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Exile on 2nd Street

For an Angeleno Steeped in Alienation, a Move to Belmont Shore Was a Trip Into the Suburban Past. Could the Land of Elks Lodges and Family Fun Ever Be Home?

June 14, 1998|ALAN RIFKIN | Alan Rifkin is a resident of Belmont Heights

In Belmont Shore, suburb of Long Beach, there are plenty of things to confuse the Angeleno mind, one of which occurred to me at the annual Christmas parade when I stared at a Miss Teen Long Beach contestant and she wrinkled her nose and yelled back, "Hi, Alan!" (An interactive parade video? No, it's Anna, the daughter of a friend.)

To live here, in other words, is to swim in the neighborhood fishbowl, although I haven't gotten used to that yet. I had the same resistance back in high school in the San Fernando Valley, which is not bad self-analysis.

So I spent my young adulthood in L.A. and Hollywood, where alienation is such a given it's communal. Then, in an emotional third act (marriage, fatherhood and divorce), I reentered that other, shadow California. And it seemed to me the whole suburban past was waiting: Elks Lodges, fox trots and diamond rings, entire families playing street hockey, all my former shop teachers at work in their garages.

We count on some Midwestern soul in greater Long Beach ("formed," in Jim Murray's words, "by a slow leak in Des Moines"), but not so automatically in the Shore, a beach-scene neighborhood, a place where you'd expect Bohemia to have juggled a flaming torch or two in the course of half a century. The stability I first distrusted, then tried re-birthing to, a la the Mamas and the Papas thawing to the smiles of Laurel Canyon ("To say Good Morning and really mean it!/To feel these changes happenin' in me . . ."). Could you sing the Mamas and the Papas in Long Beach? I kept imagining myself in the spell of a parallel universe, a bootlegger's L.A.--the one with Spanish duplexes, say, but no hills. The one with sandy beaches, but no waves. Where in L.A. Carol Burnett lives, I forget, but I nod sensibly at learning (again and again) that the honored resident of the Belmont Shore canal front, Naples, is her comedic afterimage, Vicki Lawrence.

There are legions of jocks--party-hollering women who could carry you from a burning building, rowing teams of men with heads clippered as smooth as the hides of seals, country and western hard-bodies who aren't embarrassed, at age 18 or 25 or 35, to tan on a wedge of the Alamitos Bay shore known as "Horny Corner." And there's 2nd Street, the micro-managed promenade of cantinas and boutiques, a firehouse and a library ("Norman Rockwell Meets Single Scene," ran a Times real estate section headline in 1990), where every friend from L.A. wears a serene half-smirk the first time strolling through.

These days, the neighborhood has even gone stylish, not that you care, in a chain-store way, with a Jamba Juice and two Starbucks opening in the space of two years. An Aaron Spelling-style vixen in a Mercedes M-Class, sighing to the silent Mexican attendant, "We Americans are muy loco, s 3/8?" Mobs of MTV beatniks from Bellflower with soul patches and blond weaves. L.A. is reduced to its costumes, or just unpondered altogether by Long Beach's true bloods: our '50s-issue patriots, our Cheeveresque merchants, hoisting cocktails out at the bay at 5 o'clock, all reveling in a property settlement so amicable--L.A. gets the superiority, Long Beach the deaf ears--as to suggest practically unrelated experiments in the California dream. The lines in this divorce are clearly marked and have held up for ages. Only one person in a million ever sets up housekeeping in the other guy's paradise, then hangs around six years trying to get a clue.

*

A lunch, circa 1994. "Hey, that sure beats taking notes, I guess, doesn't it?" says Dave Camp, 72, when I switch on my recorder. His elbows are on the table, hands around a cup of coffee he'd rather were scotch with a cigarette poking from the side. Outside, sports bars and health food coexist. Sun strains through noon mist, plastic spoons stir cups of frozen yogurt and men in crisp golf shirts fold back pages of the Long Beach Grunion Gazette, which publishes Camp's historical reminiscences.

There I've read about Bill Crawford, who founded Belmont Savings and made a dozen men millionaires. I've read that Crawford and George Deukmejian arrived the same month in identical 1951 Chevys and stayed, the future governor to climb the ranks of the Belmont Shore Business Assn. A merchandiser, Camp sold Deukmejian his inaugural white shirt--special order from Arrow, a pigeon-chested size 16.

But the defining Belmont Shore memory for Camp came in 1968, when he outfitted the new Long Beach Yacht Club. Twice a month that summer he'd driven back from the California Mart with his back seat full of blue blazers, reaching the picturesque Long Beach shore, barely half an hour from downtown L.A., and he'd wonder, every time, "How come this place never grew?"

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