Sunday Drive: Remembering #42

JUST AS I finished snapping the photo,  a man standing at the threshold of his home just across the street began talking.

 

He spoke as if we had already been in conversation. In other words his statement sounded like a mid-sentence recitation ” . . . from China, from Mexico, from Europe. They come looking. Black people too.”

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Such a quiet street, Pepper Street, a cul-de-sac that’s a hodgepodge of structures, some single-family residences still standing alongside multifamily-dwelings. I had come knowing that Jackie Robinson’s house no longer stood but I wanted to find the plaque — I had walked by it the first time. It’s set in the sidewalk — flush– like a headstone.

Looking down, I wondered why it took me so long to come here to size up what was left. As Sunday Drives go, this was a blink.

Pasadena has named parks and baseball fields, post offices after Robinson. (I just dropped off a package to a friend there last week in fact.) Just across from Pasadena City Hall there is striking piece of public art by Ralph Helmick, Stu Schecter and John Outterbridge of Robinson and his brother Matthew “Mack” Robinson. (see below).

But I have to say there was something even more humbling about that simple plaque on a sort of afterthought of a street. I paused  to talk a little more to the gentleman who had come out of his house so early on a Sunday morning to share what he has seen over the years. New structures, new people, even since he’d been there, long long after the Robinsons had left the scene.

The only constant were the people who come, and continue to. They pause and just stand before that easy-to-miss plaque in silence. Paying respects.

“Not any man could have done with he did.”

 

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Native Language

Barbara Baxley in The Savage Eye

Barbara Baxley in The Savage Eye

THIS COMING Thursday, I will be doing a short reading at the beautiful little oasis of a spot in Frogtown (Elysian Valley) called Clockshop, as part of a summer series of readings/travelogues and films titled My Atlas.

I will be introducing a pretty incredible though not-often shown film — The Savage Eye shot over several years, in the 50s by Haskell Wexler, Helen Levitt and Jack Couffer and directed by Ben Maddow, Sidney Meyers and Joseph Strick — and reading a short piece that was inspired by the film.

Any regular reader of this blog will know this spot has been a place for me to take a deeper look at L.A. — my home — a place that too often slides by our window (if we’re not in gridlock) at 55 mph-plus. In that time we’re suspended on an overpass or creeping ever-so-slowly toward our destination windows up, the city is being remade — over and over and over. What’s it like to grow up in and live place that constantly dramatically shifts? Disorienting? Dislocating? In the past, I’ve written about how important it is to commit your “personal city” to memory because it won’t always be there. Just recently, I finished a piece about how we Angelenos talk about locations as if they are something like a set of nesting dolls — instead of referring to what is there, we refer to what once was.

For all sorts of reasons of late, I’ve found myself wandering even more, through quiet, early-morning L.A. Through emptied-out, in-the-margins L.A. I’m trying to record bits and pieces of that old city — in notebooks, in essays and now in photographs — odd remnants that have eluded “redevelopment,” city blocks that have somehow slipped through the cracks and regulations. Precisely what I’m looking for, I couldn’t tell you. So many of us here are wandering, traveling, looking for something we can’t quite articulate. But often I know it when I stumble upon it — a lonely pillar of someone’s past dream, a faded fragment of a promise scrawled along a wall. Something that tethers us, something that makes the earth feel not like sand. Something that has eluded destruction or disaster — like the flourish of a freehand X on a map: “I was here.”

Prognosis: Excellent

I HAD been thinking about getting my old (formerly my mother’s) 1955 SmithCorona “Silent Super” repaired. Well actually, I only thought it needed a ribbon. As it turns out it needed a whole lot more.

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Who repairs typewriters? More important: Whom could I trust? I had already determined I was ready to have this one refurbished and while it was largely for sentimental reasons there were some other practical ones I was weighing as well.

My thinking? Mostly because my mind works in a different way when I’m typing on an old manual machine. Not for deadline work, of course. (I know my eds. out there are relived) But maybe to get started on long-form, personal think pieces and to be able to write in mental place where I will not be as Wi-Fi tempted or electricity dependent.

I liked being lost on an island of thought — somewhere between the legal pad dreaming and the tip-tap of the computer.

My friend Marisela scoped out this little place just in time This little hive of a shop is on a a busy stretch of Figueroa in Highland Park that’s gentrifying. Thankfully, edges of its character remain, as the shop  happens to be right across the street from a beautiful old-school camera store that I’m hoping to explore at some point soon as well.

To say it was like walking through a museum would be imprecise as many of these very-much-alive machines are attached to owners (or want-to-be owners); people much like me, I’m learning, who are looking for a way to rethink their process and want to work out their thoughts away from contemporary distractions — but still with the ease of the keyboard stage.

The visit was like falling through a seam in time. Underwoods, Royals, SmithCoronas. Before I knew it an hour and a half had passed as we learned about these beautiful old machines (see below) that are in Ruben Flores’s care here at the aptly named Typewriter Repair.

The store was run for decades by his father, Jesse (whose photograph you can see just behind the pink typewriter in the gallery below). Like father, the son can tell you stories — deep histories — about both the machines and the people who use them. As well, Ruben spent a good portion of time talking about neighborhood’s changing character: “Do you lose something if you say hello? Why can’t people just say ‘hello’?”

Between his commentary, he opened it up and knocked around– turning wheels, lifting levers, rooting around inside. “She’s in good shape. Considering. A little gummy.” I was happy to hear his prognosis. I felt that that trusting my mother’s machine with a man who had learned from his father was precisely the right thing to do.

To get a glimpse of Jesse, who passed away a few years ago, click on the video below.

JESSE & THE TYPEWRITER SHOP from FORM follows FUNCTION on Vimeo.

 

Looking forward to getting my fingers in shape to make those hard “clackty-clack” strikes and hearing the satisfying sound of keys hitting platen.

Writers need company. Even when we are alone.

Thanks so much, Ruben and Marisela.

 

Urban Legends

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IN WHICH, I consider the appearance of so many “headless” palm trees scattered around the basin. What was once the occasional spotting, now is a much more common feature of our landscape.

Click here to read the piece; it’s part of a series of essays in the new Flaunt/L.A. Review of Books partner-project about those ubiquitous palm trees here in L.A.

E-Z In – E-Z Out

IMG_6380 MANY CITY incarnations ago, we Angelenos used to trade in shortcuts; better ways here-to-there. It was a form of one-upmanship, sure. But you always kept your best shortcuts to yourself. The decades-long shifts in traffic patterns have wiped away so many of these quick, albeit circuitous, alternatives. I still have a few stashed away but mostly I’ve just re-thought the ways I travel — more train trips, lots more “off hour” movement back and forth across the city.

The other secret, that we don’t talk about as much is secret parking. Lost corners of the city, thoroughfares that are afterthoughts, old lots that are manned at strange times if not at all, but always with a slot for you.

As a reporter on the road, you sometimes need a place to switch gears, to leave the last thought and prepare for the next. Some of the older open-air parking lots are little oases — a place to pause before meetings, to catch a nap. They’re vanishing in certain parts of town as super-multi-tirerd structures rise. With them, of course, human attendants are being replaced by automated machines that suck in and spit out your credit card. Marooned on those white plastic chairs, the attendants were often chatty, full of neighborhood stories. Now, there’s no one to ask directions, no one to have conversation about where to go get a late-night anything.

More and more, when I slide down a side street hoping to find my little pot-hole pockmarked lot I find instead what once was is now ringed with yellow caution tape or already busy with hard-hat crews breaking ground on another multi-use development — another pause long gone.

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Chasing Chandler’s Ghost

THE LAST couple of months have been a crush of trying to make it to the finish line on several projects, but I took a little time out to check out the Esouteric’s Raymond Chandler tour.

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Esotouric does a number of L.A. historical/cultural off-the-beaten track explorations of L.A. — you can check them out here. Our four-hour tour in a big fancy air-cooled bus (this seems to be a theme of mine of late — to be a tourist in my own town) was led authoritatively by Kim Cooper and Richard Schave. Deeply researched, it wound us along Chandler’s meandering trail through Los Angeles — downtown and Hollywood — with both historical and literary context provided — even some clips from Chandler-inspired films.

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We made stops at the lavish Oviatt building, the Barclay Hotel in the heart of downtown’s historic core, then snaked into Hollywood past Paramount Studios, the Crossroads of the World and then wound back to the industrial district where we’d met up.

at the hotel barclay -- downtown

at the hotel barclay

Coming at the city from all of these different angles shifts the perspective, allows you to both see L.A. from the inside out and arms you with a ready come-back for those who want to tell you that L.A. has no history. Often the problem, we Angelenos know, is that people just don’t know where to look when they are out to chase ghosts.

Esoutouric seems to know where the best ones are hidden.

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