Sunday, June 10, 2007

Food for Thought

With a full twelve-week summer session underway at the university and the hectic intensity of the week-long Santa Barbara Writers' Conference looming, I had no taste for a quickie six-week summer lit course at the Adult Ed. But they made me an offer I could not refuse: flaky, buttery raisin scones from Marcia, who runs the coffee shop, and the freedom to chose whatever author I chose so long as he or she was out of the standard canon that could be had anywhere else (by which they probably mean the lit course my buddy Steve Cook is teaching at City College).

Yes to the raisin scones, and yes to John Fante, who, along with the late, lamented John Sanford, rank first on the list of America's best under recognized fiction and nonfiction writers.

Both were loveable curmudgeons, but since I knew Sanford and had never met Fante, I'll award Sanford the head curmudgeon prize and get to him in another post.

John Fante was the quintessential Los Angeles writer of the late 1930s and '40s. Reading him was like being a kid and having a doctor plug his stethoscope into your ears, then letting you hear your heart and inner organs. His turf was the area just northwest of downtown called Bunker Hill, a gritty amalgam of Queen Anne houses with wide yards, tiny neighborhood groceries, and news stands where the papers of William Randolph Hearst competed with the LosAngeles Times, then owned by the wannabe royalty Chandler family. The hill had a steep angle, necessitating a small railway, the Angel's Flight, at a nickel a pop to get you up or down on the hill. Bunker Hill began to mold, its dark roots starting to show in the early 1920's when the affluent began to move west toward Brentwood, Bel-Air, and that upstart real estate venture, Beverly Hills.

Fante caught Bunker Hill as she put on weight, her paint peeler, and her high-heels grew wobbly. The Angel's Flight, great fun for a kid, began to have arthritic shudders and lurches. It was the part of town you lived in if you were getting by while waiting for the next miracle. You could shop at the Grand Central Market and actually catch a decent meal at Clifton's Cafeteria on south Broadway at a reasonable price. Fante's characters ate there, walked the hill instead of spending the five cents on the Angel's Flight, and probably got two meals out of a French-dip sandwich from Fillipe's, down by the Union Station. The only contretemps on the Bunker Hill of those days would be if a Helms Bakery truck entered the same street as a Good Humor ice cream truck.

Raymond Chandler put LA on the map, no question about it, but Fante told us what the map was, and so when I spoke of him and my first experience with one of his early short stories, "Helen, Thy Beauty Is to Me," a sad tale about a young Filipino kid who falls big time for a dime-a-dance girl, the expression on the students' faces began to grow soft with the bittersweet of nostalgia, and by the time I got to his novels, Ask the Dust, and Wait until Spring, Bandini, the mood was so thick, you could serve it with the mystery sauce from Clifton's.

A goodly number of LA people--me included--have migrated to Santa Barbara, and like emigrants anywhere, they bring along in the fannypacks of their experience the poignant symbols of the old life.

Much of the old life is gone--one of the reasons we move on. Because of its extraordinary view, Bunker Hill has undergone a real estate renaissance. Were you to see it today, you would see office buildings, Mercedes-Benzes and the shiny dreams of entrepreneurs, glistening in the long rays of California afternoons. The Bunker Hill light, once sharp with the clarity of vision, seems to have been enhanced with the constant fall of glitter; it is the gaudiness of enterprise and property values. You have to look to the shadows and the past to find Fante characters there, but in his books and stories, they fall in love forever on the way home from work, share sandwiches, home-made wine, and the throbbing dreams of the young in a place where there are no obstructions.

I lived some eight or ten miles to the west, but coming downtown was an event and an adventure, a ten-cent ride on the top deck of the Wilshire bus. Often, very often, my destination was 648 South Broadway--Clifton's Cafeteria. You'll have seen books featuring the free-wheeling, anything-goes bravado of Los Angeles architecture, but unless you have seen the interior of Clifton's, smelled its piney-antiseptic ambiance, run your fork through its mashed potatoes, and listened to the on-going organ music, you'll think, yeah, I've been to places like that. Unless you have arrived on your birthday and been greeted by name by the hostess, who has allowed you an early dip into the treasure chest for a wrapped toy that might, on a good day, last the entire afternoon, you would think yeah, every city has such places. But did those places get the carrots just so? Did they make a pot roast that seemed more splendid than a steak? Did those places impart a fluffy insouciance to their macaroni and cheese. Was there a lemonade well where, with the mere wave of your hand, you could make glass after glass of lemonade appear. And was the sound of birds chirping amongst the painted redwoods anything less than glorious or the forest scenery anything less than dreadful in its earnest attempt to transport you out of downtown Los Angeles to the redwood coast?

When you were there, did you have any notion of how earnest Clifton's tried to skirt the very existence of the Great Depression? You saw the announcements that one could pay whatever one wanted--or nothing at all, and once, after pleading for the chance to try it yourself, then doing so, then being absolved of the need to pay for your meal if you signed your name to the check, you cried tears of thanks when the cashier let you change your young child mind and pay.

It is still there. Clifton's Brookdale Cafeteria continues.

You have moved a hundred miles north; Fante died in 1983, in nearby Woodland Hills, which fits under the LA umbrella, but barely. And Clifton's continues.


schavester said...

of note:

more to come,


lowenkopf said...

Cant thank you enough, Richard. Those two urls much appreciated and the information contained in each are cobbled into today's lecture on Ask the Dust.