My longest friendship was with Edgar, a friend I met in the 6th grade. He was, like me, a child of immigrant parents and he spoke primarily Spanish. He loved to joke, tell stories, and that favorite of past times, sit around with your closest friends and make fun of each other.
Unfortunately, he was also one who tended toward the criminal side of life. Since we first met, he was always getting into trouble for something, be it ditching class, smoking weed, fighting, stealing stereos, stealing cars and other things – but nothing that would make him a bad friend. He wouldn’t steal from his friends, I have never in my life seen him lose his temper, he was a friend who would watch your back and who you could trust.
I remember riding my bike from Compton to his parents apartment in Gardena and later to their new spot in South Los Angeles. He introduced me to a lot of new people. Everywhere he moved, within months, he would know many people in the neighborhood. Like me, he was someone who couldn’t stay in the house and met new people easily. We both would ride our bikes anywhere, on a whim. To swapmeets, malls, hang outs, anywhere our bikes would take us. Also, as crazy luck would have it, he had two cousins that were from the Mexican gang that claimed my neighborhood in Compton. Eventually, he too would join that gang and become one of its lifetime members.
Like my mom, he had a family that would give him almost free reign to do as he pleased. There were no restrictions, even at an early age, we had no curfew, no limits on where or what city we can ride our bikes to, and little supervision outside of the home. His step dad, who had spent some time in prison and I knew only casually, would sometimes pick us up if we needed it. One time, I think I was about 13 years old at the time, his step dad picked us up and instead of taking us immediately home, drove deeper into LA to a place I had never been before. He left us in the car reassuring us he would be back shortly. Hours passed, well into the night, and we were still parked. He had an old Monte Carlo with really wide back seats, so Edgar and I fell asleep in the car, waiting for him to get back. Then out of nowhere, he comes back to the car, asks Edgar to get in the back seat with me, and brings with him a, what looked like, neighborhood cluck head. A cluck head is someone who is so addicted to drugs, primarily crack cocaine and has done so much of it, that they are visually drug addicts. The people you meet in high crime neighborhoods late at night with really red eyes, dry lips, missing teeth and always begging you for change, those are cluck heads. As soon as they got into the car, he drives a few blocks more and she gets out only to return a few minutes later. Edgar and I are both still in the back seat but I don’t say a word and Edgar looks like he went right back to sleep. A few minutes go by and I hear them smoking something, I hear the burning of foil paper, the sight of a lighter, and eventually realize that they are smoking crack cocaine together. After doing this for some time, he eventually leaves the area and takes us home. Years later, the same step dad would be hospitalized after jumping out of his second story window while high on PCP, he believed he could fly and nobody could convince him otherwise.
The longest friendship from Compton I had was with (lil) Sid, he lived a few houses from my house. Though he was a few years younger than me, we hung out alot. He would come to my house and we would play nintendo, baseball, and craps in the front of my house. Thinking back to those early years, I remember most his temper, whenever he would lose big he would have to go back home because he would get so frustrated with himself, sometimes in tears of anger. As the years passed Sid got older (and bigger, grew up to be one big guy) and, sadly, ended up joining the neighborhood crip gang. Though he was black, a member of a crip gang, and had a circle of friends different than mine, we continued to stay really close friends.
Sid didn’t know his father and his mother was a neighborhood walker, at all hours of the day and night she would be walking all around the neighborhood, to peoples houses, to the liquor store, to the adjacent streets, all over. Sids mom was also, though not at the level of a crack head, a crack cocaine user. Though I knew before, I remember hanging out with a local drug dealer when she showed up to buy crack. She looked at me straight in the eyes and told me never to mention this to her son. I promised her that I would not, and never did – though I am sure he already knew.
My neighbors in Compton were local crips. The mom was as addicted to crack cocaine as you can get. She had missing teeth, a temper like no other, a clumsy walk, always had a cigaratte or beer in her hand and if you met her elsewhere you could easily confuse her for homeless (nonetheless, I grew up with her as a friend and neighbor, and to this day when I see her we hug and respect each other). She has three sons, the older one of which was getting into trouble since I first moved into Compton (he is now serving life in prison).
These friends and family upbringings I write about are not that rare in Compton. Almost all of my friends families I had while living in Compton have something in common with these families. Very few of them, especially my black friends, have married parents, the ones that did had a dad that beats their mom, others one that is a drug and/or alcoholic, others a dad that is currently in prison or an ex-con former gangmember (like Edgars step dad) – some have prostitute moms, some have parents that sell drugs and push them to sell drugs. I remember walking into a friends house and seeing his mom sniffing cocaine right off the living room table. It didn’t bother her either, we just walked right passed her into my friends room. She was a neighborhood drug dealer and her son would later follow in her footsteps, all with his moms approval and backing. In fact, all drug dealers I knew in Compton had atleast tacit approval from their parents – several had outright encouragement.
Poverty in the United States is not primarily material, it is not primarily nutritional, it is not even primarily a lack of opportunity, though some of that still remains – poverty in the United States is primarily with the family. As the must read political scientist James Q. Wilson wrote, “There are many families with competent single moms, but they are outnumbered by the families that are harmed by the absence of a husband. From the ranks of the latter come high rates of crime and imprisonment, heavy rates of drug use, poor school performance, and a willingness to loot unguarded stores….In my opinion, the condition of the black family is the key to the persistence of a large and criminal lower class.“
It is not money, or nutrition, or greater opportunity that the poor in the United States primarily need, it is a family structure that is conducive to learning, to upward mobility, and to a crime free life. When you have a large amount of friends and family – dads, brothers, uncles, and neighbors either in gangs or intimately tied to the gang culture, and a world filled with drugs, and crime, it is hard to see a way out and it is hard to learn the virtues necessary to get out. Virtues like hard work, discipline, self control, and responsibility are hard if not impossible to learn in these environments and much of government assistant is wasted or counterproductive in these situations.
As far as Edgar and Sid go, Edgar was in jail the last couple of years I lived in Compton, and the last time I saw him was when I was in my last year of college, I picked him up from jail and took him to his parents house. At this point his parents had had enough with him and refused to let him in. He promised he is a changed man and begged them to give him one last chance but they wouldn’t budge. I dropped him off with some of his homies, and that is the last I saw of him. Shortly after, he would land in prison again, this time his last and he is not set to come out for a very long time. Sid, on the other hand, started to do good. After I moved out of Compton I would occasionally come back to visit and last I heard he said he was finally leaving Compton in search of a better life in Long Beach. Unfortunately, that was the last I saw of him. In another Compton visit I spotted his mom and eagerly asked her about Sid, with the impression that he is doing well in Long Beach. She informed me that he had been shot and killed in LA, and with tears already in her eyes, I asked no further questions and expressed my condolences. May he Rest In Peace.