by Jack Kammer
This could be dangerous, I thought. This is Los Angeles, early June 1992. The Rodney King riots had occurred just five weeks before.
Stranded and alone, hauling a heavy suitcase, I was running late for my plane at LAX. I decided that this was a chance I needed, no, wanted to take. I approached three young Hispanic men standing outside their car in a fast food parking lot.
Warily, I approached them. “How ya doing?” I said calmly and evenly. “I’m trying to get to LAX and I’m running late. The cabs aren’t cooperating. How much money would you need to take me?”
They looked at each other. One of them in a white T-shirt said to the one who must have been the driver, “Go for it, man.”
The driver hesitated. I said, “Name a price that makes it worth your while.”
He looked straight at me. “Ten bucks,” he said.
“I’ll give you twenty.”
“Let’s do it, man,” said the T-shirted youth. The driver nodded and popped the trunk. “You wanna put your suitcase here?”
“No, thanks,” I answered straight back. The image of being forced empty-handed out of the car was clear in my mind. “I’d rather keep it with me.”
“That’s cool,” Mr. T-shirt said.
I knew it could have been stupid, but I took out my wallet, removed a twenty and said to the driver, “Here, I want to pay you now.”
The driver took it with a simple “thanks.”
“So here I am, guys,” I said. “I sure hope you’re going to take care of me.”
T-shirt, sitting in the back seat with me, my suitcase between us, smiled knowingly and said, “It’s okay, man. We’re good guys.”
I nodded and shrugged, “I sure hope so, because if you’re not, I’m in big trouble, aren’t I?”
They all laughed and then T-shirt spoke up. “So where you from?”
“Baltimore,” I answered.
“Oh, man, it’s nice back east. That’s what they say. Green and everything.”
I smiled and nodded, “Yeah. And back east, L.A. is our idea of heaven.”
“Naah, it’s rough here, man. It’s hard.” T-shirt was clearly going to be the spokesman.
“How old are you fellows?” I asked.
They were sixteen and seventeen. They were all in school and had part-time jobs. T-shirt and the driver worked in a restaurant. The quiet young man riding shotgun didn’t say.
“Tell me about the gangs. Are there gangs at your school?”
“There’s gangs everywhere, man. Everywhere. It’s crazy.”
“Are you fellows in a gang?” I asked.
“No way, man.”
“Why not?” I wondered.
“Because there’s no hope in it. You just get a bullet in your head.”
“Yeah, but what hope is there for you outside the gang?”
“I don’t know. I just want to get a future. Do something.”
“What’s the difference between you and the young men in the gangs?”
“I don’t know, man. We just don’t want to do it.”
“Yeah, but why not? What’s the difference?” I gently pressed.
“I don’t know, man. I don’t know. We’re just lucky I guess.”
I let the question sit for a moment, then started up. “What about fathers? Do you have a father at home?” I asked the youth in the back seat with me.
“Yeah. I do.”
“How about you?” I asked the driver.
“Yeah, I got a dad.”
“Living with you?”
And the shotgun rider volunteered, “I got a dad, too.”
“How about the young men in the gangs? Do they have fathers living with them?”
“No way, man. None of them do.”
“So maybe fathers make a difference?” I suggested.
“Absolutely, man. Absolutely.”
“Why?” I probed. “What difference does a father make?”
“He’s always behind you, man, pushing you. Keeping you in line.”
“Yeah. Telling you what’s what,” driver and shotgun agreed.
And with that I was taken safely right where I needed to go. The driver even asked what terminal I wanted. On time. Without a hitch.
I will never forget their names: Pablo, Juan and Richard. I admired them because in spite of everything they were trying to be good.
But the men to whom I am most grateful are the men I never met. The men to whom I am most grateful are their fathers. It was their fathers who got me to the airport. It was their fathers who kept me safe.
Jack Kammer, MSW, MBA returned to school at the age of fifty-four to earn Masters degrees in Social Work and Business Administration. He did so to document, highlight and take action on male gender issues and the social problems that arise when those issues are ignored and mishandled. He specializes in the Race + Gender effect on marginalized African-American men and boys in urban settings. http://believeinmen.org