Where Coats Were Banned
Los Angeles, my birthplace to a mother born in L.A., a father born in Houston, who met one evening in 1941 on a porch in East L.A. He, twenty, in uniform, the guest of another sailor, the son of her neighbors; she, eighteen, in a blue checked-dress she’d bought marked down with her employee’s discount at Bullocks. Her father in prison, her mother an occasional seamstress for a competitor’s department store, her younger sisters just entering middle school, her job paid the rent, supplied the bones for soup. His uniforms issued to him by the U.S. Navy were valued. He kept them sharp. Other than that deducted to pay back this apparel, the rest of his Navy pay was sent directly to his parents. It covered the rent for a three-room house on the edge of Dallas. His father unemployed, his mother doing washing for folks, his younger sister so hollow one could nearly see through her.
Los Angeles, where these two half-orphaned kids met, both having lived amid each draining year of the Great Depression, some days one meal, a piece of pork, beans, and roots from neighbor gardens. For both, jobs taken as ten and twelve year olds, carrying newspapers, mowing lawns, cleaning up kitchens, selling hotdogs, all for the chance to put food in their mouths, pocket something for younger sisters. Lying about their ages for jobs, to enter the Navy, to work nights in the munitions factory. Staying out from home because feeling and watching their parents’ discomfort and guilt was more depressing than anything they’d find in the movies, or among close or mere acquaintances, at part-time jobs. And who do you tell? I thought to ask after they were long gone, who did you tell there was no food on the table? No one, they would have said. All, everyone already knew.
Los Angeles, where churches were built at a rate proportionate to new houses, new neighborhoods, and where the film industry moved even quicker. Church, bread, rent, shoes, water, streetcars, all competed for quarters. In the collection plate or in the pocket, to the landlord or at the market? What would a quarter have brought, bought? What would a nickel? Bought a double-bill at any local movie house, where films either reflected the lives people soldiered through each day, or they spun frothy flights of fancy among characters who were supposedly titans and queens. But in both, the actors were really just hungry people like them, trying to put soles on their shoes, meat in their mouths, and roofs over their heads to keep the sky at bay. As luck would have it, those millions of nickels filtered out of dollars, became dollars again, and a star is born.
Only in Los Angeles could a girl clad in a sweater set become a movie star by sitting at a soda fountain on Hollywood Boulevard. Sweater sets were bought instead of chopped meat, were bought instead of books, bread and biscuits. Here, in movieland and 4000 hours of daylight, darkness dissolved and moved eastward with the winds, to Cleveland and Chicago, New Orleans or New York, Tulsa and Birmingham. Here where people earned quarters by pretending to be stars and titans, everyone survived by assuming a new identity as the road out of poverty. We had banished all pasts. We had new towns, new buildings, new people. New Industries. Who and what and where your papa was, didn’t matter to us. Here, what your coat looked like, what it was made from, and the brand name on its label, here it never mattered, here where it never rained, where coats were banned.
Los Angeles, where neighbors spoke multiple languages, held close secrets of once was, all were refugees from ignorance, fascism, despots, and revolutions, immigrants from prejudice, famine, disrupted lives and sudden harsh desertions, poverty, starvation, greed and self-centeredness. Over rocks as high as skyscrapers, cross barren lands, dangerous seas, they sprung, showed up, the newest arrivals, surveyors, travelers, seekers flooding or trickling in by foot, horse, wagon, train, car, plane, and hopeful, all of us. Composing the small and mass discoveries, exploring, settling of land and water, casting the seeds, digging the trench, planting the vine, all of us brought, bought, bore or stole, facing west, sun and sky and deep blue Pacific well warming/chilling the core of each and every one, promising what no one since Moses had, an eternal land of milk and honey.
Los Angeles, where we came to gawk at a land replete with gardens and promises, where we stayed to build something, to forget disruptive history and indiscretions, to take fish from the sea, grapes from the vine, and stroll unencumbered through orchards, forests, savannas, among legends on the edge of a coastline thirteen hundred miles north to south. We were all part of the mass transformation, on narrow paths, crowded highways, bridging the old ways to a new future, to be someone or something other than what we’d been. Los Angeles, where my parents met on a porch in 1941 on a blind date, where they were married six years later at the end of the war. Where I was born at the start of 1953 as the G.I. Bill sent my dad through UCLA.
The City of Angels, where Santa Ana left his name on the winds of change, and I met my future husband at a music concert in the town that bore his name.