Authors: Bentley Little
I went home that night feeling elated, powerful.
The feeling lasted until I walked through the kitchen door.
"What are you smiling at?" my dad growled. He was sitting at the kitchen table, and if I hadn't known better, I would have sworn he was drunk. His face was red, the way it used to be when he was drinking, and there was an ugly belligerence in his expression that usually came out only after a hearty consumption of alcohol. But the table was empty of both bottles and cans, and the only thing in front of him was an open Bible.
I shook my head, hoping that would be answer enough to his question, and tried to slip peacefully by, heading toward my bedroom.
"Where do you think you're going?"
"I'm tired," I said.
"Then what were you smiling at?"
"Nothing. I was just thinking of a joke."
If he'd been drunk, I would have been out of there by now. He would not have been able to sustain this line of questioning. As it was, I might be there for hours. "Where's Mom?" I asked, trying to change the subject.
"Who cares?" he said.
She walked in from the living room at precisely that second, and though she couldn't have heard my question, she heard his answer and deduced backward with that almost supernatural sense of familial logic that mothers possessed. "Get out of my kitchen," she said flatly. Her words were directed at him, but I used the opportunity to escape and hurried down the hallway to my bedroom.
I locked the door behind me, something I'd been doing more and more often. I looked over at my typewriter. I could get my old man fired, I thought. The idea was tempting. My dad had been a ruthless bastard to me for as long as I could remember, and if he hadn't been the family's sole support, if I hadn't needed his money to survive, I would have sat down at that second, written and sent out a letter to Automated Interface and gotten his ass terminated.
Just the thought of squealing on him for some imaginary transgression, getting him hauled before his boss and humiliated, made me feel happy, made me feel good.
My parents went out for dinner that night, a rare occurrence that Tom immediately took advantage of by escaping to hang with his white-trash friends. In his hands was a bong. "You better not say a word!" he warned me as he bailed.
"I don't care what you do," I told him. Tom was a loser. He'd graduated from high school last year but still lived at home because all he had was a part-time job at Builder's Emporium. I think he took one or two classes at Acacia Community College, but he wasn't serious about school, wasn't serious about work and was going nowhere fast. Excellent athlete or not, he hadn't amounted to much, and it did my heart good to hear my parents start in on him with their weekly diatribe, telling him that he'd better shape up or ship out, and as long as he lived under their roof he had to abide by their rules.
On second thought, I decided that I
tell them about Tom and his bong.
I had the house and the evening to myself. I was still thinking about that letter, and for fun, I opened my notebook and started writing a complaint to my dad's boss, pretending to be an anonymous coworker who caught him drinking in the bathroom on his break, and harassing an unwilling underage girl in the parking lot, and
The phone rang.
I jumped, quickly crumpling up my paper. I tossed it into the trash as the phone rang again. I was the only one home, so I hurried out to the living room and picked it up. "Hello?"
"Good afternoon, sir. Are you the man of the house?"
It was someone trying to sell something.
"My balls are on fire!" I yelled, and then slammed down the phone.
I started laughing. I felt strangely invigorated by my exchange with the telemarketer. There was about it the same sort of anonymous power that came with letter writing, although I was reacting instead of acting. I was suddenly in the mood to
write that complaint about my dad, and I sat down and wrote a five-page, hugely detailed letter, filled with every criticism and accusation I could come up with, given my imprecise knowledge of his job. I seriously considered sending it off, but then I saw the movement of headlights through the drapes, and I tore up the pages and flushed them down the toilet before my parents walked into the house.
I had a dream that night that I wrote a letter to myself, and in it I stated,
My dad is a dick.
When I walked out of my bedroom and looked down the hall to my parents' room, I saw my dad sitting on the edge of his bed. His head was a bald dome with a slit on the top of it, he had no arms, and his entire body was cylindrical.
He'd been turned into a penis.
He was a dick.
My mom was mad again. Seemed like she was always mad at someone, but this time it was Tom instead of me, so while she stood in the hallway yelling at him through his closed bedroom door, I spent an atypical evening in the family room with my dad. We didn't speakhe read the newspaper while I watched TVbut it was oddly similar to the behavior of a normal family, and the comparison only made me realize how far from the ideal we really were.
"Finally," my dad said, folding the paper, "the city's going to clean up the Eastside."
I knew what he meant by that. There'd been talk of it for years. The east side of the city was poor and primarily Hispanic, and people like my dad wanted to plow down all the homes and put up expensive condos in an effort to kick out the current residents and draw a richer, whiter populationwhich was apparently what the city council now intended to do. I picked up the newspaper once he put it down, and read the article titled redevelopment project approved. It stated that the neighborhood on the north side of Eighth Avenue between Murdoch and Grand would be razed and replaced with a gated community called the Lakes, featuring two man-made lakes and an eighteen-hole golf course. The aging mishmash of small stores, apartment buildings, duplexes and homes on the south side of Eighth would become a destination shopping/entertainment district with a multiscreen theater, upscale eateries, boutique stores and a mall with adjoining parking structure.
I looked at the photo of the Eastside as it was and at the artist's rendering of the proposed redevelopment.
My friend Frank Hernandez lived in that area, just past the train tracks near El Nopale market. My favorite taco stand was also there, a little hole-in-the-wall place where you had to order in Spanish because the workers didn't understand English.
I'd never been one of those kids who automatically parroted their parents' beliefs and opinionsnot with
mom and dadbut it was only recently that I'd begun to seriously question what they said. My dad was all gung ho for "cleaning up" the east side of the city, but I liked things the way they were. And the concept of eminent domain, which we'd just learned about in our American Government class, seemed illegal and profoundly antidemocratic to me.
So I wrote a letter to the paper about it.
I'm not sure if I actually expected my letter to get in, but it did. The
was a biweekly paper, sort of a local complement to the
Orange County Register
Los Angeles Times
, and the lead correspondence in the next "Letters to the Editor" was mine.
It was exciting to see my name in print, although my old man went ballistic. He threw the paper at me when he arrived home from work. I expected to smell alcohol in his exhalation of breath, but despite his crazed behavior, he appeared to be clean. "How could you humiliate me like that?" he demanded. "What the hell were you thinking?"
He began hitting me.
I was tempted to fight back. He was fat and out of shape, and while I wasn't even remotely athletic, I was younger, thinner and more agile. He could still kick my ass, I knew, but there was an opportunity for me to land one good sucker punch, and if I'd been only a little braver, I would have taken it. Instead, I stood there, blocking as many of his open-palmed slaps as I could, while trying to explain that all I'd done was write a letter and express my opinion, a right protected by the Constitution of the United States.
Tom, in the kitchen doorway, just stood there and laughed, and I realized at that moment just how much I hated my brother. It was my mom who broke things upthough of course she sided with my dad. She made him stop hitting me, but then she started yelling, too, the both of them coming at me in stereo. I took it, but inside I was glad I'd written that letter, and I felt proud of myself for being able to upset them so. My words had power.
In the next issue of the paper, the editorial page was filled with letters denouncing me. One from the mayor, one from the city manager, two from members of the public. The paper itself printed an editorial siding with the city, calling my ideas "inflammatory and counterproductive." I hadn't realized that my opinions would be taken so seriouslyI was just a high school kid!and I'd had no idea that I would hit such a nerve. Of course, racists didn't like to be called racists, and maybe my blunt talk had hit them where it hurt.
I knew I had to defend myself, but that night as I sat at my desk crafting a response, I thought that it would be much more effective if
people defended me.
I stopped writing as an idea occurred to me.
I could invent a fake name and fake address, pretend to be someone else, pretend I was just a normal reader who had heard both sides of the argument and thought that Jason Hanford had made a lot of very valid points.
Or I could create a fake organization.
That was even bigger; that was even better. I stared at the blank paper rolled in my typewriter. It had to be something that sounded legitimate but was not the name of an actual group. Hispanic Action Coalition? That sounded good, but I couldn't be sure I hadn't heard that name somewhere else before. Latino Watchdog Association ... Chicano Rights Watch ... Mexican American Defense League? The trouble was, they all sounded real.
So what if they were?
That was a legitimate point. Even if a representative from one of those organizations complained about the appropriation of their name and wrote a rebuttal stating that I did not accurately reflect their views, it would be after the fact. I would still get my message out there.
I started writing.
It took me a long time to compose the letter. I worked on it until I started falling asleep, then finished it after school the next day, typing it quickly before my dad came home. I called myself "Carlos Sandoval," after Carlos Santana and Arturo Sandoval, two musicians whose albums I had seen the other day at the Goodwill store, and I claimed to be president of the Hispanic Action Coalition. I stated that the land-grab by the city on behalf of developers, under the guise of eminent domain, was an attempt to legislate away the Mexican population. They were using politics to change the demographics of the city, to make it more white, and it was part of a pattern of discrimination.
To buttress my position, I wrote a quick little letter ostensibly from an outraged citizen. I made her an old lady who'd been born in Acacia and lived here all her life. She said that it was disgusting to see such blatant bigotry finding its way into the policies of our elected officials and driving apart the citizens of the city she loved.
Both letters were printed in the
(did they publish
they received?), and the controversy kicked into high gear. Right next to my letters was a dissenting opinion penned by an avowed white supremacistsupport that I'm sure city hall could have done without.
The alterna-press jumped into the debate: one of Orange County's two underground newspapers ran a completely erroneous story stating that "Carlos Sandoval" had attended a meeting of local Latino leaders, stealing a quote from my letter; the other published an unsigned staff-written editorial echoing everything that I had said. I was flattered and excited to be at the center of this conflict, but I knew I needed to keep the momentum going, so I wrote a letter to the
Los Angeles Times
, this time pretending to be a businessman from the good part of town outraged by the fact that the city could take away businesses from private owners and essentially give them away to their buddies.
Letters poured in both agreeing and disagreeing with me. I wrote another claiming that this section of the city was a historic landmark and should not be tampered with by petty politicians with ulterior motives. For all of my letters, I invented fake names and addresses, often stealing them from the phone book and tweaking them a little so they were off by one number. Never once was one refused; all of them were published.
My dad commented constantly on the Eastside controversy, voicing his disgust with anyone opposed to redevelopment, but he seemed to have forgotten that I was at the center of it, that my initial letter had kicked it off. He walked in one evening while I was typing an angry anti-city hall polemic once again from President Carlos Sandoval of the Hispanic Action Coalition. I quickly unspooled my letter and casually placed it facedown on the desk, replacing it with another.
"What's wrong with you?" my dad asked, a look of annoyed dissatisfaction on his face. "Hiding in your room, typing letters, when you should be out there trying to pick up girls. When I was your age, I was bagging babes right and left. Like Tom."
"Whoa there," I said. "That doesn't sound very Christian."
He took a belligerent step forward. "Are you making fun of me?"
"No," I lied.
"I'm a Christian, but I'm still a man, goddamn it. Which is more than I can say for you." He glared at me, and I looked away. "How come you don't have a girlfriend, Jason? How come you never date, huh?"
I'd wondered the same thing myself. I'd sort of come to the conclusion that growing up in such a hostile family environment had made me socially inept.
I looked at him. Maybe, I thought, this was one of those bonding opportunities. Maybe if I just reached out, opened up to him, he might meet me halfway and we could forge some sort of ersatz father-son connection. Better late than never, right? I took a deep breath. "I don't really know how to meet girls," I admitted.