By Lisa Marguerite Mora
Winding down from an afternoon of errands, I make a right onto Electric and drive parallel to Abbot Kinney and Main Street. This was my old neighborhood when I was a child. It wasn’t called Abbot Kinney when I was a kid back in the sixties. It was called West Washington Boulevard and I went to Westminster Elementary School, which originally was the Martha Washington School established in 1905, located at 1010 W. Washington. I remember we had to practice writing it in the 2nd or 3rd grade. One thousand and ten, an unfathomable number.
Now maneuvering through these avenues, I’m amazed at the shiny windows and the brightly painted beach houses: little wood houses in colors like purple and yellow with contrasting trim. It’s all so cheerful and hopeful and I feel a combination of elation and sadness (is that what nostalgia is?). Where did my childhood neighborhood go? Where did all those people go?
Like Samantha, who was a few grades ahead of me, she lived in a house here on this back alley with seven other brothers and sisters and her parents. I remember her standing in bare feet on the dusty green porch of a dirty green house with flaking paint. Her parents sent her out to do modeling. She was eleven, lithe, and pretty. Ooh so exotic, I remember feeling when I was eight. I watched her swing one bare foot back and forth while she stood in her checkered cotton dress on the first step. I guess she’ll be okay, I thought. Which shows the extent of what I knew of such matters. If someone wants to take your picture, you’re on your way. No more worries. Why I was worrying at that age has something to do with the times I grew up in, among other circumstances.
There was also beefy, sturdy Amelia who wore her red ringlets in a tight ponytail. She sat behind me in Chorus. The younger boys were scared of her because even though she had the voice of an angel, she had a fist like a lunch box. We had an excellent arts program at Westminster Elementary.
Thanks to (President) Johnson’s Great Society bills, I got music lessons every week as well as chorus practice and the opportunity to perform in all the seasonal events. Chorus practice was in the original auditorium built in 1912 which should have been preserved as an historical site after it was damaged in the 1971 earthquake. But it, along with its beautiful domed ceiling, was subsequently condemned and torn down. It saddens me every time I drive by and see the vacant grassy area, where children can play, sure. But where did our voices go that not only ricocheted around in my head but also off that ceiling that to me imitated the curved sky, and the pale pale green walls of that cavernous and dignified architecture?
I know what happened to Frank with his bad-boy sneer and good looks. He tested in as really, really smart. We were in G.A.T.E (Gifted and Talented Education program) and our teacher was Mrs. Doreen Nelson who is Frank Gehry’s sister and is now noted for creating the City Building Educational Model. We were her pilot program. Many of us were underprivileged, gifted, and needed a lot of stimulation. Mrs. Nelson didn’t know what else to do with Frank, because he didn’t do his homework and didn’t pay attention, so she said he had to give a talk on something he was interested in, in front of the whole class. Frank got up from his desk, walked to the blackboard, took up a piece of chalk and proceeded to draw a car engine while explaining what all the parts were. And then he went on to discuss how you took the engine apart. Frank was grinning, eating up the attention and I remember being impressed with his knowledge, though I didn’t care a damn about the inner workings of a car. It was his self assurance that was riveting. Our teacher stood at the back of the classroom her arms crossed and she was smiling. That was when I was in the fifth grade the year after we walked on the moon and before The Beatles broke up. Last I heard, Frank was in San Quentin.
I never knew where she lived, but Teresa followed me home from school once. She knocked on my front door. “Father McCarthy told me to tell you that I’m sorry for being mean to you.” I guess she had confessed her sins against me. She liked to call me names and run by and hit me in the arm. She liked to mimic me. Sometimes she and her short, mean, little red-haired cousin Marla would corner me at the end of the playground after school and torment me. In exasperation I’d turn around and say, “What do you want?” Then they’d kind of backup and giggle nervously, because they didn’t know. It wasn’t anything they could articulate. But Teresa had something of a love-hate feeling for me because sometimes she tried to be my friend. She knew I loved cats so once she brought me a book from the library, The House of Thirty Cats. I remember I had already read it, a few times. I frequented the old Venice Library—today it’s the Vera Davis McClendon Youth & Family Center– when the library was on California next to the Masonic lodge which is now the Electric Lodge performance venue. An old building now registered as an Historic Place in Los Angeles, I loved its cool musty smell of old books, and similar to our school auditorium, old wood and dampness. But I was scared every single time I walked there from school and when I had to leave its sanctuary to return home where I lived on the outskirts of the Venice-Santa Monica border. The walk home along the boulevard took me past bars on windows, grimy streets, the smell of alcohol, and an occasional tough faced adult or worse, the belligerent scowl of an older kid.
As for The House of Thirty Cats, I hope I had taken the book from Teresa and thanked her for it. But I can’t remember what I did. Sometimes she would walk next to me and take hold of my hand. We must have been ten. When she was nice to me I accepted it but when she hated me I just tried to get away. Once we graduated from Westminster Elementary School I lost track of her. It wasn’t until I was seventeen and attending Venice High (its original name was Venice High Poly Tech whose pristine green lawn had once been graced by a fountain and later displayed the much abused statue of Myrna Loy) that I saw her again. She was fighting another girl in the alley, the other girl’s hair gripped in her fist. She didn’t notice me walk by. That was the last time I saw her and I regret it with all my heart.
Venice was mainly poor white, black, and Hispanic. There were a number of artists scattered throughout living in obscurity. Obscure to me, anyway. Maybe they weren’t obscure to their artist community at the time. Mrs. Nelson did invite Frank Stella and Claus Odenberg and probably her architect brother to our classroom. But I vaguely remember these events and now thirty, forty years later I’m surprised when I learn that some pivotal figure lived in Venice at that time when I was eight or nine or ten.
Venice’s natural environment is more colorful now than it was when it was the Venice I grew up in, a poor beach town, some would say ghetto, some would say slum beach, that attracted Jewish retirees, immigrants from post Second World War Europe and later, participants of that generation that would create a revolution and change our ideas about everything. I have mixed feelings that people who never went to POP pier, who never rode the trams, who never heard the music from the free beach concerts, never saw the poverty—a poverty that was more widespread and if I can say this, more democratic and less offensive than it is now—those who have come from elsewhere and lured by the Disneyland dream, now live in remodeled houses or in the Venice Art Lofts which is a three-story concrete building stacked on the edge of this narrow back alley. Venice was not affluent, but I don’t remember solitary people sleeping on sidewalks either. No doubt they were there, but not in the numbers of today.
My friend’s mother—a single mom and probably on welfare herself– cooked up a big black pot of soup every Friday and took it down to one of the beach umbrellas where you used to be able to sit. And people lined up. She fed them every weekend. Eventually she was covered by the local news and she expanded her project. She was the first activist I ever knew, though I didn’t realize it and wasn’t impressed by it. In my child mind I assessed she was doing her job. I saw nothing radical in her actions, though her neighbors were mean about her under their breaths. And this bewildered me.
I’m trying to remember what was here before the Venice Art Lofts. Was it just an empty lot of sand and weeds? The kind my friends and I used to play in, looking for shiny treasure and colored bits of broken glass, trying to avoid the red ants that camouflaged themselves there. I didn’t realize at the time my friend’s mom was like that shiny treasure.
On the other hand, I don’t remember there being so much green. People didn’t have these tiny lush gardens filled with bougainvillea and rose bushes and that long spiky bamboo, ringed like a lizard’s tail. When I was a kid I was starved for green. I hated the endless white yellow sand of Venice Beach. The dustiness of it. And the strangeness of the sticky salty ocean that sparkled relentlessly on most days. And the tall lonely palm trees. But I liked the fog. Its cool mystery, its slow, smoky shape. And its damp, like the cool breath of some infinitely large and benevolent being which seemed to be promising me something.
There is the ache for the past and this happiness that I have survived it. I feel glad that Venice is being cared for, that its charm has been cultivated, but at the same time I am trying to grasp the essence of this time that has passed, so that I can understand where I come from. I want to hold it firmly, name it with the names of all those people I knew well or casually when I was just a child trying to survive each day. It was a different place and a different time. I watched the sixties explode in a riot of pot and patchouli and unrest before my child eyes. And all I wanted was to get away from it. Things weren’t right. I knew the world was changing but I didn’t know what it was changing to. And I have been shaped by that change.
“You are the ones,” my 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Glatt, told us. With her short red hair and dressed in purple down to her tights she stood in front of our class in all seriousness and counseled us about the direction our lives should take. “You are the ones who will be responsible for making the world better. You are the gifted ones. You must do well.” Imagine. Eight years old, and we were forced to the awareness that we must be responsible not only for ourselves, but for all of mankind.
But now I am in my forties. I have survived fire, several major earthquakes, a few cataclysmic heartbreaks, some serious car accidents, and the good intentions of my parents. I have spent my whole life searching for this promise I feel in the breath of the fog, the lap of the waves, the urgings of my teachers, and in the calmness or fear or curiosity you see in people’s eyes when you really look at them. In my brain I hold these very sharp memories while I have waited for the thing that would catapult me into the change that I was somehow supposed to instigate.
I have slowly become a writer. So perhaps the change has occurred, and much has happened in thirty years, including the election of a black President. Perhaps I have done my part. The wrongs of environmental pollution, and the necessity of civil rights, citizen rights, consumer rights, and women’s rights were so drilled into my young mind that I took for granted these things were part of everyone else’s bedrock philosophy as well. My past and yearning for the future has become the present, and now I must bring the past into the present: Teresa who despite all good efforts still inflicted more and more pain on the world that ultimately failed her, Frank with his genius IQ who could not find a way out of San Quentin, Mrs. Glatt and Mrs. Nelson, who despite their daily good intentions could not save any of us. We have either saved or not saved ourselves. There are others from that time—that Venice of the past. I will bring them out into the light and give them their due. This is what I decide as I drive around the back streets and alleys of this better Venice.
But has it gotten better? Maybe it’s just a caricature of what people from other parts of the country wanted it to be. Somewhere in the mid-seventies it became conscious of itself—self conscious—a culmination being that ridiculous ballerina clown on Main Street, for instance.
I am a native Venetian-Angeleno and I hark back to what my little city looked like—who it really was–before it grew up and began to posture itself for those who wanted it to be some kind of freaky paradise; before I lost my childhood; before I became encumbered with the impossibility of my own expectations, and the world impinged my psyche with its demands and its promises, before I too grew up and changed.
Lisa Marguerite Mora conducts creative writing workshops at the Electric Lodge. She can be contacted her at lisa@barring toneditorial.com and at http://www.barringtoneditorial.com.