Saturday, March 3, 2007

Phil Spector & Me

I was thinking about the pop princeling and his manse, the Chateau Pyrenees. Why did he choose to live east and not west of downtown LA? He could still afford the coast, even if the rest of us Angelenos can't? The lemmings at the Pacific's rim, crowd the rest of us back, we congregate, pushing forward with the sun's course, millions of us, piling up and backing up in reverse towards the desert, channelled by the mountains of whose control John McPhee wrote in his inimitably factual New Yorker magazine style on the piece about the San Gabriels and how engineers keep them from spewing boulders the size of houses down upon us in the valley of the same name. That of which here I tell.

Why then, go east into smog and aridity if you could leap into breeze and beach? Surely another of Phil's vast array of eccentricities. Robert Blake chose for his down- and- dirty work on his ex- a locale and a restaurant both South-of-Ventura (Boulevard, not the Highway of hitmaking fame), O.J. Brentwood. The Melendrez Brothers already had their own mansion there, to the manor born. Alhambra's rather downscale; even if it's a hilltop spread, it's not much of a splendid vista above the San Gabriel Valley's arrival. Did not Tom Wolfe (I reread a copy of 1970's "Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers" I found in the garage--Layne's had no cover, mine did, and seeing I held it before my face on the Blue Line it's just as well I took the coverless paperback) write of this urge by the suddenly wealthy--the Jewish kid from Fairfax, the Italian from some East Coast hell's kitchen perhaps although a child actor or the ghetto prodigy from the Fort Hunter housing projects-- in Kandy Kolored Tangarine Flake Streamlined Baby? Where he also observed that Las Vegas was the first city built by goombahs (not to be confused with Irish gombeens, although they do have a thuggish similarity and I wonder if a verbal ancestor) who took their notions of "high class" and their ill-gotten greenbacks and made their neon Parthenons. Now Wolfe's exegesis is all the more confirmed by the past forty years on the Strip and below it.

One who epitomized the road to the palace of excess beyond the more recent usurper to the King of Pop's throne, Neverland's Michael J., Spector lives in the Kimberly (of Kimberly Scott tissue & paper fame) mansion in of all places one where I used to reside-- the dusty, smog-ridden expanse just east of LA called melodiously Alhambra. Founded by a man named Shorb in 1889. A grid. Numbered streets when they were not named after romantic personae and places, although one was named after the founder, alas. I liked the street named Marengo after Napoleon's horse near my less euphonious street named Edith. That dull entity now made into suburban chain of burbs turned into an unrecognizable (to us natives from the 60s and 70s and even the first half of the 80s) twenty-mile long Chinatown -- an area of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Asia, not to mention hundreds of restaurants, that extends to half the distance between LA and Ontario now.

There used to be a shady break after Ontario, Bloomington's garage from the 20s and the rows of eucalyptus and the freeway's offramps for Pepper, Vineyard, Archibald, Mountain, Citrus, Euclid, Indian Hill. The giant gravel mound near grey steel railroaded Colton "City of Hubs"; the green crops that endured until the turn of the century alongside the encroaching concrete pads and the enormous distribution centers that they portended. Not to mention more tracts, more strip malls, more signs (beaming four-person intact nuclear families, rustic names, lawns and invariably two stories) for more and more "Neighborhoods from the low 30s, or 90s, or 250s or 400s. Next right." What SG Valley was in the 40s and 50s, Pomona's became in the 60s and 70s. Its saturation in turn only moved the whole juggernaut further east in the land of go west, young family/immigrant/homeowner/VA buyer. Moreno Valley turned from an off-ramp into scrub into a city of nearly 150,000 in the 80s. Fontana grew gigantic. Riverside and Corona and Redlands devoured their citrus wreaths that once circled their semi-rural old towns. The old cliche about naming the streets after the groves you tear down, the beauty you obliterate, the air you choke. Us humans, all needing a place to live. Chamber of Commerce welcomes you to...

Together, this vast domain comprises the "other valley" I grew up in. No funny movies with Nicolas Cage or Julie Brown. No jokebooks or Mimi Pond satirical sketches. It offers no iconic lover's lane or scenic view as does Mulholland Drive where you and your squeeze can gaze upon the neon and lamplit grid. Chantry Flats does curve above Upland, but little of the flatlands can be seen even without smog or haze. And, I speak from personal experience, the cops do not let you park up there, whether to muse or make-out. I tried only the former. But, if you catch a glance of the valley from a rare higher perch, as from a hospital in Pasadena where I have watched my mother and sister and wife convalesce over the decades, you sense the skirt that ripples, the alluvial sediment and rocky corrugation below Altadena that slants the whole plain gently but firmly up to the foot of the mountains, so steep that even if the Angeles National Forest was not there to halt the tracts from scaling the vertical climb, I hope engineering would. But, as I will later here relate, that science progresses and hills once deemed unbuildable can be blasted and shoved apart in our newest stance for raping mother earth.

What we do thus spawned here, scattered across this otherwise featureless plain, sound or look like? We're as diverse as any Southern Californians. Whose famous from here? I have only traced Twyla Tharp (what an Okie name for such a haute couture avant-garde skinny black-clad metropolitan waif) from Fontana, where the Gucci radical Marxist-with-tenure Mike Davis also was raised, along with Sammy Hagar. His bandmates in Van Halen from Pasadena, David Lee Roth the dentist's son from adjoining Arcadia. The late lesbian enigmatic recluse SF writer Octavia Butler like so many blacks here came from somewhere southerly or Texan but lived way up in Altadena. San Gabriel birthed David Henry Hwang, banker's boy and whose ex- I even sort of know, the Chinese woman who named his most famous play with the key initial of M; he dumped her for the blonde. Sam Sheperd has some connection with the area in between Fontana and Cucamonga, where Frank Zappa once lived in the early 60s. Jack Benny made the line about Cucamonga and Azusa and I can't remember the third on the mythical silly sounding Indian-derived stops along back then Route 66 and now the 210. "Everything from A-Z in the USA," the billboard promised me as a ten-year-old as I passed it into Azusa, reading my Reader's Digest Best Fairy Tales in the back seat. Didn't Benny have Texaco as a sponsor?

Well, I had cousins who were a success: they owned a Texaco station in Fontana. I was surprised when we went there once and my dad did not merit free gas. When I started school in TC, the librarian said "you're from Claremont? That's out in the country!." My steadiest partner back in college told me that I sounded like a hick, and I better get refined if I wanted to succeed in grad school. My classmates often remarked how I did not talk the way that I wrote. They thought I lived on a farm, although I explained the concept of a dog kennel. Almost nobody I told in high school, college, or beyond had ever heard of, or visited, the SG Valley. It was on the way to the desert. The 10 freeway takes you 60 miles to Arrowhead or San Berdoo. That's about it.

So, why does it inspire my reveries? I guess wherever you grow up, there part of your idealized identity remains, no matter how commonplace it looks to the rest of us. The farmhouse attic where I lived cheap in 1984 faced demolition, next to the railroad south of the old citrus packing houses. (That railroad: the same Southern Pacific line I could hear a decade earlier on still evenings a mile or two north, the same one upon which I dared to place pennies on the tracks during downtime-- the other five innings they did not have to put me in for Little League; the same time and place that Mark McGwire played there, so I guess we may have occupied the same field once?; the same railroad a hundred yards from the TC house, so close it shook the house. The same railroad that allowed the first land rush in the 1880s away from El Pueblo de la Cuidad de las Reinas de los Angeles de Porciuncula into the ranchos and land-grant grazing desolation that once looked much more like the semi-desert it is and with global warming may more and more revert to.

Railroads bring freeways that replace straight roads like Arrow Highway across the valleys. Near its county end, one old house, amidst its own sandy and rocky detritus, still kept junk in the attic from the early century perhaps and surely from the remaining seven decades or so. IT was robbed before I moved in, but they did not know there was an upstairs room, where I happily moved out from the tract house room on Aurora (near my former grade school) into for bargain rent. A grad student from or near Oil City, Pennsylvania, learning Chinese who already translated at a school in Monterey Park, her boyfriend worked at the Pickwick, now B. Dalton (the chain beats the indie) in Redlands. Another woman named Cohen was studying at the Methodist theological seminary and having although married to someone up North a suspiciously intimate relationship with an older, gray-bearded professorial type out of Central Casting. She was rarely there. Another student not around much who worked at the Colleges in the kitchen from somewhere Texan or southerly, with a drawl. We rarely mingled, our schedules askew. We did watch some of the Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, that's the only time I recall a gathering.

I ate giant bowls of filling Roman Meal cereal, apples and cheese for bag lunches or shrimp Cup o'Noodles, and eggs broken into chicken soup or just a lot of eggs with potatoes for dinner. I lived in an upstairs garret that faced Arrow; you can imagine how hot it was even in spring. I wrote and typed on a large trestle as a table atop cinderblocks, the tabletop fan whirring, sounds provided free by KSPC, an sonic and spiritual echo of-- and nearly a frequency overlapping-- the faded signal from faraway KXLU. Both stations played my requests. Dead Kennedys playing on my clock radio as I read Gawain in the original. Going the year without talking to practically anyone unless in a business or educational sense on the CGS campus and its sister campuses (the hushed and empty library at Scripps my favorite haunt, or the top floor of Honnold next to the PR stacks for Brit lit. I made no friends, nor did I need them. I had my girlfriend still at LMU, and a few of us first-year English students who lived locally got together a couple of times only. At one girl's place I heard a phone chirp rather than ring for the first time. Her father, a prof from Rockland College in Illinois, visited her once and asked me given my family's neighborhood roots in London being Poplar, if I was Jewish. I would be asked the same question by others who knew London's pre-Blitz history and boroughs well in other conversations.

But at CGS extra-mural talks were few. I was on my own, much more than in college at the dorms. No cafeteria, no communal needs outside seminars. My tuition was paid by my fellowship, and it gave me $2000 to live on the year. I rode my bike or walked. It was a winter the dryest ever after one that rivalled 1969-70 in its rivulets. I cannot remember ever getting rained on the year I was in Claremont. Another $400 had been saved from my summer job tele-recruiting for Red Cross blood donors. Another mansion! Their offices were off Orange Grove's millionaire's row in Pasadena, in a lovely place once owned by a cigar baron, or a baron who loved cigars. Once in a while I stayed there due to a split shift. Finding a niche higher up in some covey turned file cabinet central, I read Seán O Faolain's Vive Moi and Flann O'Brien and Jude the Obscure and The Great Gatsby. O Faolain, as gleaned in my recent etymological-lycanthropic investigations, derives from "faol," wild beast or wolf in Irish. I walked there all the way from the bus stop at Mission and Meridian (today a hipster's hangout) in South Pas, a long but charming trek that took me through neighborhoods that looked exactly like those around Claremont's colleges. Those enjoyed cooler shelter, which I craved.

My fingers the previous August, when grad school had started, had smeared with sweat (and I rarely perspire unless hard-pressed) the Penguin pages of Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down, assigned for my Milton seminar. By the start, for we ended in May, of the next summer I had moved away; I was going to transfer for my Ph.D. to UCLA. I hated to leave, but I gambled that UCLA in a parlous job market would provide me a more recognized "name" degree than Claremont; I also feared that my fellowship would not be continually renewed and that I'd be faced with a $12000 debt each year if I wanted to remain enrolled at CGS. Next to the wide verandah, a mark of all those granite-faced and wood-framed houses I cherished, there still hung facing the road (which always seemed busy, surprisingly) a wavy-painted sign, "Samsara." Abandoned arboreal wireframes in the weedy back looked like vegetables had been given their chance once. Remnant of a freshly failed new attempt at Brook Farm. Place we have to travel through in Buddhism towards enlightenment. But we do not stay in Samsara. I did drive to 703 Arrow Avenue once after I left. No house. Light industry.

There, beyond the industrial and suburban advance, my years roaming orchards and fields and streets in Claremont were my best kid memories, but then we moved in the era of endless Social Studies assignments to clip out the articles in the paper on Watergate, Welcome Home POWs, OPEC embargoes, and Yom Kippur War to forlorn Temple City. Many Italians had settled there, from Italy rather than NYC or Buffalo, after who knows what happened to them in WW2. Walnut trees marked the natural flora, and one still grew, rotting boards still allowing me a place to crouch in its branches, in the background overlooking the concrete wash, named after the Eaton who once owned a swath of the canyon from which in McPhee manner mountain water trickled, the park and canyon too bearing his name above JPL. The area then was sleepy, irrelevant, and polluted. We had to live in an industrial zone since my parents ran the kennel behind our little box of a simple house, built in the 30s.

Now my wife goes once in a while to a massive Chinese market in adjoining San Gabriel. Basically in the 80s the demographics shifted, as we say today instead of there went the neighborhood. Asians in, whites out. Latinos remained steady. The other two basic color groups nearly exactly flip-flopped in increase/ decrease. My multicult-dazzled foodie-proud wife, perhaps now the only youngish "white" lady shopping on Valley Boulevard for miles around.

It was once the San Gabriel Drive-In, screen out of Zorro, a dark man on horse, a frilly woman in lace and a fan standing below, flirtatious. Olde California, the mission up, well, Mission Road just off Valley. Towards El Monte, there was a cul-de-sac called Easy Street near the unemployment office. I walked there once from home, all the way down Valley in the heat. It always seemed like summer there, furnace-blistering glare. I got a job there one summer as a chicken processor, or more precisely a de-boner, de-fatter, and meat separator, at Moffitt's Chicken Pies in Arcadia, on Baldwin named after Lucky B., of Santa Anita fame. Arcadia had much wealthier residents. The girl I worked with was Jewish, I think recalling her name now although then I only half-registered it, and her perfumed (I could smell the scent on her daughter when she came into the kitchen) and rouged mother dropped her off, as I was delivered by my patient mom, at 6:30 a.m., but I was in a Honda with dog crates in the back and my co-worker was in a Mercedes. The mother had a Germanic accent. I knew personally--as opposed to some vague brush with someone which rarely presented itself anyway-- neither Jews nor Protestants. In high school two students were from Arcadia, both living in condos and both with moms with Mercedes. I knew nobody, close that is, who had a Mercedes or a condo. Catholics. At least one mom's brood had travelled to Europe. I knew clergy from Ireland and a priest who had worked alongside JPII with displaced Poles in post-war Belgium, but that was about it for my ties to that continent. One mother midwestern and tubby and reeking of cheap scent. One mother Latina and attractive and divorced. This all evoked wealth for me.

Years later, in two separate instances, I was told by people who grew up there around that time and a bit earlier that TC was feared by Arcadians. Our football team won the CIF 2-A championship, and the Rams made what little fame TC gained. TC was a place where you could get beaten up. This seems ludicrous to me: "Home of Camellias" where each spring an imitation Rose Parade saw flowered floats dragged down Las Tunas (as in the cactus, not the fish), the main drag. Like Alhambra, El Monte, San Gabriel, and Rosemead back then, all was either a bit foggy in the winter mornings or unbearably ovenish the rest of the year, at least in memory.

But, come to think of it, bicycling home from 12:30 Sunday Mass across the street from the cattycorner public school (I attended there the tail end of sixth grade when we moved, as the parish school was full up until the fall), a ball rolled towards me in the gutter. The older, scruffy, bigger teens who had been playing with it yelled at me, making fun of me, demanding I pick it up and give it back to them over there. I was fourteen. I ignored them. They got in their car, chased me down Cloverly and around a few streets they knew as well as me, unfortunately, about a quarter-mile, and caught up with me although I tried to outwit them. I should have pulled into a driveway and vanished for a moment, but I feared being off my bike I would be more vulnerable to attack, and my bike could be stolen. So, I tried to get home, about a third of a mile but over the hump that bridged the wash, and which would slow me down, and around which no alternative existed. I did not make it. They threw me down, punched and kicked me.

Telling nobody at home, the next day I did tell a classmate, who was from Cudahy, red-haired and freckled and very Irish-looking. That meatpacking area was even then nearly all Hispanic in the schools and younger population, and he had a hard time there. He knew how I felt.

Working-class neighborhoods often offer little of interest. My area proved the point. Down the street where I lived in TC was the gated, nearly unidentified, filled but closed pioneer cemetery from the 19c for the ranches surrounding the missions. Up the street was a theatre from the 1920s. That was about it for history. Blue-collar suburbia, although a sign with Mary and the message "Pray for Peace in Our Barrios" long stood as a billboard on the closest intersection to my house. At those same rail tracks, down which a few yards Fiesta Floats around the corner made Rose Parade monstrosities, which trundle up TC Blvd to Michillinda Park, to have their one glorious deb at the ball moment, in the invariably sunny balmy morning framed by snow on the distant peaks reminding us once more New Year's missed the Christmas rains.

She shops there at the massive Asian outdoor mall, as the loudspeakers blare in whatever form of dialect has triumphed here. She buys Japanese candy, dried fish snacks, more cheap but wet fish, and dangerously preserved cellophane-wrapped Malaysian sweets. She also earned twirly energy-saving bulbs as a premium once.

A half-hour's drive beyond, past the original In'n'Out as the valley's claim to culinary fame, over Kellogg Hill (coming back you looked down on the skyscrapers of downtown LA tipping through the haze or smog that marked the region), lay what by now looks nearly identical: the Pomona Valley. A decade after I unwillingly left Chaparral Elementary, I got my MA at Claremont Graduate School. I loved the college-town ambiance that eased the oppressive heat and depressing stucco sprawl that stretches by now eastwards nearly to Palm Springs.

Coming back to what I had left eleven years earlier, I always wanted to visit the Graber Olive Factory in Ontario. It's still an unfulfilled wish, as I need to keep some for my middle age. I used to eat as a kid at Henry's Broasted Chicken, a googie-type place, on Euclid Avenue. Why cities often have a Euclid Avenue is a question unanswered. Each year we'd go there to Chaffey HS to watch the Fourth of July fireworks. When we would visit (my great-) Uncle Leo and Aunt Annie in what was by then a Chino barrio, we'd drive down Central Avenue with the windows up to keep out the dairy smells that permeated the whole area. My beloved slice of Guasti by the 10 Freeway held out for long the last remnant of a vineyard (its poor grapes capitulated to pollution) but now it's a Home Depot.

There was an inn on Foothill that was founded in 1849 on the stagecoach route; I remember Robaire's in Cucamonga (no upwardly mobile suburban-voted Rancho prefix then) and sitting around a 1930s-era roadhouse at an open bbq pit inside watching the meat cook. Hicksville. Zappa had hung out here in the early 60s perhaps with Glendale-born Beefheart before the latter went off to retire and paint in the Mojave and the former to the top of Lookout Mountain atop Laurel Canyon in the halcyon years of the late 60s. You could take that flat two-lane road all the way to San Berdoo beneath the 10,000 foot-high range of the San Bernardino Mountains on old Route 66, passing The Wigwam Motel near Rialto, made up of individual tee-pee rooms.

Eucalyptus and pepper trees lined Foothill, orchards still stood here and there amidst the tracts, and giant granite boulders from the alluvial wash down from millions of years of rain and storm and wind littered the vacant lots and silent brush. On the dark freeway, you could look north at the glowing light, perpetually adoring the shadowy bulk of Kaiser Steel. From Foothill you could look south all the way to the freeway on the county border: nothing between but emptiness, and the night's lights of the new Montclair Mall (built 1969, hideous then and wait 'til you see the 1980s style remodel in the spirit that clad the 84 Olympics: fake turrets and round pink cylinders and mauve stripes). Once me and my friends messed up the time of our Charlie Brown movie, and had to stand outside the theater there for an hour and a half until their mom picked us up. I had asked the gas station attendant (you can see how long ago this was, 29 cents, Ethyl pumps still used for our Volvo) for a dime to call her. "What do you think this is? A bank?" I was nine or so. I never forgot that rejoinder, and vowed if a kid asked me for money when I grew up, I would give it to him. Which I am with my two sons, grudgingly, lovingly, seemingly endlessly. Montclair was once Monte Vista but when incorporated it took the name the flip of Claremont (not to be confused with Clairemont near San Diego). But it was always a lower class, more trailer park, atmosphere there, thus the mall to inspire civic pride and fill otherwise empty municipal coffers.

That ambiance did lead to a drowsier, clammier sensation that led often to naps. Perhaps from that woozy state, I have a déja-vu memory from early years. A road surrounded by shady eucalyptus, dipping gently under a steel-grey railroad bridge like you see trestled in a Lionel set. A candy store, striped red and yellow and bright like a candy cane, non-Christmas variety. I cannot tell if this was real or not, it seemed by the foliage as if it would have been around Fontana or Ontario.

Etiwanda just north of my recollected landscape gave its name to a label for wine vinegar made around there. I liked seeing it was made there on the bottle-- nothing else marked our area in the store. The earliest vineyard in California was there too, a great moniker: Virginia Dare. Do you know the significance of that name? Alta Loma fit its named stretch. Lots of rocks beneath high ridges, that's it. Plenty of pits and granite and little else, wood frames from collapsed sheds and desolate lots in the harsh sunlight and strong winds that swept down from Devore Pass and hung a left towards us, although the dry desert Santa Anas never seemed to oust smog long.

In SB County, there were in such rural areas white posts with the names stenciled in black capitals down the side for the streets at intersections. My sister and I loved going to SB that way. Dips and rises made it a rollercoaster. Washing machines, full of bullet holes, littered the heaps of quarried rock and abandoned ranch storehouses along that road. Cable Airport took up much of the area between that road and Foothill, and the private planes buzzed above. Millard Sheets had his studio practically on the border; on that same street, a dog leg off of Route 66 at Mills, was the gas station where more than once and over more than one decade I inflated my bike tire too high and had it explode, as the attendant laughed. Maybe self-service stations have their advantages for me?

On the next main corner east, Mountain and Foothill, my mom and dad raised, unsuccessfully, chinchillas in the late 40s in what was then the county border of rural Upland-Claremont. Hobby Hut incongruously was across the street quite a trek for a ten-year-old with a 50 cent allowance each week, going up a nickel each birthday. Did I ever buy rather than simply look? There was also a bar, where I did go a decade later. All I remember is that Bauhaus was playing when my classmate from Glendora and I returned to the car, "Bela Lugosi's Dead." I agreed with his comment: "it sucks that such a great band name was used by such a shitty band." That band once strolled the Loyola campus to be interviewed on the dopers' fortress, KXLU, third floor Malone, antenna atop the roof. The pasty, pouffed, fey Englishmen as they wandered past the cafeteria stood out, in those days when out of three thousand or so undergrads, there truly were but a one-handed handful of identifiable punks. The rest of us who were into punk and KXLU and in my case worked there as well as reviewed music for the college paper, looked like everyone else-- to me a truer manifestation of the punk spirit. An inspiration for Bauhaus, bassist Steve Severin (now that's a great name too from Teutonic culture, the master in Baron Masoch-Sacher's decadent Viennese romp "Venus in Furs") mused that the spirit of punk was "sixteen and saying no." In the year punk broke at least for us who could not get into clubs or did not drive and rarely got to go to Tower on Sunset to buy import LPs and read Slash magazine, 1977, I was sixteen.

Six years earlier, past that same bar, I used to think it was so dramatic when I would walk across the county line and back, mere minutes from my house and school. It did not seem to rain much out there. The exception, in the torrential rains of 1969-70 when the hippies predicted that our state would around Easter topple into the ocean, offered a slight hope of snow at the 1200 or 1500-foot level where our school was, it was so chilly. A winter of Mansons and riots and Vietnam and in retrospect the Stooges (who today on the cover of "City Beat" Niall mused looked like the original trio in their haggard mien) sang "1969" and it was not a celebration, but a condemnation. The 60s could not even make it to the chronological end of the fabled decade. Us kids too young for teenaged revolution regarded the colleges a mile away full of angry students marching and burning. To me, college was full of affluent kids with stringy hair, button festooned and dirty and hirsute and loud in both color and attitude. But a hippie, named of all combos Patrick Goldstein, and his gentle gal pal with straight blonde hair middle parted, named Gussie, was my soccer coach, and to my surprise my parents did not seem to mind when early a misty, chilly spring Saturday morning he would pick me and the more northerly-placed team members up to take to the AYSO game. After Torrance, Claremont was the Age of Aquarius epicenter for the nascent entertainment that about two decades later would lead to SUVs and a whole voting cohort of "soccer moms." When I learned, the sport-- which I liked far more than baseball for its chance to show my defensive skills, and in which we played at least half the game-- was associated with Mexicans and everyone who wasn't American. But my dad had played it with those other hyphenated Bohunks and Hunks, the mittel-European spawn in the slum where he grew up in the Depression.

College-connected families did exist in my larger circle, such as the kid on the team who was the son of Pomona College's president. That explained his omnipresent sweatshirt. Earl and Roland Jackson were long-haired twins living near the college in one of those overgrown stone-walled Craftsmans, for their dad was a professor. The silver POW bracelets were often worn by the kids from the collegiate world. I did get a "Welcome Home POWs" button but we all did in sixth grade. My dad took the family to Ontario Airport to see Nixon at a '72 campaign rally, so we (and he?) could say we saw the President.

Our evening news, still in b&w in our house, was always about riots and protests and war and saving the earth. War is not healthy for children and other living things. The night would bring the day's casualties, with little flags on screen at the designated moment for the enumerated dead and wounded for, always in this descending rank, the VC, the RVN, and the US forces. Even my Archie Bunker dad (and it is often commented that Lear meant him to be an Irish Catholic in all but name, which I suppose is undergrad writing major SYMBOLIC) mused that he could not see how we were losing the war when all thd figures would be skewed in favor of the few US, some RVN, and a helluva lot of VC killed each broadcast. I remember the tallies showed "us" killing it seemed ten times what we lost and still, we were losing. Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor, the token afro or woman, all droning on. Handheld cameras and young men screaming, wounded and bloody. Other men yelling too, this time women that looked more like us and less like the Vietnamese under their triangular straw hats as they too mourned their country's dead. Dishevelled, not out of poverty and grief but posed proleterian solidarity: hippies and feminists marching and pickets falling before the assault of helmeted National Guardsmen.

Moratorium was a word I could have spelled even in fourth grade, so common it was. "Hair" was staged at Bridges Auditorium to protests. My Catholic school teachers told us the peace sign was a demonic symbol, an inverted cross, a chicken's voodoo footprint. A black family moved in two streets down. I met them one day when they bounced my ABA red and white and blue basketball. It had rolled down our driveway, where I shot baskets to a small hoop placed low as I was short. It bounced rapidly down the gutter line into where Judson Court met the larger Radcliffe Street. All streets at least then in Claremont that were not numbered (those were the oldest ones on and near the campus that spread among the tonier, much less oppressive, tree-rich surrounding houses from the century's teens and twenties) bore the names of colleges, usually smaller private ones with one word.

Then the ABA ball vanished from sight. I could not catch up with it as I was thin and it was an effort for me to run far or fast. Doing laps in the first-stage smog alerts and filling my lungs with metallic residue I could taste and breathe as my breath constricted noticeably: an irony I thought even then as we wore ourselves out for the President's Fitness Award each smoggy spring. For weeks, we could not see Mt. Baldy, which loomed round and often snowclad-- when not its granite skullcap shone white too-- straight above the town.

Some time later I saw two black boys on Radcliffe bouncing an ABA ball. I found out-- my dad always labelled my belongings for Scouts as well-- my name was on it! The mystery solved and the new owners compensated. They graciously agreed to a deal which my parents probably in retrospect worked out as a compromise. They could shoot the ball all they wanted at our house, with its hoop that must have been only about seven feet high! They did, and so I became friends with them.

Amidst "Mod Squad," "Love American Style," "Gomer Pyle", and "Laugh-In," I played in the fields, building in the sand with my Tonkas and Matchbox and Hot Wheels and tunnels made of golf-club holders long tubes of plastic, or congregating in the fort the three neighbor boys had their dad build in their backyard. German Lutherans, with a bumper sticker about the Missouri Synod. Pepper the dalmatian who ate a potato bug once. The mother was named Doris or some hideous name, and she had a perm, heavy glasses, and prominent braces. Her husband, I never got it, was a handsome Navy man, not her Erma Bombeck on seconal type. As I left one day their porch, I heard her say about departing me: "that boy's weird."

One of these progenitors did have the "Mellow Yellow" album which I thought was lamer than the first albums my sister and I collectively bought at Fedco by the Partridge Family. One visit, either to Pasadena's or San Berdoo's as they were equally a long twenty-five miles down Foothill, my mom did show a rare glimpse of astute pop cultural knowledge when she counselled me on my decision as I was split between a Brady Bunch and a Partridge LP to go with the latter. I also bought Led Zep II. I wanted Quadrophenia but it was a double album, more expensive. I listened to 93 KHJ and soaked up all the Motown and soul and R&B and proto-disco that washed about Top 40 along with all sorts of simpering, strutting, and silly rock and pop. Nobody enamored of this age of lunar landings, "American Pie," and Three Dog Night seems to ever bring up the once popular novelty singles in which presidential candidates or celebrities were "interviewed" and gave responses that were snips of hit songs, lyrically satirical or funny.

Along with music, I read voraciously, a long bike ride that same mile south each way to check out books from the old stone library that had carved above it PVBLIC according to the pedantic Roman lettering, doubtless a legacy of the correctly educated New Englanders who brought their colleges and their demeanor to turn dirt and scrub into shade trees and sylvan quads. Years later, I found out that T.S. Eliot's ex-, Viv lived around there, gradually going insane. Pomona College also was a holdout for Baconians who refused to admit, in Viv's era, that WS could have written the works attributed to his name, being but a provincial glovemaker's son.

My first book bought with my own money happened in 1972. It was an obsolete 1972 Scott's two-volume stamp catalogue bound in red for $7.50 at the stamp and coin store in Pomona-- which had the best library of all, a room where you had to be twelve to enter but I did anyway to read the Irish philatelic catalogue of its filigreed and half-Gaelic squares of slick and perforated paper. The library also had a permanent display of Laura Ingalls Wilder memorabilia, I don't know why.

My second book, new: $2.85 at Pickwick in the Montclair Plaza. The slip-bound faux-Gothic and reddishly ominously in hue set of Lord of the Rings, each paperback cover with the green box with a message from the pipe-tooting Oxford don himself, facsimile signature nearly as Gothic or runic, not to buy any but the authorized Ballantine printing. Wittily told in its caution too, befitting a man I admired somehow even then. I learned that he was a medievalist and what he taught and that such lore could still be acquired and added to by research and study.

My love of languages, although I possess no skill in acquiring them as Tolkien did, spurred me on, not to wretched sub-Middle Earth imitators (but Lloyd Alexander's Prydain delighted me too) but luckily back to the real core. Golden Book hardbound versions of Myths & Legends and one of the Hieatt's "adaptation for younger readers" (I bet) of the Canterbury Tales led me into the narratives. I never got the hang of Olympus but I atavistically felt drawn into the Catholic haze and the Celtic gloss of British antiquarianism, for beneath its ornamentation I could retrieve the Irish core. And so, over twenty years later I earned my doctorate in medieval English lit; thirty years later I labor through Irish itself, even daring last two weeks as I post at the Come Back Horslips GB (a colloquoy as mad as Erasmus' antinomian versions) on Kilkenny's werewolves or the Bricriu's Feast coupling between Médb and Cú Chullain to glance at Old Irish and puzzle a teasing fragment out that in the latter case reveals translators embellishing the spare and cryptic and barely suggested original meaning, hidden in the text that even though its Irish was penned by monks, and therefore circumspect and reticent not about sheep-devouring men turned wolf but about promiscuity. Thus is my scholarship revived and if not applied in a yellowing monograph than as a popularized demonstration for my cyber-friends whether in Marin County, New Zealand, the University of Gloucestershire, suburban Dublin's Flann O'Brienized Dalkey, or the Appalachians.

Inevitably, I am brought back from present autodidacticism when I encounter my evocations of the spark for my currently consuming thoughts to Claremont. Where you are as adolescence looms permeates your life. Even I can recall, now very sadly when I smell sliced lemons (they remind me of the grenade fights we'd have amidst the greener and less shady trees, and the smudge pots would fill the air with a sticky heavy flowery oily odor on frosty mornings that covered the windshields in a solid sheen), the ticky-tacky homes and a freeway that eliminated the lemon groves behind my house. Not to mention erased soft hills where I chased jackrabbits, found bottles from the Depression, shot a bb-gun, and rattled coyote skulls. So much for my nostalgia.

In our chaparral adjacent, decades later, more development. My open space is somebody else's undeveloped land. Vacant lot to you, wildlife sanctuary if only for hawks and mice to me. Maybe now you can understand why I react so strongly to what most people shrug off as the inevitable Western manifest destiny. Yes, I live in one house here too. But it was first, in 1944, amidst nothing else, no trees, no flowers, no fruit. Is that better or worse, to be the inheritor of the pioneer homestead amidst the then-unpaved canyonette?

As I write, one home next door: remodel & expansion. Within 100 yards: three homes (one 4500 feet on a triple lot on a hairpin blind curve) bulldozed out of the hill and rising. Next door: the narrow lot between us and the neighbors too inflated for us and them to buy, our repeated offers rejected by the bastard of an owner who hates us (since his bastard of a father was killed by an angry gardener on the site but the realtors flat out denied it was a murder site, although you must do so if the crime happened within the past three years of a sale)--well, it finally sold last month. Anyone who could pay that much will build a McMansion for sure. And there's ironically a lemon tree with bitter fruit on the lot outside the kids' bathroom window I can see, and among other delicate small trees an enormous elmish one that does much to cool down our house in its northeasternly placement and alignment with the hill. The sun goes down much faster, as far as our yard's concerned. A blessing in the summer and a respite from the glare.

Our city councilman, coasting this very week to sure re-election, is securely in the pocket of developers. Over his first term, massive home construction obliterated more pockets of green (or chaparral and tumbleweeds-- but they are indigenous California plants, you know!) under the assault from LA's relentless population growth. A hundred-thousand newcomers each year into our county alone. SB & Riverside: always now in the top-ten population increase rates. The mayor wants fill-in architecture so he doesn't lose more residents to that insatiable Inland Empire--the very reason of the exoribitant housing prices (about 15% of those living in LA/OC can afford an average mortgage for a home sold today) for all those endless subdivisions for 100 miles east (as well as west, north, and south).

Indeed, what housing slump? We're active in the city's neighborhood council, but they have to "play fair" to realtors; nothing stops more permits. I favor monkey wrenching, but it too is quixotic. My son asked me a couple of years ago why we can't simply put up signs, sit there, and protest, like in the Disney Channel plots. In those stories, the little guys defeat the bulldozers. In reality, they rarely do unless a wealthy big guy lavishes cash upon the bulldozers' employers and gets a tax write-off if said little people raise enough money by bake sales to meet his pledge and buy the land for a hiking trail, wetland, or ballpark named after him. I do feel downhearted.

Part of living in the endless boomtowns of our Golden State, don't you know?

1 comment:

Layne said...

I was so lonely for you last night and fell asleep before you came to bed only to wake up this morning to find what you'd been up to, which I consider a gift. I feel magnanimous for having sacrificed your embrace for the creation of this glory oh dearest most darling husband.