Oma asked me, in a beautiful and simple letter, not to go down to South Central anymore.
I can’t do that, Oma.
It’s funny because for so long you and Opa wondered: “You love people, and service, so much we don’t understand why you don’t go into “volunteer work.” Well I am in the process of becoming a journalist now, and it is my “service” work.
Your letter said that I should be devoted to school, but my inner city work is part of my schooling. Besides, I’ve been close to the teens at the Weingart YMCA.
The ranch style house we live in, much less the neighborhood I grew up in, are palaces, for these teens, and becoming more so for myself as I gain deeper appreciation from my time spent on Vermont Street.
Remember, Oma, when you used to send out to the backyard with an old margarine cup (now washed out and used as a container,) filled with sugar, and two tomato halves. You showed me how to dip that tomato, coating it wonderfully unevenly into the sugar. Unfortunately I still have that craving for sugar. I thought it was a homemade candy bar. But at least you got me to eat vegetables.
I’d sit on that wooden fence with my afternoon snack, kicking my legs up and letting them swing back to hit the fence as they would fall any way. Or sometimes just let them dangle. Either way felt good.
That’s why I still need to go down to South Central. because in the midst of all the tension and poverty, somewhere in a schema of seeing others having and yourself not having; in the process of these kids learning to think beyond the present, to make future goals, even though they are aware tomorrow is a blessing if it arrives —somewhere, in this polluted adolescence, they have to find their tomato and sugar. And let their legs dangle.
I have a clearer head. I remember those days of freedom and delicious feeling, and largely because you and mom and dad took most of my cares for me. And so my legs dangled.
I’ve got a responsibility and a gut instinct I have to follow, and with this “clear head” and memory, is there something I could share — of simple freedoms, of streamlined cares, of just being, on that fence?
I already know that although I have the “clear head” —they have a clearer heart. The courage, the honesty, and the ability not to bow to fear takes a certain beauty I’m not sure they can ever cultivate within me. It is so purely felt, and so necessary. Otherwise how can you live your days.
Rosa is taking the SATs again. She told me she wants to be a doctor, and is there any way, since I go to USC, that I can “talk to someone who can get here in there?”
We’re working on her scores, after I found out that she doesn’t like to pay attention and “just fills in the bubbles.”
That’s why, Oma. I go down there to help, occasionally, but more to listen. The challenges are so different. When I grew up, I remember horrible feelings when I would rock myself to sleep, crying, because the girls in the “cool clique” would make sure I knew that they didn’t want to sit next to me on the bus during a field trip.
Cruelty is on a little different level now, and when you see the light on these kids’ faces even with the danger present, I know, I have to go share what you gave me.
Tomato halves, and sugar, and dangling legs…
November 8, 1994, after volunteering at Weingart YMCA —Monday night, TeenLead. MB, LA, USC.