By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Lee Mason (not his real name) has yet to return a single one of my phone calls. Sometimes his cell phone just keeps ringing. Other times, a mysterious click is followed by a long, deadening buzz. If I’m lucky, the voice mail picks up. “I’m out walking the Spider Web,” says his deliberately coy message, a nod to last summer’s blockbuster Batman Begins and Bruce Wayne’s tendency to vanish quickly. When I finally catch the sly 16-year-old, he clicks over to call waiting at least five or six times, but won’t tell me who’s on the other line. I’m quickly realizing that the only earthly creature cooler and more elusive than a hot, young Hollywood celebrity is a hot, young teenage boy in the throes of adolescence.
Finally, Mason’s mother, a semi-famous character actress, secures me a date with her son. I prune to appear modishly disheveled, opting for tangled, unwashed hair, Converse high-tops from 11th grade and a Cure concert T-shirt that I picked up at Wasteland. I drag along Paul, my geeky-chic husband, who, God help him, tucks his oxford shirt into his chinos, and together we’re standing outside of Hollywood’s McCadden Place Theater waiting for our teen dream to show. Shaye pulls up in her scrubbed-up Saab and Mason tumbles out, all oversize sweat shirt and jeans shredded within an inch of their existence. His soft brown hair falls in diagonal wisps across his forehead and his favorite sneakers are one wear away from splitting apart at the soles. “Hey,” Mason says to my husband. “Cool shirt.”
We’re seeing Coke-Free J.A.P., something I have a hunch Mason will take to. Sure enough, the one-woman show about a neurotic, Jewish Manhattanite 92 days sober reminds the self-reflective teen of his struggles as a recovering crystal methamphetamine addict. He laughs at the protagonist’s casual references to cocaine, her hysterical sociocultural rants on everything from sex to her psychiatrist, and the ongoing frustration she has over her strained relationship with her emotionally detached father. It’s unnerving how closely Mason relates to the play’s sophisticated subject matter; you’d sleep better if he were just a tad more naive. But as anyone who’s spent time with teenagers knows, adolescent naiveté has sadly gone the way of the dinosaur.
I first met Mason three years ago when he slogged through the door of the fourth-grade Hebrew class that I taught at Temple of Hollywood. At first catch of his cherubic features — bright, clear skin, plump mouth, a smudge of pale cherry-pink on each cheek — it was inconceivable that he spent much of his early teens scoring speed in cramped alleyways off Melrose. But as playwright Arthur Miller wrote: “Where choice begins, Paradise ends, innocence ends.”
Mason was 14 years old when he spent 94 days in a tony youth rehab center in Los Angeles that he dutifully refuses to name. He made friends there, he explains — heroin junkies, pill poppers, pot fiends — whose privacy he needs to respect. As part of his rehabilitation effort, Mason got a part-time job as my teaching assistant. Granted, he never really assisted, because he was too ironed-out from all the antidepressants and antipsychotics he was prescribed. (Life sans speed moves pretty damn slow to a kid who was once hooked.) During my class, he spent every week for two solid hours at the back of the room reading Chuck Palahniuk novels and logging on to his Myspace.com account. Sometimes he’d steal out early or skip class altogether in order to make his daily Narcotics Anonymous meeting out in Pasadena. A pill popper during graduate school who survived a few touchy-feely group therapy sessions of my own in rehab, I fast became Mason’s de facto mentor. He’d bend my ear about colleges, benzodiazepines and Clearasil. Mason’s observations on the state of elementary-school education were precociously blunt.
“The only thing that I’ve learned by hanging out in class,” he announced one day over doughnuts and milk during recess, “is that even at the age of 9 you can completely tell what kind of adult a kid is going to be.”
According to Mason, there are two kinds of teenagers: Old Spirits and everyone else. Within these two main groups are a plethora of subcategories into which teenagers of every type get sorted. The Old Spirits, the category into which Mason falls, wear black and are messy, inscrutable creatures, with troubles that rival those of any seasoned, hard-living adult. Kurt Cobain is a hero.
The Old Spirits, says Mason — and there are a lot of them — can’t relate to their airbrushed portrayals on film and TV (The O.C., with its soap operatic subplots and cast that looks like it stepped out of a toothpaste commercial, doesn’t count — neither does MTV’s vapid reality counterpart, Laguna Beach). For all the chick-lit manifestos on the shelves about everything from anorexia to rape to alcoholism to promiscuity, there’s not a lot of dick lit to match it. And despite a recent flurry of nonfiction books on adolescence over the last few years, girls get most of the press. With the exception of the commendable Adolescent Boys: Exploring Diverse Cultures of Boyhood, co-authored by associate professor Niobe Way of New York University and Stanford lecturer Judy Y. Chu, most of the material on teenage males focuses on the upper-middle-class, white demographic, while the few tomes on minority male teens tend to reduce them to thuglike stereotypes.
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