I was seven when my father worked in a Los Angeles, California, shipyard. Our apartment was just a few blocks away from LA’s famous Figueroa Street.[i] It was my first close experience with cultures, races and spaces different from my North Dakota roots and the orchard camps. There were Mexican families in the camps but they were separated from us.
All of the brick buildings on the street where we lived in LA looked the same from the street but people were separated by buildings. Our corner apartment building had only Whites. Mexicans lived in the building next to us and Chinese lived in the next one.
The man who picked up my father for work in the mornings came from the Chinese apartments. He and a man from his building would park in front of our second story apartment and he would shout, “Bean-soon, Bean-soon, time to work.”
One day I was with a Mexican boy at his apartment when his grandfather asked me in Spanish if I wanted some tamale. The boy translated his question. I just thought it was a Mexican word for oatmeal because that was what the children were eating.
I was too embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know what he was talking about and took the tamale. He showed me how to peel back the corn husk wrapping and take a bite. My friend took a bite of his and continued eating. I took a large bite. It was the hottest thing I had ever eaten in my life. The grandfather could not help seeing my surprise at the heat of it after I started chewing. He laughed. I did the tough boy thing and finished it.
Every time I went there after that, he asked me if I wanted tamale. Then he would laugh. I learned very quickly how to say, “No gracias.”
Another time when I was with the same boy, some older boys asked us if we wanted to be in their club. We took the invitation; however, neither of us knew there would be conditions. The one who seemed to be their leader told us that one of the things the club members did was keep the neighborhood clean. Our initiation task was to pick up the trash in the alley behind the apartment buildings. My friend took one side and I took the other and filled a shopping bag each.
The leader told us that we were not finished. He told us that we also had to pick up the dog and cat poop in the alley. That was not a pleasant task but when we finished, we got to walk around the neighborhood with the older boys.
We moved before I became a gang member.
[i] I told Mother in the 1980s that I was going to a vocational conference at the Los Angeles Convention Center and that I would be staying in a Hotel on Figueroa St. She asked me to see if the Pantry Café was still on Figueroa. It was only a few blocks from where we lived in 1943. I ate there several times while at the convention. At this writing, the café that opened in 1924 is still in business at the same location.