Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Once more, unto the breech

At an earlier time in my life, my universe was largely confined to Orange Street in Los Angeles, which had its eastern terminus at Fairfax Avenue, extending west to its dead end at San Vicente Blvd.  My own limitations, imposed by parents, forbade me to cross Fairfax or, to the west, Crescent Heights Blvd.  Because it was sparsely traveled, I could cross Orange St., which gave me access to the then enormous empty lots fronting on Wilshire Blvd., my venue of choice, because of its vastness and because of the potentials offered by a group of large billboards fronting on Wilshire that could be used to represent whatever edifice or vehicle my imagination dictated. 

Let us say age seven or eight, a time when miracles seemed to abound of their own volition, having nothing to do with my own imagination or urgency to learn.  One of the truly great miracles at the time was an orange popsicle, a frozen chunk of colored sugar water, with two protruding wooden grip sticks.  This represented an infinitude of progress over the Milk Nickle, a chocolate-coated rectangle of vanilla ice cream from which protruded only one wooden grip stick.  True, the occasional wooden stick was stamped with a joyous FREE, which entitled the user to a free Milk Nickle, and which also became an object of barter and capitalist envy.  

Bruce Wolfson was known to have as many as five free sticks at any given time, which meant that he, among other things, could get a Milk Nickle whenever he felt like it.  Joel Gambord, younger and smaller than Bruce Wolfson, openly speculated that Bruce Wolfson had amassed his fortune in ways he'd learned from reading about Andrew Carnegie, which is to say by stealth and force.  This view meant little to those of us who were wont to redeem their free sticks soon after finding them, although it did cause us to regard Bruce Wolfson with suspicion. It was a well-known fact that Bruce Wolfson had offered Leon Sherman two unused Fleer's Double Bubble gum for his Free stick,  If we actually had unused free sticks, it is doubtful we would have confided the fact to Bruce.  

The orange popsicle had no free sticks; nevertheless it seemed to me something desirable beyond description, meaning I would frequently take my own orange popsicle into the comforting shade and protectiveness of the large billboards, there to contemplate the traffic on Wilshire in a kind of youthful stupor while seeing how long I could get the popsicle to last.  It was at such a contemplative vigil that I discovered perhaps the greatest treasure of my young life, greater even than the faux pearl-handled pocket knife, a gift for my sixth birthday, a magnifying glass that could, if I chose, burn a hole in nearly anything I chose, or an equally faux pearl-handled pair of Gene Autry cap guns.  The treasure was a single roller skate, prematurely abandoned because the leather strap binding it to the foot had worn out.

The roller skate, as any boy of my age knew, was my immediate passport to the adult world, the world of mobility and status.  All I needed now was a length of two-by-four, eighteen inches or two feet length would do it.  A handful of nails, a wooden fruit box (readily available for the asking at Weiner's Market on Fairfax), and a length of dowel the thickness of a broom handle.

Let me put it to you this way:  By using a skate key or pliers, the roller skate could be dismantled, leaving you with two sets of wheels.  Nail each set at opposing ends of the two-by-four, secure and nail the wooden fruit box (small end down) to the front of the two-by-four, nail the dowel or broom stick (sans, of course, the broom head), and you had the forerunner of the contemporary skate board.  Such vehicles on Orange St. were called skate boxes.  There was enough carrying space within the fruit box to allow for carrying personal treasures and to encourage mothers to send willing sons on errands to the market, the dry cleaners, and on a few memorable occasions, to Miller's Drug Store at the corner of Sixth and Fairfax.

The miracle of the popsicle paled in comparison to the miracle of the skate box.  Not quite the miracle of a bicycle, it was nevertheless a vehicle for mobility, exploration, and the vast, previously untested fantasies of graduation into the serious world of prepuberty, entered with the velocity of wheels generously oiled with 3-in-1 oil and fueled with limitless imagination.

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