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A Wary Walk in the Park Where Muggers Lurk

June 28, 1993|JACK SMITH

Sycamore Grove is a small park at the foot of our hill. It is named for its growth of large, old sycamore trees. Eucalyptus and oaks are also abundant. It has a carpet of thick grass. It is circled by an uneven asphalt walk.

It was the site for many years of state picnics. Hundreds of out-of-staters met in its shade to eat barbecued beef and talk of home. My wife and I have driven by it hundreds of times. When we were younger, we played tennis on its courts. But in recent years we had hardly noticed the park.

Finally, looking for a place to take a daily rehabilitative walk, we drove down to look it over. It hadn't changed much. There was a volleyball court, two tennis courts, restrooms, the usual park trappings.

We drove down in the late afternoon, when the day was beginning to cool and the park's people were beginning to come out. They came in every kind of vehicle. Pickups, vans, sedans, bicycles--mostly older models. Pickups disgorged whole families. Some men sat alone at the curb, drinking beer.

The sidewalk along Figueroa Street looked like a good place to walk. It ran about a quarter of a mile. We decided to walk it one way and back, rather than circling the park. For months I had been going to the Pasadena Athletic Club three mornings a week, doing a light workout on the bicycle and walking half a mile on the track. That would be too strenuous for me now.

We told a friend of our plan. He said, "Be careful. That park can be dangerous." Indeed, I had read in the local newspaper of several robberies and muggings in Highland Park. It was no longer the peaceful small town it had been when I lived here as a boy.

It was also multicultural now. Most of the population were Latinos. Koreans owned the liquor stores and other small businesses. Occasionally there was a shooting on the street. Graffiti abounded.

"You'd better not take your purse," I told my wife, thinking it would be an open invitation to a purse snatcher. The first time we went, she left her purse and I left my billfold at home. That made it awkward when we wanted to stop at the market for tonic water after the walk. I have become addicted to a single vodka tonic before dinner. Somehow, evidently a result of my ordeal, I have lost my taste for wine. Vodka hits the spot. As Herb Caen says, it's vitamin V.

Several entrepreneurs were parked along the street. One of them offered mangoes for sale, another watermelons. Now and then a boy walked by with a pushcart of ice cream. I wondered how they could make a living with such meager sales as the park must afford. They all seemed cheerful. They smiled. They said hello.

We soon got into the spirit. We said hello to everybody. Numerous small children swarmed around us on bicycles. Pregnant women walked the paths. A pickup volleyball game was going on. There were at least five soccer games. Teen-age boys were playing hockey on the tennis court. Numerous young people, sparsely dressed, lay stretched out on the grass. An old man threw a ball for his dog to fetch.

We wanted to buy a watermelon from a man who had a load of them in his pickup. But we didn't have any money. The next day my wife brought her purse. It was a bright yellow and the size of a briefcase. "Don't you have a less conspicuous one?" I asked her. "I didn't think," she said. It is her belief that nothing bad can happen to her.

As it turned out, nothing did. Manly joggers passed us by without a flicker of their eyelids. A man who looked like a pirate said, "Have a nice day" as he trotted by.

I prevailed on her the next day not to take her purse. But a crisis developed. It occurred to her as we were driving down the hill that we were out of vodka. That meant I would miss my nightly fix. We were obliged to go home and get her purse after all.

The danger of being held up seemed trivial beside the loss of a comforting vodka tonic. Besides, how can you take part in the park's economy without money? She has been carrying her purse ever since. The only danger we have sensed so far is the danger of being clipped by a kid whizzing past on a bicycle. They love close encounters.

The truth is, we are no more likely to be held up in Sycamore Grove than we are in the parking entrance of the Beverly Wilshire. And one thing you can't do at the Beverly Wilshire: You can't buy fresh watermelons.

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