Old-Fashioned California Sin

As I stood outside the Seven Eleven, I had no idea it was wrong to hustle. Customer after customer I approached, asking for spare change to put into the telephone hanging on the wall.

I just needed to call my mom. She was supposed to pick me up a half hour ago. I lied, lacing cuteness and deceptiveness into a money-making scheme. I can’t remember the name of the older boy who taught me this hustle, I just remember being the youngest, the whitest, and the most likely to con folks out of a handful of change.

We made out like bandits, hands and pockets lined with treats bought inside the Seven Eleven after an hour of hustling the good samaritans who bustled in and out for their hot dogs, slurpees and smokes. We couldn’t go home with our loot. The stomach ache from eating all the candy before our curfews was worth it.

Those were the days. We hit the streets barefoot and brash. On days like this one, we got along well enough. Other days, we lined up in the patch of desert beside our low-income houses, content to fight each other until blood spilt on to the hot sand. In an all-Mexican neighborhood, being the only white kid meant learning how to fight.

We were hustling and fighting. None of us were over the age of ten. It was just what you did in a neighborhood like ours.

When we weren’t conning passerby’s down at the local convenience store, you could find us climbing on to roofs or breaking into abandoned buildings. A few blocks from my house lived three brothers I got along real well with. They lived just on the outskirts of the Mexican neighborhood. They took me in and helped me scrap with the other kids.

Little white boys squaring off with sticks and rocks against equally-armed Mexican boys. We weren’t just a neat little trashy neighborhood, we were a microcosm of Southern California.

Between the hustling and fighting, we fancied ourselves little gangs. We weren’t bad kids, we were survivalists. Adapting and surviving the absence of parents. We didn’t hate each other as much as the outsider might think. On any given weekend, you could find truces made in favor of games of tag or to simply watch the latest rated-R movie we were able to steal from our parents.

Through it all, all the fights and what not, we all had a common enemy and I don’t think I will ever have better friends than the Mexicans who occasionally kicked the shit out of me. Once we hit the schoolyard, the poorer kids had to stick together. Socio-economic status trumps skin color, no matter what. Our raggedy clothes made us easy targets. Our weekend brawls made us poor choices to pick on.

For every time they had called my mom a ‘white whore’ or I had picked up a rock and hit one of them in the face with it, there was another time we had caught and beat on a kid on the playground for acting better than us by the Tether ball court.

We just lived in a different world. Our parents sent us to the store with food stamps to barter and beg for smokes.  Being street smart meant more for our futures than book smart.

I often wonder about that neighborhood. The Seven Eleven is probably long gone. The laundromat next to it, where we often hung out because our mothers worked together, is most likely long gone too. It was a lifetime ago when I stood by that telephone and hustled folks.

I still hold that trashy little neighborhood close to my heart. Maybe we weren’t good kids, but we were working with what he had. We were turning hard work and determination.

We were living The American Dream.

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