Old-School Commentary: To Live and Play in L.A.
Mourning the Death of A Childhood
by Jamal Sharif
Reader, beware: If you weren't born in 1969 (give or take a few years), didn't grow up in a working-class African-American neighborhood, and have yet spit out a kid of your own, then you probably can't relate. The rantings contained within these pages are part old-school nostalgia; part socio- political commentary, part "what-the-hell-happened" ponderings. At any rate, to assist those suffering from a significant generation gap, or cultural and/or geographical differences, I've taken the time to provide a few translations for those who may encounter difficulty keeping up. For those who feel me (translation: understand me); please, be patient. Everybody 'aint knowin'. Some folks gotta ask somebody.
Okay. This all started one day last week, when I plopped down beside my nine-year-old son (who happened to be out of school on Easter Vacation) to absorb some rays (translation: watch television). I didn't mind him vegging out in front of the tube for a bit, seeing as though it was a typical, rainy spring afternoon (Note*: Yes, it does rain in Southern California). Anyway, I took it as an opportunity to do some mother-son bonding type stuff. Well, sort of. Because after three consecutive minutes of watching some idiotic cartoon, I politely asked him if we could switch to something more…well, entertaining. He then scoffed something about the 'Catdog' cartoon we happened to be watching, was one of the dopest (translation: coolest, best) around.
So, I'm thinking: Catdog? What kind of mess is that? Now, allow me to interject something-- I'm no prude. I dig (translation: enjoy) Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network and TV Land as much as the next Generation X-er. Rugrats, Hey Arnold, The Power Puff Girls, Action League Now - all cool. But Catdog? And another one, called 'Angry Beavers?' 'Ren and Stimpy?' Finally, I had to say it out loud…… "Them 'aint no CARTOONS!" (no translation required; standard ebonics)
I thought back to the "dopest" cartoon in my day - George of the Jungle. Now THAT was a real cartoon! And Wonder Woman, Felix the Cat, Yogi Bear, Rubber Band Man, Isis, Superman and all them. And Speed Racer! And his homies (translation: friends), Trixie and Chim-Chim! Whatever happened to them? Man, THOSE were real cartoons! And ya'll remember the O.G. (translation: original) television shows we watched as kids? I mean, BEFORE they ended up as reruns on Nick at Nite? Like Bewitched. 'A Family Affair,' with Buffy and Jody and Mr. French.
And what about Pippi Longstocking? Oh, don't get me started on Pippi! Pippi was a bad mamma jamma. Her pops was always out to sea, she had the whole house to herself, she could do whatever whenever, she didn't have to go to school, she had a horse, a monkey, and she wasn't scared of SHIT (translation: nothin')! Don't think I didn't usta pull my socks over my skinny little knobby knees, trying to be just like her. I'd even braid my pigtails so they would stick straight out, then skip around singing "Pippi, Pippi Longstocking, if you say it fast, it's funny…" Oh, yes I did! You couldn't tell me shit! (translation: nothin') I was the Black Pippi Longstocking, I was! And trip (loose translation: guess what): After my internal trek back down memory lane, I found out my son doesn't even know who Pippi Longstocking is! How could any real, live, authentic kid (especially any child of mine) NOT know Pippi Longstocking?? Man, did I feel a headache coming on.
But there's more. Even during the sunny, more pleasant days of my son's vacation, after finishing his chores, all he wanted to do was play with his Gameboy. Or his Sony Playstation. Or go over so and so's to play Gameboy or Playstation. To discuss strategies or swap codes or practice advanced playing techniques. Inside the house. Or inside of so and so's house. All day. All night.
Here's where I began to O.D. (translation: overdose; go beyond the point of no return) on nostalgia, big time. I'll begin by using the four awful words I swore I'd never use…… BACK IN THE DAY, twenty some odd years ago when I was nine, I'd be up every Saturday morning at the crack of dawn to finish my chores: washing dishes, folding clothes, straightening my room - so I could go OUTSIDE and PLAY. If anyone even suggested that I stay inside to watch t.v. or play video games (the only one we had was PONG, by the way), I thought I was being punished. After chores, I'd throw on a pair of floodin', high water pants, a mismatch top (got the pictures to prove it), kiss moms good-bye, and be gone. Outie (translation: gone). If moms saw me again before the streetlights came on, it was because I was wounded and in need of a Band-Aid, or I needed some Kool-Aid and/or a peanut- butter-and-jelly sandwich. Or some Tang. Because lemme tell ya, me and my childhood friends (Tanya, Denise, Adrian, Stanley, Freddie, Robert and Richard: the Twins. Note*: This is also known as a "shout out": the acknowledgement and naming of persons deemed special to a particular individual) were out having the time of our lives, being kids, engaging in misadventures of our own in the streets of Inglewood, California where we lived and played. Oh, and did we play.
Dodgeball, handball, kickball. Hide-n-go-seek, Marco Polo, Ding-Dong-Ditch, Mother May I, Truth or Dare. Tag, Freeze Tag, Red Light Green Light. We had relay races in the street. We busted (translation: performed) back flips (gymnastics) on the concrete. We played with simple shit (stuff) like Big Wheels, Kick-n-Go's, Pogo Sticks, and roller skates; the ones with the steel wheels and no stoppers. The fanciest toy around was a Lite Brite. We made club houses out of cardboard boxes, had secret hiding locations and played in the bushes. Before I took to chasing boys and trying to make them kiss me, I played all the typical girl games. I was a double-dutchin', hopscotchin', jackplayin', jump-ropin', hula- hoopin' fool. We sang "Went Downtown to see James Brown," and "Shing Shing Shing" and "'Aint Yo Momma Pretty." We would make up dance productions and put on shows for anyone who would watch. We had contests to determine who could recite 'Rapper's Delight' the fastest without running out of breath; 'cause remember: We were the first generation to bask in the artistic creation of a sound called hip-hop (translation: rap music), before it spun off and morphed (transformed) into the commercialized crap that it is today. But that's a whole other essay.
Anyhow, back then, me and the crew (neighborhood kids) would posse up (gather together) and bike ride to the playground, where we'd run, jump, slide, swing, see-saw, and merrily go 'round. On the way home, we'd stop at the corner mart to get some candy. Oh, and let me tell you right now - my kids don't know nothin' 'bout no candy (again, standard ebonics). They go bananas over some stupid thing called a Fruit Roll-Up.
Yo, we had candy! Ya'll remember? Lemon Heads, Jaw Breakers, Now and Laters, Boston Baked Beans, Jolly Ranchers, Pixie Sticks, Tootsie Rolls Pops, Rock Candy, Pop Rocks, Pez, Ring Pops, candy necklaces and bracelets and shit (translation: stuff); all readily available from the local liquor store. And what about the ice-cream truck? Don't act like ya'll 'aint never run out in the middle of the damn street, screaming for the ice-cream man. Remember standing at the truck for ten minutes, lookin' at all the pictures? Remember the decisions you had to make? A push-up or a 50/50 bar? Chilli-Fritos, or a pickle? Some salted prunes or some polly (sunflower) seeds?
Okay, so rewind (or fast forward) back to my son, as I watched him hunching over that damn (translation: damn) electronic game. I got to thinking: Do kids still play the childhood games, like we use to? What happened to wanting to go outside and play? The last time I passed a group of 10-to-11 year olds in the park, the girls were fixing each other's hair and talking about Mya's new video. The boys were standing around barking Rough Rider's Anthem (translation: rap). This scene troubled me so much that I took a trip back to the old neighborhood (translation: the hood), just to see if there were any children running around, like in the old days. I didn't see any kids, but I did see some activity. Most of it wasn't legal.
That's when it hit.
When I was nine years old and growing up in Los Angeles, there was no such thing as a drive-by shooting. No one got killed on my block in 1978; not yet, anyway. Guns weren't a part of our reality. Hell, if word got around that someone carried a switch blade, he was known as a bad muthafucka. Not one kid that I knew--or even heard of--was snatched, raped, assaulted, or murdered. Our biggest fears were drowning in the public swimming pool, getting lost inside K-Mart (and receiving the butt-whipping that was sure to follow), or ingesting a piece of poison-filled Halloween candy. Or the worst of them all - the fear that Bloody Mary really was gonna get cha if you said her name seven times in the dark, in the bathroom mirror with the door closed.
But that was back in the days when you could still do normal kid things, like trick-or-treat in the neighborhood after dark. During the time when you wore red or blue 'cause that's what your momma bought you, not because you were from Piru (Inglewood gang/Bloods) or 60's ( Rolling Sixties; notorious Los Angeles gang/Crips). Back then, nobody was catchin' a beat down (a beating; usually brutal: typically by 2 or more people) over a disagreement; or being ganked (translation: robbed) for a pair of tennis shoes. But, those were in the "B.C. days" - before crack. Before those small white rocks arrived to snap our world faster than an illegal firecracker on the Fourth of July. When that stuff slid on the scene in the early 80's, no one knew how it would alter inner-city life as we knew it. Now, almost two decades later, I'm painfully aware of how its existence has effectively robbed my offspring of a childhood.
It's Los Angeles, California, 1999. Thangs just 'aint the same. Now it's known as 'Killer Cali.' Home of car jacks and chronic sacks (potent form of marijuana). Capital of sunny days and AK's (assault rifles: AK-47's). Home of gamin', slangin', and gang bangin'. (hustling, selling rock cocaine, and engaging in senseless violence against other people; usually black). Most will tell you, it's not just about Watts or Compton anymore, stuff is bad everywhere: East side, West side, Valley, Inland Empire, it doesn't matter. It seems as there is no safe place to live, let alone, play. There are a few residential pockets to be found in some neighborhoods, where the children can roam a little more freely, but even there, it's risky business.
One simple fact remains: No one is immune from the dangers of big-city living, regardless of income or zip code. In the hood, nowadays, the ice-cream man is a front; you can buy dope AND a 50/50 bar on the street, off the truck, in broad daylight. A ghetto drama can pop off (transpire) anywhere, at any given moment - high speed car pursuits, drug deals gone bad, robberies, shootings. One of the most violent shoot-outs in Los Angeles history took place a few years back--between three white bank robber dudes and the LAPD, in the mid-to-upper class community of North Hollywood, during lunch hour, for God's sake. So, wherever one finds him or herself in this city, it's pretty good practice to be on full-stage alert at all times.
As a child in the inner-city, I was schooled on 'stranger danger.' Twenty years later, my son's childhood training consists of knowing how to duck and/or run when gunshots are heard. Some of these kids at USC (University of South Central; nickname for South Central Los Angeles), upon hearing gunshots down the block, can tell you what type of pistol is being fired: caliber, characteristics, and cost. So logically, you don't let your children wander down the block unattended, where they may be shot at, jacked (robbed), abducted, or murdered -- all of which have happened to children in the last month, in various cities in Los Angeles county.
So, perhaps I should be thankful for the electronic doo-dads with the fancy-dancy graphics; at least they help keep my son occupied, safe, and stationary. Sure, I let my kids go outside, but not out of earshot, and never for too long. We still posse up (no translation provided: do your homework) and frequent the beaches, museums, libraries, amusement parks, and cultural events to have our fun; but to me, it's not the same. It bothers me that my kids can't experience the kind of summers I had; running, jumping, and playing, roaming the avenues with pals, coming home sweaty and funky and totally exhilarated with a brown bagful of candy; making memories that will last a lifetime. That's what being a kid is all about. Not knowing how to survive in a war zone.
As for me, I'd give just about anything to be back on the old block; fighting with the Twins, trading my lemon heads for Tanya's cherry now-n-laters, or coasting down Glenway Drive fresh from the liquor store, with the neighborhood gang by my side. Of my original crew: Two have since been killed, one has committed murder and will die in the penitentiary, one attended Stanford and eventually became a doctor, one has a professional basketball career. The others moved away; I never heard from or saw them again.
That leaves me. The once-upon-a-time, thick-haired, buck-toothed, loud-talkin', boy-chasin' little girl from Inglewood, who loved double-dutchin' and Pippi Longstocking; who remembers what it was like to actually play in 'Killer Cali.'
And lived to write about it.