Thursday, June 25, 2009

Today A Strange, Elusive Man Died

"We were growing up on Doo-Wop and Hip-Hop, R&B and Soul. I don’t know exactly how or who or why or when any which one of us first started listening to the older stuff, but we were. All of us. Maybe we were listening cuz the music was the symbol of an era that defined America, an America living in the every-day fear of the A-Bomb or the H-Bomb or the Whatever-the Fuck-Bomb or the UFOs. Maybe cuz the fifties were confusing times and all the kids growing up then had was the music, Alan Freed, and James Dean’s red jacket or Brando’s black leather jacket and his soft, mad cry of 'Whadya got?'

Maybe it’s cuz we saw the same shit goin’ on in the eighties. We had fear and nukes and ICBMs and sky-jackings and dime-a-dozen serial killers like the Nightstalker and a racist president continuing the murder of the indigenous and blacks and making it harder for people to become citizens despite Lady Liberty’s promise. And we, too, had our red jacket. But it was Michael Jackson’s. And we still had the music on stations like KODJ, KDAY and KRLA 1110 AM. Yes, A-fucken-M. And, more than that, we still had our Brando battlecry of 'Whadya got?'"

This is an excerpt from a yet-to-be-finished novel based on my life growing up in Long Beach and surrounding areas in California in the 1980s and 90s.

As I stand on the porch tonight listening to illegal fireworks being set off in the street behind me a young girl crosses the grassy triangle down the street in a white dress. It looks almost like a wedding dress, perhaps a prom dress. But it's too late in the year for prom. Kids are out of school now. She walks in her white dress, though, clumsily in the soft grass so I think she's wearing heels. As I watch her walk, listen to the fireworks and think over the day's news, I am struck by a memory.

In 1985, maybe '86, I was in the 4th grade at Horace Mann Elementary School in Long Beach. I was one of the few white kids in my mixed class of 4th and 5th graders. Many of my classmates were Southeast Asian -- Cambodian, Vietnamese, Thai and the like. Of my close-knit friends then I was the only one to be born here in the Americas. I was the only one not a FOB. Maybe we listened to Doo-Wop and Michael because they were so very American and my friends and I needed to learn what it meant to be American.

I recall going on a field trip to the Griffith Park Observatory. The observatory has been in a million movies and TV shows, including James Dean's classic 'Rebel Without a Cause' wherein he wore his famous red, rebellious jacket.

My friends and I spent the day learning about gravity and stars and the moon and coughing up a lung on wonderful Los Angeles smog. It was a hot, humid day I remember. On the way back down from the hills of Los Angeles, returning to Long Beach, I was steadily growing sick from the heat of the day. I seem to have a lot of memories and tales about being sick. I rested my head back against the hard leatherette of the bus seat and enjoyed the breeze from the window upon my face. Soon I heard someone humming nearby. It was a friend, a very good friend. One of my closest friends then. He was sitting in the seat in front of me. We'll call him Pony for now, due to the hi-top shoes he wore and so loved. I recognized the song he was humming.

"Ya know," said I as I leaned forward and peeked over the back of his seat to look at him, "I know that song and I've heard bits of it everywhere, but I've never heard the whole thing."

"Really?" he asked in his thick Asian accent.

"I've just never had the chance to listen to the whole thing."

"Here," he got up from his seat, which was against the rules but fuck the rules, and sat next to me. He said, "I'll sing it for you."

We coasted down the hills and through the city of Los Angeles into Long Beach as my friend, this young boy of 9; a boy that had been taught a few martial arts moves by his uncle in Cambodia so he may defend his life, the same uncle that would later be viciously murdered right before the boy's eyes by agents of a corrupt government, prompting the family to move to the United States; a boy that had seen horrors that even I who had watched kids die of cancer in the hospital bed next to mine couldn't imagine; this very small, innocent, brown Cambodian boy sang to me the entire song "We Are the World".

Today a strange, elusive man died. With him went part of my childhood.

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