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February 1965 – a baby boy they called Rached entered this world ass-first, screaming like thunder. Not from the smack on my bottom, but because the doctor yanked me from a warm, moist environment I had grown quite fond of. My resistance to the world broke my fucking arm and I spent the first five weeks of life in a hospital, rocking a full-body cast. Trust me, that ain’t living. But who needs mom-bonding when you got fine-ass nurses? I rested up, learned not to cry, plastered a smile across my face, got stronger, and made it home in time to watch the Selma March’s bloody aftermath on the nightly news.
I arrived to discover an older kid living with us, product of a previous coupling by Ma and some Marine. Joe was his name. Not the Marine, the kid who made life miserable. Upon our introduction, Joe reportedly said, “Baby, baby, my baby.”
I had yet to acquire the gift-o-gab, so I settled for a menacing stare-down to let him know, “You don’t own me, fucker. Nobody owns me.”
We were born nine months and ten days apart, with different fathers. Though Pops adopted him, I’d tell folks Pops was the doctor that delivered Joe. Having a doctor for a father might have worked out better for me; probably wouldn’t have waited till thirty-seven to seek my first college degree.
My oldest memory is from early in age four. On a quest to score some sugary cereal from a high shelf, Joe and I scaled the washing machine’s summit. We were almost to the puffed corn, then out of nowhere Pops laid into my ass with one hand, while swatting Joe with the other. He followed up with a few more swats to emphasize that he don’t mess around.
Besides being quite the disciplinarian, Pops was a ho-banging, rum-drinking, pork-loving, Lebanese Muslim who happened upon the Newport Bay about five years before shagging Ma, the secular-progressive Marine brat, half Irish, a quarter English, and a quarter whoever bought her grandmothers a drink. Joe was a dick. By mid-1969, my parents accepted that they were polar opposites who despised one another, and they went their separate ways. I never once thought it was my fault they split.
Soon after the breakup, Ma relocated us from Costa Mesa to Los Angeles. Luckily, there wasn’t much to move, because the repo-men hauled away all our heavy shit. After all was said and done, Pops got to live single, fully enjoying the 1970s’ sexual revolution while drinking an ocean of booze. Ma got two obnoxious man-children who constantly beat and strangled one another. Being a politically left O.G. feminist, Ma insisted, “I don’t need a man to raise kids.” Wrong! We pretty much did whatever we wanted, mostly because we were both little assholes.
Over the next five years, we rarely saw Pops. His excuse, “Whatever parent has the kids is fully responsible for every aspect of those children’s existence.” So we suffered financially, never hungry, but just barely scraping by. In extra-lean times, Ma would threaten to sick the authorities on Pops’ no-child-support-paying ass. Soon after the warning, he’d roll up in a long, cool, V-8 luxury car to pay Ma a fraction of what he owed and then hang out for an hour; sometimes even two.
Once I learned that bad meant good, I fit right in.
Our first stop in L.A. was an ethnically diverse apartment complex on San Vicente, near La Brea. We were the diversity. Having just seen my first black person at the beach the prior week, the new neighbors were excitingly exotic to my four-year-old brain. In 1960s Orange County, California, soul brothers and sisters were rarer than an honest politician, but there were loads of them in my new world. As another sign of the times, I was the only Rached around. Once I learned that bad meant good, I fit right in.
We only stayed at the apartment for six months, but I loved living there. There were lots of kids to play with and some beautiful black ladies that I became quite fond of. We had cool neighbors like Tommy Chong and his lovely wife, Maxine, with her cool, gigantic afro. At one point, I believe she jammed with Sly and the Family Stone. Ma and friends would sometimes party with Chong and Cheech, who’d on occasion do comedy bits, to the living room crowd’s delight. A few apartments over lived Maxine’s brother, Floyd Sneed, who gave me my first motorcycle ride. He played drums in a band called Three Dog Night. Not sure what became of the group.
There was a girl band, Sunday’s Child, that put out an LP record. Despite everyone being super excited for them, it pretty much flopped. The lead singer, Ilene, was close friends with Ma for many years. She was tall, talented, super pretty, and maximum drama. I was too young to realize there are thousands like her. But my idea of drama has an extremely low threshold.
Some of the older neighbor girls – seven or eight – taught me a game called “doing the pussy.” It consisted of pants dropping, then the boy got on top and we’d both grunt and groan while repeating, “slee-haw, slee-haw.” Twenty-five years shy of getting internet access meant we didn’t know nothin’ bout nothin’. So that was pretty much it. I’m happier than a pig in shit there weren’t any older boys around wanting to teach me the intricacies of “doing the booty.”
A month before I turned five, Santa brought me a red bike with a white seat and training wheels. Training wheels and helmets are for pussies, so two weeks in, those training wheels had to go. I headed for the maintenance guy’s shack in pursuit of pliers, only to receive the stern rebuke, “Pliers fuck shit up.” At his urging, I rolled my bike back there, and that’s the first time I ever wrenched on something. For as long as I can remember, I have needed to know how and why things work. I also notice lots of shit others remain oblivious too. In the military, they refer to that trait as situational awareness.
I loved McDonald’s. Still do! They weren’t on every other major street like today, but we were blessed to have one right around the corner. Ma despised soda, so I felt lucky whenever she’d relent and allow me a small, 7oz Coca-Cola. The “Quarter Pounder” had yet to be created, and Mickey D’s was still half a decade away from offering breakfast. In those days, plastic numbers just below huge golden arches bragged on how many burgers they had sold. Ours said “6 Billion Served.” I told Ma, “I can’t wait till I catch up to the Mc Number.” Ma laughed. “That number will catch up to my age before you’ll ever catch it.” I didn’t believe her.
Next stop was an old house on 30th Street, near Crenshaw and Adams, with cut-glass doorknobs and skeleton keyholes to peek through. That location put us much deeper in the “Hood,” but not in “the Jungle.” However, if you stood on the roof, you could see it from there. Ma and her friends frequently smoked large quantities of lousy pot they scored by the “lid,” while I’d pretend-smoke candy cigarettes. Ma displayed her “Free Angela Davis” pin alongside JFK campaign pins and a hand-painted napkin holder that read “If you want some flotsam, we got some. If you want some jetsam, we can get some.” There were always lots of books in our house, including her mother Josephine’s old leather-bound Bible. I never met her, because my grandma passed away when Ma was sixteen. In fact, I only ever met one of my grandparents, once.
Our babysitter lived directly across the street. Mrs. Fuller was a kind, older, heavyset black woman who couldn’t keep a very good eye on us because she was bedridden. If we weren’t in her direct line of sight, we did whatever seemed like a fun idea at the time. She had twin sons in their twenties, Rodney and Randy. One time, when I tried to rat on Joe for something, one of her boys sternly rebuked me, “Don’t be a fink.” It stuck, and took me several decades to realize in some instances it’s best to reject that premise. But it’s still my default.
All I have ever wanted was just to be left alone, while Joe dug fucking with me nonstop.
Joe and I fought a lot more than constantly. Not the typical, mellow, five-and-six-year-old brother squabbles, either. We’d draw blood. All I have ever wanted was just to be left alone, while Joe dug fucking with me nonstop. To get free of him, I’d often head out on my own to spend my day roaming the neighborhood and nearby business district. I planned my first free roam adventure minutes after Ma mentioned there would be haircuts the next morning. She always fucked my hair up, plus I wanted to grow it out into an afro, so I got up early and left a note that I’d be home for dinner.
Not long into my travels, I ran into some older kids, and we hung out and malicious mischiefed. At some point, we ended up in a field behind a gas station playing with matches, when the overgrown grass somehow caught fire. Might have been the matches? We bailed, but half a block away I looked back and my heart skipped a beat when I saw wisps of black smoke rising above the rear of the gas station.
While the other kids continued their getaway, I ran back and told the mechanic, “Hey mister, there’s a fire in the field behind here.”
I bolted toward the problem and he followed with a large, silver fire extinguisher. Less than two minutes from ignition, what started as the size of a matchbook had grown larger than a kitchen table and was sending thick, black smoke billowing toward blue sky. The man flipped that extinguisher upside down, flame retardant shot out, and he skillfully knocked down the flames in no time flat. I turned to skedaddle, but he hollered, “Hey, kid, stop! Who started this fire?”
I shrugged and put on my best innocent-kid expression. “I was just walking by and saw it.”
Some neighborhood kids showed me how to build a crappy lil’ racer out of scrap wood and shopping carts’ caster wheels. We would lie down on our backs and steer with our feet while someone pushed. I got the awesome idea to go to the top of a hill instead of pushing, because it was faster that way. At the perfect spot a few blocks over, I got to be the first to set sail. It was exhilarating, supine fun maneuvering the 2×4 guiding my absolutely safe downhill journey. I gathered a nifty head of steam, then near the bottom of the hill began wishing my sled had brakes. No biggie, I merely steered toward an uphill portion of road, a freeway onramp where I bashed into the side of a car. The guy screeched to a stop, hopped out, and hollered, “You stupid little asshole, you fucked up my car.”
When the pissed-off driver went to survey the damage, I heard the siren groove of James Brown’s “Super Bad” blaring from his radio – the very first song to give me ants in my pants, thus requiring me to dance, motherfuckers – and the music moved me, mesmerized, into the driver’s seat. I soaked up the soul-stirring sounds until a stern voice ripped me from my funk-inspired hypno-groove. “Get the fuck out my car.” So marks the first song making up my life’s soundtrack and time machine. When I hear certain songs, in my mind’s eye, I’m right back there, engulfed by the surroundings, feelings, and emotions from the moment when I first heard the tune, or when some chick dumped me.
I fell in love with the TV show Soul Train, and couldn’t for the life of me understand why Ma refused to get me any Afro Sheen. Another commercial explained that an operator was no longer needed to make long distance calls. All one need do, dial 1 + area code + number. A big Friday night meant watching The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family on the boob tube. I set out to pattern myself after Danny Partridge, hairstyle and wisecracks, but got over that phase pretty quickly; around age thirty-five.
Shortly after we moved in, I saw a group of kids on the front lawn next door, facing off then charging forward at full speed to knock one another over. The choreographed brutality intrigued me, but my initial attempts to join their football game were rebuked. “You’re just a baby.”
I pestered until they let me play center. As I readied to snap the ball, someone yelled, “Can the center!” Then I heard “HUT-HUT-HIKE!” The ensuing pileup is where I lost my first baby tooth. After that, I hit them first and much harder than they dare hit me.
We lived across the street from Virginia Road Elementary School. One day, Ma, Joe, and me walked over there and filled out tons of paperwork. Early one morning, we went there again, but Joe stayed behind while I got herded back to Mrs. Fuller’s house bitching and moaning, “Why don’t I get to go to school?” I could not understand why he got to go and I didn’t. I spent months repeatedly asking, “When do I get to go to school?”
I washed down the last bite of graham cracker with a gulp of milk then hung my head over my arm and grumbled, “I hate school.”
On that long-anticipated first day of school, it only took me a few minutes to realize I preferred being at Mrs. Fuller’s house far more than that fucking classroom. After a couple of eternities, they sprang us outside for milk and graham crackers. It was one of those perfectly warm and sunny late summer California mornings, and instead of roaming around the neighborhood seeking adventure, I was stuck behind a chain-link fence with a bunch of idiots who didn’t even know their ABCs. I washed down the last bite of graham cracker with a gulp of milk then hung my head over my arm and grumbled, “I hate school.”
Back inside, I informed Teach of my desire to go home, but that fucking bitch wouldn’t let me leave. I whined, “But I’m only here because I want to be.” No point, I was locked into that bullshit for another decade.
For the first half of the year, we still had school prayer, but corporal punishment followed me until junior high. We’d start every morning with heads bowed and eyes closed while Teach did a “Dear Lord, something-something-something or another… Amen.” Then we’d get to work. Teach would try to teach, while I’d create assorted nuisance-distractions until she got fed up enough to ship me off to see the principal. If my violation was particularly egregious, I’d get a paddling.
While the other kids were struggling with ABCs, I could already read, thanks to my goal of learning to spell cuss words a year earlier. The learning process began with “bitch,” from Ma’s Miles Davis album Bitches Brew. Then I backward engineered duck, ship, and so on.
One day, Teach wrote September 29, 1970 at the top right hand corner of the chalkboard. With no idea what it meant, that night I hit up my go-to source, Ma. She told me, “It’s today’s date,” and that I should have asked my teacher. Ma was not yet aware that Teach and I weren’t on the best of terms.
Ma had a FWB, Larry, a cool brother with a neat Afro. He hung out a lot, drinking beer, smoking grass, and having breakfast. That Christmas, Larry gave me the Jackson 5’s Third Album. I listened to “Going Back to Indiana” on my all-in-one turntable until the record grooves wore out; but the groove remains. Owning an LP record made me realize that the bands weren’t locked within my radio, waiting patiently for me to flick a switch so they could play tunes. I began trekking to a record shop on Jefferson Boulevard to buy singles, which we called 45s because those little two-song vinyl records, with a half-dollar-sized hole in the middle, spun at 45 rpm.
One day while seeking funding for yet another 45, Ma pointed out that 1580 KDAY was free, and she was broke. I loved that station, but needed my hot wax fix. Being five, I was cash poor, so I thought to myself, “Time to get financially independent.” I was one of those kids who’d run an errand for a quarter, plus Ma gave me a buck a week as walking-around money. So after several weeks of cutting back on my Chic-O-Stick habit, running to the market for neighbors, and hoarding part of my allowance, I eventually gathered up five bucks. All my change and ones went down to the corner market, where I converted those holdings into a crisp five-dollar bill. When I proudly snapped that fiver in Joe’s face, he was momentarily speechless. But then he accused me of taking it from Ma’s purse. For comparison, in those days, a gallon of gasoline was less than forty cents. So my bankroll was fat for a wee lad. From that day forward, there was rarely a time when I didn’t have at least a couple of bucks in my pocket, and I could always buy any new single that caught my ear.
When I saw a magazine ad for an amazing new contraption, a pocket calculator for only eighty-five dollars, I became determined to get one of those cutting-edge devices and went on a mission to grow my bankroll. Upon hearing my goal, Ma smiled and said, “By the time you save that much, those things will be ten dollars.” Wonder if Ma ever got tired of being right.
In my youth, they didn’t pump boys full of speed to calm them down, so eventually ol’ Teach grew tired of my shit. Her only recourse was to kick me out of her class and into a combination kindergarten/first grade class. The first couple of weeks, I kept myself busy learning multiplication tables up to 12×12. It all got started with my fascination of 9×9 = 81 – not ninety-nine like made sense – and then 8+1 = 9 and other weird 9-sums. After I nailed the number stuff, there was nothing left to do in class except crack jokes, interrupt, and show off for girls. Instead of dealing with my bull, the teacher would send me to the library, where I’d read bios of U.S. presidents and mystery novels. They’d even let me take them home, so I tore through tons of books.
Getting kicked out of kindergarten meant recess on the big kids’ playground. A five-year-old can learn a lot from a third grader, some of it quite disturbing. Like right before the holidays, when I was mocked after telling older kids all the stuff I wished Santa would bring. The tone and phrasing of the question “You still believe in Santa Claus, little baby?” made me realize that once again I had been duped by grownups.
One of the most fun and frequent afterschool activities was “FIGHT, FIGHT!” A second grader, Leroy, occasionally kicked my ass, but always took my milk money. After I gave his little brother a smack down, the next time we crossed paths, I told him, “Look, Leroy, every time you hit me or take my milk money, I’m going to beat up your little brother.” Leroy liked his brother more than hitting me, so he reluctantly agreed. A kid of his word, we never had beef after that. They used to tell us kids, “Sticks and stones may break bones, but names never hurt.” Great advice – a stick is the way to go.
The newspaper accounts of the widespread devastation were reinforced by horrific images of fallen freeways and a collapsed retirement home in Sylmar where a few geezers didn’t grow even a day older.
About a month after Christmas vacation, I awoke in the middle of the night, puzzled and terrified. Then, while stumbling groggily toward the safety of Ma’s room, the walls in the hallway began crashing into me. In reality, it was the Sylmar earthquake tossing me left and right. The newspaper accounts of the widespread devastation were reinforced by horrific images of fallen freeways and a collapsed retirement home in Sylmar where a few geezers didn’t grow even a day older. Closer to our house, some red brick buildings at my school received enough damage that they were condemned. My classroom got moved into a bungalow, and our library was put out of commission, which sucked. My first earthquake down, bring on the next.
Right next door lived teenaged thug, Drew. Not too long after his family moved in, for some unknown reason, his mother kicked the living shit out of Ma. Joe and I sat out front of our house, powerless and terrified, watching that jumbo woman grabbing our mother by the hair to repeatedly bash her head into the blood-splattered curb.
As time passed, it was forgotten by them. When they went away for a summer vacation, one of the daughters asked me to call the police if I saw anything suspicious. They weren’t even gone an hour when Joe and I were inside their house, knocking holes in walls, smashing anything made of glass, and destroying scores of their prized possessions. Before leaving, we completed our un-handiwork by stopping up the drains and turning some faucets on full force.
For several days, as we played in our front yard, we’d chuckle while watching water stream from under their front door down toward the gutter. Then, in the dark of night, Ma woke us and spirited us away to her friend’s house. We returned home a day later with the well-rehearsed story about being at camp for more than a week. It is entirely possible to piss a mother off and make her happy at the same time.
It wasn’t long before we moved away to a house two blocks from the apartment we lived in upon landing in La La Land. Just in time to start first grade at Wilshire Crest Elementary. Joe was kind enough to let my newest schoolmates know to call me Rat-Shit or Ratchet-Wrench, as my old mates had. Plus, he came up with a new one: “Rancid-Russian-Ratchet-Wrench.” A bit wordy and made no sense, so I laughed along with the kids trying to hurl it as an insult.
To start the school day, our teacher would have us each read aloud a paragraph at a time. A few of the kid’s agonizingly slow pace motivated zero-patience me to try speeding things up by volunteering to finish their passage. In those days, knowing nothing had not yet become cool, so while the kids made an attempt to learn and get better at reading, I kept stepping on their process. It wasn’t too long before my teacher implemented a plan so we wouldn’t butt heads as much. She’d let me sit in the back and read to myself, and I let her teach. This was a great strategy, and I didn’t hate school as much during first grade.
I had a habit, throughout my illustrious school career; when the year began, I would immediately read all my new books. After a few weeks, there was nothing left for me to do except crack jokes, butt in, or talk to girls. I did well on tests and answered stuff in class, but because I was unwilling to be controlled and learned shit way faster than they could deal with, my grades suffered.
Ma usually headed off to work about an hour before we left for school, leaving Joe and me to make our own breakfast. One day, after shaking out a little bit from every little bottle by the stove, I learned that bacon doesn’t need any extra spices. And if you’re going to reach into the pan to get a piece, better do it quick. But I mostly stuck to toast with tons of butter. One night, after much whining and begging from me, Ma finally let me wash dishes. I did such an outstanding job that I got to wash dishes every other day, but got over the excitement pretty quickly.
When the great Louis Armstrong passed away, there were several days of tribute and biographical stories aired on radio and television. I became fascinated with the man and his music, and decided that I was to be a trumpet player. That Christmas, Santa-Ma bought me a trumpet from The Akron, a discount store that went belly-up many years ago. I was overjoyed to be on the road to making sweet jazz music, just like Satchmo. Right out of the gate, I made such the sweet racket with my shiny brass horn that everyone encouraged me to play “Somewhere far from here.”
Sadly, after learning only a few loud and obnoxious trumpet licks, my low-budget instrument fell to pieces. Over the next few years, it made repeated repair shop trips to fix bad solders or whatever, where it remained for months on end. I’d get it back and spend about a week blowing my own horn, but it stubbornly refused to stay in one piece. Wait, I think I just realized something.
I loved that funkin’ song “Troglodyte,” but nowadays I hardly ever hear it, unlike that bouncy tune “Little Willy,” which I still rock out to all the time and think of my dog Willy, who died young. We went to all the cool music-movies, like that bad motherfucker, Shaft. My favorite was Super Fly, but the sequel, Super Fly T.N.T., sucked. “Tain’t nuthin’ to it.” Weak! Over the years, the lyrics to Jesus Christ Superstar taught me most of what I know about the New Testament. That shit helps a lot on Jeopardy. Even though sequels are seldom equal, I wish they’d make Jesus Christ Superstar II: Resurrection. “Jesus is back, and he’s got a gun!”
For second grade, we moved away from ghetto-adjacent to live amongst the chosen people of the Fairfax District. Our house sat a block away from Fairfax High School, and right around the corner from one of my all-time favorite restaurants – and cookie-filled bakery – Canter’s Delicatessen. With its old-world charm, the Fairfax District was a fun and interesting neighborhood to explore. Once I found the closest record store, amongst the meat markets, fruit stands, and newsstands, I ventured a little bit farther to a toy store at the “Farmer’s Market,” right next to what is now “The Grove,” in search of a steady View-Master Disc supply.
I attended Laurel Elementary and actually liked my teacher, Mrs. Butwinick. So much so, I rarely made fun of her name. I disliked my classmate, Mike, because he interrupted while I was trying to interrupt. But after Joe became friends with his brother, Rob, Mike and me also became best friends. If we weren’t out wreaking havoc at neighborhood shops, the four of us would go roof jumping across garages all the way up the block. Some of the gaps were pretty gnarly, but we weren’t pussies yet. Next to one garage was a plum tree, and when the fruit ripened, we spent pleasant hours basking in the sun, getting our fill of sweet, delicious, free plums.
One day, while at a store, cashless and jonesing for chocolate, Mike taught me a trick I had never thought of. If you put an item you want in your pocket, or wherever it fit, and walked out of the store, you didn’t have to pay. Oh yeah, got to make sure no one was looking. I took that five-finger-discount strategy to heart. For the next twenty years, I not only got free candy, but anything else I wanted, even if it was nailed down.
At an arcade located on the grounds of a flea market next to CBS Television City, I became obsessed with pinball when it was still three games for a quarter and five balls per game. One day, while passing though the bazaar on a quest to rid myself of quarters, I happened upon a guy selling electronics and scored the coolest thing ever, a tiny AM radio just tall enough to fit two AA batteries, no speaker, and it switched on automatically when an earphone plugged into the jack. I set it to 1580 and killed hundreds of free batteries listening to Stevie, Gladys, Marvin, and Diana while my crazy flipper fingers played some of the meanest pinball ever.
I spent hours reading magazines at a nearby newsstand and soon discovered Mad Magazine was worth paying for. In one memorable issue, there was a magic trick that I wanted to learn: turning one nickel into two. I dutifully followed the instructions by placing a nickel in a piece of paper and then folding it several times. The instructions said, “On the last fold of paper, fold the nickel in half and present it between your thumb and forefinger. It will appear to be two nickels.” I must’ve tried to fold that fucking nickel twenty or more times. Damn you, Mad Magazine!
It wasn’t until years later, after reading All the President’s Men, that I understood all the shit Tricky Dick pulled.
Ma had supported McGovern for president. She’d gather with friends and, while smoking many joints, they’d talk shit about Nixon, Vietnam, and how different it would be when they ran the show. On election night, 1972, they all sat bleary-eyed-astonished that McGovern had lost by a landslide. They didn’t know a soul who voted for Nixon. So when the Watergate scandal broke, it made Ma and her friends very happy. I watched some of the hearings on TV, but mostly followed in newspapers and magazines. It wasn’t until years later, after reading All the President’s Men, that I understood all the shit Tricky Dick pulled.
For me, the coolest thing that happened in second grade – Ma bought a 1966 Plymouth Barracuda Formula S, a badass four-on-the-floor big-American V8. She added a racing stripe that made “Maude” stand out from all the other cars. After gasoline shot above fifty cents a gallon, Ma was bummed because she could no longer fill up for five bucks. I never got a chance to drive Maude, because after she broke down, Ma started riding a motorcycle. Maude got junked in 1978, a time when soaring gas prices meant lots of nine-mile-a-gallon muscle cars were crushed.
Summer’s arrival meant moving time. We ended up in Gardena, a mixed neighborhood with lots of brothers and sisters, but the remaining third of the population was a melting pot. After the Fairfax District, it felt right to be back with my people. I rocked long hair, but had yet to Afro my coif. It was a bitchin’ house on a tree-lined street that ended in a cul-de-sac alongside the very busy El Segundo Boulevard. The place had a huge backyard, plus I got my own bedroom, and there was a two-car garage in the backyard with a basketball hoop above the door. Nearby, I saw my first convenience store, a Circle K. To the south was a casino that I found intriguing, but rarely ventured that far. We’d sometimes drive past Ascot Park on the 110 Freeway, but I didn’t get to see a live demolition derby there for another decade.
At the drive-in for Alice in Wonderland, Ma gave us a few hits of pot. I can’t remember if that was the first time I smoked weed.
For third grade, 135th Street Elementary was the place to be. It was quite a ways away, so I had to hurry home if I wanted to catch Speed Racer and Kimba the White Lion on UHF channel 52. Ma and Joe liked a show I called “Star Track,” but I’d find something else to do while they hogged the TV for that dribble. On weekends, we’d often hit the drive-in movies and one of us would hide under a blanket to get in free. At the drive-in for Alice in Wonderland, Ma gave us a few hits of pot. I can’t remember if that was the first time I smoked weed.
Ma bought herself an awesome Harman Kardon quadraphonic hi-fi system, plus the quadraphonic-mix LP of Jesus Christ Superstar, and would sing along about not knowing how to love Him. I wasn’t allowed to touch her toy, but on my AM radio I’d jam out, “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” “Float On,” “Be Thankful for What You Got,” “Cowboys to Girls,” and “My Eyes Adored You.” The Jackson 5 were still my favorite, and when “Dancing Machine” came on, I’d bust moves that so impressed my grade school homies they’d request for me to “dance like M.J.”
When we first arrived, the kids next door spoke in hushed tones of the older ladies across the street being “lesbians.” I had no idea what that meant, or the sheer loveliness of the lifestyle, and thought they were called lesbians because they drank beer through a straw. We were pretty good play friends with those kids, until we started getting them into trouble. They were Catholics, with strong family values, and their folks didn’t cotton to this little eight-year-old white boy running naked past their cute ‘n’ sweet ten-year-old daughter, Rose. It wasn’t anything perverted. Being the 70s, streaking was all the rage, plus I always chose dare over truth. So around the block nude it was. When I got back home, the other kids thought it was hilarious having Rose waiting in our driveway. You should have seen the look on her face when she got a gander at my wang.
Ma’s friend gave me a broken-down mono-shock bike. I don’t know if it was someone’s tweak project or a factory-made deal that didn’t sell because it weighed more than a battleship. I dug its uniqueness and set forth procuring parts, then wrenched away until it ran like a top. My third-grade reasoning convinced me the shock absorber begged to go big, well before that was a saying. Luckily, I was already at home. I built a ramp on the sidewalk out front, its launch point mere inches from our neighbor’s Ford LTD. At least a dozen kids watched as I took the required Evel Knievel, pump-up-the-crowd warmup laps, doing wheelies and various stunts. Then clueless-fearless me started from a good distance to build up a head of steam and barreled toward the ramp. Up, up and nope, that heavy-ass steel bike refused to get any lift and I sunk off the end like a bowling ball in a swimming pool. But God’s grace allowed the car trunk to break my fall. Lesson learned: Don’t block the sidewalk with your car, because some kid’s head might dent your trunk-lid.
Ma’s pot-smoking buddy ran a group home in Compton. Apparently we weren’t enough of a challenge, because she decided to foster one of those kids. Bo was fifteen, and a good-looking brother that all the young ladies at Gardena High School dug. He was like the big brother I always wanted, tough and fair. We became fast friends and would hang out for hours in his room, talking about stuff and airing grievances of the cruel, unfair world while he smoked five joints at a time through a gas mask repurposed and tinkered to accommodate efficient THC gassing. I tried it a few times, but he mostly did the pot smoking.
Bo toughened me up in a lot of ways, like the day we played catch in the backyard and he hollered, “No matter what, always catch the ball,” then fired the football as hard as he could toward my head. It bounced off my face into my waiting hands. I smiled and ignored the pain, and felt proud whenever Bo bragged to his friends about me making that catch.
Summer came and we didn’t move. Wow, weird, right? What do kids do when not packing up the house after school lets out? Go to the public pool, where for a quarter we could cool off for hours. On the way home from swimming, we’d raid a little market owned by Koreans, so wary of the swarms of kids invading their store that they built a barricade and a maze. We had to navigate a narrow passage past watchful eyes to get to the candy, chips, and sodas, but defeated the system pretty quickly. While they kept a watchful eye on the kids with much deeper tans, I’d be inside tossing treats over the barricade to my friends waiting in a blind spot by the front door.
With our huge garage and unfettered access to all the free bike parts a pint-sized klepto could ever need, I had become quite the skilled bike mechanic. So when Bo decided to trick out his ten-speed by hooking up an 8-track tape player with speakers, I provided many needed parts to make his bike rock while he rolled. It took loads of power to rock an Ohio Players’ Honey tape on the eight-mile ride to his old neighborhood in search of babes ready to “Fopp.” After a few weeks, there were bunches of those blinking-light, folding road signs – sans six-volt batteries – piled up behind our garage.
Bo got kicked to the curb when Ma found out, from Joe, about me stealing six-volt batteries from street signs. Ma claimed, “I hate to give up on Bo, but I can’t have him making my son steal stuff.”
Losing a close friend and trusted confidant can get a kid down in the dumps. I missed Bo a lot and thought it so unfair of Ma to send my best friend away. The time Bo and I spent together was short, yet full of life lessons and happy memories. To this day, I still occasionally wonder how his journey unfolded, and hope it was all for the best. After Bo moved on, I became a model citizen, a straight A student, and ended up attending an Ivy League…psych. The truth is, with Bo around I mostly stayed out of trouble, or just didn’t get caught. But afterward, Joe and I got into tons of trouble doing completely idiotic stuff.
Fourth grade was the first time I started at the same school two years in a row. A few months after school began, instead of going to class, Joe and me snuck onto the school’s roof. Because it fit our criteria of seeming like a fun thing to do, we began hurling stuff at passing cars: rocks, pieces of the aerial antennae, or whatever was at hand. After half an hour of chucking debris at motorists, we saw Ma’s Barracuda, Maude, turning the corner and concluded that it was time to head to the principal’s office. I remain baffled to this day that the school let us toss stuff at cars whilst they waited for Ma to arrive, and that we were only suspended two days for that shit.
The next day, Pops drove up to deliver a stern talk about the importance of behaving. Before leaving, he made us promise to be good. My word wasn’t my bond yet, so right after Pops hit the road, Joe and I decided that we should run away. There was a huge box truck parked a block away from our house. All the local kids knew about them leaving the keys in it, making it the product of unfulfilled dares and grade-school joyride fantasies. The time had come to act on impulse and free ourselves from oppressive parents’ silly rules.
Joe sat in the driver’s seat, with me at his side working the gears. We lurched forward and then ignored a stop sign to make a left. After tooling along for two blocks, while making a right, Joe turned a wee bit early and jumped the curb to send the truck rumbling across a front lawn with each of us frantically using both feet trying to halt that lumbering house crusher. We managed to stop about five feet short of a horrified lady watching through her window. I wrestled the shifter into reverse and we began inching backward. But panicky me mashed Joe’s foot into the accelerator to hurry us up, and the truck plowed over the stop sign on the opposite corner.
The lady from the window stepped outside and yelled repeatedly, “I know you kids! I know you…” So I just sat on the curb and waited for the cops. After the fuzz arrived, he seemed more amused than angry as he drove us to the station for a catch and release to Ma.
The very next day, after burglarizing loads of toys from the house across our back fence, the same cop pulled up as we played in our front yard with a stolen giant-eagle-shaped foam glider. He rolled down his window and with a friendly smile said, “I knew it was you two.” There were no cuffs or nothing, we just hopped into the back of the patrol car and set off toward the Gardena Police Station.
Before the desired ice cream mother lode, we got swarmed by L.A.P.D. officers with guns drawn.
We took the next day off, but got back at our spaz-spree on the fourth day. Joe and me were headed toward school, but became sidetracked by the siren song of the ice cream man’s garage. In a back alley behind an apartment building, I spent several minutes trying to jimmy the door with a Popsicle stick. Because I was nine and didn’t yet carry a credit card, it was taking forever. Before the desired ice cream mother lode, we got swarmed by L.A.P.D. officers with guns drawn. A trip across Vermont Boulevard had put us in the hands of the far less accommodating Los Angeles fuzz.
I cried out, “We live here!”
The cop with a shotgun trained on me bellowed, “What’s the address?”
Oops. I changed my tune to another lie, “We were trying to get away from a stray dog.”
After being arrested three times in four days, it was decided that Joe and I would move in with Pops when school let out for summer. Not wanting to lose the freedom of Ma’s, and in hopes of a reprieve, we both went on good behavior. But we boys were still at each other’s throats most of the time. One day, mid-squabble, Joe ran into his room and I threw a rock at his backside, then fled the scene. I returned home hours later to find out that a thrown rock can cut a twelve inch gash in a waterbed. Seeing as the improbable was entirely my fault, Ma called Pops and demanded that he come fetch me. Early the next morning, Pops and me rode smoothly south on the 405 Freeway in a 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale, listening to Gary Owens on AM radio. Destination: Costa Mesa.