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Drive Time

Trading Idyllic Roads of Past for Urban Opportunity

August 23, 2000|MARY MCNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

My son said "Chinatown" for the first time this morning, and I was floored. At two and a quarter, Danny Mac has begun narrating our daily journey to and from our downtown day care, but his main interests have been vehicular--trains, buses, other beep-beeps, er, cars. Dutifully, I have pointed out civic landmarks, but I had no idea he was actually listening.

But that isn't what hit me so much as the thing itself. Chinatown. It suddenly occurred to me that Los Angeles was my children's hometown. That the streets of their early memories, unless something unforeseen occurs, will be city streets.

This, more than anything, is what will make their lives different from mine.

*

I did most of my growing up outside a small town in Maryland, and the streets I knew weren't even streets, they were roads. My family's house sat on one tip of Lee's Corner, a triangular patch of woods bounded by Leister's Church, Coon Club and Gorsuch roads. The fields that surrounded us, alternately corn and wheat and alfalfa, belonged to the Leister family, which lived within walking distance of the church, just up the road. Likewise, the Coon Club, a hunting organization, still gathered occasionally in a red-shingled clubhouse a few miles away. The familial roots of Gorsuch I do not know.

These three roads defined our lives. One took us to the market, one to church and school, another to the big city, Baltimore, by way of neighboring towns even smaller than our own. All of these journeys required a car, and all of them took 20 minutes or more, even if we didn't get stuck behind a combine or tractor, which we often did.

My brother and I knew these roads, or at least the portions upon which we traveled, by heart, every dip and curve and railroad crossing. There were houses here and there, mostly farmhouses, although lines of standardized ranchers and Cape Cods were beginning to appear before I left to go to college. There were other landmarks: the shuttered and locked Homemaker's Club, a small trailer park, a couple of junkyards. But mostly the roads cut through the country, through fields that ran up and over hills until they hit the horizon or the tree line, through woods carpeted by the rot of last year's leaves and wild blueberry bushes.

Leister's Church Road was the newest, a buff cement slab, mended every few feet, it seemed, with ridges of black tar. Gorsuch and Coon Club were chip and tar, both worn smooth as ribbon, glimmering blue-gray at twilight. In the summer, the air above, distorted by heat, seemed to shake with the constant rattle of cicadas and the creak of ripening corn.

When I was young, there was little traffic on any of them, save neighbors and farmers. In the winter, kids would sled down the middle of whatever road had the most promising ride--one of us would stand lookout at the top of the hill, but whoever was driving would, in all likelihood, already know we were there.

During our playtime, we walked these roads, learned their landmarks: the ditch where violets bloomed first each spring, the line of day lilies that hid a small, century-old family graveyard, the hillock that covered a most promising forgotten dump. We knew the spot where you could hear the wind roar like an angry giant through a small copse of fir trees, a culvert in which you could crouch and listen to the cars driving right over your head.

When it rained, the first drops hitting the roads released a scent of wet rock and oil that made my mouth water.

I see these roads in my mind's eye, and they are beautiful, idyllic, like a Bierstadt painting. Yet I remember walking them as a teenager, slow with the dreadful conviction that the silent fields, the sheltering trees, were boundaries, borders that I would never cross.

*

I think of all this as we drive down Broadway, cross over the freeway, turn onto Spring. My children are city children--their streets change with shifts in the economy, in immigration, not the seasons. Their world may not have the sylvan beauty that mine had, but it brims with a gorgeousness of its own-- people of all kinds, and an energy that makes boundaries all but impossible to maintain.

I am from a small town that was mostly white, mostly Christian--our signs were all in English, parking was never a problem, and more than half of my graduating class did not go to college. It took me years to truly understand that the rest of the world was not like that. I was 20 before I knew what Chinatown was.

Danny Mac is 2, and he's known it all his life.

*

Mary McNamara can be reached by e-mail at mary.mcnamara@latimes.com.

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