Honey visits Los Angeles
By Honey van Blossom
(Honey is a Belgian Marxist former strip-tease artiste.)
Honey visits Los Angeles
The cabbie asked me which way I wanted him to go. I asked him to go down Willow Pass Road to the 650 and take the last exit before the bridge because otherwise we’d get trapped in Pacheco and then in Martinez side streets. I didn’t say I once thought I could easily walk to the Best Western from the train station in the rain at Thanksgiving and it took two hours. I was glad to have seen so much of the city but didn’t want to do it again.
We passed full parking lots at the strip malls. I asked why no one was working. He said that’s a good question.
Concord is more conservative than Berkeley and Oakland. The political spectrum moves from Tea Party and Evangelicals all the way to mainstream Republican. The driver said after hesitating that he was glad Obama was getting more time to fix things.
We approached the bridge, and he turned down the road that leads to the train station.
I thought about the email message I received from my schoolmate Tanya.
The last time we saw each other, my older daughter was an infant. That was 47 years ago.
Before she found me on Internet, I often imagined Tanya living in Paris. I haven’t seen Paris, so the city she lived in looked to me in my image of her as looking like Quebec or parts of North Beach, which I have seen. She was the smartest of them, and our high school had very smart people.
I found a famous scientist on-line. He had blown up his basement when he was a boy. Two became highly respected professors. One of the two had been a hall monitor, and the other was the valedictorian at the graduation I didn’t attend. One was the International Monetary Fund’s chief economist. He had been one of my debate coaches. Another had played in the Philharmonic for years. Two became powerful attorneys in New York. Two wrote screenplays. One of the students we barely knew because she was in remedial classes became Michele Philips, a singer with the Mamas and Papas and later a soap opera queen.
The mother of two of our schoolmates was blind in her last years. She had been fierce when she was young. I took her hand at dinner one night and told her my name, and she made up a story about my mother. She said my mother told me my mother called her to come to our house – this never happened – and said I complained her son was following me. Her son never followed me. We walked to Ivanhoe Elementary together, that’s all. In real life, she had spread gossip about my mother.
She confided, “My son is a high-flying lawyer.”
I said, “I’m a low-flying lawyer.” She gasped, and then she laughed.
She was frail, and had become kind, so I didn’t let her know that I remembered what she had done. Later, I went to her funeral, on a hill overlooking the 5 Freeway, and I shoveled a little dirt into her grave.
None of them had Tanya’s spirit or wit. I thought she would become a professor of literature at the Sorbonne. I don’t know yet if she did this but I learned she did live in Paris.
“When I lived in Paris and moved from room to room with my dictionaries and my record player and my three records – a little 45 rpm of Atayualpa, a 33 of Vivaldi and Mozart’s Little Night Music, Atahualpa Yupanqui was actually living in Paris too and I could have met him, at least heard and seen him. But without Mr. Google how was I to know?”
Once, Tanya and I decided to climb through the chaparral to the Griffith Park Observatory instead of going up by the path. When we emerged from the brush – our skin covered with nicks and bruises — we cavorted so that the people inside of the observatory could see us on the camera obscura. Some of those people came out of the observatory and spoke to us as if we were small children but we were fifteen.
Tanya was the name she used when we were in high school. I had searched for her but came up only with a boat chartering company named Tanya for a long time, until she found me. Her true name is Tatiana Dawn.
Tanya sent me a poem, rather a song, by the Argentinian singer and poet Atahualpa Yupanqui before I set out on my trip to Los Angeles.
“Solo estan lejos las cosas que no sabemos mirar.
Los caminos son caminos en la tierra y nada mas.
Las leguas desaparecen si el alma impieza a latear.
Hondo sentir, rumbo fijo, corazon y claridad…
Si el mundo esta dentro de uno, afuera porque mirar?”
She writes: “ … a drenched old lady going blithely along in a black beret and gum boots, sometimes, for this is Vancouver and it rains – il pleut sur la ville comme il pleut dans mon coeur. That’s Verlaine. It rains on the city but necessarily in my heart. I don’t mind the rain; I can even feel blithe if I can just be outside and roam. … when I came out I took a detour along English Bay and there was a white swam swimming in the sea. That’s very unusual; in fact, I have never seen one on the Bay. They live in Stanley Park where they are fed by the Swan Lady and also park workers in the winter. I went looking for a park ranger to report this anomaly.”
Before the cabbie and I reached the train station, I paraphrased for him Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun because I then didn’t remember his words. Later, I looked it up on Internet. This is what Trumbo wrote:
“….They knew that if all the little people all the little guys saw the future they would begin to ask questions. They would ask questions and they would find answers and they would say to the guys who wanted them to fight they would say you lying thieving sons-of-bitches we won’t fight we won’t be dead we will live we are the world we are the future and we will not let you butcher us no matter what you say no matter what speeches you make no matter what slogans you write. Remember it well we we we are the world we are what makes it go round we make bread and cloth and guns we are the hub of the wheel and the spokes and the wheel itself without us you would be hungry naked worms and we will not die. We are immortal we are the sources of life we are the lowly despicable ugly people we are the great wonderful beautiful people of the world and we are sick of it we are utterly weary we are done with it forever and ever because we are the living and we will not be destroyed…”
When we got to the Martinez station, I saw the cab driver looked as if his face had been washed of its care. He shook my hand and thanked me and helped me with my luggage. I thanked him, and I tipped him a little extravagantly for me.
I boarded the train at Martinez, and we rode past the refineries and along the bay, which was platinum. The sun sometimes emerged from fat silver clouds. Reeds and catkins grew near the water. I saw egrets.
The people standing to say good-bye to those getting on the train at the Stockton station wore coats and boots, or greeting them. Amtrak begins at Richmond. Many passengers are African-American. Others are white, and they pass along the route to friends and family either because they don’t own cars or because they own cars but it is easier to ride in a train with WiFi.
I saw that shanties on the sides of the San Joaquin River, which are like the Hoovervilles built in the Great Depression. It’s miserably cold in the central valley in the winter and miserably hot in the summer. I wouldn’t like to live in a house made of irregular pieces of plywood on the San Joaquin River.
The land was green. There was fog. It was cold. Houses we passed had enormous yards. I once rented a house like that in Madera. There is nothing in the enormous yards but grass you have to mow. In the summer, the heat is unbearable.
I thought I had an air conditioner when I moved into a rented house in the winter of 1995 but it was a swamp cooler. In the summer, I learned a swamp cooler means that air blows over water piped through a garden hose into a metal box. The house smelled like an aquarium and papers blew around inside of the house. My cats dug into the mud on the side of the house and only came inside at night.
There are still orchards and fields and mysterious big square holes, which I imagine must be to drain the land because once there had been vernal ponds or ephemeral pools in the valley. John Muir in the spring of 1868 wrote, “Sauntering in any direction, my feet would brush about a hundred flowers with every step…as if I were wading in liquid gold.” The valley floor has sunk since then because of draws on the water table for farming and subdivisions.
The Madera station now has a shelter. When I lived there, I had to stand in the rain in the winter or in the unbearable heat in summer to wait for the train. There had been little to do in Madera. There was a water tower, a Catholic Church, and a supermarket. I drove to Fresno for groceries and to listen to jazz. People in the valley said, “You know what people do in Fresno at night? They sit on their porches and listen to Bakersfield suck. You know what people do in Bakersfield at night? They sit on their porches and listen to Fresno suck.
The conductor called out over the audio system, “Freeeeezno, second in the nation.” A few minutes later, he walked past me. I asked him, “Second what? “ He answered, “Second worst place to live.”
At Bakersfield, we disembarked and got on a bus and drove over the Grapevine. The road does not look like a grapevine. Maybe it once did.
I visited my friends. We went to the Arboretum, to the Paul Landacre exhibit in Pasadena, and to the last day of King Eddy, a dive bar in downtown Los Angeles, which served some of those who live in the SROs. Fante and Bukowski once drank there. A glass room showed the silhouettes of the smokers, who fumigated themselves. Ronald and I had dinner with Boryana.
At Ronald’s house, he put on a Netflix about Trumbo who thought he was doing the right thing by refusing to testify during the House Committee on Un-American Activities about whether or not he had ever been a Communist because the First Amendment protected his freedom of speech and his freedom of association, which it does, but the government did not and sent him to prison. I contemplated his arrogance. Trumbo’s family suffered, and he borrowed money to live.
What is the point to trying to change the world? Even if something changes, it’s always a minute change. The powerful stay powerful. Their children go to the best schools and know each other. They meet once a year in Occidental to divide up the world. Acts of kindness endure for an instant and are lost, no matter how much was sacrificed. Courage leads to a kick in the butt. The people living in the Hooverville in Stockton, odds are, are veterans who fought in terrible wars. What the brave and outspoken have done is a mitzvah but that’s not enough: a gesture of kindness, like shoveling a little dirt into the grave of a friend’s mother.
I flew back and saw from the plane windows that for many miles sinuous folds of brown earth from the plane window. Every once in a while, there was a house with a red tile roof. I saw only one road, and it did not reach any of the houses.
When I returned, I emailed Tanya and asked her to translate Atahualpa Yupanqui’s song. This is Tanya’s translation:
“I wish they would tell me what they mean when they speak of distance.
Only those things are far away that we don’t know how to see.
Roads are nothing but lines traced on the surface of the earth.
The miles fade away when the soul begins to speak.
Depth of feeling, steady course, courage and clarity –
If it all lies within us, why should we look to the world outside?
Life holds such amazing things, too mysterious to understand.
In spite of ourselves, we are often right there where we want to be.
Roads are nothing but lines traced on the surface of the earth.
I wish they would tell me what they mean when they speak of distance.”