Where a Man Stands
Beverly Hills, California
I PRESSED MY FACE against the car window and watched my world disappear.
We were rolling down Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles. I was buckled in the passenger seat of my family’s big powder-blue Mercury Montclair, next to my mother, Lessie Paysinger, who was driving. My mother sat bolt straight, same as she always did, both hands firmly on the deep-dish steering wheel and eyes never leaving the road, even when she talked to me. She was still wearing the blue floral dress and white shoes from her job as a school cafeteria worker. Her hairnet was tucked inside her purse.
“You know, Carter,” she said, “Beverly Hills High is a very special place. This is your chance to get a great education.”
“I know, Momma.”
“I have no idea what they’re going to ask you. But you just answer them as honestly as you can, you hear?”
“I will, Momma.”
I was fourteen years old, and this was the most important day of my life.
Where I lived, in South Central, Los Angeles, we had low-slung houses and chain-link fences and lots of giant billboards. But as we drove down Santa Monica, those gave way to spacious homes, majestic lawns, and men with rakes and hoses fussing over sidewalks. Where I lived, we had more electrical poles than trees, but now the poles became swaying palms and stately eucalyptus. Block after block I saw exotic, unfamiliar sights—flowering vines spilling over wooden fences, rows of elegant Tudor homes, birds prancing on privet hedges.
In South Central the sun is unblocked and merciless, beating down on the asphalt all day long. But in Beverly Hills the sunlight flickers gently through leaves and fronds.
I felt like my childhood was receding in the rearview mirror.
We were driving to Beverly Hills because, just three weeks earlier, my mom had a talk with the mother of one of my Little League teammates.
“Lessie, do you know about the multicultural permit?”
The multicultural permit allowed a few minority kids from less privileged parts of Los Angeles to attend the exclusive and predominantly white Beverly Hills High—which normally was only open to kids who lived in Beverly Hills. Each year several hundred students applied for the permit, and only a couple of handfuls got one. If you won a permit, it was like winning the lottery. It was the golden ticket.
Back then my options for high school were limited. Most likely I’d wind up where nearly all my friends were going: Crenshaw High School in South Central or University High in West Los Angeles. These were not terrible schools, at least not then. But my mother wasn’t the type to settle for “not terrible.”
So, one day after speaking with my friend’s mother, Momma sat me down at the kitchen table and spread a bunch of papers in front of me.
“We’re going to apply for a permit for you to go to Beverly Hills High,” she announced.
I was confused. Me? In Beverly Hills? It didn’t make sense. If all my friends were going to Crenshaw or Uni, why weren’t those schools good enough for me? Why did I have to go somewhere I didn’t know and didn’t belong?
Of course, it didn’t much matter what I wanted. Issues like these weren’t open for debate in my family. Once my mom decided I was going to Beverly, good luck to anyone who got in her way. And that included a neatly dressed, perfectly groomed man named Mr. Hoag—Beverly’s acceptance officer.
The man my mother was driving me to see.
AFTER JUST A FEW MINUTES my mother pulled the Mercury onto the campus of Beverly. It sat on some nineteen rolling acres on the west side of Beverly Hills, on the border of Century City and around the corner from the LA Country Club. I saw gently sloping hills and classical white buildings, and behind them the awesome high-rises of Century City. It all looked like a movie set to me.
“Now remember, Carter, it isn’t certain you’ll be able to go to this school,” my mother said. “It all comes down to this interview. So don’t say anything we’ll both regret later.”
“I won’t, Momma.”
“I know you won’t.”
A security guard pointed us toward the school’s garage. I will never forget what I saw next. Rows and rows of Porsches and Mercedes and
BMWs and other sleek, shiny machines lined up in orderly parking spaces separated by crisp white lines.
I’d never seen so much luxury in my life, and certainly not all in one place. It was just breathtaking. My mother found a spot and parked the Mercury, and for the first time I felt nervous—like someone had kicked me in the stomach. My legs were rubber as I got out of the car.
“Carter,” my mother said, sensing my nerves.
“No matter what happens, I’m proud of you and I love you. You know that, don’t you?”
“Yes, Momma,” I said. “I love you, too.”
WE WALKED DOWN A WIDE hallway and entered a room with creamy white walls and red carpets. There were shelves crowded with plaques and trophies and walls plastered with posters for school productions of 42nd Street and Singin’ in the Rain. I thought of the only posters I’d ever seen on the walls of Emerson and how they all began with the same two words: “DO NOT.”
My mother and I sat down and waited. Before long a nice woman came over and nodded at me.
“Hello, Carter,” she said. “Mr. Hoag will see you now.”
I stood up slowly and looked over at my mother. She got up, too, and together we walked toward a closed door in the back of the office.
“Only Carter, Mrs. Paysinger,” the nice woman said.
I looked up pleadingly at my mother, who smiled and narrowed her eyes and gave me a tiny nod. I’m not sure anyone else would have noticed that nod, but I did, and I knew just what it meant. My mother and I had our own language made up of looks, smiles, frowns, and nods, and this particular nod meant a lot.
My mother was saying, Carter, it’s all up to you now. This is your moment. This is your future we’re talking about. You have to find a way to make this work.
Carter, you can do this.
Slowly I walked toward Mr. Hoag’s office. Picture a thin, lanky kid in tan pants and a tucked-in, button-down shirt, trying not to trip over himself. The nice woman opened the door and motioned to me.
I leaned forward and peered in. The office was filled with framed photos of Mr. Hoag and his radiantly blond wife and their two blond sons smiling on sunny beaches and snowy slopes and silvery boats. And there, behind a huge mahogany desk, sat Mr. Hoag himself.
“Come on in, Carter,” he said, standing up. We shook hands, and he settled back behind his desk. He had a deep tan and styled hair. I sat in a chair that was too big for me and so plush I felt myself sink.
“So, Carter, you’d like to attend our school,” Mr. Hoag began. “What is the most important reason you want to come here?”
My mouth felt dry. I gripped the arm handles of my plush chair. Mr. Hoag waited for an answer.
Carter, this is your moment.
“HOP ON UP IN THIS chair, son.”
I was seven when my father took me for my first haircut at Tolliver’s Barber Shop. It was a small, square store on Western Avenue just a couple of blocks from our house. Lawrence Tolliver, the shop’s owner, motioned me up into one of the big white barber’s chairs. I slid in and stared at my nervous face in the mirror.
Tolliver’s was crowded, noisy, and alive. I don’t remember it ever not being packed. There were men everywhere, in the chairs, on benches and stools, standing in corners, gathered outside. Pastors,
cops, businessmen, construction workers—everyone went to Tolliver’s. There was a television blasting, but the sound of men joking and arguing and shouting all but drowned it out. The real music of the place was laughter, raised voices, and the clip-clip of scissors, and that music never shut off.
These men, I soon learned, weren’t at Tolliver’s just to get a haircut. Some of them didn’t come for haircuts at all. They were there to be in each other’s company—and to solve the problems of the world.
“That boy Jack Kennedy needs the black vote, and he knows it.”
“Then he better do something about discrimination!”
“Who’s gonna win the Clay-Liston fight?”
“No way Liston can beat him. Cassius is just too quick.”
“I heard Elvis is coming to town to shoot a movie.”
“Who cares about Elvis? Boy can’t hold a candle to Sam Cooke.”
Most of the stuff I heard at Tolliver’s went straight over my head, but that didn’t matter. Sitting in that big barber’s chair, I got my first glimpse at what it meant to be a man. I learned how men stood, how they talked, how they gestured, what they valued. I learned what friendship and community meant to them. I learned how they didn’t back down from what they believed in.
The haircuts were always secondary.
Eventually all three of my younger brothers—Carlton, Donald, and Vonzie—got their hair cut at Tolliver’s, too. My father worked out a pretty good deal: normally a haircut was $2.50, but Mr. Tolliver cut all four of our heads plus my father’s for an even ten bucks. Tolliver’s on Saturdays became one of our many childhood rituals, like having delicious chicken sausage burgers at Mama’s Chicken and playing football and basketball and baseball on the street outside our single-story, two-bedroom house on Manhattan Place, near the intersection of Slauson and Western, in the neighborhood of South Central.
Today, when people hear the words “South Central,” they think of guns, drugs, and violence. But the image they conjure up is only a tiny snapshot of a much more complex place. It says nothing of the people who live there, or the struggles they endure, or the texture of their lives, or the deep rich history of the community. It doesn’t show you what’s beneath the surface. When I was growing up in South Central—which back then was known as South Los Angeles—that snapshot was not the reality.
Back then, South Central was just about the best place in the world to be a boy.
I may have grown up without a lot of money, but I certainly didn’t know it. I felt like we had everything a family could ever need. As far as I could tell, the six of us—my mother, Lessie; my father, Carter Sr.; and us four boys—never wanted for anything. My brothers and I shared two bunk beds in one small bedroom, an arrangement that, to some, might not sound ideal. But to us it was a blessing. It meant we could spend our days playing and hanging out, then come home and joke around some more right before bedtime. We didn’t need more space—why would we? The last thing we wanted was to be split up.
Both my parents worked, my father gassing up and washing and later fixing cars in Paul Brooks Garage on Fairfax and Third (that was his main job, though he had two others) and my mother as a cafeteria worker, and later an administrator, for the Los Angeles Unified School District. My brothers and I occasionally got new clothes to wear, but we mainly wore hand-me-downs and constantly shared outfits. We had a backyard with trees and grass, which my father and his staff—and by that I mean his sons—kept mown. We sat together for dinner every night, and we went to Sunday school every week, and we looked out for one another, as people who love each other do.
On top of all that, we had a second family—South Central itself.
Where I grew up, the word “community” meant more than just a place to live. It meant a place to be raised. Your neighbors, local shopkeepers, the corner barber—everyone in the community was part of the same extended family. Everyone looked out for each other’s kids. Everyone believed they were part of the same team. It wasn’t just your parents who were raising you; it was the whole of South Central.
That is how my childhood passed—the pleasant rituals of family life, the endless summer days playing ball with my friends, the noisy afternoons at Tolliver’s, the familiar sound of my mother calling, “Carter, you guys come in now. Time to eat!”, the wonderful sameness and dependability of it all. If we were missing something, I sure didn’t know what it was.
Then came August 11, 1965—the day the riots began.
AT FIRST MY PARENTS DIDN’T try to explain to us what was happening. I’m sure they didn’t understand it themselves. My father told us to sit down in the back of the house and stay low. At one point I heard him say, “The whole city’s on fire.” I heard people yelling and running up and down our street and police cars and fire trucks racing by every few minutes. I don’t remember going to sleep that first night.
Things only got worse in the next two days. I heard my parents talking about a citywide curfew, and we weren’t allowed to leave our house, or even play in the backyard. We felt like prisoners. When I peeked out a window, I’d see army trucks and armed soldiers sealing off our street. I later learned the National Guard had rolled into South Central.
The presence of soldiers with weapons didn’t make me feel any safer. From what I could see on TV, this was a war between police and
citizens, specifically black citizens. Were these soldiers on our side or against us? I had no way of knowing. Some of them stood sentry outside of Better Foods, while others went door-to-door, asking about the looting. Some people in our neighborhood were arrested and taken away in handcuffs. The shock of it all, the sheer terror of being under siege like that, is something I can hardly exaggerate.
After three long days things began to calm down. The National Guard went away. Better Foods boarded up their windows, and the curfew was lifted. Slowly life in South Central went back to normal.
Except, of course, it never did.
After the riots a lot of white residents and business owners abandoned southern Los Angeles. Lots of middle-class black families left, too. Over time great swaths of southern LA became predominantly black and poor. Whole generations of young black men were swallowed up by the culture of gangs and drugs and violence that soon took root in South Central. The place I’d known as the best place in the world became a much darker, more fearsome place.
And over time the civic institutions in South Central deteriorated, too. The one thing my parents talked about most—the one essential thing that could save us from being swallowed up like so many South Central boys—became all but impossible to achieve in our hometown.
Getting a good education.
“SO, CARTER, YOU’D LIKE TO attend our school,” Mr. Hoag said. “What is the most important reason you want to come here?” He fixed his eyes squarely on mine and waited for my answer.
When you’re young, you don’t have a lot of serious conversations. Once in a while your parents sit you down and tell you what’s what,
but most of the time you’re under no obligation to form a serious thought. You’re just a kid, after all. Your words don’t carry weight.
But suddenly I felt like my words carried all the weight in the world. I felt like what I said next would determine my future.
“I would like to get the best education possible, sir,” I finally answered. Obviously, I left out the part about wanting to go to Uni or Crenshaw with my friends.
Mr. Hoag nodded and made a notation on his pad of paper.
“What’s your favorite subject in school?”
“Well, I like studying the problems we’ve had in the past and figuring out how we should solve them.”
“What interests do you have outside of school?” Mr. Hoag asked.
“Sports, sir,” I answered. “I like to play sports.”
“Oh yeah? What’s your favorite sport?”
“Baseball. I like basketball and football, but baseball is my favorite.”
“Carter,” Mr. Hoag asked, “do you think you could make our high school baseball team?”
Something happened when I heard that question. Somehow my nervousness went away. I may not have been raised in Beverly Hills, and I may not have been driven there in a Rolls-Royce or a BMW. But no matter where I was or who I was talking to, there was something I was absolutely sure of.
And that was sports.
Carter, this is your moment.
“Yes,” I told Mr. Hoag, “I think I could make your baseball team.”
He looked up from his pad.
“You sound pretty confident about that.”
“Yes, I am. I am confident I could make the team.”
Mr. Hoag made one last notation and looked up again. All the jitters I’d felt before were gone now, drained away. I sat up straight in my chair, and I held Mr. Hoag’s gaze.
“Any last comments, Carter?”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “This is the most beautiful school I’ve ever seen. And the reason I want to come to this school is because I want to be somebody someday. I hope you’ll give me the chance to be somebody.”
Mr. Hoag smiled, stood up, and shook my hand.
“All right, Carter,” he said. “We’ll let you know.”
I CAME BACK INTO THE main office, but my mother wasn’t there. I waited for a few minutes, then wandered outside and onto the main campus. When I turned a corner, the sun blinded me, and I had to squint to be able to see. As soon as I could, something remarkable came into view.
A vast, glorious, endless field, with a baseball diamond at one end and the greenest grass infield you could imagine.
Not a single infield in South Central had a blade of grass on it. They were all dirt and rocks. From the top of the hill I looked down at the sprawling field, and I was sure I was looking at the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
I was looking at the Beverly Hills High athletic field.
It may have been precisely then that I realized the meaning of what my mother always told me about good versus great.
There were plenty of schools in Los Angeles that were good. But this place was great. I finally understood the difference and the importance of striving for one, not the other. And all at once I was filled with an undeniable urge.
I want to play on that field, I thought. I want to go to this school.
It was my mother, calling from just outside the administrative building. I ran to her, and we went down to the garage and got back in the Mercury to drive home to South Central.
Two weeks later, on a Wednesday evening in April, I came home from school and saw my mother standing in the living room. She had a white envelope in her hand.
“Guess what I have here in this envelope, Carter?” she said.
“I don’t know, Momma, what?”
But I already knew what it was from the big smile on her face.