Edendale: Chapter 1

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November 1, 2010 · Posted in Edendale by Phyl M. Noir 


Photograph of Tom Mix’s “Mixville” courtesy of Mark Wanamaker, Director, Bison Archives, 650 North Bronson, Los Angeles 90004

Boyle Heights, The First Chapter Of The Important New Serial “Edendale”

By Phyl M. Noir

For the remainder of his life, Sam was to remember everything that happened during the war years as having happened at night during winter: the bare limbs of trees alongside roads that left skeletal shadows on snow in the moonlight, and the moon that was always full; the soldiers that marched on brittle feet sometimes 25 miles a day with heavy knapsacks on their backs; the men who died in the bleak darkness.

The soldiers saw horses, cows and human beings lying on the street in the moonlight, which had blazed the village’s nocturne. A panzer tank rolled over the bodies and flattened them. The American lieutenant ordered his men to shoot at the tank. Instead of shooting at the tank, Sgt. Sam Garfield and his men turned their rifles towards their officer.

The officer thought the quality of light had changed. Things around him looked as if it were day with lengthening shadows. He changed his mind and issued a new order, that the men retreat. The men lowered their rifles.

Sam’s hands were small for a man his size, and he was deft with them. He had sewn on buttons and hemmed skirts and trousers in his father Jake’s tailor shop on Brooklyn Avenue from the time he was eight years old, beginning the same year The Minsk Grandfather arrived in Los Angeles straight from crooked streets with store signs in Hebrew and Russian and women in long dresses leaning into a cold wind – a place his American-born grandchildren never thought about.The Minsk Grandfather never learned English and did not like Americans but then he never met many.

Boyle Heights didn’t have restrictive covenants like many places in Los Angeles did, so mostly immigrants and a few black people lived there because they could. The number of languages in Boyle Heights rivaled the number of languages spoken in the Tower of Babel. The women mostly spoke the languages from their homelands. The younger men and women spoke their native language and American, except the English sounded more like black people spoke Texan, with a Spanish lilt from the Mexicans’ learned English that eventually became its own language, a language where every sentence ends in a question mark.

The Minsk grandfather learned to drive a car and drove a red Ford pick up truck over the bridge to downtown and back with loads of schmatta to sell on the streets.

Sam learned his laconic, allusive way of talking from The Minsk Grandfather after Jake left Rose and the boys during the Great Depression. Jake moved out to Santa Monica, where he lived with a Russian woman who was a member of the Communist Party and the two of them went out their front door each day and looked at the Pacific Ocean breaking against the shore.

On March 25, 1945, at Mittle-brau, the day was sunny. German soldiers came out of the camp with their hands up. The war was over. The beautiful day played counterpoint to the soldiers’ quotidian misery.

A living skeleton stood against the fence: a bundle of pus and urine smelling rags in the first spring day that had a scent like black pepper sprinkled on delicate blue ether.

The Yanks walked through an opening in the fence and stood at the entrance to the first camp building.

The young soldiers bent their heads inquiringly at the door with brilliant spring light behind them and they looked into the belching, gaseous ass odored maw of hell. If they had right then understood what they saw they would have dropped off cliffs or shot themselves with their own rifles or blinded their eyes by looking right into the sun. Only the lieutenant immediately understood what terrible things human beings had done and that the fractal evil underlying all political systems grows and repeats recursively an infinite number of times. The lieutenant said, “Holy shit.”

The soldiers found some prisoners alive on the second floor of the camp building. Sam went back outside and translated American into Yiddish, and the Germans understood. He ordered the Germans to evacuate the dying Jews.

The ghostly Jew standing against the fence approached the group of American soldiers. He said to Sam, “You speak Yiddish?”

Sam stepped forward.

“I speak Yiddish.”

“You are a Jew.”

“I am a Jew.”

“A Jew, yet so tall. So strong.”

Around the two men, new blades of grass grew in the hard soil, and blue Lupine sprouted in patches of sunlight. New leaves unfurled on the leaves of trees. Swallows rose from the fields and fell again near Mittlebrau like the inhalation and exhalation of breath.

Sam thought back to a moment when he was seventeen and standing on a corner near the Fourth and Lorena Bridge back home waiting for the trolley with Max and Bernie at dawn to catch the trolley to Hollywood. A spotted skunk – feminine and feline – walked through red orange-berried Indian paint brush and billowing pale weeds that grew in the vacant lot across the street on the way to her nocturnal burrow and a soft brown brush rabbit bounced past her and an owl in the oak tree at the edge of the lot turned his heavy head and said ‘Who?”

The Gwan lady walked came across the bridge, brushing away children with a sweeping motion as if holding a broom and saying, “G’wan witch ya,” to the little pishers who ran in front of her. Her hair stuck up, uncombed. Max had laughed his boy’s laugh, delighted. Sam didn’t know what the matter was with Max.

They smelled coffee and maple syrup and gorgeous kielbasa scent that came from a Polish restaurant, already open at dawn.
The brothers boarded the trolley that took them from Boyle Heights

and into Hollywood and they got off at Vine.

They saw the outside of the Brown Derby, and the outside of the Eddie Cantor gift shop and they saw the outside of the Pantages movies theater. They saw the Broadway department store window and looked into it at the mannequins inside the window wearing the new day bias cross cut chiffon and crepes and evening satins, crepe-de-chine blouses with full sleeves, silks — clothing their mother Rose couldn’t afford. Free. They all lived free. Seeing the outsides of stores and theaters and looking at department store dummies was free.

On March 25, 1945, Sam Garfield stood in front of the ghost-like Jew at the camp at Mittle-brau and because he thought of palm trees shaking their heads in warm dry wind on Hollywood Boulevard he did not yet fall into the abyss.

Fickett Hollow in Boyle Heights/Courtesty Los Angeles Public Library

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