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Authors: Bentley Little

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BOOK: Dispatch
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"You don't?" He feigned surprise. "I know what you should do," he said, leaning forward. "Get some gonads."

So much for bonding.

He left with a laugh, amused by his own joke, and I sat there feeling embarrassed and humiliated. I'd get no fatherly advice from my dad. The fucker had no interest in being a parent to me. All he cared about was himself. He might not be a drunk anymore, but he was still a selfish asshole.

I locked my bedroom door and finished writing my letter to the editor, putting in specific rebuttals to the arguments that my old man brought up in his daily rants, knowing that it would drive him crazy to read such precise dissections of his reasoning. It felt good to attack him this way, and in a guise of impersonality I came at him viciously, hitting him in his most vulnerable places.

Take that, you prick
, I thought.

The next day, I went with Robert, Edson and Frank Hernandez to the little taco place, and it was more crowded than I'd ever seen it. The controversy had been good for business, and Frank suggested that we start a petition to save the homes and businesses on and around Eighth Avenue. I was tempted to tell him what I'd been doing, what I'd been writing, but something kept me from it. I looked up from my carne asada and nodded. "You write one. I'll sign it," I said.

Frank stared morosely out at the street. "They could just take our home, man. You know that? They'd take it and pay us what it's worth—which is shit—and then we'd be fuckin' homeless. Where else could we find a house for that much? We'd end up in an apartment in Santa Ana next to some fuckin' illegals."

"Maybe it won't go through," I offered. "I mean, if everyone got together and—"

"Who you fuckin' kidding?" Frank said. "This place is history." He nodded at my tacos. "Enjoy 'em while you can, man."

Robert and Edson ate in silence. They liked Frank and they liked the little taco place, but I could tell they weren't really comfortable hanging in this part of town, and for all I knew, they agreed with my dad, friend or no friend.

Although I had no personal stake in it, I vowed to fight the redevelopment of this area to the death.

Arthur Collingsworth
1243 W. Townley Place
Acacia, CA 92235

Dear Sirs,

As a third-generation Acacian and a successful local businessman, I am appalled at the council's insensitive xenophobic attitude toward redevelopment. I have been following the controversy over the past several weeks and have been distressed and disappointed by the words coming from city hall spokesmen. I'm not a believer in conspiracy theories, but Carlos Sandoval seems to hit pretty close to home in his critique of the city's policies as racist and unbalanced.

Don't you think that the Hispanic members of our community should have

some
say over their fate?

In addition, I would like to state that I am opposed to the government usurpation of private property via eminent domain as a general principle and find your actions in this regard particularly abhorrent. Rest assured, my friends and fellow businessmen will be watching your actions in this matter and will vote accordingly in the next election.

Sincerely,
Arthur Collingsworth

 

The city council met on the third Monday in July. I don't-know how many members of the public usually showed up to such meetings, but this one was packed. It was kind of funny: most parents would have been thrilled if their teenagers exhibited such an interest in civic affairs and local politics that they voluntarily attended a council meeting, but I was forced to lie to my parents and tell them I was going to a concert so they wouldn't bar me from showing up.

None of my friends wanted to go, so I went alone, sitting in the back, and it was a good thing I got there early because the chambers were filled by six thirty even though the meeting didn't begin until seven. I was the only teenager there, as far as I could tell. It was mostly all adults, although a few brought their little kids along. The room was pretty evenly divided between angry white guys and power-suited developers in favor of razing the area around Eighth Avenue, and Latino residents, business owners and community activists opposed. Both sides spoke for what seemed like an eternity at an open forum, and I had to admit that the redevelopment supporters were much better at stating their case. Finally, the time limit for public comment ran out, and as there were still a lot of people who hadn't had their say and were vocally protesting their shutout, the council voted to continue the discussion at the next meeting in two weeks.

The mayor scanned the crowd. "May I ask if Carlos Sandoval is here?"

I stared at the floor, my face hot and flushed, suddenly sure that I would be found out. The entire audience looked around, glancing to the left and right as though searching for Carlos. It was one thing to write letters and read them in the newspaper but quite another to see firsthand the effect of those letters. It felt weird being in the middle of all those people who thought Carlos was a real person. Half of them had probably demonized him in their minds, while the other half viewed him as a potential savior, and even in my embarrassment I marveled at the fact that the words I'd written in my room and sent out into the world had had such strong reverberations.

The meeting adjourned shortly after tackling a few small unrelated issues. My impression of the evening was that the council was leaning toward approving the redevelopment, especially since the city qualified for some sort of federal grant.

I had to get to work.

The next few weeks were a blur. I didn't dare let my parents see me typing as many letters as I knew needed to be sent—not only to newspapers but to city hall—so I smuggled my typewriter to work so I could write letters on my breaks and lunch periods. I was saving up for a word processor, but for the moment I had only my old manual Royal, and when I wasn't selling toys or picking up after bratty kids, I was impersonating men and women from all nationalities and all walks of life vehemently opposed to redeveloping the Eastside.

I became a better debater with each argument I made, and the people responding to me in print sharpened their attacks, becoming ever more polarized until avowed racists were battling it out with Hispanic radicals, and redevelopment had become a single-issue subject.

I stepped in as the voice of moderation—and opposed the marginalization of an important segment of our community.

Throughout the rest of July and into August, the council dithered, hemming and hawing in the press, unwilling to publicly take a stand. I would have loved to know what was going on behind the closed doors of city hall, what the mayor was saying to the planning commission and the city staff members who had put this whole thing in motion.

Finally, at a special meeting near the end of August that was attended by residents and reporters and even two Los Angeles TV news crews (who had been alerted to the controversy by "Carlos Sandoval"), the council voted on its plan for Acacia's Eastside and unanimously decided not to use its powers of eminent domain to displace current residents. They left off with a vague assurance that the issue would still continue to be studied and that a happy solution would be found that would result in a revitalized city.

I had saved the Eastside.

It might be overreaching for me to claim that I had single-handedly fought city hall and won, but I had no illusions about the part I had played in all of this. If I had not stepped in and written my letters, the council would have passed the plan way back in July. I had galvanized the community and given words to the speechless, even framing arguments that they could appropriate for their cause.

Frank and I celebrated with tacos.

I took the money I'd saved and bought my word processor.
 

*4*

School started again in September.

Senior year.

I had no new cause for which to fight, but I continued writing letters to assorted media outlets, commenting on various issues of the day, making suggestions to television networks about TV shows, and of course I kept up my complaints to restaurants and amusement parks, expanding my horizon to include movie theaters.

Despite my extracurricular successes, things weren't going quite as well at school. I'd never been one to think ahead, but I started planning out my life after graduation, and I decided I wanted to go to college. I wasn't ready for the real world. So for the first time in three years, I paid a visit to my guidance counselor to discuss my options.

Mrs. Zivney was old and humorless and had no real interest in the affairs of students, though that was her job. She listened to me, heard me out, then wearily walked over to a series of file cabinets across the hall and pulled my records. I told her I had no money and my parents certainly weren't the type to pay my way. My older brother, I explained, had not gone to college and was basically a bum, and everyone expected me to follow in his footsteps. "But I want to go to college," I said. "I want to make something of myself. What kind of scholarship do you think I could get?"

I wouldn't get any scholarship, the counselor informed me. My grades weren't good enough. It would take something spectacular on my resume to make up for the lazy pattern of slightly better-than-average grades in non-advanced-placement classes. Either that or I would have to ace the SATs—which wasn't going to happen.

"She's a treacherous and evil old bitch," I said when I emerged from the meeting. "She should be put down like the mad mongrel that she is." I'd been reading a lot of Hunter Thompson and wanted to try out some of his lingo, but those sorts of words read better on the page than they sounded in person. Like most kids at that age, I was searching for myself, trying on different personae to see if they fit. But whereas most teenagers copped their attitudes from music or movies, I emulated writers. Well, not writers really, but their words. I attempted to make manifest the attitudes espoused in letters, journals and memoirs, though so far it wasn't working out too well for me.

I sighed as I took my lunch from my locker to show Robert and Edson I wasn't serious. "She said I'm not eligible for any scholarships," I told them.

"There are grants," Robert offered. "Other kinds of financial aid."

"Yeah," Edson said. "My sister's on this work-study deal where they got her a job at UC Brea that helps her pay for tuition there."

"Zivney didn't tell me shit," I said. "She didn't mention any of that."

"The point is," Robert said, "there's still hope."

Robert's parents, of course, had started a college fund at the time he was born, and though his grades weren't any better than mine—were a little worse, actually—he could pretty much afford to go anywhere he wanted. Edson was in the same boat I was but didn't seem to care.

I nodded, and the three of us headed off to lunch, but I was already thinking of a plan, another idea that would offset my lackluster academic record and make me a better candidate for scholarships.

Robert and Edson were going to head over to the mall after school. Sheri Pham, a girl from Economics in whom Edson was interested, worked at Clothes-time, and they were going to casually walk by the store and try to start up a conversation with her. Besides, Frank worked in the food court and they could probably wrangle some fries or Cokes out of him. I wanted to go, too, but I declined. The mall would always be there.

I had letters to write.

As I'd hoped, Tom was gone and neither of my parents was there when I arrived home. I quickly went back into my bedroom, where I threw my books on the floor and sat down at my desk to write a fake recommendation to the principal. I praised myself for imaginary selflessness, innovation and initiative, pretending that for the past year I had spent my free time not throwing a ball through a hoop or running down a field, but making a real difference in the world by combating alcoholism. My dad had beaten the bottle, and inspired by that, I had researched various support groups, had put them in touch with private and public treatment centers and had coordinated a complicated web of funding and referral services to make sure that people who needed help got it. I'd also written letters to businesses and corporations in an effort to get them to donate money to and/or sponsor these efforts.

I laid it on thick, but as I read over my letter I realized it wasn't enough. The information was there, everything I required to put me over, but I needed bulk, I needed volume. I needed another Carlos Sandoval and his Hispanic Action Coalition, a community service group to tout my accomplishments. I came up with the idea of having a fictitious organization nominate me for a distinguished-service award. Inspired, I wrote six letters of varying length on my word processor, each with a different font, then bundled them together and attached a cover letter from the fictional Sobriety Institute, signed by its president, Hiram Merritt, telling the principal that the school should be very proud to have an ambitious, altruistic young man like myself as part of its student body. The letter stated that I would be the first student from Hayes High—indeed the youngest recipient ever—to be nominated for the Sobriety Institute's Above and Beyond Award.

I sent another packet of letters to the superintendent.

Another to the mayor.

And my life changed overnight.

Well, maybe not overnight. But over a week, as the letters were delivered and the recipients responded, I suddenly went from being a nondescript nonentity to a celebrated humanitarian and inventive, enterprising self-starter who was going to go places in life. The principal, Mr. Poole, sent me a call slip in my homeroom and asked me to meet him in his office, where he shook my hand and congratulated me on my achievements.

I feigned ignorance. "I'm not sure what you're talking about," I said.

"Oh, I'm sorry!" He clapped a hand on my back, laughing. "I got a letter from the Sobriety Institute telling me about all the work you've done with alcoholics. That's quite a feat, young man. And I understand that you were inspired to do this by overcoming your own family tragedy. You are exactly the type of student Rutherford B. Hayes needs, and I'm proud to have you at our school. We all are." He showed me copies of the letters I'd written, and I pretended to be surprised and humbled.

BOOK: Dispatch
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