One of my best memories of Los Angeles is a trip to the now defunct Tower Records in Hollywood. It was the 1980s and I was in high school. My best friend Melinda and I had ditched class to go to the record store. We drove there in her white 1964 Chevy Covair blasting the Violent Femmes from a boom box.
This kind of trip was a common occurrence. We ditched often and our favorite spots were Hollywood and Newport Beach. This day was even more of an adventure because we were on a quest for autographs from one of our favorite bands, Oingo Boingo. It was rumored that the lead singer Danny Elfman, along with drummer Johnny Vatos, would be at Tower Records. And they were. We got our albums signed and talked to Johnny and Danny for a while in disbelief. Afterward, we got in the car and jumped up and down in our seats. Our gamble had paid off. We decided to stop off at Nana’s on Melrose, the once famous punk rock shoe store, and I bought some red patent leather boots. When I got home that evening, the school had called and I got a slap in the face from my mom for my ditch day. It was well worth it.
That trip went down in our memories as one of our most memorable ditch days. We had neglected to invite my twin sister Jackie and it is almost thirty years later and she still hasn’t forgiven me. “That was messed up. Oingo was my favorite band, remember?” she always says when the story is told with irritation edging her voice.
Despite my high school adventures in Los Angeles, I never thought I would live there. It was a magical place to me growing up. We lived in Ontario, about sixty miles east. Los Angeles was where the cool people lived. It was also the land of the punk band X, a band I worshipped. It was where the Ramones’ movie Rock and Roll High School was filmed. It was where concert venues like The Roxy and the Hollywood Palladium were located and where we travelled to see bands like The Smiths, X, the Pixies and Siouxsie and the Banshees.
My senior year of high school was a disaster, I spent more time in LA ditching than in school and when this former straight A student, preppy goody two shoes turned punk rock girl dropped out senior year five units short of a diploma, no one was surprised. I had planned on attending Claremont McKenna but somehow, I lost my way. I spent graduation day under the bleachers in my Sex Pistols t-shirt watching my twin sister walk to get her diploma, tears falling on my cigarette and my thick eyeliner blurring my eyes.
Looking back, my apathy was a combination of all the money problems, Dad losing his business (a tavern called The Big O), my older half-sister’s death, my undiagnosed depression and all the chaos at home. All of this combined with my predilection for partying my cares away in a bottle of Strawberry Hill created a lethal combination to my college dreams. Looking back, it was all too much. I folded my dreams like a losing poker hand. Life seemed to be over.
Always a survivor and fighter, I pulled it together. I really can’t tell you how. It took years and a lot of hard work, but I managed to pay my bills by waitressing full time and attending school part time. Starting out in junior college, then UCR, then USC Law.
At USC Law, I ended up back in my favorite city, the city of dreams, but this time, I was in LA on a different kind of mission.
Most of my time in LA was spent drinking a plain cup of coffee studying at Starbucks with my roommate Bridget. We were also obsessed with watching The X Files. Most weekends, I took the train to visit my boyfriend Adrian (now my husband) in West Covina.
Thursday nights was called Bar Review night, which was really just a drunken pub night. I never went and I remember someone calling me a goody two shoes and I guffawed. If they only knew. I was no goody two shoes, but I was focused and determined to not screw up. The tens of thousands of dollars in student loans I took out weighed heavily on my mind.
And my hard work paid off. I graduated in the top twenty percent of my class. It felt vindicating. And when I walked across that stage in my cardinal and gold cap and gown, I saw my parents and sisters in the audience cheering for me. I wasn’t crying under the bleachers any longer. I had made it.
It is fifteen years since graduation. Big law firm practice didn’t work out. I tried law firms in Houston, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Nothing felt real. It all felt like I was playing a role, my own version of Eliza Doolittle. The only thing that kept me sane was my creative writing. When my dad died, I knew I had to make a change. When I came to the public defender’s office in Riverside eight years ago, it immediately felt like home. I represent the mentally ill in incompetency proceedings now, protecting them from a system that has no empathy for them.
People see my clients as criminals, but I see them as someone’s mother, father and children. It has become even more important in this current climate to protect these people from non-caring institutions.
My job is hard and I go out to Los Angeles to decompress from it all. In January of this year, I saw the forty year reunion of X at the Roxy. I jumped up and down in my combat boots screaming out the lyrics to the song “Los Angeles”. And while I may not technically be a Los Angeles girl, this Inland Empire girl has a history there and so I call Los Angeles a close second for home.
Ultimately, the city of angels made me who I am. Lawyer, writer, and punk rock girl, that’s me.
Juanita E. Mantz (“JEM”) grew up in the Inland Empire in the 1970s/1980s in the kind of chaotic home from which great memoirs are made. At seventeen, she dropped out of high school, but took her GED and worked her way through Mt. SAC and then UC Riverside and finally, USC Law.
After practicing at the largest corporate law firm in Texas, she came back home after her father’s death to give back to her community. JEM is a writer, performer and deputy public defender in Riverside specializing in mental health law representing those incompetent to stand trial.
Her stories and essays have been published in numerous literary journals and magazines including The Acentos Review, The James Franco Review, As/Us, Inlandia: A Literary Journey, Lifetime online, MUSE, Mutha magazine and Bitch Media, amongst others. JEM is a four-time participant in VONA’s Summer Writing Workshop and a member of the Macondo Writers Workshop.
She is finishing a final draft of her YA memoir titled, “My Inland Empire: Hometown Stories” and will be looking for an agent.
You can find her on Twitter @lifeofjem and read her blog at http://wwwlifeofjemcom-jemmantz.blogspot.com. She is a proud resident of San Bernardino and loves punk rock music.