There are only so many things you can do something about. Everywhere you go, you see people you can help and dogs you can adopt from the pound. Row after row of brown eyes and cocked ears. You see people looking for guidance as much as you look for it yourself. You see people emulating others and emulating you, as if you have some further grasp of contentment or happiness or meaning. When you leave the shelter, do you sometimes wonder if it's better not to visit at all? Do you wonder who it is you're supposed to emulate? Do you wonder who picks your heroes?
I'm talking to one of my former junior lifeguards. He was my kid for a summer when he was ten. Now he's thirteen and has just gotten expelled for dealing herb at his junior high. His mother is an old friend of mine. She called me and told me about his trouble at school, asking if I could fly out to visit for a few days and talk with the boy. “Put some sense into him,” as she put it. Apparently she remembers how straight he was when he was my junior guard and has some faint hope this magic time can return. But there are other elements operating now. Things like a second divorce, several moves, and flaming thirteen-year-old hormones to name a few. So I agreed to come. It's a different time now, and someone has to tell her. I'm just hoping that that someone doesn't have to be me.
Mason is too embarrassed to tell me about the pot episode himself, and he doesn't know I know. For all he knows, I'm just visiting his mom. He hangs around pretending he isn't paying attention as me and Mom catch up talking on the couch. We talk about our friends, who's gotten married and who's gotten divorced. Later she leaves for night school. I read the paper in the kitchen as Mason talks on the phone to one of his girlfriends. Deep inside he wants to talk to me about the various things a thirteen-year-old needs to talk about to an older man. But he can't let on he wants to ask. I let him stew with it while I sit around reading the paper and he talks to the girl on the phone. He raises his voice periodically, saying things like, “So you want me, baby?” while he glances over to see if I'm noticing. I just read the paper and wait for his questions. This one's a lock.
The boy's Japanese father left when he was six months old, so he grew up getting raised by his white mother and his aunt. He's small for his age, probably six inches shorter than his average classmate, and he's moved from L.A. to an all-white area of Minnesota. Combine these factors and you get the selling pot and attempted womanizer conditions spelled out pretty clear. He gets off the phone and hangs around nonchalantly at the table where I'm reading, waiting for me to ask the so-who-was-that-on-the-phone—type questions, which never come. Sometimes the more silent you are, the more people listen to you.
The kid waits around like a seagull watching you eat a bagel. No crumbs here. No reward. No curiosity. It's killing him. Finally he can't take it anymore and strikes up a conversation, intending to steer it back so he can talk about his upcoming sexual conquest. I'm just reading the comics.
“So you a player?” he asks me.
To a kid lookin' up to me, life ain't nothin' but bitches and money.
I respond without putting the paper down or looking up.
“Yeah, you know…like with the bitches. The ladies…”
I mumble something about whatever and keep reading the paper. The kid's going completely up the wall.
“With the ladies, man,” he says perturbed. “Y'know? Scoring with the ladies?”
“Mmm,” I mutter. Calvin and Hobbes is pretty funny today. Calvin is pretending his parents are really secret heroes in the basement.
“C'mon! You a player with the ladies or not?”
In the last panel, Calvin's sighing over his parents and their otherwise uneventful lives. I think Watterson's a genius at capturing the random way six-year-old kids think. I'm thinking maybe part of Watterson
Come on, Kip! I know you are!
must have stayed behind here, stuck at six. It's the only way to explain it. You look at the way some people think, and you know part of them is left behind at some age. I figure I'm good at thinking and recognizing the way a thirteen-year-old young man worries about women and sex and what other men might be thinking about him,
“Did you hear that chick on the phone, man? I got game!”
so I'm thinking maybe part of me stayed behind here stuck at thirteen. It's the only way to explain it. Maybe I should be writing a comic strip about a thirteen-year-old superhero who fights off hordes of pubescent girls on the phone. We could call it “Teenage Phone Boy”—he's an operator.
“KIP, COME ON, MAN! I'M TALKING TO YOU!” Mason yells.
“What? What?” I'm saying, as I put the paper down and look him in the eyes. “What are you babbling about?”
He hesitates for a second. All this search for attention and he doesn't have a clue what to do with it now that he has it.
“The girl—the girl on the phone…,” he says. “Did you hear?”
“What, so you talked to a girl on the phone—that's big news?”
“No, man,” he says, slowly gathering his confidence and arrogance. “She was saying she wants me, man. She wants to do me!”
He's got my attention for real now. I lost my virginity at fifteen and I thought I was young. I remember how scary it was with our pants pulled down around our knees and our socks and shoes on, downstairs on the carpet in the living room. I remember the girl was fourteen and had already been with two guys, one in a van. I lied and told her I had been with other girls, too. Mason just turned thirteen. I wonder how scary it is for him.
“I take it you've had sex?” I ask him.
The kid smiles the smile of finally getting on top of the conversation.
“That's for me to know and for you to find out,” he says over his shoulder, walking away.
“All right,” I mumble, and go back to the comics.
Mason stops at the door to the kitchen with his smile gone. What's up? Don't you wanna know? He hesitates for a while, looking at me reading the paper and ignoring him. Then he goes to the refrigerator casually, pours himself some Kool-Aid, and meanders back toward the table again. It's like watching him count to 100 really slow. I'm on to Doonesbury. Lately there's been too much to read and not enough reward, but this one's about J.J. the performance artist and those are usually pretty funny. Mason sits down with his Kool-Aid, quietly watching me, and waits for me to ask him questions.
“How many partners?” I ask casually.
“What, like all the way, or…”
“Never mind,” I interrupt, and open up the paper again.
“Two,” he says hurriedly.
We sit for a while longer. Doonesbury isn't that funny today.
“How old were you?” I ask.
“Like the first time or…”
“Never mind,” I interrupt.
This pattern of give and take goes on for a while until we settle into a groove. He wants me there for him and I want to be there for him. We both understand this. The atmosphere gradually becomes more casual and relaxed.
“You know how old I was before I had sex?” I say, sounding more and more like old men have sounded to me.
“C'mon, Kip…” Mason tells me, laughing. “These are the nineties.”
Mason and I are driving to a theater workshop I'm conducting for “At-Risk Teens.” Which is a euphemism for we-don't-know-what-to-do-with-them-and-they-might-cause-trouble. Mason visited a few times and tried it on for size. The class is about twelve kids ages twelve to seventeen. Mostly colored, all confused. We stop at a traffic light and Mason comments about a graffiti tag on some wall alongside.
“TLC's the bomb, man. He's up everywhere.”
I don't say anything. I'm thinking about what kind of exercises to do with the students today and what kind of crap radio they have here
“He's cool, huh?”
in Minnesota. I mean, every other station is classic rock. And I like Clapton as much as the next guy, but how much Yes and Pink Floyd and
“Kip, did you see it? Huh? Did you see it?”
Genesis can you take in an hour? Switch. Same thing. Switch.
“KIP, I'M TALKING TO YOU, MAN!”
“What? What?” I say, making a left turn into the community center.
“He's bad, huh?”
“TLC, man! He's up everywhere. That guy's king!”
I switch the radio a last time and click it off. I park Mason's mom's Honda in one of the unenforced twenty-minute zones and shut it off. Class starts at 3:00 2:58. I usually like to be there about ten minutes early to get things set up, but there was some nasty traffic today. I'm getting my bag out of the back seat and looking for a cassette that isn't there. Maybe it fell under the seat.
“KIIIIP!” Mason whines.
“What?” It's not under the seat either. Did I leave it back at the house?
“He's cool, huh?”
“TLC!—COME ON, MAN! THE TAGGER!YOU KNOWYOU THINK SO!”
I look at this boy for a while. Just turned thirteen. Multiple partners and every bit of gangbanger attire you can imagine exept for the beeper, and that's only because Mom won't let him. I mean, this kid's boxers come up to his nipples. His pants are so baggy he's gotta take two steps in them before they move. And he's totally fried and frazzled trying to find out if his senses match with any of mine. I love it.
“I guess he's all right,” I say, walking ahead of Mason towards the main door of the community center,…for a coward.”
“What?” the kid says defiantly, as I open the door and say hi to Joanne at the front desk. She tells me the kids are all waiting in the multi-purpose room. Good group. Here on time. I stop to get a Gatorade out of the machine. $1. Insert quarters, nickels, or dimes. I've got seventy…no, eighty cents. Mason catches up.
“What you talkin’ about coward?” he says.
“You got twenty cents?” I ask him.
“Twenty cents,” I repeat. “Do you have twenty cents?”
Mason fishes in his pockets and pulls out a handful of change. He hands me a quarter. I plug it in and start to decide between original lemon-lime, mandarin orange, tropical punch, lemonade, and cool blue ice. The red stuff is out because it looks like red dye #4 .The blue stuff looks like Drano.
“What do you mean he's a coward?” Mason rephrases.
“Who?” I say, picking original lemon-lime. When all else fails go with what you know. The machine's out. Now it's either orange or lemonade.
“TLC, man! What you gotta say shit on him for?”
I stop for a second and select mandarin orange. Somehow lemonade Gatorade just doesn't sound right.
The machine spits it out with a *kerclunk* and I head down the hall to the multipurpose room.
“C'mon, Kip—the tagger!” he says, running alongside me to catch up. “Come on, man. He's bad! What you saying shit on him for, huh?” he says, grabbing hold of my arm agitatedly.
“Why you always gotta say shit on him?”
I stop outside the door. Through the window I see my At-Risk class playing around with the various air hockey and pool table distractions that bureaucrats think will keep kids away from drugs, sex, and crime. Mason's hand is locked around my upper arm, shaking it hurriedly like there's a fire or something. Not a good move, kid. I'm looking in the window at my students.
“Let go of my arm, Mason.”
“C'mon, Kip. I'm talking to you, man!” he says. He's got both hands shaking and tugging on me now. My bag is starting to slip off my shoulder. I can feel the strap inching down with each jerk on my arm. It's gonna fall any second.
“I said let go of my arm.”
“You tell me why you gotta…”
That's it. I snap around and look him straight in the eyes.
“WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM?”
Mason's startled. He flinches for a second and lets go of my arm. I'm right in his face. Eye to eye. You got something to say, Mason? Say it. He stares back at me for a second without saying anything. His hands disappear into his enormous front pockets. His gaze shifts and he shuffles his shoes. They're old-school Air Jordans. The ones with all the accomplishments embossed on the soles.
’83 SLAM DUNK CHAMPION
’87 SCORING TITLE
’91 MVP CHAMPIONSHIP
“You got something to say or not?”
“I just wanna know why you always gotta talk shit on him,” he mumbles, looking away.
An adult decides what to do. A child reacts. I'm somewhere in between, as I've always been. I'm angry with Mason, no doubt. Part of me wants to shake him silly. Part of me wants to see him get his ass kicked the next time he tags. I know that won't do anything but make him want to tag back, hit back, or shoot back—depends on where he is in life and what he has access to. Part of me wants to figure out where I am with this whole thing. I mean, how can this kid have been around me so long and still think like this? Do you listen to anything I say or see anything I do? Or have I just been wasting my breath and wasting my time? Maybe you need to have your ass kicked. Maybe you need to get pushed. Maybe you're a lost cause. I don't even know anymore.
“What?” I ask him. “Speak up.”
“I said,” Mason replies, looking back at me and enunciating each individual word sarcastically, like I'm geriatric, “why you always gotta talk shit on him?”
“You want to know why?” I say. I lean in over him and stare him down. Mason rolls his eyes with a gimme-a-break look and stares past me in complete thirteen-year-old defiance. Don't even try it, boy. I'm not your parent, I'm not your schoolteacher, and I'm not some rent-a-cop shopping mall security guard. I invented this shit. You want to push me? I move right in his punk-ass face. We're nose to nose. We're breath to breath. Oh, do I have your attention now? Mason looks back at me and I'm not blinking. He's uncomfortable, but he can't back off now.
“I'll tell you why. Your boy's gotta run from everybody. He's got to hide from the cops. He's got to hide from the building owners…” I step back and continue, breaking into a whiny baby voice “and then when it's dark, and no one's around, you run up to the little wall and spray your initials on it…”
“It's not his initials!” Mason snaps back. “It's…”
“…and then you run away and spray some more initials…
“I said it's his tag!”
“I DON'T CARE WHATEVER PUSSY-ASS NAME YOU CALL IT!” I say loud enough for some of the other kids to turn around through the window. They can see both of us and Mason knows it. He's embarrassed. I don't care. You want to kick my ass, boy? Come here and try it. Come on.
“Look at me! I sprayed my name on the wall!” I say in the baby voice again.
“Shut up,” he mumbles.
“Oooh look, I can do it in different colors…”
“I can do it in blaaaaack…I can do it in greeeen…I can…”
The kids on the other side of the door have stopped playing air hockey and stopped talking. Mason is looking down at his shoes again, furious. He knows everyone is watching and waiting to see what he's gonna do. He may be close to crying. He may be close to hitting me. I don't know and I can't tell. I'm just waiting. What you got, Mason? You want to spend time with me? You want me to care about you? You want me to kick your ass? You want me to leave you alone? This is what it's about. Make a decision.
Mason is looking at his shoes with his hands in his pockets. He's not saying anything. I lean in closer to him.
(Oh, you don't like that, do you?)
I feel him...