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A Childhood Tale From the City of Second Chances

August 18, 1996|Kate Braverman | Kate Braverman's last piece for the magazine was another episode in her continuing adventure of relocating to rural western New York state after a lifetime in Los Angeles. She is the author of a trilogy of novels about Los Angeles, numerous short stories, essays and poems. She has won two Best American Short Story awards and the O. Henry

It's been more than a year since I left the city of my birth and I want to tell you how I remember my hometown. I was raised in Los Angeles, married and divorced more than once there. I buried a father and gave birth to a daughter. In between, in Venice and Silver Lake, Westwood, West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, I wrote 11 books. I stood on decades of late-afternoon balconies, watching the sun set in an orange so aggressively metallic, so chiseled with brutal glare, I thought it might scar my face.

But memory is not static. It's in flux, it mutates through time and accumulation. There's a give, the way the cliffs above the Pacific Coast Highway shed themselves in the rainy season. We are always left with too few artifacts. Proof is illusive. Then the sea breeze rolls in, the Santa Anas blow, there is salt and citrus like bullets in the air. And it's possible that personal history always becomes a sort of fiction.

The Los Angeles of my re-created childhood was a region I walked through, knew with intimacy: bougainvillea-draped shortcut alleys, how to zigzag between stucco and hibiscus to the beach. In my world, the blue bus line of Pico Boulevard was the vein. My boundaries were the airport to the south, as far as I could walk north on Santa Monica Beach and the La Brea Tar Pits and Farmers Market to the east. There were rumors of tattooed sailors in a port called San Pedro that I envisioned as being more exotic than Hong Kong, with rummed men with dragons inked on their arms and ships with all the flags I had ever learned in sixth-grade geography. It was said there were movie stars in a place called Malibu. And people who spoke another language, came clandestinely from Mexico, and lived by a river on the other side of downtown. All this seemed improbable. In any event, it was farther than I could walk or dare imagine. My measurements were human in dimension.

My family lived on Sepulveda Boulevard, in a series of stucco bungalow apartments built in the '50s to accommodate World War II soldiers who vowed to return with their young wives to the land of orange groves by the ocean, and did. It was the architecture of pragmatism, conformity and greed masquerading as necessity in the new American pseudo-tropical fashion. The illusion of the tropics. This was the blueprint for the new slums in the sun.

The design was minimal in all the wrong ways. Even the foliage was uniform and boring, rubber trees and oleander, green at the periphery and an absence of startling color. It was the tropics subdued, easy to mow, without fragrance or intoxication: the virtual tropics. The conceptual latitudes. It was a mean, hardscrabble piece of desert with an Okie twang, and to call it the tropics was a collective hallucination. By 1960, it was already shabby, though no one seemed to protest.

There is something about the implications in the minimalist architecture and landscaping that occurs to me now. It was as if the dwellings were deliberately designed for transience. Apartments without dining rooms, as if anticipating a world where families disintegrated and everyone ate alone, in front of the television. Apartments lacking insulation but possessing the obligatory balcony with a dried-out soiled pink geranium. The flowerpot like a burnt prop that spoke of some fundamental violation. There was always smog and the residues of a human misery we didn't possess a vocabulary for. Our apartments and tract houses seemed devised for people who would be spending their lives standing in lines, being identified by number, rather than name. We were proto-welfare state, Sun Belt style.

The apartments where I grew up were so similar as to be almost identical. They faced a burlap brown bean field where tractors one day appeared. They claimed they were building a freeway to San Diego but who could take such an idea seriously? San Diego was farther than I could ever walk, farther even than the blue bus line. It might as well have been Paris or Singapore. It had nothing to do with my life, which was linear, straight as Sepulveda or Santa Monica or Pico boulevards, curving down to the bleached blue pocket of ocean. My childhood was summers of walking to the beach, finding glass soda bottles that could be redeemed for two or three cents each. We found them under the Santa Monica Pier. We found them in gutters and alleys beneath fronds and jacaranda petals fallen on cement, curled like so many severed purple ears, slowly fermenting. An armful of glass was bus fare and ice cream.

I later called myself a latchkey child of the already decaying streets of a Los Angeles that from inception harbored secret slums. It has always been a city of subtle psychological apartheid, us and them. A city of what could not be spoken. A city of we who actually lived here and the others, the ones of rumor, the ones who might come here if lured.

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