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All I Wanted Was a Pepsi

Bad cafeteria food, too little freedom, not enough hope

By Traci Hukill

FRIDAYS ARE USUALLY SLOW at the Eastside Truancy Abatement and Burglary Suppression (TABS) center, and today is no exception. Only three morose inmates are sitting at desks in the middle of the room while police officers and administrators joke and gossip over lunch. Seventeen-year-old Romero keeps looking at their steaming bowls of food. He's hungry.

He hasn't eaten yet because he got picked up on his way from Andrew Hill High School to Taqueria Garcia for some decent grub. "They had hamburgers and pizza," he says of Andrew Hill's cafeteria with a grimace. "But it's not good, you know?" Today isn't the first time he's headed for the taqueria for lunch, but it's the first time he got caught.

Romero's not tall. He's well proportioned and carefully dressed. Long bleached strands of hair string backward over a thick dark flattop. He wears two earrings, one of which is a pot leaf.

"I only smoke it once in a while," he says. Romero is an athlete. He plays soccer and wants to get back into boxing at the Police Activities League, where he's practiced for three years under Sgt. Candy Lopez. On the weekends he goes out with his brother, who's 22. When I ask if they go to bars, he answers, a little primly, "No, we don't go to those places." He doesn't drink much.

"Sometimes I go to the Boys and Girls Club," he says slowly.

I ask him what teens want from adults. He looks up.

"Freedom."

I ask him what scares him. He doesn't have to think.

"The future." Then he laughs self-consciously, suddenly feeling the weight of what he just said. I ask him what he wants to be when he grows up. He shrugs and fiddles with a pencil, hedging.

"You can't make a career out of boxing," he says. "That's what my coach says. Because the government takes all the money you make, and when you're 35, 40 years old, you're finished." He falls silent again.

"Do you have to go to college to be a police officer?" he asks suddenly.

I say I don't know because I don't. But I find myself wishing I could tell this young man what he wants to know right now.

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From the Nov. 26-Dec. 3, 1997 issue of Metro.

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