*

A strangely similar Houston

As you drive across the roads that connect our country, you begin to draw parallels and similarities from the most unlikely of places. Believe it or not, but there is a parallel that was drawn from our experience in Shippersburg. The parallel experience took place in Houston and the antagonist was called Ratchet.

Ratchet was a slim, rat-like human with long greasy hair to his shoulders, swooping, overgrown sideburns and yellow, crooked teeth. When he discovered that we were from California he was ecstatic and insisted he take us to a downtown speakeasy — an afterhours spot that served alcohol illegally until the sun came up.

We walked by the bouncer and entered a strange, rarely seen underground world of Houston. Five pool tables ran along the left side, each cluttered with toothless men and large women. Not surprisingly, Ratchet knew the bartender. It was also not a surprise that Ratchet did not have any money, and his relationship with the bartender was not strong enough to afford us free drinks; and by drinks I mean the small cups of beer they were selling for $5 each. We got our silly, little beers and made our way to one of the tables.

Somewhere in between Frederick playing a sharky looking fellow in pool and the group of Latino men to our right snorting lines of cocaine, Ratchet told us he despised black people and that he has stabbed multiple men in his life.

He became excited and took off his shirt. In his excitement, he took his thumb and showed Winston how he stabbed the man. Ratchet continued to tell us that he had also shot a man in his testicles.

"Did the man die?" we asked.

Ratchet responded with a wink, "I didn't stick around to find out." He followed this by expressing his desire to join us on our road trip back to California — he wanted to surf with us. We obliged him with smiles and nods and then quickly excused ourselves to the car. We swore that we would be right back — Ratchet made us swear. However, we did not return. We got in the car and drove 100 miles to Austin, Texas.

We will never see Ratchet or Jim again, however, they have opened our eyes to an underbelly of murder, drugs and depressing things that are riddled throughout the United States.

*

N.O. swamp stories

The last place I would like to take you is the Ninth Ward in New Orleans — the Swamp. The Ninth Ward is where Hurricane Katrina hit the hardest. We drove down Rue de St. Claude, over the bridge that separated the Ninth Ward from the rest of New Orleans, and into a scary world of drugs, violence and anger.

Dilapidated houses and buildings decorated the unpaved streets. People sat on the ground, too high to move, too stubborn to change. They were stuck. I can understand how someone can get stuck in the Ninth Ward. There's no happiness there, and everyone is doing anything they can to survive. Girls and boys alike are flung into the harsh streets with no choice but to do anything they can to get by — oftentimes, it's either that or death.

A small girl rode her pink bike up and down the street, and I wondered if she would ever make it out. Her chances did not seem good. I can understand how a place like that breeds anger and violence. If I lived there I would be furious at my situation. No hospital or school or love. The only kind of happiness that occurs is when a strung out man finally gets his hands on the vice that had put him there in the first place.

How does a person living in the Ninth Ward deal with something like diabetes or cancer? The short answer is that they don't; they can't. I thought how alone a sick person must feel in the Ninth Ward — no one should have to feel that hopeless and that alone; however, it happens all too often in this country.

There are many times when I've felt sad or hopeless or asked myself, "Why is this happening to me?" But after seeing what I've seen and meeting the people that I've met I realize that those feelings and that question is unwarranted.

We are lucky to live in a place like Orange County, where there are no Ratchets or Jims or Ninth Wards. The next time you feel sad or upset, just know that there are people out there who have been born into truly hopeless situations.

If you live in Orange County, you are in a situation of hope and opportunity. But do not take my word for it. Go take a drive and find out for yourself. I can give you Ratchet's number if you want.

C.M. STASSEL grew up in and lives in Costa Mesa. He works for Greer's O.C.