Taking the albatross symbolism round the back of the shed and holding a shotgun to its neck, Noble left the gallery and got on the train heading to Long Beach.
From what she could gather from online forums and The Human Tornado , that’s where a lot of working class black and Hispanic people lived and just because the new left cause was centred on role model creation for future equality didn’t mean it wouldn’t welcome something a little more direct, if prodded.
The aim: tell the people about the gallery, ask them to come, pay half the train fare if they seemed reluctant.
More optimistic aim: discuss ways to teach art/film in working class areas, ask them their ideas, then maybe set up a few zine stores.
Negatives: does anyone really care about art anymore?
Noble slid down the steps of the subway station and looked for the ticket machine. They were all vacant. No turnstiles either. Four minutes later, she realised why. LA operated on the trust system i.e. the people trusted that they could avoid paying without getting caught.
It was a weird system, but semi-socialist so Noble hopped on the train and sat next to a Mexican-looking guy in a Corinthians jersey.
‘Nice jersey,’ Noble said in Spanish.
The guy looked at his own jersey to check what it was and then came back with a pinched face, saying, ‘they’re shit this year, but what can you do, support is support.’
Noble nodded and looked around the train. ‘This train is free, right?’
‘Not for much longer.’
‘They’re changing it?’
‘Yup. Next month. Was cool while it lasted, but no one’s paying. They’re all scroungers, I guess.’
‘Do you have a ticket?’
‘Did you think for even a second about getting a ticket?’
The man pulled Sean Penn face. ‘If it makes me seem like a decent guy, sure.’
‘I did too.’
The two of them got on quite well, so Noble told him about the gallery and the Somalian/Chinese art it was exhibiting.
‘Any De Kooning-like stuff?’ asked the guy.
‘Where is this place?’
The man coughed and said, ‘no, you’re alright.’
The final stop was Long Beach, but the streets were so long and wide that it was hard to know where to go, so Noble asked a passing woman if Compton was nearby.
‘Where in Compton you going?’
‘Why you going there?’
‘To see what it’s like.’
‘Why you didn’t get off at Compton then?’
‘The train, it stops there.’
‘Really? I didn’t notice.’
‘Between Artesia and Rosa Parks. ‘Bout 9 stations back up the line.’
Noble looked over at the metro entrance and, for the first time in her life, winced. ‘Hmm, actually, I’m a bit tired of the train. Nothing to look at. Is it far to walk there?’
The lady’s eyes ballooned. ‘Wah…walk to Compton?’
‘Okay, too far. How about a bus?’
Her eyes returned to normal size and she pointed to a bus stop nearby. ‘Might be a while before any turns up.’
‘I don’t mind.’
She wasn’t wrong. Half an hour later, and it was still Noble standing alone by a graffitied pole.
‘Fuck this,’ she said, and ignited her rocket boots.
She flew North for a few minutes, scanning the signs below until, bingo, Compton. She landed next to a traffic light and a guy with a guitar strapped to his back.
‘Excuse me, are you interested in seeing Somalian/Chinese art?’
‘Somalian/Chinese art. I’m promoting a gallery that’s showing art by people who wouldn’t normally have their art displayed in big galleries.’
‘Where’s it at?’
The man almost dropped his guitar. For some reason, West Hollywood was a funny location.
‘You’re not interested?’
‘Nah, sorry. West Hollywood don’t mix well with me. Full of self-crusaders.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Nothing, vato. Just not my kinda place.’
‘I think they’d treat you well. They’re good people.’
The man laughed. ‘Ay, I’ve met them. Wrap you up in cotton wool, crank up the floodlights, driver’s seat on stage, bucket o frango, craft beer, here’s the mic, Nat, all yours.’
Noble looked confused. ‘Everyone gets food.’
‘Long as I say some shit about the hood, cops, Ralph Ellison legacy. God Bless Malcolm X the early version, the one who told that white girl to go fuck herself, Nina Simone, Beyonce, Kimmy Crenshaw. Fuck Reagan, fuck Limbaugh, fuck James Woods, it’s all good.’
‘I’m not sure what we’re talking about.’
‘Forget it, vato. I’m sticking where I know, see you later.’
Noble let the man walk ahead and then secretly followed him. According to Detroit, gangsters would drive past any second and shoot her or him in the back, but today must’ve been a day off cos the streets were pretty liminal.
The man with the guitar on his back got to what Noble assumed was the local centre and disappeared inside. Noble pursued and asked the people at the reception desk what was in the building.
‘You live around here?’ asked the only woman who bothered to look up.
‘Your accent’s different.’
‘You’re a strange colour for a Cuban.’
‘I’m half Finnish.’
‘I’ve been sick the last few days.’
The woman nodded. ‘A sick Finnish-Cuban. Okay. I’m Ruth, one of the many managers here.’
‘So…you’re looking for art, music, directions?’
‘If it’s the first two, you found it. If you’re looking for sports, there’s some courts down the road, but it might be hard to get a game, they’re always packed. Library, end of the road, two blocks across.’
‘Are you from here?’ asked Noble, playing back the accent in her mental cortex.
‘Lived here twelve years, but it’s not my home. I was born in the UK.’
‘And you came to Compton?’
‘Some people told me it was dangerous here.’
‘It’s not dangerous?’
‘Well, if I say no, you’ll probably go outside and get mugged and then I’ll look like a fool. But it’s not that bad, not a warzone or anything.’
‘You don’t have much funding, from the local council. That’s the usual reason, in most places I end up in.’
Ruth examined Noble up and down, forcing the robot to pull down her jacket sleeves. ‘Sorry, why did you say you were here?’
Noble looked at some of the posters on the wall, most of them promoting art exhibitions or musical performances. There was no gauge of quality, but they all looked honest enough. She turned back to Ruth. ‘Actually, I’m trying to get people to come to my friend’s gallery. Do you think anyone here would be interested?’
‘Depends where and what it is.’
‘Now it’s exhibiting Somalian/Chinese artists, and the Chinese artist is gay.’
‘And the art?’
‘Not sure. Kind of like a grey square…some of them…the other ones have Chinese words mixed with-…’
Ruth nodded. ‘West Hollywood?’
‘How did you know?’
‘It was either that or Echo Park. Maybe Silver Lake.’
‘I don’t know those places.’
‘Doesn’t matter. Don’t think you’re gonna get many kids here interested in anything on that side.’
‘But they like art, don’t they?’
‘Art’s not the problem, being put in the zoo is.’
Ruth put her palms together and pointed at Noble. ‘You seem like a decent person, I don’t wanna hurt your feelings. I’ll just say it’s not somewhere they feel comfortable at.’
‘It’s okay, it’s my friend’s gallery, not mine.’
‘You don’t live there?’
‘Not really. They rented an apartment and I’m just staying on the couch for a while. Until the mission moves on, I guess.’
‘Yes, it’s kind of hazy in my head, hard to explain, but the basic belief is, create role models for minorities at the top and the rest will follow.’
‘The Uhura leads to Whoopi Goldberg theory.’
‘But on a larger scale, no doubt. You subscribe to all that?’
‘The role model theory? I suppose so. The basic premise of it…seems plausible.’
‘Uh-huh. And your friends sent you down here?’
‘Actually, it was my idea. They don’t know I’m here. I thought I’d surprise them, but it looks like maybe I made a mistake.’
‘So you’re just gonna give up and go back?’
‘I guess so.’
‘Guess?’ Ruth put her arm around Noble’s shoulder. ‘You came all the way here, it’d be a waste of my time if I didn’t at least show you a few rooms.’
‘Waste of your time?’
‘Unless you’re still sick?’
Noble shook her head and let Ruth lead her up the stairs nearby and then around the back rooms that apparently made up the whole centre. Most of them were occupied by black or Hispanic teenagers [with one or two token whites] either singing, rapping, playing random instruments, writing stories, drawing pictures, some good, some great, some fucking awful.
‘I think it’s supposed to be a space station,’ said Ruth, pointing out one of the drawings on the corridor wall.
‘Looks like a crab.’
‘An abstract space station,’ she said, reading out the small description at the bottom. ‘I think that’s a joke.’
‘Not his best work.’ Ruth moved away from the picture wall and over to a set of stairs. ‘You thirsty?’
‘Yes,’ Noble lied.
In a canteen area on the second floor, Noble and Ruth sat opposite each other on a round table, drinking coffee. Two round tables down, there was a group of four teenagers hunched around a middle-aged man speaking Spanish. He seemed to be doing a lesson on travelling.
‘You teach languages too?’ asked Noble, sipping coffee and pretending to have feelings about it [In truth, she could drink and eat, but only alcohol ever had an effect].
‘By demand, yeah. Some of the kids asked about it and, we managed to get some volunteers in, not many and all Spanish, but…that’s probably the most useful language to use around here, for the non-Hispanic kids anyway.’
‘Can’t they do some of the teaching too?’
‘The Hispanic kids? Yeah, sure, we tried it once, and they quit after 5 minutes. Said it was like talking to a baby.’
‘Sounds similar to my Cantonese lessons.’
One of the teenagers at the table said something out loud in Spanish, slowly and with English grammar. Ruth waited until the boy was finished then turned to Noble. ‘You speak Spanish, right? They any good?’
Noble listened to another teen speak, this one a little better, and then one of the girls, who knew some good words but spoke in fragments. When the teacher started up again, Noble turned to Ruth and said, ‘not really.’
‘I mean, compared to the teacher, they’re not good.’
‘It’s okay. They’ve only been learning two months, twice a week. We’re not expecting Cervantes…’
‘The girl knew some good words. Not how to use them properly, but-…’
‘It’s a start. Language is repetition, apparently. Not that I know. Highest I ever got was upper beginner in Romanian and, ‘where’s the bread?’ in French. Actually, you don’t know any Japanese, do you?’
‘That’s the one they really wanna pick up, this group here, but we can’t find any volunteers.’
‘You can look on YouTube.’
‘Online tutorials? Yeah, we tried that, but it’s a deep, dark rabbit hole. Too many other videos popping up at the side.’
‘Learning Japanese turns into Naruto turns into…other stuff.’
‘What? No, distracting stuff, videos. They do one Japanese lesson, lose focus and switch to music.’
‘Or some guy watching music. As in his face reacting to a music video, his face, that’s what we’re looking at. Those are the worst.’
‘Actually, we prefer they don’t go on the computers at all, but were not authoritarian about it. They get enough of that at school.’
‘We just try to make sure they make the most of their time here, in the centre. Do something productive, and fun. No textbooks.’
‘Yeah, time and resources. That’s the crux of it.’ Ruth looked over at the other end of the corridor. ‘You read much?’
‘Our zine library’s down there, if you’re interested.’
‘You have zines?’
‘Hundreds of them. Your kind of thing?’
When they got back to reception, Ruth got a call and said she had to go out for ten minutes.
‘Can I stay here, read some of these zines?’
‘Sure. Just don’t touch the computer.’
Five minutes later, one of the teenagers who’d been learning Spanish came to the reception desk and started touching the computer.
Noble didn’t say anything.
After typing out a few things, the guy looked up. ‘You were in the canteen before.’
‘Listening in on our lesson…’
‘A little bit.’
‘Where you from?’
‘Physically, the US. Spiritually, Cuba.’
‘Huh…puedes hablar espanol?’
The guy asked another question, this one harder to catch, but adjusting her receiver a little, she managed to get it.
‘I’m actually not that creative myself, I’m just here to promote my friend’s gallery.’
‘Why you speaking English?’
‘No hable Ingles.’
‘Sorry, I thought it would be easier.’
‘Switch back to Spanish, vato, I need to practise my listening.’
Noble repeated the same sentence in Spanish and added a question onto the end.
‘What am I doing here?’ asked the guy in English. ‘That’s what you just said?’
‘Kinda what you said?’
‘What did you…que lo dice…que dice?’
‘I said the same thing I said in English before.’
The guy looked at Noble then the computer screen then said, ‘fuck it, I’m tired. Muy cansado. What you doing here again?’
‘Now? Reading zines.’ Noble gestured towards the eight zines on the desk in front of her.
‘Ha, you’ve got two of mine…fuck.’
‘That one and…’ He reached over and jabbed at another, but couldn’t reach. ‘The one with Eris on the front.’
Noble looked but had no idea what Eris was.
‘The one with the moon.’
‘Ah.’ Noble picked it up and flipped to the back. ‘It’s sci-fi…’
‘Almost. Not sure if the science holds up, I got a D in my last exam, but…it’s close.’ The guy pointed at the other zine. ‘Actually, they’re related. One is set on Earth, 200 years in the future, the other one’s 250, and…you’ve got all these new countries, or a block of countries, smaller countries, Ghana, Kenya, Iran, Venezuela, Sweden, Guangdong, Taiwan, Pakistan, and they’ve all formed a loose alliance so they don’t get fucked over by the US and China…or any other big country that fucks over smaller countries and…it kinda runs from there. I wasn’t sure how to transition from this world system to the one I thought of so that’s why it’s 200 years in the future with a few hints at how it got like that – no se lo si funcionaria – maybe it does, fusion power is the key, defensive technology, shields, forcefields, that kind of shit, both zines have fusion power as the main future development, in the stories, cos if we get fusion it changes everything, and if other, smaller countries get it then it really changes everything, if they can resist the attacks by the US or China or whoever.’ He stopped, following Noble’s eyes. ‘You like that cover? Eris drawn by me, my own hand. It’s kind of like what I just said, that different world system background, but the plot’s beyond that. Basically, people are trying to get out of the solar system and they find a new particle that acts like a wormhole, or an accelerator and…they’re on a base on Eris, stationed there and one of them has these visions about the particle, and there’s an anarchist subplot surrounding it, some of the workers on the base trying to subvert the companies that own everything, even though they’re nominally anarchist, they’re not really, they just pretend they are cos they got too big and too powerful but don’t wanna admit it, they wanna keep the pretence of what they were, the little guy, for the worker and…and that’s just the background to it, the world building, the main plot doesn’t dwell on it much, just goes its own way, trying to find the wormhole, the exotic particle, a bit of language study too. Basically, I’m trying to get the characters to another solar system, to force them into an alien-…’
The guy stopped and stared at Noble’s forehead.
‘You okay?’ he asked, squinting.
‘Sure. I’m listening.’
‘No, I mean your face. It’s grey.’
‘Oh, that. I’m half-Finnish.’
The guy squinted a bit more, then changed direction and looked at Noble’s hands. Then nodded. ‘What you doing here again?’
‘Apart from reading zines?’
‘Promoting my friend’s gallery.’
‘A Somalian artist. And a Chinese artist. The Chinese artist is gay.’
The guy grunted. ‘West Hollywood.’
‘That’s what you’re pimping for?’
‘I wouldn’t say pimping.’
‘If there’s cash behind it, that’s what it is.’
Before Noble could reply, Ruth came back in and asked the interrogator what he was doing behind the desk.
‘On the computer?’
‘I was talking to this guy. Said he was Cuban…’
‘I’m female, actually,’ said Noble, keeping her tone even.
The guy tilted his head left then nodded, saying, ‘sorry, it’s all that grey skin tone and weird-length hair. She said she was Cuban.’
Ruth turned to Noble. ‘This is Ben. He’s the one who asked for the Japanese lessons.’
‘And Urdu,’ added Ben.
‘Yeah, and Urdu. That might take a while. You sticking around long tonight?’
‘Did you finish the zine you were working on?’
‘Would you like to finish it now?’
Ben looked up. ‘You want me off the computer.’
‘I never wanted you on it in the first place.’
‘Ha, fuck off…’
‘Sorry.’ He cleared his throat. ‘Good comeback. Nice line.’
‘Not very sincere, but…better.’ Ruth sighed. ‘Are you getting off this computer or am I gonna have to-…’
‘I’m going, I’m going. Relax. Até mais, Cuban.’ He stood up and headed towards the stairs.
Ruth sat down behind the computer, checked the screen then asked what Ben had talked about.
‘Did he speak any Spanish?’
‘He guessed where the gallery was too.’
‘My friend’s gallery. West Hollywood.’
‘I guess you’re not surprised.’
‘What else did you talk about?’
Noble said, ‘not much,’ again, then branched out into other topics, the centre, the area, Ben’s fascist line. Somehow, after draining those topics dry, she got pushed back onto Detroit’s role model creation theory, which was still only 80% clear in her head and, when she was done badly explaining it, Ruth folded her arms and said, ‘uh-huh, maybe.’ This made Noble think she wasn’t totally on board with the idea so, also folding her arms, the left-wing robot asked if there was anything else she wanted to add.
Ruth mumbled, ‘not really,’ fiddled with some paper on the desk then came back, saying, actually, the problem wasn’t role models, the kids all knew about Denzel, Spike, Viola, LeBron etc., it was money and facilities and belief, it’d always been money and facilities and belief, and this part of Compton was lucky as all the staff working there were volunteers, though recently donations and subsidies had hit a plateau cos there was no certificate or perceived endgame to the scheme, no stable job avenue, just arts and craft and languages, and what they really needed was money for film and music equipment as that’s where the biggest interest lay, that’s where the potential work existed, big stress on potential, of course.
Noble unfolded her arms and tapped the desk. ‘I lived in Hong Kong before. They have the same issues. No one wants to build an arts centre for band three kids. No one wants to buy cameras for them.’
‘It’s the Hong Kong system. All the best kids go to Band One schools, next lot to Band Two, and…’
‘…all the rest to the scrapheap.’
‘Band Three, yeah. I taught some of them, as a volunteer, but it’s hard. They’re either annoying motherfuckers or just completely devoid of confidence, hope, drive, whatever you call it. That’s a bit black and white, probably, but not far off the truth. And then you have the gangs recruiting them pretty much at the school gates. Honestly, I’d like to take a sledgehammer to that whole system.’
‘A figurative one, but yes. That is one of my fantasies.’
‘Then, and I mean this in a friendly way, what the hell are you doing in West Hollywood?’
Noble looked to the left and thought for a while but the question was too tough. What was she doing in West Hollywood? Is that really where sledgehammers were swung?
Finally, she looked at Ruth and gave her the only answer she could calculate.
‘I don’t know.’