Thursday, December 08, 2005

Memories of Youth's Idyll

A typically interesting post on Steve Sailer's blog about, among other things, the criminality emanating from Compton, California as a highly marketed product taking the form of rap, movies, and television, has brought to mind my own halcyon days of youth growing up in nearby Norwalk.
Norwalk is a working class suburb in southeast L.A. County. Its demography when I was coming of age there in the late seventies and early eighties was nearly equal white and Hispanic. There were three major Chicano (Mexican-American) gangs operating there, mostly disdaining combat with civilian forces outside of the gang culture and in those days not yet heavily armed. It almost seems quaint now, their hand to hand combat usually involving nothing more than a knife or any handy heavy object; gallant even when compared with the drive-by shooting of today and its ignoble, exceedingly cruel and wreckless nature. The veteranos of the old days may have been no better than the psychopaths who lead the gangs today, but the times would reign them in somewhat, doing battle as they did before lax mores would create the feral state of some of today's vatos locos.

My neighborhood just off of Imperial Highway (a major thoroughfare running some thirty miles or so from Yorba Linda east of L.A. through our city and then the tougher quarters of Compton and Watts right into LAX) looked rougher than it was. Later when I was a serviceman stationed in Camp Pendleton, about midway between L.A. and San Diego, I would delight in showing friends the old neighborhood anytime our travels took us that way; it so resembled the image of a rough L.A. 'hood. It was sadly important to me as a young man to craft some sort of dramatic back story for myself, always a little embarrassed of how truly boring my short life's history was.

What made my neighborhood look such a mess was its cleft by the stalled construction of the 105 freeway, running from just beyond our back fence all the way to the airport ten or fifteen miles away. A swath of real estate cleared for road construction took out four streets abreast just the other side of our little backyard's brick wall. My earliest childhood memories are of this neighborhood slowly being drained of its inhabitants, selling their homes to the state and moving away. The houses weren't demolished; rather they were cut from their foundation's and carted away in the furtive early morning hours. Sometimes we would stay up late to watch. Few things are as disorienting as the sight of a home, the very symbol of stability, mounted on a trailer and hauled away. My faint, earliest memories are of a complete community of small, well tended homes lining cul-de-sacs of about a dozen homes a piece; by the time I left home years later the scar running through the center of our area would be complete, but construction on the freeway would still have not begun.
We called the vast open area of vacant lots dotted with the occasional abandoned house the "wastelands." Some owners would resist selling to the end, the last of them existing exposed in the middle of the cleared land, lonely frontier outposts of a settlement in retreat.

Our next door neighbors joined a petition campaign seeking to halt the freeway's construction, strangely undertaken midway through the leveling of our neighborhood, citing quality of life concerns. The Watts riots were a fresh memory, and while they didn't say so the talk was that they were concerned about black migration. They would succeed in holding up the freeway's construction for years, while the dismantling of the neighborhood continued; managing to destroy the quality of life they sought to protect by ensuring that the denuded landscape would dominate our home for over a decade--a period which would in fact encompass my entire recollected youth (those neighbors would scurry back to Oklahoma midway through the carnage).

The wastelands provided the ultimate environment for a youth of drug use and truancy. We laid claim to certain abandoned houses as meeting places, mounting an underground resistance against the L.A. County Sheriff's Department and their ever present helicopter. The helicopter was viewed as some kind of alien spaceship, with all manner of observatory capability. Its infrared capabilities were the stuff of legend. It would come buzzing in, a sinister, giant mechanical insect, with its spotlight sweeping the ground below as it homed in on us, and we would scatter like the mute rabble fleeing the army of gorillas in Planet of the Apes.

For the most part we were harmless. We just wanted to get high, and in the period of my adolescence there were a variety of means available for this. This was before crack; in fact I would escape to the military as the technique of free basing cocaine, which would presage the crack epidemic of the eighties, was becoming widespread. P.C.P. in the form of Angel Dust would be the first hard drug wave to encroach on our lives, and I found myself smack in the middle of it. I'm still not sure what P.C.P. is made of; elephant tranquilizer it is said, and somehow this didn't dissuade us from trying it, nor did it discourage some adults from involving us in its packaging and sale. Angel Dust was P.C.P. soaked mint leaf powder, for smoking. It gave off powerful fumes, vaguely reminiscent of a a fuel, or formaldehyde. One night we would break up a pound of it, down into the gram units that retailed for ten dollars apiece, at a friend's kitchen table, the fumes getting us all high. The next day the owner would find his parrot, kept in a cage nearby, laying dead in its cage.
It was also available in liquid form. For a price you could dip a cigarette in a vial of it. For some reason an upscale brand of cigarette, Sherman's, were the preferred type, when soaked they were called "sherm sticks." If you preferred menthol Kools, you might have a "super kool."
It tended to give one a feeling of euphoria and ease strangely coupled with a sense of invincibility that could sometimes go terribly wrong, leading to bizarre psychotic episodes. A rash of police shootings would accompany the Angel Dust epidemic; "dusters" would try to take on anybody who came close, including armed policemen, often showing a desire to strip naked and attempt physically impossible (and pointless) feats. One acquaintance of ours would try to climb a telephone pole before the police managed to corral him. No doubt the cops took some liberties with the phenomenon, for a time it seemed to happen weekly; one defense argument offered up in the Rodney King beating case was that the police thought he was a duster, and his behavior was certainly consistent with one. My experiences of the time now give me a skepticism toward the oft leveled charges of institutional police brutality as well as an appreciation of the sometimes untenable situations we place cops in on a daily basis. When I was young, however, they were the enemy.

Part II

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