Saturday, September 27, 2008

Growin' Up in the Hood

Before there was Crenshaw there was Western Avenue. That was my original 'hood, on 36th Street a few blocks north of the corner of Western and Exposition.

I always thought our neighborhood looked pretty typical. We lived in a white house with a front porch painted a brick red color - a covered area that you could actually put chairs in and sit down. The milkman would bring milk from Adohr farms in big glass bottles and leave them on the porch in the morning; the mailman used to come twice a day -there was the morning mail and the afternoon mail. If we were expecting something and it didn't show up that morning, well, we'd hope that it would be with the afternoon delivery.

Each day mid-afternoon, the Helms Man made his appearance in his yellow and blue Helms Truck; the fish man would make his rounds once a week in his big green truck; and the watermelon man would be here now, announcing his arrival through the bullhorn attached to his pickup truck carrying a bed full of watermelons.

None of my classmates lived on my street or anywhere nearby. What few kids did live on our block were older than me. I used to hang out with Edwin Kasakawa, five years older than me and mentally retarded, who lived in a back house across the street.

Also across the street were the Tashimas and Hiramas, and next door to us were the Taninos. That formed our mini-Japanese community.

Go west on our street to Western Avenue and on the corner was the Signal gas station that later became an Enco station. Jimmy Toji owned it and he had an assistant, a young Chinese guy named Dick who was studying electrical classes at Pacific University. Edwin and I would hang around the garage when Jimmy was gone and talk to Dick. He kept telling us we weren't supposed to be there but we kept coming back anyway.

Hanging inside the gas station office/cashier area was a Schwinn Sting Ray. Enco
was giving it away in a drawing. My dad bought gas there and so every time he did so, that meant more entries into the fishbowl. Dick would also give us free cards to put into the bowl. I felt sure I was going to win that bicycle; I imagined myself riding it around with its gooseneck handlebars and the long tuck-and-roll seat. The bike was mine and it was a mere formality for the drawing to take place.

When the drawing did take place I was sorely disappointed when another lucky kid about my age happily and proudly came with his dad one day to pick it up and put it in their car. Oh, well..

One afternoon while Dick worked on a car in the garage area, Edwin and I were goofing off next to the office. I pushed him and he fell back against the window - a large window - and it shattered in its entirety. Dick ran out and we all stood there staring at pieces of glass lying all over the ground and inside the office. Talk about wishing you could turn back time..

That was my world. For the first five grades plus kindergarten I went to the elementary school that was just on the other side of Western - literally it was a block away from our house. My mom would walk me to school and when I got older, I'd walk from school to Western Avenue and my mom would be waiting for me on the other side of the street. Then we'd both proceed a block south to 36th Place, where there was a signal, and I'd cross the street and then we would walk home while I told her about my day at school. Getting a little older, I'd then walk home by myself. She told me to always walk to 36th Place and cross at the signal, which I did. For awhile..

When I visualize those days in the old 'hood, the days are sunny. They're sunny and the lawns on our street are green and spacious, and the block is lined with well-kept houses and everything is neat and clean. It's a model neighborhood.

One afternoon a car pulled into our driveway very quickly and zoomed into our backyard. Someone knocked frantically on the back door. It turned out to be a huge black woman with a very loud voice and my mom stood there explaining to her that whoever she was looking for didn't live here until finally the woman apologized and drove back out.

Shortly thereafter my dad built a green gate for the driveway that had a wheel on one end so you could push and roll it open or pull and roll it closed, like a door. You know, I still dream of being in that driveway and opening and closing the gate?

One day our teacher explained to us about America's lower, middle and upper classes in our country. She described each of them, and told us there were also the inbetween classes, the lower-middle and upper-middle. While she talked about them I debated in my mind whether our neighborhood was middle or upper-middle. Finally I decided it was more an upper-middle class than straight middle class neighborhood.

What was my basis for comparison? In my limited perspective, not much. I knew mansions meant upper class. But below the mansion level, our neighborhood looked nice; I had everything I wanted; this had to be upper-middle living as far as I was concerned.

Haha, dollar-wise we were miles from the middle class, and on the far side of the moon away from upper middle class but how would I know? I sure felt rich.

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