FRESH YARN presents:

Me and the Kid
By Eric Friedman

The first time I tried to join the Big Brother program, I was rejected. And just to be clear, I'm not talking about the reality show -- I'm talking about the charity. I went in for an interview, and four days later I got a letter saying thank you very much but you do not fit our Big Brother criterion. Translation: "There's a kid out there with no father, and a shitty home life, just dying for someone to reach out and give him some love and attention -- but we think little Johnny McNoDad is better off without you in his life. Thanks for driving all the way out to fucking Alhambra."

That was three years ago, and to this day I don't know why I got turned down. They never tell you the reason. I thought the interview went really well. I was responsible. And mature. Even when the social worker asked me, "Can you think of any time where it would be appropriate to touch a child sexually?" And I knew it would be hilarious to say, "Because they look really hot?"… But I didn't. Because I'm mature.

The only thing I can put my finger on that may have gotten me nixed was when the woman asked me if I had any preference for the kind of little brother I got matched up with, and I said "I'd love a little black kid. Because," and I said this, "they're so cute and funny." Which I still maintain is true. Webster didn't stay on the air for five seasons because of the zingers coming out of George Pappadopoulos's mouth, am I right?

But in retrospect, that probably wasn't the best thing to say to a social worker whose job is to keep creepy dudes away from innocent kids. And now I realize that when she asked "what kind" of little brother, she was probably looking for adjectives like "athletic" or "personable," whereas I was thinking more in terms of flavor -- like "What kind of ice cream do you want?" Clearly I wanted chocolate. And clearly the Big Brother organization didn't want me.

At least not the Gentile Big Brother organization. But did you know there's a Jewish Big Brothers? I didn't. When I first heard the term "underprivileged Jewish kid," I pictured someone who only went to four weeks of sleep-away camp instead of eight. But apparently Jewish dads sometimes bail on their kids too, and apparently the Jewish Big Brother program isn't as choosy about who they let in, because in February, 2002, I was matched up with Hector, a shy, smiley, spiky-haired, ten-year-old Latino Jew.

"Oh yeah," I thought, the first time he hopped in my Jetta, and I told him he could put on whatever radio station he liked, "I'm gonna Big Brother the shit out of this kid."

Hector popped on Power 106 and started rapping along with Mystikal's "Shake Ya Ass" as I drove us to the Santa Monica Pier -- Hector's favorite place in Los Angeles, and what would soon become my least favorite place in Los Angeles.

"So…what ride do you want to go on first?"

"I don't want to go on rides. I want to play the games."

When I was growing up, my father never let us play carnival games -- you know the cheesy "throw some shit at some other shit so you can win some stuffed shit" kind of games. He taught us at an early age that those things were a total waste of money -- like hotel mini bars. And Brendan Frazier movies.

"Eric, Eric. Can I have some money for the ring toss?"

"You know what Hector, I don't think those games are such a good idea. They're pretty expensive, and kind of a ripoff, y'know?"

"I have no dad."

He didn't actually say that. But he didn't have to. The voice in my head said it for him. All day long. Two ring tosses, three dart throws, a water-cannon-horse-race, and several mole-whackings later, the kid didn't even have so much as a stuffed koala to show for it. And I was out 46 Bucks. For that kind of money, I could've bought some Toblerones out of a hotel mini fridge and rented Encino Man. And it would've been way more enjoyable than the Santa fucking Monica pier.

A couple weeks later, I took Hector to the Downtown Science Center. We check out some cool hands-on exhibits about dinosaurs and technology and other stuff that 10-year-old kids go apeshit over.

"Hey Hector, how do you like the museum?"

"It's alright."

We go next door to the Imax theater and watch a totally awesome movie about outer space.

"Hey Hect, what'd you think of the movie?"

"It was alright."

We leave the museum and hop on the shuttle bus that takes us to the parking lot. The bus starts moving. Hector's face lights up.

"Daaaang, this is tight!"

"This? This is tight? This BUS that's taking us from the front of the museum to parking section Jupiter is tighter than the movie we just saw on a thousand foot screen with fucking sweet-ass surround sound. This is tighter than that? What the fuck is wrong with you?"

Instead, I say, "Yeah. It is tight, isn't it? Really, really tight."

I don't want to give you the wrong impression. I like Hector. He's a good kid. A polite, well-behaved, well-adjusted kid. And that's the problem. I'm bored of him. I didn't sign up to be a Big Brother so I could get matched up with a good kid. I did it so I could get matched up with a bad kid. A lost cause. Someone with pain and problems. I wanted to make a difference. Maybe even be a hero. I mean, I believe in doing good deeds and all, but I like to get a little something out of the deal too. Like how I always pledge KCRW, but I wait until they're giving away the really good premiums before I call in. (I took the Chocolate City five pack.)

But after a couple years of hanging with Hector, I don't feel like a hero at all. He never asks me for advice, never confides in me. His dad's not around, sure, but besides that, he's got a pretty okay life. No pain. No problems. He's a happy kid. And his happiness is making me miserable.

So when the Jewish Big Brothers social worker calls and asks how things are going, I tell her that I don't feel like I'm making a difference. She says that I am even if I can't see it. That every time I take Hector out, I'm giving him a day that's just for him -- a day where he doesn't have to deal with his brother or sister or mom. Where he's in charge of the car radio, and can open the sunroof if he wants to.

"Yeah…He broke my sunroof."

(PAUSE) "Oh. Well, hang in there."

A few months ago, I pick him up at his house. He's a wreck. Fighting back tears. "Yes!" I think. "This is it. He's going to tell me about his pain and problems." I wonder what could've made him so upset. Maybe his mom hit him. Ooo, ooo, maybe his dad came back -- and then ran away again! This is so awesome!

"I'm here for you, buddy. Whatever's bothering you, you can tell me, and I'll help."

Pause. Then. (ALMOST CRYING) "My mom made me get my hair cut really short and I hate it short!"

"Well look, your dad probably -- What?" That's what's bothering him? His dad abandoned him and he's upset about a haircut?

I'm clearly bummed, but I force a smile. I tell him his hair looks good short. He says nothing for a long time. I turn on Power 106. He doesn't even sing along with Ludacris when he says, "Move bitch. Get out the way. Get out the way!" Apparently this haircut bullshit is serious business.

I take him to his favorite restaurant -- Shakey's Pizza -- or as I call it, the most vile eating establishment in L.A. It's even grosser than the Erewhon supermarket. The smell of things frying makes me dizzy, but it calms Hector down a little. He even manages to muster up a few words in between bites of greasy, gnarly pizza. They have some games in the back room -- again with the stupid games -- and I give Hector some money to play with. After forty-five minutes, he wins 11,000 prize tickets -- or enough to trade in for three army men and a blow pop. Not bad for 12 bucks worth of quarters.

I ask if he wants some ice cream, and for the first time all day, he forgets about his haircut and gets excited. I take him to Cold Stone Creamery. He gets a sundae with Gummi Bears mixed in. I get nothing on account of Cold Stone ice cream gives me problems in the ass.

We do a little bit where he pretends to bite the balls off of his Gummi Bears and I do the voice of the Gummi Bear; "No! Please don't bite my balls off. I really need my Gummi Bear Balls." Hector cracks up -- kids like when you say "balls" -- and we play this game until his bowl is Gummi-testicle free.

On the ride home, Hector cranks up the Power 106, and raps along loudly as DMX sings about getting a blowjob. When I pull up to his house, I get out of the car to say goodbye. Hector starts to run off, but then he stops, turns back to me and says, "Bye Eric. Thanks for cheering me up today." And then he gives me a hug and sprints towards his house.

And I stand there for a minute, watching him go, and I smile. I guess even good kids need heroes.

But damn that is one stupid haircut!


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