Racing away from racism

Mrs. Heller’s 5th-grade class at Conestoga Township Elementary Sch. 1963
Can you tell which one is me? See any colored people?

I grew up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. At the time, nearly 100% of Lancaster County’s population was white Caucasian. My mother and father were both of English extraction. All my classmates in elementary school and high school were white. The only non-Caucasians I saw were Puerto Rican farmworkers and the very rare black.

My parents, however, were liberals who preached and practiced racial equality, and were passionately opposed to any form of discrimination. They donated our family station wagon to the civil rights movement in the early 1960s. One day as Mom was driving me home along a country road, I told her a Pollack joke I’d heard at school. She made me get out of the car and walk home. It was a two-mile walk, which made quite on impression, especially on my feet.

In spite of this family background, when I moved to Los Angeles in 1980, I carried a lot of prejudices, both conscious and unconscious. I saw brown-skinned immigrants everywhere, and I felt uncomfortable. Where were all the white people?

I found work teaching English as a Second Language to immigrants, and by exposure and  gradual attrition — especially by tasting international foods that my students brought to class — I started to enjoy racial and international diversity. I married a Chinese woman and befriended people of all colors and ethnicities, especially after going to work for the Los Angeles Unified School District teaching English to immigrants in L.A.’s inner city.

In 1987, my wife and I bought our first house in Mission Hills, California, an L.A. suburb in the northeastern corner of the San Fernando Valley. At that time, Mission Hills was mostly white, but L.A.’s ethnic makeup was quickly evolving, and the white population of Mission Hills seemed rather nervous. I witnessed several incidents of racial tension close-up. I saw a black couple get overt hate stares from white guys in a supermarket parking lot. Waiting for a red light, I saw the driver of a car full of young white guys toss a lit cigarette onto the hood of a car full of blacks. Walking along one street, my Chinese wife and I were accosted by a group of white men who asked us if we were tourists. A white neighbor told me that if his daughter started dating a Mexican boy, he would go after him with a baseball bat. Another neighbor who worked in the restaurant business told me Mexicans were dirty and lazy. This did not conform with my experience of the Latino immigrants in my classes, most of whom got up before dawn to catch the bus for an hour-long ride to work, eight or ten hours cleaning houses or washing dishes in restaurants, after which they rode the bus again to adult school, where they studied English for three hours, finally arriving home for perhaps six hours of sleep before getting up and doing it all over again. Not one of them was dirty. Not one of them smelled bad. Not one of them would I call lazy. Exhausted, yes. Lazy, no.

Even my wife’s mother, an immigrant from China, said in her broken English that Mexicans were dirty and lazy. (She spent a lot of time with our neighbor’s wife, so that could have been a factor.)  Then I invited the immigrant students from my night class to a party at our house. The mostly Mexican and Central American students came to our door with mountains of food — carne asada, tortillas, salads, rice, beans, salsa and guacamole — which they prepared and served us with great enthusiasm. The food was delicious, and afterwards the students cleaned up, leaving our kitchen and barbecue grill cleaner than it had been when they arrived. My mother-in-law commented, “Mexicans not so lazy. Very clean.”

Subsequently, when Mama became very ill in the final stages of cancer, we hired a Guatemalan woman named Nidia to take care of her. Mama loved Nidia so much that she invited Nidia’s entire family to celebrate her last birthday with her.

After Obama was elected President in 2008, I got a Facebook “friend invite” from a former neighbor and elementary school classmate in Lancaster County. (Let’s call this guy “Paul.”) Paul and I became Facebook friends, and I started to see the comments he and his friends were making on Facebook. Half of the comments, posts and memes, it seemed, were about Obama and Muslims, and Obama being Muslim, and isn’t Obama a piece of shit, and wouldn’t it be fun to kill us some Muslims. I tried educating Paul and his patriotic Christian friends about my experiences with Muslims in my classes, all of whom were very kind, good, honest, hard-working, loving people. Paul and his friends were not interested. Muslims aren’t Christians, they said; “Muslims are terrorists, and our president is one of them.” I finally “unfollowed” Paul on Facebook. I couldn’t take any more hatred and stupidity.

Paul and his friends, and millions of like-minded Americans voted in 2016, and gave us a president who campaigned on a platform of bigotry, hatred and willful ignorance. “Make America Great Again” seems to me like an effort to turn back history’s clock, to take us back to a time before Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Voting Rights Act, a time before most of our nation woke up to the fact that people of all colors, religions and ethnicities have much to offer. I believe many of the people who voted for Trump are like those nervous whites in Mission Hills, and like my mother-in-law before all those immigrant Latinos came to our house to feed us and clean up afterwards. I believe I might have voted for Trump myself if I had not moved to Los Angeles and married a Chinese woman and fallen in love with the vibrant diversity of this world’s people and their foods.

With students, celebrating by birthday at West Valley Occupational Center in 2013

 

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Posted in Autobiographical, Political, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

New Shows About Zombies (Satire)

From AMC’s “The Walking Dead”

AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and HBO’s “Game of Thrones” have inspired a host of imitators, spin-offs and sequels. Here are a few:

Dancing With The Dead (ABC)

Living contestants are paired with zombie partners. The living dancers have to master turns, spins, and dips with barely ambulatory “walkers,” all the while avoiding their partners’ gnashing teeth.

The Walking Shit (FX)

The zombies, instead of being full of blood, are full of shit. They are basically walking sacks of shit, and when our heroes hit them on the head, their faces get splattered with shit.

The Thoughtful Dead (Hallmark)

These zombies would be ideal husbands, if only they weren’t dead. They always put the toilet seat down and remember with cards and flowers the birthdays, anniversaries, and favorite colors of those whose brains they eat.

The Grateful Undead (MTV)

This reality show follows a city-to-city concert tour by a “Grateful Dead” cover band composed entirely of zombies. Critics have faulted the band’s guitar work and vocal stylings, but fans love their loose improvisations and their welcoming, “come-one, come-all” folksiness — until the after-party, when band members rip groupies limb from limb and chew on their insides.

2024: Reagan vs. Clinton (MSNBC)

A futuristic political thriller. In the year 2021, the Republican party – moribund after losing Congress in 2018 and the White House in 2020 – resurrects the corpse of Ronald Reagan to run as the USA’s first undead president. Meanwhile the ghost of Benghazi has come back to haunt Hillary Clinton in the form of a zombie Moammar Khadafi, who bites her and she becomes a “walker,” as well. The Dems run zombie Hillary against zombie Reagan for Election 2024. Needless to say, the pre-election debates get rather nasty, especially when the Reagan and Clinton zombies attack the moderators and eat them.

Better Red than Walking Dead (KCTV — North Korean state television)

This propaganda video created by the North Korean government attempts to convince South Koreans and their American supporters that they will all turn into rotting corpses, wandering aimlessly through a devastated hellscape, unless they accept Communist rule. However, the chillingly blank and soulless demeanor of North Korean generals and party officials depicted in the video are scarier than the zombies in this rather cheesy production.

Born-Again Dead (CBN)

Rotting arms lifted high in praise, Evangelical Christian zombies rove malls and city streets, quoting from the Gospel, speaking in tongues, and giving a choice to the living: accept Jesus (himself a zombie, having risen from the dead) as your personal Lord and savior, or we’ll rip out your intestines.

The Non-White Walkers (KKK-TV)

Angry at HBO’s “Game of Thrones” for depicting the evil undead as being white and blue-eyed (“white walkers”), the Ku Klux Klan has produced this low-budget, streaming-on-the-Internet-only version that shows the evil undead as decidedly ethnic non-whites who embody immigrant stereotypes such as attending mosques or opening Chinese restaurants or Vietnamese nail salons.

A white walker in HBO’s “Game of Thrones”

­

 

 

Kellyanne Conway Lives! (CBS)

Despite her deathly pallor and frightening facial expressions, and despite many rumors, Kellyanne Conway is in fact not a zombie. This reality show lays false rumors to rest by following a very-much-alive Kellyanne as she shops, attends church, buys gasoline and visits friends. However, as the zombie population has increased dramatically in recent months, most of her friends are now zombies, as is half of the Trump cabinet (starting with Wilbur Ross) much of Congress and the entire Veterans Administration.

The Apprentice 3:  You’re Dead!

Donald Trump, Jr. hosts this new version of the reality TV show. Now candidates who get booted — previously told “You’re fired!” — are now eaten alive by Donald Trump, Sr., who is now a zombie after being bitten by undead Wilbur Ross.

 

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Hurricane Harvey: Raining shame on Trump, his supporters, and other climate change deniers

As I write this post on August 31, 2017, Hurricane Harvey has overwhelmed southeastern Texas with more than ten trillion gallons of water. Now downgraded to a tropical storm, Harvey is barreling into Louisiana. This storm has already caused incomprehensible misery and destruction, with a quickly growing body count (more than twenty, the last time I checked), and preliminary damage estimates of at least $30 billion. Those numbers will certainly rise as the storm continues, and as rescue and recovery efforts continue, in the days to come.


One can only marvel at the dangerous, grueling work being done by local police, firefighters, FEMA, the National Guard, military service members, and many other government groups and personnel, bravely saving lives and keeping families together. One can only marvel at the heroism, courage, resilience, and endurance of voluntary rescuers and the suffering people of Texas. One can only marvel at the generosity and compassion of so many in the USA, Mexico, and other countries who have already poured support into Texas in the form of donations, prayers, and helping hands. Countless times during this catastrophe, the selfless, generous spirit of helpfulness and human kindness has shown up in every corner.

But Hurricane Harvey has also exposed the disastrous effects of policies furthered by Donald Trump and much of the Republican Party, along with their “Christian” supporters.

 

Photo credit: CNN

In fact, many aspects of the Harvey disaster could have been minimized, or even prevented entirely, were it not for the greed, myopia, cynicism and willful ignorance of (mainly Republican) government leaders, and the deplorable ignorance and gullibility of those who support them. Far worse disasters are certain to happen if we do not learn from this very teachable moment named Hurricane Harvey.

This blog post focuses on five “lessons from Harvey.”

1.      Urban planning and regulation (or lack thereof). Texas has long prided itself on being a haven of conservative values such as deregulation to support business growth and a vibrant economy. Its mantra has apparently been “Build, baby, build.” According to a April 27, 2017 article in Bisnow (a digital news and media company focusing on real estate), lack of zoning and lax land-use regulations have fueled Houston’s “transformation” into a money-making bonanza for developers. https://www.bisnow.com/houston/news/land/as-houstonians-approach-to-urban-life-changes-lax-land-use-regulations-fuel-the-transformation-73249

Of course, this is good for the economy short-term. Long-term, not so much.

On June 16, 2017 the Guardian published an eerily prophetic article with the headline: Houston fears climate change will cause catastrophic flooding: ‘It’s not if, it’s when’ The article states: “Human activity is worsening the problem in an already rainy area, and there could be damage worthy of a disaster movie if a storm hits the industrial section.” https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jun/16/texas-flooding-houston-climate-change-disaster

(Note on August 31, 2017: Apparently all that has already happened.  The Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas is close to exploding due to flood damage, and the nearby town is being evacuated.)

On August 28, 2017, Atlantic magazine analyzed flooding issues in relation to city planning (https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/08/why-cities-flood/538251/), and on August 29, 2017 the blog Quartz published a post entitled, “Houston’s flooding shows what happens when you ignore science and let developers run rampant.”  (https://qz.com/1064364/hurricane-harvey-houstons-flooding-made-worse-by-unchecked-urban-development-and-wetland-destruction/).

The upshot of these and many other reports – published both before and during Harvey – is that many people saw this disaster coming, but the powers that be refused to listen.

2. Global warming. Climate scientists are nearly unanimous in stating that storms like Harvey are made worse and more frequent by climate change, and that human activity – the use of fossil fuels in particular – is the main cause of climate change. Trump and most Republicans call these assertions a hoax, and stubbornly resist efforts to fight climate change by reducing the use of fossil fuels. Of course, the reason for this resistance is money. Fossil fuel companies and their investors have gotten rich destroying our planet’s ecosystem, and the Republican Party is for the most part the party of Big Oil, Big Coal, and Big Polluters. Sadly, many Democrats have also been seduced by fossil fuel money, but in general they have been more supportive of sustainable alternatives such as solar and wind power. 

Of particular concern right now is that Trump’s EPA leader, Scott Pruitt, is publicly dismissive of the established links between human activity and climate change, so there’s little chance that we can hope for corrective measures in the foreseeable future. Further, Trump’s Energy Secretary Rick Perry seems to think coal is the best thing since sliced bread. Any environmental scientist with half a brain will tell you that burning coal is one of the fastest ways to pollute our air and accelerate climate change.

3. “Christians”  A quick look at the New Testament — the Biblical foundation of Christianity — reveals many laudable spiritual themes such as forgiveness, charity towards the poor, and unselfish attitudes in general. Donald Trump would seem to be the antithesis of many Christian virtues; yet 80% of Evangelical Christians voted for Trump in 2016, and they constitute a significant portion of his base. Many of Trump’s “Christian” supporters consider all non-Christians (especially Muslims) and scientists to be the enemies of humankind. This shows up in Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies, in the anti-science bent of Trump’s leadership team, and in laughable statements made by Evangelical leaders such as convicted rapist Jim Bakker, who recently blamed the solar eclipse on Obama.

In the Gospel, Jesus is quoted as saying that rich people might have a hard time making it into heaven, and that one cannot serve both God and “mammon” (an ancient Aramaic word meaning “wealth”). Never mind that. Meet Very Wealthy Televangelist Joel Osteen, pastor of the Lakewood Church (a megachurch in the Houston area that can seat more than 16,000). Osteen is an enthusiastic supporter of Donald Trump. He has a ten-million-dollar home.


At the outset of Hurricane Harvey, when thousands of Houstonians were forced from their homes and desperately seeking shelter, Osteen’s church claimed that it was “inaccessible due to severe flooding,” and was therefore not open to accommodate flood victims. Videos and photos published online refuted the church’s claims of “severe flooding” at and around the church, which — apparently shamed — did finally (on August 28) open up and welcome people displaced by flooding.

In stark contrast, Houston-area Muslim groups and individuals, as well as Sikhs, had immediately started helping flood victims. Several mosques and Sikh temples were open for use as shelters by residents by the flood. More here: (http://www.liberalmountain.com/us-politics/osteens-megachurch-remained-closed-houston-mosques-open-assist-flood-victims-details)

4. Donald Trump’s narcissism.  On Tuesday, August 29, our crowd-size-obsessed leader famously exclaimed, “What a crowd! What a turnout!” after a press conference in Texas. He has so far not mentioned once any concern for lives lost (including one police officer), nor has he personally met any first responders or hurricane victims. In the words of David Axelrod, “It’s not always about you, Mr. President.” http://www.cnn.com/2017/08/29/opinions/trump-fails-consoler-in-chief-moment-axelrod/

Trump is an embarrassment to our nation, and he brings shame upon all who support him. Unfortunately, he’s in good company with much of the Republican Party, which seems to mainly serve very wealthy people who don’t want to pay taxes, and who either out of willful ignorance or out of pure cynicism support policies that hurt the disadvantaged and threaten the future of our world.

5. Right-wing Republicans: “Government is the problem.” Every student of U.S. history knows that Franklin D. Roosevelt used government power to pull our nation out of a terrible depression, put millions back to work, and lead us and our allies to victory in the greatest war we have faced.

“When it rains, the government brings the umbrella.” Those words are from Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, who in an August 30, 2017 press conference called for quick response from FEMA and other U.S. government agencies to the national emergency created by Hurricane Harvey.

During that press conference, Sen. Ted Cruz (who had voted against funding to help New York cope with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy) sat elbow to elbow with Rep. Lee, smiling and nodding obsequiously, but I doubt his grins and nods signaled sincere agreement.  After all, Sen. Cruz had tried to shut down the U.S. government over Obamacare in 2013, thereby becoming a hero for die-hard, anti-government conservatives (but a laughing-stock for many others, and a highly unlikable fool to more pragmatic Republicans).

Ronald Reagan would also probably not have agreed with Congresswoman Lee. He famously said, “…Government is not the solution to our problem, government IS the problem.” Following through with the “Reagan Revolution,” anti-tax godfather Grover Norquist, who has for many years exerted powerful influence on the Republican Party, got famous for saying things like, “My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

Perhaps Hurricane Harvey has provided a big enough bathtub to drown at least some public support for the Republican Party, especially for its more out-of-touch, extremist right-wing members.

In conclusion

As the old saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” On climate change, and the prevention of future disasters such as Hurricane Harvey, Republicans say, “Let’s skip the prevention and cut the budget for the cure.”

Anything to avoid taxing the rich.

Hurricanes Harvey, Sandy, and Katrina – as well as recent superstorms inundating Southeast Asia, Africa, and other parts of the world, with thousands of deaths and many billions more in property damage — are only a small taste of what is coming with climate change as weather conditions continue to become more extreme, and as sea levels rise. (At the time of this writing, half of Bangladesh was reportedly underwater.)

Hopefully these disasters will be a wakeup call for our current administration, or at least for U.S. voters, who will have a chance in 2018 to elect lawmakers who are paying attention to the real world in which we live — in which climate change is causing more and more death and misery at an accelerating pace, and in which governments can and must respond to this very real threat effectively, proactively and immediately.

Posted in Essays, Political, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Democracies need science. And facts.

Recently there has been much buzz about “alternative facts,” especially since Kellyanne Conway used the term on January 22, 2017 to explain why White House press secretary Sean Spicer falsely (and in spite of photographic evidence to the contrary — see below) called the crowds at Donald Trump’s swearing-in ceremony “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period….”  http://time.com/4642689/kellyanne-conway-sean-spicer-donald-trump-alternative-facts/

foule-inauguration-obama-vs-trump

During an interview with Kellyanne Conway on this topic, CNN’s Anderson Cooper literally couldn’t stop laughing. (Multiple clips are on YouTube.)

In May 2015 Andy Borowitz, a New Yorker magazine humorist, took aim at the “war on facts” with a satire piece entitled: “Scientists: Earth Endangered by New Strain of Fact-Resistant Humans.” http://www.newyorker.com/humor/borowitz-report/scientists-earth-endangered-by-new-strain-of-fact-resistant-humans

Under the jokes and laughter lies the widely-voiced concern that — with monotonous frequency — our current president and his administration rely on to distortions, half-truths, misrepresentations, and outright lies to support their actions and agendas.  Many (myself included) have hinted that Donald Trump seems to be steering us towards an authoritarian government that uses propaganda and disinformation to suit its own ends. The fear of a fascist takeover of this country is real and pervasive.  Michael Moore tweeted the following on January 30, 2017:

mmoore-tweet

I will argue here that if we are to have a viable future with an effective democratic government, free of fascism and authoritarianism, we will need to all share a respect for facts and science.  I will show how democracy is inextricably linked with science historically, philosophically, and existentially.

Let’s break that down: first historically, then philosophically, and finally — wait for it — existentially.

  1. The historical link between science and democracy: The 1776 American Revolution gave rise to the first more or less democratic government in modern times. It was an indirect product of the Scientific Revolution, which is generally agreed to have started in 1543 — the year when Nicolas Copernicus published De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of Celestial Bodies), which  introduced the now widely-accepted theory that the earth orbits the sun (and not vice versa). The Scientific Revolution gave rise to “the Age of Enlightenment” (1715-1789) or “the Age of Reason,” an intellectual movement centered mainly in France, emphasizing the scientific method and questioning religious teachings.  The European Enlightenment crossed over to the thirteen colonies in the early 1700s.  The “American Enlightenment” applied scientific reasoning to politics, science, and religion and advocated for religious tolerance. It influenced formerly religious or theological colleges and universities such as Princeton and Harvard to include science and mathematics in their curricula. Representatives of the American Enlightenment included many of our founding fathers: John Adams, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. (While the Religious Right claims that the USA is and must be a Christian country, ruled by the Christian Bible, in fact our founding fathers shared a profound distrust for theocracy and worked to keep religion out of our government by placing provisions in the Constitution for separation of church and state.)
  2. Philosophically, the scientific method is fundamentally democratic, egalitarian and inclusive.  It is founded upon the principle that anybody — from the leader of a country  to its poorest, least-educated worker — can observe the same phenomenon and see the same thing; or that any scientist, in any country, can perform the same experiment and get the same results.  The scientific method says that a janitor will agree with a university professor, for example, when they both observe water freezing at 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius), and boiling at 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees Celsius); or that a Muslim, a Hindu, a Sikh, a Jew, a Buddhist and a Christian will all agree upon observing mercury that it is in fact a liquid, even though technically it’s a metal. The scientific method establishes systematic rules for observing and evaluating phenomena in such a way that personal biases, beliefs, moods and/or opinions do not affect observations of — or conclusions about — those phenomena.
  3. Existentially, science and facts are necessary for the continued existence — the very survival — of democracies (and, by the way, for life on planet Earth as we know it). Scientific methods provide reliable information that allow voters in a democracy to make informed decisions and shape a future that the majority deem desirable — and to steer clear of policy decisions that would be calamitous for great numbers of people (e.g. epidemics, disastrous changes in climate, rising sea levels, nuclear wars, etc.).

Sadly, history and current events show corporations and wealthy individuals manipulating the flow of information, especially by funding (and therefore directing the focus and messaging of) researchers, educational institutions and think tanks, and through the purchase of deceptive advertising and media coverage. A well-known past example is how between 1960 and 1988 tobacco companies spent $370 million to conduct research minimizing public perception of the health risks posed by tobacco smoke. Similar tactics have been employed to use biased “research” and the media to shape public perceptions of other consumer products — especially fossil fuels. For example, witness this story from BBC (November 2015):

Oil giant Exxon Mobil is being investigated for misleading the public about the impact of climate change.

The New York attorney general has sent a request for emails and financial records to the company.

Allegations surfaced last month that the company’s own scientists raised concerns about global warming decades ago and that Exxon had worked to suppress that information. http://www.bbc.com/news/business-34750196

As most of us know too well, the new U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, was CEO of Exxon-Mobil until very recently. He and others in the Trump administration have poo-pooed claims that human activity causes of global warming (Trump calls it “a hoax”), and the Trump agenda includes a full-court press to revive fossil fuel industries, especially oil and coal. This is in spite of widespread consensus among climate scientists around the world, and growing scientific evidence, that the use of fossil fuels has put the world on a path to widespread climate-related disasters, including:

  • extreme and freakish weather conditions
  • the eradication of forests and wetlands
  • severe and permanent droughts
  • rising sea levels that — especially in league with storms coming in from the ocean — threaten to inundate coastal areas, where hundreds of millions of people live

Clearly, we need to curtail our use of fossil fuels, and stop using them entirely as quickly as possible, but the billionaires and corporations who got rich from fossil fuels — and who stand to lose much if we shift to wind power, solar power, and other sustainable energy sources — have the money to “buy” public opinion, which influences how people vote. They also have the money to shape government policies, which they can do now more than perhaps ever before, because of Citizens United.

And so now, we have the Trump administration disseminating half-truths, distortions and outright lies — and large (but apparently diminishing) numbers of Trump followers lapping it up. Increasingly, we need reliable news media to keep us informed. There we encounter a new challenge called “fake news” (also sometimes calling itself “Fox News”). Let’s leave that for another post.

In the meantime, what can we do? Let’s stay informed, keep our eyes open and our minds clear, keep speaking up, keep calling our government representatives, and VOTE like crazy in every election, from now until those of us who live near the coast are swallowed by rising sea levels.

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GETTING TESTED

20131202_165905

A short story by

John Mears

He thought she was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.  Behind her head, the sun setting over Pierce College gave her highlighted Afro a weird halo.  A black rose tattoo stared at him from the golden skin of her left arm. Black and gold.  His favorite color combination.

“So,” he said, “Which test are you taking?”

She glanced over at him, her eyes in darkness with the sun glistening on her shoulder above the black tank top.  “What?” she said.

They were sitting on opposite ends of a bench on a porch in front of the testing room at West Valley Occupational Center, which was across the street from Pierce College.  The sign on the door said testing started at 6:30. She and he were both half an hour early because of the bus schedule. He had seen her on the bus, but he wasn’t gonna ask her about that.  Only losers rode the bus.  He wasn’t gonna call her out as a fellow loser.

He smiled, the sun on his face.  “I said, what test are you taking?”

“A blood test,” she said.  “I’m getting married next week.”  With that, she looked down at her phone, her sandaled foot swinging in the air.  Her legs were plump and smooth, her shorts very short.  He guessed she was lying, because who looks that sexy if they’re planning to get married?  And of course, she was pulling his chain about the blood test.  Here they only gave reading and math tests at 6:30, and certainly not blood tests, ever.  After all, this wasn’t a clinic.  This was an occupational center, which offered free or very cheap classes to people like him, people who had nowhere else to go.

Erick Santamaria had done two years at the state prison in Tehachapi for growing 200 marijuana plants in his uncle’s warehouse.  He’d been sentenced to six, but with the legalization of pot, and with the severe overcrowding in California’s state prisons, a judge had reduced his sentence to time served.  Nonetheless, he was still on parole, and his arrest, conviction and imprisonment had totally fucked up everything with his uncle, who was named as a co-conspirator with intent to distribute.  Things had already been bad with Erick’s parents and siblings – who had stopped talking to him when he refused to go to their Pentecostal church – but when Uncle Carlos turned against him in court with testimony and a plea bargain, Erick suddenly felt like the most worthless, lonely piece of shit in the universe, especially at Tehachapi, where he was gang-raped by a bunch of white bikers who called him their bitch.

Finally he gathered the courage to ask the girl:  “Seriously, what test are you taking? En serio.”  At his use of Spanish, she gave him a sharp glance.

She had a faint Spanish accent: “Seriously, it’s not your business.”

He said, “Sorry, just trying to be friendly.”

She just looked at her phone, which was vibrating and lighting up. She put it to her ear and said, “Si?”

There was a faint burst of an older woman’s Spanish through the phone. The girl said, “Mama, te dijo, esta bien. Tiene que dormir.”  (Mom, I told you, it’s OK.  She has to sleep.)

There was a minute of quiet back and forth, then she said, “Te quiero tambien,” and hung up.

Erick said, “Is your baby sick?”

Her eyes were daggers: “I said, it’s not your business.”

“Sorry,” he said. “I wanna be a paramedic, so read a lot about medical stuff, and I helped take care of my older brother’s kids.  He’s a paramedic.  He says the pay is good and he likes it.  Plus he says it’s a real good feeling when you save somebody’s life.  Maybe someday I can save somebody’s life.”

Her attitude seemed to soften a little. Erick could tell she was listening.

“If your baby’s sick, you’re probably right – the best thing is rest. Does he have a fever?”

“She.”

“Does she have a fever?”

“Yes.”

“How much?”

“One oh three.”

“That’s pretty normal for a baby. Not to worry, unless she’s coughing a lot.  Does she have a rash?”

“Just a little diaper rash.”

“That’s normal, too. Like you were saying, best thing is probably stay home and rest, lots of water, stay warm….”

She listened and nodded begrudgingly.

“I’m Erick,” he said.

“Suzy,” she said.

He extended his hand, but she wasn’t looking at him. He could tell she’d been through a lot.  Maybe more than he had.  If she was getting married and she already had a baby, well….

“Mind if I sit here?”

The man’s question wasn’t for him. He looked up and saw a head-shaved, gangster-looking Latino guy in white wife-beaters eyeing Suzy hungrily.  She seemed to like the attention; her foot waved in the air like a flag.

The gangster-looking guy sat between Suzy and Erick with a cocky smile. He smelled strongly of Eternity for Men.  The elaborate multi-colored tattoo on his left shoulder, staring at Erick, was a grim reaper skeleton with a crown of thorns and a big sickle. The guy was asking Suzy her name and shaking hands with her as she told him.  He said, “I’m Antonio.  Guys call me Tonio.”  He held her hand.  “Nice grip,” he said.  “You work out?”

“Yeah.”

“Where?”

“L.A. Fitness.”

“Me, too.”

“Which one?”

“The one on Reseda.”

“Oh, that one sucks. You should come to mine, on Ventura.”

“You own it?”

“Yeah,” he chuckled loudly, “No, but I go there every day. It’s like I own the place.  Everybody kisses my ass.” He chuckled again, louder.

She looked down at her phone.

He said, “I act like I own the place.”

She said, “You act like you already own this place, too.”

“That’s right,” he said. “Wherever I go, same thing.  People see me comin’, they step aside.”  With that he gave Erick a sideways glance that awoke a deep, hot anger inside him.

She seemed to be getting annoyed with Tonio now. He had stepped over some kind of weird line and her red flag was up; Erick could tell, because her foot was bobbing more violently now, kind of like, “Get the fuck away from me, you egotistical creep.”

But Tonio wasn’t getting the message. “You come here a lot?”

“No.”

“Good. This place is for losers.  I go to Pierce, across the street.  I only came here because I saw a hot mama sitting over here in the loser section.  Thought she might need some help crossing the street.”  With that, Tonio gave Erick a prison stare.  Like, “What are you gonna do, bitch?”

Erick stared right back at him. He hated this guy, and wanted to fuck him up, but if he had learned anything in prison, it was to pick your fights carefully, because your life depends on it.

Tonio’s mocking smile turned uglier. “How ‘bout you?  You go to this loser school?  You a loser?”

Erick said nothing, just stared furiously.

“Oh, I get it. You like Suzy here.  Good choice, but I don’t think she likes you.  Otherwise, why’s she sitting way over there on the right side of the bench and here you are, way over on the left side.  But she likes me just fine, don’t you, Suzy?”

She was looking at her phone.

Tonio put his hand on her thigh. “Don’t you, Suzy?”

She stared daggers at him. He leaned closer to her, sliding his hand up her thigh towards her crotch.  She pushed it off.  He put it back and kept pushing.

“No,” said Suzy, pushing Tonio’s hand away again, but Tonio put it back again, sliding it up between her legs while his other hand pulled down her tank top strap and revealing half a white breast. She pulled the strap back up.

“Come on,” Tonio was saying, “Show me some chiche. I know you like me.”

Erick stood up in front of Tonio. “Leave her alone.”

Immediately Tonio got to his feet and faced Erick, eye to eye. “You gonna make me?”

“She’s getting married,” Erick said.

“That’s right,” said Suzy, typing something frantically on her phone.

But Tonio wasn’t paying attention to her anymore. Now it was all about Erick.  “Don’t I know you?  Yeah, I remember.  You were in Tehachapi.  You were a bitch for the white bikers.”

Erick said nothing.

Tonio said, “That’s right, you were their bitch, and now you’re my bitch.”

With that, he gave Erick a hard shove and sent Erick staggering backward, and the porch railing hit his butt and he was flying backwards for a moment before his head exploded in white light.

*

Two years later, he following news story appeared on page three of the San Fernando Valley News:

MARTYR FOR JUSTICE: Deadly altercation leads to gangland conviction

MISSION HILLS – On Sunday afternoon, Rosa Inchaurregui laid flowers at the grave of Erick Santamaria, whose death two years ago led to Friday’s conviction of Antonio “Tonio” Pacheco. Santamaria died of massive head trauma after a confrontation with the longtime gang member at West Valley Occupational Center in Woodland Hills.  Surveillance video from the occupational center proved to be key evidence in Pacheco’s trial.

Rosa Inchaurregui had accused Pacheco of aggravated rape, for which Pacheco stood trial three years ago; that trial ended in a hung jury, among allegations of jury tampering and the intimidation of witnesses. The case gained headlines when the beauty salon where Rosa worked in San Fernando was sprayed with gunfire.  In the past, Pacheco had also been named as a suspect in several murder cases, including the killing of three gang rivals at a birthday party, and a drive-by shooting that killed an elderly grandmother and two children.  In every case, Pacheco escaped conviction due to hung juries.

At the time of the incident at West Valley Occupational Center, Pacheco was enrolled in Pierce College while on parole after serving prison time for an assault conviction. According to witnesses, he had stopped at West Valley Occupational Center to talk with an unnamed female student waiting for a reading test.  When Pacheco began touching the female student sexually, Erick Santamaria rose to her defense, but was pushed over a porch railing by Pacheco, who then repeatedly kicked and stomped Santamaria on the head, leading to his death.  The entire incident was captured by a hidden closed-circuit security camera in front of the testing room.  Footage from that camera proved to be key in Pacheco’s conviction.

Erick Santamaria was no stranger to crime or violence; he had served time for marijuana cultivation at the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi, where he was reportedly gang-raped. He was at West Valley Occupational Center waiting to be tested for an Emergency Medical Technician class.

For Rosa Inchaurregui, Erick Santamaria is more than just a hero – he is a martyr for justice. “I call him ‘Saint Erick,’” she said.  “Because he stood up to that horrible man, a lot of people like me feel a little safer today.”

THE END

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Madman at the wheel: An allegorical mini-play

She: I feel like I should say something.

He: Say what?

She: I think that was a wrong turn.

He: Which turn?

She: Back there at the T. We just went right.  We should have gone left.  The sign said, “Road closed ahead.”

He: He said he knows this area.

She: I’m not sure he should even be driving.

He: You keep saying that, but he seems fine.

She: I think he’s drunk.

He: Impossible.  He doesn’t drink.  I know that for a fact.

She: But there’s something not right about him. Have you looked into his eyes? He looks like a scared pig.

He: I think he’s fine.

She: How well do you know him?

He: Christine said she knows him.

She: Christine? Seriously?  You trusted Christine?

He: She’s been right about a lot of stuff.

She: She’s crazy. She doesn’t even believe in science.

He: But she’s made some good calls.

She: Like what?

He: She predicted that earthquake in California.

She: That’s bullshit. Everybody knows there’s gonna be earthquakes in California.  Christ, I can’t believe….

He: Don’t say “Christ” like that.  It’s disrespectful.

(Pause)

She: But honey, why are we even going to the Grand Canyon in the middle of the night? We won’t be able to see anything.

He: Relax and enjoy the ride.

She: He just flipped off that pickup truck.

He: So?

(Gunshot shatters a window behind the driver.)

She: Shit, now they’re shooting at us.

(The van’s driver shoots back. The pickup truck crashes and explodes in a fireball, lighting up the surrounding forest.  Strong winds cause a brilliant firestorm.)

He: See?  Now we can see just fine.

She: But we’re headed straight for that barricade.  The sign says “Road closed.”

He: He knows what he’s doing.

She: He should be slowing down, but he’s hitting the gas.

(Van crashes through barricade and flies airborne, plunging into the Grand Canyon. As they fly through the air, they are all weightless.)

He: See?  Now we’re flying.  I told you this would be great.

She: We’re all gonna die.

He: Yeah, but at least we had a hell of a ri….

(Van crashes into rocks next to the Colorado River and bursts into flames.)

 

 

 

 

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Love, Pure Love, Continued (with photos)

A long and simple poem — “Love, Pure Love” — has been coming to me in pieces over the years.  Today I took a long hike with my little notebook, and here are today’s pieces. The first three photos below are also from today’s hike.

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Love, Pure Love, Continued

Some feel blessed, and some feel used

but love, pure love is my refuge.

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Some are chill and some are wary,

but love, pure love’s my sanctuary.

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Some are scared and some are brave,

but when I love, I am saved.

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