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.
At first I was excited to move to the Wonder Bread World of UC Santa Barbara. I was excited to leave LA but arriving at San Nicholas dorm killed all that. At first I largely ignored the beauty of the campus as I was unnerved by being one of the few black people in my dorm and seemingly on campus, though I did discover there were black people to be found. But first I had to go through being a stranger in a strange land. Slowly I explored my new world. I was a little intimidated by the Lagoon trail that abutted my dorm and that I seemed to only walk at dusk or in the dark. It just seemed like a good place to come to a bloody end, like in some slasher films that I couldn’t stop watching. And I couldn’t stop walking the trail.
Then my unease became poetic. It seemed clever for me to call the campus the Wonder Bread World in a poem I wrote for Robyn Bell’s poetry workshop. It was my clever expression for life amongst the white people that left me so unnerved. I didn’t think they were devils or anything preposterous as that, I just didn’t understand how to be there, or how I was going to be. The white people on my floor treated me like everyone else and I fit in more or less, and I’m still friends with some of the folks on my floor from so long ago. But there were moments that made me wonder what I was doing there.
This Canadian woman with a bowl cut said to me and my friend Paul, whom she was dating, that all men were rapists. I was offended, because not only was I extremely opposed to rape but I was still technically a virgin. I remember what Uriah, my out-there roommate, said to me years later: “I would never consider rape. It exposes the most delicate parts of your anatomy to the potential of physical violence.”
Then there was this one seemingly self-loathing black dude who appeared to have an erotic masochistic thing with the white fraternity he pledged into. I saw him physically humiliated by his frat-brothers-white-boys at a public Greek show. They pushed him around and he seemed to happily take it to the point that it was impossible to watch without feeling implicated in some kind of psychosexual cruelty that I didn’t want to be a witness to.
Later, I attended a BSU meeting thinking I needed some backup in this paradise on the ocean. At the first meeting things got out of hand. Two guys started arguing about something I didn’t understand and the bigger one walked over to the smaller one and slapped him like he meant to knock the guy out. The BSU at UCSB had accomplished much for black empowerment, but at that moment, I thought I’d be overmatched by the intensity of the meetings.
I discovered Skip Perry’s Pizza, Asteroids, and weed. I just wanted to chill but there was more awkwardness for me to experience among the white people. On the lawn in front of the dorms near to the ocean were these white girls, mostly blondes tanning themselves in bikinis. In LA, the neighborhood black girls wore bikinis, but they were modest about it and wrapped towels around their waists or wore cut-off Levis. They were crazy sexy, but they didn’t lie in the sun, roasting.
So, the sight of tanning white girls lying about the campus any time it was sunny seemed to my uninformed mind that they were cool with me looking at them. So I walked by staring at these white girls I had never seen before but on television.
And like kicking a hornet’s nest, almost all the women were onto me, the overweight lech with the big afro. And, even if I can be slow on the uptake, their angry expressions told me everything I needed to know. Busted as the lech I was, I vanished like an apparition never to plague sunbathers again.
Slowly I was learning how to live and survive at UCSB as I learned the ins and outs of a culture I was so unfamiliar with, as if I had been transported to another world. And I had been.
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.