By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
California was no golden statefor the Mikulans when we moved here in 1958. We weren’t too bad off — just another family trying to dig itself out of a hole. Life had its routines: We ate spaghetti on Thanksgiving, my mother washed the laundry in our bathtub, and my father pawned his watch before every payday to buy gas. Kids in our neighborhood went to school with ketchup sandwiches, and their parents didn’t talk about reinventing themselves. What I remember of this California were cold linoleum floors, the smell of leaking gas and my parents’ complaints that the Salvation Army’s furniture was too expensive to buy. I loved every minute of it — we were like the woodcutter’s family living in the middle of a Grimm fairy tale.
Twenty years later, I moved to L.A. from San Francisco. I expected a city of pampered phonies who conversed in euphemisms and non sequiturs, but found the same kind of hard, moneyless California I’d grown up in. People here fished for their dinners from the Santa Monica Pier and, just across Ocean Boulevard, men rolled across the Wind and Sea’s bar when they brawled — just like the movies. And there was that great leveler of class and race, Dodger Stadium, which filled with people from every neighborhood and suburb, piling everyone into the same existential boat for three hours.
That was then. Today, Dodger Stadium’s breezeways less resemble Ellis Island than a shopping mall — one that charges $10 for parking. Immigrants still fish off Santa Monica Pier, but the Wind and Sea’s long gone, replaced by a tropical “lounge” that advertises “lush, comfortable atmosphere . . . [and] an innovative ‘Island Tapas’ menu offering smaller-sized epicurean delights designed for patrons looking for lighter fare and perfect sharing.”
The lush comfortable life, with its epicurean delights, was what I had dreaded finding in L.A. in 1979. Now it’s everywhere. I’m not one to revel in the Bukowskian grime of any city’s past, but L.A. has, hideously, become the politest, most politically “sensitive” and money-oriented communitas in the state. The people I first met in L.A. were noteworthy for their simplicity, candor and thrift. Today’s Angeleno can be identified by the impulse toward dissembling, exclusivity and $750 Kristal-bottle service.
Just look to the proliferation of “VIP” lounges at clubs and in supposedly populist venues. (Hello, Sunset Junction!) Nevertheless, it’s in the city’s vanishing public spaces that you still come across traces of hardboiled California.
Take Hollywood Park, 240 acres of gambling — I mean, gaming — paradise, located in the heart of Inglewood; its soothing landscape with its duck ponds and emerald-green infield may be plowed over for condos and chain stores in a few years. (Pay a visit soon, preferably during track season, which resumes November 1.)
Hollywood Park is everything squeaky clean, smoke-free Dodger Stadium is not. Parking is free, as are the highly informative programs with their no-nonsense judgments of men and horses. General admission is a light $7, and not only is smoking permitted in wide areas but cigarettes are freely sold at the track’s refreshment stands and bars. Yes, bars — where real beer (not Chavez Ravine’s $8 cups of watery suds) can be had for $5.50 to $6.50 a pint, along with cocktails.
More interesting than the races are the people standing at the monitors, transfixed by other races in other cities, studying the Daily Racing Form at rows of study hall tables or just getting tanked on Bass ale at the Whittingham’s Pub & Deli. The conversations could be written by David Mamet.
Man: John was a good guy. He lost his finger! He lost it and became a seaman. But he had the finger put in a vial around his neck. He became a seaman and got thrown in jail in Venezuela. That’s how he got out — he said, “You can keep my finger if you let me out.” He gave them the finger, and they let him out.
Friend: He was Airborne.
Man: Yes, he was Airborne. 82nd. You know, my grandfather had a butcher shop on Pico Boulevard.
Friend: Right. Who was that stocky butcher — Kilpatrick! It was in the late ‘40s, early ‘50s. Drove a ’49 Cadillac.
Man: We used to have duck on Thanksgiving. He loved duck hunting.
Like America itself, L.A. in the late 1970s was still run on nearly every level by men who, like the two guys talking at the track, had grown up during the Great Depression and fought in World War II. Besides dominating the county’s city halls and police departments, they owned garages, junkyards and bars, and presided over them with a bitterness mellowed, somewhat, by a keep-the-pack generosity. L.A. also still had plenty of people who punched timecards living right in the middle of town or even on the Westside. Today, though, that hardboiled animus has all but disappeared, and those time-card punchers are practically being pushed into Nevada by greedy landlords and real estate speculators. Little by little, the coveted hills and landscaped flats are being taken over by hyena-faced men and women who believe they are entitled to everything from residents-only parking to the removal of services and centers that attract people who could not possibly afford to be their neighbors.
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