Tuesday, March 18, 2014

More Details from Orange Street

Last night, without realizing it, you dug a deep, enormous hole.

Sometime during the night, you fell into this hole, discovering more artifacts from a past filled with treasures.

The hole was a tad short of one hundred miles to the south, on a short block in Los Angeles, running parallel to and just a tad west of the famed Miracle Mile.

You learned about such holes from a former client, Brian Fagan, who has become a considerable friend, who is both an archaeologist and a writer.  Fagan has written dozens of books, dug or been present at numerous archaeological sites where artifacts were discovered, classified, interpreted. In many ways, archaeology and story telling converge to remind you of how each discipline evokes a picture of how life was lived at a particular time, and how small details define emotions. 

Thinking about the many vehicles that once traversed Orange Street led you to an iconic, blue-and-yellow vehicle, the Helms Bakery truck.


Every morning, and sometimes later in the afternoon, a boxy vehicle appeared, announced its arrival with a toot-toot the driver blew on a special whistle.  In the natural order of things, every kid on the block wanted to blow the Helms truck whistle.

In retrospect, the trucks were models of organization, their insides a series of drawers mounted on rollers, each presenting a different kind of pastry or bread.  The drivers were alerted to look for cardboard H's displayed in the windows of homes and apartments, the housewife's signal for the truck to stop.


For you, the concept of organization had yet to arrive.  When you'd achieved the interior of a truck, what you saw was a cornucopia.  The drivers were probably schooled in the philosophy of shopping from a truck rather than a market display.  They were quite willing to open any number of drawers, describing the contents, which you now remember as a dazzle of color, sugary and yeasty smell, a blaze of unutterable desire.  

You say unutterable of your excruciating conflict now.  Back then, you fought inner battles between cupcakes, long, braided donuts, swirled and raisin-decked cinnamon rolls, and sticky buns, repeating the name of each as you saw it nested in its display case.  

You swore you would work your way through this cornucopia, but in the end you were maddening in the faith you kept with the raised, glazed jelly donut. On occasion, your sister, munching the likes of a cruller or twist, would put the tease on you, smacking her lips with delight, expressing her sorrow you lacked the discipline to experiment with the sensual riches before you.  

For you, the jelly donut was a sore trial, beginning with the exquisite dollop of raspberry jam sitting atop a confection that looked like a sugar-coated wizard's cap.  The yeasty, sugary smell evoked faraway places from your imagination.  You were careful not to attack the jelly on the first bite, savoring the chewy, eggy essence and its slight tinge of yeast.  By the second bite, you ventured into the jelly, blending it with the chewiness of the first bite.  Next to your mother's banana cake and pineapple upside down cake, the Helms glazed, raised jelly donut was sensual presence personified. 

Years later, when you first heard a recitation of Ernest Dowsen's most famous poem,  Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae with its repeated refrain,"I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion," you thought of the Helms Bakery jelly donut.  Even now, if you have had sufficient wine before taking up the poem, you are run back in time to those magical days of the yellow truck with the blue trim.

Markets, particularly neighborhood markets, were quite different in those days, the notable exception being the Cash-Is-King Market at the southeast corner of Pico and Robertson, where there was the new-fangled check-out line, the open aisle, wherein customers could browse.

At the tail end of Orange Street, on the west side of Fairfax Avenue, was what would be called a family grocery, Weiner's, both because it was run by a family, and because it catered to neighborhood families.  At such stores, then, customers approached the counter to be greeted by the senior Weiners and an array of younger Weiners, who asked you for your list, seeming to know by some insight that led you to think of those times as magic, which brand of which item you preferred.  They secured these items from the shelves, often using elaborate gripping devices to reach things, such as Heinz Vegetarian baked beans, from the upper shelves.  And no, your parents were not vegetarian.  Said Heinz baked beans were often combined with hot dogs for delicatessen nights, which were in many ways your favorites.

Adding to the magic you associate with Orange Street was your mother's ability to make remarkable results from what your father referred to as Depression Disaster meals.  At one point, your father came into possession of case after case of Kraft Dinner, a dreadful concoction of macaroni and cheese, secured from a client who was unable to pay cash for his insurance premiums.  Yet another of your father's clients seemed to be able to access astronomical quantities of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup.

From time to time, one of the Weiners would ask your mother or you, "How is it you are no longer purchasing Campbell's Cream of Mushroom?" and your mother would say she'd gone on to other things.

So far as you were concerned, the most remarkable thing of all about Weiner's Grocery was its large pickle barrel, which filled the store with its own briny smell, reminding you of oceans, picnics at the beach, and picnics in general, for what was a picnic or a delicatessen night without what were called new pickles.  These rivaled the Helms jelly donut in your estimation to the point where you often stopped by Weiners' on your way home from school, offered to sweep out the store, or perform some other chore, your payment a new pickle.

The new pickle is in a glorious limbo; neither cucumber any longer nor full-cured dill pickle.  It is some magical in between, crisp enough to make your sister cringe when you ate one in her presence, chewing loudly, yet not too salty to need to be taken in small, deliberate bites.  The most outstanding new pickle you ever ate came when, one day, after Sid Weiner shoved the push broom at you, then allowed you to earn your pickle, he marched you into the lavatory, made you wash your hands to the point where they glistened.  Then he led you to the pickle barrel.  "There,"  he said.  "Roll up your sleeve and go fish."

You took your prize, back around the corner to Orange Street, where you sat on a curb, spread your legs before you, then took your first bite, congratulating yourself at your trophy and your choice of it.  Because Orange Street was magical then, the pickle was magical, the best ever, and one you remember each time you are in a delicatessen.

Thinking of these remarkable discoveries you found in the hole you dug, you see a chemistry between the details you recall and the emotions they stir within you.  Better than mummies, skeletons, projectile points, and potsherds, these relics, these Helms Bakery trucks and donuts and pickle barrels, and yes, the magic associated with them, have defined the way you look at memories and the little things.

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