I live on 17th Street.
Before dawn on any weekday morning, my street awakens. Bedroom windows in the apartment next door open onto my driveway. Showers start, people cough. Someone sings in Spanish, a radio is tuned to classic rock. Minutes later, a guy walks to his car, lunch box in hand. A mother stops briefly to tie her small daughter’s shoelaces before hurrying on to school.
I grew up in Malibu.
People work hard here. Even if the 18th Street gang tags a wall here or a sidewalk there again and again, dignity abides.
I am white.
One of the kids next door just turned 13. A girl she knows is having her quinceañera this weekend. She says she can’t wait for hers.
I am a woman.
A young family lives in another apartment in the building next door — they just had a baby boy, and Junior is almost 10. They find real joy in the simple fact that these kids exist. The mother is lovely but do not forget she is made of steel. The dad, a gardener, is smart and funny — the kind of funny that takes an acute intellect. Sometimes he talks like he wishes he had made a different future for himself and his family. But he was just a kid when it seems like different choices could have mattered. He didn’t know anything. None of us did. Not even the ones who were Ivy bound. Then again, those kids probably didn’t need to know.
I teach philosophy.
Just look at the hipster boys who just moved into the Korean apartment across the street. They are going to make it in Hollywood.
I am in my forties.
Across the street lives an 82-year old man who used to be a bank security guard. He has an album full of clippings and photos documenting robberies and heroism. Now he sits in a fold-up lawn chair on the front stoop. The transistor radio at his side tells us the news or calls the Dodgers game. One of his daughters and her kids moved into the two-bedroom apartment to take care of him and his wife. The boy, who recently turned twelve and started working out, would rather live with his dad.
I have a mortgage.
One day a bunch of us were stuck at home — some losing a payday because of it. The area was on lockdown. From Redondo to West, and from Venice down to Washington, no one was going anywhere. Some guy shot at two detectives returning to the Wilshire Division station and then took off. Cop cars stood at the corner of 17th and West starting about 6 AM. Flocks of news and police helicopters made perfect parabolas overhead. Sheriffs in combat fatigues carried machine guns and led dogs on a house-by-house search.
I am white.
When my neighbor — the one with the formidable wife, son Junior, and a new baby — was growing up, the choice you had was between which gang you joined. That’s what he casually said one day when we were looking down the street at some police action. Kids barely into their teens work as drug couriers for low-level dealers or the local gang. Sometimes they get rousted. I watch from a distance.
I am in my forties.
There is a parallel universe. I walk through it as if it isn’t there. They will never let me see it.
I am a woman.
Narrow, cracked and dirty sidewalks and narrower unkempt swales drop into gutters dotted with grimy wrappers carelessly discarded and no one bothers to clean up. There is no plastic bag gliding poetically along a gentle breeze for some painfully artistic boy to videotape.
I grew up in Malibu.
Almost every bungalow and duplex has a proudly tended flower garden and hearty lawn. The produce truck’s horn blasts “La Cucaracha” as it comes to a stop nearby. The bell from the tamale guy’s push cart doesn’t stand a chance against it — or the “pan-pan-pan” guy who uses a bull horn out the passenger window of a minivan. It drowns out everything in a 50-yard radius.
The boys and I — Horatio “H” Cain, Stewart “Stuffy Chunks” Thompson, and Joseph K Dogovitch — turn north onto West Boulevard, toward Hancock Park.
Women push wire baskets full of clean clothes back from the lavanderia. Their small children, usually clutching a toy or treat, stare wide-eyed at me and finally raise a tiny hand to shyly wave back.
The boys bark, as they always do, at the competition on the other side of a freshly painted wrought-iron fence.
Ghetto birds fly overhead, the comfort of what’s familiar. Sometimes, my partner and I stand in the front yard at night as the klieg lights sweep along like a giant eye. He drapes an arm over my shoulder. We look up and wave. Our own American Gothic.
Stewie loves to stick his head between openings in the wall at the top of the West Boulevard Bridge.
These dudes on Pico at West spray paint a wall mural, this one a colorfully rich homage to Mid-City. “Everywhere we can,” one tells me. “If they let us.” They say some businesses have welcomed their work and others haven’t. They know they won’t get a wall at the newest addition to the behemoth Mid-City Crossing — the one that cut off the 16th Street community’s views of the Hollywood hills.
The kids stream out of L.A. High School on Olympic and Rimpau, and head south and east. I have never seen one go north.
There are just about 12 blocks from my house to Hancock Park.
“Do they bite?” asks one, deftly kicking his board up to a waiting hand. He’s in skinny jeans and checkerboard Vans, sports an impressive mohawk. A girl steps forward. Her exquisite, jet-black hair is striped with hot pink. Everything old is new again. Why ruin what’s theirs to discover? This is their world to learn and make, even if they don’t know it, yet.
H and Stew think everyone is their new best friend. Joe, not so much. Joe — Joe-Joe, Joe Dog, J-Dog, Thug Dog, T-Hug — came from the shelter, where he was sure to be killed. A hard life had left him a little hard. “You sure they won’t bite?” another asks, tentatively reaching toward a velvety soft ear. It wasn’t obvious to these kids which was which. That is a hard life.
I passed Logic with a C minus.
A woman in a big silver Caddy sedan calls out to me at the stop sign across from the Queen Anne Rec Center on West. “Look at those beautiful dogs! Oh, will you look at them!” She tosses her long ringlets and holds up three perfectly manicured fingers. “I got three at home,” she calls out, and then steps on the gas.
What am I in the midst of the Other as Myself? I am a woman. I am white. I am a philosopher. I am in my forties. I grew up in Malibu. I have a mortgage. I walk my dogs home toward 17th Street.