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By Jian Huang

________

Nobody here understands what I say. They just look at me funny when I ask them which way is home. At school, the kids sing songs that sound like they could be Chinese. I try to sing along, but I can’t make out the words. Then Mrs. Wintersmith gets mad at me because I don’t participate. I want to participate. I want to tell her I want to participate. She called Mom in recently for a parent-teacher meeting and spent 20 minutes gesturing like a mime before giving up and sending both of us home with a D+.

“Wrrrr wrrrr wrrrr.” That’s what English sounds like. How am I supposed to understand that? Dad tells me that one day I’ll understand this new language and that I’ll speak it so well I won’t even remember that I was ever Chinese. He says little kids can adapt anywhere.

I used to ask Mom when we would go home. I ask her on the bus, I ask her when she walks me home from school, I ask her at dinner. I want to go back to that house that smelled like smoked pickles in the mornings. I even want to go back to that old Mrs. Li who shooed me away with her corn husk broom whenever she caught me picking at her hanging anchovies. Each time Mom answers me with “Soon.”

Nowadays I don’t ask her. I just watch TV and try to learn English. Little kids like me are not supposed to ask too many questions. Little kids are supposed to make Cup O’Noodles for themselves and stay home while Mom and Dad are at work. During breaks from school, Mom says to turn on the TV if I ever feel lonely, so I have it on all the time. When the TV is on I’m not so sad anymore: “I Love Lucy” at 9, “The Jerry Springer Show” at 11, “The Ricki Lake Show” at 2, “Animaniacs” at 3, then “The Simpsons” during prime time. I watch and laugh and try to remember that we are now free.

Dad brings me to the motel sometimes. He says it’s a boring place and that there are no kids around, but at least it gives us enough money to make ramen with bean sprouts for lunch. While he’s checking the rooms, I help him cut a stack of papers into squares he could use for notes when customers pick up their keys. I cut a few extra sheets to make birds. My kindergarten teacher taught me how to make them before we left China. I fold a beak, a tail and a pair of wings. I even draw eyes on it to make sure it could see.

In between bird-making, I watch customers walk in and out of their rooms. They go to their cars, they go to the store, they go to the vending machine upstairs. Most of the time people stay here alone. They get donuts and beer from the liquor store across the street and eat them in their rooms with the doors bolted shut. Each room has prison bars on the window so no one can get in without a key. Sometimes the men check in with one of the ladies from across the street. Couples in love are called “birds” in English. Pretty girls are called “birds,” too.

The motel seems gigantic, with 28 rooms and two floors. The ocean blue paint underneath the stairwell is chipping. I rarely see the same customer more than once. There are so many rooms, and not one is filled with anyone I know. A couple of weeks ago, a little girl about my age named Annie checked in with her mama. A few days later I noticed that somebody drew hearts and flowers in pink chalk on the ground.

Recently, I’ve been asking Dad to bring me to the motel more. Annie is here. She’s the only other person I know here. He tells me I could play outside in the parking lot, but I can’t go beyond the driveway, where the asphalt meets the sidewalk. Growing up in a new country means I have to learn new rules. It’s different here than it is in China, but Dad promises that this is better. He’s always teaching me smart things, like how to spot shady people, how to spot fake money, how to clean things with rubbing alcohol and how to play poker. Now I’m learning how to be suspicious, which means furrowing my brow and not smiling. Dad says there are a lot of bad people in this city, and I need to learn to protect myself.

I don’t think Annie goes to school. She’s always here. Often, she’s squatting outside their first-floor room doodling on the ground with chalk. Sometimes I see her mama keeping her company while smoking cigarettes by the dumpsters barefoot. Annie doesn’t have any siblings either.

Her mama has a big blue Cadillac with paint coming off its fender. It is filled with so many paper bags that it looks like a suitcase on wheels. I never see her talking to anybody except a few words to Dad once a week when she pays for their room. She says Annie gets picked on too much at school, which explains why she doesn’t go. Most days they just stay in their room, coming out only once or twice to buy a soda or unpack something from the Cadillac. Sometimes her mama puts on a pretty dress and takes that Cadillac to work for a few hours. Her brown hair is so messy it looks like a tornado came through. She asks Dad to keep an eye on Annie but never tells him where she goes.

I like Annie. She’s the first little girl I ever seen around here. She came out to play with me while I was poking at the ants by the magnolia tree. At school pretty girls like her wouldn’t play with me, but Annie’s different. She’s not from around here, just like I’m not from around here. She lets me use her chalk and shows me how to shuffle cards.

People around here are mostly dark or tanned, but not Annie. Her skin is fair and white, like soft serve vanilla. Her freckles run all along her arm like sprinkles on a sugar cookie. Once she even let me scratch one of them so I could see for myself that they were real.

I look forward to seeing Annie. I try to see her whenever Dad brings me to the motel. We manage to find all sorts of things to play with here: hide and seek in between the parked cars, jump rope with Dad’s VCR cables, and even superhero with bedsheets tied to our shoulders. Her favorite game is House. She shows me how to tie a towel around my hair the way her mama does after a shower, and I show her how to bundle up her sweatshirt to look like a baby the way I learned it from school. We call the sweatshirt our baby brother and name him Bart. We make a little house out of a cardboard box and cut flaps for the doors. In our fake kitchen, I motion like I’m flipping hamburgers while Annie serves dinner to our make-believe family. Nobody could eat until we sat down. We were the oldest for a change, so we set the rules.

In the parking lot, the magnolia tree opens up far beyond the roof of the motel with its branches stretching out into the sky above. During the daytime, the flowers disappear into the clouds, and at night, the blooms seem to hum along with the sounds of snoring strangers who sleep here.

It must be lonely to be Annie. I imagine that on days when I’m not here, she must spend all day in her room watching TV. I ask Dad why Annie can’t go to school with me, and he shrugs. He says it’s best to keep that to myself because it’s none of our business. We’re only guests in this country.

Before Dad clocks out for the day, I make plans with Annie. We mark up the hopscotch squares to show where we left off. We fold up our cardboard house for our next sit-down dinner, and put it in the closet with the maid’s cleaning cart. We fold our superhero sheets and agree that next time we’ll both be Wonder Woman.

Today I come to the motel and see that the blue Cadillac is gone. I peek behind the open door to their room, and all I see is a messy bed inside. Lucy is vacuuming what’s left in Annie’s room. I ask Dad when she will come back.

“Soon,” he says.

________

Jian Huang was born in Shanghai, China and grew up in South Los Angeles. She has worked in the arts and for local nonprofits. Her interests include watching old Hollywood movies and writing about social justice issues that deal with class barriers, the American Dream, and finding a place of belonging. She is a 2016 PEN USA Emerging Voices fellow. Contact her at: jenhuangg@gmail.com.

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CaliforniaFeature Section 1Home Page SliderLos Angeles

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By Cristian Vasquez

____

We had a clear shot on the 110 South after Downtown L.A.

At the Century Boulevard exit, Dad’s white Chevy Cavalier station wagon idled at the red light when the song playing on K-LOVE was interrupted by Pepe Barreto’s voice:

“Breaking news: the four Los Angeles Police Department officers accused of police brutality against Rodney King have been found not guilty.”

As dad turned east to make our way home, Uncle Heli, who hadn’t said a word from the passenger seat during the ride home from work, blurted out “No way! That’s bull.”

Dad, not one to trust authority figures, took a drag of his Marlboro red and shook his head.

“We’re screwed.”

* * *

Uncle Heli is the third-youngest in a family with 13 siblings and was one of two who finished high school back home in Michoacán, Mexico. My dad, Rafael, is the oldest male in the family. When my dad was 15, Grandpa fell ill. So my dad made his way to America.

For a few years, half of Dad’s income was wired home to his parents and siblings. My parents met at a soccer league trophy ceremony that each was pressured into attending. They were both immigrants from Michoacán, Mom from the state capital of Morelia and dad from a small town named Pajacuaran. It didn’t take long for Mom to ditch her senior year in high school and leave behind her sheltered life in Culver City.

She was the youngest daughter and overprotected. My great grandmother raised my mom and her siblings in Michoacán while my grandmother made her way in the United States. My great grandmother was rigid. On the rare occasion that it was allowed, socializing with boys outside of school required chaperones.

At the dance where she met Dad, mom and her youngest brother were shadowing my aunt and her boyfriend, making sure they behaved. Mom left the safety of Culver City to bunker down with Dad in South-Central Los Angeles. It was 1980 and they lived on 49th Street and Compton Avenue, one of three Mexican families in an African-American neighborhood. I was born there. We lived there until 1984: just the three of us.

I was in first grade the first time I met an uncle from Dad’s side of the family. I came home from school one day and there was a guy sitting on the couch.

“That’s my brother Juan. He’s your uncle. Shake his hand.”

After that, my dad’s family began making its way north. It became normal to come home from school and find a new uncle, cousin or family friend on the couch. Eventually that two-bedroom apartment became overcrowded: My mom, dad, newborn-brother Jorge and I crammed into the master bedroom. The bed took up the southeast corner of the room, leaving just enough space for the door to open on the west wall. At the foot of the bed, cornered on the northern wall, was a dresser where the television sat. Sleeping in the living room were four of my uncles and three of their friends. In the back of the apartment, next to the bathroom, was a small room where my uncle and his friend, who shared a car and worked the same 2 a.m. schedule in Downtown Los Angeles’ produce district, decided to make their room.

The landlord took care of this overcrowding with an eviction notice. After three relocations in less than two years, Mom found a two-bedroom house in Watts. The house was on the back end of the property and included a garage but shared a yard with the front unit. Rent was $750 a month and the owner didn’t care that 15 people crammed into their property.

In 1992 Watts was a mixture of African-American and Mexican families, each group representing half the population. Our family lived next to an apartment building on the corner of Lou Dillon Avenue and 105th Street. Toward 103rd Street were the projects, but in between, the street was sprinkled with black and brown families of all ages. The language barrier kept my parents from being closer to the older African-American neighbors, but there was a mutual respect and a genuine liking in their interactions. The same goodwill didn’t exist between each group’s youth. Alliances to control turf, drugs and money were defined by race and geography, and disagreements were solved with violence. So when I was on vacation from school, Dad refused to leave me home alone; at 11 years old, it was time I learned what it was like to work for a living and he took me to his construction job.

* * *

Our drive home from the freeway usually took 10 minutes, but that afternoon the streets overflowed with angry people armed with rocks, bottles and milk crates. The red light at Main Street and Century Boulevard was the first to trap us. The mob hurled bottles, rocks and any heavy object at our car. An uncoordinated “No justice, no peace!” chant pierced our closed windows. Dad and Uncle Heli looked in every direction, scanning for anyone trying to approach the car. A rioter tried opening the door to the car in front of us.

“Lock your doors. Cristian, get us the hammers,” Dad barked, with a cigarette pinched between his lips.

I jumped off my seat, crawled over the back seat, flipped over Dad’s tool bucket and pulled out two hammers. Dad took the wooden-handled one while Uncle Heli took the metal-neck concrete hammer with the blue grip. I moved from the window seat to the middle and snapped on my seatbelt.

Dad raced through the intersection when the light turned; bottles smashed at the station wagon’s side panels, rocks skipped across the hood of our car and kicks and punches landed from every direction.

We caught another red light at Century and Avalon Boulevard. An RTD bus was stopped to our right next to the curb. Nobody was getting off and no one was attempting to board. An angry mob unleashed its rage on the bus. A handful of teenagers beat the bus windows and headlights with sticks. The bus pressed forward, and the teens gave chase, swinging their frustration at it. With the bus out of reach, the mob turned its anger on us and, as we sped off, it punched, kicked and launched debris at us.

“How’s Andrea getting home?” asked my uncle.

“Have to go get her. She took the bus today.”

Panic set in. Mom wasn’t home and Dad had to go back out.

Central Avenue and Century gave us a green light. Dad turned right, drove one block down to 103rd Street and turned east. No lights for a while and the streets were clear. Another green light took us across Compton Avenue, past the Food4Less shopping center, over the Blue Line tracks and into clear streets. Lou Dillon Avenue was only blocks away; we were almost home. Wilmington Avenue was another green light, but traffic was stopped by a sea of angry people. Fists and spit landed on the windshield as Dad inched the car through the mob, forcing it back onto the sidewalk from where they hammered it with more rocks, trashcans and tires.

Dad slammed the brakes. “Shit.” He cut right through an alley that came out on 105th Street: clear, not a soul in sight. He went east a few blocks and made a left into the dirt alley behind our house. I opened the door to get the gate; it was always my job to open the gate.

“NO! Don’t open the door.”

There was fear in Dad’s eyes. We ran into the house. Dad rushed into the bedroom, where my 4-year-old brother Jorge was watching “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” In the living room, three uncles and two cousins hung on the television’s every word.

“Protesters are gathering at different points in the city after the Rodney King verdict,” a woman said. It was happening along Florence Avenue, down Manchester Avenue and all the way down Imperial Highway.

“Nobody leaves the house,” Dad yelled, tucking something into the back of his pants. “Carlos, come with me to get Andrea.” He pulled me away from the television. “Don’t go anywhere unless your uncles say so. Understand?”

I wanted to go with him but just said, “Okay.”

“Not guilty?” Uncle Carlos said. “I expect this in Mexico but not in the United States. Governments are trash everywhere.”

Uncle Carlos and Dad left. We were hungry but there wasn’t any food and nobody was going to disobey my dad, so we watched the news and waited. The mobs became more destructive and the violence began to spread. Rioters destroyed storefronts and looted businesses; when the stores had nothing left to take, the hordes began targeting people. Pedestrians were beaten; drivers were dragged out of their cars and kicked on the ground even after being knocked unconscious. The phone rang.

“He’s on his way. He left a little while ago with Carlos,” cousin Jose said.

“I want to talk to her.” The phone still to his ear, Jose brushed me off.

“He’s okay. Don’t worry. Be safe. Bye. Your mom said don’t worry.”

Nobody was trying to stop the violence; the fires raged, the looting grew and the beatings continued.

“Where are the cops?” Uncle Heli blurted as he took a drag from his cigarette. “Haven’t seen one damn patrol car.”

The television cut to an aerial shot. A big rig pulled up to the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues. A group of four men approached the rig, opened the door and dragged out a man. His hair flailed as he was kicked, punched, dragged on the asphalt and beaten some more. The driver crawled, inch by inch, back to his rig when, from the right side of the screen, a rioter in a white T-shirt and a baseball cap rushed in and hurled a rock to the side of the man’s head, then celebrated his feat. The driver stopped moving.

“Animals.”

Uncle Heli was watching from the doorframe of the kitchen. The living room was filled with cigarette smoke. He walked to the front door, looking back and forth between the street and the alley. Nobody in sight. Uncle Heli made his way to the front house. Our neighbors were also locked inside, watching Univision.

“They’ll watch the front and we’ll watch the alley,” he told us.

From the alley we heard two voices: “Hey, amigo!”

It was the neighborhood twins. They were drug addicts who fed their addiction by selling stolen items. We never knew their names; everyone just called them the twins and, despite the language barrier, these two African-American men befriended my uncles. One of the twins had a birthmark on his left cheek, right below his eye, making it easy to tell them apart. For drug addicts, they were pretty well kept and had a change of clothing every day.

“Can we have a cigarette?”

“Wait here,” said Uncle Heli as he walked toward the back gate. He lit their cigarettes, and after brief exchange he walked back to the porch. Cousin Jose was standing behind me.

“What they want?” Jose asked.

“They asked if we wanted beer. That they would bring us some and we just pay them later,” Uncle Heli replied.

“Where’s he getting beer from?” I asked.

“I don’t know. We’ll see.” He took a seat on the top step of the porch.

It was getting dark when the back gate rattled again. Dad and Mom hurried inside.

“It’s a mess out there. Lock the doors.” Mom was panicked. Uncle Carlos ran to the garage and grabbed a machete.

“They’re burning stores, beating people. You’re not going to school tomorrow,” Mom said in a broken voice. “What if they start coming into houses. Should we leave?”

“Where? We have to stand watch,” Dad said. “We didn’t see one fuckin’ cop. Everyone takes a two-hour shift by the doors and windows, and then we switch. If anyone pokes their head in, smash it.”

We took two sledgehammers, an ax, the two hammers and a steel rod from the station wagon. From the garage my cousin brought a monkey wrench the length of a baseball bat. As everyone scavenged for tools to use as weapons, I noticed flames in the dark sky. To the west, on 105th and Hickory was the liquor store my cousin worked at on weekends. The owners, Middle Easterners, would let me hang. If I swept or took out trash, I’d get a bag of Cheetos Puffs or a Springfield soda. Any other day we could see the store from our porch; all we saw that night were flames.

Looking north, across the street from the Jordan Downs Housing Projects, was another liquor store. The Korean owner saw my dad enough to extend him a line of credit on smokes and beer; the owner would let me have one item of my choosing. He always told Dad I wasn’t his kid; “He has Korean eyes. You not Korean” and would let out a boisterous laugh. That liquor store, too, was engulfed in flames.

“Get inside!” Mom said. She dragged me to the house.

“If there aren’t any police, what’s going to happen?”

“For tonight, we’ll stay here. We’ll figure something else tomorrow,” Mom said as she locked me in the room.

From the window I could see the flames that destroyed the nice Korean man’s store. In the distance came shouting and random gunshots. From behind me, Mom’s voice told me not to worry. We sat and leaned against the headboard of her bed, Dad settled at the foot of window. We watched television. The panic faded to uneasiness once the grownups took a position defending the house. I’d seen my uncles fight before, so I felt reassured.

“I want to watch the movie,” Jorge whined. His 4-year-old brain was scared but bored with the news.

“Yes. Both of you stay in here and watch the movie.” She fed the VHS to the VCR and walked out of the room. I followed.

The cloud of cigarette smoke hung over the living room as everyone was glued to the television. Usually our refrigerator was empty and when we got home everyone would pitch in for a food run. Curled up next to Mom, I whispered that I was hungry. She got up, told me to go to the room with Jorge and wait.

Jorge was stuck on his movie. Mom walked in, took her purse out of the closet and pulled out two Nabisco Swiss cookie packs.

“There’s no milk but have this. Eat them in here; if I see either of you outside with these, I’m spanking both of you.”

I sat on my parent’s bed. From the bottom bunk to my right Jorge mouthed the lines to “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” Outside, the flames destroying the liquor store on 103rd Street lit the sky. I wondered if the nice Korean owner was watching his store burn.

I awoke to a dark room and Dad by the window. I couldn’t see any more flames and it was finally silent: no outside noise, no news updates and no adult voices.

“Dad.”

“Go to sleep.”

“Can I watch TV?”

“No. The electricity went out. Just go back to sleep.”

“Why is the electricity out? Did you forget to pay the bill?”

He chuckled cigarette smoke from his nose. “No, son. These assholes made the whole street black out. Nobody has electricity. Don’t worry. Sleep.”

The next morning Mom and Dad had to go to work in the morning, but they weren’t leaving us home. As we piled into the station wagon, Dad checked in with the neighbors in the front house; none of them was leaving. They would guard the front and my uncles the back.

The sky was lit but the sun still hid in the horizon. The chop of helicopters cut through the quiet morning. The Chevy bounced through the dirt alley, on to 103rd Street, west to Avalon Boulevard and then north. Avalon is a wide corridor connecting Downtown L.A. to South-Central. That morning Avalon was littered with broken glass, trash and charred vehicles on their sides blocking the road; burning businesses and smoldered buildings lined the street. Dad snaked through the debris.

We sat in silence, moving past the ashes, as KLOVE chattered in the background.

________
Cristian Vasquez was born in Los Angeles in 1981 and was raised in a Mexican-immigrant family. He grew up in South-Central and Watts until his parents settled in Inglewood in 1993. During the last eight years, Cristian has been a reporter for community newspapers in Inglewood, Hawthorne, and Torrance. Contact him at cristian.vasquez81@gmail.com.

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Feature Section 1Uncategorized

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By K.C. Glynn

[dropcap1]A[/dropcap1]fter 23 years in the Navy, much of it sailing to “exotic ports of call” where I took note of some very strange behavior between both natives and sailors, and then some 20 or so years as a public high school teacher in Los Angeles, I decided to get my Master’s degree in History, with the idea of cementing my resume as an academic.

Upon entering the program at Cal State University, Northridge, the question became one of specialization. I decided to focus on “archival management.” Having been ground down by years of oversized classes crammed with unappreciative teenage louts, I fantasized about working all alone in a quiet, spacious room where I could peruse historical documents while listening to Mozart.

A requirement of the program was to organize and catalogue primary materials for the “Special Collections” division of CSUN’s library which, I discovered, is one of the largest repositories of erotica and pornography in the United States.

CSUN is smack dab in the middle of the San Fernando Valley, the center of American porn production and a freeway drive from the Xanadus of Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt. Like the feudal barons of the Middle Ages who atoned for careers of rape and pillage by commissioning stained glass windows in cathedrals, it seemed that those who built their castles on sins of the flesh would donate materials to CSUN in the possible hope that someone, someday would transform their otherwise tawdry work into an “archive” for scholarly study and bestow that veneer of respectability they craved. Instead of mere smut, their deeds would become “history.”

The crown jewel of the archive is the “Verne and Bonnie Bullough Collection on Sex and Gender” which (and I quote from the library description):

was established by former CSUN faculty member Vern Bullough starting in 1973.   Its purpose is to document social attitudes and studies of sex and gender from ancient times to the present, in support of CSUN curricula and research. The collection is maintained for research and educational purposes, and is comprised of books, periodicals, manuscripts, and archival materials covering such topics as cross-dressing, gender roles in various time periods, the homosexual community in Los Angeles, prostitution, the transgendered community, children and gender, nudism, gender and medicine, fetishism, and pornography.

I reported to the “Head Archivist,” a quiet, contemplative man who would not have been out of place in a monastery. I was instead directed to organize 16 large boxes marked “The Tri-Ess Society,” a group which billed itself as “The Society of the Second Self, America’s oldest and largest heterosexual cross-dressing organization” founded by one “Virginia Prince” some time in the early 1950’s. Inside the boxes were thousands of letters, pictures, drawings, articles, implements, and artifacts belonging to men, young and old, fathers, brothers, and sons, who all shared a single terrifying secret.

They wanted to become women.

This desire took on different forms. Most had a compulsion simply to dress as women either privately or publically. I discovered a letter written by a World War II B-17 bomber pilot to Virginia Prince in her function as a cross-dressing “Dear Abby. ” He captained a crew that had worked the system to get themselves assigned to the same airplane in the Eighth Air Force. They liked to wear women’s clothes while bombing Germany; it gave them “a sense of comfort” as they fought the flak and fighters somewhere over Dusseldorf. They looked fabulous astride their machine guns in stiletto heels.

Other letters were from “alpha males” who, after retiring from Fortune 500 careers, wanted to make tea and arrange flowers while dressed in Dior and bathed in Chanel No. 5.  They seemed exhausted from the competition and run out of testosterone in the corporate rat race. There were doctors, lawyers, priests, politicians, convicts, rich, and poor. An Air Force test pilot based at Edwards Air Force Base worried what would happen to his career should he be stopped by the Highway Patrol on his way home from the transvestite Tupperware party somewhere in Pasadena while still in drag. Some wanted to physically become women and were asking for help or advice. Some wondered if they were homosexuals but were cautioned by Miss Prince that “Tri-Ess” was an organization for heterosexual, not homosexual, transvestites and that they should seek counsel elsewhere, along with the other transsexuals and fetishists who sought admission to her club. Most seemed unhappy with a fate they were at a loss to understand.

I worked on that collection for 18 months, slowly putting together the pieces of the puzzle while drawing some insight into the conundrum of gender identity. I thought about mothers dressing their toddler boys as girls, or boys playing with dolls, or Oedipus, or Freud, or Liberacé. I thought about the theories of “Nature versus Nurture” and watched reruns of “Tootsie” and “Some Like It Hot.”

As I catalogued the collection, the greatest mystery of all remained Virginia Prince herself. Who was she? What was she? Was she still a he? Or had he really become a she? This question had a personal resonance for me.

The first person I met in college was Charlie, in a processional line for freshmen. Charlie seemed to be everything I was not. I was a Long Island suburbanite; Charlie was a stone-cold, Upper East Side, brownstone, private-school, doorman-whistle-taxi Manhattanite. He breathed old money with every puff of the Parliaments he smoked. But even more remarkable, he was married! 

In some kind of weird “Romeo and Juliet,” “West Side Story” meets “The Godfather” kind of thing Charlie, rich WASP Manhattan dude, had a torrid love affair with Maria, Italian love-bomb from Brooklyn, and the two, despite their families, had run off and got hitched that summer before going on to their separate college destinations. Now, with about a hundred miles of New York moo-cow farmland between them, they anxiously awaited each others’ embrace.

Charlie and Maria somehow survived the Ashley Madisons and Lotharios of college to graduate and soon got jobs in New York City only to fall prey to corporate temptations. One day, Charlie called me and wanted to meet for lunch. He told me that Maria was having an affair with her boss and that they were divorcing. Shocked, I expressed a hope that we could still remain friends. He replied that I could be friends either with him or with Maria but not both. Resenting being pressed into a corner, I chose Maria. He angrily got up from the table and left to disappear into the. As for Maria, I pressed her about what went wrong. She hinted at “irreconcilable differences” but would not elaborate.

Thirty years later, as I worked in CSUN’s archives, a rumor surfaced at the college class reunion. A clerk at the transcript office had communicated a story to a member of the reunion committee that a woman had requested a transcript under a man’s name. Charlie was now “Charlene.”

Back in the bowels of the library, I dug deep into the boxes of material trying to find some clues. Maybe Charlie was somewhere in there. It became like the search for the origin of “Rosebud” in “Citizen Kane.” I sifted through the Tri-Ess Executive Committee minutes overseeing their transvestite “sororities” across America, I read the Central Intelligence Agency’s assessment of the security risk of transvestites to the Space Race, I read smuggled letters from “Kalina” in Moscow about zeks cracking rocks in the Gulag Archipelago (apparently, the Politburo considered cross-dressing communists as counter-revolutionaries). I pored over back issues of “Guys in Gowns,” “Transvestia,” and “Bizarre.” Until Bingo! I found a pamphlet by Virginia Prince titled “Everything You Wanted to Know About Cross-dressing but Didn’t Know Who to Ask.” The pamphlet itself, a primer on transvestism as an expression of man’s feminine nature, was opaque as to her origins, but inside was a yellowed newsletter commentary whose Rosetta Stone-like contents made me reach for the nearest seat.

Virginia Prince had been a student at my school!

Arnold Lowman, Class of 1932, Los Angeles High, where I have been teaching since 1995.

I went to our Ray Bradbury Library (another illustrious alumni) and found the yearbook collection. And there he was! A slimly built member of the Junior Varsity Track team! Chemistry club anddebate team andsecretary of This and That.In the depths of the Depression, Arnold Lowman, who had apparently first began cross-dressing at the age of twelve, went on to the University of California, Berkeley where he earned his Ph.D in pharmacology, got married, had children, got divorced, got married again, but then reinvented himself as Virginia Prince, Transvestite Queen, and begin a movement that would culminate not only in the transfiguration of Bruce Jenner, Olympic Decathlete and Wheaties Icon, into Caitlyn Jenner, America’s Sweetheart, but in the announcement by the University of California that this year’s college application will have six possible boxes to check off in the “gender” category.

Virginia, nee’ Arnold, died in 2009, aged 91, having gone to meet her maker in a dress. It was no ordinary life. And one done against great odds. My hat’s off to you, Arnold/Virginia.

As for Charlie/Charlene, he called me up out of the blue one evening a year or so later, after he read something about me in the “class notes” section from our alumni newsmagazine. Although he was pretty hammered, we caught up with each other. We talked about the class reunion. The rumor of “Charlene” came up and when it did, the timbre of his voice changed from baritone to alto. It was true, he said. He was now a she. I had a drink. She had a drink. Maybe some more. Charlene told me that (like Arnold) she knew something didn’t fit by the age of twelve, but didn’t know what it was. Charlie had married Maria, got caught trying to become Maria, divorced Maria, married again for ten years but, his second wife, exasperated from finding her husband borrowing her clothes, divorced him.

Charlie withdrew into alcohol and despair and psychoanalysis but took the plunge and became Charlene. I did not want to know just how deep the end of the pool was when he jumped in, but Charlene told me that other people found her quite attractive. She said she was happy. Thinking of Charlie all those many years ago standing in that processional line as a freshman I wondered if that might be true. However, I did not want her to send me a picture. She was living with another woman, “Tiffany,” somewhere in Baltimore. Did that make her a lesbian? Going through all that to find you still loved women?

I thought of Baltimore’s famous film maker John Waters. Charlie and I had seen “Pink Flamingoes” starring its notorious drag diva, Divine, in our freshman year at some Halloween midnight show. I kept my eyes shut most of the time for fear of seeing something I shouldn’t, couldn’t, dare not see.

Charlie’s eyes were probably wide open all the way.

A year or so after graduating to go return to the still unappreciative teenage louts lurking in my classroom, I visited the CSUN archive and its chief monk. As we chatted in his office, a well-dressed young man pored over reference materials at one of the archival computers.

“He’s a visiting scholar doing research,” the chief monk said, “he’s been looking at your work.”

I observed him intent at his work, making notes and taking pictures with small, manicured hands. He was slightly built with glossy hair and a meticulously trimmed silky goatee.

I felt surprise, perhaps mixed with a twinge of relief, thinking that my own unrequested exploration of the unexpected would not be consigned to some dusty academic dead end, but might, instead, light some candle for others to peer into those mysterious dark corners as we continue to wonder what it means to be human.

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K.C. Glynn is a sailor and a writer who teaches Social Studies and Shakespeare at Los Angeles High School.  His debut novel, “Tyrannosaurus Sex,” now available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, tries to make sense of it all.   Contact him at:  kglaca@gmail.com.

 

 

 

 

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