No Time for Music in a Land of Lost Children

When you’re an all-star, the world will fall at your feet. But when you live in a neighborhood that’s rife with drug trafficking, you can collapse under the weight of the world.

For all-star musicians, the spotlight works the same way as it does for athletes. When I made the All-State and All-American orchestras, letters arrived from out of the blue, with offers for full-ride scholarships, sight unseen, no auditions necessary.

If I had gone to music school, everything would have been so easy.

Yet when I think about the neighborhood where I grew up, and about the Lost Girls who lived there, I see two different pictures.

One of the girls was mean. She lived in a mossy green house down the street, a house with the shades always drawn. I remember seeing her when I was 12 or 13 and wondering why she was always shivering. Rubbing her arms. Rubbing again. If I ever tried to say hello to her, she would glare out from under thick bangs and tell me that Xxxxx, the local dealer, would kick my ass if I ever spoke to her again.

The other girl was joyful. She came from a deeply religious family, and she gleefully described her perfect mixture of H and speed. Her mother was an Avon lady; one of several in the neighborhood.

I have no idea what happened to any of them.

We lived in a post-war neighborhood of styleless, run-down houses that were tossed like tiny boxes onto a landscape of tall grasses and steep hills. The neighborhood fronted a stretch of woods where, it’s fair to say, nothing good ever happened.

When I think about why I declined to sign over my life to the music world, I think about these girls.

They’re part of a familiar cast that populates the poorest neighborhoods in America.

In this case, it was a White neighborhood in Kansas City. The characters you’ll find in these places show up regardless of city and race — the dealers; the addicts; the angry old men; the single mothers; young men, unemployed, who spend their days trying to keep cars running; retirees; ex-cons; people with disabilities; the hungry; the overworked; the struggling.

You’ll find them haunting the stages of impoverished neighborhoods in Black communities and White communities, Latino and Asian.

Every now and then, the tragic opera that plays out in dead-end America produces a character who transcends the story.

Many years after my time of ducking Xxxxx and his squad of ass-kickers, I was interviewing the main character of a newspaper project that would win some of the top awards in American criminal justice reporting.

This kid, a 16-year-old soldier for a Latin American cartel, told me that his family had landed on the wrong street, among the wrong people, when they came to America.

“If I had known they were my enemies,” he said, “I would have told my father not to move there.”

Yes, I thought. It was much the same for my family. We came from rural Missouri, not rural Mexico, but yes, it was the same.

The 16-year-old had seen more than a dozen of his friends killed on the streets.

I thought about the death toll in the neighborhoods where I had lived. My 16-year-old neighbor in Kansas City was found with a gunshot in his head. He had killed himself amid a swirl of problems related to addiction and rumors of trouble with the local cartel. His body was found by his 9-year-old brother.

The kids at school who called us White trash had no idea what our lives were like.

In the backcountry, where we came from, no one would have called us trash. My mother’s extended family owned thousands of acres of land. They built towns, homesteads and churches. They served as political leaders, just as their ancestors had, all the way back to Virginia.

I did not burrow into the barrel of hopelessness that rolled through that neighborhood in Kansas City. My family may have fallen apart, but they still showed me a broader world.

My father, an engineering-firm executive, lived the high life in California. After the divorce, he never paid a dime in tuition or child support. But he showed me how wealthy people in America lived. He showed me that you could grow up destitute in Missouri, as he did, and execute a vision of another life.

In another year, in another neighborhood, another death made the headlines.

During my first years in California, I lived on a gunfire-rattled street haunted by dealers and Lost Girls— not unlike the neighborhood where I had grown up. All of Southern California was stunned by the murder of an 11-year-old boy who lived on my street, whose body had been tossed off the side of a mountain. He was one of the kids on bikes who hung out in the parking lot of my apartment complex. Although no charges were ever filed in the murder, the case was rife with rumors that the child had run afoul of the local dealers.

The teen soldier in San Bernardino, who I interviewed a few years later, affirmed that this sort of falling-out was deadly.

Within a couple of years of my interviews with him, he was convicted in a double murder case; he shot two people on a street corner in San Bernardino on a Halloween night. I was not surprised.

I spoke to many characters like him while reporting on the rapid decline of a once-admired American city.

At the time, I could not have imagined doing anything else. The story of the downfall of prosperous cities — a new story at the time — was part of my story, too. I felt as if I had spent my entire life in training to tell it.

By contrast, the music world — a world of sequins, flowing skirts, illusion necklines, black lace, and the flush of good will at the end of a symphony — it seemed so detached from the problems of the world. Frivolous, even. It had always seemed that way to me.

With that conclusion, I made my own departure from the usual story of America — the story in which people leave behind the horrors of whatever world they left. In the Hollywood story, I would have risen to play in the ethereal concert halls of Europe and never again made mention of the Lost Girls I used to know.

In my case, however, the music served a different purpose.

When you grow up in a neighborhood full of people who have secrets to keep, you can’t just politely ask to be left alone.

The keepers of the secrets collect dirt on everyone. It could be something small: Picking a lock on a shed or smoking weed in the woods under the eyes of the whole group. It could be bigger: Breaking a window to get into a house. Carrying product.

It could be one of these things. It could be many of these things — none of them socially acceptable at the time. None of them mainstream.

No one was left out of the fold. Someone like me — with no men in the house and no parents in sight — could have been useful to people like Xxxxx in many ways.

Everyone was put to the test.

Most came out with devastating addictions. Not all of the girls who walked out of those woods could maintain their sobriety.

It was not long after this period that Nancy Reagan told us to “just say no.”

I heard her say it, and I could not believe that this country was being run by people so ignorant, who thought Americans who lived in poverty had choices.

“Just say no.”

In my view, our nation had fallen into the hands of people who had no knowledge or concern about American children who live under the threat of violence every day.

The violin, in this context, gave me a choice.

When I was 13 or 14, not long after Xxxxx had relayed his initial threats, I started playing in competition. Winning. My visibility went up; my name was read on school announcements. Visibility, as it turned out, brought safety. Soon enough, the people in the neighborhood were off my back. I was never personally threatened again.

I shifted out of that world. The dealers and the enforcers dropped out of sight. I entered competitions. I played in youth symphonies. I ran with the teen violinists.

The violinists played rough, too, but in a different way.

We were learning how to carry the swagger it takes to play, and the shit-talking placed limits on arrogant behavior.

My favorite scene: After rehearsal with some elite group (I can’t remember which), a strutting teen concertmaster stepped off stage into the wings, wiped his forehead, and held out his handkerchief. I think he was just tired and had let his hand fall, but a friend of mine said to him, “I don’t worship your sweat, Monte.”

In teen orchestras, we saw the strutters and the silent. The younger that players were when they had started lessons, the less likely they were to be able connect with people. My own teacher had a prodigy who had started at age 3 and spent her days and nights absorbed in arpeggios. She was as unapproachable as the mean, shivering Lost Girl in my neighborhood. She could not respond to hello.

When you see the great performers on the big stage, you’re seeing the results of years spent in a gossamer cage of musical discipline; children who have been kept and cultivated like rare birds, living out of the reach of the noise of the world. Great violinists are not like the rest of us.

By the time I was 14, I believed that the price of music was much like the price of compliance with someone like Xxxxx. To play, you were forced to surrender.

To me, falling wantonly into any world — into the music world, into Xxxxx’s world — looked much the same. Either way of life could leave you unfit for any other.

Surrender, in my world, meant that you might not survive.

It was simple: I could not fall into the sumptuous folds of the music world, because I could not leave behind the things I had seen.

When you’ve lived to the rhythm of gunfire in the land of Lost Children, you cannot tune out the noise of the world.

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Respectable journalist. Terrible waitress. Reckless Violinist. YouTuber/Novelist. Contributor at The New York Times. Follow at

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Rebecca Raney

Rebecca Raney

Respectable journalist. Terrible waitress. Reckless Violinist. YouTuber/Novelist. Contributor at The New York Times. Follow at

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