Monday, November 25, 2013

Acres of Diamonds

Whenever you drive east from your Central Coast of California base, you are reminded of the incredible changes inherent in the landscape and the architecture.  California has considerable reputations for products and cultures; it deserves considerations for the varieties and incessant natures of the things within it that change.

The closer you come to the Arizona border, especially along Route 40, which often parallels the fabled Route 66, the greater the inevitability some unsuspected sight or name will cause yet another sense of change--the abrupt departure of a portion of your awareness into the person you were when you first made this journey.

A retrospective irony attends the journey, in which you, your mother, and sister shared the rear seat of a Hudson Hornet, a car you would one day yourself own.  This Hudson Hornet was driven by a man named Garth, on occasion by his wife, Hazel.  Your mother, sister, and you were passengers, an arrangement you mother had made after consulting classified advertisements in the Los Angeles Herald-Express.  You were on your way to join your father in the small New Jersey town in which your parents were raised.

The irony was that you were wearing trousers, or "long pants."  Where you were going, boys your age did not wear long pants.  In the summer, they wore short pants.  In the winter, they wore knickerbockers or "knicks," pants that ended in an elastic sleeve just above the knee.  "Knicks" required that you wore a knee-length sock, giving the appearance, you thought, of a baseball player stuffed into a uniform a tad too small.

The irony continued.  After a time in this small New Jersey town, your family moved to New England, where, of course, boys of all ages wore trousers.  No one of your acquaintance in Providence or Fall River referred to them as long pants, which you, not quite yet acclimated to New England, once did, only to be told that you did not appear to be a New York boy, where such things were said.

The end of the irony is that when, four years later, you were again on this road, returning to California, checking off from memory the names of cities you'd memorized in anticipation of your return, Needles, Barstow, Victorville, Apple Valley, you were wearing short pants.  

 You were leaving the familiar, even though it was California familiar, which meant things were fraught with change.  Simon's drive in at the northwest corner of Fairfax and Wilsire wasn't always Simon's, and the car hops at one time were girls with white, booted roller-skates instead of Bob, who was the father of your then best friend, Bobby.
Before your very eyes, Moose's Restaurant, on Wilshire, which allowed you to take one bread stick a day from one of the glasses on one of the outside tables, was becoming something else, a something with the attitude of "Get out of here, kid."

"I can see,"  Bob told you one day while you were waiting for Bobby to finish his chores, thus freeing him to come with you to play, "that you don't take good care of yourself."

He emphasized the word "yourself," telling you in effect that he did not hold you responsible for the fact of the sole of one of your shoes having come free of its parent upper shoe, which meant you tended to flap when you walked.

He was talking about the bandage on your left wrist, covering a gash that required six stitches.  The scar would be visible this very day were it not covered by your wristwatch and a variety of bracelets.

"You got to take care of yourself if you want to make something of yourself in later life.  Let me see your muscles?"

You showed him such as you had.

"You call that a muscle?  See what I mean.  You got to have a plan.  What kind of plan you got?"

At this point in your life, you'd given thought to being an aeronautical engineer or, perhaps, a sound effects man on dramatic radio programs.

"I'd stick with the airplanes,"  Bob said.  He went on to tell you of his own plan, which sounded quite similar to the reason your father was now driving about upper New York State in a borrowed car, filled with the heads and hands of mannequins.  He hefted a book at you.  "Called Acres of Diamonds.  A real eye opener.  Sometimes, there's riches right there in front of you, but you can't see them because you don't have a plan."

Betty, his wife, had just finished ironing the trousers of the uniform he wore as a car hop at Simon's drive-in, where you could get a malt with an egg in it for fifteen cents.  Betty, who smoked Chesterfield cigarettes, which were kept in a flat metal tin on a coffee table, believed Bob got better tips when his pants were pressed.

"I'm making them (she meant Bob and Bobby) a sandwich.  Would you like one?"

"No, thank you,"  you said.

"Your mother taught you to say that, didn't she?"

"Yes, Ma'am."

"Jesus,"  she said, looking at Bob.  "Who's teaching these kids to say ma'am all the time?"

"School,"  Bob said.  "Bobby, he calls me sir."

"Jesus,"  Betty said.  "It makes you feel so old."  She turned to you.  "It's tuna fish.  You can have white or the brown.  And no more of this ma'am."

"He don't have much of a plan,"  Bob said as Bobby came into the room.

"He's lucky he lives here,"  Betty said.  "If he lived in Germany--"  She lit a Chesterfield.  "You know what happens to you people in Germany?"

For the longest time, going east meant moving closer to Germany.  There were many issues about living in the east and south, some of them related to pants, others to cultural origins, others still related to attitudes.

At one point early in your experience at Public School Number Ten, Perth Amboy, New Jersey, some of your classmates had a welcoming party for you, which meant, once recess, that they held you down, removed your long pants, then handed them to you.

Another time, as you were out in front of your home, idly throwing a ball against a garage door, a group of what you thought of as "big kids," some carrying baseball bats, asked if you'd like to come along.  Thinking their motive was a game of baseball, you accepted, only to discover they were deciding whether to search for Pollacks or Hunkeys.  You'd already been "informed" what Pollacks meant, and having also heard from your paternal grandmother that there were those who had epithets for those of Hungarian lineage, you began to worry what these "big kids" would do if they found out you qualified as having Hungarian heritage and were from the Jewish culture.

When Bob was observing that you did not take care of yourself, you embarked, at least in your mind, on one of your earliest disagreements with an adult.  You'd not got the gash in your wrist because you didn't take care of yourself, rather because you believed in taking risks.  On weekdays, it was easier to take risks by jumping off the garage roofs of selected houses on Blackburn or Maryland Streets, just off Fairfax, on your way home from school.  Weekends, there were still vacant lots on Wilshire, nearly all the way up to Crescent Heights Boulevard.  You and Bobby found numerous possibilities for risk, best known to boys and adventurous girls.

Before you left California, to travel east along Route 66, a lap filled with the free road maps of the states you were driving through, and a notebook your sister gave you to store your memories, Bobby took a risk without you.

"I couldn't wait,"  he told you, apologetically when you went to visit him at home, to see him in a cast that covered the broken leg he'd achieved.  "I had to try this thing I knew of."

"What thing?"  you said.

"Seeing if I could run in front of a car."

Betty came in with a tray.  "You're going to think all we eat is tuna fish,"  she said.  Then asked if you wanted one.

Five years later, Bob had landed a better job.  You never learned what it was, but it enabled the family to rent a small Mediterranean stucco on Hauser Street, south of Pico, to which you walked every Saturday, thence to the afternoon movie at the Del Mar Theater.

Such events play out in your recollections each time you return to this fabled and fabulous landscape of desert, rock, scraggly plants,  and the endless procession of trains and trucks, hauling raw materials and the goods made from them in both directions along this modern equivalent of The Silk Road.  

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