“What we doin’?” The 9-year-old Zachariah asks as he gets in the front seat of my Honda Civic. He confidently pulls the seat belt across his thin frame and secures the buckle. He awaits his answer. Zachariah is black. He’s got close-cropped hair with a little boy’s rat-tail – where he hasn’t allowed the hair to be trimmed in some time – it sticks out at the base of his skull. He’s wearing black jeans and some cute black Vans knock off sneakers. He’s a handsome kid. In contrast I’m a 42-year-old white guy. We are as unlikely a pair as you will find anywhere.
“I thought we’d hit the beach.”
“And then what?” He narrows his eyes, looking at me skeptically. This is our first outing together as participants in a well-known mentoring program. A program you’ve most likely seen ads for on television or perhaps on a highway billboard. We are to spend 4 to 6 hours together twice a month.
“What do you mean, and then what?”
He stares hard. He seems to be wondering if I’m messing with him. “I mean, after the beach… Is that it?”
“You serious? Only one thing?” He says, disappointed.
“Yeah, I guess that’s technically one thing.” I haven’t spent a lot of time with kids lately and this line of questioning surprises me.
“How about we do two things?” he suggests.
“Let’s see how we feel after the beach. It’ll be good I promise.”
“Please, can we do two things?”
“You’ll see, there’s more than one thing to do at the beach.”
“It would be better if we went and did something else after the beach. Like if we went two places.”
“Well, we can talk about it after the beach.” I’m ready to shut this nonsense down and maybe he senses it.
“Damn.” He looks sullenly into his lap.
We have met once before, at the administrative offices of said mentoring program, in an office building in downtown LA. This is different. We are on our own. From here on out it’s pretty much just he and I. I knew we wouldn’t be best friends right off the bat, but I didn’t expect the announcement of a trip to the beach to be met with disappointment.
So began my, now close to 2 years and counting, relationship with Zachariah.
We drive through Zachariah’s desolate neighborhood in South LA. We drive slowly up Figueroa and then onto smaller numbered streets on our way towards the freeway. The sun in Los Angeles is manic. Here, in this crappy part of town, its unblinking glare paints the streets a distinct shade of miserable. The sun showcases every discarded chicken bone and Styrofoam food container caught in the tall brown grass growing from the mouth of the storm drains. Ten miles north, in Beverly Hills, that same trademarked sun is nothing but optimism. Here it is saying there is nowhere to hide. It’s unrelenting, merciless. There it is soothing. It seduces you and talks to you of possibility. Here it is desperation.
In this part of town on a 90-degree day, you are probably best off indoors. This is where I assume most people are. Save for a few brave souls adrift somewhere on one of the sun bleached sidewalks between mini-malls – usually made up of a fried chicken place, a liquor store and a laundromat, that are strategically placed on every 10th corner or so – there is no one around.
I can’t help but think how depressed I’d be if I had to wake up and see this bleak landscape every day. Zachariah doesn’t have a choice. Nor does he complain. For him, it just is.
“You ever read books outside of school? For fun?”
He snorts, “Yeah!” Again like I am a complete idiot.
“Oh yeah? What’s your favorite?”
With no hesitation whatsoever he answers, “Dragon Ball Z.”
We arrive at the beach where I intend to rent bicycles for us. It’s Venice beach. I probably should have thought twice about coming here and chosen someplace more family friendly as there is marijuana smoke everywhere, people busking, panhandling, urban attention seekers doing magic or human beat-boxing for spare change. It’s just the usual freak scene that is Venice Beach. Zachariah however doesn’t miss a beat. He’s exhilarated and walks confidently ahead of me.
We walk along a section of the boardwalk in order to get to the bike rental place, which is off on its own, closer to the water. We pass by a group of black men trying to sell/pass-out CD’s. They are shirtless with baggy jeans hanging low over plaid boxer shorts.
One of the men nods and says, “What up, lil’ man.”
Zachariah doesn’t lose a beat; his nod back is his silent reply.
Once we are well past the men, he turns to me. “Where are we going?”
I point to the bike rental shack, perhaps 200 yards away. “Over there.”
“Are you serious? Way over there?”
“Yeah, I’m serious.” I had already paid $8 to park at some lot a couple of blocks from the boardwalk.
“We should have parked closer. I can’t believe we gotta walk that far.”
A flash of anger washes over me. It would have been physically impossible to park closer than I did. But then, just as quickly it comes to me. I remember saying the same shit when I was a kid. Kids are dumb! They don’t like to walk. They view it as a chore.
“Yeah too bad. Next time I’ll try to park closer.” I reply.
“Oh my god! This is taking FOR-EV-VER!” he whines.
At the bike rental stand, Zachariah somewhat predictably, is upset; he doesn’t want to wear a helmet. The man at the counter helps me explain that he must. Zachariah is unimpressed. I explain that no helmet, no bike ride.
This shuts him up. He chooses his bicycle, hops on it and circles the parking lot confidently.
“Hurry up!” he shouts as I survey my not very appealing bicycle options. It is the middle of the day and if there were any bikes in good working order, they aren’t here now. I choose the least offensive bike and hop on.
Zachariah wastes no time and joins the crowds of bicycles flowing slowly, painfully slowly, along the path. He pays next to no attention to the dividing line and swerves into the path of the many oncoming bicycles – he rides like he’s the Terminator driving a big rig on the wrong side of the freeway as he attempts to kill John Connor. He routinely passes people on the left. Many of the bikers aren’t very confident riders and within the space of 5 minutes he’s caused several people to crash – and those are only the ones I’ve seen. He’s a menace.
My bike is a piece of crap. I attempt to figure out which gears actually work so I can catch up, but it takes me a bit. My rear tire needs air. I am lagging behind. I’m forced to shout for him to wait up.
“Zachariah! Hold up!”
It you’ve ever been on this particular bike path, you know that pedestrians often mistakenly stroll onto it. Zachariah does his part to dispel them of this notion. A bewildered Asian couple attempts to cross. When the slim man steps onto the pavement Zachariah zags and hits him. He puts his front wheel right into the man’s thigh. The man is startled but catches Zach’s handlebars. Zach won’t put his feet down. This man is holding him upright.
“What are you doing!?” he shouts at the man, who I realize doesn’t speak English. The bewildered man lets go of the bike. Zach begins to fall and stumbles off the bike. “Watch where you are going!” he shouts as he mounts back up and keeps going.
I apologize to the man when I reach the scene. He definitely did not speak English. He smiles. The insolence of youth is universal or maybe he’s just a nice guy.
I start back up and attempt to catch Zachariah. I attempt a personal growth exercise, I forgo my laid-back sense of vanity and shout after him. “Slow down! Keep to the right! No passing on the left!” He sort of listens. Actually, he barely listens.
We take a break at the skate park. The kids and young men that hurtle their way around the pool are excellent skaters. They must practice here regularly. They are carving lines from one obstacle to the next, getting air, grinding.
I ask Zach if he can do this.
“Yeah,” he answers. He feels no need to elaborate.
We watch for a half hour. We begin back down the bike path, when he spots a “Freak Show” exhibit on the boardwalk. He is transfixed. There is a fat lady lounging on the steps and a man dressed in a kind of steam-punk carnival barker outfit out front, trying to get people to pay the admission and step in.
“We gotta go in there. We gotta go to the Freak Show.”
I’m surprised by his intense interest.
“You don’t want to go in there.” I say.
“Yes I do! I saw it on TV! It’s crazy. There was a frog with two heads!”
“It costs money. We can’t.”
“I said no.”
“Please! I’ll do anything! I have to see the frog! Don’t you get it? It had two heads! I saw it on the TV!”
I have to pull him away, physically. “It had two heads!”
Late in the day, I need a coffee to pick me up. We pull into a Starbucks and walk inside. Zachariah is bouncing around, unable to stand still as we wait in the short line. He’s fingering a bag of mixed nuts that sits on the counter; I watch carefully to be sure he doesn’t palm them. Now he’s leaning hands and face pressed against the glass pastry display case. He literally touches everything, the line dividers, anything anywhere near us. Some in the line are charmed. Others, namely a middle aged white guy, are annoyed. I can tell he is biting his tongue. I appreciate it. There is little I can do. To rein him in would be way more effort than the temporary results would be worth. I must conserve the energy for another more serious breach of good conduct, of which I am confident there will be another.
Older black women particularly, seem to melt in his presence. The familiarity with which they approach him is a new experience for me.
A large mature black woman, I would guess 45 perhaps, unremarkable in appearance gets her drink at the counter, turns and spots Zach.
“Aww, sugar. Come give momma some love!” she exclaims.
Zach is not pleased. It’s written plainly on his face and his unhappiness continues as he is enveloped by the woman’s girth. I can’t help but laugh. He doesn’t appreciate it. The woman willfully ignores his discomfort, as if it is to be expected or part of her pleasure.
“Is he your son?” She asks.
“No!” Zach shouts from within her grasp.
“No, he’s my little brother.” I explain. She lets him go but holds him within reach.
“He’s not my Dad!” Zach emphasizes.
“You a cutie! You be a good boy and behave for your big brother now, you hear?” She pinches his cheek and walks off.
“I can’t let people think you’re my Dad.”
“Okay.” I reply.
“No offense… but you white.” He explains.
“No offense taken.”
We finally reach the head of the line. I order my drink. He is indecisive; he has not even begun to think about what he wants, beyond being sure he wants something. There are many people behind us. They are not amused. I can feel their stares boring into my back. The barista, a young black man – is he a teenager? He’s close to being a teenager, early 20’s at most – is unimpressed and offers no help.
I cajole Zach. “You want chocolate?”
“You want whipped cream?”
I eventually manage to order some kind of sugar-laden atrocity. I pay and put a dollar bill in the tip jar.
“What you doin with my money!?” Zach shrieks.
He reaches to take the dollar. I grab his wrist.
“Don’t be giving away my money!” He tries harder to reach the bill. We are now wrestling in front of the tip jar. The barista finds Zach even less amusing than he previously did, if that’s even physically or mentally possible.
“It’s not your money. It’s my money and I gave it to him. It’s a tip! I gave him a little extra for giving us good service.”
“Don’t be giving away my money!” he shouts. I manage to pull him away to wait for his drink. I must hold him in place by the shoulder. Everyone is watching us. I try to explain the concept of tipping.
I summarize and after a detailed explanation I say, “It’s nice. It’s a nice thing to do. It’s a way to show you appreciate the service.”
“Nice is for suckers! Next time, you give that money to me!”
“Why would I do that? Did you give me good service?”
“I ain’t giving you no service! What am I your SLAVE?”
“Okay then…” I take a moment to let the SLAVE-bomb sink in. “How about a thank you for the drink, then?”
“I did thank you.”
“No you didn’t.”
“Yes I did.” He insists.
He crosses his arms, signaling this exchange is over. I wonder, is the fact that he thinks he thanked me, really as good as a thank you? I suppose it will have to do.