What's it like to come of age in a place defined by outsiders and their cliches: surf, gang turf, Hollywood, Vine, the land of milk and honey? Do our children grow up too soon? Is Southern California the great springboard to a life of opportunity? On the following pages you'll find 17 children who are moving toward adulthood. Their stories are not the stuff of headlines or extremes: young criminals, star athletes, child movie stars. Rather, we went in search of "typical" kids. We talked to teachers, parents, tutors, coaches, counselors and school officials. Scores of names tumbled out. We then asked a dozen writers to spend time with these kids, and to try to find the small slice of each one that said something about their lives in Southern California. It is, we hope, a telling collage.
Surrounded by the glow of two lava lamps and a wisp of incense smoke, Ben Brayfield slumps on a couch, making a rare weekend appearance at home. Normally by Saturday afternoon, the Santa Monica High freshman is long gone. But on this occasion he's trapped in the teenage equivalent of Dante's Inferno: Mom-and-Dad Land.
His good friend James is grounded for some sort of offense involving a doughnut, many of his other friends are out of town, and a rainstorm discourages bumming around by bus, his chief mode of transport since abandoning the Rollerblade and skateboard phases of his youth.
"The weekend is my time to escape from school and family and do my own thing," he says. "I normally leave Friday night after dinner, stay in touch with my parents by cell phone and then come home Sunday night."
Welcome to the 21st century, dude. "Some kids go to the beach or see movies in their free time. I'm like, 'Hello! We live in L.A. There's so much to do.' "
Primary activities during these leaves of absence include going to parties, hanging out with friends, performing unscripted rap songs, going to more parties and exploring different parts of the city--from Hollywood to the Slauson Super Mall. At night, he crashes at some friend's house.
How did young master Brayfield, 15, and his cohorts ever get their folks to sign off on such an arrangement? They fell back on a strategy developed eons ago by cave-teens: nagging. "If one kid's parents let them do something, then everyone whines to their parents so they can too. Plus, I'm always keeping in touch with them when I'm out, so they know where I'm at. And they know the parents of where I'm staying. There's a lot of trust."
Then it's Monday again and, well, "school is just something you've gotta do," he shrugs. On the plus side, it is a useful source of information about upcoming parties. "There's always at least one every weekend," he says. "Word spreads really fast. Then you have to figure out if it's going to be good." Most of the bashes charge some admission fee: $5 or $10 to cover deejays, special lighting or (ahem) refreshments.
Despite his professed impatience with academia, Ben maintains a 3.5 grade-point average. He's also captain of the volleyball team, but says he only tried out for the sport because "basically my parents pressured me into being in a club or something that is part of school."
The campus also has a freestyle rap music club, and Ben is big on that. The 1920s-era Santa Monica house where he lives (at least on weekdays) with his mother, April Smith (a former TV screenwriter who now writes mystery novels), father Douglas Brayfield (a former poet and composer, now a psychotherapist) and sister Emma, 9, has a musical heritage. Orchestra leader Nelson Riddle once lived here, his dad says. "Sinatra sang downstairs."
But that was then and this is now.
Dressed in a gray sweatshirt and de rigueur baggy jeans, Ben perches near his bedroom computer on a recent Friday, silver chain dangling from his neck and two small earrings glittering under a lamp. With him is James, the doughnut felon, and they are getting ready to rap. After downloading a backbeat from the Internet--heavy on the bass, please--their feet start tapping, heads start swaying and tongues start loosening:
Yo yo yo
I'm comin' straight from the underground
My [bleep] is profound
When I'm an MC
I'm just trying to be me . . . .
Ben's rap de plume is MC Optek (pronounced optic), because "I see things clearly." Names are critical. "It gives you this kind of image. You rap about what your name means . . . If you're good at it and it's from the heart, you can know what someone's about . . . It helps you communicate with people."
Ben confines his communication to earthly planes. Although he had a bar mitzvah two years ago (his mother is Jewish), that was his limit for spiritual matters. "I'm not religious," he says. Nevertheless, he does occasionally contemplate deeper things. "When I'm really bored, I'll try to think about what my purpose is."
Does he ever come up with anything?
He pauses for a second and laughs. "No."