At some point in the Marine Corps, my father stumbled onto college education. He told me once that he used to attend college classes simply because the Marine Corps was boring him to tears. Along the way he discovered his own aptitude for academics and eventually toyed with the unthinkable idea of attending medical school.
He remembers specifically the “fork in the road”. At some point in his military career, he and my mother had to decide their future. He had recently been promoted to Sergeant and was offered an opportunity to become a Drill Instructor, one of the highest honors for an enlisted Marine, but the stipulation was re-enlistment. At the same time, he was gaining confidence in his college classes and was beginning to believe that medical school was possible. It was a classic “bird in the hand vs. two birds in the bush” dilemma. With much trepidation, they chose the “two birds”, and separated from the Marine Corps. Two months later, the Marine Corps extended all “short” contracts by one year sending my father’s entire infantry unit to Vietnam without him.
A year away from completing his Bachelor’s Degree in Zoology, the husband and father of four applied to the University of Southern California, School of Medicine. It was to be a preliminary exercise, a fact-finding mission of sorts, and not a sincere bid for acceptance, in order to better prepare for the following year. My mother and father were shocked to learn that he was accepted in this first “preliminary” attempt. They rationalized that the acceptance was partly divine intervention and partly due to USC’s location on the edge of South Central Los Angeles and perhaps the unspoken pressure the University may have felt to increase minority enrollment in the wake of the Watts Riots.
Twenty-seven years after the Watts Riots, Los Angeles would again burn to the ground, and again, it would have a profound impact on my life. On April 29, 1992, a not-guilty verdict was handed down to police officers in the Rodney King Trial leading to an eruption of violence in the L.A. basin. The Safeway 300 yards from our apartment was looted and burned to the ground. From our third floor apartment in the Wilshire District, we held our 4-month-old daughter in our arms and watched in horror as the city descended into chaos.
Casey’s Journal entry dated: April 30, 1992
All hell broke loose today. All the schools were closed so it was a free-for-all. Looting happened in every corner of LA County. Our neighborhood was almost completely burned to the ground, if not thrashed by looters. I was so ashamed that many of the looters were parents and took their children with them, as if it was a sale at JcPenny’s.
I was a graveyard manager at the time. My store was located in Pacoima, 20 miles north of L.A., a sufficient distance from the erupting chaos in downtown, or so I thought. I left a nervous Casey and Alexes at home and left for work at 10:30 pm. There was a sense of excitement about getting out into the city, to experience the energy, to know firsthand what it felt like in the streets, to be in the midst of it all.
I have the same sensation in the midst of a torrential downpour. There is a yearning desire to get out into it, to experience the storm with my own senses, to feel the pelting rain soak me, the blustering wind actually alter my step, to fear the lightning strike and anticipate the rolling thunder that is sure to follow, to live the storm. There is no substitute for such an experience, no virtual reality, not through the windshield of my car nor from the warmth and safety of shelter.
Usually I forget that it’s a bad idea to rush out into a storm until it is too late. There is no pleasure in getting soaked through and through without reprieve and chilling wind only make it worse. Unexpected lightning can be terrifying, and flat-out dangerous.
I over-romanticized getting out into this “storm”. I expected, almost hoped, there would be some civil unrest as I left our apartment and drove north towards the freeway. What I saw shocked me. Several fires burned in the Wilshire District, stretching along my path to Hollywood. Stores were boarded up and windows were smashed in storefronts where owners had arrived too late to make a difference. The LAPD and fire departments were out in force on the entire route.
It was no different when I exited Interstate 5 in Pacoima. Emergency vehicles were few and far between. Twice I had to maneuver my car around couches that burned in the middle of Van Nuys Blvd. I rolled up to find the store completely boarded up to reduce the damage by the hail of beer bottles that were flung at the windows.
The rest of my crew arrived shortly thereafter and it was business as usual. We joked nervously about our experiences getting into work that night as we stocked the shelves.
Mike had left for work and I was alone. Alexes slept peacefully in her crib near the window even though helicopters hovered overhead, shining their lights in and out of the window directly on her face. Our apartment reeked of the smell of the city burning. In our apartment we regularly heard sirens, but tonight, the sirens seemed different. I watched the madness out my window and saw it mirrored on national television. It was one of the first experiences in history where it was “reality television.”
Alexes didn’t care. Oddly, I was not afraid despite seeing the smoke coming from our burning grocery store a couple of blocks away. My window was a window to the horrible violence I watched on TV. How could it be that I understood the violence? I wasn’t even remotely surprised that the city erupted the way it did in response to a jury verdict. I couldn’t help wondering how would I explain the racial divide in Los Angeles to her someday?
The Rodney King Riots subsided over the next five days, but Casey and I were permanently shaken. Even before the dust settled, we were committed to escaping Los Angeles. I was born and raised in the city. I clearly remember the late ‘80’s and the ever-present potential for random acts of violence. I was an indifferent, almost boastful, 12th grader when I went to the RUN DMC concert at the Long Beach Arena in 1988 that erupted into a full-scale gang war. It was my first concert.
Following the riots, we refused to raise our daughter in our home city. We considered leaving the city of L.A. when Casey was invited to the cocaine party at nine months pregnant, but the Verdict and the ensuing riots sealed the deal. It was time to go.
Temecula lies 85 miles to the south of Los Angeles. In 1992, it was just erupting as the place to go to escape urban living. Housing was affordable. Los Angeles and San Diego were readily accessible; both far enough away to give Temecula a small, community-like feel, yet close enough to earn a living if you were willing to overlook the excessive driving. We chose Temecula because my mother-in-law had established a lucrative construction company there in response to the exploding housing market.
It was everything it promised to be. We had a beautiful two-bedroom apartment with something of a view, raised ceilings, our own washer and dryer, and a fireplace; all for less then half of what we were paying for our apartment in L.A. There was a swimming pool, plenty of near-by parks, and the added comfort of my mother-in-law who lived a mile away. The neighborhoods were quiet and family friendly. And most importantly, gone was our perceived threat of violence and the ever-present rush that characterizes living in L.A.
Casey’s Journal entry dated: May 25, 1992
It’s been a long time since I’ve written, but since we moved to Temecula I’ve been busy. Michael just left for work. I always feel so bad when he goes to work with that sad face like “Don’t make me.”
Between setting up the apartment, taking care of Michael, and babysitting my mom’s Husbands’ kids, I’ve had no time to myself. Temecula is very nice. Since we’ve moved here we’ve taken long drives, gone swimming, and taken Alexes to the park. The only bad part is that Michael is always tired… well, more than usual. Sunday we went to visit the Shaw’s and Doctor Shaw acted pleasant, but I caught him having a good time and trying to stop himself. Why can’t he just relax?
Just recently it’s dawned on me that Alexes was in my Tummy; that the first time I heard a heartbeat, it was her heartbeat that I was listening to, and when Dr. Jordan-Harris was trying to figure in which position the baby was, it was Alexes who was doing the backflips. She has so much personality, not to mention she is brilliant.
I know she loves me too because she looks up at me with goofy love eyes then flashes a huge smile at me. Even though I’m not working or going to school at the present time, I feel like spending time with her is the most productive thing I’ve ever done. I feel so lucky to have Michael and Alexes. If I finish law school and become an accomplished attorney, my life would be everything I’ve ever dreamed of…
We were miserable.
Temecula grew to become Suburban Town USA. But there was the lingering issue of distance, for while the city grew, the number of well-paying jobs could not keep pace. Southern Californians are all too willing to spend countless hours on freeways and in their cars to make a living. It is part of the culture and the passive acceptance of that truth helps define people that live in SoCal as true Southern Californians. I was no exception. When we moved to Temecula, I never left my graveyard job in Pacoima. Instead, I rationalized that the drive was manageable. After all, I worked graveyard shifts so at the very least, there would never be any traffic to fight.
But, I also worked six days per week, from 11 pm to 8 am. We were always short-handed so I worked late everyday, often finishing closer to 10 am. Six days a week I would fall asleep at 6-7 pm, wake up around 9 and leave for work. It took me about 2 hours to make the 116 mile drive from Temecula to Pacoima. I would work until 9-10 in the morning and drive the 116 miles home, exhausted. More then once I pulled off the freeway and napped on the side streets before resuming my trek. I would crawl into bed and pass out for 2-3 hours, wake up, spend a couple of hours with Casey and Alexes, and try to be in bed again by 7 pm, so I could start all over. It was physically impossible to catch up on rest on the one day off per week.
This was how I spent my first year of marriage. There are pictures of me holding my daughter where I look like a zombie. I only vaguely remember our apartment, swimming with Alexes and Casey, and dinners at my Mother-in-laws. My most vivid memories are of the road to and from work, the family of rabbits I encountered at 80 miles per hour or the near crashes that almost occurred when I fell asleep at the wheel. Driving home was only slightly less dangerous because the sun was up. This was before the cell phone era so the catnap strategy tended to worry Casey to no end.
And so, despite the retreat from urban living offered by Temecula, we were miserable. The time we spent outdoors, the “me and Casey” time, was gone. The time we spent together with Alexes was also gone. Time away from work was spent trying to get just enough rest to survive the next day at work. There was never more then one day off per week, never any reduction in hours, and never any vacation time.
Our time together was spent imagining something better, an escape from the oppression of the grocery company, from the post-Rodney King Riot torn Los Angeles, from the unrelenting pace of living in Southern Cal, from the smog, the traffic, even from the scrutiny of our relatives. Alexes’ birth and the news of our wedding smoothed over most of the bad blood in the families. Even so, the air was thick with judgment at family gatherings.
I spent all day, every day, alone with Alexes. I read to her endlessly. I tried to find ways to teach her new things each and every day. Mike worked into states of delirium and all the while, I felt like a single mom, helpless, but focused on my job of raising Alexes to the best of my ability while Mike worked to the best of his ability.
I do not know where the idea to relocate to Seattle originated, but most of our ideas came up during long drives, usually from talks about Alexes’ future, as she slept in her car seat in the back. We didn’t know much, but even then we followed one basic mantra: Do whatever we must in Alexes’ best interest, regardless of personal hardships. It was in this moment that, “By any means necessary” became a living contract that would guide our parenting.
We embraced this new storm, charged into it, in fact. We romanticized the possibilities, nailed down a departure date a year out, and began to save some money. The plan was simple; first, reduce our bills and second bank some cash. Five months later, bills caught-up and ready to transition to the saving phase, I was laid off.
The idea of moving to a different state with no jobs, no savings, and no nearby family is like rushing out into a storm with the wrong jacket. It requires the kind of idealism, naiveté and idiocy that is only found in the very young. We did what any young and stupid couple would do; we left on schedule.
Seattle? Never been there. Do not know a soul there. Seems like a perfect decision.
And so it was that we left for Seattle in January of 1993. We had no jobs, no place to live, and about $2000 in our pockets.
“You are my strength. Let me be yours! And Alexes will be ours!! Love, Mike (1-13-1993)
Casey and I packed whatever we could fit into our 3-cylinder Daihatsu Charade, (which amounted to little more then interview clothes and a box of toys), and headed to Seattle. As usual, we had a plan. We would drive up together and Casey’s sister would fly up with Alexes the following week. Our furniture was packed into a storage unit in Temecula so we could have it shipped north once we found a place to live.
We filled our time on the 1200-mile drive north imagining the possibilities. Southern California was our birthplace, the only thing we ever knew, and with the exception of Oregon and Missouri, the only place either of us had ever lived. We crossed the Columbia River into the State of Washington and could hardly contain our excitement. No Shaw, Torres (Casey’s mother), or Lopez de Arriaga had ever lived in the Pacific Northwest. Washington would be our home.
We pushed ever northward. When we first saw downtown Seattle, we were thrilled. As if on cue, our adopted theme song played on the radio as we rolled north on the I-5 freeway those last ten miles…
A whole new world
A new fantastic point of view
No one to tell us no or where to go
Or say we’re only dreaming
A whole new world
A dazzling place I never knew
But when I’m way up here, it’s crystal clear
That now I’m in a whole new world with you
Now I’m in a whole new world with you.
We passed downtown Seattle, placing us smack dab in the middle of reality. There was so much to do. We needed a place to live and jobs, and we needed them both fast. We didn’t know much, but we knew well enough to know $2000 would not last long. We headed east on the I-90 freeway and chose a hotel to stay in right off the freeway. The next day we checked out and relocated to a Motel 6 to conserve our money. Bright and early the next day, we dressed in our suits and drove to downtown Seattle.
I cannot begin to know how many job interviews I have had in my life, but none was I less prepared for then when I stepped into an employment agency. Thankfully, my grandfather’s diplomatic training always allowed me to impress people with my manners, but that only got me as far as the manual tests the very professional lady enthusiastically pressed me to take. I barely knew how to work a typewriter much less a computer and it took a lot of energy to fight back the native-Los Angelean thoughts passing through my mind. They were silly thoughts like, “In LA people can make it on charisma or originality,” or “ I started my cheerleading business in Hollywood easily.” Why the heck would I think that without a college degree, or any marketable clerical skills, I could get a job in corporate America???” The feelings of inadequacy I felt during those interviews and tests stayed with me throughout parenting and I swore that my kids would not just be qualified for whatever job they applied, but they would be exceptionally qualified. On this day, I just felt like a loser and I had to deal with the fact that I would have to look at Alexes soon and she’d know her mommy could not get a job.
Alexes arrived in Seattle a week later and she looked like shit.
She obviously had either a sinus infection or an ear infection. Her little eyes were red, her nose running, she was hot, and at the airport I saw passengers from her flight give her evil looks cause apparently she screamed the entire flight. My sister was excited to see Seattle but instead we went directly to the emergency room. As expected, she had an ear infection. It never was clear why neither my sister nor mother took her to the doctor before they left SoCal.
By the time Alexes arrived a few days later, neither one of us had a job. What’s more, we had yet to find a place to live. As luck would have it, my friend from Oregon had a fraternity connection in Seattle. The UW college football player lived in an off-campus apartment with his girlfriend across the freeway from the Northgate Mall. After a brief conversation on the phone, the friend was kind enough to allow the three of us to stay with him and his girlfriend until we could get on our feet. It was a welcome offer given our dwindling resources.
Upon arriving at the apartment, our host and his girlfriend offered us the 8X8 space between his couch and the wall in the living room for as long as we needed. Words could not express our gratitude even though we were overwhelmed by the imposition we were placing on them. His girlfriend kindly cooked and we all sat down to have dinner together. While at dinner, Casey and I proceeded to describe our situation, our need to find a place of our own and the urgency of finding work. Our host had an epiphany, a solution to our work problem…
“It’s brilliant”, he tried to sell Casey and I on the idea. He expanded on his brilliant idea while Alexes sat at the table and gummed down a spoonful of baby cereal. With absolute sincerity he proclaimed, “ We (he and I) could clean up doing a dual act with crimson and crème canes.” He went on to explain that his girlfriend had been doing it for a while and was “cleaning up”. He continued, “I’ve been solicited by the club to perform on ladies night and I was looking for a gimmick.” He was dead serious and we declined as politely as we could.
Casey and I were horrified. After dinner we lounged in our corner of the living room in absolute shock. There was nowhere to run, no place in the small apartment to hide, or even to plan our escape. Instead, we sat in the corner of the living room and thought, “what have we gotten ourselves into?”
In that situation, we made the ultimate mistake. We rationalized that at least things could not get worse.
Never, ever say that things cannot get worse!!! We learned that things can get worse, and sometimes to comical ends.
Later that evening, we sat in our corner of the room playing with Alexes. Our host was also there, preparing to take his girlfriend to “work”. He was still trying to “soft-sale” the stripping idea to Casey and I when there was a knock at the door. Our host declared he had been expecting a friend and opened the door.
In walked this huge guy plastered with prison tattoos on his neck. He wore immaculately creased black jeans, a perfectly white T-shirt and a matching ¾ length black leather jacket. His jeans were cuffed at the bottom to expose the untied, pristine work boots that clearly had never seen a day of work. Gold chains hung over his ironed gold T-shirt and matched his finger rings. I recognized the menacing look on his face and the uniform immediately…Straight Thug.
In the 30-40 minutes that the “friend” was in the apartment, two different Yuppie couples, clearly not from the area, knocked on the apartment door, disappeared into a backroom with the Thug, emerged shortly thereafter, and exited the apartment. What’s more, there were no less then 2 or 3 other pages and returned calls with future customers.
Our host and his girlfriend disappeared into the bedroom leaving us with the “friend”, who stood by the door without saying a word. We sat awkwardly in the living room and watched while Alexes played joyfully in the corner, hobbling around the room on her unsure legs, using anything she could reach for balance; the coffee table to the couch, the couch to the side table, the side table to the next nearest thing, the perfectly creased black jeans of the visiting Thug.
Casey and I were paralyzed as we watched Alexes crumple the crease in the clutch of her fist, steady herself on the pant legs, proudly giggle to herself, and look up smiling at the man for approval. The menacing scowl on his face broke, but only a little, barely noticeable in fact, meant to be shared only with Alexes. The trace of humanity passed, replaced by the scowl as we apologetically pealed Alexes off his pants.
The next morning we were gone before anyone woke up, leaving only a thank you note in our wake.