One cloudy morning in July of 1978, I drove Mrs. Beatrice Walker See and her family to visit the reformatory in Whittier where Mrs. See's son was an inmate. His name (not his real one, but close) was Stanley. He was sixteen years old and was serving his second sentence at the California Youth Authority's Fred C. Nelles School. The first had been for burglary, and this one for strong-arm robbery. Mrs. See, a cheerful, religious woman who looked to be in her late fifties, had told me that Stanley was basically good but kept getting into trouble because he couldn't stand up to his friends when they treated him as a stooge in their minor crimes. Stanley, in other words, was salvageable — to use a term employed by his current parole agent -- and had attracted the attention of police officer Dick Lewis in the crime prevention detail for the southwest part of town.
Lewis had met Stanley when the boy was twelve, not long after his father died, and Lewis had become, if not a second father, at least the only man in his life who discounted all the letdowns, all the missed appointments, all the jiving, and all the failing that Stanley tends to foist on those who know him. At one point Lewis had put Stanley in his police car and had driven him from grocery to market to cafeteria to liquor store, trying to find him a job. Much of this job hunting had occurred during the Christmas holidays of 1977, not a good time for seasonal jobs as most had already been filled, but it was the only time available for trying to help Stanley. He had been released from Nelles on Christmas Eve and one week later was back in jail — for a sentence twice as long as the first one.
Mrs. See had visited Stanley before but was having some trouble remembering the way. Things start to look the same in Los Angeles: the crowns of trees between the houses, the creosote poles, the freeway signs — none of the identify a direction when the sky is overcast and you can't see the sun or the mountains, nothing but a plain of suburbs under a blank plane of light.
But being lost didn't bother Mrs. See. She sat in the back seat chattering and looking out the window. She was wearing a denim house dress with a red kerchief on her head, and in her gold-filled mouth was a wad of snuff from which she occasionally spay juice into a Pepsi bottle. She'd been raised in the country near New Orleans and nearly everything she did was rough as a cob. Her manner of talking reminded me of my mother's — she just said anything that came into her head and you could answer it or not. "Look, they got barbecue," she said as we were passing a restaurant. "I could sure use some barbecue right now, if I was hungry. I mean, but I'm not, so I guess I don't. But if you all want some, you just pull over. Or maybe you'd rather have a chocolate malt or something? You just go ahead and say. 'Cause I don't care. I'm havin' a good time right here."
Her youngest son, Abe, who was thirteen years old, was sitting in front next to me. He was wearing hard black shoes, brown slacks, and a black synthetic disco shirt with a T-shirt underneath it. He asked me how much money I made, and when I told him, he said, "That all?" and squinted in disbelief. A minute later we were passed on the freeway by a creamy new Lincoln that someone had customized to resemble a roadster, with running boards and a spare tire mounted on the side, and when he saw it he literally hit the roof. Other than that he was quiet all day.
Abe's sister, Rosemary, was sitting behind and holding her three-year-old daughter in her lap. Rosemary is a tall, stately woman who looked at the time to be in her middle twenties. She has gray-green eyes, an Afro hairstyle, and a wide, heart-shaped face. She was a clerk at the Naval Supply Center and lived in a cottage-row apartment on West Avenue in Southeast, providing for herself, her daughter, and Abe. Exactly unlike her mother's home, Rosemary's was as bright and tidy as a bank. Her mother had told me that Rosemary as a girl had not liked Negroes. Being light-skinned herself, it had taken her the longest time, her mother said, to come to accept Negroes with darker skin. Mrs. See had said this in no manner of reproach; it was simply one of the things that she had mentioned, flatly, when I'd asked her to describe her family.
"What are you going to think about us," Rosemary said to me, "not knowing where Stanley is?"
"Oh we know where Stanley is," said Mrs. See, "We just don't know how to get there right off."
"Oh Momma," said Rosemary, "you...crack...me...up."
"But you just said I do," said Mrs. See. "Did you all hear that? Rosemary say one thing and then she say she don't mean it. I swear I don't know what to do with a life like that."
A few minutes later we found the Nelles School, then stopped at a 7-Eleven for something to eat before the visiting hour. Rosemary went in to buy for herself and the rest of the family, then came out empty-handed and told me to drive to a regular liquor store where cheese and sliced ham "don't go from some goddamn outrageous price."
The Sees were admitted that day to visit Stanley in the reformatory's meeting room, but I was kept out, owning to a misunderstanding about placing my name on Stanley's visiting list. And so I returned a few weeks later, this time by myself. It was a Monday, not a regular day for visiting, and the large and bare-floored room was empty except for a few small groups of boys who were being tutored by elderly women. One of the doors opened onto the schoolyard, and through it I could see a bit of lawn, a concrete walk, and one of the cottages in which the boys are housed. Each cottage is named after a president - Jackson, Washington, Monroe - whom the boys are supposed to identify with. At the time, the reformatory also tried to modify their behavior by awarding points. A total of 1000 points (for such things as good work in class and civil obedience) in one week earned an extra 200, all of which counted for money in buying cigarettes and candy at the school's store. Good time also bought early parole. Stanley's parole agent, David Pounds, met me in the visiting room and prepared me for Stanley's arrival by saying that although the boy was immature in many ways, he was doing well at Nelles -- he was, in fact, "holding down the board" by having more points than anyone in his charge.