In the summer of ’81, I was 15 years old. I wasn’t your average teen. I was a committed juvenile delinquent and drug “enthusiast,” with a somewhat troubled past. My parents were hippies who–like many counter culture rebels–became hard core drug addicts. They divorced during a state mandated custody battle. The cops seized my siblings and myself because my parents refused to snitch on their dealer, basically. I spent two years (’76-’77) with my grandmother, who was a vicious and mean, high-strung stress case with an extreme superiority complex. My Mom eventually regained custody of us and we returned to our outlaw life. After a few years, and developing a drug habit, I tired of the poverty and stress of it all. I was offered to return to my Grandma’s house and I accepted. I returned much more street smart and ready to party it up.
The San Fernando valley in the early eighties was a great place to party. Cruising Van Nuys Blvd (if you google “cruising Van Nuys Blvd” you can see what it was like) had been shut down about a year earlier and that scene had moved to a large park called Balboa Park. The lot would fill with cars, all of which would tune their radios to KMET, and a huge party would happen. Every once in awhile, the cops would drive through and everyone would hide their beers and what have you. It was a great scene.
My friends and I would buy six packs of Mickey’s big mouths and split them. You’d put one beer in each back pocket and drink the third. That way, if you had to run, you only lose one beer. We had a plan for everything. This informal gathering happened every Wednesday night, just like the Van Nuys Blvd scene it replaced. We had many memorable times there, and this story centers around the last one I had there, during the summer of ’81.
I had a friend named Marvin. Marvin was far more criminally minded than I. He had been to juvie a few times and had a huge record. He’d dive right in to any criminally oriented situation with aplomb. He pushed me to expand my lack of respect for the law. I was positively small-time by comparison.
Marvin was very small. I was about 6” taller than him. I was kind of a protector of his. He’d get belligerent often and at ill-advised times, and I’d usually smooth things over with whomever wanted to kill him this time. Sometimes a fight would be unavoidable. Those times we’d just fight it out.
This particular Wednesday night was off to a good start when I ran into Marvin. I was already a little drunk, had my three Mickey’s big mouths and was raring to go. Marvin pulls out some ‘ludes and gives me two of them. I was starting to feel really good about things, a feeling later proven to be misguided. As we walked the rows of cars, talking to girls and checking out hot-rods, this big dude runs up and starts hassling Marvin. Here we go again.
I go to assess the situation. It seems that the ‘ludes Marvin had given me earlier had been fronted to him and he had no plan to pay for them. The big dude seemed very agitated and was demanding his 20 bucks. I sprang into negotiating mode and asked what he needed that we could maybe actually get for him. After some back and forth, we agreed that Marvin and I would go steal a car battery as payment. This seemed like an easy was to avoid violence, and we were sure it’d be quick and painless.
There was really only one option for stealing car batteries near this park, a row of apartment buildings across the street. We went to the first car, in the first space of the first building. It turned out to be a horrible choice. There was an overhead storage locker which covered the front half of the hood. I told Marvin to be the lookout, so he stood at the edge of the lot watching out. I had no tools, but I figured I could just wind the clamps off. The hood crashed loudly into the storage bin when opened. I got the negative cable off as planned, but the positive side would not budge more than a slight partial turn. Eventually, I decided to just yank it out and hope the inertia would pop it off. Drugs and booze famously spawn bad decisions. We had both the former and the latter.
Well, after one particularly loud crashing noise I see Marvin waving at me frantically. I start waving back to say, “I can’t help it,” but he responds as if to say, “NO, not that.” Then, he raises both his hands like a stick-up victim from the movies. I was perplexed until I saw the three people with guns pointed at him. They told me to come out with my hands up, so I did. They ushered us into one of the apartments and sat us on the couch inside. There were more armed residents inside and now we had about 6 guns pointed at us. I remember one of them looked like a flint lock taken from a plaque off the wall. Anyway, they held us until the cops arrived. I’m sure the proximity of the park caused them much concern, with all the partying and such, explaining the guns and quickness with which they used them.
The cops took us down to the station and handcuffed us to bench. After about an hour, Marvin’s Mom came and picked him up. I assumed my grandmother would come for me next. Well, an hour later, she still hadn’t come. Finally the cops came and told me that she had told them to keep me. I was going to be driven to Juvenile Hall. Whoo-hoo! After another hour on the bench, they walked me out to a waiting car and we were on our way.
Juvie was pretty much what I expected. It was a huge concrete building with only tiny windows way up high on one wall. It was three floors high and the lesser offenders like me were on the upper floor. That meant we could watch the traffic on the overpass through our window slits, if we stood up on our beds. The food was disgusting and the place was noisy and smelly and fucking cold all the time. We stayed in our cells almost all day. Ate in there and everything. There were some tables in the hall area outside the cells and we’d go out for about an hour every day. I spent about two months there going to trial and then waiting to get shipped out. I remember the radio played the Stevie Nicks/Tom Petty duet over and over because it had just came out. I will always connect that song to that place and time.
Juvenile court is (or, at least, was…) unlike any other depiction or reality of court I had ever seen. As a minor, you have NO rights at all. There’s no concerns about proportionate punishments, rights to confront accusers, even the right to defend oneself. Marvin’s Mom had hired a lawyer for him and he (the lawyer) was the only one who spoke, other than the judge and, briefly, some kind of social worker/probation person, who made recommendations to the judge. Marvin’s lawyer gave a dissertation on what a good kid he was and how the only reason he was in trouble was because of my bad influence. I was steaming mad and kept raising my hand. The judge seemed irritated by me and kept waving me to shut up. After awhile he proclaimed that he had heard enough. Marvin was sentenced to house arrest and probation and I was sentenced to “suitable placement.” For how long, I had no idea. What suitable placement was, again, no clue. All I knew was I got jacked in that courtroom.
Well, one day they drove me out to my “suitable placement.” It was a large group of brick buildings arranged like a school, with a quad, dorms and a cafeteria. It was run by Catholic monks. Everyone was “Brother X, Brother Z,” etc. There weren’t any walls or fences, so escape was always an option. Only the knowledge that I would be hunted down kept me from just leaving, well, that and the constant reminders that the next place was gonna be much worse. There was a school adjacent to the facility and we would spend regular school hours there. I was assigned a job in the kitchen and a dorm space with a cabinet and a bed. We had group therapy every day, where we’d talk about our problems and receive any news about our status, etc. The staff got to determine how long we would have to stay. We got weekend passes which we could earn in various ways. I had to talk my grandma into letting me go to a few at her house (I’m pretty sure the staff called her and made it happen). I got two weekend passes, one of which turned out to be transformative.
There was three things that stood out as notable events while there. First, when I had just arrived, a guy in the kitchen had a half a joint. He was gonna share it with me. I figured we could put a ladder all the way up to the vent so the smoke could escape without smelling the place up. Then, we decided to cover any remaining smell with a mixture of all the cleaning products available, particularly the strong smelling ones.
It turns out that mixing these chemicals can cause a variety of symptoms, including loss of consciousness and even death. Who knew? All the fumes rose to the top of the room, where we were atop the ladder. The fumes were so overwhelming, I couldn’t tell if the pot had any effect. The other guy fell off the ladder, hurt himself and I had to go get him help. The whole thing was viewed as us mixing the wrong chemicals and we never got into trouble because they never found out about the pot.
The second thing was much more consequential. On my second weekend pass, I was out looking to get high. I ran into a friend and asked if he had any dope. He said he didn’t but he was going to a meeting and I was welcome to go. I had to cram as much into my time as possible and there was nothing going on so I said, “yes.”
We drove to some little room in a church. I walked in and immediately thought, “there’s no way these are my kind of people.” They all had cars and jobs and they seemed like normal people. Then they started talking. They talked about all the things I was doing as a delinquent and how they had done similar and felt bad about it. They talked about having a conscience and how it seemed no-one else did. They talked about how it felt to know you were gonna keep doing dope, no matter if it killed you and how hopeless it felt. They seemed to have a window into my soul and made me look at myself in ways I never thought I could.
Prior to that I had all those thoughts and feelings, I just never considered saying them so out loud. I watched people (in my fucked up outlaw world, anyway) go steal, fight, scam and do any manner of devious stuff and never seem to have any feelings of guilt. I assumed that I had to do these things and I would force myself to, but I was wracked with guilt. I thought my guilt was a personal defect which kept me from being all I could be. My life to that point had been a constant battle with my morality to overcome its influence and finally feel the way others looked like they felt. I had never imagined that they all experienced the same turmoil. Now I had proof. I was hooked. I got sober and stayed that way for 30 years.
I was the only one at my placement who had gotten sober. I began to explore my soul and how it worked to regulate my morality. I completely changed my outlook and focus. In the group therapy sessions, I started actually being helpful to the other kids. I started helping them to solve their problems or at least begin to. The average stay there was about 6 months. Some people stayed 5 and some 7. I stayed a whole year. I’m pretty sure some of that was to find a suitable foster home (more on the “suitability” later) but I’m pretty sure my effectiveness at counseling the other kids played a part in extending my stay, as well. In any case, I set the record for longest stay for at least that era. Even a couple of other kids who went to foster homes were released after 6 months.
It was during this time that I developed an ulcer. I was taken to the doctor who injected me with some dye and then x-rayed me. Back then, they had no real drugs for this so they just gave me a list of what not to eat. It was basically everything. Because I was institutionalized, they made me actually stick to it. I spent the last month there eating plain mashed potatoes and egg whites with no seasonings. It was hell. Every meal was a plate of bland whiteness. It sucked balls. I was getting really fed up with the system and wanted out bad.
Eventually, the day came when I was allowed to leave. I was to move to a foster home in a good neighborhood with one other kid who already lived there. Oddly, the “parent” was just a single man, not a couple. I was happy to be leaving and ready to go out into the world. The guy seemed nice enough and the other kid was OK, I guess. I was happy to able to go to meetings and be out in the world, finally. It was about 14 months after I had tried to steal the car battery, and I was finally free to walk the streets, or so I thought.
The other kid that lived there was a full-on fuck-up. He would waltz in with a shiny new stereo and claim he found it in an alley. He’d say that he hoped it worked and then try it out. Amazingly they always worked. The “parent” seemed to buy all of this hook, line and sinker. This kid never got in any trouble whatsoever. He even got brought home by the cops once for some crime or another. The guy never even asked about any of this. In my case, however, if I was a few minutes past curfew, there’d be handcuffs on the tables and endless threats to send me back. It was clear that the other kid was immune from trouble and I had a target on my back. I was young and at least somewhat naive, so I never really understood what was going on until after I decided to leave.
One day I had had enough. I decided to find my bank book with my kitchen job earnings (about $300.00) and split. It was over a year and a half since my crime. I figured that I had paid my debt and was not going to live under this cloud of threats any more. I ditched high school and went hunting for my bank book. As I rifled the drawers in the “parent’s” room, I hit one that was locked. I assumed my stuff was in there, so I used a playing card to open it. Inside was a huge cache of gay porn and some sex toys that seemed like they were aimed towards women, IYNWIMAITYD. That’s when I started to remember a bunch of details. I would come home in the middle of the day and both the “parent” and the other kid would be in bath robes. Sometimes the kid would be taking a bath and the parent guy would go into the bathroom and stay 20 minutes or so. I realized that this guy was fucking the kid and knew I wasn’t going to be down with that. He was trying to get rid of me to cover it up. At that moment, he came in and started yelling about me being a thief, because I jimmied open his drawer. I really wanted to beat the living hell out of him with a lamp. I mean badly. The guy was a minister at a huge church, someone who convinced the state he could look after wayward teenaged boys, and this was what he did. I restrained myself and just left, not even bothering to find my bank book.
It was not easy, being alone on the streets at 16 years old. On top of that, I had a warrant for going AWOL. I started using a fake name, at least for anything official (like talking to the cops). I slept in an abandoned bar across the street from my AA clubhouse for a few months. I would put 4 bar stools together for a bed. I spent my days in bookstores reading book after book. I really can’t remember how I fed myself.
Eventually, I started getting jobs doing drywall or framing houses. Back then, you could buy a tool belt full of tools and just walk up to a jobsite and ask for work. 8 or 10 bucks an hour and if you worked really hard, they’d keep you. Nobody asked for ID or social security info. I did phone sales, auto repos and a bunch of other crap, too. Eventually, I got a job from a guy at the meeting in title insurance. It paid OK and I started saving a bit. Finally, I went to trade school for auto repair and became a mechanic.
One day, I hitchhiked to Santa Barbara with a friend of mine. We just went to hang out and have fun. We were walking down State Street and as we walked, I was cleaning my finger nails with a buck knife. My friend bumped into me a few times. I kept telling him to watch where he was going, but he persisted. Finally, I stopped and adamantly told him to knock it off. Right as I was doing this, a guy walks up and asks, “what are you doing?” He was just a regular looking guy with a Levi’s jacket on. I said, “nothing, just messing around,” and realized I had my knife in my hand, so I folded it and put it away. Well, he opened his coat and pulled out a gun and yelled, “Freeze!” which was silly, because we weren’t moving. We put our hands up and he took his coat off to reveal a Santa Barbara Police shirt. He arrested me for “disturbing the peace.” I used my middle name for a first name and my Mom’s maiden name for the last one. I told him I was 18 years old, so they took me to the county jail. This was on a Friday night.
I sat in jail until Sunday evening, when they called out my alias. I had forgotten it by then so there was significant lag time in my responding. Eventually, I caught on and answered up. The officer told me to roll ’em up because I had made bail. I was shocked. The only one who even knew I was there was my friend and he was 16 also and penniless. The cop walked me down some halls and finally stopped me in a quiet spot. He told me that some friends from L.A. had come up to look for me after my friend hitched back down there and told them what happened. They went to juvenile hall, the police station, the hospital, basically everywhere before ending up at the jail. They tried every combination of my name with no luck (they didn’t know what my alias was).
Finally, they asked to see pictures of arrestees from Friday night and found me that way. The cop said they told him my whole story and he was impressed. He said he was gonna let me them bail me out, but first he took me on a scared straight tour. This guy killed his mom, that guy stole a car, etc. Then he gave me a hundred bucks and said, “don’t come back to my jail,” and I was out.
I tried to make good on his admonition, but it wasn’t to be. About 2 years later, I was riding my motorcycle around and got pulled over. I had long since stopped using fake names, so I gave them my real name. They gave me a chicken shit ticket for loud pipes or dim tail lights or something and after I signed it, they whipped my hands behind my back and handcuffed me. I asked what they were doing and they said I had a warrant from Santa Barbara. Damnit!
This time, I went to L.A. County Jail and had to sit there for 5 days until a bus left for up north. I rode up with all the people who were sentenced to state prison. I got to Santa Barbara jail on Friday, so I had to wait until Monday to see a judge. When I finally did, he seemed pissed that I was there. He said, “years ago you did basically nothing on State Street, there’s not even any peace on State Street to disturb! Now, you’ve spent ten days in jail, and forfeited $100.00 bail for no good reason. I apologize and the case is dismissed.” So now, I get released at like 11 p.m. in Santa Barbara with no money and no way home. I hitched home and it took all fucking night. When I finally got home, my motorcycle had been impounded and cost me about $600.00 to get it out.
I could go on, but this seems like as good of a place as any to end this story. My life, both before and after these events, has been filled with the similar craziness, this is just one sliver of it. BTW, Santa Barbara County Jail, circa early 1980s, was a WAY better place to be an inmate than either L.A. County Jail or Sylmar Juvenile Hall.
P.S. When I adopted my son 7 years ago, I told this story in somewhat abbreviated form, to our social worker. She was amazed, not by that fact that it happened, but by the fact that I turned out OK. She said, basically, “ most of those kids end up spending their whole lives in prison.”