1992—I worked at the Winchell's Donuts on Robertson Boulevard, across the street from my high school. An old dirty boss smoked cigarettes in my face and asked me out all the time, and some kids came in at night and pulled a gun and donut jacked me. Guys I knew from school. Guys that I woulda been like, "Here, Marcel, take the donuts." But because I had foster parents in the ZIP code with houses instead of apartments, they acted like we were from different planets. Me and these guys had gone to junior high together back when girls left curlers in our bangs and guys sported flat tops: we'd been in dancing crews, bailed in pajamas to school, and filled baby bottles with fruit punch.
The year before, when I'd stayed in the apartment with my mom, I'd be up late night, adjusting the hanger and the foil on the rabbit ears to watch Pump It Up With Dee on the UHF channel. I'd practice all the dance moves and try to memorize the lyrics, because that was my ticket out.
The second I moved to the neighborhood with Heights on the sign, I became presumida, stuck-up, Oreo, jungle-fever-struck ho, slut wannabe, Coconut, bitch. My Cinderella dream machine came in the form of talent scouts. Guys on the sidewalk in baseball caps and clean sneakers, calling us in to do some test tape. Girls my age with work permits and big dreams became extras. Video hos.
When I was around eight, I had a spunky friend who bossed me and dressed me, and she'd stand in her driveway, hand on her hip, taunting me: "How does it feel to want?" It was a line in a film she'd seen.
At that time, outside of wanting to be her, I could not afford to want. I wanted to have her hair, the way her hairspray and crimping iron gave her that perfect Alyssa Milano flair; I wanted her capacity to pick up dance moves, jumping off a chair like Janet Jackson in the "Pleasure Principle" video. I wanted her mom, how she sat with us at night and tickled our backs until we fell asleep, how she gave us health food, wheat germ, and honey. Then, as a teenager, I was nothing but a meat sack of want. And the less I had, the more Want.
Growing up, two things were everything — money and color. My dark-skinned brother was punching his way into solitude in county jail while my bright, light ass looked out the window of a basement room in a group home by the ocean. Ingratiating myself to rich folks was an option reserved for me and my long, wavy hair.
It finally happened, just like the dream, when I was sixteen. I was walking past the Beverly Center, and some friends and I got stopped — asked if we wanted to do a music video. Emily, Athena, and I were play cousins. Light-skinned girls with curves. The guys were Artemus and Colin. Artemus was a tall, chocolate dreamboat with short dreads and a nose ring, a poet. Colin was the Player, light eyes, a gentle voice; he smoked beedis and was endearing like a guy being raised by a single mother.
The five of us reported to an office the next day, walked in front of a camera, made small talk about stuff we knew about, trying to be interesting. We stood against a white wall and had a Polaroid taken of ourselves. Then we got the call. An Alkaholiks video. They were a fairly new West Coast rap group none of us had heard of yet. It was a lesson in what happens to everyday people when the camera turns on. People you've never heard of gain power; they tell you where to stand, what to wear. People you know — even tough bitches — comply.