Edendale: Chapter 3

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January 1, 2011 · Posted in Edendale by Phyl M. Noir 

UNION STATION, 1947, Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

By Phyl M. Noir

UNION STATION

This is the third chapter of “Edendale.”

Justina Anna put on the mouse suit she had worn at her wedding. She tied a black band around one arm of it.

She looked at herself in the mirror and pinned a black felt hat to her black hair with bobby pins and pulled the little net veil over her face. She put on white cotton gloves and lifted her suitcases by their bone handles, and walked down the green check carpeted hotel stairs.

The air was balmy, and the sky looked like light shooting off metal. Butterfly palms with orange fruit grew on each side of the hotel’s front doors. Red azaleas grew in the hotel yard. Mature water oaks cooled the street with their deep shade.

She walked downtown carrying her suitcases. Mannequins in store window wore Navy uniforms. As she passed them, she looked at her glass reflection. Sailors passed her in the street and looked her over.

She sat on a bench at the depot. Her two suitcases stood next to the bench. She heard the train’s clamoring approach. The engineer blew the whistle.

The locomotive had a round plate on its front and a metal grille came out over the track beneath the round plate. The train’s face looked cheery: a beaming face with a metal mustache so long it covered its mouth.

Justina picked her suitcases up by their handles and walked outside.

The colored conductor opened a car door and put a little wooden stair on the platform. Justina joined a line of Army soldiers waiting to board the train.

“I’m sorry,”the conductor said to her. “You’ll have to wait for the next train. “This one has been commandeered by the Army.”

Justina stood with her head down.

“M’am?”

She raised her face so the conductor could see it. “Y’all,”she began and stopped. The conductor waited.

Justina said, “My husband’s plane went down,”she said. “I waited for two days on the beach when the Coast Guard looked for his plane.”

An Army officer came out of the interior of the train car and stood next to the conductor and listened to Justina’s childlike voice. The soldiers in line saluted him, and he returned their salute.

“You are to allow this lady to ride in the train.”The officer said to the conductor.

The conductor reached for her suitcases. He navigated with them through the soldiers and lifted them onto a rack above two empty seats.

She handed him her ticket. He shook his head and returned it to her.

Justina sat on the seat next to the window. She unpinned her hat and placed the hat on the empty seat next to her. She removed her gloves and placed them next to the hat.

The train rumbled through the Florida Panhandle: pines, oaks, vines climbed up the sides of the trees, and there were a few old houses. The houses looked like they were one room big and they had porches in front, and the walls slanted inward from the damp. Negro children stood outside the houses and smiled at her and waved and she waved back.

Telephone poles slid into the marshy soil and some fell over, their lines tangled and loose. Spring opened the first green leaves on the oaks and water stood in ponds along the sides of the railroad right-of-way.

She got up and walked through the train to the dining car. She was the only civilian passenger.

A Mexican waiter showed her to a table where three men soldiers sat. The soldiers saw her armband and looked away.

Sid would have said something to a woman in her place, she thought. He would have handed her a folded white handkerchief, and he would have told her that she was going to find a little island of happiness, and each day, the island was going to grow larger.

The waiter brought out the food on white plates. The soldiers ate with their elbows on the table, and they used their knives and forks in the awkward American way.

Justina opened her linen napkin on her lap. She used to flirt with all men. That’s how she had gotten by. Now, she ate her dinner looking down at her plate. She and Sid had only been married for two weeks when his plane went down, and she had only known him for two weeks before they were married. They had been in love like crazy people, and she had been terrified from the moment they first saw each other that he would die and she would be left alone. He died and left her alone.

In Alabama, Justina saw cotton fields and sugar cane fields and white children waved at the train. Dogs walked along the dirt roads nosing curiously at the bases of trees and stones, and they looked like dogs look everywhere. Houses stood on pilings and some houses floated on the water. Graveyards had tombs above ground to keep the dead dry. Not graveyards — cemeteries – the word “graveyard”isn’t polite in English, she thought.

Atmore. Mobile. Biloxi. Gulfport.

The train went over an elevated track and passed over a large marsh. Hundreds of egrets that were as white as newly exposed bones landed on the water’s surface. Lake Borne. Little Lake. Seven Lagoons. Lake Alpine.

She got off the train in New Orleans and walked past old commercial buildings. A colored man polished the bronze fitting of a door with a large white cotton cloth. He stopped for a moment and looked at her and said, “Bonne journe, Mademoiselle. Vous etes tres belle.”Here, white and Negro women, well dressed, turned and looked at her. There, a white man looked in her face with amused eyes. She walked back to the train and boarded it.

The train’s rocking was like a cradle’s rocking. Soldiers walked in the aisles talking and laughing and she woke briefly in Houston and fell asleep again.

She woke in Texas in a desert. The pumpkin color moon set in the turquoise sky hung over dirt roads. The dirt in the roads looked soft. An old man and woman drove by in a horse and buggy. A man who collected pots and pans for the war effort back home in Hopewell had driven the last horse and cart on dirt roads in Justina’s neighborhood, which was the Polish enclave.

She saw a cemetery with colored paper flowers bordered by cypress trees and then there was more desert. Cactus raised arms upward in alarm against an ochre and olive background, and mountains still dark blue in the early morning faced the horizon.

Justina had been born in an alluvial plain near Warszawa. Tidewater Virginia, where she lived after she was eleven years old, was flat. Eastern Florida was a flat sponge but there were hills near Pensacola. She had never been anywhere with a dry climate. She had never seen mountains before.

The train passed poor towns. One town consisted of a church and a house and goats. Justina saw a cluster of beehives — she thought for a moment they were head stones – and flashes of light at random points in the background as bright as camera flash.

The train stopped in El Paso in a train yard full of tanks on flat railroad cars. The houses on the hill to the north were rich peoples’ houses and their windows looked south to Juarez. Smoke rose from stacks behind the mud houses on the Juarez side.

Mexican women and children stood in front of the train car door to board the train in El Paso. The women carried baskets containing fruit and bottles of water, and their full skirts were woven in broad bands of green and red. The women’s hair hung in long braids down their backs.

The conductor put his arm out across the entrance. “I’m sorry,”he said. “This train has been commandeered by the Army. Y’all have to wait for the next train.”

“I do not speak English,”one of the women said. She was small, with a dark narrow face. Three little boys held her skirt.

Sid spoke Spanish, Justina thought. He carried grammar books with him and memorized Spanish vocabulary from lists he wrote and over. He said, “We’re going to Mexico when the war is over. Just wait until you see Xochomilcho; it’s full of flowers.”

He would have translated for the conductor. He wouldn’t have let those women think they weren’t allowed on the train because they were Mexicans.

She turned her head so she could look out the window. She did not want to look at the women’s faces any longer. She did not want to see their disappointment.

A man’s voice said words in Spanish. Justina saw a Mexican waiter standing in the doorway and talking with the women. The women nodded and walked away. The children followed them.

Justina slept again. She had not slept for a long time.

Tucson. Maricopa. Yuma.

She woke to see folded bald white earth, sinuous dirt ridges made from retreating water. She looked from the windows on the other side of the train and saw a very large lake. “It’s just fog,”a man said. “No,”another man said. “It’s an inland sea. The California Development dug canals from the Colorado River in 1901 and the river flooded the valley. Tilapia, pupfish, and croaker swim in it.”

The train passed through the date palms in Indio at the depot. Justina got out of the train and saw hulking lunar mountains and two lines of date palms going towards them. Heavy foliage hung from pepper tree branches over the street in front of the station. She went back through the depot and got back on the train. Palm Springs.

From the train window, she saw larger mountains with snow on their tops, the elegantly descending cougars, and orchards of lemon trees in the closer flatland around Riverside.

The train passed through farms in Pomona. The farmhouses were near the road that paralleled the railroad track. Sycamores grew close to the houses, and trees that she would one day recognize as eucalyptus stood in lines as barriers to the wind. Square wooden towers supported water cisterns behind the houses. Roses grew on bushes in the front yards, grown through with pale foxtails. The older leaves on trees and bushes in California were dull — jade rather than emerald — but the new spring leaves were citron and Peridot with tiny veins in them you could see when you looked through the leaves up to the sun.

The train crossed a bridge over the Los Angeles River and entered the Cornfields, once the first pueblo’s cornfield. The pobladores had dug the zanja madre from the dam near where today the Broadway Bridge crosses from the east side, and the zanja had brought water from the river into the city until the early part of the twentieth century.

She saw wooden houses with porches set on hills and wooden stairs leading to the houses. Some of the houses were painted white and some had lost their paint a long time ago, and these were grayish brown. Orchard owners had built the smallest houses for the workers when the orange groves still ran down to the river. Some of the houses were made of tarpaper. Some had screens on the front door. She was to recall the zebra shadow from a palm tree falling across a screen door from time to time in the rest of her life, and she would feel joy each time.

The train stopped. Birds chirped in the trees on the other side of the window. Justina got up and pulled down her window, and the birds flew up as if they were textile design in window curtains lifted gently by a breeze. She sat down and waited until the train started up again.

The conductor called, “Union Station!”

The other passengers pulled down suitcases from racks and carried the suitcases to the doors. The train slowed and then stopped. Justina Anna sat alone in the empty car.

A porter lifted her suitcase from its place next to her. He said, “Let me help you. This is the last station.”

She followed him. He helped her down the little wooden stair in front of the door.

A Negro redcap took the suitcases from the porter. The Redcap wore white gloves with four vertical rows of stitching along each glove back like subtle arrows to his fingers.

She heard a train leave the station. She wanted to get on it. She didn’t want to be anywhere. If she left on the train she wouldn’t be anywhere: she would remain on her way to somewhere else.

The colored man kept walking, pushing gently through the people moving or standing in Union Station, under the fifty-foot high vault of the Moorish ceiling.

He opened the doors in the front of the building and helped her outside.

She saw the San Gabriel Mountains ahead of her and she saw the fire roads and chaparral that were on the mountains. A blanket of deep violet shadow grew large and covered the mountains. She looked again and saw the shadow was not violet: it was dark gray. A bank of rain clouds moved towards the mountains and sent the shadow in front of it. “May I get you a cab?”The redcap said.

She said no and held out two quarters for him to take but he shook his head and went back into the building. Four figures dressed in dark colors approached her.

Barbara and Mrs. Bissell wore black conical hats that looked like fezzes, and their faces were grief stricken under the silly hats. Dr. Bissell wore a black suit with thin pin stripes and shined black shoes. He wore a fedora. Franklin was dressed like his father. All of the family wore eyeglasses with no frames and gold stems held the glass. Sunlight glinted on the four pairs of eyeglasses so fiercely it seemed the Bissells had no eyes.

The streets were almost empty of automobiles. Men and women walked in the streets smoking cigarettes.

Dr. and Mrs. Bissell, Frank and Justina walked across the street and through the plaza and saw the Mexican men in cowboy hats seated on low benches smoking cigarettes and talking with one another and then walked northeast until they passed through the Central Market and over the Red Car tracks, past the tenements up on Bunker Hill and the funicular railroad and stairs alongside it that went up the hill. Shadow pulled down from the mountains into Los Angeles, down into the Imperialist canyon of 19th century retail and office buildings decorated with naked katydids.

The Bissells and Justina sat for a while on a bench in Pershing Square, in front of the Biltmore Hotel.

Luxurious growths of banana trees filled the plaza. The leaves were broad and looked rubbery. Justina saw a stalk of green bananas. At the end of the stalk was a red purple growth like a giant sacred heart.

Foreign men stood against benches and homosexual men passed them walking like dancers.

An old woman with magenta Coty rouge circles painted on her white powdered cheeks and with eyebrows shaved and redrawn with thin pencil lines sat on the bench opposite them. Her hair was covered with a gingham kerchief tied in a little bow on her forehead. She held a paper bag in her lap and threw breadcrumbs out in front of her, and gray and black pigeons waddled in the space and ate the crumbs. The woman said, “Do you believe in Jesus?”Dr. Bissell said no, he did not, and the woman walked away.

Justina knew Jesus was her Savior, and she prayed under her breath to His mother.

They rose from the bench and walked to the Subway Building and down a hallway the floor of which was marble cut in squares of black and white and arranged like the squares on a checkerboard. A woman elevator operator wore a brimless red cap and a white blouse, and she opened the elevator doors by turning a bronze wheel in both of her hands like the captain of a small ship.

Under the office building there was a shoeshine stand with leather seats and Negro men who buffed shoes with chamois cloths folded double, and a barber shop, a laundry and a store that sold newspapers, candy, both individual and packaged cigarettes, gum and also cigars with paper rings around them embossed with the figure of Minerva the goddess of wisdom and patron of the arts. The underground smelled of shoe polish in tins, chocolate, two smells of tobacco, floor wax, Brylcreem and soap.

The family boarded a Pacific Electric train that went through the tunnel and then out onto Sunset past Echo Park. Lotus pads gathered at one end of the lake that a private water company had created as a reservoir in 1868, drawing the water in a zig zag ditch from the river up by the Rancho Los Feliz.

The red car went past the old Keystone studio in Edendale that had made silent movies Justina remembered seeing when she was a child and went under the Allessandro Street bridge and then along tracks through shade cast from mastic trees along the top hills surrounding what had been the cowboy star Tom Mix’s movie ranch but which was then the Mixville Supermarket and an auto camp, and then across the river on a bridge and then went past a field of mustard plants and a hill covered with prairie June grass. On one side of the right-of-way rose the Corralitos hill, and the other side of that was the Semi-Tropic Spiritualist tract, and this is where Franklin got off.

The others debouched into a street on the eastern side of the river. There was a Hugh’s Market and a Woolworth’s and a bakery with a squat fake windmill in front of it. On the other side of the street was a grammar school. They walked up a hill to the Bissell house behind one of the walls bounding Forest Lawn not far from the railroad tracks. They climbed redwood stairs. The daylight was hard and threw shadows of Venetian blinds against a wall.

Mrs. Bissell wanted Justina’s baby to call her by the Polish word for grandmother because Frank’s children called her Grandmother Bissell, which made her feel old, like when the sales ladies at Saks Fifth Avenue brought out old lady dresses for her to try on. Justina told Mrs. Bissell the word – Babucia — and then that’s what Justina called her after that.

Dr. Bissell felt he was too young to be called grandfather in any language, although he was not. Justina called her father-in-law “Papa,”which is what she had called her own father who no longer spoke with her because of what she had done. The Church had excommunicated her, and she was alone in the world except for the Bissell family.

After the baby was born, Papa invited the neighbors to come for a barbecue in back of the house. Barbara brought her friends Hiro and his wife Patria. Patria had short red hair worn like a cap around a delicate face. She wore sunglasses that made her look mysterious. She said nothing.

Patria and Hiro had recently returned from Arizona, where they had married. They could not marry in California because of its anti-miscegenation law. A man of Asian parentage could not marry a Caucasian woman.

Because their marriage was illegal in California, they had not been able to find a place to rent in Los Angeles.

Barbara and Mrs. Bissell rented an apartment in Edendale and subleased it to the young couple.

Hiro had a beard and wore a beret on his head like a Frenchman, and he walked with a cane because one of his legs was shorter than the other. Justina did not think a man should wear a beard. A man should be clean-shaven.

Papa wore a white chef’s hat and a white apron and turned steaks on the grille with a long handled fork. Barbara asked him to stand still, and he jutted his right hip and his right hand jabbed with his long fork as if it were a sword. She took his photograph.

Babucia put out Depression era green glass that had compartments for meat, vegetables and potatoes shaped into them and floral green glasses with a poinsettia etched into each one. Movie theaters used to give the glass out for free.

She wore dark blue trousers and a lighter blue blouse in the same tone and the blouse had a large white lace collar that she had purchased when they sailed to Europe in 1906, right after she had turned in her master’s thesis on Thomas Carlyle’s notions of private property, and Papa did post-graduate work in Vienna with Dr. Roentgen.

Justina complained that a lady should not wear trousers, and Barbara told her, “That just falls on deaf ears.”Justina thought Barbara meant she was deaf. Barbara had a toneless, metallic voice.

The Negro family from across the street arrived first. They were not very dark people. The father of the family wore khaki trousers and a shirt from the uniform he had worn when he had been a soldier. The mother was slender and not much more than a girl. She wore a cotton print dress, bobby sox and white sandals.

The Negro children took turns looking at Justina’s baby, who slept in a white wicker clothesbasket under a pink blanket. They played This Little Piggie with her toes.

Justina looked down the hill. At first it looked as if a terrible giant white sloth approached the stairs along the street, but the sloth broke into pieces and became three white men and two white women. The white neighbors climbed the redwood stairs. They turned around and went back down the stairs.

The United States government had conscripted Negro, Japanese and Mexican soldiers. Those men had died along with white men and women in the war. Civil rights protests had begun already along Central Avenue in South Central Los Angeles.

“Why, the sons-of-bitches!”Babucia said.

“Babucia!”Justina said.

“Oh, I’m sorry, my dear.”Babucia said. “But they get my goat.”

Justina saw Babucia in her mind’s eye with a flock of goats.

“There is still bad feeling after the war,”Hiro said. “It’s understandable.”He had thought the neighbors were angry with him because he was Nisei. He and his family had avoided the internment camps. They lived up in the mountains and their neighbors had never seen Japanese people and had thought Hiro and his parents and his sister were Indians.

“No, it’s not, and I don’t think I’ll forgive them,”Babucia said.

Papa said. “Bigotry disgraces Sid’s memory.”Eleanor Roosevelt spoke often on the radio on behalf of civil rights and worked for social justice. Mrs. Roosevelt’s rich woman’s high-pitched voice had reached many hearts with her message of social justice.

Babucia, Papa and Barbara gathered the dishes and the food and walked with the rest of the party to the front of the house. Hiro spread a red -checkered tablecloth under one of the fig trees.

Behind them rose the chartreuse watered hills of Forest Lawn, and in front of them Glasell Park spread to the sharp hill of Elysian Park. A train whistled when it emerged from the Taylor train yard below the house.

Hiro sat next to Justina. He said, “I wrote a poem for you and Sid. May I read it to you?”

Justina said yes, he should read the poem.

Hiro said,

“You and I and the sea and the night gathering, and
the fragrance of your soul.

“We are torn from the land far away, the land of blue
shadows, the land along the pure regions in repose.

“You and I and the blue sea and the vibration of dusk,
the vibration along the strings of inspiration and agony,
far away, torn from the land of blue shadows,
consecrated to this exile.”

The next day, Babucia and Justina walked along the train tracks, which ran along the back wall of the cemetery. They pushed the baby in a perambulator with chrome-rimmed wheels.

Babucia said Justina should have a profession because all women should work. Justina had never heard of such a thing. Women might work, however, for a short time, until they found a husband. She agreed to study cosmetology at the beauty school downtown next to Bullock’s.

Babucia sang in her scratchy sweet voice:

“I’ve been workin’ on the railroad all the live-long day; I’ve been working on the railroad just to pass the time away.
Don’t you hear the whistle blowin’.
Rise up so early in the morn,
Don’t you hear the captain shoutin; “Dinah, blow your horn.”

Dinah, won’t you blow, Dinah won’t you blow,
Dinah, won’t you blow your horn,
Dinah, won’t you blow, Dinah, won’t you blow,
Dinah, won’t you blow your horn.

Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah,
Someone’s in the kitchen I know——
Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah,
Strummin’ on the old banjo.

“Fee, fie, fiddle-i-o, fee fie fiddle-i-o-o,
Fee, fie, fiddle-i-o, strummin’ on the old banjo.

“Someone’s makin’ love to Dinah,
Someone’s makin’ love I know-ow-ow-ow,
Someone’s makin’ love to Dinah,
‘Cause I can’t hear the old banjo.

“Sh, sh, sh, sh, sh; sh, sh, sh, sh, sh, sh.”

They walked along the tracks, the ties of which were made of wood. Babucia said that, when she was young, Californians had imported eucalyptus trees from Australia and New Zealand because they grew so fast but it turned out the wood from them was too soft to use to build. For a short time, the railroads used eucalyptus wood for ties and burned eucalyptus in the locomotive engines for fuel.

Justina thought of locomotives pulling freight and passenger cars through Tasmanian Blue Gum forests, the juvenile growth of leaves that was almost turquoise, and of eucalyptus smoke spilling over the yellow hills.

 

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