'When Skateboards Will Be Free' by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh

When Skateboards

Will Be Free

A Memoir of a Political Childhood

Saïd Sayrafiezadeh

Dial Press: 292 pp., $22

Let's start with the grapes. Sympathetic or not, most Californians who are old enough remember the 1973 United Farm Workers grape boycott. Just 4 years old and 3,000 miles away, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh knew about it too: He wanted grapes, but he knew he couldn't have them, and why.

What was different for Sayrafiezadeh was that his mother encouraged him to eat grapes -- while standing in the grocery store -- because then it was stealing. Stealing from the store's owners, a part of the corrupt capitalist system exploiting César Chávez's farmworkers, was entirely OK.

Not exactly your standard "No Grapes" spiel. Sayrafiezadeh grew up inside a small, underacknowledged American subculture, the group officially known as the Socialist Workers Party.

More plainly, his parents were communists.

Yet politics is remarkably absent from his memoir "When Skateboards Will Be Free." Sayrafiezadeh places the reader inside his red bubble: It was normal to fall asleep on folding chairs at meetings, to be subject to a parade of only semi-trustworthy comrades, to haul boxes of the Militant newspaper from one unfortunate apartment to the next.

Sayrafiezadeh was the youngest of three children born to a mathematics graduate student from Iran and a Jewish girl from New York majoring in English literature. When Sayrafiezadeh was very young, his father took off; the older siblings joined him, leaving Sayrafiezadeh with his mother. When Sayrafiezadeh was 7, his mother moved them from New York to Pittsburgh. She had family there: Her brother, Mark Harris, wrote the book "Bang the Drum Slowly."

Sayrafiezadeh was deeply aware of the contrast between his own wants and his uncle's upper-middle-class world. "I blamed them for what I did not have," he writes, exemplified by "an extraordinary painting . . . of a partially unwrapped chocolate bar. When I passed this chocolate bar hanging in the landing of the staircase, I wanted to stick my hand right into it and grab a piece and stuff it into my mouth and face the consequences."

Despite this nearby affluence, his mother moved them into awful, cramped apartments, in neighborhoods with empty lots and abandoned refrigerators. The two were desperately poor: At one point his mother, gloveless, wrapped her fingers in tape.

In spite of it all, the author managed to be a normal kid who made friends, tidied his room, stole comic books and revered his absent father. If he felt a burning class resentment, he didn't know to label it as such -- he was unaware of his difference. This changed, as it does for most kids, as adolescence loomed. But his difference was hastened by world events. He was 10, carrying an Iranian name, when the hostages were taken in 1979.

Suddenly his classmates knew about Iran -- that it was bad -- and Sayrafiezadeh felt a new tension: "The desire to set the record straight was replaced by a desire to leave well enough alone." But he'd lived in a world in which leaders pontificated and supporters clapped. "The hostages are spies and should be tried for the Iranian people," he blurted, hearing the words as if spoken by someone else. "They'll deserve whatever they get." He was instantly an outcast.

It was the first time he'd faced the boundaries of the belief system in which he was raised. If there is a moment when this elegant story is failed by its lack of critical analysis, it's here. He must have known that these words would set him apart. But as he utters these phrases was he merely a parrot? Was he trying to speak truth to unbelievers? Was he trying to be like his father? Mahmoud Sayrafiezadeh abandoned his son, but never the Party. He was an important SWP figure, even running for president of post-revolutionary Iran. His son inherited his ideology -- when the revolution came, his mother promised him, skateboards would be free.

Later, living in Manhattan and working for Martha Stewart, Sayrafiezadeh tries to answer his girlfriend's questions about being a communist: "Flaring inside me was the impulse to respond with generalizations, or various patched-together facts. . . . Eventually I stopped trying to answer, and muttered to myself, 'I guess I don't really know what I'm talking about,' and she had responded, more surprised than accusatory, 'Yes, it sounds like you don't.' "

We are all born into belief systems, but most of us are members of one so dominant it seems given. Sayrafiezadeh's experience shows us more than just the tired rhetoric of the Socialist Workers Party -- it reveals how hard it is for any of us to see the boundaries of the ideology we inherit.

Kellogg is lead blogger for Jacket Copy.

carolyn.k ellogg@latimes.com

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