Pancho’s Giveaway

Pancho’s Giveaway is a status state.  It’s a metaphorical appellation given to unwilling LA County public school students by other very willing LA County public school students.  Pancho’s has been in non-existence at least since the early 70’s; maybe even longer than that.

It’s supposed to be a real place, but as far as anyone has known it has never actually existed.  Some kids claimed to have even been there, but they were lying.  Even today if anyone ever tells you they’ve been there or tries to tell you how to get there, well, they’re lying too.

For some kids it’s like the penalty box in hockey, it sucks while you’re there, but you can get out if you really try.  For some it’s a life sentence, you’re stuck with the rep, but the good news is you’re not actually in the joint.  When you’re a kid in LA and you’re feeling like the low rung of the ethnic or financial ladder, you can always find some unwilling other and taint them with the stink of Pancho’s Giveaway.

I was a Junior High student in central Hollywood, at a school that had a lot of poor students, some really rich ones, and a lot of in-betweens.  Almost everyone at my school had, at one time or other, been accused of either being a customer of this imaginary retail establishment, or of having a close relative (usually one’s mother) who was.  OK; hold up, definitely not the rich kids.

That’s because, believe me, Pancho’s Giveaway was (is) a low end place.  It’s a store, a clothing store, which nobody wanted to be caught dead in.  However, for a place that’s not real it could be richly described by every current or former LA County public school student.

Here’s my own vision: it’s a store located in a one story building on Western Avenue, back from the arcade, where it starts to get a little sketchy.  The windows are always a little dirty and the security shutters are always half pulled down, in case they have to close in a hurry.  It’s filled with rusting racks of moth eaten wool clothes and battered t-shirts with nothing cool written on them.  They have a couple of shelves of unmatched shoes that have holes in them.  The store’s attempts to decorate apparently stopped at worn old boxing advertisements and burned out chili pepper lights.  The clothes there are worse than the clearance rack at the Vine Street Goodwill on a bad day.

When I first got to LeConte Junior High School I was informed by several students that I or my mother (or my mother and I) shopped at Pancho’s Giveaway.  This was followed by tittering laughter.  I didn’t get it.  I mean, I knew I looked different; I was fresh off the chuck wagon (OK, an American Airlines jet) from Oklahoma.  I was proud of my tablecloth red plaid button down shirt and my straw cowboy hat (with the matchbook jimmied in the band) that had a real ostrich feather sticking out of the right side.

I soon tripped to the fact that I was not in fashion.  My school, like all schools, was like a little Britain as far as its class divisions, and it was based all on clothing.  There were things you could away with and things you couldn’t.  For instance if your sneakers were not Vans, they’d better have a swoosh or say Nike or Converse All Star.  Though Converse wasn’t as hip in 1979 as it got to be during the 80’s you could wear them, unless they had a hole.  Then it was Pancho’s Giveaway.  Boom!  The judge’s gavel would fall and the afflicted kid knew he’d have to get new shoes.

OP, Kennington, and Town and Country were all good to go (just no holes or frayed edges please).  You could wear any OP shirt with its horizontal bands and cartoon depictions of surfers.  You could wear other t-shirts if they said The Beatles or Rolling Stones or the Who (The kids at LeConte loved what by ’79 was already being called Classic Rock).  A couple of years later it was shirts with Van Halen and Black Flag.

Speaking of the Who, any depiction of a Union Jack made you automatically Pancho’s exempt.  And if you were wearing a Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax shirt you would probably get a lifetime Pancho’s exemption.  Any new looking pair of jeans or white colored painter’s pants were good too.

As soon as I could, shortly after I learned Pancho’s Giveaway was not a real place (some kids never found that out), I got my mom to buy me a few OP t-shirts.  I had a backpack that was name brand (but affordable) and got a pair of Reeboks (acceptable).  I had to ditch my Okie getup to stop being noticed, because the only thing a 7th Grader wants more than being noticed is to be not-noticed, if you know what I mean.

At the other end was this; the poor immigrant kids who wore what was kind of like the uniforms of their native countries.  The primary one that everyone remarked on was the itchy looking tan or gray colored blazers (almost always with elbow patches) that the Armenian kids wore.  They just wore what they did in their hometowns so far away, or what their parents wore.  It wasn’t their intent but to us they resembled the militant Iranian students who had taken down the US Embassy in Tehran that same year.

The cooler Armenian kids wore leather jackets like The Fonz.  I wonder now if the leather kids told the blazer kids (in Armenian) that they shopped at Pancho’s.  I wonder what their imaginary Pancho’s looked like; though I suspect it was staffed by whatever group the Armenians looked down on.

The Korean kids had a look that could be described as “Early Al Sharpton;” with their athletic gear and track suits.  I don’t recall anyone other than other Koreans telling them they shopped at Pancho’s Giveaway, probably because we all assumed they knew karate.

There were stores that were out of bounds.  JC Penny and/or Sears?  Pancho’s.  Montgomery Ward?  Pancho’s, well except for a few sections of the boys department, they had some stuff generally acknowledged to be cool.  Any little place that sold surfing gear was exempt, as well as one-off establishments like The Baked Potato out on the Sunset Strip.

Let me break it down: anything that couldn’t immediately be identified as name brand was Pancho’s Giveaway clothing.  “Ha!  Nice shirt!  Did your mom go all the way to Pancho’s Giveaway to get that for you?!”  If you had any clothing that was tattered or if it was noticed to be worn too many times was Pancho’s.  “Whoa dude, you’d better get out to Pancho’s Giveaway to replace that shirt!  Do you need some bus money?”

During my 3 years of Junior High I phased in and out of Pancho’s status, like a heavily laden seaplane never quite able to get enough speed to make it off the choppy waves.  And I never owned anything that gave me a Pancho’s exemption.  But that was all right, I took it all in stride.  After all, there was always someone more Pancho’s than me.

It’s hard to believe that after all these years nobody has opened a clothing store called Pancho’s Giveaway; the closest thing I ever saw was a ramshackle store called Giveaway on Washington Boulevard.  But that was in Miami, and having one there wouldn’t have made any sense.  Because Pancho’s is an only-in-LA thing, it always has been, and like LA it’s more a state of mind.  It’s a place that apparently has such a negative connotation that nobody has even opened up an ironic version of it.  I would, well, if I had the money; and I’d put it right on Fountain Avenue and Vine Street, where everyone could find it.  The trouble is, if I had the money to open a Pancho’s Giveaway I would certainly have no business shopping there!

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