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2004: Looking Down the Street a new introduction to Children of the Streets by Harlan Ellison®
This book was first published when I was twenty-seven years old. As I write this new introduction, I am one month away from my seventieth birthday. What the world was like, when I wrote these stories, is as lost and arcane as the prime time of the Ottoman Empire. No self-respecting vato loco or gangbanger would even consider using a zip gun (if, in fact, he had ever heard of such an implement); give him an Uzi or an AK-47. Or, even better, an Austrian 9mm Steyr MPi 81 with a 25- or 32-shot detachable box. Switchblade? Fuggedaboutit.
The book was originally titled Children of the Streets, but the paperback publisher felt something, well, 'juicier' or 'more sexy' was necessary in those days of lurid news-stand covers. He retitled it The Juvies, the term for juvenile delinquents that was in every tabloid headline. I only hated the new identity. And, oddly, this book became the only one of my seventy-five never to be reprinted. Until now. And now, of course, is a new world in which these stories are artefacts of a lost culture, a time as buried in the sands of memory as daily life of the Incas at Machu Picchu.
Yet I have rather a warm spot in my heart for this little collection. 'No Game for Children', for instance, was the first story I wrote while in the US Army. During basic training, no less. I was drafted in 1957, between World War II.3 and World War II.4, and I made the error of punching out a racist 2nd lieutenant in the reception center at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Laid the momser out with one good righthook, and they were going to court-martial me on the spot, but since I was not actually in the army, the worst they could do was to ship my young carcass off to Ranger basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia. Standard basic training in those days was eight weeks. For the Rangers, one did ten weeks. One day I may write about all that. It's only been forty-eight years. I'm sure I'll get over the trauma of those two years in the military any decade now.
But the connection to my affection for this book, via my stint among the weapons-bearers, is that I didn't have the time to write that I'd enjoyed prior to my induction. I could only write late at night, after twenty-five-mile forced marches with full pack and M-1 at port arms. Or on weekends. So I ceased writing quick fiction for a buck, and I wrote what I'd really wanted to write, stories worthy of the talent I knew was in me somewhere.
And out of that limiting situation came the 'Rough Boys', 'No Game for Children', 'Memory of a Muted Trumpet' and quite a few others that critics have said were my best early works. At least five of those appear here, rediscovered after more than four decades.
What a strange, long trip it has been! The world of New York, Brooklyn and west-coast street gangs read as if they were cautionary tales by Louisa May Alcott or Horatio Alger. The universe in which we now move is far more deadly, far more random, infinitely less (what a peculiar word) ethical or strictured with unspoken rules.
Gangbangers today, particularly here in Los Angeles, will kill anything that moves if it's in the path of a drive-by hit. They don't give a shit if it's a three-year-old baby or a gray-haired old woman in support hose. They use weaponry intended for insurrections and militias, and the venal scum who manufacture those weapons get fatter and more blood-engorged by the day. It is a madhouse out there.
When I wrote these stories, it seemed the youth of our nation were at the crossroads. They were, I thought, foolishly perilous times. Little did I know.
I don't want to sound too impoverished of spirit, too sad and cynical, but it does sober one up to realize that no matter how bad or mean the crossroads look, there are always streets to be taken that are darker and more damnable than even the most tenebrous of us can imagine.
Here's hoping that in another forty-something years, when Children of the Streets is reprinted, that whoever writes the 2044 introduction (it sure as li'l green apples won't be me), s/he will be able to say: 'Ellison should've lived long enough to see how swell everything became.'
Yeah. That's a good thought with which to leave you. Enjoy the book, howzabout?
Harlan Ellison April 2004