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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 Manuel Chaidez

I also had a full set of hair except for the top part, so I was like a baby George Costanza. The first words my dad told me when he held me for the first time at arm’s length were, “You are a weird looking kid, you know that?” and this was how I looked until I was six. Those were the longest six years of my life. Stayed inside my house all day long and when I went to kindergarten I wore a cowboy hat to hide my tonsure.

Once my hairline problems were over, being around people was not as hard anymore. Until, that is, I went to middle school. One day I got into an argument with my stepmother. One of my chores was to clean the bathroom, and I did it as quickly and efficiently as possible. My stepmother was already having a bad day, but I didn’t realize it. So when she showed me how to clean properly it wasn’t a good idea to scream at her, “That is what I am doing, darn it,” because she slapped the cuteness off my face.

The next the day I went to school with the cuteness slapped off my face, and the only girl who had a crush on me in the whole school now was trying to avoid me. Being an awkward little kid who sat in the back of the class, my cuteness was the only thing this one girl noticed in me. My dad had taught me that there are no ugly women in the world but this girl was not my type. I even felt embarrassed that she announced her crush so publicly. Now she was the one embarrassed of me. This made the whole situation very awkward.

A pattern should be visible here: Life gives me lemons and while making lemonade I squirt myself in the eye. Instead of making the best of it I get obsessed with the whole situation and can’t think straight.

How I met my wife is no different. I went back to Mexico from Los Angeles for two weeks to visit my family. I called a girl I knew named Loren to see if she wanted to hang out. My future wife answered the phone. She was Loren’s cousin.

“Is this Loren?” I asked.

“No this is Angie,” my future wife said.

“Oh, um, Loren?”

“No. I said this is Angie.”

“Is Loren there?”

“Oh my God. Here you talk to him!” my future wife said.

Loren and I talked and made some plans for the four of us to do that day–meaning my cousin, my future wife, Loren, and me. My cousin and I ended up doing something else that day because my dad didn’t let me borrow his truck; I didn’t call them to cancel.

Sometime during that week I rode along with my dad to drop my cousin at his house. We parked in front of his house. Across the street was a small truck. In the truck were Loren and Loren’s boyfriend and my future wife. My cousin and I crossed the street to talk to them.

“How come you guys didn’t meet us at the McDonald’s the other day?!” Loren said.

“My uncle didn’t let Manny borrow the truck, so we were stuck at the house all day,” my cousin said.

“Haven’t you guys heard of buses?” my future wife said.

“We stood outside my house but we never saw one pass by,” I said.

“Of course you didn’t. You were supposed to walk to the bus stop. They don’t stop just anywhere,” my future wife said.

I didn’t say anything after that. I was trying to say something funny but I ended up sounding dumb. As if it wasn’t hard enough for me to meet new people, my exaggerating mind acted up.

The four of us made plans to go to the movies. My dad drove me there and on the ride to the movies all I thought about was that comment I made about the buses.

Our movie night was great except that I tried to erase my stupid comment from their minds and they kept bringing it back. We set up another date to hang out for the weekend. It kind of went the same. This time my dad did let me borrow his truck, so my cousin and I went to pick them up. We went out to eat and then we crashed a party. There, for the first time, my future wife and I were alone.

By this time I had decided that I liked my future wife.

I remembered that she had asked a couple of times that she wanted to use the restroom. So we were standing on the curb outside the party and everybody had gone in ahead of us. All alone, and under the bright stars and the moonlight, the only thing that came to my mind was, “Didn’t you have to go to the restroom?”

Well after that, we dropped them off. My cousin and I went home, thinking how badly everything went. But to my surprise, the girls called the boys the next day. Loren, without saying hello, asked if I liked Angie. Well I did, so I said, very manly, “I do like her. Why? Does she?”

My wife and I talked for hours after that — with plenty of awkward silences, more than any normal person could handle.

But it was easier after that. I realized how wonderful it was getting out of my comfort zone those two days. Like swimming against the current—tough, but after a while it makes you stronger. Suddenly, I felt confident.

I called her at five in the morning the day I was leaving Mexico to return to Los Angeles. For some reason, my awkward mind didn’t bother me. It was like we already knew.

“Hey, so I’m leaving in a couple of hours,” I said. “Oh really, I didn’t know,” my future wife said.

“Yes, just calling to make sure you have your stuff ready because I am on my way to pick you up right now.”

She went along with it.

“I am on the curb all ready with my bags. You got my ticket? Don’t leave me behind, all riled up.”

“I’ll call you as soon as I land; it was very nice meeting you.”

“Likewise. Have a nice trip.”

Two years later, we were married.

____

 

Manuel Chaidez was born in Los Angeles and a year later he along with his family moved back to Mexico. Ten years later, his family returned to Los Angeles and he has lived there ever since. He attended Schurr High School and graduated from Westwood College. He works as a forklift driver.
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By C.J. Salgado

[dropcap1]W[/dropcap1]hen I was in elementary school in East L.A. I would climb atop our rickety garage at night and stare up at the moon, the stars, and space. The roof was flat with a shallow slope. It was perfect for lying on my back. I’d wave a flashlight into space, the beam of light zooming out as far as my imagination would reach.

There I wondered about the world around me. I had grown up in East L.A. and knew not much more. My parents, immigrants, had settled here because my mother was a shopper who dreamed of owning a home and for about $20,000, she bought one.

The only times I ventured away was when my parents would take us on family outings, usually on Sundays after church. Protective, they kept my siblings and me close and warned us about the “cholos.” The garage became my refuge.

Lying atop that garage, I used to think there was a giant “bubble” around my neighborhood and if I aimed my flashlight just right I’d see the rainbow colors as the beam of light pierced the bubble wall. How far away was that bubble? Would it bend my light? Could I pop it? And, if I could, what was beyond?

It was the great physicist Albert Einstein who put that flashlight in my hand. His ideas fascinated me as a little boy. His mysteries of space and time opened my eyes to the light. He had been dead for years, but to me he lived on in books. I read all the English books I could find on him. When I could find no more books at school, my father would take me to the East Los Angeles Public Library for more.

How I settled into this path is a mystery to me now. I was learning English as a second language. Early on in my schooling I was assigned a seat at the back of the classroom; I felt like an outcast, but it also drove me to daydream a lot. As if to mollify my loneliness, I found and reveled in inspiration from El Genio.

Staring at so many stars outside of that bubble, I felt as overwhelmed as the inhabitants of Lagash, a fictional planet in Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall, one of my favorite science fiction short stories, because it played on Einstein’s ideas of gravity and light. Their planet experienced unending sunlight because of multiple suns, so the night was unknown to them.

When night finally comes, due to a quirk in the orbit of one of their stars, like me, they discovered the glittering night sky. Unlike me, though, they succumbed to “star madness” at the realization of the infiniteness of space.

Mad or not, I just opened my eyes wider and remembered what Einstein said:

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead —his eyes are closed.”

I knew what he meant. I felt so little then, beneath the vast night sky atop my garage. But Einstein’s genius was my telescope. His ideas took me away, far beyond the bubble. He showed that a tiny amount of matter could create an enormous amount of energy. Yes, E=MC2 meant that even this little boy’s few atoms were plenty poderoso, a power I found liberating and expanding.

If I could ride a ray of light, I would see amazing things. I could slow time and grow massively bigger! “Woohoo!” I’d yell as I stretched out my short arms and pointed the flashlight towards the vastness of space.

Back on earth, one of my classmates, Rosario, a smart girl with dark, straight hair down to below her knees, and round glasses, would often tout all the books she read. Secretly, I tried to keep up with her, but she usually beat me. My ego had long capitulated to Rosario. Had I known back then what I know today, that little girls tend to develop reading skills earlier than boys, it would have saved me a lot of grief.

Instead, to add sal to the wound, one day she put a book to my face exclaiming she had read it all in a single day. It was about Einstein! She even went as far as to claim, based on her reading that one book, that Einstein was not really the greatest thinker of physics of the 20th century and his ideas on space and time could be attributed to the work of earlier physicists. Newton, Planck, Maxwell, she went on, were the real geniuses.

My face turned rojo and I sizzled with coraje at her blasphemy! I prayed that Einstein would send me a sign to prove her wrong.

“I don’t see what all the fuss is about Einstein,” she said. “It’s much ado about nothing.”

“Yes, earlier great thinkers came up with important ideas,” I told her. “But Einstein put them all together in a way that was so special and so new. He really was a genius.”

“No, they weren’t his ideas. And I hate his hair!”Einstein photo

I tried to set her right, arguing with her until azul in the face, but to no avail. She was firm in her conviction and never flinched. She moved on to another book about something else. Sometimes I wondered if it was really just a hair thing between Rosario and Einstein. Regardless, to Rosario, matter closed.

I wish I could say that I was mature enough at that age to move past this traumatic encounter with Rosario. Unfortunately, not only did her words bother me back then, but I’ve also tormented over her “much ado about nothing” since.

Maybe it bothered me because I had come to believe through Einstein that there were wondrous possibilities out there, beyond my bubble. Maybe it was because the mysteries upon which Einstein pondered called to me, too. Or, maybe I didn’t ever want to come down off that garage.

Off of it, I was out of place and burdened by these great mysteries. It wasn’t like I could discuss these ideas with other kids. Rosario was the only one. Back then kids in East L.A. didn’t talk about such stuff. And the only way to “cruise” was on Whittier Boulevard, not in outer space. Our heroes were wrestlers, soccer players, and saints.

Like the other kids in the neighborhood, I too pretended to be El Santo, Demonio Azul, Mil Máscaras, or other favorite masked luchadores. I surely enjoyed when my father took me to the Olympic Auditorium to watch the wrestling matches in person.

But my secret hero was a physicist. So much so that to this day, I even have an Albert Einstein action figure. Friend or not, I wasn’t about to let Rosario undo that. Every time I glance at it, I go back to that garage and back to Rosario.

Her comment was a deep blow to me and to my fancy that I too could bend like light and amount to something more that what was expected of a kid from East L.A.

I stopped talking to Rosario. The years passed and I never saw her again. Eventually, I did come down from that garage for good. It was demolished to make way for a new one that had a gabled roof with a pitch too steep to lie on.

It’s been a long time since I’ve waved a flashlight at the stars. But I did become a physicist. Just goes to prove that a life, like a path of light, can be changed, as Einstein said it would.

Recent scientific findings show Einstein was right all along: “Scientists have discovered what Albert Einstein predicted almost a century ago should exist – ripples in the fabric of space-time,” read the newspaper stories.

Choosing physics was the right path for me. I’ve met Nobel Laureates Richard Feynman and Hans Bethe; studied at renowned national laboratories like Los Alamos National Lab and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center; and I was even invited to the White House as a model “young scientist-ambassador” for a federal energy program.

Yet it’s been a long, lonely journey, too. In high school and college there were but a few, if any, Latinos in my upper physics and math classes. Latinos seemed to view courses on theoretical physics or vector calculus as irrelevant. I felt an outcast as a kid in East Los Angeles.

Which is why Rosario and the way she dismissed my inspiration haunted me for years. I wondered if I’d ever reconcile Einstein and East L.A.

Then one day, I was driving home from work when I glanced to the side and saw him on a mural in East L.A. El Genio was back.

The mural was on the wall of a skate shop called “The Garage.” I pulled over and went in the store. A clerk told me the store does more than sell skateboards and gear. It provides after-school tutoring to underprivileged kids, striving to instill in them an appreciation for academics, as they do their homework and practice skateboarding. These were “high risk kids that don’t know the true meaning of teamwork and didn’t have much interest in school.”

Inside it was like a cross between a sport store and a lounge. Some kids were fiddling with their skateboards; some were admiring the display of trophies won in team skating competitions; and some sat discussing homework with the college students hired to tutor them.

I asked about the mural. They wanted the kids to understand that math and science were ever present, even in the skating motions of these hard-core street riders…a kickflip, an ollie, or an Indy grab. So they had chosen a mural of Einstein to reflect their high expectations that the kids were to “apply themselves in their academics as well as in their skating.”

Outside the shop, I stood and gaped at the mural. I once thought I was alone inside a bubble in East L.A. But outside that store, I was set free. Seeing the mural confirmed what the encounter with Rosario had made me doubt: That, as Einstein believed was true of light, you could bend away from the path you appeared destined to take.

And at that moment, I felt at home at last in the neighborhood where I grew up.

____

C.J. Salgado grew up in East Los Angeles. An avid reader, his first job was working for a library. After serving in the military and going to college, he went on to pursue a professional career in radiation physics. His interest include blogging about issues and events affecting the local community; exploring new places near and afar; pondering novel ideas; and watching science fiction and action movies.
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