Friday, December 26, 2014

a tale of two neighborhoods

1. boyle heights

During one of our roughly eighteen trips to Orange County in the past week, Waze rerouted us to side streets to avoid a bottleneck on the 5. The freeway spit us out in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood I’m always excited to discover more of, because it’s Homeboy’s original home and the site of a still unfolding story about immigration, violence, community and “gentefication.”

But what greeted us at the bottom of the exit on Christmas Eve was a giant square billboard encouraging us to take out a CareCredit account for a loved one’s funeral.

“Welcome to Boyle Heights, time to plan a funeral you can’t afford,” I muttered.

The assistant/map reader is right to be skeptical.
“Where’s my next turn?” AK said, perhaps a bit bark-ily. (We saw Nightcrawler recently, which is a dark, brilliant and extremely funny movie. The scenes in which Jake Gyllenhaal’s psychopathic, ambulance-chasing “journalist” character lays into his assistant about proper navigation technique hit a little too close to home.)

I’m familiar with CareCredit; I took out an account to pay some vet bills once, and it’s only due to the grace of the cats’ generous grandpa that I haven’t had to keep it open. I’m also familiar with how expensive, sudden and sucky funeral debt is. In the year I’ve been at Homeboy, I’ve contributed between $5 and $40 for at least a half dozen funerals of trainees’ loved ones (none for trainees, thank goodness). A couple of the loved ones died violently. A few died naturally and old. One was a baby who died of SIDS. Most were “in between” deaths; when a woman in her fifties dies of cervical cancer, you imagine that avoiding violence and starvation were more on her radar than regular PAP smears. 

In G-Dog and the Homeboys, Celeste Fremon writes about how the Boyle Heights community she witnesses comes together like no other, in good times and bad. It sounds clich├ęd when I write it, like some kind of terrible slumming when in fact I mean the opposite—that I am elevated—but I really do feel like homie culture has taught me to celebrate and to rally around both the living and the dead.

2. manhattan beach

Flash forward to Christmas Day. AK and I were out for a run/walk in the bright, windy morning in Manhattan Beach, having spent the night at my dad’s house. We ran along the wood chip path that bisects Valley and Ardmore in Manhattan and Hermosa. Two summers ago I ran it almost every morning while staying with my dad when AK and I needed some time apart. I was in better physical shape (except for the part where I had cancer and didn’t know it) and terrible mental shape then. I hoped AK would come around. I thought about how much she’d like running this path, and the thought of not doing these simple things with her ever again was nearly unbearable.

Watch out for friendly, free-roaming packs of volleyball zombies.
“You’re going to see what I had to grow up with,” I said yesterday morning, warning her about the packs of blonde volleyball players and yuppies with babies that we would encounter on the wood chips.

But almost none of them were out yesterday. Just a handful of mostly middle-aged dog walkers, because dog poop does not wait for Christmas.

For the first time, I noticed that most of the benches along the trail had dedication plaques. To friends and teachers and parents, with simple and earnest dedications. Someone had placed a small wreath on one of the benches.

Maybe Manhattan Beach knew how to celebrate the living and the dead too, I thought. I felt so lucky to be here with AK, to be here at all. I told her about my 2012 runs, which would end at the end of the Hermosa Beach pier. I would look at the big moody-blue ocean and feel small and something adjacent to okay.

There were also a couple of unobtrusive dog memorials too. To Barney, who loved this place so. My best friend. He has gone on the long walk. Godspeed. ~Fred.

The long walk.
Manhattan Beach is a place where (most) people die old and can afford buy headstones for their dogs. But the guilt and resentment I’ve so often felt toward my hometown don’t hold up to moments of true universality. The trick is to let these commonalities fuel the fight for justice, not lull me into a belief that if we’re all fundamentally the same, the world must be okay as is.

Today I’m enjoying that post-Christmas, washed-clean feeling. Time to put away the gifts, clean the house, stop packing my body with food in that fucked-up way that begins as indulgence and becomes, somewhere around the fifteenth chocolate-pecan pretzel, about punishment. I want 2015 to be a year of kindness and mindfulness, in a way that still allows for tumult and raucousness—the calm ocean and the choppy one. All of which is sort of code for Now I really need to lose ten pounds, I mean it this time, I want to prevent cancer and look like a pro volleyball player. After all, I grew up in Manhattan Beach.

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