Friday, October 17, 2008

A Different Point-of-Hue: L.A. Stories 2008
(Part VI)

Et Cetera ’08 (continued): Landmarks Lost (and Found)
Continuing the sunshine…nah…jest fudgin.’ From the last installment I know you’re probably thinking this trip to California was just this side of a root canal for yours truly. Nothing could be further from the truth.

By now you realize that the gist of the series’ subtitle is about seeing things differently and as such this most recent trip truly brought about an adjustment in my perception of the only place my entire adult life that I’ve ever really thought of as ‘home.’ It was honestly the first time in all my years of visiting SoCal since moving to Nashville in 1992 that the idea of maybe…possibly someday returning to L.A. seemed, if not impossible, at least more than a little bit distasteful.

So why is that such a big deal, you ask? After all, I’m the one who left. Why should I care if I don’t live there anymore?

But ya see, that’s the problem — in a way, I never did leave SoCal. And I really never gave up on the idea of going back.

Of course I’ve never made any kind of plans to that end, given that such a circumstance would require my doing so without my wife, as Michelle would never go along with such an idea. Her insistence that we get the hell outta Dodge was the primary reason I considered relocating to Tennessee in the first place.

No, this is more like a fantasy I’ve always had, silly as it is. I mean, after all, Nashville has been extremely good to us — on a scale of magnitude better than SoCal was. But a lot of factors could be attributed to both sides of that argument, which really never has been an argument or even a discussed issue in our marriage.

This is just me, myself, and my gut talkin’ here.

There’s a part of me that mourns, longs for that feeling; a feeling of which only a counterfeit facsimile or two each spring and/or fall here in Tennessee manages to find its way into my thirsty soul; a feeling that can only be rendered by a 70 degree day wrapped in a blindingly clear, blue sky and cool Pacific Ocean breeze. Every once in awhile, the millibars of atmospheric pressure will align in such a way that those conditions, so plentiful and common in SoCal, but so rare and foreign to the rest of the country, will make a fleeting appearance here in this huge bowl of pollen, violent winds, and humidity they call the Tennessee Valley, and my soul will dance in celebration at the occsasion of ‘California weather’ in Tennessee, as Michelle and I dubbed it years ago.

It may last a week, or just a day, but it never lasts. Inevitably, the often blustery days of spring, which generate a bipolar mix of warm, rainy, and even bitterly cold days, are never stable. Likewise in the fall, temperatures vary wildly, often staying unseasonably warm well into October. But generally speaking, if we see any semblance of SoCal-type climate here, it’s generally woven into the days between Labor Day and Halloween, before the rainy season kicks into high gear and soon thereafter gives way to the cold, icy and occasionally snowy days of winter.

But what about summer, you ask? Well, as Joey Bag-a-donuts would say — fuggedaboudit. Summer is the practical joke nobody ever told me about before we moved here. If they had, I might not have been so willing to pull up stakes.

Well maybe it’s not that bad, but it certainly isn’t all that good either. I guess it’s all about what you’re used to, and had I grown up in the freaking Amazon I suppose the searing heat and 90-plus-percent humidity every day in July and August would probably feel like…normal. Well I’ve been here now for sixteen years and it still doesn’t feel normal.

So sue me for being intolerant of weather that sucks, but I jest cain’t hep it; I’m a Southern California boy living on the surface of planet Mercury — or at least that’s how it feels by comparison; and I’m sorry, but it really does suck.

The bottom line is this: I love Nashville — I really do, but it will never replace SoCal in that unattainable little bit of gray matter in my head where its specialness in my life is defined and will live forever. As iffy as I may be on the summertime weather here, that’s still no slam on Music City. It’s just that the further removed I get from my time growing up in L.A., the more I realize just what an indelible mark that the SoCal climate made on my psyche.

To borrow a phrase, Nashville’s fine, but it ain’t home; L.A’s home, but it ain’t mine no more…*

*...with all due apologies to Neil Diamond

The indicators are innumerous in affirming that I am now in a better place — in every sense of the word. It’s unfortunate that I actually had to leave Southern California to really start living, but I guess that’s the give-and-take of life in paradise. If it were possible to combine SoCal’s weather with Nashville’s lifestyle options and more favorable cost-of-living, well, you’d probably have far worse chaos than exists in L.A. now, ‘cuz not only would everyone want to live there, everyone could.

Nevertheless I do try to be realistic. I can still visit the old homestead, and do so fairly cheaply (I spent less than $600.00 including airfare and rental car during my recent nine-day trip); so as long as my Dad and other friends are still around for me to come see, I always will — for as long as I’m able.

But upon returning to Music City, I always know there’s something that I’ve left behind; a tune that all thirteen hundred and fifty-two guitar pickers in Nashville** couldn’t play quite the same way I’ve heard it all my life. And as welcome as they are to me, those occasional ‘California weather’ days — those brief meteorological reminders of a state of being in which I can no longer reside — they’re only fool’s gold. I have long accepted the fact that they just don’t make that kinda weather consistently anywhere else but Southern California.

**Begging John Sebastian's forgivness, as well.

Well the Times (as Well as the Places), They Are’a Changin’
With two lengthy preambles of melancholy machination now established, perhaps it’s time I got to some of those ‘anecdotal’ entries I intentioned back at the beginning of the previous post.

Given all the changes I witnessed and have noted — whether or not they were actually all that recent — my eyes were opened even more throughout the week as I made various and sundried pilgrimages in and around my former hometown of Long Beach, especially in the area of my old high school.

Woodrow Wilson High lay at the physical epicenter of three distinct residential areas bordering it. Affluent, blue-collar, and inner-city neighborhoods surrounded the school and, in a manner of speaking, were held together by the linchpin that was my alma mater’s rich and diverse socio-economic makeup. But as is usually the case, urban blight generally spreads in an osmosis-like fashion into areas that were once more affluent, becoming increasingly less so. And as such, the areas adjacent to my old school have fallen upon increasingly seedy times: a continuing sign of the difficult financial climate weighing upon the families and businesses in the area.

One such local business located just a few blocks from Wilson really surprised me with the completeness of its demise: good ol’ Mickey D’s.

In thinking back now, I suppose I already knew that the old McDonald's was no longer, having been sold and augmented into a rather nondescript Mom ’N Pop type of drive-in restaurant sometime back in the 80s, well before I moved my family to Tennessee. And while sad, it was okay to me, as the place was still a restaurant and better still, a new McDonald’s was built to fill the void just a little ways up the street.

Wilson’s students would suffer however, as the new McDonald's, while still nearby, yet was now far enough away to no longer be a practical lunch destination on foot.

The original Mickey D’s was just off the corner of Anaheim Street and Ximeno Avenue; two and a half blocks from school and very near to the respective locations of my initial two money-earning endeavors: ‘Big Jeff’s Car Wash’ (1972-73), and just two blocks west of that: a grocery store that has changed brands at least five times since the 80s, which was my primary employer from the beginning of my senior year of high school through my early thirties (1973-1986).

Needless to say, with all three venues: my high school and my first two places of employment within a two-mile radius of each other, I was heavily invested in the area to say the least; and it has saddened me deeply to realize how far the neighborhood has fallen.

Anaheim Street, the east/west thoroughfare on which the street addresses of the old McDonald's, Big Jeff's, and the Grocery Store are ascribed, has in my opinion become the biggest loser over the course of time — and I don’t mean that in a good way.*** Its businesses were old-looking way back in the 70s, and certainly don’t look any younger today.

***Oh, and to Jillian Michaels & Bob Harper…um, yeah…sorry…

On the other hand, Wilson actually looks great today — and that’s actually news. I'm of the opinion that either through municipal government authority or even the private funds of concerned alumni, somebody stepped up to do something to reverse the increasingly downward trend that my old school seemed to be locked into just a few years ago. I can clearly recall back in 1994, while in town for my twentieth high school reunion, noticing that the old campus was taking on more the look of a max security prison than a high school. The previously wide open campus had been fitted with foreboding iron gates all about the school’s perimeter, with matching bars across each and every exterior window. Graffiti marred the outside of the once-impeccably kept institution. It was a truly depressing site. However now, four years later, it appears that a great deal of effort has gone into the restoration of both my old school as well as its immediate surroundings.

Gone is the graffiti, as well as the hardware on the windows. The school's curb appeal is just as I remembered it, if not better. And perhaps as significantly — if not more so — all of the real estate on the west side of Ximeno Avenue (Wilson resides on the eastern side of the street) has been completely turned over and is now being used by the school.

Gone is the unsightly parking lot opposite the school's main entrance on Ximeno and 10th, replaced by soccer and athletic fields from 10th Street all the way down to the school’s terminus at 7th Street adjacent to the football field. Years ago, that real estate was occupied by a klatch of modest-to-run-down businesses and an apartment building, directly across the street from the school’s the gymnasium and football field complex.

There was a ‘Pup ‘N Taco’ fast food joint on the corner, directly across from the football field. It’s gone as well, now replaced by the green grass of a soccer field. Besides, with all the cases down through the years of people needing a quick fix of Pepto Bismol soon after eating those P&T chilidogs, I’m surprised the place wasn’t plowed under years ago.

The Scene of the Crime
I have LOTS of memories of that apartment building,s — too many to share right now, but this is something I know now that I must write about soon. One of my best friends my junior and senior years at Wilson lived in that apartment building, so I knew it quite well. Unfortunately that familiarity led to a pretty scary event back in October of 1975. One fateful Friday night the narrow alleyway between the apartments and the building next door became a location in which I was the wrong place at definitely the wrong time. I was mugged by a half-dozen kids I encountered heading up the alley just as I was heading down from the opposite direction, toward the street. There were a number of factors contributing to why I came away from the situation with nothing worse than the seat of my left pants leg being torn down to the back of my knee, but as I said, it’s another story for another time.

Obviously it was one of the more tense moments in my young life to that point. Fortunately, I can almost laugh about it now, but the bottom line is that the alley no longer exists, and the neighborhood is better for it.

It's no surprise that the city finally did something about the bad circumstance that group of buildings was creating. The neighborhood was getting rougher by the year and those apartments along with the few other old, unsightly buildings didn't do much for the property value, let alone the safety of the kids who attended Wilson in those years as the neighborhood was taking a rapid dive.

But having that solid-block buffer of school-controlled real estate in between the campus-proper and the decaying neighborhood to its immediate west seemed to change everything; it’s still not what I would call a 'great' area, but it’s a helluva lot nicer around the school now than it was just a few short years ago.

Meanwhile on Anaheim Street, the old McDonald's location isn't faring quite as well. It’s no longer a restaurant at all, but has been completely razed and replaced by a strip mall — and not a very nice one at that.

Unfortunately this trip I never had a chance to look in on the site of my first job, ‘Big Jeff’s Car Wash,’ about nine blocks further on up the street. I know that as of 2004 it was still operating, and I’d aasume that it’s still going strong today.

I did have the occasion however to briefly pass by the former ‘Market Basket’ supermarket, a place where I was employed just shy of thirteen years. It’s a ‘Ralph’s’ market now, and the place looked as busy as ever.

The newer McDonald’s (heir apparent to its aforementioned predecessor down the street) still stands in the corner of the Ralph’s parking lot, an area in which we employees were once instructed to park our cars back in the day, to allow first dibs at the prime spots in front of the store for the customers.

If I'd had the time I could have gone further down Anaheim to check out ‘Joe Jost’s’ — everyone’s favorite neighborhood tavern both then and now, as I hear its still going strong.

It Was Stupid, But it Made Me Happy
There were several other venues of interest in the area I took note of during my wanderings that week.

About a mile and a half northeast of the market still stands Community Hospital, where I spent the night in the Children’s ICU with my daughter Amy, following her accidental electrocution on the night of August 18, 1987. A couple blocks east of that, just past the traffic circle, is the place where the ‘Circle Drive-in’ movie theater’ once stood, where my roomie Mo and I one night in 1975 snuck into see Young Frankenstein.

The drive-in has been replaced with a huge condo complex and an impressive-looking glass office building on the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Ximeno Ave.

About another mile and a half due east, in perhaps the saddest change carried by the winds of circumstance that I witnessed on this trip, the Laundromat on Clark Avenue that inspired perhaps my favorite blog story ever, is now some kind of asian meat market. Can ya believe it?

There were more changes in the local landscape of my middle-youth-to early-adulthood, but I’ll stop there. It’s safe to say that the times have changed a lot in my old stompin’ grounds, and that change was a sober reminder of how fast time — and life — is passing by for me.

Next: More Etcetera: “Dad & Helen”
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