Monday, January 17, 2011

Last Chance at Normal

The guard at County Jail is bemused and bewildered by my presence. It is not often he sees an eight-and-a-half-month pregnant white woman dressed in exuberant Sunday Best coming to collect an inmate. After I make the startling admission (in a British accent, no less) that I am married to the inmate in question, I waddle over to the red, molded-plastic bench, which rises in a smooth curve from floor to wall (presumably to prevent prisoners' wives and mothers from throwing furniture should they feel inclined to start a riot). I lower myself next to the only other occupant of the bench, an older señora who is bowed over her feet, sniffing.

Buenas tardes,” I say politely. She responds without raising her head. I lean back against the wall and close my eyes, instinctively resting my hand on the ledge of my belly. Since the baby turned I can feel a hard heel thrusting against my ribs like a swimmer waiting to push off from the side of the pool. Don't come yet little boy, I pray. County jail would not look good on the birth certificate.

“He tried to kill me with a knife.”
I jerk open my eyes. The señora has turned her face towards me.
“He was high on PCP. My son,” she explains as I frown in confusion. “He's twenty. He was prendido and he tried to kill me. Then he took off all his clothes and jumped through the window,” she adds, turning back to her feet.
Ay, que si,” I acknowledge, closing my eyes again and thinking of my own life in the past fourteen months, “Increible, verdad?”

“Franco. Francisco Franco!” calls a male voice. So he gave his real name this time. He has a criminal record under his nickname, Pancho, as well as his street name, Frank. His family uses his middle name, Javier, because that's the only identity that's never been arrested. I lever myself to my feet and waddle back to the window. Stamping some papers, the guard twitches his moustache in a smile. “I'm letting him out first,” he says, glancing down at the mound that separates me from the counter. It is definitely a ‘you're-one-of-us’ smile, coupled with a ‘what-the-hell-are-you-doing-with-that-scum?’ raised eyebrow.

Suddenly there is a clanking and the wall slides back to reveal what appears to be the empty stage of an opera house. A line of men stand shackled together at the wrists, bright lights glinting off their chains and reflecting in the shiny floor. From the dark reaches of the high ceilinged area, more clanking and a line of female prisoners, also chained, makes its way across stage. At any moment I expect the two lines to converge in a choreographed chorus. Instead, one of the women lifts her shirt and flashes her boobs as she passes the men. There is cheering and whistling, and in the middle of the commotion, the familiar thick black hair and moustache of my husband crossing the footlights and walking quickly into the waiting area. He looks from side to side, as if expecting a huge hand to reach out and grab him at any second, and then focuses on me with a delighted grin:

“Reyna! You are the persona mas de aquellas that I know. You're aw-right!” He grabs my elbow and hustles me out of the jail, still smiling and shaking his head. When we get outside he says, “There must have been fifty people ahead of me! They let me out because of you, La Reyna de Inglaterra!” He chuckles gleefully. “You're firme, man!”

Once I have maneuvered my bulge under the steering wheel, and we've negotiated our way through the rush-hour traffic on Cesar Chavez, I am able to get a better look at him. He has a three-day growth of beard, and now that the initial exhilaration is wearing off, he looks thin and haggard. His case was dismissed and the only thing on his mind at this point will be to ‘get well.’ Three days into withdrawal and stranded downtown. As my day in the office had drawn to a close, I pondered the inevitable outcome of his release. Despite my intentions to get on with my life, I found myself thinking that if he could only get past the fourth and worst day maybe he could really kick this time. If only I could only get him back to his father's house maybe he would be clean in time for the birth. Do this like normal couples. Have a father for my son.

That's how I find myself on the freeway to Bell Gardens with a recently released pinto who is rubbing his arms to keep warm and dropping hints about being hungry. We stop off at McDonald's but half way through his burger he starts looking around for an exit, a sure prelude to trouble.


Oye, Luisa! Pull in here, mija!” He thrusts his arm in front of my face, pointing to the mercardo close to his dad's house. “I need to speak to my friend.”
Hanging out the window, he whistles to a scruffy-looking guy who is circling the deserted parking lot on his bike: “Quióboles, brudder!”
“Órale, carnal! I thought you were torcido, man.”
Nel. My heyna sprung me!”
They both laugh and the guy gives me an appraising look through the open window before they break into rapid-fire caló (slang) making it impossible for me to follow.
Andele. I'll meet you outside my cantón,” says Pancho wrapping up the exchange.
“Al rato,” says the guy over his shoulder, giving me another leer through the windshield.
“What was all that about?” I ask.
“We're going into the Alcance Victoria program together. There's a home where I can kick.”


Jefe, or ‘boss,’ as Pancho calls his father, is pleased to see us in his quiet, contained way. After offering us un chanate (not that Pancho appears in need of caffeine), we sit in the small living room, arranged on three sides around the blank TV screen. If it weren't for Pancho poised on the edge of his chair and the stiff conversation, you might think that this is a normal family visit of a son, daughter-in-law and soon-to-be-delivered grandson. Only there has been nothing normal about my life for quite some time. Without a word, Pancho springs up and into the bathroom. Jefe and I exchange looks. This is where Pancho's stepmother keeps the syringes for her diabetes. The toilet flushes. Pancho streaks into the bedroom where there's a telephone.

“I'm calling el programa,” he shouts. There is another conversation peppered with 'carnal's, and as Jefe goes to investigate, Pancho races past him and out the back door. “I'm going to get some chicle,” he calls over his shoulder.

Chewing gum? Does he think I still fall for all this rubbish? Jefe and I collide at the door as we make our way after him. Jefe stops at the end of the house, holding the wall, doubled over by his smoker's cough, I continue on into the alley, cursing my office shoes and swollen ankles, one hand braced underneath my belly. Enough with Pancho's lies! I'm determined to bust him this time. As I hobble round the corner, I spot Pancho coming out of a house and stuffing something into his jacket pocket.

“You're not going into a program, you just wanted to score!”
“Of course I want to get down,” he says angrily and then looks away, his anger turning to dejection. “Reyna,” he groans, “no te aguites, mija; don't be mad. I did call the connection, yes, but first I had to go get the feria.”
He pulls open his pocket and withdraws a bunch of one-dollar bills.
“The guy who lives here owed me money.” His voice trails off into a sigh. “Ahorita ya! ‘I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.’ Take me to the program. I'm ready to do this for us.”
He waits until I hestitantly point my bulk towards Jefe’s house.
“I just have to pick up mi licensia,” he says quickly, “I left it with the connection.”

I am used to this arrangement. Eye glasses and ID cards left with the drug dealer as collateral against future payment. I wonder if the social service agencies have ever figured out why their clients lose so many pairs of spectacles. We walk to the furthest end of the alley, Pancho with his stiff Charlie Chaplin gait and me like a ship at sea rolling behind. Hallelujahs emanate from the Good Shepherd church on the corner (Pancho would have gold status if they awarded customer loyalty points for their rehab program), but Pancho dives into the house next to it. I wait in the gathering dusk, listening to the a cappella chorus floating on the air like a love song, “Bendito sea, bendito y alabado sea, bendito sea…” until Pancho at last returns, triumphantly waving his license.


The Alcance Victoria house is in a part of Bell Gardens I have never visited before, dominated by a large green. Parking the car by the expanse of black grass, I become aware of garish lights and the sound of revelry coming from behind the dark trees. “Carnaval,” says Pancho, following the direction of my eyes, then hurries across the street to a lit-up house, its interior rendered shockingly naked by open curtains and windows. When I catch up with him, Pancho is straddling the living room windowsill.

“Francisco!” I hiss, but I can already see that despite being flooded with light, the place is deserted.
“I think I hear someone in here,” he says, disappearing into a back room.

I wait nervously outside the bank of windows until he comes back into the living room, readjusting his jacket.

“Did you steal something from in there?” I demand, incredulous at the speed and nonchalance with which he negotiated someone else's house.
“No!” he retorts indignantly, climbing back through the window. “Chale, mija, there's no one there.”

On the way back to the car, he hands me a scrap of paper with an address etched in heavy pencil. It is for another program, another home where he can kick he tells me, but first he has to use the restroom.

We trudge across the grass towards the lights of the carnival. Cinco de Mayo, of course! Everyone will be there, eating pork rind chicarones and elotes – white corn slavered with butter and mayonnaise, dusted with cheese and chile. Families: children on fathers' shoulders, mothers with arms wrapped around husbands' waists; happy, complete families. And then there's us, making our way towards the public restrooms that hunch outside the circle of light and laughter. The grill of the men's side is chained half-closed but there's still space enough for a non-pregnant person to crawl through. In the gloom, I see a kid filling a water balloon at the sink.

“I've messed my pants,” floats Pancho's voice from the stalls. “I'll be a while.”
Heroin has that effect – vomiting, diarrhea – but only when you first use. I wait until the kid leaves.
“Liar!” I shout between the bars, “You're shooting up!”
I want to go in and throw open the stall door, to reveal him in all his deception and iniquity, but there is no way I can squeeze my belly past the grill.
“You want me to show you?” his voice demands.

I turn away. The stench is so bad perhaps he is telling the truth. Then I hear a quiet cough on the other side of the wall. Creeping back to the grill, I see his figure crouched in the shadows, one arm extended into the flickering colored light from the doorway, a needle pushed into his vein.

I hear voices. A woman and a little girl clutching a balloon walk towards me, backlit by the carnival. “The other side!” I wave them away, not caring what they think about this exotic creature resembling a hippo dressed for a church social and gesticulating wildly. They change direction, twisting their heads to stare at me.

“Liar!” I spit back through the grill and fling the slip of paper through the opening. “No me chingues, Pancho! Don’t fuck with me!” I march off as best I can, hampered as I am by heels and bearing our progeny.

“Luisa!” comes the muffled shout, and a few minutes later the sound of running. “You don't have to call me a liar,” he remonstrates from behind. “Did you see a needle in my arm, mija?” he pleads, catching up, “Did you actually see a needle!”
I stop and allow him to come level with me.
“Yes, Francisco, as a matter of fact I did!” and then stalk off in an ungainly fashion towards the car.

His face appears at the window as I am locking my door.
“Reyna, ay! Wait!” His hands grip the roof, his face contorted in pain. “I'm sorry, Reyna, I'm so sorry. It's not me, it's the addiction!”
I wind down the window half way, and he tries to squeeze his arms and head through.
“You're a tecato, Francisco, and always will be!” I slap off the hands that are attempting to massage my shoulders and wind up the window again.
“I know I messed up,” comes his muffled voice, “but I'm going to stay in this home right now.”
I start the engine.
“I would have told you about shooting up. This is just one page, let's turn it.”
I put the car into drive.
“I know I had a golden opportunity and messed up the nice tardecita today.” He is crying now. “It's just, it's been twelve years.”
Through the smeary pane, I study the drawn and shabby man who is my husband.
“No one's ever touched me like you,” he mouths, hands and face pressing white against the window. “You found me, Reyna. Don't let me go away,” his hands slipping and falling as I drive off, his voice fading. “Get me before I go away.”

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A White Person's Experience of Racism (because who else's experience counts?)

“Today we are going to discuss cultural diversity,” says the parent trainer, hitching his pants against his crotch. Elvira gets the impression he is nervous. Meanwhile, Moira is rubbing her shoulder, wondering if the baby-sling is doing permanent damage to her shoulder muscles.

“Racism is a system where the white people hold all the power and privilege,” says the trainer. Elvira nods, but is confused. Didn’t he just describe the United States? Is he saying that’s wrong or that’s just how it is. She decides on the latter.

“I am SO tired of feeling guilty about privilege,” says Moira, crossing her legs under her on the chair. Two children later and she still has a body that looks good in tight yoga pants, and a chic bob that brushes against the fine bones of her chin. Elvira is wearing stretch pants that look like they’re being modeled by the Michelin man and her hair is dyed a lurid shade of magenta. Somehow that didn’t matter when she was making breakfast for her children this morning, but suddenly she feels the opposite of confident mother and neighborhood aunt. She should have remembered that these white people always look like they stepped from a magazine. Twenty years in Los Angeles and she still wouldn’t know where to buy their kind of clothes. Perhaps the stores are in the shopping malls Elvira is too intimidated to visit. Her children don’t have the same problem, spending all their money on movies and hot dogs and music that would frighten the devil, but they have never brought her back anything from their Saturday trips to the mall. She doesn’t mind really – the clothes don’t come in her shape anyway.

“I feel like I need to apologize for being born white,” says another participant, arrested for a moment in her consumption of a rice cake. She unscrews the cap of her metal canteen and gulps some water. “It’s not like I asked to be born with privilege and power.” Other participants nod in agreement. Elvira wants to say something, only she’s not sure what. It feels like she is holding onto some information that’s an important part of this discussion, but it takes too long for her to formulate the idea and by the time she’s practiced it in her head in English, the conversation has moved on.

“The thing is,” says the white woman sitting next to Moira, “just because you see the outside doesn’t mean you know my story. I may have been born with privilege, but I had a totally screwed up childhood.” The women around her and the trainer pull a sympathetic face. Elvira thinks about her childhood. Lots of noise, lots of laughter, but not a lot of time for her feelings on any matter, let alone her right to exist, to have an opinion. Some things don’t change. Except the laughter. These white people take themselves much too seriously.

“And when I try to get my child in the car seat,” sobs one of the participants, “I have to struggle with not getting angry and forcing her.” There is a suitably appalled silence. “I want so much to respect her needs and feelings, you know, her right to take up space, but it’s so HARD!”

As usual, the parent training has turned into someone’s private therapy session. Getting your kid into the car seat? Is that all you’ve got to be worried about, thinks Elvira. I wish I had your life.

(Photo by Gerard Castaneda)