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.
I was in my second year in UCI’s MFA program when Los Angeles exploded. Seemingly most of us in this high-stress program were too busy agonizing over literary prospects and the potential success of their fellow workshop writers to notice that the Rodney King Rebellion was about to explode. Suddenly we all had something real to worry about and not just lusting after Game of Thrones-like success. I remember driving home from Irvine towards fires in the distance. The rebellion continued on long enough for me to take to wearing my Malcom X baseball cap to give my light-skin ass some praying-to-the-saints protection from flying bricks or whatever else.
In my neighborhood I didn’t take my personal safety as that big an issue, though Gina did suggest that I stay home the night when it officially became a region-wide uprising. I needed to walk the dog because if I didn’t he’d get all stoic and shit and ignore me until I showed him the leash. So Buck and I went out into the night where we heard far off commotion, but I didn’t see anything alarming near us in our black working-class neighborhood that abutted the freeway. The city of Pasadena, like many cities, was brilliant at blowing up neighborhoods of color by building freeways or parking lots in our backyards or so near it felt like at any moment they might pave us over. Truth is they’d do just about anything to cut right at the economic heart of the black or brown or Asian community, just to show us that they could do some vile racist city planning.
My usual walk was in a beautiful and stately neighborhood above the Rose Bowl with Buck, my beloved genius husky. Sometimes we would have an owl follow us and alight onto a stop sign where we would sit on a bench and watch it. This time, though, I heard squealing tires down at the Rose Bowl. I stood on the edge of the hillside and I could see cars caravanning around the 3.5 mile loop. And then I heard rapid gunfire before the cars peeled off in opposite directions. Then it occurred to me that they might want to drive through this affluent neighborhood we were in and shoot it up, and maybe even my middle-class ass might look affluent enough to bust a cap at. I disappeared into a hedge and pulled Buck low, but no cars came in our direction.
As I walked back to Lincoln, I saw a black woman rolling a large engine jack into position to lower the engine out. I was surprised not because she was a woman but because she was doing it alone on a sloping street. When my dad or brother did that kind of thing, they had help on flat ground. Obviously this woman didn’t need it.
I said before I knew I would say it, “There some fools shooting up the Rose Bowl!”
She paused from her engine work and looked at me shaking her head in disgust.
“I told them fools not to be doing that. Ain’t nothing good gonna come out of that mess.”
“Oh,” I said, wanting very much to be on my way home and she could sense it.
“You better get home before it get crazier.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“God bless you,” she said.
I said thanks and started hurrying away, but before I take more than a few steps she said, “STOP!”
“You didn’t say God Bless you to me,” she said with a playful seriousness.
My mouth fell open and after an awkward moment I said, “God Bless you!”
She smiled and waved.
“Get home and be safe.”
I’m not religious but for that moment I was a devout Christian, blessed by a black woman who had more heart than I ever had in my life.
I hurried home glancing back at her.
Though I lived on Lincoln for another few years, I never saw her again
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.