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A Good Place to Read

Memories of a Neighborhood--and Childhood--Carved From a Hawthorne Bean Field

January 18, 1998|Michael J. McGrorty | Michael J. McGrorty's last essay for the magazine was about ditching school

In a cool spring day in 1952, my father took a deep breath and signed a VA mortgage on a tract house about to be built in a Hawthorne bean field. His pay as a Northrop mechanic was just under a buck an hour; the monthly house payment would be a staggering $62. The pen shook in his hand as he committed to paying off 11 grand over 30 years.

At that time, the corner of 149th Street and Gerkin Avenue lay beyond the edge of civilization as measured by the streetcar line, which quit a mile to the north. Downtown Los Angeles was 15 miles away, but it may as well have been a million; my mother wept bitter tears in her new home, believing she had moved to the ends of the earth.

Ours was like dozens of other communities that sprang up after the war: new houses, new streets, new schools full of kids whose parents had come out from Back East or Down South or elsewhere to work at Lockheed or Northrop or North American Aviation, fathers who'd seen L.A. on the way to wherever Uncle Sam was sending them, and the wives they had brought along or found here. Rare was the kid in my elementary school whose parents were both native Californians.

Dad was from Philadelphia. After the war, he went home to find that bucking shipyard rivets through an East Coast winter paled in comparison to his memories of Southern California. He got accepted to USC and came to get a degree, flunked French twice but was lucky enough to pass my mother in a Laundromat down the street from her parents' house on Jefferson Avenue. They married on Groundhog Day, 1950. By 1956, they had two kids in the house on Gerkin Avenue, and he had become a high school teacher.

Mom didn't have to cry about the neighborhood very long. Saplings grew to elm trees, lawns filled in the bare front yards. A supermarket opened to compete with the Helms truck. Some neighbors grew closer and the kids broke whatever ice their parents hadn't, all of it combining to make something like a neighborhood from the collection of quarter-acre lots. Season upon season, the collection of events we call living took place there for dozens of families.

By the time I went away to the Navy, every feature of the place, every sound and smell and color, was set into me in a place deeper than memory. It is not so much that I think of that neighborhood, that house, but that, from time to time, it wells up from within to claim me again.


On those nights, I awaken in a bedroom that isn't mine, not the old room whose windows squared moonlight on my bedspread, but another, which will never hear the neighbor girl's clarinet wobble notes through the cool of evening, know the soft ear-crackle of a crystal radio or the snuffle of a dog beneath the bedsprings.

From that other bedroom, I would wait to hear my father return from work in the afternoon, wearing one of his two suits, coat sleeves smudged from the school chalkboard, breath of coffee and cigarettes as he gives me a sandpaper kiss and a See's caramel sucker for a good boy. I will beg him for a nickel; if he hands it over, and if my Stingray's tires aren't flat, I'll ride out for ice cream at Clark Drug on Rosecrans: pistachio nut with ice chips or rocky road like a mud clod rolled in gravel. Half the time I lose the second scoop as I try to steer with one hand.

Dinner is always at 6 in that house, where we share our suppers with Jerry Dunphy's voice. Walter Cronkite is dessert. Curfew comes with the street lights' first flicker; at purple dusk, the older boys will end their games of catch with a last toss behind the back, as if to say by that, now home.

They will sit, eyes widened, in the shadows of their porches to await the silly jingle that begins the Dodger game. Back in my bedroom, I will open a schoolbook to a page with a picture and let Vin Scully teach me baseball until sleep ends the lesson. Sometime after midnight, my mother will come in from work to unwind me from my radio headphones and the tangle of blankets.

Morning enters my bedroom with the sound of my father stirring coffee, always clinking the spoon three times on the rim of his cup. In the green-tiled chill of our only bathroom, I brush my front teeth, comb the front half of my hair and tuck in the front of my shirt. Generally, Mother captures me for a make-over. After a breakfast of the sports page and Shredded Wheat, I begin the half-mile trudge to Kit Carson Elementary School.


I am in second grade, and have been forever. The part of school I enjoy most is peeling the bark from the sycamore trees along Compton Boulevard on the way to and from, unless it is raining, when I can walk in the gutter, sloshing water over the tops of my galoshes. The rest is a featureless plain of tedium.

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