Still Rappin’ at Juvenile Hall
It’s Sunday again. No clock, no shoes, no brainer. A dog, a book, a pot of tea. Silence--or better than silence: Bach or Satie. Minimalist, lassitudinous Sunday.
The last thing I want is a Sunday populated as Lorraine O’Connell’s Sundays have been for going on 35 years: with teenagers weighted down by woe and rage and criminal records, the tough-guy tenants at Juvenile Hall.
O’Connell makes the drive downtown, or sometimes up to the juvie stronghold of Camp Karl Holton in the Angeles National Forest--a woman of a certain age and then some, with her souffleed white hair and her paint-stripper vocabulary and her PhD in psychology. And sometimes, because it’s Sunday, the yutes are still dozing when she walks in and slams down her briefcase full of dire newspaper clippings about guys gone massively wrong, and brochures about free tattoo removal and careers in the military, and she says, “Up and at ‘em, kid, you’ve got company.”
There are boys out there--some of them men by now, if they’ve lived this long--who may read this and say, “Oh, that’s who that was,” the way townspeople huddled in front of the dry-goods store wondered who that masked man was, and someone finally said, “That was the Lone Ranger.”
For all the years O’Connell has volunteered her Sundays among “my dudes,” they have not known her name, but why would they need to? Her upsweep of hair is unmistakable, her air of fearless authority that could work at the front of a lecture hall or on the bridge of a battleship, even her ritual nightcap, a cigar and a glass of champagne, telegraph that she is nobody’s pushover abuelita. “Nobody,” she says, “BS’s me. No way! Forget it!”
She, too, is a kind of lone ranger, for she has outlasted most of the Juvenile Hall programs she signed onto over the years, starting with the first one, whose flier entreated: “Wanted to rap at Juvenile Hall”; some of her glossary survives from her first days there, too. When she referred to cops as “the fuzz,” I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard anyone use that word.
“I love my dudes,” she says of the rough trade she counsels, the killers and armed robbers and junkies and sad suicides manque. “The media portray them as monsters. They’re not, but the public swallows it, never thinks: ‘This is a son.’ I’m not naive, but I love all my dudes.”
Just as vehemently, she hates the “do-gooders” who do her dudes no good; she spits the word out like a piece of spoiled fruit. They made for all this flabby permissiveness: judges and probation officers who send guys home over and over until their crimes become too vicious and by then it’s too late . . . or to those continuation schools for what are famously called “troubled youth"--schools that “stink,” with their unruly, “come-when-you-want, do-what-you-want” rules.
She believes her dudes when they tell her that things are copacetic at home; she lays the blame, unswervingly, on TV and movies, and “I’ll never change my mind, never,” whether it’s some amoral show where good and bad are negligible qualities, or casual disregard for authority turned into a sitcom, or as far back as that old Jimmy Cagney movie in which he socks a woman in the jaw.
“They used to say to me 25 years ago, any child can be rehabilitated. I say BS. Not every child can be, but why not help the ones who can make it?”
The ranks of the ones who can make it include even murderers and bank robbers, whose measure, she says, she can take at a glance. If they’re spiritually inclined, she talks God. If they’re bright--and the bank robbers are “the most intelligent; they have goals"--she talks Cal State, tells them “don’t take karate, take English and history and stuff you can transfer with.” If they’re looking at heavy, grown-up time--and a good number are--she talks about getting a job in prison, taking classes and steering wide of trouble.
Years ago, she tried to sit down and talk to the girls the same way but found them “bitchy and sneaky” and went back to the boys--to Riff Ruff and Tiny Loco and Weasel, who may begin by trying to figure out what this little old lady wants but by the end are pulling out her chair for her and asking when she’s coming back.
Those decades of Sundays at Juvie Hall did not come out of nowhere; they emerged from her volunteer time at soup kitchens and among the homeless, teaching English to Latino kids--and, of course, the ants.
She was about 5, riding her tricycle as the ants raced their frantic relay through the line in the pavement. She went inside and asked her mother what ants ate.
Sugar, she said, why do you ask?
They look hungry, said little Lorraine, and when she went outside again, she took sugar to feed them.
She is still feeding the hungry little ants, but now, always, with a grain of salt in her sugar.