AUGUST 7, 2021
I wanted to write a memoir but the connective tissue of the memoir didn’t interest me. I wanted to render memories that would pop up like mushrooms and quickly vanish. I owe much to where I was raised, in a black neighborhood where people talked to each other and spent time on the porch and on the corner, as did my brothers and their friends as they smoked weed, drank Mickey Big Mouths and Heinekens, and talked all the time about the insanity of Vietnam, nuclear war, and H.P. Lovecraft, and from there they’d segue into the adventures of the many memorable characters in the neighborhood. I tried to do that here. A new installment will appear here every Saturday this and next month.
When I think of the struggle to stop the police from shooting us down in the streets, I think of Huey and the Panthers and the Festival in Black. I think of Dashikis and huge Angela Davis-sized Afros. I also remember how I benefited from it: in the summer of 1975 I had a great summer job at Anti-Self Destruction, a community organization on Washington Blvd. that became a recipient of generous government funding. We all kind of suspected that it was an attempt to stop next year’s riot from being next week’s riot, so money was flowing into the hood. I got the gig of filling up five-gallon Sparkletts bottles with a paper cup. I loved that job. $500 for a summer of kicking it with my boys Earl and Dennis, my girl Doris and her skinny legs, and her sister Carla. They really didn’t have much for us to do, though; we were supposed to be working, but mostly we read and played chess. The guys that ran the program were cool — Ollie, Fred, and another guy I forgot. Then there was Lorenzo, nice guy who smoked way too much weed. Dead giveaway was the big-ass Rasta cap that he wore, which concealed his crazy uncombed Afro that yearned to be plated into dreads. Mostly he’d just nod at us and say my name as though it amused him to get it wrong almost every time. I’d be jerkerlon and Garvy or gravy. It was cool because it was impossible to be mad at Lorenzo. He was so laid back he could have been a couch.
I think his job was to help us navigate interpersonal relationships and blossoming sexuality. He got us to sit down on the raggedy couch and began to explain how to get along with the opposite sex. He was frank and to the point and we all were all ears.
“Ya’ll need to understand some things. The world ain’t like you want it to be. The world is what it is. And you know the truth is if you find a dumb bitch you need to fuck her.”
So I’m sitting next to my girlfriend who’s going to be a French translator, and Earl is sitting next to her sister who’s going be a pharmacist. It’s awkward. Lorenzo notices and gives a big grin.
“Ya’ll don’t be taking this like that. It’s just a way of saying if you stupid you gonna get dogged.”
We were relieved. Everybody liked Lorenzo, even if he’d say idiotic things from time to time.
He changed the topic to personal hygiene, “You motherfuckers need to be bathing and shit.” Anti-Self Destruction must have had a lock on that government funding, funding designed to keep us from rioting, so it was a good investment. We had free lunches, sandwiches, and chips and off-brand sodas and free coverless paperbacks, mostly science fiction.
It was the good life. But then Ollie, the former Black Panther, cool-ass Ollie, who had to walk a gauntlet and get beat to leave the Panthers, made me think that I wasn’t living the life I needed to live. Deep down inside Ollie is the guy I thought I needed to grow up to be serious. He’d rock a lime green jumpsuit and a Teddy Pendergrass beard. He was straight serious all the time, but he had affection for us, the self-indulgent next generation without strong political feelings. Got me to thinking that maybe I was inherently silly and should be considering doing something more meaningful than panting after Doris and reading Roger Zelazny and Dhalgren (actually I just tirelessly flipped through it looking for the blow job scene). So I walked to Ollie’s office in the spacious chaos of ASD. He was working hard going through a stack of paperwork.
He finally noticed me.
“What do you want Jervey?”
I must have looked silly to him with my flying saucer t-shirt and bell-bottom jeans, sporting an extra unkempt fro.
“Um, ah, you always talking about being serious and how we need to be revolutionary, but I don’t really do any of that. What can I do to help the people.”
Ollie looked at me with such seriousness that I felt myself wanting to bail out of his office.
Finally he sighed. “Jervey, just stay your weird-ass self and keep hanging with your weird-ass freaky friends. That’s how you can help our people.”
At first I was confused, even hurt, but then he smiled and said, “Just live your life. You and your friends … just stay your weird-ass selves.”
Ollie had lifted a weight off my shoulders. I grinned and got out of there and took to heart what he said and I’ve tried to stay true to my weird-ass self.
Jervey Tervalon was born in New Orleans and raised in Los Angeles, and got his MFA in Creative Writing from UC Irvine. He is the author of six books, including Understanding This, for which he won the Quality Paper Book Club’s New Voices Award. Currently he is the Executive Director of “Literature for Life,” an educational advocacy organization, and Creative Director of The Pasadena LitFest. His latest novel is Monster’s Chef.