Doing The Right Thing

So far, so good. Since my first roll Friday morning across the stretch of Ballona Creek Bikeway that includes the spot where a cyclist was attacked and robbed last week, I’ve encountered nothing that would even be considered remotely menacing.

Here’s the timelapse from this morning’s creekside ride from Dusquene in Culver City to Inglewood Boulevard in Mar Vista:

Boldly Going: Ballona Creek Bikeway – 08.02.25 from Will Campbell on Vimeo.

Even though the first few trips haven’t shown me any dangers lurking out there, I retrieved an item from the depths of a desk drawer that has about a 50/50 chance of either helping me or getting me in trouble.

No it’s not a gun or a knife. It’s a telescoping steel baton that I bought a year or so ago when I worked at DirecTV for a few months and was biking home through Inglewood, Crenshaw, Leimert Park and east along Exposition Boulevard. Fully collapsed it’s about seven inches long. Fully extended it’s about 21. It came with a handy belt holster. But even unconcealed its pretty much illegal to carry and I never had the guts to do so. I never even brought it with in my backpack a time or two because how often does one have time to unzip and retrieve something when you’re in the process of getting jumped? Not often.

Anyway, I brought it out into the light and took it out in the backyard and swung it around. It felt good in my hand and I imagined an epic scenario where I produce the weapon much to the surprise of the thugs closing in on me. Then I imagined the baton being taken from me and used against me. And so I whacked the thing against a river rock until it bent and would not compact, then I dismantled it into its segments and put it in the recycle bin.

I’m mostly a firm believer of it being better to have something and not need it rather than vice versa, but that doesn’t apply to fear.

Tales From Junior High

In the beginning of my first year at Le Conte Junior High in Hollywood I thought I’d become friends with a ninth grader named Tony. I say “thought” because it was definitively and painfully proven to me that this was later not the case at all.

I can’t remember the particulars that resulted in Tony being friendly to me — and it was nothing major; usually just a nod or a “hey” as we passed each other. But as anyone familiar with the hierarchy/pecking order of schools knows, for a seventh grader to gain the acceptance  and recognition of an upperclassman? Huge. Practically life-affirming.

But like I said, it’s not like we hung out down by the schoolyard or got together on weekends. Whatever it was that connected us is too far back in the archives to extract. What broke us apart, however, remains far more freshly filed.

It was another day at school during another lunch break. I was standing in the main part of the school yard, waiting in the long line for the cafeteria when I saw Tony standing over at the side with several other seniors. It was hard to miss Tony, he was tall and his head was topped with a decent-sized afro. I watched him hoping to catch his eye and get a hello and sure enough he finally saw me looking at him and dang if he didn’t excitedly motion me to come over to where he was.

I didn’t hesitate to jump out of line and head over. And when I got there my heart leapt because there was Tony holding his hand high and enthusiastically saying “Give me five!” I couldn’t stick my hand out fast enough, and for the split second when he stung it with a hard slap, I was in underclass heaven. I had arrived.

But then the sting didn’t go away. In fact, it got worse. On top of that I was surprised to find Tony and his surrounding buddies laughing loudly, some with surprised expressions on their faces. One was howling and pointing at my hand, which brought my attention back to it and showed me why the pain wasn’t going away.

Impaled to the hilt in the middle of my palm was a blue bulletin board pushpin. Some of my blood was leaking out around it. I stared at it first in disbelief momentarily wondering how that could have gotten there. Then I realized Tony had delivered it hidden from between his fingers and the betrayal and shock registered, probably with the proud smile still stupidly stuck on my face as Tony and his entourage jumped around in pained glee.

Maybe the crew were expecting me to add to their entertainment by crying or screaming or running away and making even more of a fool of myself, but I just stood there staring at Tony with my hand held out and the blue pushpin sticking out of it and the blood leaking our around it until he finally realized the show was over and put on an expression that was half embarrassed and half curious.

In the Hollywood version of this story I’d put Tony onto the ground with a kick to the nuts and then get pulled off of him while using his ears as handholds and slamming his afro’d head into a bloodly pulp against the tarmac. But that didn’t happen.

In the other Hollywood version I’d just reach over with my right hand and pluck the pin out, illiciting more pained reactions from the seniors. With the blood unstopped and flowing outward and over the edge of my palm I’d position the pin point-up between my middle and ring finger and raise it my hand over my head.

“Your turn,” I’d say and Tony’s eyes would get wide and he’d run away like a big ninth-grade bitch with his friends following his chickenshit lead. Then I’d find Mr. Pittman, the school security officer, point out Tony to him and tell him what happened. I’d be sent to the nurse to have my wound tended. Tony would end up expelled.

But that didn’t happen either. Instead I just pulled out the pin, walked away physically and emotionally wounded, humiliated and heartbroken.

I kept the pin for awhile. Stored it in my keepsake box the way a soldier might keep a bullet that wounded him in battle. Ultimately though I realized I didn’t need anything physical to show me that people who you want to impress can be failures. That those you think are your friends are not. In that vein I suppose I should thank Tony for teaching me such an important lesson so early. But if I saw him today, I wouldn’t shake his hand. I’d hold mine up high and say “Your turn.”

Or I’d just kick him in the balls.


At the end of the battle and not without tears streaming down my face I stood with the tattered remains of my vanquished foe held high before the front window where my Susan looked out at me.

“I do not quit,” I said in a quiet and quivering voice. And my Susan left the window and came through the house and out the front door and to me and put her arms around me and I think she got choked up a bit, too.

What was it that Susan had endured me fighting and failing for about two hours? Nothing more than the bottom bracket of my bike whose lockring refused — and I mean refused! — to budge.

And I almost gave up. Having bloodied one finger and smashed two others while stripping the teeth of the lockring so that the bottom bracket tool could barely find purchase I turned to my last resort: the big plumbing wrench almost entirely unsuited for the task of loosening the frozen thing from its threads. But it had worked before on another bike so I figured I had to give it a try.

That failed to do anything but simultaneously crush a fingertip and chip the paint on the bike when it slipped with me in full exertion mode.

And that was it. I threw in the towel. “I guess I’m beaten,” I said aloud. And I hated myself. And I hated the bottom bracket and the bike and the world. And I wanted to break the bike and the tools and the bricks I walked back and forth on in a tantrum while fighting the urge to cry like a little baby and curse at the top of my lungs.

I do not know what made me dig deep for one last attempt, but I picked up the bottom bracket tool and using it with a 32mm wrench on one side and the socket/ratchet arm on the other, I seated it as tightly as I could onto the thoroughly damaged lockring one more time and I took a deep breath and I leaned into it and with every last bit of me I gave it a twist and the lockring held just like it had for the last two hours, but this time so did the tool. So I leaned into it a little more, and this time instead of slipping off the ring and sending my fingers smashing into the bike frame, it turned. Befuckinggrudingly, it turned.

And I let out a “hell yeah!” through clenched teeth and kept up the pressure and it kept turning and in a few more rotations, I had the bottom bracket in my hand and I walked away from the bike and with tears of joy and pride and relief streaming down my face I stood with the tattered remains of my vanquished foe held high before the front window where my Susan looked out at me.

“I do not quit,” I said.

I Am A 6’2″, 215-pound Manly Man And I Have Absolutely No Problem Admitting That Eva Cassidy Makes Me Weep, Do You?

Just as there are songs like Prodigy’s “Firestarter” and Wall of Voodoo’s “Ring of Fire” that I can’t listen to while biking because they make me ride punkass angry almost to the point of where I’m looking for a fight, there are also songs that calm me without fail. The late and great Eva Cassidy’s version of “Over The Rainbow” is one of them. I swear my hair could be on fire simultaneously while some fudgepot in an SUV is trying to shoot me AND run me over and if Eva’s singing into my ear, it’s nothing but all good: have a nice day, nothing Supercuts can’t clean up — and by the way Turner’s is having a special on hollow points this week. Peace.

Not only that but I can listen to it over and over and over and over and overover and I did just that this morning pushing the back button on my iPod four or five times on the way in to work because I was a little bit funked up and Eva said easy there big fella, come over here and put your head on my shoulder and let me tell you where I’ve been and what I know.

In addition to the five or six times in a row today, Eva has soothed my savage beastie on hundreds of other occasions and without fail each time I listen to the first notes sung in that fragile voice of hers I always get chills and semi choked-up. It’s so pure and so magic. Then later omes the anticipation of the crescendo’ing refrain she builds to near the end in getting to :

“…way above the chimney tops,
That’s where… you’ll… find… Meeeeee!
Somewhere over the rainbow,
skies are blue…”

It’s that elongated powerful coloratura’d Meeeee! that flows into the next line that always gets my eyes watering. It’s the happiest and saddest sound in the history of song. It’s a plaintive wail and a triumphant cheer. And for the first time in all the brazillion times I’ve cherished her hitting that note, I was on 4th Street crossing Vermont and finally heard what she’s been trying to tell me all those times. She’s saying she got there. That she found it. That she’s seen what it was like over the rainbow and it’s awesome but it’s also far away and removed and it’s next to impossible to come back to what you know and love once you get there so don’t be in such a hurry to escape that you fail to appreciate what you have.

God Bless Eva Cassidy.

Defining Moments: A Project

I’ve been wanting to do this for awhile: create a chrono-log of my memories as a native angeleno. From my earliest on up be it a recollection fuzzy or crystal clear, paragraph to novella in size, mundane or meaningful, it’s important that I attempt a compilation of my memories.

And so we begin with the earliest concrete bit of recall, and it is indeed a moment — and a fleeting one at that. Probably pretty mundane as well. Definitely fuzzy on the details such as when. I’m going to say it was 1967 mainly because I have pictures of me during my third birthday that year taken in the courtyard of the Hancock Park adjacent  apartments on Westminster Avenue just north of 4th Street. In one picture in particular I’m sitting in one of those old  pedal cars and holding a popgun rifle and not looking very thrilled.

If it weren’t for that photographic record I’d actually have no memory of my third anniversary, so thanks to those black-and-white images I can bracket an inexact timeframe for this memory. In other words I was either a pre-birthday two or a post three. Enough about that.

The memory is a simple one. After a bath, my mother had put me down for the night, but for whatever reason I was restless and unable to go to sleep. I was already well conditioned about crying and that it should only be done if there was pretty darn good reason and not being able to score some shut-eye on queue was certainly not one of them. Goodness knows I’d tried to add it to the list but all it brought was loud stomping up the stairs and a thrown open door where my mother’s backlit silhouette would ask what’s wrong and in telling my shadowmom I wasn’t sleepy she would respond gruffly and most seriously with the demand that I figure out a way to keep quiet and get sleepy and quick. That’s not meant as some sort of attack on her child-rearing skills, she just didn’t have the inclination to baby me and in retrospect I actually can appreciate that.

So instead, I kept my trap shut and my eyes dry and decided to just get up and grab a look around.  Having at some previous point mastered the art of climbing in and out of the crib I had long outgrown I clambored over the rail and down its side to the floor of the bedroom whose door was open a crack allowing in light from the hallway.

Mother was downstairs talking on the telephone and nothing beyond the door — the bathroom, my mom’s bedroom or the top of the stairs — held any interest for me so instead I padded across the floorboards to the window, which faced east, and looked out into the night.

And there it was that I saw a big blue bird off in the distance. It wasn’t a real bird, just a large lighted sign on the wall of a tall building however far away that had a bird’s head sideways atop a big round moneybag body.  There were some words around the sign, too, but I didn’t know how to read yet.

I have no clue how long I stood looking out the window at the sign and the night and whatever else might have caught and held my attention. Same goes with whatever thoughts might have been provoked by the view. But I do remember that when I got bored or sleepy or both I padded back across the floor, climbed up carefully as I could into my crib and drifted off perhaps to dream of giant glowing birds.

It wasn’t until many years later that I realized what I was seeing was Union Bank’s long-extinct logo high up on what had been their 22-story mid-Wilshire building on the southwest corner of Wilshire and Western. For awhile in the 1990s it was famous for its huge murals of Shaquille O’Neal and now the murals are gone and the high-rise is in the latter stages of being renovated into contemporary loft housing. When I was 13 I learned the apartments were torn down to make room for a box of condos; my first exposure to the erasure of landmarks to my personal history.

Below is a Google Earth still that depicts the line of sight between my toddler eyes at the proximity where the long-gone window would have been on Westminster and the sign’s location on the tower’s woefully windowless west-facing wall (shown here):

(click to enlarge)

Distance had little meaning to me as a child and I always thought the floating bird as far away as the moon and twice as big. Instead, it was but a half a mile away as a bird might fly.

And until this moment I never realized my relative proximity to the assassination of Robert Kennedy that took place another half-mile’s further flight away at the Ambassador Hotel a week after my fourth birthday — a date I happen to share with his brother John. Had I looked out the window that night? Or maybe the faint sirens stirred me in my sleep? Who knows. But I do know that after the shooting, Bobby Kennedy was taken to the nearby Hospital of the Good Samaritan. Where I was born, he died.