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By David Fallon

________

In 2012 I was hired as part of a program to provide outreach services to the homeless of Hollywood. It was our job to find the most vulnerable individuals on the street and to work to get them into housing. Not long after we began, we found a panhandler at a gas station near Griffith Park.

Dean was a wiry guy with tangled hair sticking out from under a grimy baseball cap. He had a long, grizzled beard and striking blue eyes that hid a fast wit. When he talked, he grew animated, with arms waving and face twisting. He was a storyteller who loved having an audience. He was also a drug addict who used just about anything he could get his hands on. Let’s be real, I need beer! his cardboard sign read.

“Go find Buddy up on the hill!” he told us because he wanted us to talk to his friend. He was also eager to get back to his hustling. In the early days of our work, people on the streets regarded us with a detached bemusement. They had been promised housing in the past by many other organizations. None of these panned out, so they had good reason to doubt us. We told Dean that we would come back to see him in a few days and went up the hill to find Buddy.

Buddy was tucked away on the top of a small hill amid untrimmed bushes. He was passed out on a towel, his body covered in sweat and smelling of urine. An empty fifth of vodka lay just out of arm’s reach. We tried to get his attention, but he could not be stirred.

“We’ll have to come back,” the team leader said.

Several days later, we met with Dean on the same street corner. He signed the paperwork to join our program and asked a bunch of questions: When can I get some money? You got any lawyers I can talk to? Where’s this so called housing going to be? How long is this gonna take?

Dean said he was a dishonorably discharged Green Beret on the run from the law in Texas. From what, he would not say. He told us his family had disowned him from a large inheritance. Dean also responded to internal voices and seemed to see things that were not there. It was often difficult to tell what was real and what was not with Dean.

“My own mother wants to take my money from me,” he said. “The bitch.” He had been on the streets for 20 years. To survive, he had taken to running drugs for gang members in exchange for free passage in their territory as well as free drugs. We made plans for him to come to our office to discuss the next steps, then left him alone to panhandle.

“Don’t forget Buddy!” Dean reminded us. This time when we climbed the hill, Buddy was wide awake and waiting for us.

“Hey y’all!”

Turns out Dean had told him about our program.

Buddy was tall and lanky with a big smile and hearty laugh. He was older than Dean by at least 10 years. His hands were massive, and he had once been a boxer. His body slumped from decades of alcohol abuse. He could not remember much of the last 20 years and would tearfully tell the same story over and over.

“I use to live in Vegas,” he said. “Life on the streets there is pretty tough. I ended up killing a guy because he was going to kill me. There was nothing else I could do. It was him or me.…” And by this time, he was in tears. The judge had let him off on self-defense, and he came back to Los Angeles, where he had grown up. None of his family wanted to have anything to do with him, so he started drinking.

“And never stopped,” was how the story usually ended.

Homelessness is a constant fight for survival and allies can mean the difference between life and death. Buddy and Dean were more than just allies. They shared their stories with each other, which is something you did not do on the streets, where information can be used against you. They talked about the things they wanted. For Buddy, it was a house and a car and a decent job. For Dean, it was women and motorcycles.  Buddy seemed like the kind of guy who’d share his last drink with a friend. Dean was the kind of guy who would take that drink.

One day when we went to visit, we met them at a nearby bus stop. Dean had his arm around Buddy and they were laughing hysterically. “We was just shootin’ the shit,” Dean said, pulling his hand away as we walked up. He was embarrassed by our witnessing this moment. While Dean constantly worked to portray the tough street thug, it was clear he had a tender side. And a soft spot for Buddy.

Because he was often drunk, Buddy was particularly vulnerable. Every time he got something new, like clothes or a pillow, he would wake up from his stupor to find it gone.

“I can’t do this anymore,” he told us after someone had taken a radio he found. “I can’t spent the rest of my life drunk on this goddamn hill!” he yelled with tears streaming from his eyes as he pounded his fist into the grass.

Soon after, we sent him to a detox center in Pomona. He assaulted one of the staff. They kicked him out. We had no idea if we would ever see him again.

A few days later, it was Dean who brought Buddy back to our office. Somehow Buddy had made his way back to the hill where Dean had found him. He had no memory of attacking the staff member. In his mind, they had let him go because he had gotten a job at a nearby Burger King.

“I was doing my job, washing the windows, when the police rolled up on me,” he said in an incredulous tone. “I tried to tell them I was just doing my job, but they wouldn’t listen. They hauled my ass off to jail!” Pomona PD released him a few days later and told him to get out of town, so he made his way back to Hollywood.

“This guy keeps saving my life,” he smiled at Dean.

“You’re like a brother to me, man,” Dean said with affection.

Despite their differences, Buddy and Dean cared about each other. You could see it in the way they patted each other on the back, the way they shared their food with each other, the way they talked and laughed together. It was an unusual relationship to see on the streets. Most people are consumed with self-preservation to the point of open hostility toward others. It was not uncommon to hear about women of the street being raped by gangs of homeless men. In order to survive, most women on the street found a “husband” to take care of them. The price was often non-consensual sex or even beatings, but at least it was by one man instead of many. Buddy and Dean’s friendship on the street was based as much on the desire to connect as it was for self-preservation.

By this time, our team had cut a deal with a local motel. Its carpet was worn to the concrete, and the peeling walls were smeared with decades of unattended filth. But they rarely turned away a potential customer. We put both Buddy and Dean in this motel temporarily in order to help them work toward the next step.

Buddy stayed sober long enough to complete the process to get into rehab. Dean was another story. He agreed to take an injection of an antipsychotic in order to soothe the voices that plagued him, but he continued to smoke marijuana in his motel room. Bringing in a couple of hookers one night was the last straw for the manager, who called me directly.

“Get him out!” he yelled.

Before I could get there, Dean had an altercation with another motel guest, then cleared out. As he was leaving, he found Buddy sleeping in his room and took his clothes, his blankets, and what little money he had. When Buddy awoke to confront him, Dean slashed his face with a penknife and ran off. The manager called the police. Buddy told them where to find Dean. The police immediately knew who he was. They were more than happy to take him in.

When we later asked Dean why he had done this to Buddy, he only shrugged his shoulders and said, “That’s life on the street.”

That was about right. We never heard another reason for why he’d turned on his friend so suddenly.

“If I ever see that piece of shit, I’ll kill ’im,” Buddy said. “Can’t believe he would do this to me.…”

Soon after, Buddy was taken to rehab, where he worked a 60-day program of recovery groups morning, noon and night. The program was a 12-step group, with a substance abuse counselor who met with each person one on one. Buddy made changes in his thinking and behavior with the goal of never taking another drink. Simply being away from it seemed to give him clarity. He focused on never going back to that hill. In his mind, just one drink would be catastrophic. “I know where it can take me,” he said.

While Buddy was in rehab, the housing coordinator prepared the paperwork for his housing placement. When he got out, Buddy was moved into a studio apartment in the heart of Hollywood. His recovery was remarkable in both its speed and depth. In fact, of the 65 people we housed, Buddy was one of two who had totally turned away from his old habits.

After the assault, Dean spent a couple of months at Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles, with the plan that he would come to our office as soon as he was released. When that day came, he was the most clear-headed I had ever seen him. He insisted that he was ready to be housed and that he would never bother Buddy again.

But Dean disappeared soon after he got out of jail. I searched his spots a couple of times a week but didn’t find him. A few months later, he appeared covered in a layer of black muck, sputtering manic stories of his drug adventures: how he exchanged sex with a old lady who allowed him to sleep in her car at night, how he befriended a local important gang member who treated him like a mascot, giving him free drugs because “he thinks I’m so fucking funny.”

Later, Dean appeared with an older woman. Her name was Beth. She was homeless as well but had a steady source of income. She wanted us to take Dean off her hands

A few weeks later, Beth showed up to tell me that Dean had drank himself to death.

“I tried and tried to revive him,” she said tearfully. “But he just stopped moving.”

The next day, I knocked on Buddy’s door. He was doing well in his apartment. He had set up a table, a few chairs and a lamp. Everything was kept neat and clean. He was attending meetings and talking about maybe going back to school or getting a part-time job.

I told him about Dean.

We sat together for a long time in silence. Buddy shook his head.

“Jesus,” he said.

________

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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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By Jian Huang

[dropcap1]D[/dropcap1]uring the summer of 1997, Timothy McVeigh was tried on television for killing people in Oklahoma. The English stood along the streets outside Westminster Abbey to bid farewell to Princess Diana. And in Los Angeles, our closest thing to Sears – the Woolworth’s on Broadway and 8th — closed its doors after years of declining business.

But I knew only a little of that in my small corner of the world on 23rd and Los Angeles streets. I was consumed with having to enroll in summer school and retake sixth grade Algebra.

I told Mr. Alexanian, my Algebra teacher at John Adams Middle School, that I was gravely concerned about having to walk home at 2 pm each day. That was before the B and C tracks kids got out of class, which meant my chances of getting bullied by the other summer school A track girls leaving with me increased. This also meant nobody would be able to call the cops should I get hurt. I would be left bleeding in an alley somewhere and Mom and Dad won’t know how to call the authorities because they don’t speak any English and no one would translate the letters they get at home and ultimately both would get deported back to China. Didn’t he know the consequences of enrollment?

Mr. Alexanian enrolled me anyway.

That summer I got lots of exercise darting out of the school gate at exactly 2 pm and running home. I figured that strategically, I had to vamoose before the other A track girls, and Frances and Susana in particular, got out of class. They would pick on me about the holes in my school uniform and the Payless tennis shoes I wore with the loose flapping soles.

John Adams was one of those schools that consistently scored between a 2 and a 3 out of 10 from GreatSchools.com. Ninety-eight percent of the student population is Hispanic/Latino, two percent African American, and an unlisted contingency of Others, which in 1997, included me and another Chinese kid named Kenny Lu. Typically when other kids met me the second or third question they ask would be, “Is Kenny your brother?” Followed by, “How do you see like that?” Fifty-eight percent of the student body was English proficient, one-hundred percent qualified for free meals, which they endearingly coined “county food,” and two percent of the parents reported to have gone to “some” college. To make us feel better however, our school administrator, Mr. Cortinez, would often say, “Well, at least you’re not at Carver Middle School.”

I thought maybe curling my straight black hair would help me fit in better with the Latina girls, so I begged my mom for a perm. She took me to her hair lady in Chinatown, who gave me the same haircut she gave to everyone else: The Chinese Mom Pouf.

“It’s not ugly,” my mom said, “just look at my hair!”

I envied Kenny because he had friends. His family owned a fast food restaurant and he played basketball. I however had lingering asthma, a hernia, and arthritis in my knees that required me to wear stockings during PE – stockings that we got at Thrifty’s and were either too light or too dark but, either way, never quite matched my skin color. Some days Francis and Susana would throw spitballs at me, and other days it would be gum. Even the one albino kid named Rodolfo had more friends than I.

My dad’s family once owned a business in China, but that was long before I was born. My dad would often recall stories about his father’s humble beginnings and his own childhood growing up in the French Concession in Shanghai before the Cultural Revolution. He told me about his 14 brothers and sisters, about his English-educated mom, about reading western literature, and about his record collection of American swing standards.

My mom on the other hand was the oldest of five kids and they lived in a mud brick hut that their dad had built a few miles from those glamorous French Quarter homes where my father lived. Her mother had more than once sold her own blood during the 1950s to feed her children. My mom grew up with no electricity, no running water, and no education. Chairman Mao’s sweeping reforms during the 1960s and ‘70s were supposed to bring some much-needed equality, but instead plunged the country into poverty, mass starvation, and civil unrest. So when China opened its doors to the world in the late 1980s, we left.

Why me, I often asked my dad. Why do I get picked on so much? Why do I have to be so Chinese-looking? Why wasn’t I born with a last name like Perez or Rodriguez? Why didn’t they give me a sibling to talk to about this kind of stuff? If I had to look so different, why weren’t we at least rich?

My dad admired the US from afar: It was a beacon of democracy and equality. In Chinese, “America” even translated to “country of beauty.” It was the wild west of rugged freedom and infinite possibilities. But in the US, we were back to zero. Without language proficiency, my dad’s degree in engineering meant nothing. My mom was worse off with no formal education beyond the seventh grade. They did what they could in order to eat and as far as rents went, South L.A. was the best we could do.

I rarely got any glimpse of what my parents saw as the promise of the west. The glamour I saw was only on television from those same black and white films my dad watched as a kid. The real world outside of our pink-clapboarded house at 23rd and Los Angeles streets was bleak and unkind. We had warehouses in the neighborhood with gang tags. There was the automotive repair shop across the street, the foul smelling carniceria around the corner that sold expired milk, and prison bars on every window and door on our block. Was this the freedom my dad wanted?

One day after school, with no notice, a carnival came to town. The city made efforts like this in the `90s in hopes they would help revitalize abandoned or underdeveloped areas. It was also a strategy to replace the drive-by shootings and illegal street racings that occurred on Los Angeles Street with safe and family-oriented activities.

So that day there arrived big purple trucks and big green trucks with signs on its sides that read, “Baque Bros Classic Rides & Amusement, Chino, CA.” Piles of thick metal beams and colorful plastic pods were driven in on the backs of long flatbeds. Rides were erected within hours at the foreclosed Knudsen’s milk processing plant across the street from my house. On my way home from school, I saw leathery-faced white men with baseball caps at the lot hammering things.

By nightfall, the Knudsen’s lot, which the day before had only weeds sprouting through its cracks, was transformed into what I imagined Disneyland to be: glowing, glimmering, and vivid. An All-American spectacle of freedom was across the street. Of the rides there, I could see an electric yellow Fun Slide, a big dangling Sea Dragon, and the dazzling Sizzler. There was a Ferris Wheel next to hot pink canopies with propped up bright signs that read “Popcorn” and “Play,” and people lined up around the chain-linked fence waiting for it to open.

My dad was working another of his 24-hour shifts at the motel that day so I had to wait till my mom got home from her sewing factory job. My dad used to scare me and say that I wasn’t allowed to leave the house or answer the phones because the police would come take me away if they found out I was by myself.

At 7:30 pm my mom came home. She put a few dollars in her pocket and walked with me across the street. I had never seen such an arrangement of flashing lights and neon signs. We walked through the cotton candy stands, buttered corn stands, bacon-wrapped hot dog stands, and water gun games. Each corner of the midway was lit with something: Cheese! Drinks! Ride Coupons! The whole place smelled like warm cake and ringed like the inside of a pinball machine. To save money, however, we skipped the food and went straight to the games. I was intimidated by most of the carnival games, so with the two dollars my mom gave me, I opted to toss quarters on plates. I later found that the prize was also a plate.

For the first time there were white people in this part of the town who weren’t police officers or school administrators. They looked average. They were working class, just like us. I would later come to learn that these people were called “carnies,” but at the time I thought they just looked like the Americans on television. The plate stand lady had on an oversized purple shirt and a fanny pack. With her disheveled hair and round face, she asked me, “What are you?”

“Chinese,” I said. “Where do you come from?”

“Nebraska,” she replied. Then she waved to my mom, who nodded and smiled in response.

By 7:50 pm my adrenaline was running high from winning plates, so I decided to take my positive streak to the rides. My mom gave me a few more dollars and on I went to the only two rides with one-person seats: the Dizzy Dragon and the Flying Bobs. The machines consisted of a series of carts attached to a rotating center axis that spun at Daytona-fast speeds. Or at least that’s what it felt like sitting inside of one. For a moment, I had forgotten all about Frances and Susana. Look who was now the king of this fiberglass dragon’s den!

But like a drug addict, I came down hard after the rides stopped. “What would it be like to have a friend on this ride with me?” I thought. Personal realities are like unwelcomed intruders during times of quiet. If only my mom would buy me two more tickets for another hit.

In school, I learned that the name “Lorena” comes from the word “laurel” which meant victory. The first time I ever saw a “Lorena” outside of school was at this carnival. She was with her mom, her brother and cousin Freddy getting cotton candy and I was holding my mom’s hands after being freshly dizzied from the Flying Bobs. I remembered her from class and I remembered she wasn’t mean, so I awkwardly waved to her as we walked past. She waved back, which was expected. What I didn’t expect, however, was when she came up to me and talked. I thought everyone from school would assume I’m some alien from another planet – a weird-eyed, plump-faced, and horrendously-permed creature they’ve never seen before in this part of South Central, Los Angeles. Is this person talking to me? She’s asking me questions about which rides I’ve been on like I’m a normal human being.

And she kept talking to me.

“Have you been on The Zipper yet?” Lorena said.

“Not yet,” I replied.

“Wanna go?”

Yeah.

The Zipper was the fast ticket to being cool for a 12 year-old. Street cred that I desperately needed was purchasable for three ride coupons. Invented in 1968 by Chance Rides, Inc. of Wichita, Kansas, The Zipper with a capital T reached about 56 feet in the air. A plaque on the ride proudly declared, “Made in the USA.” Its center is a long rotating oval with cables around its edges that pulled about 12 cars all spinning at unpredictable G-forces. According to the DomainofDeath3.com, The Zipper is “the most feared carnival ride in existence” because people die on a regular basis riding this thing. Sometimes a car door would come loose; sometimes the whole car would come loose. The point is: it’s dangerous.

While waiting in line for The Zipper, Lorena told me she lived with her mom, her dad, her brother, and her cousin, Freddy. They drove into the U.S. from Mexico when Lorena was still in her mom’s belly. She attributed the successful crossing to her mom’s fair skin and blue eyes. Their apartment was close to the school. Neither of her parents spoke any English, her brother was in high school but fixed cars sometimes, and Freddy’s parents were no longer around, whatever that meant. Then she told me she wanted to get a Ph.D and work for the coroner.

“Dead bodies!” she enthused.

We talked about our favorite TV shows like I Love Lucy and The Simpsons. We talked about our favorite foods, which included Flaming Hot Cheetos and pizza. She told me she wasn’t good at spelling and I told her I learned from watching closed captioning. Corpses aside, we were actually a lot alike.

And then Lorena and I got inside The Zipper, two to a metal pod. A leathery-faced male carny with a Miller Lite t-shirt closed our cage and thundered, “Good luck.” Surprisingly, it wasn’t as large as I thought it would be. The steel mesh made everything very dark inside and it smelled like sweat and rust. Our pod climbed a little higher every time another pair of people got on. We were quiet as our pod climbed ever so slowly to the top. We saw the lights beneath on Los Angeles Street stretching north to Downtown, to that tall US Bank building in the distance. Nothing blocked our view. The night sky seemed endless.

Suddenly someone bellowed something from below. A loud buzz went off. Engines roared and chains ground. We swung high and around, this way and that. With each rotation of the chains our pod spun 360 degrees. We spun over and over. After a minute, a pause, another buzz, and we went backwards. At first slowly, then very fast. All I heard were screams.

When it finally stopped, our pod was eerily quiet. “Lorena, are you okay?” I said. She muttered something unintelligible. A few seconds later, I smelled it. At first it smelled a lot like cheese, but I didn’t eat pizza at school. Was I really that hungry? Then the cheese smell took on a sour tinge. And then I felt her warm vomit on my right arm and leg.

“I am so sorry,” Lorena said. “I’m so embarrassed.” Followed by some more moaning and grumbling.

“That’s ok, I like cheese,” I joked. She laughed. And I thought, “Yes! Now she’ll have to be my friend.” The Miller Lite t-shirt carny gave us a look of horror when he opened our pod door. We kept our heads down in laughter and ran back to our moms, vomit and all.

That was the summer of 1997, when I made my first friend. Things at school were a little easier after that with Frances and Susana. Lorena would find me every day during lunch and eat with me.

Sometimes after school she would even get her mom to walk with me half way home.

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By Anika Malone

My mother was right. Choose your friends carefully, she said.

As I trudged down White Avenue at 2:30 am, I remembered that.

“There you are! Let’s go to a club!”

The big blond girl had burst into Patrick’s room in our apartment earlier that evening where he and I were playing hearts while the guys took bong hits and lines of speed. Kimberly, the rotund, cherubic-looking girl who seemed bred from large-boned Midwestern stock, was prone to giving herself embarrassing nicknames. She had just spent too much time trying to get over breaking up with her first college love, only to grow moody when he started dating someone she deemed trailer trash.

I looked over to Cheryl, my former roommate, the one I considered my third best friend and shook my head.

“I’m broke,” I mouthed.

Kimberly didn’t like hearing that I had no money. She thought my best friend spent too much on me. But I had no parents who were paying for my education. All the money I made went straight to tuition, textbooks, bus fare and food.

Cheryl waved her hand. Kimberly watched us like a hawk, her ruddy cheeks flushed as if she had already started drinking.

“It’s free for ladies if we get there before 10 and since you’ll be DD, you can get free soda!” Cheryl said. “Let’s go dancing!”

I looked around the room, the drug-dead eyes of upper-middle class white boys stared back.

“You guys go on. I’m going to go see James.”

Kimberly and I rose to leave the room. I dropped my hand on the pile.

“I’m out.” The 10 boys in the room, sitting cross-legged on the floor and draped over sofas or chairs in that tiny on-campus apartment didn’t acknowledge our exit.

I was 23 and just getting used to hanging out with people my own age. I started college when I was 15 at the prompting of my mother. I graduated high school when I was 16 because I was tired of children. I should have already had my degree. But sometimes the funds weren’t there to pay for tuition or books, so it took time to get through school.

I was also getting used to be the sole black face in a sea of white people. I had never been in a place with so many white people. My mother converted us to Islam when I was 8 years old, shortly after my parents divorced. We were still living in Kansas City at the time. But even before we started going to the mosque, my entire world was the black people around me. When we moved to California, my classmates were Mexican and Filipino and, at the mosque, Arabs, Africans and Asians were our family friends.

White people were on TV. In our little east San Gabriel Valley town, they were teachers, cops & cashiers who often viewed us with suspicion, always telling us what we couldn’t do. We had very few white neighbors. We rarely interacted with them and their children. On TV, the rude behavior white kids displayed to their parents I could never understand. In my world, people were respectful of anyone older. The plot lines and dialogue on TV seemed so outlandish that I assumed it was all fake.

My parents and relatives had warned my generation of the racism that passes for jokes from non-black people. I had found that the kids at this college were no different. They ran down the list of stereotypes they were raised believing. Not being able to see me in the dark, sleeping around. They called me Mammy, said “You’re pretty for a black girl” or “You’re not like other black people.” My blackness took up too much space for them to ignore.

Kimberly started yammering at Cheryl as they walked ahead of me toward Kimberly’s apartment. At the crossroads, I went right as they walked straight ahead.

“Hey! Where are you going?” I turned to see Kimberly standing akimbo in the walkway.

“I told you I wasn’t going.”

“But…who’ll be our DD?” she asked.

Cheryl called out, “Hold up…I’ll walk with you!” I stopped and waited until she reached me.

“Why don’t you just go? It’ll be fun. We just finished mid-terms and it’s a way to blow off steam,” she said.

I didn’t know what to wear and I’m pretty sure that my skater chic look was not the done thing.

“Are there tables or booths there? I don’t have to dance do I?” Cheryl flashed her beautiful smile and put her arm around me and steered me to Kimberly’s apartment.

Carrie, one of Kimberly’s roommates, was heading to the shower as we walked through the door. She looked like a very long 2”x6” with a mop of brown hair.

“I knew you’d change your mind.”

Janie was in the kitchen curling her long dark-brown tresses while drinking from a bottle of Southern Comfort. She spun around and hopped over to me.

“You’re coming! Now we’re really going to have fun.”

I played Solitaire on the computer while the girls got ready. I had a nice shirt in my backpack and Kimberly loaned me a skirt. I wore my green Doc Martins because I always wore my green Doc Martins.

The girls were in the middle of their long ritual when the front door flew opened. It was Debra, the fourth roommate. She was as different from them as I was, so they made jokes about her being trailer trash and spread rumors that she was a stripper – though they said this behind her back. They couldn’t fathom someone like them paying for her own college education.

Many of these kids didn’t work. A few students in this group received financial aid, but they hid that from others and joined in looking down on Debra for being obviously poor and white.

Debra hated me and hated the fact that I didn’t care even more.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

I ignored her as I always did.

Kimberly came out to the living area with giant uncrushed curls on her head and way too much make-up.

“Debra, you’re home! Come to the club with us!”

I tilted my head at her. If Debra came, that would make six people. Six people in Kimberly’s tiny Ford that barely fit five.

Debra looked at me. “Is she going?”

Kimberly put her arms around my shoulders. “Of course! She’s our DD.”

“Then I’ll stay. Here. I brought home pizzas they were going to throw out.”

Debra dropped the boxes of cold pizza on the table and walked to her bedroom. Kimberly motioned to me to eat, then chased after her.

I went outside to the balcony to smoke while I waited for them. It was a pleasant spring night and sounds of a train running the track soothed my nerves. They came out 20 minutes later, still trying to convince Debra to come with us. She begged them off claiming she had a paper to write.

We piled into Kimberly’s compact car. Janie was rolling joints with her elbows digging into our ribcages. Her backpack, heavy with bottles of vodka and whisky, was on my lap.

We got on the 57 freeway. I asked where we were heading. Upland, Kimberly said. I groaned.

My family had just moved from Upland months before. We lived there for four years. The surrounding area was tired, run-down strip malls staffed with unpleasant folks. The neighborhood we lived in was filled with loud, boorish people who called the cops on me for walking outside. The guy across the street would accuse me of stealing my car at least once a month and every morning the street was littered with beer cans. There were always stories of robberies and car thefts, but the other residents would tell my mother how safe and small-town Upland was. It was the only place I had lived where I didn’t know my neighbors. All I knew about Upland was the grocery store, Good Earth restaurant and the gas station. I didn’t even know it had club.

I laughed as we pulled into the parking lot of a strip mall. This is the club? I could’ve been listening to great music and staring at James’ handsome face.

There were three cars in the parking lot. The spindly bouncer was dressed in black leather with white supremacist insignia on the front of his jacket. He watched us all get out of the car. We walked to the door. He waved three girls in then stopped me.

“Are you all together? Do you have ID?” I rolled my eyes and showed him my driver’s license.

“Why weren’t they carded?”

He shrugged as he painstakingly pored over each letter on the card. His mustachioed mouth moved as he read.

“You live in Upland?”

I gave him my best bitch face and held out my hand. He returned my ID.

“We don’t play rap music here,” he said. I flipped him off and went inside.

The music was thumping something like C & C Music Factory and a Goth couple danced. An older gentleman with short gray hair and a large gold hoop earring sat at the bar. Two jocks were playing pool as scantily clad girls leaned over furniture trying to flash their breasts at the boys. My friends had already grabbed a booth. A smattering of other people milled about, nursing drinks. Paula Abdul was wondering if she was going to be loved forever.

I hopped up to dance. The other girls followed and we spent half an hour on the dance floor getting sweaty. Suddenly a song from my early childhood came on and the dance floor was quickly packed. “Why must I feel like that? Why must I chase the cat?” Parliament was something I never expected to hear at this club. If my mother was in charge of our religious education, my father raised us in the Church of Funk and Soul praying to the trinity of George Clinton, Bootsy Collins and Fred Wesley. The dance floor opened wide as I boogied with the abandonment of the 7-year-old in me. Then the strobe light hit. I had never seen a strobe light before and delighted in what looked like people being caught in freeze frame.

The song ended and I walked back to the booth sweating and out of breath. Debra and five other people were crowding around. Kimberly had been busy making calls and some of her local friends had shown up. Kimberly and Cheryl rushed over to them. I headed to the bathroom to wipe down my face.

As I returned to the dance floor a few minutes later, Carrie and Janie had their belongings and were heading out the door. I looked over to the booth. The only thing left was my backpack that I had left in the car. I grabbed my backpack and walked to the door. Outside, 10 girls were busy talking over each other trying to figure out the logistics of going wherever they were going. I walked up to Kimberly.

“What’s going on?”

“Oh, there you are! They … We …I thought you left.”

The other girls flocked behind her.

“We’re going to Noreen’s place,” Cheryl said, “and you guys aren’t exactly friends, so … .”

She trailed off when she saw the look in my eye.

“So, you decided to abandon me. Here. In Upland.”

They all protested. It wasn’t like that. I was jumping to conclusions.

“Okay, so who is dropping me off at school?”

Feet shuffled, sideways glances – no one uttered a word. By my count, there should have been at least three cars between the 11 of us.

“There’s no room,” someone said.

“Unacceptable. We came in one car. Debra brought her car and these people probably came in one car. That’s three cars. So. Who’s giving me a ride?”

Carrie leaned her long torso forward.

“Can’t you just take the bus? You have a bus pass right?”

I took a step back and a deep breath.

“My bus pass isn’t for the bus line here. It’s also after 12:30 am. This bus stops running at 11. None of this matters. Since you brought me here, you need to get me back.”

It got quiet for a moment in that parking lot. Suddenly, I heard a car door slam shut.

“I don’t know what the problem is, but we’re leaving. See you at Noreen’s.”

That was one of Cheryl’s childhood friends, who had quietly loaded people into her car. Cheryl avoided my eyes. The light blue car backed up and made a Y-turn. Cheryl rolled down her window and tried to give me a $5. “Please, just take the bus.”

I repeated that the buses were no longer running. Her friend said, “Oh well,” then stepped on the gas.

While my back was turned, the other girls had climbed into the remaining two cars. Kimberly gave me the pouty face she did when she was about to do something rude.

“I wish I could take you, but Noreen’s place isn’t on the way to school and we promised to pick up food, so we gotta go before they close. You’ll figure out something. See ya tomorrow!”

I started walking down the driveway of the club. I didn’t know how I was going to get to school by foot. The university was 10 miles away from the club by car. There were streets that I knew had no sidewalks or safe passages, so I had to plan well-lit, well-traveled roads, in relatively safe areas and few hills. At least I was wearing my green Doc Martins.

I walked through Upland, Montclair and Pomona. I hadn’t really thought of how big Pomona was until I walked down Holt Avenue. I was yelled at by boys in their cars. I was harassed by police officers the entire time, each accusing me of being a prostitute. Random dudes followed me and asked for my number or said they just wanted to talk. I sat on a bus stop and cried.

Then I got up and walked on.

I cut across a field to reach the street where houses back up the school. A car honked at me and I flipped it off. Then it stopped, it was three guys I knew who lived on that street. They asked me where I had been. I told them what happened.

They looked dumbfounded. One guy said he heard I left the club with some random guy shortly after getting there. Another story was that I got drunk and left. But everyone knew I didn’t drink.

They told me to crash at their house. They also told me that Noreen only lived on the next block from them. These guys couldn’t understand why those girls would lie, or why they just left me.

The next morning, I headed through the field to the school, still in my clothes from the club. I saw Kimberly and Janie drive by. They looked at me in surprise and terror. I walked on.

It was almost 8 am and I was hungry. I headed straight to the cafeteria for breakfast. As I waited for my food, someone bumped my shoulder.

I turned to my right to see Cheryl, looking freshly scrubbed. I looked her in the face, then turned back to the lady behind the counter.

“Are you mad?”

I snorted and grabbed my burrito. I walked out, past Carrie and Janie who were waving me over to their table. I sat outside on the grass. Francis, a guy I was pretty close with, sat next to me.

“I just heard what happened last night. Are you okay?”

“I want to set them on fire.” He laughed and nodded.

Francis sat with me as I ate my breakfast, then took me back to the dorm. Walking across campus, I felt lighter.

I knew many people but could really only count on three of them.

____

Anika Malone is a writer and photographer living in Los Angeles. She is an avid gardener, lover of Korean entertainment, video game obsessive, and gadget collector. She loves travelling and food, especially when they’re intertwined. She lives in Los Angeles with her family and a five-pawed dog.
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By Cynthia Butler

Laurie and I had been friends since the moment she looked up at me on that first day of kindergarten and asked, “Are you really five?”

Her brother got married and her sister got pregnant when Laurie was six years old and each moved out of their parents’ house shortly after that. Laurie became kind of an only child. Her mother once warned her that she had better skip adolescence. They were just too worn out to deal with another one. Since both of Laurie’s parents worked, we preferred spending most of our time at her house where we could do anything we wanted.

On the evenings when I slept over at Laurie’s house, her parents would often retreat with their gin and tonics to their bedroom upstairs and we would have the downstairs to ourselves. Sometimes we cooked fried baloney or oatmeal cookies. Other times we listened to music and played board games. If the weather was nice we camped out on her back patio in our sleeping bags. We loved the feeling of waking up on the cold bricks with the trees and sky above us.

I can’t remember whose idea it was that summer night to ride our bikes across town to the 7-11 store. It was 2 a.m., we were 14 years old, and we wanted rainbow popsicles. It seemed like the thing to do. We rode down the middle of the streets as fast as we could, zigzagging over the yellow and white lines, rushing through stop signs and laughing hysterically. The cool night air felt wonderful in our hair. Everyone else seemed to be in their neat suburban homes fast asleep.

So when we arrived at the 7-11 we were surprised to see people hanging out in the parking lot. There were men with trucks and motorcycles and they looked at us. For the first time this plan of ours seemed dangerous. We leaned our bikes against the large ice machine and walked toward the florescent interior like we knew what we were doing. The sight of the rainbow popsicles with their swirls of blue and yellow and red made us feel better. We handed over our money at the counter. Dodging our way through the men back to our bikes, we silently agreed that it would be best to eat the popsicles while riding back to Laurie’s house. As the bright glass front of the 7-11 faded behind us, the freedom we had felt riding our bikes in the middle of the night returned.

The next summer Laurie began dating guys from the local university but I continued to be more interested in riding my bike. I can still remember the feel of the night breeze in my hair as we rode through the dark streets. That is why I really hate wearing a bike helmet today.

_____

Cynthia Butler has worked as a nonprofit fundraiser in San Francisco and Boston.  She lives in Berkeley, California.
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