It’s 7 a.m. Sunday morningand, like every other morning for the past 30 years, Sol Shankman is heading out onto the trails of Griffith Park. Today he begins at Boy Scout Drive and Vermont Avenue, the only trail on the east side of the observatory not closed by the recent fire. Sol’s best friend, Anneliese, joins him, as she often does, and they begin the slow, deliberate climb up to the observatory. What’s different about today’s hike is that they’re starting 45 minutes late, and when they arrive at the top, they’ll be greeted by City Councilman Tom LaBonge and a group of friends and family there to celebrate Sol’s birthday. He’s turning 92.
If his legs no longer move as quickly as they once did, his conversation is lively and his mind is acutely active — LaBonge will later say that Sol holds a “Ph.D. in thinkology.” He occasionally stops to rest and to make a point, often in the dirt with the tip of his cane.
We see no one on the way up, save for a few gray squirrels and goldfinches, but just below the observatory, the trail merges with the much more traveled route from Fern Dell, where Sol is greeted by a number of hikers, some simply calling “Happy Birthday!” as they pass by. He’s overtaken by a few friends, including a couple of Los Feliz’s better-known denizens, the pediatrician Paul Fleiss and the comic-book writer George DiCaprio. “Why are you coming up here so early on a Sunday morning?” jokes Fleiss.
Anneliese pushes on ahead and shares Sol’s secrets to a good, long life: “First of all, acceptance. No regrets — you don’t go back over everything. Occupy your mind and your body. And if you can, stay in love.” It is, she adds, something you understand with age.
At the observatory, a crowd is gathering. Dora and Mama from Yuca’s Hut are there. So are the leaders of a Korean hiking group, who present Sol with a bouquet of flowers, and take a lot of pictures. By the time LaBonge arrives, in a “Los Angeles” hoody and athletic shorts, there are more than 100 birthday guests. The councilman leads Sol up onto the steps and announces “Soloman Shankman Day in Los Angeles,” in a speaking style best described as exuberant. (In another life, LaBonge must surely have been a cheerleader.) “Sol has hiked a total of 31,000 miles in Griffith Park!” he cries, and the crowd cheers.
City Council President Eric Garcetti shows up, mysteriously claiming that he just happened to be out hiking. The entire group moves onto the steps, surrounding Sol, who speaks softly and emotionally. “Not much gets to me, but .?.?. thank you .?.?. I really .?.?. appreciate it.”
After a very large chocolate cake bearing a frosty photo of the observatory is partially consumed, a few friends and family members head to Sol’s home below the park. Sol declines all offers of a ride, and heads off down the observatory road at a surprisingly quick pace. At one point he admonishes his three companions for going too slowly. People are waiting.
At the bottom of the hill, Sol pauses to reflect on the morning’s event. He was surprised, he says, by the number of people who came. “It showed a real sense of community. And I work hard at that, because it’s a part of me.” He explains that as a Jewish boy growing up in a gentile neighborhood of Toronto in the ’20s, that meant “I had a lack of community from the age of 8 to 18. It was a void I’ve worked hard to fill.”
A convertible pulls up, a couple and their two teenagers inside. “Happy Birthday, Sol!” they yell as they pass. “WE LOVE YOU!!!”
The old man continues down the hill. People are waiting.
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