"one more/ weekend/of lights and evening faces/fast food/living nostalgia"

THAT’S BOWIE ABOVE, but this whole thing started not with him or this riff, but with an old friend trolling for information on Facebook last week. Touchstones : music, fashion, memories — that would locate him back in 1977 for a young adult novel he is writing. And so we all have been digging deep, back into “the breezeways of our youth,” I teased. This, coincidentally, coincided with the death of J.D. Salinger. I read The Catcher in the Rye that year for the first serious time. I have a tendency as a reader to remember not just the book, but where I was when I was reading it, so this news then placed me in one of Culver City Jr. High School’s sunlight-flooded classrooms, sunk into a sofa sulking at the rear, with that maroon paperback in my hands. 1977. Culver City. Integrating. We were all pushing up against one another. It wasn’t angry, though sometimes it had an edge — racially speaking. I think most of us were simply curious. Fights happened over space, lunch tables, what music could or should be playing at nutrition or lunch — those things are touchstones themselves.

WE LIVED so close to the water that that was a distraction and device itself. Surf culture for us was so different than in the “Gidget” movies or Beach Boys songs. The beaches were dirtier by then and felt just as urban as that grove of new skyscrapers that were springing up downtown but those surf tribes made their way down to the water daily and brought with them young men mostly of various ethnicities and background: an image that won’t go away: Erik Lopez in a baja, his brown, wavy hair down nearly, but not quite, to his hips, “riding” the aisle on the #5 bus as if conquering a wave.

The Asian kids were the Earth, Wind and Fire fans — more vocal and loyal than us black kids and after a certain point, you had to just let them have them.

It was difficult to be possessive about music; it was free-floating. But you had to be sure not to be too “out there” with your preferences that served to separate. Slippery slope. By then, I was listening up-and-down the dial — interant, aural thrill seeker. I wanted to *know.* I brought Stevie Wonder with me from another time, place, neighborhood. I carried him everywhere. He never went away.

But I was curious about all of these new sounds — even some of the noise. Stations whose call-letters don’t exist anymore — KPOL, KBCA, KDAY, KGFJ, KMET — still clutter my consciousness, my memories of growing up in Southern California before it became so completely plastic and difficult to not just navigate but permeate.

Then you could slide from one style, mood, declaration from another. Not that you could own it, but you could sample it, could feel it, take a little with you.

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, in that moment was still fetching. A goal for some, a impetus to flee for others. Growing up between those two moments — the rustic wildness diminishing, the temples to what those thought it should be climbing up from the flatness, made life feel otherworldly at times, like you were part of some strange slip-stream.


Surprisingly, the film that articulated that for me more than others was “The Lords of Dogtown.” The opening scene when the boys (see top photo) are out before dawn surfing in that dirty muck of the Pacific Ocean I knew well at that time. Surfing among those hovering ruins of the the pier, but not minding the ruins, in fact, remaking them as something else. All of this too, this week, since this is way-back machine, 1970s week to be thinking about the Eagles of all bands. But this report on NPR got me thinking about again, the long arms of SoCal. A DJ in Port au Prince, Haiti, apparently had been playing the Eagles’ bombshell hit “Hotel California” at the moment the quake struck. He had the presence of mind to hit the “replay” button and so that eerie entreaty: “Welcome to the Hotel California” played over and over and over as the frail city fell. Again, it came in a flash — the air, the tension, the shifts of the terrain — impermanence. It came in waves.

Jerkin’: Revenge of the Real-World Nerd

THIS SHOULD HAVE gone up sooner, but I’ve been buried in papers and distracted by my wanderings. New York Times reporter, Guy Trebay’s take on L.A.’s new up-from-the-pavement craze made the cover of the NYT Sunday Styles Section a couple weeks ago. Jerkin’, you’re wondering, well:

Julian Goins, [above] the 15-year-old leader of the Ranger$, a five-member jerking crew, hops onto the tips of his sneakers — the Tippy Toe — and then swivels his body ground-ward, legs crossed at the ankle. He pops up like a jack-in-the-box, spins and bounces, gliding backward in the Reject, a move that resembles nothing so much as the Running Man, an ’80s dance-floor step but in reverse.

The other kids in the schoolyard pay scant attention to the star in their midst. Until his Ranger$ schedule exploded and his mother decided to home-school him, Julian was just another student.

Goofy, gentle, nimbly amateurish, jerking was little known outside certain precincts of this sprawling city until a year ago. But in the last nine months or so, jerking began an unexpected run as an Internet phenomenon.

With Alexander Hamilton High School as the story’s backdrop, this motion movement is characterized by, of course, fashion: Trebay cites jerking’s own “fashion memo”: skinny jeans, fat gold 80s chains and T-shirts emblazoned with the woefully unstreetwise SpongeBob SquarePants and Oscar the Grouch — where “the nerd” comes in.

And because he’s so good at street culture writing — nailing it at the right moment –I was so thrilled that one of my writing students beat him on this one.

I’ve always liked Trebay’s way into stories like this — I just wish reporters had more space to make things come alive in their keystrokes. The video is cool, but Trebay is the master of making the page dance. Sinking in is like settling on the stoop to watch too. His late-80s early-90s column in the Village Voice was a must-stop for all those wanting to know what NYC’s street culture felt, smelled, dressed and danced like at the moment. Some of those columns can be found online or in his hard-to-find-but-worth-the-effort-to collection In The Place To Be He’s one person from outside whom I don’t mind swinging into my town. Nice to see it through his eyes.

The Princess & Precious

I HAVE YET to see either “Precious” or “The Princess and the Frog” and am still feeling ambivalent. At first I wasn’t sure about what was feeding this reluctance, but all became clear when I was driving home late earlier in the week listening to a public radio call-in show whose topic that night was the first black Disney princess, Tiana. Since I came in late, I didn’t hear how the show was contextually situated. Rather, I ended up punching in the middle of a woman’s reverie about how she and her middle-aged African-American female posse had rushed to the theater to take a look at Disney’s princess, that they didn’t bring daughters or nieces or little sisters. They brought themselves and cried in the dark. “Finally,” a black movie-screen princess. They “needed” their princess. Had “waited so many years” for their princess. Felt “cheated” without their princess.

By the time I’d arrived, sitting in my driveway, still listening –the infamous NPR Driveway Moment — I wondered why all this wasn’t resonating with me quite the same way.

I grew up on Disney too. My mother took my brother and me to see a Snow White revival back in the day. I liked the songs; fell in love with Dopey (of course) went home whistling for weeks. I saw the others, Cinderella and whatever else until I grew out of it all (One of my favorites, The Aristocats, didn’t have to do with a princess at all, but now that I recall there was one kitten named thusly.). But I don’t remember being pre-occupied about the fact that there wasn’t a black princess as of yet. I had other, deeper issues with cartoons — Disney, Warner Bros., and the like. Many of them had to do with these deflating moments where you’d be laughing at something ridiculous Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck or Mickey Mouse or whomever would be doing and then out of nowhere some cartoon visage “corked-up” in inky blackface and exaggerated lips would pop up and spoil not just the moment, but the day. The emotion was some mixture of confusion and hurt that even to this day I don’t quite have a word/name for. It just lingered without a name which, I think, was what gave it more space than it deserved for longer than it should have.

Hearing these women talk the other night over the radio signal made me wonder why was it that I didn’t have the same reaction, that I didn’t feel like the princess was missing from my life, even though I probably was around the same age of the more enthusiastic callers. I had black dolls. I had a library well-represented by black books and what I didn’t have we’d go — my brother and mother and I — to the library to explore. We’d bring the books home and I’d excitedly show them to my father.There they were. Those stories on the page. I found that even then, I gravitated toward “real” stories. Even if they were troubling. I would stare at those famous Civil Rights Movement pictures — police dogs and fire hoses vs. peaceful protesters. There was confusion in that too, but it was different that the Disney/Warner Bros. version. I was learning something.

As timing would have it, the other buzzword on so many lips is another black female, a splashy, big-screen event of a whole different sort: Precious. The movie, based on a novel written by Sapphire more than a decade ago, is the heart-stomping story of a young African-American woman who experiences all manner of personal indignities and happens to rise up ultimately. It was hard reading. Harrowing. I interviewed Sapphire for the Times when the book came out. (And back then there was also a flurry pre-publication buzz for it too). Women are coming out of the theater wrecked, in tears or completely silent, gutted by it. The trailer itself had me going, I wondered, with all else that is going on right now, if I were strong enough to see this story, just now — a different black woman from the Princess but one who has become familiar within column inches of the newspaper, or “reality” T.V. dramas, or a certain type of fiction. A black woman who continues to pull life’s short-straws. It’s a sort of ‘blackness’ that has become a shorthand for ‘black experience.’ And, even with Michelle, Malia and Sasha Obama in the White House, I just wonder what’s lies in-between on screen the Princess and Precious and why, even now, in year 2009, the contemporary black woman who simply *is* still isn’t as compelling as screen-fodder — it’s fantasy: or so hyper-real it bends. I guess that means ultimately, we’re not looking for a prince, but something more like balance

Mayme’s Garage

MORE SAD news. Avery Clayton, son of Mayme Clayton – founder of the Western States Black Research and Education Center, passed away yesterday — Thanksgiving Day. His mother housed three centuries of black literature, movies, music and other essential miscellany in a leaky garage, behind her modest home in Southwest L.A. What I held in my hands made the journey palpable — A Phillis Wheatley chapbook, crumbling Tin Pan Alley sheet music, heavy, brittle 78s. It was much more than sifting through memories; it was time travel, like eavesdropping on circling conversations above. I’d first met Clayton back when I was a reporter at the L.A. Weekly and did a small piece on her in the old Local Heroes column. Once at the L.A. Times, I revisited her and her collection in 2002. After decades of planning, fundraisers, nearly-closed deals, Avery was able to secure a spacious spot in Culver City in an old civic building along Overland Avenue. His mother passed away without witnessing the ribbon-cutting and now Avery won’t be here for the opening. I’d just received an email from him, not a month ago, saying that he wanted to meet, that he had a lot of new information to share, that we’d come a long way.

His Name is George, too

SURPRISED TO FIND this online. So much of being a journalist is also being an archaeologist.
This one is one of my best reporting memories, even though I almost got irretrivably lost driving east on I-10 almost to Palm Springs. Navagation off in areas so flat, dusty in all that harsh light. Ultimately all worth it to sit with Mr. Smock, a former Pullman Sleeping Car porter, still elegant and dapper, seated in his room full of sleeping car memories. He still plays host in grandstyle — In Safety and Comfort. <