I was reminded of a story from my childhood as I watched the news last week. Most of early years are a vague ball of memories, a tangled mess of mixed up recollections. But we tend to remember what formed our worldview most vividly, so I rushed to get it into a post before my post 9/11 inertia kicked in again. You, know– that “Why bother”, instinct that kills the creative spark before it’s even lit the room with it’s potential.
When my brother Bill and I were kids, we had an encounter with an officer of the law. An innocent, but important encounter with As a developing human on earth in the 70’s I was forming my understanding of the natural Way Of Things from a sunny little, south-LA street called 7th Avenue. It sits at the bottom of Baldwin Hills, East of Crenshaw Boulevard. Shout out to Tommy’s Burgers.
One time when we were seven and eight, my brother and I found ourselves at the DelAmo Mall with our Mom, on a day when Mom was feeling in a mood to allow her boys some freedom, while she did the serious hunting and gathering for the family.
I was at that age where my brother’s impression of how I behaved in the adult world was meaningful in ways I couldn’t explain or understand back then. Only problem was, Bill was so much his own person, and more likely to be followed by other kids, than to follow me. I’m not going to say he exactly looked up to me, but there was an energy in our home that I read as “watch out for that one, keep an eye on him for me.” So I looked at like:” I’m a sentinel!” The grown men were absent, and even with my grandmother filling in, I could feel some invisible
Accept for the many times when I wasn’t.
Still, I kind of liked feeling a bit like man on a mission. It was good for me. There was nothing that could get me into active engagement in the world more than a “cause”, back then. Kids seem to like to have something to go after. A sense of mission — Something that holds importance beyond the everyday expectations. Some windmill to tilt at happily as we grow into our own sense of our real identity, and start figuring out who we are.
So, one afternoon my Mom took us with her on an errand run at the local Mall. She gave us a half hour of “Boys Time” while she shopped. Mom said to meet her under the big mall clock, and off she went. It was just me and Billy, as we called him back then.
The mall crowd hadn’t arrived in force yet, which gave us courage to have a little fun in this big glass playground. .
We quickly got ourselves oriented and found the ice cream shack. Sugar high, here we come!
And had ourselves an independent look around the plaza. There was a shop who’s name I can’t remember, where you could find action figures and models, miniature and model kits.
used to have a thing for model trains and cars. The window promised delights untold, and we wandered in with our mouths hanging open.
We were just losing ourselves in the pleasures of browsing shelves of goods, when I heard a grownup voice telling me to put down the train…
“Guess you thought no one was watching, eh?”
I jumped a little, and stood there with a toy in my hand, still reaching for the shelf , where I had been about to place it. Turning to my saw a surly, macho -mustache fellow in a suit, who identified himself as Johnny Law. A mall cop.
My face assumed the shape of total confusion.
Then he dropped the bomb. ” Thought you might have a shot at some free models, I bet.” Well, let’s put it back, before we get in hot water,”
Maybe he’s a whack job? I thought. My brain couldn’t make sense of anything. My slink away instincts were kicking in fast.
He had me fixed in his sights, though. And, there he wore the look I’d grown familiar with whenever we were out of our own neighborhood.
You will never amount to anything,” look I’d seen people give me before. It’s a look that says, I am in charge of protecting the world FROM YOU, kid.
Now, unknown to the Lawman, I was more of a people-pleaser youngster, owing to my middle kid status in the family of five, and a strong desire to see my Dad again. He had left us. He had hurt us, then vanished from life. In my mind, the key to bringing Pops back was being a “Good enough Boy”. I was not a swaggering alpha male kid. More like some wandering philosopher from another country, I bumped into stuff and apologized. Kids on my block would have lost their minds in laughter at the idea of me doing anything foul enough to draw attention of any kind..
I finished putting the train car back, as my face grew hot. Thank goodness my brother was too busy in his own world to be aware that this was happening.
Look, today’s your lucky day. Since I haven’t seen you around before, you get to go on your way.
It wasn’t my first crushing defeat to self image. Other kids had provide plenty of those already. There was a clear expectation of some wrongdoing on my part that never occurred.
That day, I understood the look on my Mom’s face whenever we had to talk to police. A traffic stop could have us all shaking in our Keds, because Mom would make everyone shut up, and act like angels in the back seat.
From that moment in the hobby store, I always felt observed. Watched by unseen eyes. Eyes that accuse. Eyes that assume.
As cute a charmer as I was then, I’m sure Officer Mustache forgot about my little brown hide forever, but I got to ruminate and fret for years thinking about what we could have done, or seemed to have done, to warrant Joe Friday’s awful B-Grade Movie suspicion?
Once we got clear of the store, I told Billy what happened. My brother’s reaction was exactly what any one of our friends would have done:
He laughed till his gut hurt. He stoked the humor by repeating things the cop had said to me, like it was a crazy guy who could have been ranting at anyone. This got me trying to imagine myself in handcuffs, being put in a squad car, like in “Adam 12”. Man! I can’t recall Billy’s exact words, but they sure did the trick.
This was Bill’s secret powers at work even at six! Just by giving me his take on whatever I just told him, my brother could make me forget the moment and die laughing at pure absurdity. He found a way to reframe the whole experience so that it seemed silly to blame myself for what happened. It was good to take the authority away from that authority figure for a hyper-sensitive type like my young self.
Feeling like we had adventured enough, we made our way to meet our Mom under the big mall clock.
As great as it was to get some unsupervised time in the consumer playground, I realized how that same freedom to roam came with uncertainty, with some measure of risk. I found that I liked that.
Kid’s of the 70s knew next to nothing of the world. Before internet access came to the national household, kids had to leave the safety of their parent’s wings and encounter the world directly, for better or worse. All I had been told form TV was that I, a black boy, was to be pitied or feared, or saved from squalor by my “betters”. 70’s and 80’s TV wasn’t today’s brand of storytelling. It’s Dramas and Comedies had a lot right about the spirit of the times but they spoke loudly to Black boys with a unified voice. Despite what you may have heard, Rap culture came as a response to the giant myth-making machine that was Media, not as a participant in the media’s myth-making. I was one shy, unsure kid who learned to walk tall despite the weight of the Myth upon my shoulders because Hip-Hop gave me a way forward, a counterweight to the overwhelming feeling of helplessness and fatalism we all had on us through the 80’s. Because even the spirit of Bluff and Bravado can sometimes be a bridge to self realization.
That’s where it heaped to be a book nerd. Bill and I depended on the written word, and the voice of the author for our view of ourselves and the wider world. National Geographic showed me the soul of our planet, a view of Us from a thousand feet up. Where everyone looked equally precious and fascinating. The history of who we were, and how we could possibly, with luck, maximize our own potential. I learned how to see our predicament in light of a bigger picture of our world. We both found the answer to my big question after the Mall Cop incident: What put these ideas into grown-up’s heads anyway?
I had thought that the scariest lesson I’d learned was that logic and reason weren’t running the show for those who were in control. Emotion had a big part to play in how I would be perceived by the outside world. Oh, Joy, one more thing to worry about getting in the way of my animation dreams for my future. I had this calling, and there was no way any false impressions of what the average Joe thought I was as a person were gonna stop me from answering that calling.
I’d have to figure out ways to deal with that as I grew up. But the scariest part was how that knowledge was already changing me. How it must have changed my Mother, whenever she realized the way of things outside the nest of childhood.
More to come.