Edendale: Chapter 4

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

The Fourth Chapter Of “Edendale,” THE AVENUES By Phyl M. Noir

 

Ansel Adams photograph of the Santa Monica pier, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Phyl M. Noir

She was a big reader. Her stepfather Sam used to say “She’s always got her nose in a book.”

When she was older, Cyd would read in George Eliot’s Adam Bede that Arthur Donnithorne passed along a broad avenue of limes and beeches. “It was a still afternoon,” she would read. “The golden light was lingering languidly among the upper boughs.” She would imagine the limes in Adam Bede were citrus trees with green fruit because she had not yet been anywhere but Los Angeles and Santa Monica and didn’t know about the English trees.

Long after she forgot the book, she was to believe that there had been lime trees with fruit growing along the Avenues.
In the late 1940s, broad-leaved California sycamores, and small leaved poplars and oaks, grew on the Avenues. Oranges, lemons and avocados grew on backyard trees with dark green leaves. White sheets hung from clotheslines in the backyards on the Avenues, organizing space like Ansel Adams had organized space by exaggerating white things like the moon or glint on stones in his photographs.

The Avenues ran through the communities of Glassell Park, Cypress Park, Eagle Rock and Highland Park in northeast Los Angeles. Behind them rose the San Gabriel Mountains. The mountains were ten thousand feet high in places, sheer walls at the grinding edges of two tectonic plates.

Summers, people on the Avenues looked up and saw the boulders waiting in mountain crevices, sharply shadowed. In fall, chaparral on the mountains’ steep sides burned and lit the Avenues with orange light for days. Soot flew in the air. The Avenues could have been anywhere when the fogs rose. No one saw the mountains. When passengers in airplanes looked out of their windows, they saw beneath them what looked like a vast white cotton mattress that extended beneath non-photo blue like blue in Antarctica to the horizon. On the ground, fog submerged trees and houses so that you saw a lamppost with a glowing light, and then the silhouette of someone walking, and a door with a light over it.

At night, street and house lights illuminated the white sky during the foggy seasons so that you could see beams from car headlamps and movie theater arc lights disappear into it.

Snow covered the tops of the San Gabriel Mountains in wet winters, and pieces of mountain fell off as the snow melted, filling creeks and ravines, which every decade or so flooded the city, drowning people and animals. The rest of the time, no one paid much attention to the ominous and gigantic geologic actor at the city’s edge.

In the fan of land below the mountains on Figueroa stood banks with fluted columns in front, a Woolworth’s, small candy and magazine stores, and fruits and vegetables spilled from bins in front of open stores. Inside the grocery stores were bags of salty Laura Scudder potato chips, home made pickles that looked like dark green penises floating in lighter green brine, hanging weighing scales, manual adding machines and stacks of brown paper bags and neatly cut scrap paper and bits of pencil for adding sums.

Fletcher Drive reiterated Figueroa but its buildings were smaller, almost elfin: an appliance store, a church, a five and dime, a drugstore that sold paperback novels ““ mostly Zane Grey books. Zane Grey lived in a large house on Santa Catalina Island and was the “B” movie actor Ronald Reagan’s favorite author because Grey wrote about the west as sharply divided between good and evil — and that had a viridian tiled ice cream counter with machines in back that dispensed soda water for Coke, cherry Coke, and vanilla Coke.

Milkmen in white trousers and shirts wore white hats with shiny black patent leather brims and delivered milk and cream to the Avenues from the Adohr dairy farm out in the San Fernando Valley before Tarzana’s new suburbia squeezed it out. Milk came in glass bottles with paper tops folded into precise round fans, and the milkmen picked up the empty bottles and put them into metal cages they carried back to their trucks for washing back in the Valley, which was still like another country to people on the downtown side of the mountains until the Hollywood Freeway reached it in 1954.

Cyd’s mother Justine, formerly named Justina, and her stepfather Sam owned a small stucco house in the 1921 Glassell Park subdivision. Everyone in the neighborhood lived in small houses but some lots were deep and had second houses behind them and white picket fences surrounded all of the houses and all of the houses had lawns in front and in back except for Cyd’s house, which had a tall fence separating it from the empty lot on the other side because it was built on a corner lot.

A giant tortoise lived in the long backyard of the tar-covered paper house owned by the sick man, and there were goats, and there were also chickens and a rooster in a pen in the Mexican family’s backyard on Drew Street.

In her house, Justine had hooked a mirror in an elaborately carved wooden frame painted gold crookedly on a nail so that you saw only the family’s legs and feet in it. There was a couch and, at the ends of the couch, were wagon wheels used as arm rests. Painted cowboys on horseback rode across the back of the couch. The table in front of the couch was another wagon wheel that was covered with a thick circle of glass. A lampshade on a tall lamp looked like a flounced skirt. Beneath the lamp was a phonograph player in a box, and the box was on a table. Towards the back of the room was a small desk and on the other side of the desk stood a table and chairs.

Sam bought a maroon Pontiac with cash, ordered from Detroit in 1946. The Pontiac was one of the first off the assembly line after four years of war. Triangles of glass on the front side windows let breezes come inside the car on hot days and a plastic green shade arced over the windshield. The chrome narrow face of Chief Pontiac led the hood, and the Chief stared presciently down the almost empty avenues into the crowded future. The inside of the automobile was as capacious as a bomb shelter.

Sundays, Justine put Cyd’s best too-small clothes on her. Even her underwear was too tight. The alternative was clothing she would grow into, which was huge and fell off her as she walked.

Sam drove his wife and stepdaughter over the Fletcher Drive Bridge to Beverly Boulevard and then down to Wilshire. They continued along the indolent boulevard leading to the sea past Lafayette Park and then the Byson Arms, a white stucco building with Ali Baba jars and palm trees in front.

They drove past the Brown Derby, which had a sign on top of it that said, “Eat in the hat,” the Los Altos Apartments and The Town House, and the domed synagogue where they once saw a tall woman wearing a gray fitted suit with a purple and purple-and-white striped orchid pinned to her lapel walk inside.

There was something nautical about everything, perhaps because the big stores came on them like big ships plow through water: Melody Lane, the Carnation ice cream building, the Wilshire-Ebell, Farmers Insurance, Desmonds, Silverwoods, and the May Company.

They parked at the Drive-Inn and ordered a sugar drink called Green River for Cyd and Coca Cola with cherry syrup for Sam and Justine. The waitress brought their drinks to their car on a chrome tray she attached to the driver’s door.

They drove past the tar pits. Asphalt bubbled up through the ground, and created a pool of black mire.

“The feet of prehistoric beasts stuck in the asphalt,” Sam said every time they drove past the tar pits. Sam didn’t talk much but when he did he said the same things. At every birthday, Justine baked a white cake from a package with fudge icing and lit candles on top, and Sam said, “Don’t spit on it.” When Cyd didn’t comb her hair in the morning, he said, “You look like the Gwan lady.”

There were few cars on the road. The traffic signals had two arms that shot out that said, “Stop,” and “Go,” and the device bonged. At Veteran, near the Old Soldier’s Home, the air changed and became cooler and more pleasant. The quality of light changed, too: it became bright, and the light bleached the buildings until they were white.

Sam parked the Pontiac in front of the Rose Apartments on Rose Avenue. Grandma Rose had rosy cheeks and once red hair that had turned pink. She lived in an apartment on the first floor of the Rose Apartments.

When Grandma Rose opened the door, she put out her hands and wrenched Cyd’s cheeks. “Pincha da cheeks!” She yelled. Then she turned Cyd around and took a couple of big pinches from her butt. “Pincha da cheeks!”

As if it were a big treat, Grandma Rose brought out trembling Jell-o on a dish. Sometimes, the Jell-o was green and cucumber slices fluted along the edges floated in it. Sometimes diced canned fruit floated in red Jell-o. When Cyd cut into it with her fork, the Jell-o quivered and fell apart.

Old Jewish people rode along the street outside of the Rose Apartments in aquamarine electric carts. Someone had posted notices written in Yiddish on a rotating kiosk of notices.

When the family walked towards the pier with Grandma Rose, Sam bent towards the notices and touched the letters of one of them with his forefinger, drawing it from right to left instead of from left to right. Sam read Yiddish and Hebrew.

“Curiosity is impolite,” Justine said. “Don’t touch things.”

“Why not?” He said.

“‘Curiosity killed the cat,’ they say.”

“Satisfaction brought her back,” Cyd said and Sam asked what was the matter with her.

When they got to the Pleasure Pier, Justine and Cyd went into the Merry-Go-Round building and got on bronze horses with wings painted purple. Gold paint lines picked out the details of the wings. Each horse had a diffident expression. The calliope played “The Beer Barrel Polka” and Justine sang, “Bring out the barrel, and we’ll have a barrel of fun!” at the top of her lungs.
Sam bought tickets for the Whirlwind Dipper from a man seated in a shed that looked like a sentry house.

A ratchet hauled the rollercoaster car up the first and tallest hill. For just a moment, the riders were exhilarated: the ocean waves shone in the sunlight, and the sea came onto shore in lace waves. The passengers leaned forward. The cars plummeted. Justine raised her arms and leaned forward to simulate a joyous doom in the sea, which did not occur.

On top of a door to a low building was a very large rubber face of a fat woman. The face laughed like this “HA HA!” Next to the building with a face a mannequin gypsy sat in a glass cage. You put a nickel into the slot beneath the glass, and the gypsy moved her hands over the cards. A card came out with a fortune, which said in the message to Justine that a letter had brought her great sadness.

Sam did not want to waste a nickel on a mechanical gypsy, so he did not learn his fortune.

The bathysphere ride stood at the edge of the pier not far from the laughing lady. They entered the bathysphere. Other people joined them and someone slammed the door shut and turned a handle tight.

The passengers looked up through the glass windows along the top of the sphere. The water slowly covered them, and they looked around them at the inside of the ocean, which was light green like soda in columns of strong sunlight through darkness.

The passengers’ faces were rapturous. A strand of seaweed floated by. Sardines that, had they been birds, would have been finches, swam above them — turquoise, dark blue, and aluminum. The bathysphere ascended, and the sky appeared.

The light on top of the verdigris and copper Bullocks Wilshire tower cast violet sheen on the night fog as Sam drove past it on their way back to the Avenues.

Justine and Sam spoke in whispers. Sam said, “It was terrible, Cheesy, we liberated two concentration camps. The people were skeletons and smelled bad. I translated. In one of the villages, the people and animals were flat on the road. The German panzer tanks had rolled over them. Snow fell on them and covered them.

“The war was over.” He stuttered. He said, “T-t-t-” and “th-thu-thu.”

Sam carried the little girl into the house and Justine removed her tight clothing and put on pajamas that were too small, and Cyd dreamed of flying over the ocean waves and then plummeting with painted horses into the sea.

When she was nearly three years old, Cyd lifted the phonograph player arm and placed its needle on a groove in the record. On the midnight blue paper surrounding the hole in the middle of the record, the white terrier named Nipper listened with his ear cocked in the direction of a phonograph that had a flared bell emerging from it. She read the words under the dog. The words said, “His master’s voice.” Cyd did not remember having learned to read but the beginning of reading had to do with four and twenty blackbirds baked into a pie.

Sam came into the room carrying a folded green felt cloth.

He opened it on the dinner table and went to the wagon table and picked up a round dark wood caddy, and he put it on the long table. In one column in the side of the caddy were red chips, in another were blue, and the other chips were white and green.

He sat down with a deck of playing cards in his hands. He held a card up to look at it. On the back of the card had been two bicyclists in a cobalt field, and one of the bicyclists was upside down. The other men came into the room, and they sat in the chairs around the long table. One of the men lifted half of the deck of cards and he replaced it on the other.

Sam took the deck back, and he fluttered the cards in his hands and then he had thrown out cards on the table in front of the other men.

“Sameluh,” one of the men had said, “you shuffle like a card shark.”

The men played cards. Someone said,” How’re your feet these days, Sammy?”

“They’ll be bad forever,” her father said.

“I know,” the first man said. “Walking through snow and cold water.”

“I couldn’t change my socks. My feet rotted. I’ll live, Bernie.”

“Almost didn’t, did you?”

“Never thought I’d get back. I sent every cent I made to Mama.”

“Max, it’s your draw!”

“I’m drawing. I’m drawing.”

“I’ll raise you one and see you two.”

Sam said, “Cheesy! Where’s the cake?” Justine brought a cake with lit candles into the room and placed it on the table for Bernie, and she sang the happy birthday song like an opera a capella and Sam sang in his rich deep voice.

Uncle Bernie was thirty-four years old. Cyd could count to a hundred but did not believe anyone could be thirty-four. That was too old. Bernie sucked in his breath to blow out the candles. Sam said, “Don’t spit on it.”

Winter nights, Justine put the too-large winter coat on Cyd and walked over to the appliance store and watched programs on television sets. Cyd staggered under the weight of the coat. They watched cowboy movies with Tom Mix in his white hat, and the cowboys rode horses and shot at each other. The original film had been painted, so that night scenes had been blue, and love scenes were yellow but the films were twenty-five, thirty years old, made from unpainted negatives, so everything was black, white and gray. Justine had watched them in a movie house in Hopewell when she was a little girl. Neither Justine nor Cyd realized the actors had been real cowboys hired to play cowboys, or that Mix had shot the scenes across the river in Edendale near Corralitas where Frank Bissell lived.

A year after that, a man in a khaki uniform came to the door with a television set on a dolly. An 8-inch bulge, like the bottom of a gold fish bowl, emerged from a block of polished wood with a bit of wire and fabric surround. Cyd looked around the back of the set and counted 26 glass tubes with little silver wires inside of them standing on end.

The man in the uniform climbed up to the roof with a ladder and he carried a television antennae. Sam watched the screen and yelled up at the man through the open window, saying either “No!” or “Yes! Good!” Cyd saw an image on the screen of a tower on a mountain with stars behind it, which were arrayed in a semi-circle.

One night, the family watched wrestling matches announced by Steve Allen and Johnny Carson. Sam said, “You watch those two! They’ll go far.” One of the wrestlers was fat and ugly but he had long blond hair he wore in curls. His name was Gorgeous George.

The telephone rang. Sam answered the phone and said, “I’ll go. I’ll identify them.” He put a bathrobe on over his pajamas and got in the Pontiac and drove away and then seemingly without transition Cyd was in a courtyard. Grown-ups and children wore gloves and hats. Everyone wore a cloth coat and Cyd wore the coat she was going to grow into.

It was ten o’clock in the morning on the last Friday of the month and the air raid sirens sounded in Los Angeles, filling the air with its terror.

Cyd’s mother left the courtyard and walked rapidly on her long movie star legs.

“You walk too slow,” Justine said and walked away from the little girl swallowed by her own coat. Cyd did not know where she was.

The mailman walked up to her and took her hand and walked with her and then opened a gate in a white picket fence and down a concrete path through a lawn bordered with oleanders. He rang the doorbell to a house she could not remember. The house was small, with a cheap front door and three concrete steps leading to it.

Justine opened the door and pulled her into the house and slammed the door.

Justine took her to a room with a deep concrete sink and a Bendix washing machine. The washing machine had a round window, and through it, Cyd saw soapy water and clothes.

Her mother took a bar of Fels Naptha soap from the sink and pushed it hard into her mouth and said, “Bite it.” The child’s mouth filled with bitter soap.

Cyd began kindergarten when she was four years old. She had not thought she could wait a minute longer.

She walked to school by herself because children used to. After a while, another girl walked with her, the girl who lived on Drew Street near 32 Avenue in a house with paper walls coated with asphalt ““ the house with a tortoise living out back — and her father was always sick and stayed in bed all day. He was disgusted with the house. He leaned from the bed and poked a hole through the wall near him, and sunlight came in through the hole. The sick man said he couldn’t leave the house because a hellish dog raced with his car no matter how fast he went.

In the early morning of July 21, 1952, the Tehachapi earthquake hit, the largest earthquake in the coterminous United States since the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco and Santa Rosa. The earthquake cracked reinforced-concrete tunnels having walls 46 centimeters thick. It bent the Southern Pacific railroad tracks into S curves. Twelve people died. The little house in Glassell Park shook for over five minutes, which is a very long time to feel an earthquake.

Sam lifted Cyd from her bed and stood with her in the doorframe. A tree crashed through the room where she had slept a few minutes earlier.

When Cyd was ten, Sam and his brothers Max and Bernie took Cyd in the Pontiac to the Jewish cemetery near Riverside Drive to visit Grandma Rose’s grave.

A rabbi stood with his hands clasped in front of him. The men work yarmulkes. They looked down at a memorial plaque with Grandma Rose’s name and dates of birth and death engraved on it, and they all said words in Hebrew, and Sam sang a long foreign plaint.

The rabbi left. Cyd and the men walked down the hill. She saw the sheen of water in the Los Angeles River. They stood again, this time in front of another grave. Words on the memorial plaque on this grave said Jacob Garfield.

Bernie said, “Sometimes, for no reason, I think of them and cry. The tears just come down my face.”

“Jake the Snake,” Max said. Bernie sighed.

That year, a waxed maple table replaced the Formica table, and on it Justine placed a ruby glass swan. Justine put water in the swan, and floated camellias in it.

Justine steamed off the wallpaper and painted the walls beige and Sam hung gold fabric on the windows. They bought a puffy beige sofa and two beige lounge chairs, a Servel refrigerator with an icemaker that made half-moons of ice instead of square ice cubes, and she ordered new kitchen cabinets, which a carpenter installed.

Cyd was learning how ice became a gas by emptying the ice half-moons into a pot set on a burner on the new electric stove while reading H.G. Wells The Time Machine and was at the part where it’s the end of the world and there are only giant lobsters left when she saw the kitchen was on fire. The paint on the new cabinets bubbled and leaked black ooze.

Cyd put the flames out by depriving them of oxygen with towels and pot lids. She couldn’t do anything about the cabinets. She went over to the Mexicans’ house on Drew Street, believing Justine wouldn’t think to go there.

The family hid her but Justine had figured out where Cyd would go and just pretended to give up looking for her and stood with her back against the wall of their house waiting like a spider in her web. Cyd saw her mother’s shadow, though, and didn’t come out.

“I can smell you in there Miss Cyd Charisse Bissell,” Justine whispered.

Justine went back to her house. She came back an hour later and yelled at the Mexican family’s house, “Tell her she can come out. The insurance will pay for everything.” Cyd believed her and came out and nothing bad happened.

Justine did not speak to Sam for weeks at a time because he was so cheap and she had to fight for everything but she gave tiny bottles of perfume to Aunt Barbara at Christmas with writing on the bottoms that said “Sample. Not to be sold.”

Cyd’s stomach suddenly ballooned as if she were pregnant. She vomited all day long, and she had a fever of 106 degrees. Justine made her dry toast and Campbell’s chicken soup with rice, which Cyd threw up. Cyd thought she was going to die but Justine said, “You’re just malingering. You don’t know what pain is. Childbirth is pain. Tha’ts real pain.” Then she said, “I’ll make you more toast. It’s Wonderbread and builds strong bodies eight ways.”

Cyd listened to “The Inner Sanctum” on the radio and looked at the ceiling and thought she was climbing a ladder to an ivory tower. She thought that this might be her opportunity to imagine infinity. She could not imagine infinity.

As it turned out, Cyd had peritonitis — a word she thought was beautiful because of all the consonants — and she almost died.

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