Ping Pong, Smack & Crack in “America’s Safest City”

It took about a week to realise that I’d travelled across the world to arrive at what was essentially the American version of my hometown.

Toowoomba, meet Simi Valley.

Situated 40 miles out of LA, Simi Valley used to be a quaint little place. 20 years ago it was given the illustrious title of “America’s Safest City” and young parents flocked to it, snapping up Pleasant Avenue houses and jobs at the new plant just out of town.

At six o’clock everyday clean cut husband descended the Ronald Reagan Freeway just in time to watch the sun go down over that little slice of civilisation cut out of rocky Californian desert. They told themselves the travel time wasn’t that bad – after all, they were only 45 minutes away from the beach, which is always nice for the kids. Wives made weekend cupcakes and church morning teas showcased their “cute” Sear dresses and stiff, country club hair.

Cut to 2013.

The kids have grown up, and the seeds of perpetual boredom sown in the 80’s have flourished into an overgrown jungle of teenage dissent. By the time mom and dad realised that the corporate energy that paid for all their good intentions would one day run out, it was already too late.

Blatant disregard for my finances had left me there for the last month of my American adventure. I was too broke to make my way up to San Francisco and the lush redwoods of Northern California but still loaded in comparison to my American peers.

During the day, I hung out with Lincoln and his friend Jake’s house. Jake’s dad Greg grew “medical marijuana” and he paid the local kids – sometimes in weed, sometimes in cash – to dig holes and harvest his crops.

When they weren’t busy with physical labour, we played ping pong on a pool table covered with plyboard. Lincoln always won because he had years of juvie rec time practice under his belt.

Greg was a trucker-hatted tree lopper raised in a Carolina trailer park. When the local economy went to shit, he made it his business to be the best damn weed grower in the whole valley and saved his home in the process. Too bad he couldn’t save his kids.

Most of the time he was too stoned to care if his crops were directly sponsoring the town’s teenage heroin trade. So long as Jake shifted the dope, got him a beer and washed his truck whenever he told him to, he was happy.

Come Friday night, Lincoln, Mark and Cody were looking to party with their $40 of hole digging cash. We wound up at Cody’s dad’s house. Apparently, seven people sitting in a garage smoking meth and playing beer pong constituted a party in that neck of the woods.

Cody played the perfect host, offering up a glass pipe and a tiny butane torch as we took a seat around his homemade work bench. “I love you dad” was scratched into the corner.

Mark – or MTV as I called him (on account of his perpetual smile and penchant for colourful plastic sunglasses) – sat at the end of the table fingering the tiny sack of meth nestled among the array of hoses and pumps sprawled out on the work bench. His mind was elsewhere – perhaps contemplating whether spending his new found freedom making up for all the valuable tweaking time he’d lost in jail was the best course of action for his life.
He took a hit all the same.

Amy, a weekend tweaker and full-time nurse, was next on the pipe. There wasn’t much left, and she looked at Cody inquisitively as he busied himself trying to see if he couldn’t use the collection of materials that lay before us to fashion a pump for siphoning his dad’s gas.

“I don’t get it. Your dad is in the FBI, and you really think you can get away with stealing his gas?” I asked.

“Oh he’ll find out, that’s for sure. But I’ll be long gone when he does – that’s why I need the gas!” Cody replied with a well-practiced sheepish grin.

He was one of those good looking guys who always knew just the right time to play dumb and flash his perfect American smile.

He drove an unregistered, unroadworthy, pale blue 1966 Chevy Caprice with no seat belts. And he waved at every cop that went by.

“They are too busy appreciating the fine piece of machinery rolling their way to ever check my plates.”

The Chevy cost him $30 a day in gas, but he deemed the cost worth it for the attention he got.

“Dude, do you want me to lock the door?” MTV asked, lingering at the garage entrance with four more of Cody’s dad’s beers cradled in his arms.

“Nah” grunted Cody, wiping the residue off of the pipe and tucking it back into the bottom drawer of his dad’s $20,000 tool box.

“I mean, me and my dad have a pretty good relationship. He trusts me a lot… I don’t know why,” he smirked.

Neither did I.

With six counts of grand theft auto, drug possession and possession of stolen property charges (“Man, he was pissed when he found out I was stashing it here!”), and one count of commercial burglary to his name, Cody had been a very busy boy.

They all had.

MTV had just finished with his parole. He rooted for Team Meth when it came to Simi Valley’s teenage smack v crack rivalry.

Lincoln was still on probation, but that didn’t stop him from getting a shot whenever he could. He was a classic junkie – did whatever it took to get high and not much in between. Heroin was the first thing he thought of when he got out of bed (eventually) and the last thing on his mind when his head hit the pillow after a long day of “just tryin’ to relax”.

Jake and his friend Ray stayed home that night – they both had warrants so they couldn’t kick it with the rest of us at Cody’s house. They were pretty content with getting strung out together in Greg’s basement anyway.

Ray knew how to work Greg. Homeless, he capitalised daily on Greg’s pity. His routine was to score three grams of weed (on tick) for $20, and then sell on two grams for $20, which he used to get a sack of meth to smoke with the gram he had left. Occasionally, in his more sober moments, Greg would have him work the crop or surrender his food stamps to repay his ever-expanding drug debt.

For Ray and Jake, going back to jail was a when, not an if, so they might as well enjoy doing whatever the fuck they wanted in the meantime.

Cody didn’t have to worry too much about jail. His dad could afford lawyers. He’d only spent 36 hours behind bars – not even enough time to learn pinochle, or join the woods or learn Mexican insults.

I slept on the couch with Lincoln that night after the meth and dabs had dried up.

I met Cody’s dad briefly the next morning. Having just woke up, I was groggily wandering from the couch to the kitchen when we crossed paths. Startled, he scanned me suspiciously.

“I am Cody’s father.”

That was all he said. The introduction immediately established that we were not on a first name basis. And why should we be? I didn’t know his first or last name.

He was a rigid man with stiff, authoritative movements. He had one of those bristly, salmon-like faces with ginger hair and blotchy pink complexion. I smiled and shook his hand anyway. He didn’t bother me.

That was two years ago now.

Last I heard MTV went back to jail. So did Lincoln, but after another stint at rehab, he decided to trade smack for flipping burgers and buying new versions of all the stuff he’d pawned in the last ten years.

Jake’s still got that warrant, who knows when his luck will run out.

Nobody’s heard from Ray in months. Lincoln says he went to Las Vegas and just never came back.

And as for Cody and Amy, well he knocked her up, and she had to quit nursing *and* meth. He traded in the Caprice for a minivan and took up a job as a mechanic in this new plant that opened up just outside of town.

The travel time isn’t that bad, and after all, living in Simi Valley, they’re only 40 minutes from the beach. Which is always nice for the kids.


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