The Significance of a Change of Clothes
by Chris Welch
Kids all seem the same when they are young. Most of their innocence is still intact and their needs are simple. They need to be sticky (they always are), and they need someone who is aware of the basic code of child ethics: share, don't hit, don't call names, etc. I grew up with the neighborhood kids in an area that is technically neither Pasadena nor Arcadia, but the bland and impersonal Unincorporated Los Angeles. We were the group of boys people saw playing in the street because we knew ours had the perfect dimensions for kickball; no one drove on our street unless they lived here or were lost. We were the pack of kids with dollars in our hands trying to flag down the ice cream truck whose jingle alone made our sweat start to cool. We were the kids who knew nothing about the Armenian genocide led by the Turkish army, illegal immigration in the United States, or the Greensboro sit-ins during the Civil Rights Movement. We were just kids.
Kids are what we remained, maybe longer than normal. My neighbors were Omar and Karny. Omar, the oldest in our trio, had three years on me. He was a heavyset Hispanic boy, but we all knew that there was nothing but muscle under all that fat. His father didn't speak a word of English, but his mother spoke the language very well; I think Omar got his fluency in both languages from his mother. He was always setting trends. When he got Pokémon cards, we got Pokémon cards. When he tired of them, so did we. When he bought a video game console, we begged our parents to do the same. Although Omar set all the trends, it was Karny who called all the shots.
Karny was Armenian and proud of it. His mother could cook a mean kabob and would never hesitate to feed me when I came over. Omar and I were convinced that the Evel Knievel stunts Karny had always attempted had gotten to his head in the most literal sense possible. He was crazy, but a hilarious kind of crazy, so of course we didn't mind. The only time I minded was when Karny made me bike towards him as fast as I could as he did the same towards me; then we'd jump off our bikes simultaneously at the last possible moment as some sort of daredevil duo. But all was made up when Karny would ask us to tie him down on a plastic chair precariously placed atop a Radio Flier wagon, and push him down a hill.
Sure, I cried a bit, but I loved those kids nonetheless and I'd eventually figure out that they didn't mean it when they said I had a "peanut head" or made fun of my mother.
The trio wouldn't have been a trio without the third and final addition to the neighborhood gang: me. I was the youngest and shortest of our group and naturally, as in any sort of fraternal relationship, the subject of the most jokes and teasing. Sure, I cried a bit, but I loved those kids nonetheless and I'd eventually figure out that they didn't mean it when they said I had a "peanut head" or made fun of my mother. Together, Omar, Karny and I made the tightest group of friends I have ever known. There was never any "Where you from?" or "You bang?" or "What set you claim?" All we knew about was fun and friendship, and we had them down to a science.
As happens to all people, places and things, regardless of how eternal they may be, we grew older. Karny and Omar continued on their paths in the public school system, moving through middle school and into high school, telling me about fights that would break out in their school, about lockdowns and drug dealings. I, however, took a very different path. I ended up in Polytechnic School, a small K-12 private school in beautiful Pasadena, CA, just across the street from Caltech. It was home to the offspring of lawyers, brain surgeons, the vice president of Disney, and celebrity therapist, Dr. Drew. Instead of fights, I heard about the most expensive clothing. Instead of lockdowns, I heard about boat parties. Instead of drug dealings, I heard about Ivy Leagues. By high school, I was living a very different life from Karny and Omar, but our hearts were all in the same place: home, and our differences never stopped us from catching up with each other, even when it seemed like fate itself was trying to separate us.
It was a Friday night in August of 2008, summer of my junior year, and life was getting larger, but little did I know that with its increasing size would come stretch marks and tears in an otherwise smooth path through adolescence. I looked at my pricey smart phone to check the time: 9:38 p.m. It was getting late and I wasn't celebrating the end of a week of playing shows with the band in Hollywood and straining under suffocating pads during football practices. The moment I set my phone down, it rang; Karny's name showed up on the caller I.D. He was hanging out with Omar and I could hear Alex, Omar's cousin, rapping in the background.
"Yo wuddup, Karny?"
I had no clue where that came from, but I wasn't surprised. I had heard myself talk like this way before when at the Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles in downtown L.A.
"You hungry? Omar, Alex and I are about to go hit up that taco stand in Burbank. You down?"
Burbank was about 25 minutes west and this taco stand was really sketchy. In addition, a summer Friday night was prime time for crime and patrolling police officers would be on the prowl. Frankly, I wasn't feeling my luck with the local authorities, but I brushed off the thought and deemed the likelihood of us getting into trouble very improbable; I was all up for the experience.
"Oh fo' sho' man, you know it!"
"Aiight, cool. Meet me in front of Omar's house."
I opened my drawers and dug down deep, into the past, into my other life, the life I had neglected and would now give needed attention.
After hanging up the phone, I looked up at my dresser mirror. There I was in a slim fit orange polo, snug light blue jeans, and boat shoes; this outfit wasn't going to do. I opened my drawers and dug down deep, into the past, into my other life, the life I had neglected and would now give needed attention. After rummaging through layers of argyle sweaters, khaki pants, and boxer briefs, I found what I was looking for: a bright green and yellow hoodie decorated with puzzle pieces, graffiti, and the initials "N.Y."; a black pair of Rockawear jeans clearly too big for me, an oversized white Pro Club T-shirt, a 59/50 fitted cap, and my camouflage print Nike SBs. I felt awkward wearing these clothes again, like my personality was rejecting them and trying to slough them off, while the clothes knew whom they were on and would never let go after having been abandoned in my dresser for so long.
I slipped out the back door to avoid the judgment of my parents and walked into the night that was surprisingly cold for 10 p.m., heading toward a pair of headlights a few houses down. I got into the back seat of a '97 Toyota Camry in front of Omar's house, four feet away from the curb because of the trash cans, with its hazard lights on. Karny sat in the driver seat, with Alex in the passenger seat in front of me. We didn't move.
"Yo, where's Omar at?"
"He's taking a shit."
"Are you fuckin' serious?"
"Yeah man, you know how he is, he's prolly gonna take like thirty minutes."
Alex's impatience took over and he blurted out: "Shit, let's hit up Jack in the Box real quick. I wanna get some fries."
Karny ignited the engine into a dreary rumble and we casually cruised to the Jack in the Box up the block. On our way up we heard what sounded to us like gunshots, but optimistically assumed they were fireworks. We got our fries and parked back in our same spot.
"Man, I don't have a good feeling about this," I let out in an uneasy groan.
Karny responded with cool assurance, "Don't trip; Omar should be out soon."
I really didn't think so, but Karny insisted that we wait. Meanwhile, Alex ate his fries, momentarily content until we saw a police car turn the corner and start coming down the street towards us. The police officer stopped right beside Karny's driver side window.
"What are you guys doing?"
"We're waiting for our friend."
"Who's your friend?
"Where does he live?"
"Where's right here?"
"42 N. Quigley Ave."
He checked his computer. It turned out we weren't lying,
"Have you guys heard anything about gunshots? We got a report of fired shots in the area."
"No, sir. We thought we heard fireworks earlier, but no gunshots."
"Thank you; have a good night."
Before I even had a chance to tell Karny that it would be a good idea to move, our eyes were blinded by the flashing lights of three police cars behind us with their floodlights pointed into the car. While half of them stood their ground behind their open car doors, the other half of the police officers approached our car with batons out and hands on their holsters, demanding that we put down our windows and keep our hands where they can see them. We were questioned again and we answered the same. They took our I.D.s, but not before Alex was almost shot while reaching for his I.D. without being asked. A couple of sheriffs started wandering onto Omar's porch with their flashlights shining into every crevice. Omar's dad came out looking confused, complaining in frantic Spanish. Karny's family came out, too, his mother crying because she had convinced herself that we were all going to jail for something that we didn't do or even know about. Finally, in the thick of radio chatter and the hum of a pack of idle police car engines, Omar came out from his back door, without a clue in the world of what was about to happen. Two sheriffs approached him, demanding that he put his hands up. They frisked Omar and put his hands behind his back, sat him on the curb, and questioned him. I peeped my head out the window and said, attempting to lighten the mood, but more to disguise my fear, "See, Omar, this is what happens when you take too long to take a shit!" But even that didn't help.
This was not the first time, but it was the worst time. After an hour, the police officers realized that our records were clean and they let us go with a carload of pointless, harsh threats. We ended up getting stopped again later that night in the parking lot of a Wendy's, where we had gone to eat after we found the taco stand closed. There had been some grocery store workers hanging out after work in the parking lot. They hadn't been causing any trouble, just like us, but I guess the sirens were attracted to us, as was the unnecessary backup that officers had a habit of radioing in for. I never planned on killing anyone with a burger wrapped in wax paper, a side of fries and a Sierra Mist, but who knows what people can do nowadays.
Later I talked to my dad about what happened. He wasn't surprised. He had been stopped in only his running shorts and shoes once by a cop in front of his own apartment and was almost taken to jail for questithis one night out in months with these "gangbangers" made Quigley Avenue look like an L.A.P.D. kind of Christmas.
I had spent countless nights with my friends from Poly doing the same thing, but in different clothes and in different cars and with people with different skin color. Yet this one night out in months with these “gangbangers” made Quigley Avenue look like an L.A.P.D. kind of Christmas.
I always wonder why what happened to us that night actually happened. I had spent countless nights with my friends from Poly doing the same thing, but in different clothes and in different cars and with people with different skin color. Yet this one night out in months with these "gangbangers" made Quigley Avenue look like an L.A.P.D. kind of Christmas. Karny, Omar and I still try to laugh about it today, but it's a peculiar kind of funny and it leaves a bitter taste in our mouths. It was ridiculous and resurfaced plenty of issues I had already dealt with earlier that year in similar incidents with the same kids. We didn't care too much because in a naïve way, it was pretty funny and most certainly a good story to tell, but our youthful indifference couldn't possibly mask the truth of the situation.
American society still has a long way to go, or at least our section of Unincorporated Los Angeles. I'd like to think that when the city added the "unincorporated" modifier to the name of my area, they meant that they weren't finished yet, that there was still work to do to incorporate our area into the rest of the world, a world I heard was filled with officers who protected and served everyone, not only those who fit the dress code.