Unlike the typical bluesy, earthy, folksy, denim-overalls, noble-in-the-face-of-cracker-racism, aw-shucks Pulitzer Prize-winning protagonist mojo magic black man, I am not the seventh son of a seventh son of a seventh son. I wish I was, but fate shorted me by six brothers and three uncles.
My name is Kaufman, Gunnar Kaufman. Preordained by a set of weak-kneed DNA to shuffle in the footsteps of a long, cowardly queue of coons, Uncle Toms and faithful boogedy-boogedy retainers. I am the number-one son of a spineless colorstruck son of a bitch who was the third son of an ass-kissing, sell-out house Negro. From my birth until their divorce, my parents indoctrinated me with the idea that the surreal escapades and ‘I’z a-comin” watermelon chicanery of my forefathers was stuff for hero-worship.
What’s a few nigger jokes among friends? We Kaufmans have always been the type of niggers who can take a joke. I used to visit my father, the sketch artist at the Wilshire Los Angeles Police Department precinct. His fellow officers would stand around cluttered desks breaking themselves up by telling ‘how-many-niggers-does-it-take’ jokes, pounding each other on the back and looking over their broad shoulders to see if me and Daddy was laughing. Dad always was. The epaulettes on his shoulders raising up like inch worms as he giggled. I never laughed until my father slapped me hard between the shoulder blades. The heavy-handed blow bringing my weight to my tiptoes, raising my chin from my chest, and I’d burp out a couple of titters of self-defilement. Even if I didn’t get the joke. ‘What they mean, “Lick their lips and stick ’em to the wall?”’ Later I’d watch my father draw composite sketches for victimized citizens who used his face as a reference point. ‘He was thick-lipped, nose a tad bit bigger than yours, with your nostril flare though.’ Daddy would bring some felon to still life and without looking up from his measured strokes admonish me that my face better not appear on any police officer’s sketchpad. He’d send me home in a patrol car, black charcoal smudged all over my face, and his patriotic wisdom ringing in my ears.
‘Remember, Gunnar: God, country and laughter; the world’s best medicine.’
I remember one day he came home drunk from the LAPD’s unofficial legal defense fund-raiser for officers accused of brutality. (Dad later told me they showed Birth of a Nation followed by two straight hours of Watts Riot highlights.) He sat me on his lap and slurred war stories—Dad had joined the army three hours after graduating from high school in 1968 and served two tours in Vietnam. How his crazy Black-is-Beautiful platoon of citified troublemakers used to ditch him in the middle of patrols, leaving him alone in some rice paddy having to face the entire communist threat on his lonesome. Once he stumbled on his men behind the DMZ cooling with the enemy. The sight of the slant-eyed niggers and nigger niggers sharing K-rations and rice, enjoying a crackling fire and the quiet Southeast Asian night flipped Pops the fuck out. He berated his rebellious troops, shouting, ‘Ain’t this a bitch, the gorillas snacking with the guerrillas. Hello! Don’t you baboons know that this is the goddamn enemy? The fucking yellow peril and you fucking Benedict Leroy Robinson Jefferson Arnolds are traitors to the democracy that weaned you apes from primitivism. You know you’re probably eating dog.’ The VC saw the disconcerted looks on the faces of the black American men, and a good colored boy from Detroit raised his rifle and put a M-16 slug inches from my pop’s crotch. My father’s men just sat there waiting for him to bleed to death. The Vietnamese had to beg them to take my dad back to base.
My father ended this confession with the non-sequitur wisdom that ended all our conversations: ‘Son, don’t ever mess with no white women.’
On our custody outings to the drag races in Pomona my father would tell me how he came back from the war and met my mother at a stock-car race. They fell immediately in love—the only two black folks in the world who knew the past five winners of the Daytona 500 and would recognize Big Daddy Don Garlits in the street. Then he’d put his arm around me and say, ‘Don’t you think black women are exotic?’
Mom raised my sisters and me as the hard-won spoils of a vicious custody battle that left the porcelain shrapnel of supper-dish grenades embedded in my father’s neck. The divorce made Mama, Ms Brenda W. Kaufman, more determined to make sure that her children knew their forebears. As a Brooklyn orphan who never saw her parents or her birth certificate, Mom adopted my father’s patriarchal family history for her misbegotten origins.
Kaufman lore plays out like a self-pollinating men’s club. There are no comely Kaufman black superwomen. No poetic heroines caped in kinte cloth stretching welfare cheques from here to the moon. No nubile black women who could set a wayward Negro straight with the snap of the head and stinging ‘niggah puh-leaze’. The women who allied themselves to the Kaufman legacy are invisible. Every once in a while a woman’s name tangentially floated from my mother’s lips as a footnote to some fool’s parable only to dissipate with the vegetable steam. Aunt Joni’s mean banana daiquiri. Meredith’s game-winning touchdown run versus Colin Powell High. Giuseppe’s second wife Amy’s Perry Como record collection. Cousin Madge who was the complexion of pound cake dipped in milk. These historical cameos were always followed by my mother’s teeth-sucking disclaimers ‘but that’s not important’ or ‘let’s not go there.’ I wondered where did my male predecessors find black women with names like Joni, Meredith and Amy? Who were these women? Were they weaker than their men or were they proverbial black family lynchpins? I spent hours thumbing through photo albums fearful that I was destined to marry a black Mormon Brigham Young University graduate named Mary Jo while I became the spokesperson for the Coors Brewing Company. They say the fruit never falls far from the tree, but I’ve tried to roll down the hill at least a little bit.
My earliest memories bodysurf the warm, comforting timelessness of the Santa Ana winds, whipping me in and around the palm-tree-lined streets of Santa Monica. Me and white boys sharing secrets and bubblegum. We were friends, but we didn’t see ourselves as a unit. We had no enemies, no longstanding rivalries with the feared Hermosa Beach Sand Castle Hellions or the Exclusive Brentwood Spoiled Brat Millionaire Tycoon Killers. Our conflicts limited themselves to fighting with our sisters and running from the Santa Monica Shore Patrol. I was an ashy-legged black beach bum sporting a lopsided trapezoidal natural and living in a hilltop two-storey townhouse on Sixth and Bay. After an exhausting morning of bodysurfing and watching seagulls hover over the ocean expertly catching french fries, I would spend the afternoon lounging on the rosewood balcony. Sitting in a lawn chair, my spindly legs crossed at the ankles, I’d leaf through the newest Time-Life mail-order installments to the family’s coffee-table reference library: Predators of the Insect World, Air War Over Europe, Gunfighters of the Old West. The baseball game would crackle and spit from the cheap white transistor radio my father gave me for my seventh birthday.
I was the funny, cool black guy. In Santa Monica, like in most predominantly white sanctuaries from urban blight, ‘cool black guy’ is a versatile identifier used to distinguish the harmless male black from the Caucasian juvenile while maintaining politically correct semiotics. I was the only ‘cool black guy’ at Mestizo Mulatto Mongrel Elementary, Santa Monica’s all-white multicultural school. My early education consisted of two types of multiculturalism: classroom multiculturalism, which reduced race, sexual orientation and gender to inconsequence; and schoolyard multiculturalism, where the kids who knew the most polack, queer and farmer’s daughter jokes ruled.
Black was hating fried chicken even before I knew I was supposed to like it. Black was being a nigger who didn’t know any other niggers. Black was trying to figure out ‘how black’ Tony Grimes, the local skate pro was. Tony, a freestyle hero with a signature-model Dogtown board, was a hellacious skater and somehow disembodied from blackness, even though he was darker than a lunar eclipse in the Congo. Black was a suffocating bully that tied my mind behind my back and shoved me into a walk-in closet. Black was my father on a weekend custody drunken binge one summer, pushing me around as if I were a twelve-year-old, seventy-five-pound bell-clapper clanging hard against the door, the wall, the shoe tree.
That same summer my sister Christina returned from a YMCA day camp field trip in tears. My mother asked what was wrong, and between breathless wails Christina replied that on the way home from the Museum of Natural History the campers cheered, ‘Yeah, white camp! Yeah, white camp!’ and she felt left out. I tried to console her by explaining that the cheer was, ‘Yeah Y camp! Yeah Y camp!’, and that no one was trying to leave her out of anything. Expressing unusual concern in our affairs, Mom asked if we would feel better about going to an all-black camp. We gave an insistent ‘Nooooo.’ She asked why, and we answered in three-part sibling harmony, ‘Because they’re different from us.’ The way Mom arched her left eyebrow at us we knew immediately we were in for a change. Sunday I was hitching a U-Haul trailer to the back of the Volvo, and under the cover of darkness we left halcyon Santa Monica for parts unknown.
I don’t remember helping my mother unload the trailer but the next morning I awoke on the floor of a strange house amid boxes and piles of heavy-duty garbage bags jammed with clothes. The blinds were drawn, and although the sunlight peeked between the slats, the house was dark. My mother let out a yell in that distinct from-somewhere-in-the-kitchen timbre, ‘Gunnar, go into my purse and buy some breakfast for everybody.’ Rummaging through my personal garbage bag I found my blue Quicksilver shorts, a pair of worn-out dark grey Vans sneakers, a long-sleeved clay-colored old school Santa Cruz shirt and, just in case the morning chill was still happening, I wrapped a thick plaid flannel shirt around my bony waist. I found the front door and like some lost intergalactic B-movie spaceman who has crash-landed on a mysterious planet and is unsure about the atmospheric content, I opened it slowly, contemplating the possibility of encountering intelligent life. I stepped into a world that was a bustling Italian intersection without Italians. Instead of little sheet-metal sedans racing around the Fontana di Trevi, little kids on beat-up Big Wheels, and bigger kids on creaky ten-speeds wove in and out of the water spray from a sprinkler set in the middle of the street. It seemed there must have been a fire drill at the hair salon because males and females in curlers and shower caps crammed the sidewalks. I ventured forth into my new environs and approached a boy about my age who wore an immaculately pressed, sparkling white T-shirt and khakis and was slowly pacing one slew-footed black croker-sack shoe in front of the other. I stopped him and asked for directions to the nearest store. He squinted and leaned back and stifled a laugh. ‘What the fuck did you say?’
I repeated my request, and the laugh he had suppressed came out gently. ‘Damn, cuz. You talk proper like a motherfucker.’
Cuz? Proper like a motherfucker?
My guide’s bafflement turned to judgmental indignation at my appearance. ‘Damn, fool, what’s up with your loud ass gear? Nigger got on so many colours look like a walking paint sampler. Did you find the pot of gold at the end of that rainbow? You not even close to matching. Take your jambalaya wardrobe down to Cadillac Street make a right and the store is at the light.’
I walked to the store, not believing some guy who ironed the sleeves on his T-shirt and belted his pants somewhere near his testicles had the nerve to insult how I dressed. I returned to the house, dropped the bag of groceries on the table and shouted, ‘Ma, you done fucked up and moved to the ’hood!’
My black magical mystery tour had ground to a halt in a West Los Angeles neighborhood the locals call Hillside. Shaped like a giant cul-de-sac, Hillside is less a community than a quarry of stucco homes built directly into the foothills of the San Borrachos Mountains. Unlike most Californian communities that border mountain ranges, in Hillside there are no gently sloping hillsides upon which children climb trees, and overly friendly park rangers lead weekend flora and fauna tours.
In the late 1960s after the bloody but little-known I’m-Tired-of-the-White-Man-Fuckin’-With-Us-and-What-Not Riots, the city decided to pave over the neighboring mountainside, surrounding the community with a great concrete wall that spans its entire curved perimeter save for an arched gateway at the south-west entrance. At the bottom of this great wall live hordes of impoverished American Mongols, hardrock niggers, Latinos and Asians who, because of the wall’s immenseness, get only fifteen minutes of precious sunshine in summer and a burst of solstice sunlight in the winter. If it wasn’t always so hot it would be like living in a refrigerator.
After a week in our new home—a pueblo-style house with a cracked and fissuring plaster exterior—a black-and-white Welcome Wagon pulled up to help the newcomers settle into the neighborhood. Two mustachioed officers got out of the patrol car and knocked on our front door with well-practiced leather-gloved authority. Tossing courtesy smiles at my mother, the cops shouldered their way past the threshold and presented her with a pamphlet entitled How to Report Crime and Suspicious Activity Whether the Suspects are Related to You or Not.
Mom was not the kind of matriarch to let her brood hide up under her skirt, clutching her knees, sheltered from the mean old Negroes outside. I walked the streets comfortable in the knowledge that I was a freak. ‘Hurry! Hurry! Step right up! All the way from the drifting sands of whitest Santa Monica, the whitest Negro in captivity, Gunnar the Persnickety Zulu! He says “whom”, plays parchisi and, folks, you won’t believe it, but he has absolutely no ass what-so-ever.’
In a world where body and spoken language were currency, I was broke as hell. Corporeally mute, I couldn’t saunter or bojangle my limbs with rubbery nonchalance. I stiffly parade-marched around town with an embalmed soul, a rheumatic heart and Frankenstein’s autonomic nervous system.
I learned the hard way that social norms in Santa Monica were unforgivable breaches of proper Hillside etiquette. I’d been taught to look people in the eye when speaking to them. On the streets of Hillside even the briefest eye contact wasn’t a simple faux pas, but an interpersonal trespass that merited retaliation. Spotting a potential comrade I’d catch his eye with a raised eyebrow that said, ‘Hey guy, what’s up?’, a glance I hoped would open the lines of communication. These silent greetings were often returned in spades accompanied by an angry rejoinder, ‘Nigger, what the fuck you looking at?’ and a pimp slap that echoed in my ears for a week.
The people of Hillside treat society the way society treats them. Strangers and friends are suspect and guilty until proven innocent. Instant camaraderie past familial ties doesn’t exist. It takes more than wearing the same uniform to be accepted among one’s ghetto peers. I couldn’t just roll up on some folks and say, ‘I know the Black National Anthem, a killer sweet-potato-pie recipe and how to double-dutch blindfolded. Will you be my nigger?’ Dues had to be paid, or you wasn’t joining the union. I walked the dark streets of Hillside with my head down looking for loose change and signs that would place me on the path to right-on soul-brother righteousness.
I arrived forty-five minutes early for my first day of school at Manischewitz Junior High. I walked through the metal detector and found a receptionist in the dean’s office, who directed me to homeroom. I slunk over, imagining I was wearing dark glasses and a trench coat. Pressing my back against the walls and peeking coolly around corners, I managed to avoid detection and made it there twenty minutes early.
Eventually the hallways stopped echoing with the footsteps of the Oxford wing-tipped and high-heeled administration. In their place was the sound of brand-new sneakers squeaking on the waxed floors and the heavy clomp of unlaced hiking boots. Steadily the students entered the classroom and slid into the empty seats around me. First to arrive were the marsupial mama’s boys and girls. The reformed and borderline students followed. Creeping into class carefully trying to avoid last year’s repercussive behaviours, they sat upright at their desks, face front and hands folded, mumbling their September resolutions to themselves: ‘This year will be different. I will do my homework. I will only bring my gun to school.’ Two minutes before nine signalled the grand entrance of the fly guys and starlets. Dressed in designer silk suits and dresses, accessorized in ascots, feather boas and gold, the aloof adolescent pimps and dispassionate divas strolled into homeroom smoking tiparillos and with a retinue of admirers who carried their books and pulled chairs from tables with maître d’ suave.
I’d never been in a room full of black people unrelated to me before. As my classmates yelled out their schedules and passed contraband across the room I couldn’t classify anyone by their dress or behaviour. The boisterous were just as likely to be in the academically enriched classes as the silent. The clothes horses stood as much chance of being on a remedial track as the bummy kids with brown-bag lunches.
At nine o’clock the bell rang, and Ms Schaefer stormed into the room. Dishevelled and visibly nervous, she never bothered to introduce herself or say good morning. She wrote her name on the board in shaky, wavering strokes and took attendance. The class instantly interpreted her behaviour as a display of lack of trust and concern. That day I learned another ghetto lesson: never let on that you don’t trust someone. Even if he has bad intentions toward you, he will take offense at your lack of trust. I’ve seen people stalk a victim, and when the victim takes evasive measures—quickening his pace, pretending to tie his shoes, crossing the street—the thief forgets the robbery motive and reacts to the distrustful behaviour. ‘What? You think I’m going to mug you or some shit? You better run, ’cause now I’m really going to kick your ass.’
‘Who wants to know?’
‘Chocolate Fondue Egerton?’
‘That’s my name, ask me again and you’ll be walking with a cane.’
‘I don’t know how to pronounce the next one.’
‘You pronounce it like it sounds, bitch. Maritza Shakaleema Esperanza the goddess Tlazotéotl Eladio.’
‘So you’re here.’
‘Do crack pipes get hot?’
Then the gangsters trickled in, ten minutes late, tattooed and feisty. ‘Say man, woman, teacher, whatever you call yourself. You better mark Hope-to-Die Ranford AKA Pythagoras here and in the house. Nobody better be sitting at my desk. I had the shit last year and I want it back for good luck.’
‘Mr Pythagoras, take any available seat for now, OK? Who’s that with you?’
‘Why you ask him? I can speak for my damn self. This is Velma the Ludicrous Mistress Triple Bitch of Mischief Vinson.’
I sat like a tiny bubble in a boiling cauldron of teenage blackness, wondering where all the heat came from. I realized I was a cultural alloy, a mixture of tin-hearted whiteness wrapped in blackened copperplating.
By high school I was no longer the seaside bumpkin, clueless to the Byzantine ways of the inner city. But I hadn’t completely assimilated into Hillside’s culture. I still said ‘ant’ instead of ‘awwwnt’, ‘you guys’ rather than ‘y’all’ and wore my pants a bit too tight, but these shortcomings were forgiven because I had managed to attain ‘a look’. My sinewy basketball physique drew scads of attention.
‘You play ball? Don’t say no, you got that look. I can tell by your calves. Skinny, powerful legs. And the way you walk. Pigeon-toed, small ass’n all. You ain’t nothing but a ball player.’
In the past three years, I had become part of a heroic trio of sorts: me, Nicholas Scoby and Psycho Loco.
Scoby was a thuggish ball player who never missed. I mean never. He sat in the back of the class, ears sealed in a pair of top-of-the-line Stennhausen stereo headphones and each of his twiggish limbs parked in a chair of its own. Rocking back and forth in his seat, Nicholas Scoby seemed like an autistic hoodlum. His pea-head lolled precariously on his wiry neck like a gyroscope, he snapped his fingers in some haphazard pattern and muttered to himself in a beatnik word-salad gibberish, ‘Dig it. This nigger’s tonality is wow. Like hep. It’s a contrapuntal glissando phraseology to bopnetic postmodernism. Blow man blow. Crazy.’ Much to the dismay of those who paid attention to the burnt-out teachers, Scoby was a straight-A student.
Psycho Loco’s real name was Juan Julio Sanchez. I knew all about him before I met him. His mother used to tell me how Juan Julio’s voice was the best missionary religion ever had. On Sundays he’d sing with the choir, and his baritone would make the babies stop crying and the deacons start. Ms Sanchez would hold a crucifix up to the sky and swear that drunks, bums, prostitutes, hoodlums, even police officers would walk into the original First Ethiop Aztlan Catholic-Baptist Church and Casa de Sanctified Holy Rolling Ecumenical Sanctification, kneel at Juan Julio’s feet pleading forgiveness, renounce sin, accept the Lord Jesus Christ as their saviour and put all the money they had in the collection plate. When the service ended, the plate would be filled with car keys, crack vials and stolen credit cards.
On the street the angelic Juan Julio was Psycho Loco, leader of the local gang Gun Totin’ Hooligans. I’d heard how as a strong-arm man-child for a loan shark, when he tired of a debtor’s sob story on why that week’s payment was late, he’d heat his crucifix with a nickel-plated lighter and press the makeshift branding iron into the victim’s cheek and scream, ‘Now you really have a cross to bear, motherfucker!’
Psycho Loco was my next-door neighbor and he decided he liked me. As Scoby said, ‘If Psycho Loco says you’re his friend, there ain’t nothing you can do about it. You’re friends ’cause he says so. Oh yeah, nigger, thirteen years old and you involved now.’
At Phillis Wheatley High the message was always the same. Stay in school. Don’t do drugs. Treat our black queens with respect. I made decent money taking bets on whether the distinguished speaker at our monthly ‘Young Black and Latino Men: Endangered Species’ assembly would say, ‘Each one, teach one’ first or ‘There’s an old African saying, “It takes an entire village to raise one child.”’ I suppose I could afford to be snide. I had a personal motivational speaker, Coach Motome Chijiwa Shimimoto. The stereotype is that most successful black men raised by single mothers have a surrogate father who turns their life around. A man who ‘saw their potential’, looked after them, taught them the value of virtuous living and set them out on the path to glory with a resounding slap on the butt. Coach Shimimoto didn’t do any of those things. He just paid attention to me. The only time he ever told me what to do with my life was during basketball practice. I can’t say that I learned any valuable lessons from Coach Shimimoto. He never gave me any clichéd phrases to be repeated in times of need, never showed me pictures of crippled kids to remind me how lucky I was. The only thing I remember him teaching me was that as a left-hander I’d have to draw from right to left to keep my charcoals from streaking—Coach Shimimoto was also my art teacher.
I often think the real reason Coach Shimimoto fêted me was to get inside Nicholas’s head through me. Nicholas was his prized student, his ticket to high-school coaching fame. Shimimoto knew that in thirty years reporters would call him at home and ask what it was like to coach—if not the greatest, the most unusual basketball player in the world. Coach had his answers all prepared; he would tell them, ‘Nicholas doesn’t understand the game, but the game understands him.’
Both Nicholas and I entered tenth grade with solid basketball reputations. Nick was the wizard and I the sorcerer’s apprentice. My duty was to get Scoby the ball so he could score, play tough defense so the other team wouldn’t score and bow reverentially after each dazzling feat. A collective self-esteem was at stake. People who didn’t give a fuck about anything other than keeping their new shoes unscuffed all of a sudden had meaning to their lives. They yelled at the referees, sang fight songs, razzed the efforts of the other team.
Everywhere Scoby and I went, we were Wheatley High’s main attraction. Teachers and students treated us with unwanted reverence. The murmur of everyone clamoring for our attention rang in my ears like a worshipping tinnitus. Girls slipped phone numbers into my pockets and rubbed the tips of their angora nipples on my shoulders. Boys bear-hugged us and enthusiastically replayed entire games for our benefit.
To avoid the incessant adulation the day before a game against South Erebus High, we spent the lunch period in Coach Shimimoto’s art room. I doodled in Indian ink, and Nicholas sat at the pottery wheel, shaping amorphous clay blobs. Toward the end of the period Nicholas was pumping the pedal so fast he couldn’t get the clay to stay on the spinning disc. ‘Fuck arts and crafts!’ he yelled as wet slabs of clay flew across the room, flattening themselves on the walls and windows. I’d never seen Scoby mad about anything. He was always the one who dispensed advice and remained in control. Whenever the crew got stopped for unjustified or justified police shakedowns, it was Scoby whispering, ‘Maintain, maintain.’ I looked to Coach Shimimoto, but he was removing clay pancakes from his face and motioning with his eyes for me to say something first.
‘Yo, nigger, why you so upset? We got a game tomorrow, just cool out.’
‘Man, I’m tired of these fanatics rubbing on me, pulling on my arms, wishing me luck. I can’t take it. People have buttons with my face on ’em. They paint their faces and stencil my number on their foreheads. One idiot showed me a tattoo on his chest that said nick scoby is god.’
‘They’re just trying to say how much they appreciate what you do. It’ll get better man, they’ll get used to us winning.’
‘But they’ll never get used to Scoby making every shot he takes,’ Coach Shimimoto interrupted us. ‘Nicholas, you’re right, it’ll only get worse. You’ve got to figure out how you can live with it.’
‘It’s not fair. I wasn’t born to make them happy. What I look like, motherfucking Charlie Chaplin?’
‘So miss once in a while.’
‘I can’t. I can’t even try. Something won’t let me.’
Scoby’s eyes reddened and he started to sniffle. He was cracking under the pressure. Watching Nicholas’s hands shake I realized that sometimes the worst thing a nigger can do is perform well. Because then there is no turning back. We have no place to hide, no Superman Fortresses of Solitude, no reclusive New England hermitages for xenophobic geniuses like Bobby Fischer and J. D. Salinger. Successful niggers can’t go back home and blithely disappear into the local populace. American society reels you back into the fold: ‘Tote that barge, shoot that basketball, lift that bale, nigger ain’t you ever heard of Dred Scott?’
Nicholas didn’t shoot much for the rest of the year. For us to win basketball games I had to play like hell. Gradually I realized the decision Nicholas made was to remove temporarily the burden of success from his shoulders and place it solely on mine. The classroom, locker room and bathroom acclaim fell on me. When Scoby’s name came up they all said, ‘Oh, that fool can shoot, but Gunnar has to carry us.’ Nicholas loved the shift in fame and willingly played his part in the role reversal, calling me ‘the Deity’ and asking me to forgive him his sins.
There are certain demands on a star athlete that I didn’t anticipate or enjoy. The most arduous was having to participate in the social scene. Every weekend Scoby and Psycho Loco pressured me to use my star status to get them retinue privileges at the Paradise, La Cebolla Roja or the Black Lagoon. When a club manager balked at admitting the volatile Psycho Loco into his establishment, I had to agree to take complete responsibility for his actions, which was like asking a dog collar to be responsible for a Rottweiler. Wringing their hands like mad scientists they’d thank me for my kindness, ignoring the fact that I suffered from what the American Psychiatric Association Manual of Mental Disorders lists as Social Arrhythmia and Courtship Paralysis, meaning I couldn’t dance and was deathly afraid of women.
I wasn’t completely lacking in social skills. With practice I learned to serpentine cool-as-hell through a crowded dance floor with the best of the high-school snakes. I could hiss at young women but not much else. When the opening strains of the latest jam crescendoed through the house, I would shout a perfunctory ‘Heeeyyy!’ showing the club-goers I was up for the downstroke and that any moment there might be a ‘par-tay ovah heah’. Scoby and Psycho Loco would soon abandon my hepster front for the chase; melding into the swirling mass of bodies and leaving me to fend for myself.
Even Psycho Loco could dance. He did this little gangster jig where he leaned back into the cushy rhythms like he was reclining in an easy chair, kicking one foot into the air, then the other, sipping from a bottle of contraband gin and lemonade during the funky breakdown. Girls interested in dancing with me propped themselves in front of me, a little closer than necessary, swayed to the music and tried to catch my eye. I stared off in the opposite direction pretending to be engrossed in an intricately woven bar napkin and praying she wouldn’t be bold enough to ask for a dance. As an athlete I had a ready-made excuse for the nervy women who did ask. ‘I can’t baby. Twisted my ankle dunking on the Rogers brothers in last night’s game.’ I’d get a funny look in return, and the rebuffed co-ed would return to her circle of friends. The whispers and over-the-shoulder looks followed by phony smiles set off my social paranoia. My auditory hallucinations cleared their throats: ‘Something wrong with that nigger, he don’t never dance. Maybe he just shy. Maybe he’s shy? He ain’t shy with Coach Shimimoto. That’s why Coach be sweating so much. Boy got some big ol’ feets and hands that’s a waste of some good young nigger dick. Fucking an old man.’ Soon Scoby and Psycho Loco would interrupt my neurotic musings. ‘Why you ain’t dancing homes? Crazy honeys is checking you out.’
‘I don’t feel like dancing.’
‘Are you crazy? There some fine ladies in here. You just scared of women. Scared of pussy.’
As the evening wound down, the house lights dimmed to deep red haze, and the DJ began to play the latest slow jams. I’d pray Psycho Loco would start a fight so I could leave without having to support someone’s head on my shoulder and listen to them warble inane love lyrics in my ear. Invariably Psycho Loco came through, slugging some fool for stepping on his shadow or some equally petty infraction. As the bouncers escorted us out, Psycho Loco and Scoby compared the night’s harvest.
‘So Gunnar, how’d you do?’
‘Do people be staring at me when I’m out there dancing? It feels like everybody is looking at me.’
‘First off, you ain’t out there dancing. You out there having a brain aneurysm. You move so crazy it looks like you caught the holy ghost. Second off, nobody is paying any attention to your rhythmless behind ’cause they trying to get they own mack on.’
‘Gunnar, do you even like girls?’
‘Yes.’ Which was true, I just had yet to meet one who didn’t intimidate me into a state of catatonia.
‘When you gonna get a girlfriend?’
‘I had one once in Santa Monica.’
‘What some pasty white girl named Eileen? Please. That don’t count. Nigger, have you ever seen any parts of the pussy?’
‘Of course man. I’ve fucked . . . er, been fucked . . . um, been fucking . . . I is fucking.’
‘Does the line go up and down or from side to side?’
During the ride home one evening Psycho Loco was leafing through a copy of Bow and Arrow Outdoorsman, heading straight to the classified ads in the back.
‘Gunnar, we’re gonna find you a wife.’
Somehow I knew that Psycho Loco was right; I’d never start a romance on my own accord. But it was difficult to accept sexual counsel from a pugnacious male who had to be drunk to fuck and whose first rule of courtship was ‘Always make sure your dick is out. That way no matter what happens you can say, “Well, I had my dick out.”’
Changing the subject, I snatched the magazine from Psycho Loco’s hands and said, ‘My pops said Rodney King deserved that ass-kicking for resisting arrest and having a Jehri Curl. He said some curl activator got into Officer Koon’s eyes and he thought he’d been maced so he had to defend himself.’
I asked Psycho Loco if the rumours about a gangland truce if the jury found the cops innocent were true. He said that there already had been a big armistice at the Tryst N’ Shout Motel. Bangers who had killed each other’s best friends shook hands and hugged with unspoken apologies in their watery eyes.
‘Damn, I hope they find those motherfuckers guilty,’ I said with surprising conviction.
‘Not me,’ said Psycho Loco. I hope those boys get off scot-free. One it’ll be good to have a little peace in the streets, and besides, me and the fellas planning a huge job. Going to take advantage of the civic unrest, know what I’m saying?
I pictured Rodney King staggering in the Foothill Freeway’s breakdown lane like a black Frankenstein; two Taser wires running fifty thousand volts of electric democracy through his body. I wondered if the battery of the American nigger was being recharged or drained.
For some reason Coach Shimimoto was reluctant to end practice. Usually these post-season workouts were light affairs, mostly intra-squad scrimmages followed by a dunking contest. This one he kept prolonging with wind sprints and full-court defensive drills. Shimimoto finally blew his whistle and motioned for the team to gather around him. Exhausted, we flopped to the floor, sucking wind and hoping that Coach Shimimoto would take pity on our fatigued bodies.
‘What does concatenate mean? Tell me and you can go.’
Harriet Montoya, the only person with strength enough to speak, raised her hand. I didn’t have much faith she’d know the answer—yesterday she had defined ‘repeal’ as putting the skin back on an orange and peeling again, and we had to run thirty laps backward. ‘Concatenate means together. Not like all-in-the-same-boat together, but like connected, like a bicycle chain.’
‘Close enough. Remember that definition, you soon-to-be revolutionaries.’
With that, Coach dismissed us into a cool late-April afternoon.
On the way home I was wondering what Coach meant by ‘soon-to-be revolutionaries’ when I noticed a distant column of black smoke billowing into the dusk like a tornado too tired to move.
‘What’s that?’ I asked Scoby.
‘Eric Dolphy,’ he replied, referring to the stop-and-go shrieking that was escaping from his boom box.
‘No, I mean that,’ I said, pointing to the noxious-looking cloud.
Scoby didn’t know but he was more than willing to make up for his ignorance in smoke formations by lecturing me on the relevance of Dolphy’s sonic turmoil to teenage Negromites like ourselves. Midway through his seminar another silo of smoke twisted into the dusk, this one closer. The driver of a run-down Nova sped down Sawyer Drive leaning on her high-pitched horn for no apparent reason. Scoby turned up the volume on the tape deck just a bit. Another car flew through a stop sign then reversed. When the car drew parallel with us, the driver flashed a gap-toothed smile, then shot a raised fist out of the window and raced away. Soon every driver that passed was joyriding through the streets, honking their horns and violating the traffic laws like Hollywood stunt drivers in the big chase scene.
People began spilling from their homes. They paced up and down the sidewalks looking tense and unaware they’d left their front doors open. Something was wrong: no Los Angeleno ever leaves his door open. I caught the eye of a middle-aged man wearing white patent-leather shoes, ochre-coloured polyester pants and a Panama hat who was standing on his front porch looking desperate for someone to talk to.
‘What’s happening?’ I asked.
‘Them cracker motherfuckers did it again.’
The Rodney King verdict; I’d completely forgotten.
‘They let them racists go. I’m surprised the judge didn’t reprimand the peckerwood so-called peace officers for not finishing the job.’
Let go? What did that mean? The officers had to have been found guilty of something—obstruction of traffic at least. Maybe if it was the maid’s day off in Simi Valley, and the jury was in a bad mood, the most sadistic officer, Stacy Koon, would be found guilty of all charges. I doubted the man in the patent-leather shoes. I could hear the TV in his living room and I peeped into his doorway. The smirk on the reporter’s face told me the man was right, even before I heard her say, ‘Not guilty on all charges.’
I never felt so worthless in my life. Uninvited, we walked into the man’s living room, set our book bags on his coffee table and sat on the couch. I looked out the window and saw a store-owner spray-paint black owned across her boarded-up beauty salon. I wanted to dig out my heart and have her do the same to it, certifying my identity in big block letters across both ventricles. I suddenly understood why my father wore his badge so proudly. The badge protected him; in uniform he was safe.
Sitting on that couch watching the announcer gloat, the anger that resided in my pacifist Negro chrysalis shed its innocuousness. I felt a glistening animosity testing its wings. Right then I envied Psycho Loco. Psycho Loco dealt with his rage by blaming and lashing out; there was no pretense of fairness and justice; due process was his mood, or if he ran out of bullets while shooting at you. Watching the acquitted officers shake hands with their attorneys and stroll triumphantly into the April sun, I saw his brutality as a powerful, vitriolic stimulant. I wanted to sip this effervescent bromo that cleared one’s head and numbed the aches and pains of oppression. Psycho Loco had the satisfaction of standing up to his enemies and listening to them scream, watching them close their eyes for the last time. Psycho Loco had a semblance of closure and accomplishment. He was a threat. I wanted to taste immediate vindication, experience the rush of spitting in somebody’s, anybody’s face.
I looked at Scoby and said, ‘Let’s break.’ We gathered our things, thanked the man for his kindness and prepared to leave. We spent an awkward moment in silence, till the man asked, ‘Is that Dolphy?’ Scoby nodded yes, and we made our way toward the commotion listening to Dolphy play his horn like he was wringing a wash rag. I couldn’t decide whether the music sounded like a death knell or the cavalry charge for a ragtag army. We’d turned the corner on to Hoover and Alvarado and walked into Carnival poor-people’s style. The niggers and spies had decided to secede from the Union, armed with rifles, slingshots, bottles, camcorders and songs of freedom. Problem was nobody knew where Fort Sumter was.
The next afternoon Scoby and I sat in his basement watching the rest of the city burn on television. A parade of relatives marched through his house hawking their wares. ‘Look what I came up on.’ Holding up sweaters and jackets that smelt of smoke for our perusal. ‘Gunnar you’d look good in this. Got a lamé collar. Bill Cosby would wear this jammie. You Nick’s man, two dollars.’
‘Nigger move, you in front of the TV.’
It was hard not to be envious of anybody who had some free shit and a little crumb of the California dream. I too wanted to ‘come up’ but I didn’t think I was a thief. The television stations were airing live feeds from hot spots around the city showing looters entering stores empty-handed and exiting carrying furniture on their backs like worker ants carrying ten times their weight.
‘Hey isn’t that the Montgomery Ward Plaza?’ The mall was about ten minutes away, just outside the wall.
‘Yeah, there go Technology Town.’
‘Oh shit, fools coming up on free computers and shit.’
Scoby and I looked each other in the eye for about a nanosecond then stormed out of the house. Running down the streets we argued over the virtues of IBM-compatible and Apple. ‘Dude, I’m looking for a Wizard Protean.’
‘What? You can’t carry out a desktop. Go for a laptop. You get all the qualities of a Protean, plus mobility. Your dumbass is trying to steal a whole mainframe.’
Coach Shimimoto’s arduous workouts had served their purpose. We reached Technology Town fresh and ready to celebrate Christmas in April. Leaping through the broken windows we tumbled over a stack of plastic shopping baskets and landed in a snowbank of styrofoam package filler. We were too late. All the presents had been opened. The showroom was stripped bare. Broken shelving dangled from the walls; overturned showcases spilt over on to the floor, serving as caskets for dead batteries and the shells of busted stereo equipment. Unraveled cassette tape hung from the overhead pipes like brown riot tinsel. Even the ceiling fans and service phones were gone.
‘What happens to a dream deferred?’ I said in my best classical recitation voice. Scoby cursed and threw a nine-volt battery at my head.
‘Fuck Langston Hughes. I bet when they rioted in Harlem, Langston got his.’
Kicking our way through the piles of cardboard we left the store and stood in the parking lot thinking of our next target. People were still ransacking Cribs N’ Bibs, the toddler shop, but rattles, powdered milk and designer diapers didn’t interest us. Scoby snapped his fingers, shouted ‘What Did You Say?’ and sprinted down toward the alley that ran behind the mall.
What Did You Say? was a car-accessory emporium that specialized in deafeningly loud car stereos and equally loud seat covers. I couldn’t figure out how Scoby planned to get in the place; it was known to be impenetrable. A solid metal garage door that had foiled the attempts of a Who’s Who of burglary specialists sealed the front entrance. The famed barrier had withstood ramming from hijacked semi-trucks, dynamite and every solvent from Paul Newman’s salad dressing to 150-proof rum mixed with corrosive black-hair products.
When we got to What Did You Say? the steel door was still in place. Scoby and I put our ears against it and heard what sounded like mice scurrying around inside. We zipped around the back and found a small opening smashed into the cinder-block wall, a guilty-looking sledgehammer lay atop a pile of rubble. Every ten seconds or so a contortionist would squeeze through the hole bearing some sort of electronic gadgetry. Standing nearby in tears was fat Reece Clinksdale. Reece was bemoaning his girth because he was too big to fit in the hole and was missing out on the rebellion. He wiped his eyes and stopped blubbering for a bit.
‘You guys going in?’
‘I guess so,’ we answered.
‘Well you better hurry up. I think most of the good stuff is gone.’
Reece was right. The crawl space was starting to give birth to zoo animals. Guys were popping head first through the hole wrapped in sheepskin and leopardskin seat covers and looking like cuddly animals. I helped deliver a breech baby alligator seat cover who’d decided to exit feet-first and had to be pulled through the cement birth canal.
When the traffic was light enough to make an entrance, Scoby and I slid through the hole. The absolute lack of chaos was amazing. Instead of a horde of one-eyed brigands pillaging and setting fires, the looters were very courteous, and the plundering was orderly. Everyone waited patiently in a line that wound through the aisles and into the storeroom. Once in the storeroom, a philanthropic soul handed you a box off the shelf. You didn’t get your choice of goods, but no one complained. If you wanted something else you just got in line again.
Looting wasn’t as exciting as Scoby and I hoped it would be. Nicholas came up on a car alarm, and I on a box of pine-tree-shaped air-fresheners. On the way back to his neighborhood we saw Pookie Hamilton drive by in his convertible bug. I whistled, and Pookie pulled over, waving for us to get in the back seat.
‘Where you headed, Pook?’
‘I just got a page from Psycho Loco. He needs some help.’
I hadn’t forgotten about Psycho Loco’s planned big score, but the greedy look in his eyes whenever he had talked about The Heist had told me that I didn’t want to be involved.
‘Drop me and Scoby off at my house.’
‘No time, G.’
‘Well where we going?’
When we pulled into the parking lot there was Psycho Loco and his friends No M. O. Clark and Joe Shenanigans. They were standing behind Psycho Loco’s van next to a huge iron safe. Grimy, covered with sweat, the boys were overjoyed to see us. This was The Heist.
‘What the fuck? Are you motherfuckers crazy?’
‘Chill, homes. We just want help lifting this thing in the van.’
‘How did you get it out?’
‘Look,’ Scoby said, pointing to a set of rubber wheels attached to the bottom of the strongbox.
I had two thoughts. Why are all safes painted beige? And would my mother come visit me in prison?
‘Dude, I can’t be wearing no stonewashed prison outfit for the rest of my life. That shit makes me itch.’
Scoby tried to comfort me. ‘You can wear any kind of shirt you want, just no rhinestones or metal buttons. Besides, I haven’t seen one police car the whole day.’
He was right. I hadn’t even noticed. The entire day had been an undeclared public holiday. Los Angeles was a theme park, and we were spending the day in Anarchyland. I calmed down. The safe was unbelievably heavy, which everyone but me took as a positive sign. I thought the thing could just as easily be empty or filled with employee time cards as stuffed with valuables.
On our third try we almost had the safe inside the back of the van when we all heard an extremely disheartening sound. ‘What’s that?’ everyone asked.
‘Uh, the Doppler effect,’ I said.
‘Shit, it’s the cops.’
With a final strain we edged the safe on to the bumper of the van, but our knees buckled under the weight, and the safe dropped to the ground with a heavy thud. The sirens were getting closer. No one had the energy for another lift, but we couldn’t leave the safe in the middle of the parking lot, not with visions of Spanish gold doubloons dancing in our heads. I looked in the van and saw a length of rope. How stupid we’d been. All we needed to do was tie one end to the safe’s handle and the other end to the van’s bumper and we could drive away, pulling the safe along behind us. I heard the cop car pull into the parking lot. My back tightened in anticipation of hearing a gunshot or a threatening, ‘Get your hands up and step away from the vehicle.’ What I did hear was something I hadn’t heard in years, my father’s voice. ‘Gunnar!’ I told the boys to keep going, that I’d distract him. I turned around to see my father step out the car gripping a shotgun in one hand.
‘Dad. Long time no see. Things must really be hectic if you’re out on the streets.’
I heard the van slowly pull off, and I looked back to see the safe trailing behind it, like a tin can tied to a car of newly-weds. When I turned to face my father, the hard rubber butt of the shotgun crashed into my jaw. I saw a flash of white and dropped to the pavement. His partner stepped on my ear, muffling my father’s words. ‘You are not a Kaufman. I refuse to let you embarrass me with your niggerish ways. And where did you get all these damn air-fresheners?’
Something hard smacked the side of my neck, sending my tongue rolling out of my mouth like a party favor. I could taste the salty ash on the pavement. Ash that had drifted from fires set in anger from around the city. I remembered learning in third grade that snakes ‘see’ and ‘hear’ with their sensitive tongues. I imagined my tongue, almost bitten through, hearing the polyrhythms of my father’s nightstick on my body. Through my tongue I saw my father transform into a master Senegalese drummer beating a surrender code on a hollow log on the banks of the muddy Gambia. A flash of white—the night of my conception, my father twisting mama’s arm behind her back and ordering her to ‘assume the position’. A flash of white—my father potty-training me with a slap across the face and sticking my hand in my mushy excrement. Soon my body stopped bucking with every blow; there was only white: no memories, no visions, only the sound of voices.
Gunnar, my young revolutionary, while you were in a coma, you got a letter from the Nike Basketball Camp. You’ve been chosen as one of the hundred best ball players in the nation. Actually you’re number one hundred. Coach Shimimoto
Son, your father and I both think it’s best for you to transfer to another school. We’re sending you to El Campesino Real in the Valley. Mom
Dude, you got fucked up. Nicholas Scoby
You gots to get better, cuz. We can’t figure out how to open the safe. Psycho Loco
The safe sat in the middle of Psycho Loco’s den. Old Abuela Gloria, reportedly an expert safecracker in Havana during Batista’s glory days, was wearing a stethoscope and listening to the tumblers click as she spun the combination dial back and forth.
‘Isn’t Abuela Gloria deaf?’ I asked Ms Sanchez.
Abuela removed the stethoscope from her ears and pulled on the latch. Nothing happened.
Scoby was calculating possible permutations of a combination lock numbered from zero to a hundred. He’d already tried thirty-two thousand combinations while I was in hospital. He knelt beside the safe flipping the dial from number to number and shaking his cramped hands in frustration as his magic failed him.
‘Gunnar, look at the safe, maybe you can figure out a way to open it.’
‘What I know about opening a safe? That thing almost got me killed. I don’t give a fuck if you never get it open.’
I was lying, and Psycho Loco knew it. I hadn’t taken my eyes off the box since I’d been there. I couldn’t shake the word ‘treasure’ from my head: rubies and gold lanterns, ancient scrolls and taboo vestiges. I wanted to free the genie and fuck up my three wishes.
I ran my hands over the safe’s tapered edges, then stood back, waved my fingers and said in a slow, spooky voice, ‘Open, sesame.’
‘We did that shit already,’ said Psycho Loco. ‘Ala-kazam, hocus-pocus—we even paid that voodoo lady on Normandie fifty dollars to open it with some of that ol’ time Yoruba religion.’
‘She got chicken blood and pixie dust all over the fucking place. Damn near burnt the house down with all the candles.’
I looked closely at the safe. The tag dangling from the handle flapped in the current of a draught. The tag read, montgomery ward duro-safe. this safe is solid tungsten. airtight, fireproof, and guaranteed to withstand pressure up to 3500 points per square inch.
I knew there had to be a way to open it; this was a Montgomery Ward product. Nothing they made worked. Their television sets came with wire hangers and a pair of pliers to turn the channel after the knobs fell off.
I had an idea. I asked Abuela Gloria for her safe-cracking kit. I set the small metal box about three feet behind the safe and asked Scoby, Ms Sanchez and Psycho Loco to help it on to its back. There, on the bottom, on a dirty white label, was written:
4 turns to the right to 67
3 turns to the left to 23
2 turns to the right to 55
1 turn to the left to 63
The best thing about treasure is the assortment. I didn’t think gold bars really existed. I thought they were a movie prop used to speed up the plot. Yet there was a shoebox full of domino-sized ingots stamped montgomery ward 24K. Stacks of dusty paper money sat in the back. Silver and platinum rings and brooches, and tiaras inlaid with rubies, emeralds and diamonds glittered under the lamplight.
It was surreal to watch Psycho Loco divide the bounty. Tossing stacks of money and gold bars around the room like so many paperweights. We played The Price is Right for the jewelry. Whoever was closest to guessing the stickered price won the bauble.
For a while living in Hillside was like living in the Old West in a thriving goldmining town’s bubble economy. Psycho Loco customized his van. Scoby bought a car and every jazz CD on his extensive list. Joe Shenanigans moved to Brooklyn and tried to join the Mafia. Ms Sanchez went door-to-door selling jewelry at discount prices. No M. O. Clark got plastic surgery to remove his fingerprints. His hands looked like they’d been steamrolled, sanded down then varnished. He got a kick out of harassing the palm readers on Hollywood Boulevard.
I refused any payment for my part in The Heist. I had wanted only to satisfy my curiosity, not fence gold bars and pray that the money I was spending was untraceable.
I spent the last two weeks of my sixteenth summer away at camp, not shooting rapids and learning Indian folk songs, but shooting baskets and learning when to double-down and give weak-side help.
Photograph © Ryan Vaarsi