Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Golden Oldies

There is a restaurant at the corner of State and Valerio, built about an impressive ficus macrophelia. In its current incarnation, the restaurant is known as IHOP, which decodes to International House of Pancakes. Native Santa Barbarans and those of us who carpet-bagged it in back in the good old days remember it as The Blue Onion. The food was good then.

If this were the estimable Harpers' Magazine feature, Index, I would have the percentages at hand, as in percentage of Santa Barbara population over the age of fifty who have had one or more joints replaced by the tall, elegant John Gainor, M.D. Indeed, I would be a part of the percentages. Ah, times change. During my callow youth in Los Angeles, a cosmetic plastic surgeon built a name from rebuilding the noses of young ladies. Most males of my contemporaries, to their credit, were looking at other parts on young women; a group of us were looking for and finding significant lack of bump in the bridge of the nose or an overall slenderness that gave us to conclude that there went a Newman nose. Now we see the effect of John Gainor. Even as I made this observation at coffee this morning, Steve Beisner, editor of the Inkbyte blog, flexed his right arm. Shoulder, bicycle accident, he said, mimicking Vladimir Nabokov's description of the death of Lolita's mother (picnic, lightning). In my Saturday workshop, Bruce Paine has a Gainor hip, and that splendid actress, Christine, has a Gainor knee.

Hardly anyone outside Santa Barbara knows about ABC-Clio, which is short form for American Bibliographical Center, Clio Press. Clio of course is the muse of history. Part but not the entire reason I no longer work for ABC-Clio is related to the fact that hardly anyone outside Santa Barbara knows about it, but that is another matter, a long, perhaps rancorous matter, off the subject of my observation that it sometimes seems that everyone in Santa Barbara except persons in the real estate profession has at some time or other worked for ABC-Clio. When the discovery is made, there is a moment of pause, a moment of reflection, a moment of wondering. Admission of having worked for ABC-Clio is like admitting to having been married once or perhaps even twice before, or if that comparison doesn't work, of having been a conscientious objector while the country was/is at war. ABC-Clio is a perfectly reputable publishing venture, and it has published some remarkable things that librarians, academicians, scholars would find useful and admiral. Like any publishing venture, it attracted quirky individuals such as myself to work there and rise up the Peter-Principle ladder; as well it brought some notable authors as well as some quirky and downright disagreeable ones. But those are not the issues; the real issue is the number of persons who have been employed there, how long they stayed, and why they left. Although I have not worked there since being fired in 1980, the secretary to the President still sends emails in which she speaks of the atmosphere that permeated the halls, as though it had been sprayed from some room freshener. "Weren't those the times?" she asks. And one of my assistants, who left long before me, still remembers my birthday, and refers to "those remarkable days." I still see the man who hired me and who I replaced, when he took an early retirement, a widower now, owner of what appears to be a permanent hobble, but somehow radiant of an inner spine. "You lasted longer there than I thought you would," he remarked last year. Sometimes in the Y hot tub or on a late night run at Von's market, I see one of the librarians, who left in order to write books with a mystical bent. "You left your chakras wide open," he laughs the sound of one Zen laughing. And there is Tracy, whom I see every year at the Writers' Conference and who worked at ABC-Clio years after I had left. "I mentioned your name once," she reported, "and there was dead silence except for one man with a beard who has an office but is never seen in it."

Would ABC-Clio have worked anyplace but Santa Barbara? Perhaps there is an answer there, a metaphor, a throughline. How do you rationalize wearing a striped necktie with a hound's tooth jacket? the publisher once asked me. I have never in my life rationalized what necktie I wear, I replied, and that was the beginning of the end. My end at ABC-Clio.

You also qualify as someone with tenure in Santa Barbara is you remember the days when Mom's, the Italian restaurant near Cota and Union was actually a restaurant, not a boutique, and Mom actually prowled the kitchen, occasionally muttering things about Arnoldi's, the restaurant across the street with whom Mom's family had been feuding for some years. "How," Mom wanted to know, "can they call that--that mush--split pea soup?"

And there was a roller skating rink next to an equally defunct restaurant called Talk of the Town, and there was not only a greasy spoon diner on Coast Village Road called Gino's, but it had a lavish mural, depicting many of the locals. I came along a tad too late to be included on the mural, but there, riding an elephant bareback, was Helene Merchand, who indeed kept an elephant in the enclosed pasture across the street from what has become the fortress inhabited by Oprah.

One of the things that impresses you about Europe is the permanence of places and things. Some of out activities during WW II seemed to fly in the face of this permanence, but it was rather nice to be nudged just so by Brian Fagan and told, mind, you're stepping on Jane Austin, and when you asked a particular publican if, as the sign on an ancient ceiling beam advertised, Christopher Marlowe bunged his head at this spot, he smiled. "Probably not. But he might of."
Things are not so permanent in southern California nor the Central Coast, nor, for that matter, farther north, say San Francisco, where few of the locals remember Market Street's nickname, "The Slot."

All things are a flowing, sage Heraclitus says,
And a tawdry cheapness shall outlast our days...says Ezra Pound in Hugh Selwyn Mauberly.

Things do change. To remember some of them before the change is splendid; doing so helps impart atmosphere to text. It also serves as a reminder that you are in transition from one time to another, giving you pause to wonder if when persons hold the door open for you at, say, Peet's coffee and tea, they are doing so from politeness or recognition that you are in transition.

Having a memory of people and places is akin to walking around with a power stick of history.

L.A. is change incarnate; Santa Barbara is close behind; much of the British Museum is wired. If archaeologists move quickly enough, they can score some goodies at building sites. And you, with your power stick of history; you are memory, strolling into the wind.

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