from A Squandered Life / Watts '68

“Do you know where you is boy?”

I had no idea really where Laguna Beach was in relation to anything else and soon found myself trudging through the outskirts of Los Angeles.

I wasn't having much luck with rides, but I found a phone booth and made a return call home to tell them I was out and okay. I spoke to Henry who seemed mildly curious but otherwise unconcerned. As I stood in the booth a noticed a couple of cars driving by. They were full of young black guys and they were staring at me. As I came out of the booth and started trudging again, I noticed a few more drive bys but thought nothing of it.

A few blocks on and I saw an older black guy struggling to jack his car up and sort out his flat tyre. As I drew near I said politely, “Need a hand?” He looked up, and did a slightly shocked double take. He then looked up and down the street. Then he looked back at me, squinting studiously, and said, “Okay.” I duly helped him out and, as I'd un-selflessly hoped he might, he offered me a lift.

He looked up and down the street again, and I couldn't help but follow suit. There was one of those crowded cars again coming by. It passed and carried on up to the next right turn. I looked back at him but he was already getting in and telling me, “Come on boy.” I got in as he was actually pulling away.

“Where you goin' boy?” he asked. I hadn't really thought about it but said, “Main bus station I guess, if that's anywhere near where you're going.” I thought I didn't want to have to trudge out of LA the way I'd trudged in and I would get a bus to the northern outskirts and hitch from there. I looked over at him and he was frowning at me. “Do you know where you is boy?” he asked. “L.A.?” I suggested helpfully. “You is in Watts boy.” he said, “Watts” and looked at me to see if it registered.

It finally dawned on me. His nervousness. His surprise at looking up and seeing a white boy. Those malevolent looking guys in the cars. Watts! The scene of fire and brimstone riots last year. Six days of pitched battles with police and blocks of shop frontage laid waste. International headlines. Even I in my cocooned suburb had heard of Watts. He was shaking his head. “I glory in your spunk boy,” he said. “I glory in your spunk.” I couldn't tell at the time if he meant my courage or my dumb ass middle class white stupidity, but as I look back from the vantage point of time passed, I'm pretty sure it was the latter.

The man very kindly took me out of Watts and dropped me by a bus stop from which I guess he thought even someone as dumb as me could catch a bus to the central station without getting mugged. I shook his hand and said thanks, but he was still shaking his head as he drove away.


© 2012 Deacon Martin

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