Thursday, August 09, 2018

A Restaurant Named "La Manana"

Daniel Cano

Sawtelle blvd., across the street from La Manana restaurant

    Back in 2001, I stopped by my uncle Mike's home to interview  him as part of my project learning about the early years of the WWII generation Chicanos and Chicanas. He was sitting in a near-crouch on his plush chair, peering through the screen door, waiting for the clock to strike 3:00 P.M..
     Right on the hour, he sprang, okay, more like an enthusiastic hobble, outside to his truck, a large camper on the back, jumped in, started it, and pulled into the empty parking spot in front of his house.
     Factories and car repair shops had crowded the once vacant stretch of land across the street from his house, so each week he fought employees who took the parking in front of his house. At 84, Mike’s knees were weak from years of maintaining a successful gardening business in Westwood and Beverly Hills.
     In his 60s, he was still riding motorcycles across the Mojave Desert, hunting ducks at the Salton Sea, and fishing in the High Sierras or along the Malibu coast.
     "Bastards try to take all the parking," he said, and laughed. "But I get 'em."
     Mike, Narciso, Escarcega, though no one knew him as Narciso, had light skin, white hair, and hazel eyes. He had no hint of a Spanish accent when he spoke English (more of an Okie accent), so it was jolting when he switched to Spanish, mostly to humorously curse an idiotic past event. Like many men of the WWII generation, he possessed a strong sense of self, and was easily annoyed with people who lacked common sense.
     He refused to wear a hearing aid, so he spoke haltingly, pausing, thinking, and sometimes answering in half-phrases. He was not one to mince words. When a thought crossed his mind, it immediately passed through his lips. "Yeah, my mom came from New Mexico," he said, pronouncing it Metzico. "My family was from Chihuahua. Recently, I heard someone from our family in Chihuahua was living here, in Culver City. He was working as a butcher. I told my nephew Johnny Sanchez I'd like to meet him, but Johnny told me the guy already moved back to Chihuahua. But, ah well, I don't know much about it."
     Mike's mother Josefina and his father were the first in the family to arrive in the U.S. Josefina's two sisters, Santos, my grandmother, and Saturnina, my aunt, followed. All three eventually made their homes on L.A.'s westside, an area he called--Sawtelle. He said, "I was born near Gallup, New Metzico. My brother Peanuts [Rufino Escarcega Sr.] knew more than I did. I think the place was called Howard or Hobart, something like that…in 1920. Before he passed away, Peanuts traveled all over, going back to New Metzico, to the town to learn how my dad was killed.
     "Peanuts brought me back my birth certificate. He and Betty found the town, a mining town where my dad died. I asked Peanuts how come he wanted to go back there? He said, ‘I wanted to know how he died.' I think he said one of those little trains in the mines hit him, or something like that, and after my dad died there was just us kids Peanuts, Roy, me, Vera, Elia, and my mom. Vera was the oldest.”
     I interrupted, thinking of the hardship of raising one or two children. “So, your mom came by herself and raised all of you, alone?”
     "Yeah. It must 'a been hard for my mom, traveling with all of us kids. We came from New Metzico following some people to San Bernardino where we picked tomatoes, walnuts and all that. I remember being little, riding with a guy I didn't even know in one of those old-time wagons, sitting in the back, him driving the horses. I remember that. He would go pick up the watermelons and walnuts in the field.”
     “Do you remember where you were living at the time?”
     "Yeah, my mother moved to Fontana, a little village. It was a community of Chicanos, like a tract of little wood homes, you know, a house…just one room, a hallway and a kitchen," he laughed. "Yeah, we came first. Then your grandmother, Santos, came. My mom sent for her.”
     “I never knew that,” I said. “I mean, I know your mom came first, but I didn’t know when or why my grandmother had come. Do you remember when you first arrived in Los Angeles?”
     "Yeah," he answered, as if the memory was still fresh. "My mom worked at Olvera Street, maybe 1925. I remember playing around all the trains. She worked there selling food. She went there because she knew some people from New Metzico there. We used to go to the Rose Parade in Pasadena when we were young. The people from New Metzico lived there, in Pasadena, near Colorado Avenue, and we would go visit them.”
     “I never heard you lived in downtown Los Angeles.”
     "Oh, yeah. We lived in L.A. in Olvera Street then moved to a building up there on Bunker Hill. I used to go upstairs and look down over everything. Next thing I knew, umm, my mom asked us, 'You guys like it here?' And well, we all said…NO!!!! 'Okay,' she said, 'then let's go.'”
     “And you came west?”
     "Yeah, we ended up in a house right near the school on Sawtelle Avenue, in a white house, close to the VA. Oh, hell, I don't think it's there anymore.”
     “What kind of work did your mom do?”
     "She got a restaurant. She was the owner, over there in Sherman, you know, what’s West Hollywood today. She'd take the bus every day from West L.A. Then the next thing I knew she had a restaurant right here in Sawtelle, where the veterans were, by the Vets' Bar, a couple of blocks down the street from the Soldiers’ Home, just off Santa Monica Boulevard. I think the building is still there. Sometimes I would drive by there just to look at it.”
     There was a high rate of alcoholism among my father and his friends who were raised in WLA, near the VA. Bars scattered along the neighborhood streets catered to the vets' needs for booze. Sometimes I wonder if the close proximity to all these bars, had something to do with my father's generation and alcoholism, or if it was undiagnosed PTSD, since most of them saw combat in WWII.
     “It’s gone,” I said. “My dad and I drove by there. It was at the corner of Mississippi and Sawtelle. It’s an office building now, right across from the UCLA Thrift store.”
     “Oh, anyway, it was right there where Sammy Goldfish lived,” Mike laughed at the memory.
     “You knew a kid name Sammy Goldfish?”
     "No, we just called him Sammy Goldfish. Yeah, he used to live in the hotel with his mother. It's still there on Sawtelle Boulevard. Your uncle, Nick, gave him the name; you know, making fun of him because every day his mom used to yell, in a New York Jewish accent, you know. 'Bring in the goldfish, Sammy!'” He laughed, “Oh, Christ, I can still hear her, 'bring in the goldfish, Sammy.'
     "Every day she would put the goldfish outside, and Sammy would have to bring it in every night. Nick and the rest of us used to laugh like hell when she called, "Bring in the goldfish, Sammy.'”
     “Did you work in your mom’s restaurant?”
     "No," he laughed. "We were too young. Me and Peanuts didn't do nothing…." He said, "Vera was the oldest. She worked there, but not Elia. She was too little, but your dad's half-sisters Grace and Jenny worked there. Then Raymond, your dad, told me my mom sold the restaurant to your grandmother, Santos. I don't know. I'm not so sure. I don't think she did. She had the one in Sherman and another up on…oh, let's see. Oh, yeah, on San Vicente, up there by the Western Front., by the Veterans Administration.”
     The Western Front, named for the WWI vets who crowded the bars and stores up along San Vicente boulevard, north of Wilshire, before it became one of the wealthiest sections of town. At the time, the Western Front was like an old set from a Hollywood western, wood store fronts and sidewalks.
     Mike sat back in his lounge chair. "Yeah, that was all a long time ago."  
     I said, “You know, my dad once told me my grandfather suggested my grandma Santos, and my aunt, Josefina, should re-name the restaurant, La Manana."
     My uncle looked at me and said, smiling, "I didn't know that. Why?"
     "Because it was the beginning of the Depression. Nobody had much money. When it came time to pay for the meals, everybody paid on credit, and they would say, 'Manana.'”


Antonio SolisGomez said...

hijole vato another fine little story with a great character and a terrific ending.

Daniel Cano said...

Antonio, it is interesting to me trying to capture those voices, and the way they looked at life. Gracias.