Mr. Bartel came snooping by and I pretended to be shopping for something but it was obvious from the way I looked that I wasn’t going to be spending any money. I still dressed like a kid with tennis shoes and blue jeans that were too big for me and a shirt that my mother had chosen for me.
-What size is your father?
-What size sweater does he wear?
I told her and she picked out the most expensive sweater that size and put it in a bag handing it to me without being careful about being seen by Mr. Bartel who was still snooping. She whispered: "Feliz Navidad compañero."
She couldn’t look me in the eyes but stared down at the floor, her neck slightly bent as if she were afraid of being hit, and with a resignation that I could never have imagined coming from her. I felt that she was embarrassed by me and wanted me to leave. But her eyes looked as if they were indicting me personally - but for what? I remembered that she could stare anyone down in games of looking that would go on for whole lunch periods and have to be postponed until after school - that is with the few that could stick it out that long. Most, including me, would last only a few seconds, to face the laughter and ridicule of the others who had also crumbled in defeat, but it seemed part of that ritual that you had to go through, regardless of the consequences. The laughter was, in a strange way, not directed at me, but at all of us. Face to face no one could match her gaze - it was indestructible.
It struck me that I was still a kid in the presence of a woman even though we were exactly the same age. I looked down at my old tennis shoes and felt a sting in my throat that made my stomach knot up and my eyes burn. You said you were “never going to change” - but that’s not true. You lied - you were wrong - you changed. And it happened just like that. We said more in a mall in ten minutes that we ever had, and ever would, and it wasn’t that much. I was burning up as if I had a fever because I felt just as trapped in that store with Lynda and Mr. Bartel as I had with Eisenhower and John Glenn but I sensed that now everything was my fault. She spoke in English again in a whisper without looking at me.
-You better go.
She moved her head in the direction of her boss. I took the bag and hurried out of the store as if being chased. I looked back as I left and Mr. Bartel was standing over her saying something but her head was turned toward me and her mouth was open as if saying something but there was no sound.