By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Like Eli Burns. Back at Sunset Hall after the rally, big Eli sits on a couch in the lobby, his walker propped in front of him. He has streaks of silver hair, and he speaks in a high-pitched Brooklyn dialect.
“How long have you been here?” I ask.
“I been here about two years.”
“You like it?”
“Yeah, I like it.”
“What was your work?”
“I was a mechanical engineer . . . I helped with the landing gear of the first planes that ever went up . . . When my wife died, this seemed like a convenient place to live.”
“What do you most look forward to?”
“I watch TV mostly.”
“Were you ever political?”
“Yeah, I was political — well, I think I was a communist.”
“Did you go to meetings and rallies?”
“No, I didn’t go to meetings — just in sympathy.”
“Are you still communist?”
“I think so, yeah.”
“What about President Bush?” I continue.
Eli shrugs: “He isn’t much of a president.”
“Who’s your hero?”
“Do you ever go with the women to demonstrations?”
“Demonstrations? I don’t go.”
“I can’t walk that well.”
Sunset Hall is a two-story apartment building with a community library, dining hall, kitchen, and 36 fairly breezy rooms, including two-bedroom apartments, suites and guest rooms, all wrapped around a central brick courtyard with a stone fishpond.
In the library, located on the second floor directly above the reception area, are hardback tomes about Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr. intermingled with Shakespeare’s plays and Tolstoy’s novels. The retirement home’s leftist ä credentials have remained largely intact over the decades because of its links to the progressive and largely secular Unitarian Church; however, there are no ideological restrictions to being a resident of Sunset Hall. A story circulates about the subtle means of maintaining a core of what the mission statement calls “like-minded elders.” Because of its mostly Jewish constituents, Sunset Hall has an abundance of rye bread. The joke has it that one conservative Republican resident left of her own accord due to the shortage of white bread.
Until six months ago, the library prominently displayed a framed and autographed photo of the great African-American basso profundo and friend of the Soviets, Paul Robeson, next to a ceramic bust of Lenin. Curiously, some might say scandalously, Lenin has disappeared. Residents have searched every cupboard and drawer, and he’s nowhere to be found.Big Eli
The question of what happened to Lenin has a metaphoric resonance not lost on this crew, and there’s a prevailing conspiracy theory that he was removed by a board member in order to protect the institution from the perception of being too extreme for visitors considering residing there.
Activities director Priscilla Yablon points out that there is no bingo at Sunset Hall, for that would be regarded as an activity far too frivolous for people still occupied with the unfinished business of saving the world. You will never see sports or soap operas on the television in the common living room. It broadcasts only news programs.
Yablon oversees a calendar that includes Sunday-morning sojourns to the local Unitarian church; a monthly visit by folk singer Roger Nolan, who, slashing at his acoustic guitar, croons a hearty recital of Celtic, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger standards; monthly field trips to places like LACMA, the Fairfax district’s Farmers Market and the Hollywood Bowl; calisthenics four mornings a week; Wednesday morning tai chi sessions in the courtyard (most exercise while sitting); biweekly shopping outings; and a weekly visit from USC graduate gerontology students, who lead a group discussion called “Free Thinkers” — renamed “Free Stinkers” by one cantankerous resident.
During a recent “Free Thinkers” session, two female students plunge headfirst into a generation gap. Rather than discuss current events, they suggest treating the forum as a therapy session. First, the students ask each of the participants to talk about their personal memories of anti-Semitism, or other forms of exclusion.
The proposal is met with stony silence. Irja fingers the L.A. Timescity pages she’d been boning up on, anticipating a lively discussion of the news of the day. The women want debate, not therapy. Finally, wavy-, silver-haired Pauline Manpearl takes the floor.
“I was with the Communist Youth League!” Pauline boasts. The others shift impatiently in their seats. They’ve heard this one before. It is a stock speech that Pauline repeats verbatim at almost every gathering: “At one of our meetings, this fellow came to heckle us, so we said, we’ll listen to you, then you listen to us. So we heard him out, then he heard us out. After only half an hour, he said we were right.”
Luba Perlin, a former dancer and student of choreographer Lester Horton, starts whistling, as is her habit, and is swiftly hushed. Luba’s whistling is a perennial issue for fellow residents, who once tried to get her to sign a written pledge that she would stop whistling in the dining hall. In the tradition of civil disobedience, Luba sat defiantly with her arms crossed and refused to sign.
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