Friday, February 3, 2012

Junior High Lunch Scalpers

I went to Robert A. Millikan Junior High School in Sherman Oaks.  It was nestled in a mature residential neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley.  I say mature because when I was fourteen, the area was already populated with tall, full trees that created a sort of umbrella over the streets as I made my way up them on my yellow Raleigh ten-speed bike. I’d cut through a neighborhood not far from my house down a street that ended at the 101 freeway and had a pedestrian tunnel that shot me directly to the school. 

I truly hated junior high school.  It was the most awkward of ages, being a kind of way station along the path to those grown up kids in high school.  I remember how uncomfortable everyone was the first time we all had to strip for physical education in the locker room.  Our small, Chinese P.E. teacher, Chet, “Wing” Wong, as he narcissistically called himself, told all of us during our first day of P.E., “Okay guys, get stripped, put your street clothes into your lockers, and get your P.E. shorts and shirts on.”  Nobody moved, but instead, we all sat on the wooden benches in front of our lockers with our shoulders slouched and looking down at the floor.

Everyone was so self conscious about getting naked in front of everyone else who they’d been going to school with for the past some-odd years that we were all paralyzed with inaction.  Mr. Wong demanded,  “Get stripped now!  Your all guys, and you’ve all got the same parts, it’s not a big deal!”  At that point (and thank God, 'cause I wouldn't have), one or two guys started stripping, and everyone followed suit. I suppose that Mr. Wong and others like him had to go through this every year with the freshman in seventh grade. 

The school’s P.E. department used the worst smelling disinfectant in the shower floors and on the towels.  It was absolutely rancid in there, and when we wrapped the white, half-sized towels around ourselves, the smell made me dizzy.  Whatever was used to clean them must have been a neurotoxin.  I still have the memory of that smell.  It was that bad. 

My best memory of Millikan Jr. High was that completely untrained, I got onto the miler board.  In the gym, there was a board that showed any kids’ names that ran the mile under 5:40.  One day, someone told me I should go run it for fun, which I did.  I came in at 5:38, beating out one of the best athletes in my grade, Kevin Keller.  He crossed the finish line at something like 5:45, looked up waiting for him as he caught his breath and said, “You son of a bitch!”  And though I wasn’t too fond of being called such a name, I knew his frustration born was out of a non-athlete beating him in a simple foot race, and this made me happy.

The other thing I remember doing was that during lunchtimes, our school cafeteria was segregated into two sections.  Not by race, but by the means by which one would pay for their food.  Cash paying kids like me would go to one set of lines where we would pay for our food with money.  Our food cost something like twenty-five cents and was terrible.  It was a mish-mash of bland and boring concoctions.  And yet, I (and apparently my mother) was too lazy to pack myself a bag for lunch, so the school’s stale eatery was what was available to me.

The second set of lunch lines was for kids with lunch tickets.  These kids consisted mostly of those bussed in from poorer communities, and were almost all black and Latino.  By some strange arrangement, these lunch ticket lines had better food, in my opinion, than the cash lines.  They almost always offered hamburgers, which was the main draw for me.  At some point, I discovered, probably from one of my acquaintances, that a lot of these bussed kids were selling their lunch tickets for cash. 

The going rate was fifty cents, and these kids stood near the lunch lines, keeping a low profile since they weren’t supposed to be selling their tickets. Like anyone looking for their fix, we buyers developed an eye for how these kids were hanging back in the lunch lines with their radar up for any offers.  I would approach one of them with, “Lunch ticket?” discretely showing fifty cents in my hand.  We’d do the swap and that was that.  I got a tasty lunch, and who knows what they used their fifty cents for; probably on whacky-packs after school.  My mother knew of this and didn’t approve since the inner city kids were selling off their government assistance, but then again, she didn’t have to pack a lunch for me either and I seemed happy.

One particular time, I remember having trouble finding an available seller for a few minutes.  I must have been late getting out there that day.  Finally, after locating one, this African-American girl must have recognized in me that I was desperate for a lunch ticket.  She probably saw me dotting my head around with a worried and confused look. 

I said, “Lunch ticket?” holding out my two quarters.  She said, “Dollar-fifty.”  I didn’t even hesitate and dug into my pockets for four more quarters and handed them to her as we made the exchange.  And as I paid her three times fair value, I half-mumbled, “I’ll just splurge today.”  It was a phrase my dad used when he was being carefree with his spending, but I remember that as I said it, I realized that I had been “had” with this kind of price mark-up.  I knew instantly that if I had just held out and offered seventy-five cents, I could have gotten what I came for.  But such was the value of those hamburgers to me.  Oh well, live and learn!