They blinked their way into the 19th century world, these fin-de-siecle babies--the blessed arrival of now-100-year-old Cliff Holliday of Gardena, for instance, was handled by a midwife on a Canadian grain farm lit by oil lamps.
By year's end, knock on wood veneer, the turn-of-the-century babies will have seen all of the 20th century go by, in Houdini-like defiance of the odds. When they were born, the life expectancy was 45 years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
But on New Year's Day 2000, about 72,000 Americans--centenarians, at age 100 and older--are expected to see three centuries, along with a new millennium. (Strictly speaking, 2001 marks the millennium, but the zeitgeist calls for celebrating early.)
Montebello resident Lupe R. Leyvas, a 100-year-old great-great-grandmother, awaits in triple-century suspension.
"So I can see the young ones grow up," she says in Spanish. "See what kind of future they have." She points a finger to the heavens: "Maybe one or two of them will go to the moon."
At their three-century mark, we asked three local centenarians for a freeze-frame memory of early Southern California, a place with dreams to sell, with blooming orange groves promising la dolce vita. To say how they got here--to the brink of the 21st century--is to tell the bumpy story of our time, the oral history of coming-of-age Southern California:
Freeda Bogad; Born Nov. 12, 1895
She did not mean to break her mother's heart in this new place, America. Not this slip of a girl who came to New York City from a small Austrian farming village at age 13, with her nine brothers and sisters.
On Friday nights, after a week's work in the garment factory, Bogad would trudge up five flights of stairs to the family's one-room apartment and hand over her paycheck to her widowed mother. A dollar fifty. Maybe, Bogad would say, she could have a nickel for a picture show. Her mother would cry and usually say no--the family owed the milkman, the grocer, the pushcart peddler.
In the early 1920s, Bogad got married, and with her husband, boarded a bus to Los Angeles, where they heard you could buy a big home for nothing. Nobody kissed them goodbye, except family, not with the tuberculosis scare.
On the bus, with each clutching a bundle of clothes, the young couple asked the driver where they should go. He said, take a street car and go to Boyle Heights, to Soto Street, that's a real Jewish neighborhood. So they did and rented a room in a house, living for the first week on nothing but cooked beets.
"Los Angeles looked like heaven, heaven on Earth," Bogad says. Her eyes close, and in a wheelchair, her shoulders sigh with the memory. "New York . . . was so crowded. It was so filthy. The streets, they were never washed. And here, they were washing the streets every day. It was something wonderful."
Her husband found work at a fruit stand for $1 a day, and Bogad walked downtown to work at a factory in a big room, with two rows of machines for 100 workers. For $1.50 a week, she sewed cotton blouses in the hot, dusty factory. She sewed as fast as she could, through calluses and blisters on her thin fingers. She would ask the foreman: Can I open a little bit of window? Can we have paper in the bathroom for wiping our hands after we wash? He told her, Oh, you want everything.
But one day, when a man from the union came to talk, she dived under her sewing machine. She did not know what this union was, and she couldn't afford to lose her job.
Better pay, better conditions, organizers told her, and they proved it--her pay shot up to $2 a week. She signed up, for 25 cents in weekly dues, and told other Jewish immigrants to join. And then the bosses tried to make an end run.
They started to hire workers in their homes and pay them by the piece; that was cheaper than workers on salary. The foreman started to tell the factory workers that there was no work.
Bogad was not going to stay home. One night, she hid on the floor of a taxi and told the driver to tail her boss, who was dropping off bright bolts of cloth at people's homes. She burst onto the scene.
"You know we have nothing to eat, and you're taking our work away," she told the piece workers.
The foreman tried to shove her away and tore her coat sleeve. Someone called the police, who took her to jail for disturbing the peace. Union organizers bailed her out for $5. Later, she coaxed the piece workers into joining the union too.
A stranger once wrote to her to thank her for championing workers' rights. We can afford to go out a little now, a woman wrote, and have a little better life.
"I still have the letter, if I could find it," Bogad says, and chokes up.