Number of miles driven today: 79

Total miles driven on road trip: 10,867

Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts? Starbucks

Starbucks' record (# of days Starbucks was more common): 28-16-2.

Dunkin' Donuts' record: 16-28-2

Cheapest gas I saw today: $3.55 

Number of states visited overall: 30

Number of red states visited overall (as of 2012 presidential election): 14 (Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Indiana, Missouri, Kansas, Utah)

Number of blue states visited overall: 16 (California, New Mexico, Florida, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Colorado, Nevada)

Centennial High alumni with framed photos in the school lobby: Lonnie Smith, Freddie Tisdale

Centennial High alumnus who should also be on the wall: Al Cowens

Which of the following does not belong with the others? Ice Cube, Eazy-E, George W. Bush, Dr. Dre. 

But guess what? They're all straight outta Compton.

Following World War II, the Bushes lived in Compton for a couple of years during its heyday as the "Hub City," midway between downtown Los Angeles and the county's main port in San Pedro. The Compton of 2015 is not the Compton of 1985, which is not the Compton of 1945.

Compton is also where the final player in the wax pack, Al Cowens, grew up. Born in 1951, Cowens attended Centennial High School and then defied all odds by becoming a star Major Leaguer for the Kansas City Royals after being drafted in the 75th round. I don't think the 75th round even exists anymore.

I set my GPS for Centennial High and hit the freeways of Los Angeles. Driving in New York City a few weeks ago, I have a new-found appreciation for the drivers in LA. They may drive too fast with one hand on their phone and the other on a Starbucks egg and cheese biscuit, but at least they'll honor a blinker.

I exited on Central Ave., a wide street lined by single-family homes with tidy square lawns. On the corner of Central and El Segundo Blvd. stood the edge of Centennial High, the entire campus ringed by a 9-foot black iron fence. Approaching the school I walked by a row of boarded up storefronts that still seemed partially occupied by squatters. One section was tagged "Winner's Circle" in black graffiti, perhaps an homage to Compton local Kendrick Lamar's track. 

"Hey, how you doin'? asked a hunched older man as I walked by. There were four guys chatting and hanging out on the sidewalk, a makeshift lounge with all variety of furniture--an old loveseat, a plastic classroom chair, a plush couch with the cushions piled high. Another guy lay sprawled on one of the couches, his hand barely grasping a reusable coffee cup. 

Across the street, the dilapidated remains of Golden Bird Fried Chicken were wrapped in giant posters of the upcoming movie "Straight Outta Compton" chronicling the rise of N.W.A. On the other corner was a Smart and Final. 

I walked into the lobby of Centennial High and found several families coming and going. A flyer on the door indicated the school is hosting a professional development event on academic literacy. Several photos in varying stages of yellowing hung on the walls, celebrating the rich athletic history of the school. I scoured them for any sign of Al Cowens, but only found framed photos of two other alums who played pro baseball: Lonnie Smith and Freddie Tisdale. 

I found a woman working in the office and introduced myself, asking if there were any administrators present. From the bank of offices in the back, a man called out, "How can I help you?"

He walked up to the counter, probably older than his appearance. He was black, his mostly-shaved head speckled with grey and black, wearing a gray Centennial Apaches t-shirt and glasses.

"I'm a writer working on a book project to track down all the players in a single pack of 1986 baseball cards, and one of the guys in the pack went to school here. Al Cowens."

He paused to think. "The O.J. guy?" he asked.

I laughed. "No, no, that's Al Cowlings. This is Al Cowens, he played Major League baseball."

"Oh yeah, the name sounds familiar. Kansas City Royals?" he asked. 

"That's it. Pretty good player too. He came in second place for the MVP one year," I said.

"Are you one of the administrators here?" I asked him.

"That's what they tell me," he said with that wry weariness that comes from working in public schools for decades.

"Are you one of the principals?"

"That's what they tell me."

"Are you the head principal?" 

"That's what they tell me."

​He handed me his business card: Douglas C. Brown, Sr., Principal of Operations.

Or at least, that's what they tell me.

"But everyone knows it's the clerical staff that gets everything done around here," he said, loud enough for said staff to hear the compliment. 

He walked me back out to the lobby and we chatted more baseball.

"I was wondering if you have old yearbooks that might have Al in them?" I asked. "He graduated in 1969."

"Well they're having registration in the library right now so I'm not going to disturb them, but I'll check later for you."

He paced while we spoke, dancing a couple of steps to one side, then coming back and leaning in just inches away from my face. He seemed tough but kind. 

He told me not come back at 6 pm, when the alumni association will be meeting. 

"You might find some people that went to school with Al," he said.

I thanked him for his time and headed back out into the streets of Compton. I posted up in the public library for awhile and read about the history of the city, one of the oldest in the LA metropolitan area. You would never know it from driving around now, but at one time Compton was a quiet, "lily white" suburb. In 1948, the black population was less than 50; in the 1950s, almost 30,000 African-Americans moved here, capitalizing on the Supreme Court decisions that outlawed segregation in real estate. The white community reacted predictably poorly, using scare tactics to try to keep blacks out and decrying the potential dip in property values if the city became "too black." By the 1960s, the demographics had completely changed.

But Compton in the '60s was not the ghetto. It was a middle-class suburb where many black families found they could achieve "the American Dream" of buying a house and having a yard. When the race riots broke out in nearby Watts in 1965, Compton was not heavily involved. 

Of course, Compton's fortunes changed over the ensuing decades as the city fell prey to the type of gang violence that eventually inspired the lyrics of N.W.A.

Around 6 I went back to the school and found Principal Brown in his office, on the phone. I scanned the walls, covered with class pictures. The senior class in 1988 was almost 100% black, but the most recent photo, 2014, showed a completely different situation.

"Is the majority of your student body Hispanic?" I asked.

"Yup, 70%," he said. "It used to be 99% African-American."

Nothing is permanent. I wondered to myself what the Compton of 2045 will look like. 

Principal Brown led me into the library, where 8 people, mostly in their sixties and seventies, sat spaced around the room. I introduced myself and asked if anyone knew Al Cowens.

"You mean the guy with O.J.?" one of them asked.

For older blog entries, click here.

A Tale of Three Cities

Day 47: Compton, CA, 8.4.15


One Pack. No Turning Back.