Thursday, May 03, 2018

Little Book Houses, Hemingway, and Cruising into the Past

Daniel Cano (For Esther Carranza)

Rocky and Phoebe riding shotgun

Mornings, to keep my dog-walking chore invigorating, Rocky, Phoebe, and I cruise town in my new Prius V until we find a nice neighborhood or a city park, some place different each day for our strolls. Okay, my dogs are spoiled.

Some West L.A. neighborhoods and parks we explore, I hadn’t visited in years. As the streets again become familiar to me, they take on their own personalities. What I remembered as solid blue-collar, “working class” neighborhoods are today a motley assortment of homes, many owned by employees of Google, Sony, Universal, and a myriad of movie and computer companies that have invaded the west-side.

Oh, there are still some original tract-home dwellers, the adult children who chose to stay in the family home. And there are those, like me and my wife, hangers-on who purchased their homes fifteen to twenty years ago, before the "boom", and except for the newer monster homes and the modern three-tiered, box-n-glass constructions, the layouts of most neighborhoods remain the same as when I was a child.

Not so for any hillside neighborhoods, the post WWII family homes up on Grand View and Mountain View Avenues, near the Santa Monica Airport where I'd go visit my friend, Eddie Espinoza. His neighborhood has been mostly replaced by mansions overlooking the city. A few of the small, traditional WWII tract homes, sit solitarily, yet stubbornly crunched in among the larger homes on either side.

That’s what I enjoy about cruising, it’s like returning to a good book. I always find something I didn’t see, or somehow missed with the prior reading.

Yet, the neighborhoods and parks appear smaller than I remember. Take Rancho Park in Cheviot Hills, for instance; what had once appeared to me as a large, tree-covered mountain in the middle of the park is, today, a nice sized hill with a few pines growing around it, still, I suppose, a reprieve from the noisy streets surrounding it.
There is a certain nostalgia that creeps in as I cruise with Rocky and Phoebe into a familiar neighborhood and walk the grounds and sidewalks, or survey the surroundings, the swings, baseball diamonds, and faux-forested areas where I once played. In my imagination, I can see myself running for a touchdown, picking up groundballs, or being asked to play catcher to a star pitcher when our starting catcher missed a game. I'd only caught a couple of times. The pitcher was like five-eleven, a hundred and sixty pounds, and had a mean fastball. I'd looked over at my dad who just nodded--go ahead. I did and ended up a hero that day.
Little Book House from afar 
Today, what I find intriguing are the little book houses people have built on their front lawns, adjacent to the sidewalk, especially now since the major book chains have swallowed the smaller bookstores, and Amazon is in the process of swallowing the major chains, confirming Darwin's theory, that the fittest survive, a claim he said he never made. Darwin claimed he said that things change, and to survive they must adapt, an important difference.

And wrap your head around this. There are maybe three major bookstores in the entire Westside of Los Angeles. (Not even in Westwood Village, home of UCLA is there one good bookstore.) I guess the neighbors who build the little-book houses want outsiders to know this is a literate community, trusting, and "socially aware". I saw a Black Lives Matter sign in front of another house.

Inside peek at the little gems

So, I snatched a copy of Hemingway’s “Farewell to Arms” from one of the little book houses. I suppose I wanted to see if the great writer's book stands the test of time. The instructions on the book house said to take a book today and leave one tomorrow. So far, my sidewalk book credit is overdue. 

Hemingway’s novel, one of his earlier ones, which I'd read in my 20s, tells the story of an American ambulance driver who enlisted in the Italian army in WWI. While recuperating from an injury, he drinks too much and starts a love affair with a beautiful British nurse. Between vicious battles against superior German and Austrian forces, the young soldier and the nurse fall deeply in love. As the Italians are in full retreat, he deserts the army, and the couple crosses the border in a harrowing boatride, where he must row through a storm from Italy into Switzerland, where their affair, at first blossoms, but ends tragically. The conclusion bothered me so much, I slept little that night, my mind racing to my own youth.
Standing the test of time

I’d forgotten the power of Hemingway’s early writings, the writings of WWI’s Lost Generation, their wanderings after a brutal war, one in which they could never find a justification for such suffering, one where they faced their mortality, and it reminded me of my own mortality, and my own generation, and how we had tried to gain our footing after an  unjust war, and how, somewhere along the line, many of us had lost our way as adults, giving into the selfish desires we fought so hard in our youth to resist. Names like the Baby Boom or the Me Generation didn't capture the tumultuous nor the rapturous times we experienced. To survive, I returned to what I knew best, to routines, rituals, and traditions.

Let me go back a bit. It started in the late 60s, when I was discharged from the Army, some 18 months after I returned from Vietnam, disenchanted and politically jaded. For hours, I’d cruise different neighborhoods in whatever car I owned, to examine my conscience, to try to forget what I'd seen and heard, or to just explore the world around me, an existentialist to the marrow, though I wouldn't discover the writings of Ponty, Sarte, de Bouvoir, or Camus until years later. To me, cultural literacy was spending a night with friends listening to El Chicano and Santana.

Back then, a pressing philosophical problem was explaining to my parents why I'd chosen to buy a '67 MG instead of a house with the $3,000 I'd saved in the army. You only needed a $3,000 down payment for a $30,000 home, any place south of Wilshire on L.A.s west side. Anything north of Wilshire, forget about it. That was men-in-suits, Lincoln Continental-drivers property.

But down in the lowlands of West L.A., Mar Vista, Venice, Culver City, and even parts of Santa Monica, if you can believe it, most two-to-three-bedroom, one bath homes were selling for anywhere from $16,000 to $35,000. In my parents’, grandparents’, uncles’ and aunts’ Mexican minds, home ownership meant financial stability and a step closer to the American dream, which I'd come to realize was just that, a dream.

To me, a freewheeling, Peace and Freedom Party, long-hair, bass-playing, mind expanding, weekend cruiser, home ownership meant confinement, selling-out, but mostly, it meant forfeiting my youth.

In the 70s, I married, and along came the kids. I sold my beloved MGB-GT and bought a 1972 Ford Van. Right, I was an anti-war, Vietnam vet, Chicano hippie. But, from that point on, being responsible meant my world began to shrink. I could only hit the highway and head out to the Kern River, Owens’ Valley, and Kings Canyon, on weekends, and into the farther reaches of Northern California, Oregon, and Mexico’s interior only on vacations, my wandering mind always on the open highway, a metaphor for liberation.
"It just keeps on rolling not worrying about where its going"

And it wasn’t just me, young America was on the move, the highways filled with VW Wagons, vans, converted panel trucks and buses, as well as hitch-hikers lining the major highways and city streets. Many of our parents rarely travelled. For my generation, young people of all ethnicities and genders shared the campgrounds. Music, and a sweet, pungent odor, legal today, illegal then, wafted through the air. When Bob Dylan sang, “There was music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air,” he wasn’t exaggerating. From then on, I always owned a van, station wagon, or a truck w/ a camper, listening to our street prophets, like Marvin Gaye, Leonard Cohen, or the Allman Brothers Band who told us in Midnight Rider, "...and the road goes on forever,” the idea of escape more a way of life rather than an excuse or retreat.

Sometimes, my cousin, Johnny, would pick me up in his gardening truck after he finished work (this was when Chicanos and Japanese monopolized the gardening/landscape business in town. There were few immigrants back then.). His clients were celebrities, singers, actors, and movie land moguls. You’ve got to remember, manual labor, and working outdoors, one's hands in Mother Nature's bosom, at the time, was respectable, as were other construction and maintenance jobs. Unions controlled the skilled trade, like carpentry, electrical, masonry, and plumbing, solid, well-paying jobs. It wasn't until the 80s when white flight crept into the skilled trades that kids no longer wanted to enter those fields, and society saw those jobs as immigrant work, or the jobs nobody wanted.

Hell, in the 60s, many White guys our age didn’t even work. Either they were still in college as professional students, to keep from being drafted. Those who did work entered the skilled trades, mostly in construction, or they were independent and cleaned swimming pools, or just hung out in the street. Since many Caucasians applied for welfare, the system didn’t carry the same stigma as today. For some, especially super-rich kids, they saw welfare as a badge of honor, you know, Tim Leary's tune in and drop out.

To our parents' regret, though my dad secretly admired the romanticism of the 60s, wearing a suit, a tie, applying for a job with a corporation, or even working at a desk was anathema to America’s youth. Sociology, history, philosophy, religion, and English literature were the most popular majors in college, which is where I landed, studying, while working 40 hours a week, playing in a band, reading the great books, and yes, still cruising. No respectable, cool person would major in business or econ. Even majoring in science was suspect.

My cousin, older by three years, handsome and street-smart, had spent four years in prison for "possession", an unheard of sentence for such an offense. He was really just a kid among the older prisoners. He'd faced his own demons and kicked heroin, cold-turkey and stayed off the stuff for fifty years. I'd spent three years in the Army, one in a combat zone, and had to face my own demons after the war. We both came home about the same time, so we saw ourselves as having a bond. We spent days, no months and years, doing as Socrates commanded, examining our lives, cruising therapists.
Venice Canals, 1960s, a cruiser's dream ride

While in college, I worked with my cousin part-time, and after a day's work, he and I cruised the old neighborhood haunts, where he brought the streets back to life for me, 17th Street in Santa Monica, Cotner Avenue in West L.A, and Ghost Town in Venice, which took us along Pacific Avenue, and on through the Canals, a favorite cruising route, exotic, even, in the 60s and 70s, no modern homes, just cracked sidewalks, little framed-houses, and young people in huaraches and clothes from la segunda on the streets. Today, the canals are sterile, Mercedes, BMW's, Land Cruisers, and new Californians everywhere.

Now that I think about it, the memories are mostly good ones. How fast it all went by, my personality and life’s philosophy, for better or worse, shaped by those years.

After the war, I studied how U.S. foreign policy, by its designers' confessions, destroyed the lives of many young Americans and their families, as well as the lives of millions of Vietnamese, I asked myself, how could making obscene amounts of money ever be my life's objective, or as the nuns, brothers, and priests called it in Catholic school, a vocation? They never talked about jobs or careers, always, it was about life's vocations, not what you did for work but to what you dedicated your life. There is a difference. Though the country was ripe with business opportunities, I chose education and writing, a life of books, a life of study, a life of the mind.

And since teaching the "true history" of our country and world has always been seen as a subversive act, even among so-called liberal educators, many Americans will never understand (nor do most want to know) the complex economic engineering that has led to wars in Latin America, the Middle East, and many other countries. Of course, it isn't all our fault. There's plenty of blame to go around.

Yet, when all is said and done, the question raised in Tolstoy's short story "How Much Land Does a Man Need?” also contains the answer. We need no more than a plot of land 3feet x 3feet x 3 feet or for the more greedy, 6x6x6. That was also one message in Hemingway's novel, which I would not have rediscovered if I hadn't been traipsing through different neighborhoods, my dogs in tow, or maybe the other way around.

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