And then there is Rhonda, a 15-year-old who could pass for 18. I liked Rhonda right off, her big, open face and wide grin. She's the first person I ever saw whose eyes really did sparkle. Oh, she was fast, had a bad mouth, but underneath it all, she was a good person.
She got this strange kind of respect from people. She would see two boys riding their bicycle too late at night and demand an explanation. And they would give her one.
Sage of the Street
People like Mr. Curley, the sage of the street, took great pride in Rhonda. She made good grades in school. She was courteous. She made you feel good about young people.
But then something happened. Part of it was adolescence, and puberty and part an oppressive mixture of negative influences that seem to relish smothering the life out of anything good in Watts. Like concrete poured over grass. Some of the grass gets through, most of it dies.
Rhonda started ditching classes. She wanted me to write phony excuses for her. She didn't want her parents to know. I told her I wouldn't, that school was vital, but I relented just to get her over the hump one time. But she kept cutting classes.
Then came sex, and a boyfriend, a piece of nothing who fancied himself a dope dealer. Rhonda started talking about quitting school. I got Slick to talk to her. I'll say one thing for Slick, at least he tried to do something good this once. He told her to stay in, so she wouldn't be like him. But she didn't listen.
She ran away from home and lived with her boyfriend. She came back, but no school. Another boyfriend came along. Now she is pregnant, for the third time in nine months. Her first pregnancy ended in miscarriage, the other an abortion. Rhonda also sells a little cocaine. She thinks its cool.
'Still Not Too Late'
"We held high hopes for her," Mr. Curley said. "We thought she was going to make it out of here. It's still not too late."
There are lots of Rhondas. They idle past my house daily. Confused, misled. Like the 15-year-old virgin who asked me "How much would you charge to break me in?"
I watch beautiful young girls thrust into womanhood by ignorance, uncaring men and some warped concept of male/female relationships. They trade sex for affection, thinking it's the same thing. They have babies "for" men who won't be around when the children are born.
You watch them stumble and there's nothing you can do. You talk, but nobody listens. It hurts to see a person deteriorate before your eyes, shut off from any chance of life. You want to show them a world, a better world, that there is something much greater beyond this. But you are one, and they are so many.
And your friends, the people you work with, play with, they don't understand. You bring up Rhonda in conversation, they don't really want to hear it.
Change the Subject
"That's a shame," they say politely. And then they ask me where I am going on vacation, or we talk about concerts and the last party they went to, or the sale on Melrose or. . . . And you go home to the Rhondas.
Which gets to a problem. There are not enough men in Watts. Oh, there are plenty of males. They strut their maleness at every turn, conning their lovers out of part of their welfare check, recounting their sexual encounters in street corner wolf sessions.
But they are not men. Not like Jimmy. Jimmy lives across the street, one house up; him, his wife and five children. His oldest is 28; his youngest is 3. I like Jimmy, but more than that, I have a tremendous amount of respect for him.
Jimmy is a survivor. Whatever it takes for his family, he brings it home. He's street smart and family strong. He coaches the neighborhood youth league teams in baseball, football and basketball. He cares about something. He stands for something. He's not perfect, I'm sure. But he's there.
In my neighborhood, you need something or somebody to be there, because all around you the world is trying to tell you that you don't count. It's some of the same people who look at you strangely when you tell them you live in Watts.
Different in Watts
Life is different in Watts.
In the stores, you're not a customer so much as a body ferrying money, and the fastest way and with the least amount of effort with which they can get it from you the better. Service is almost a forgotten term. Selection is a joke. Prices are high, so those who have the least pay the most.
"Well, go somewhere else," you say. When you are without a car, as many are, it decreases your options considerably.
Liquor stores are the banks, and the department stores are the guys selling counterfeit clothes.
When the city picks up garbage, trash is often strewn everywhere. They wouldn't do that in the Wilshire District. There are empty lots filled with decay and debris. They wouldn't be there in Ladera Heights. Why me?
No restaurants, save a chicken house here, a hamburger place there, and in most of them there's no seating. Name a nearby movie house.
Never See the Beach