Honey Drives Up Baxter in Echo Park

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April 1, 2011 · Posted in Notes from Above Ground 

By Honey van Blossom

(Honey is a Belgian Marxist former strip-tease artiste.)

When I was very small, my grandfather drove the Stalwart Studebaker downtown. My grandparents did not call each other by their names. Each called the other My Better Half.

My grandmother pulled up my dress and had me stand on the car’s running board – which was covered in rubber matting — and held my hands and I peed in the street whenever the need arose.

Although my grandmother had been a Suffragist and founding Mother of the League of Women Voters and wore trousers, she didn’t drive the Stalwart Studebaker. She took the Red Car downtown. No one questioned her. No one dared question by grandmother about anything. Her motto was the same as the family motto: “I am right.”

There are those who say I shouldn’t drive, and I am among those who say that. Yesterday, I decided I was not going to be such a girl, and I attempted to scale Baxter near Echo Park Avenue. Approaching the hill’s crest, I realized I was going to allow my car to gracefully slide back down the hill but then I encountered cars and a postman’s truck coming up Baxter so I thought the best thing to do was to allow the car to slide its butt up the curb and block pedestrian traffic on the sidewalk and for me to run down Baxter to find a man to rescue me.

I shall assume that the inability to drive is hereditary rather than gender-based because my grandfather also should not have driven ever. He was famous for having driven through a horse-drawn hay cart coming up a Berkeley hill in the Bay Area, for knocking down pedestrians who dared cross in front of his car, and for demanding my grandmother lie in the back seat and pretend to be giving birth long after my grandmother had passed the age to give birth. A few times, we ended with a police motorcycle escort at the entrance of Cedars of Lebanon when it was on Franklin.

When I was a year old, my mother married a man who bought one of the first cars off the assembly line after World War II. Only my stepfather drove the indomitable maroon Pontiac for six years. When I was seven, she decided to get her driver’s license.

The man who tested drivers for the Department of Motor Vehicles asked her to ascend Baxter. That’s how his toupee flew out the window of the indomitable Pontiac, and this is why he signed off on her license as soon as they reached the ground.

After she got her license, she wore immaculate white cotton gloves and a jaunty pink chiffon scarf around her neck and went through red lights. Pedestrians parted like the parting of the Red Sea when she approached. She gave them the finger. I slid from one side of the couch-like backseat to the other whenever she turned a corner. There were no seatbelts in those days. Occasionally, I was catapulted into the front seat. My days were filled with terror.

She was only to drive east, which led us to Eagle Rock or to Glendale, where she got out of the car and found a telephone booth and called my stepfather, who brought help for the westward journey home. On trips home, whenever she saw a woman in the driver’s seat with a man in the passenger seat, she said in a stage whisper that could be heard across the County line, “Look at that. The woman’s driving.”

Three years before the dreadful day my mother got her license, my stepfather was driving the indomitable from a shopping expedition on Seventh Avenue downtown. I was five. My evil brother was three. We sat in the back seat. He told me there was a line of death down the middle of the backseat. If I crossed it, he said, I would die.

I thought only of not sliding and so I, inevitably, slid into him. He leaned across me, pushed down the door handle, and he pushed me out.

The Red Car tracks shone in the Saturday sunlight beneath me. I held onto the upholstered arm rest built into the door with my hands and hooked my feet around my brother. If I was going to die, so was he. We were both skinny children, so our combined weight wasn’t much and we lay over each other watching the asphalt pass beneath us.

In an astonishing acrobatic movement, our mother vaulted over the front seat and grabbed us back and shut the door. No one said anything. The parents never said anything when one of us tried to kill the other.

Writer Joan Didion sees the freeways as the city’s connective tissue: “To understand what was going on it is perhaps necessary to have participated in the freeway experience, which is the only secular communion Los Angeles has.” (The White Album, p 83) Didion refers to Reyner Banham’s chapter on freeways in his 1971 book Los Angeles: the Architecture of Four Ecologies. “(T)he freeways become a special way of being. .. The extreme concentration required in Los Angeles seems to bring on a state of heightened awareness that some locals find mystical.”

My first participation in the freeway experience was when I was ten. My mother received a phone call: my grandmother was dying. Our mother told my brother and me she was going to get on the freeway. My brother slewed his eyes in my direction without moving his head. I slewed my eyes in his direction without moving my head. We refused to go.

She lifted us off the ground, one skinny kid in each arm, deposited us in the backseat of the indomitable, and tore down the street to the freeway and got on it and kept going. My brother and I had to lean out the windows and look behind us to tell her if another car was in whatever lane she wanted to get into because she didn’t know how to use the mirrors. It wasn’t a mystical experience.

When our mother was quite old, and my brother and I were middle-aged and enduring a temporary truce over dinner on evening, I asked her what she had thought she was doing when she gave pedestrians the finger when we were children.

“Oh, that,” she said and laughed her sweet demented old lady laugh. “It just means ‘up yours.'”

“Up your what?” My brother asked.

“Nothing bad,” she said. “Just up your bum.”


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