The children in my neighborhood are a life-affirmative kind of pleasure for me, despite their girlish screaming and boyish growling sounds. They are noisy urchins, to be sure, yet somehow I find their racket reassuring. Mostly they are African-American or Mexican-American and, for the most part, under 12 years old. Their noise is far preferable to me than the uglier sounds of their parents: fighting, cursing, jabbering until dawn on — I figure — crack or methamphetamine, the revving of cars endlessly and seemingly to little point other than to announce to neighbors that they have six cylinders and maybe a 409 cubic under the hood. Ghetto status.
One particular charm the little poets possess is their chanting while jumping rope, often several of them at a time. I can barely catch all of it, but one I did is recited, “Who stole the jewelry from the jewelry store? Number one!” Another, usually next to the first breathy rope-jumper, will say, “Who me?”
First chanter: “Yeah you.”
Second: “Couldn’t be.”
First: “Then who?”
Second: “Number two!”
Third rope-skipper: “Who me?”
Second: “Yeah you.”
Third: “Couldn’t be.”
Second: “Then who?”
Third: “Number four...” Etcetera, until the chorus returns after all of the rope-jumpers have recited their parts. Apparently there is some sort of penalty for flubbing the script in any way.
Another of these is one I heard as a kid as well, though I don’t remember where or when. This one is simpler but easier to mis-recite than the more complicated patter above. It is chanted to the beat of rope and feet on pavement. “I was walking through the park/ goosing statues in the dark/ If Sherman’s horse can take it so can you.” If any of the players — and this seems the most common mistake — substitute the words “park” and “dark,” some dire penalty will ensue, though I have no idea what that might be.
I’ve mentioned before that I tend to like children, though by this I absolutely do not intend to imply that I am enamored with all of them. I have known more than a few insufferable and spoiled brats. One that springs to mind is a little pecker named Bran. He would play with my son in a bamboo stand down the canyon in our backyard in Hillcrest/Mission Hills (right on the artificial real-estate border on Curlew Street) and had a fondness for lobbing rocks at passing cars and once or twice my son. He would also break off lengths of bamboo and either whack my son and/or his friends with the thing or stab someone (again, more than once, my son) doing no serious damage but necessitating some rudimentary first aid and causing my usually stoic son to wipe at tears from his usually dry ducts.
I wrote a longish short story featuring Bran and called it — imaginatively enough — “The Bamboo.” One short-fiction publisher responded to my submission with a note stating something to the effect that it was an interesting enough idea, “A kind of cross between Peter Pan and The Lord of the Flies, but not enough Pan and too many flies. Perhaps if the story were more upbeat, less depressing, and featured more sympathetic characters than the two you’ve introduced and then do almost nothing with them (they serve only as victims), the piece could be salvaged. As it is, there is nothing here for readers who might want something more than a kind of Heart of Darkness involving children.”
I sent it to a few more publishers and received similar comments. It is still in one of my trunks full of rejections.
Now, apropos of none of this, it occurs to me that a recent column of mine, written pretty much in longhand with vitriol instead of ink, concerned several of my pet peeves. I forgot one major one and consider this (shifting gears as thoroughly as one might imagine) an opportunity to complain of yet another and what I consider more major beef. That is the attitude that many people have toward someone reading a book or even a magazine or newspaper. Often, on the bus or on a park bench or even in my own home when guests are present, reading anything will be interpreted as “doing nothing.” As long as one is “doing nothing,” he may be interrupted with impunity.
Too many times I have been reading something very involving, but since I’m being idle, this is a cue for others to initiate a conversation, a monologue, or diatribe with much to do with the speaker’s vastly uninteresting life story.
This same thing will happen while one is playing an instrument, I’ve noticed. But more about that another time…maybe.