Friday, December 14, 2012

Lost In La Puente


Tell me if this sounds familiar.  Saturday morning, sometime during the summer of 1970:

Me: “Hey Dad… I’m heading over to Ken’s house.”

Dad: “OK.  What are you two gonna do today?”

Me: “I dunno… maybe go grab some fries and shakes at Randy’s Burgers. Ride around.”

Dad:  “OK… just be sure to get home before dark. and stay outta trouble.”

Me: (whooshing sound as I blast off into the Great Unknown)

I would jump on my metallic purple 10-speed and haul-ass from home as fast as my pedaling could take me.  Yes, I would make my way to Ken’s house for a few minutos, maybe even find some time to make out with his sister Julie (if no one saw us), but that was only the start of a typical teen-age Saturday morning.  The possibilities were endless, and my hard-earned allowance of $3 a week (handed over to me just before I left) guaranteed that I would not go hungry or thirsty, no matter what adventures came our way.

We might ride up to the top of Pee Hill and tempt injury or death by racing down the steep streets like imbeciles.  We might ride to the (outdoor old-skool) mall in West Covina to look for girls or ride The Broadway elevator up and down 14 times before getting kicked out by the ancient security guard.  We might ride up into La Habra Heights and careen down the steep and twisty tree-lined streets while the neighborhood dogs would race after us to try and bite our legs and tires.  We might ride to Workman High School to watch the cute cheerleaders bouncing and prancing around during field practice.  We might even ride the 35 miles all the way to Huntington Beach to hang out on the sand and eat hot dogs and just be stupid hormone-soaked teenage Cali boys.

We might wind up doing some or all of those things.  Or not.  The point is, once I left the house, I was GONE, baby... totally lost.  The only way Dad would know where I was and what I’d been up to was if I got hurt or in trouble.  Otherwise, he didn’t have a clue where I was, who I was with, or what I/we were doing.  There were phone booths all over town if I had to make a call for any reason, but I had no reason to call unless I was hurt or in trouble, see?  He trusted me enough to let me roam about unhindered, unsupervised, uncontrolled.  That’s how it was for a relatively-good 13-year-old boy in 1970 in La Puente, California.  I know it wasn’t the same for girls… or was it?

I WAS FREE.

No smart phone.  No mobile phone at all.  No tablet.  No pager.  No e-tracking.  No live feeds.  No GPS.  No electronic tethers of any kind to worry about.

I WAS FREE.

No closed-circuit cameras were mounted on buildings, ready to catch me doing brodies on the smooth concrete loading dock at Food Giant.  No motion sensors were activated when we climbed into dumpsters behind the liquor store, looking for ruined copies of PLAYBOY or STAG Magazines.  Active surveillance was limited to being seen and/or heard doing… whatever.

I WAS FREE.

I feel awful for 13-year-old kids in our modern climate change age, with their (not very) smart phones and Fecesbook updates and Twatter feeds and I(B)Ms and all the things that hold them in electronic hostage, whether they are conscious of their condition or not.  Yeah, they might think they have it all… all the electronic goodies and the interconnectivity we modern humans think we cannot live without.  But they are NOT FREE, now way no how.   They can NEVER be as free as I was in 1970, riding my bike (without a helmet) across town, hair flying and sweat streaming and skinny tires glued to the ground by gravity alone.

I’d been thinking about this issue for some time when I read a column in my local paper, written by a school teacher who answers questions posed by unbelievably dense parents.  Seems a Mother’s kindergarten-aged daughter was having trouble making friends at school or her pre-scheduled ‘play dates’ and Mom asked what should she do.  The teacher’s answer was surprising… she basically said that play dates usually don’t work out for kids, because it’s really about the parents being friends and getting together. 
 
As for the kid making friends in her neighborhood (which the Mom doesn’t allow), the teacher talked about her own Mom letting her leave the house ON HER OWN and walk up the street to make friends, something ‘play dates’ just don’t accommodate.  Kids that don’t learn to make friends unless there is direct adult supervision are just missing out, so Mom needs to take kid to the park and let her run wild, make her own friends and learn how to assimilate into her own age group… on her own. Skip the play dates, lessen the hovering and supervision and little Missy’s ability to make friends at school would probably improve dramatically.

I read the question and answer over a few times to make sure I understood what was being discussed, and that’s when I flashed back to my yoot.  Even as a little kid, I somehow managed to find other kids my own age, whether at school or in the ‘hood, to play with and fight with and get into trouble with, to the betterment of us all.  Even then, the only time the parents got involved was when we drew blood or needed stitches or to be fed so we could rumble again.

It all relates to my original concern about too much electronic connectivity, parental control, covert and overt supervision.  When you grow up with those things as part of your world, you never know what it means to be without them, and therefore never learn to operate without them or know what it means to be so unencumbered.  This meme is probably not unlike arguments made about landline phones or teevee or any other modern conveniences that changed our lives during the last 100 years, arguments made by olds to youngs, the same arguments that are met with a heavy sigh and rolling eyeballs.  I think the newest digital demons are much more sinister, far more mind-numbing and ADD-causing, and are creating people who never really know what it means to be free, the way I was at 13 years old.

As I've asserted before, I reject the ownership of a smart phone, and will do so unless and until it becomes mandatory for my work.  I make no excuses for this Luddite tendency, even though my current work phone allows me to text and take pictures.  I understand how smart phones have become ubiquitous, their presence almost natural in many people’s lives. However, I draw the line at owning one for a wide variety of reasons.  Example: my boss recently called me into his office and we had the following conversation:

Him: “Here, I have a new phone for you to replace your old one, it’s a smart phone I just got.”

Me:  “Thanks, but I don’t need a smart phone.”

Him: “Whaddaya mean, you don’t need a smart phone?  It’s new and lets you browse the web!”

Me:  “I have a philosophical issue with smart phones and choose not to have one. The phone I have lets me text when I need to and that’s enough for me.”

Him: (sounding slightly confused) “But… you can check your e-mail from your smart phone no matter where you’re at.”

Me:  “I can check my e-mail when I'm working at my desk.  If I’m out and about, that means I’m busy doing something else and my e-mail can wait until I get back to my desk.”

Him:  (with a look of confusion and incredulity on his face, pauses for a few beats) “Well… OK then.  Have it your way.”

I know he didn’t understand my point, but then again his Droid calls out to him all day long, pulling his eyes out of his head in an instant.  For him, not having a smart phone is just… DUMB.  Every time I mention my aversion to smart phones, I get the same reaction, with varying degrees of flabbergast and disbelief.  I’m used to it, but it gets annoying.  I know it’s a losing battle… even my personal phone carrier is dropping their 2G service soon, which will render my ancient Nokia obsolete, forcing me to get a newer, more connected device.  I’m not looking forward to it.

Back to that whole teenage freedom thingie.  It only went so far (as it should), and my 13-year-old self sure as hell knew it.  In the case of being gone on my bike all day, there was one hard and fast Dad rule:  I had BETTER be in the front yard by the time the street lights came on or it was the belt for me, no questions asked, no excuses.  And he whipped HARD.  That was all the motivation I needed to keep me in line, the vision of him hanging on to my arm with one hand, his belt lashing at me with the other, both of us circling around in a weird dance of parental discipline.  Me no likey!

So here’s how it happened (more than once heh heh heh):  me and Ken are at Randy’s Burgers, eating fries and drinking choco shakes and trying to act all cool in front of some girls from another school.  Suddenly, I stopped cold… I realized it was getting dark and I was at least 2 miles from home. HOLY SHIT!!!  I dropped my food and jumped on my bike and blasted off for home, riding like a deranged rabid wolverine through the quickly-darkening neighborhoods, pedaling my ass off.  Somewhere about halfway home, my skinny front tire caught one of the recessed gutters at an intersection and I went down HARD, rolling into the curb and scrubbing flesh off my hands and arms. 

Without missing a beat, I jumped back on my bike and careened around corners, narrowly missing cars and curbs and pedestrians, riding like mad to get home please please PLEASE let me get home in time!!!!!  Rounding the curve near my home, I almost go down again, somehow managing to stay upright, slicing onto the sidewalk and crashing onto the grass in front of my house.  I jump up and see the street lights flickering on, then spin around to see Dad, standing in the front doorway, a stoic look on his face, saying nothing.  Her didn’t need to.  He slowly turns around and goes into the house, closing the door behind him.

I made it, but just barely.

I don’t begrudge the use of smart phones per se, but I do worry about the subliminal effects the electronic leash will have on the young’uns.  I am totally OK with how this technology has asserted itself into our daily lives, as all modern conveniences tend to do.  However, I can choose which of these tools to use, which ones to avoid, and which ones to rail against with vigor and contempt.  You know, just like Abe Simpson yelling at clouds… it will have the same impact.

For the time being, I’ll just keep using whatever mobile device(s) that allow me to have the least amount of connectivity possible and avoid the inevitable encroachment of streaming mega-data into my conscious sphere.  And I will continue to value that time in my life when I was pedaling around La Puente on a Saturday with my friend Ken, untethered, completely unattached from any web of any kind, thinking only of being on my own and away from home, eating fries and dodging cars, making out with Julie and getting totally and completely lost.

Epilogue: 
 
Ken was one of my best friends all through Junior and High School, and we spent lots of idle days cruising around town on our 10-speeds.  He was the first among my circle of friends that got his driver’s license and a car in 1972, and we managed to get into all sorts of bitchin’ situations in that faded blue beast.  I had sporadic contact with him after we left high school, and the last time I saw him was in 1990 when he stopped in to visit The Artist and me at our home in Long Beach.  I always wanted to reconnect with him again, but I found out just last year that both he and his sister had died under sad and unfortunate circumstances.

I was really depressed when I realized I could not and would not ever see him again, but that depression has passed and now I will always have him in my head and my heart. Sometimes I can almost hear him, calling my name and softly knocking on my bedroom window at 4AM on Saturday morning, ready to begin our 3-hour ride to the beach, climbing through La Habra Heights in the cool dark, careening down the other side and pedaling all the way down Beach Boulevard until we reached the sand and the ocean and the sweet escape it offered.

Thanks, Ken… we did it on the good foot, unconnected, lost in La Puente.

Lead image, gracias de flickr.com; Jimi Hendrix 'Freedom' and Bread 'Mother Freedom' videos, muchismas gracias de youtube.com; R.I.P. Ken & Julie Wallis.








 

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