I am from a small town called Crenshaw. Crenshaw is actually a series of neighborhoods in Los Angeles. About 100,000 folks live there from Manchester to Pico, from Figueroa to La Cienega. It was and is still the center of black Los Angeles. There are many stories about Crenshaw. You may have heard of them.
Like with all of America, class matters. I've said black America splits up into five. Sticks-Projects / Ghetto/ Hood / Burb / Hill. Crenshaw doesn't have the Sticks, there are no rural shotgun shacks, but it does have public housing projects and Section 8 housing. You've probably heard of 'The Jungle'. There are ghettoes too. I grew up in the 'hood. Our middle class was American lower middle class. Big families, many originally from Texas. Our upper middle class, was solid American middle class. Our upper class was American upper middle class. You've probably heard of 'Baldwin Hills'. That's when I was growing up in that small town called Crenshaw. Now things are lining up.
When my father left the Marine Corps and moved from Camp Pendleton to Los Angeles, he became a civil servant. This was 1962. Los Angeles was segregated and that's why, if you were black (Negro at the time) you landed somewhere in proximity to Crenshaw. We were middle class for blacks and ours was a good solid neighborhood, but unlike other neighborhoods we were a black neighborhood. You didn't so much move there because you wanted to, but because your choices were limited. So the result was that we had a broad economic and cultural diversity of black people in our neighborhood. To our left, was Rev. Robinson and his wife, an elderly couple. He never left the house not wearing a suit and hat. He always drove a brand new white Lincoln Continental. To our right were Mr. and Mrs. Arnold and their eight kids. He was a truck driver with a slim moustache, hard greasy hands always in coveralls. They had a yellow Chevy Biscayne station wagon. Poor Mrs. Arnold, when Maurice Arnold died, the kids went wild. We were in the West Adams community, noted for its stately churches and quiet residential streets and yes its red light district. I grew up in a three bedroom house with a detached garage on a street called Wellington Road. In 1966 when we bought the house there were still white folks living in the neighborhood. They were all gone by 68. In 1968 America was on fire.
I attended Virginia Road Elementary and Holy Name of Jesus School. I never sat in class with a white kid until I was 14 years old. I was the school brainiac, the oldest of five children and I wore glasses. I loved playing football, hated that I was too short for basketball, and couldn't understand baseball at all. I could swim, wrestle, tumble and do a double front off the one meter board. I was skinny, tough and fast. I was honest and good, but I was an adventurer. I would take any dare. I played cello, jogged every morning and read science fiction.
I wound up at Loyola, a Jesuit Prep school, instead of Palisades High School, my first choice. I wanted to run long distance, play baseball and become a jet fighter mechanic. But I ended up finding my feet sophomore year in Debate, French, Geometry and computer programming. I was a logic beast. I still loved science but not so much science fiction even though I read all of the Star Trek novels. I tested well. I did little homework. I was a Star Wars nerd and wannabe pinball wizard. I graduated on my 17th birthday, a four year varsity springboard diver, and captain of the winning intramural soccer team with 80th percentile SAT scores and a 2.91 GPA. I had no concentrations - no single thing made sense to me with a career path I could envision. I was recruited by Pitzer, Haverford, Georgia Tech, Bryn Mawr and Florida A&M. All I cared about was USC Electrical Engineering. I got to USC and dropped out second semester. No money.
I worked at Fedco, which was basically the 80s version of Costco. I sold radios, boomboxes, car stereo. I bought audiophile stereo DJ equipment and did receptions and church dances. I bought a motorcycle and rode Mulholland Highway at unsafe speeds. I grew my hair to shoulder length and dated a girl with dark skin, big legs and long braids. I listened to New Wave and electronic music and roller disco'd on the weekends. I made it into the Teamsters and hung out with Vietnam vets in the warehouse. I quit the store after the strike didn't get me a raise enough to afford my own apartment. I wrecked my bike, cut my hair, got a job as a teller at City National, worked downtown, got a new girlfriend with light skin, perfect diction and short hair. My parents divorced, I moved in with my Dad and bought a Karmann Ghia with his assistance.
I was about to get into the management trainee program at the bank at the recommendation of Ken, the Sr VP, but I decided I wanted to go back to college and get my degree in Computer Science. So I went to State in 1982 until I ran out of money in 1986. But I got three internships at Xerox, won Dean's List, served in student government and pledged Alpha Phi Alpha. I did every dimension of college life except graduation. No matter, I became a wholly different young man, inspired by the books of Thomas Sowell, the music of Arif Mardin and a haphazard philosophy somewhere between Ayn Rand, Malcolm X, Yukio Mishima and Henry Miller. Yeah, I know.
Somewhere between 1986 and 1992 I learned pretty much everything I needed to know about yuppie existence, corporate employment and Los Angeles. I got sick them all and joined a small software company and moved to NYC, became something of a neo-bohemian deep into semiotics, performance poetry and Beethoven. I moved to Boston and bought a Canon SLR, dropped in and out of aikido, capoeira, basketball, multimedia and speed dating, which hadn't been invented yet but...My wife, who at the time was my ex-girlfriend gave me an ultimatum. I took her up on it, provided she would take in my son born in Brooklyn, and we were married in 1994.
We moved to Atlanta and brought up three babies in the Northeast suburbs. I gave up my six figure entrepreneurialism for FTE benefits at another small software company which helped my move West back to California Christmas of 1997. We bought the minivan, and stored five tons of accumulated furnishings which we were not able to recover out of hock until 7 months later. Our rented house with the pool became the center of the mommyhood of the three Mrs Bowens. There was happy happy cousin pandemonium. We made grandfather into the doter.
I commuted to Silicon Valley and almost got rich. Then the double whammy of custody (of my son) and tax problems hit. It cost me the ability to buy a house in California, a non-trivial task under the best of circumstances. I have never recovered from that financial loss, and so I became, at length, a better person. After 9/11 we settled in Redondo Beach, one of my favorite places in the country. We have been here ever since. I worked as a traveling consultant and by now have visited all but seven states in the US.
Along the way I kept blogging and my writing life online, dating back to Xerox days in 1986, fulfilled a number of purposes. It got me into NPR and the Republican Party. It got me speaking dates and 1.6 million hits over the years. It has taught me a lot about myself and about people. Professionally, I have done very well and am still reaping the benefits of building systems all over the country in most every industry. I have accomplished a wide variety of modest successes. The journey is an inexhaustible narrative I am happy to share.
It only serves some marketing purposes, I imagine, to call mine a Black American story, I have little interest in all the ways I have seen to approach 'black'. I have my own way and I don't presume that it is anyone else's, and yet I know my story speaks to all curious people. I've never been particularly good at abstracting the meaning of my life - I let people react and try to correct misperceptions. You see it doesn't make any sense to me to write without a healthy does of self, so I always do. That is, when I'm writing for people. When I write for machines, there is no self, there is only my idiosyncratic style. I'm from a small town called Crenshaw, which is black in the same way only in the most mundane manners today as 40 years ago when it was home. What I know about black is one volume in a massive library written by people mostly dead. I think there are some fascinating chapters in my book. Mine is the tale of the traveler, up from freedom bouncing from liberty to liberty.
I live in the Burbs now, in very close proximity to the Hill. What was it that Orwell said about the lower edge of the upper middle class? I work at home as I presume the best writers always have, and I write for computers and people to sustain myself and my family. I'm happy with the balance but still have ambitions. This year and next will bring to a close the familiar chapter of being Dad. We'll see what comes next, but I have an idea. More later.