There was a dividing line in Mar Vista and that was Venice Blvd. which headed East and West. The richer people lived North of Venice, some in very large houses, and the poor people lived in the apartments South of Venice Blvd. During this time, I learned about myself, both sexually and emotionally. I saw little of my sister or brother during this period – I was busy at school, and I hung out with some people, I tried to impress girls, and my volunteering for the Farmworkers took up a lot of time.
We were below the dividing line and I quickly learned how little empathy most students had for those in need. And I guess I was using my parents as an example whose problems with money followed us from New York. The California restaurant owners, those that came to know the New Yorker’s connections, accepted my Dad as an acquaintance to remember.
Above the dividing line lived most of the Jews. With their stay in California, at least for a generation or two, they had assimilated into the local culture, some even had started to attend church. Others were a lot more religious than me*. Anyway, where it was easy in Brighton to tell who was Jewish (everybody) out here in Mar Vista it was very difficult.
*At a young age I had split the religion from the culture. In sixth grade especially, I went to Hebrew school after Elementary school a few times a week. The focus was our upcoming Bar Mitzvah or Bas Mitzvah. Bas because this was reform some of the girls attended. When the Rabbi (I think) taught school I found out that about 40% of the class was not learning Hebrew instead was planning their thirteenth-year ceremony by reading phonetically and I walked out never to return. Yes, my Judaism was cultural and historical.
Mar Vista was not a place to be a Jew. In fact, most kept it hidden. I’m not suggesting that you had to run a parade through the town about your religion or ethnicity, but in Mar Vista the goal was to be as white toast as possible. With the West Coast sensibility playing a part, it was not easy to tell who was Jewish.
One person who definitely was not was our neighbor who took me and another kid to the beach with him. I thought it was weird and perhaps thought it weirder when I discovered that he volunteered to take us to the beach as cover for picking up girls. He was married and had three small children so the picking up would not have gone over back home.
He was a mechanic at Hughes Aircraft and was highly in debt. The other boy and I thought it funny to get in the way of his pickups by calling him Dad and alluding to the fact he was married. As far as I could tell he was never successful at the pickup attempts.
Early one morning, perhaps five-ish there were several loud crashes coming from upstairs – I thought a refrigerator was being dropped. Dad went upstairs to our neighbors’ apartment and the front door was ajar. Dad pushed it open partway and the oldest of the three boys was on the living room floor, with half of his head blown away, his head laying in a pool of blood. Dad backed away from the door – he then told me to go back to our apartment. He told Mom what happened and she called the cops. Later on, we found out that the parents were in bed dead, the same for the boy we saw. The two littlest ones were huddling in the apartment closet in their bedroom.
I saw how indebtedness could be a bad catalyst and I quietly worried for Mom and Dad whose sudden move to Mar Vista did not alleviate their economic worries.
Being elected President of the Academic Society may have been a joke but I parlayed it into new friendships and to my shame it was Out with The Old, In with The New. I still talked to Sander but Rex and James were discarded. I slowly came to understand my fellow students. The black and white students just didn’t mingle. Strangely, some of the school, maybe 10 or 15% were Jewish, but they kept it well hidden.
I was volunteering with the UFW after school and my parents talked to me about it and it became a family outing. We’d get together Saturday and drive to the chosen supermarket and spread out and hand out leaflets. My family had a strange idea of family outings. Later on, when I was in High School Mom used to invite the head organizers over for a home cooked meal at least once a month. I felt the decency of my parents. If a campaign was conducted so that it helped the average person and not just the bigwigs my parents would be there. This is the case even with my Dad who started out very conservative but when his eyes opened to the day to days slowly became more liberal.
By the time the family was using political boycotts as an outing I was starting to help out with organizing. The kids who worked for Cesar were students on sabbatical from Rice and they didn’t have any Compunction about a Junior High School boy helping them. Eventually they went back to school and I organized the Westside of Los Angeles for Cesar.
I still ran, I got good grades mostly by accident (the New York school system was way ahead of the Los Angeles system), and lusted after the landlord’s wife who I acknowledged was not particularly nice and certainly not to me.
We met more of the family. On the Greek side I found out there were additional cousins to the ones back East. For the most part they were nasty though. and not particularly friendly and didn’t want anything to do with us. My Dad’s uncle sold us a car whose transmission went out after fifty miles and their reaction was “tough!” We’ll get to the Jews next time.
Out with The Old, In with The New
Bobby Kennedy had just died and I laughed. Not a loud, happy laugh but one that was stress-filled and unhappy and was a burp escaping so that I didn’t go mad from it all. Bobby was my first great political love. He was smart and he was tough and knew a thing or two about grief and loyalty and was sensitive so that he could see the terrible lives the very poor had to endure. I met him once, for a split-second and that is all it took. My family was in Brighton and my Dad heard about a Kennedy rally later that day a few blocks away. Bobby was running for Senator in New York and my Dad knew how interested I had become in politics and fairness and equality and the Vietnam War and the poor and middle class. I had already developed my dislike for the upper class and what it stood for. Bobby had the bucks of the upper class and its strength but also had compassion for the poor. He was my ideal politician – he had enough money that he didn’t have to cheat for his economic future, he couldn’t be bought off, and humble enough so that we only learned about some of his good political/economic works, like the revitalization of Bedford Stuyvesant after he died. So, my Dad and I went to the area the rally was to be held and Dad asked a police Sergeant he knew which way Bobby was going to approach. The Sergeant pointed to a direction and went to take care of a problem. Dad smiled at me and took me by the hand and we went in another direction. We got a few blocks away and a motorcade turned toward us. This was the Kennedy motorcade and I was transfixed by it blaring by. Bobby was in a convertible, getting ready to address the crowd and for a split second his exhausted eyes that had seen and felt so much pain locked with mine and a quick little smile came to his lips, like a shy little boy, and I fell in love with politics and trying to make it better. I don’t know how I could tell, really tell this was a good man, but I did.
In California during that Primary season I passed out leaflets for him and hung signs and because my ride told my Mom we would be very late, never got to the Ambassador Hotel. I listened on the radio to the returns and didn’t get to hear Bobby give his acceptance speech but went to sleep a happy camper. Dad woke me up gently during the night to tell me that there had been a serious problem and my Mom and Dad hung around the TV as Bobby clung to life. The night became dawn and my Mom ushered me to school, a numb frantic boy who needed to keep busy.
And the principal came on the P.A. and told us that Bobby had passed away and we were to go home. A boy made a crude laugh and I let out a laugh sob and the teacher, a young beautiful woman named Nora who we would never call by her name reprimanded us and the class was dismissed. I wanted to tell Nora that I really wasn’t laughing about the terrible misfortune of Bobby and for all of us but she shot me a look and I was too ashamed. Nora if you are out there please know that I carry the loss of that day even now, almost fifty years later. And I apologize, I didn’t mean it.
I’ve been writing Pulpdiddys Permutations several years now and I feel it is time for a change. The change is not because I am burnt out because of the writing but because the nasty stories which dominate our current history has caused me to shy away from writing about it. I still am a news junkie and when reading it have my peculiar take of it. The battle to stay afloat amongst the vast majority of the constituency, especially in a world in which the wonders are so great that we all can benefit, is a battle we should not have to face. What we should be doing is focusing on worldwide problems first, like Climate Change, instead of pretending they don’t exist.
Basically, the old format has been this – Monday – Sunday writing about politics or social issues or economics except for Wednesday which I reserved for Neurotic Man, and Friday, which was Thursday repeated, and Sunday which was an explanation of the purpose of the column. But I realize I’ve had it, I’m pulling a Duran. So Neurotic Man will be taking a rest and the rest of the format will remain the same.
While rare instances of man helping man remains, the rise of so much cynicism and jealousy and greed have forced me to re-examine the past, starting with my own. Where did the dreams of fairness and democracy start, and where did they all go?
I know this is simplistic but we all began somewhere and mostly it is different. While all stories can be similar, essentially, they are the same. Well, for my story it all began in the city of New York, Borough of Brooklyn, District of Brighton in the apartment of my loving family that will be re-examined for fun and maybe a few truths along the way. And if it doesn’t work out for either of us there’s always the possibility of the return of Neurotic Man.
It was lunchtime at Mark Twain Junior High School. I had a bench with Rex and Sander and James. I watched as the cliques formed, the college bound (which I found out surprisingly was half Jewish), the auto mechanics and plumbers, and the third group, with those that might drop out before this year was up. At the bell I had hurried to the food court to buy my lunch before I got hassled for my money by some of the third group. A percentage, somewhere in the teens, of the school was black. Black people did not reside in Brighton Beach so this was something new. I talked to a few of the kids and they seemed just like any other kids.
In seventh grade I was reading at a college level and the second school year I was named President of the academic society, the Athenians. I think it was an attempt at a cruel joke as the other students didn’t speak to me.
Eighth grade was a year of discovery. I discovered that I could hide my true feelings because some of the thugs at school became pals would me while I loathed them. They operated by creating fear in others and I considered that reprehensible. I also discovered that one could feel sexual desire. The landlord’s wife came to collect rent and she always dressed sexy at such times. For the first time in my life I felt a sexual attraction. I also loathed her because she gave Mom a hard time when she collected the rent. Sometimes we didn’t have it. I discovered politics. I volunteered to help Bobby Kennedy when he ran for President. I discovered how tremendous my Dad could be when he disagreed with me politically but would hear out my position. And I learned how terrible war could be, like the Vietnam War, how terrible bigotry was, and how desperate one could be when poor.
Mark Twain Junior High
It was a two bedroom in Mar Vista but I was out much of the time getting a suntan. I just couldn’t cope with all this change and got some rays. Though I didn’t realize it at the time the grubbiness of Brighton was associated with home including my place in it. I instinctively knew when to burrow when burrowing was required. There was a muddle and PS 253 was slow at sending my records and Mom argued with the school staff of their placement. The school system in Los Angeles operated on a Track system and they were considering dropping me from the top (college bound) to the middle (may be college bound but it was junior college). I was freaking out – even with the move I received straight A’s that first semester which was obviously not good enough. One of about 5 or 6 to do so yet it wasn’t good enough.
I had to be careful to not allow my disdain for the school but give me a break! Mom convinced them to give me an IQ test before they dropped me. I think the test in those days was administered over three days and after all that testing there was no more talk of dropping me a level. Mom wouldn’t tell me the score (if she knew) but after much whining and continual asking she realized I wouldn’t let go so she told me it was the highest score they ever received in that school. Mom trusted me to no let it go to my head.
She needn’t worry – I was too freaked out by all that was strange to be affected by a score. My best friend was Sander – an underachieving kid who seemed like he was on drugs half the time and was the son of one of the richest men in Mar Vista, a plumber with his own retail shop and several plumbers working for him. His older sister was Nancy, a blonde goddess of Scandinavian ancestry who treated me as a worm in her backyard.
Sander and I were always walking and laughing. My second-best friend was Rex, a Vietnamese kid with a Texas drawl and James, a backwoodsman in the middle of Los Angeles. We had one thing in common, we were the outcasts, as not in as you possibly could be.
The New York School System in its Brighton Branch was highly competitive and there were awards. I can’t imagine today such a competition in a Public School. As I stroll about today it seems like every parent has a bumper-sticker lauding the efforts of his or her charges. But in New York the awards were minimal and fought over. At the end of the sixth grade Dean and I were both awarded the General Excellence medal but I one upped him by also winning the Science Medal and Citizenship Award. It was also confirmed that the program of skipping Grades for me had been approved. That summer I stayed out till late almost every day as it was especially hot and humid and as I had also said there was something up with the parents until…
One day in the afternoon Mom and Dad got us three kids together to say we were moving to California. Dad lugged upstairs a big steamer trunk which we would fill with our possessions and ship ahead. If it was going with us it had to fit in the trunk. We were leaving in a week and the plan was our Uncle Bernie (Mom’s younger brother who evolved into a Zen Roshi) and his family would be nearby. Moving to California seemed like a terrifying thing to do.
I am embarrassed to say that in Sixth Grade after I failed to write a paper and still got an A, I started to skate. I ran a lot and played punchball. My social skills improved and I didn’t harass others as much. I socialized a bit and became more human. Somehow, all this added up to it not being a very memorable year. The replacement President didn’t seem too bad and in fact, when it came to issues of race he was pretty good.
I read the news daily and devoured history, at least one book a week. I wanted to learn more about people, especially different groups of people and spent much of my free time at the library (when It was open).
I noticed a new tension, a new dynamic in the family and I didn’t like it at all; I didn’t like it one bit. I saw my father drunk and my mother crying and strangers coming to our door and asking for money. I discovered that people used credit and had to pay for the things they had (unless it was the minority that inherited them). The home, once a strongly comforting place, was only so at certain defined hours.
When there was a changing of the world I was still a child. Precocious perhaps. With some promise, perhaps. But when there was a changing in the world that day my immature brain was incapable of processing. Many, many, years before 9-11* and the horror it introduced to us especially the poor souls lost in the carnage, there was this changing of the world. It may seem a much smaller thing, one man dying instead of many, but he was a symbol, whether right or wrong, of promise that has culminated poorly in the Donald.
Back in those days a plane full of people not desiring to be so being flown into a building because of a handful of delusional individuals had not yet happened. What we were experiencing, for the African and European, Asian and Latin and all the Ethnicity in this great land a minority who was suppressed and denigrated rising in voice that said no more! It was a sad and beautiful thing happening and today it still lives on but when I was that little boy so full of himself there was a President who could humanly feel, supposedly an easy task yet which had become surprisingly hard. It is not that the group psyche was nicer back in those days making it easier (just ask almost any black man or woman or their ancestors). Little Richie, one of the brightening potential stars in his immediate family found himself hurting as he learned about human suffering.
He was of the right tribe to do so – the Jews persecuted for thousands of years had just recently faced a madman and his supporters who prized themselves more than any other that shared the human condition. So, one day on what seemed a typical day the speaker came on and the principal told all his charges to go home early. And on that puzzling day, especially during the walk home he found men and women crying in the streets, hugging each other yet gaining no solace and he knew something had happened, something terrible that only his parents could explain.
Yes, any loss of life is a very, very sad thing and when it is by another it is a terrible thing. Loss of life of one of our brothers is another cut on our soul. But for me, ashamed as I am today after all we have been through to look at a starting point, at least for man’s new dream of Democracy and fairness, on that day we were struck a mighty blow.
Changing of the World