I remember few things about the year I turned 16. I was new to L.A. and to Grant High, and my stepfather was new to my mother, my sister and me. He‘d rented a small stucco house in the flats of Sherman Oaks, next door to a woman who worked as a secretary at Warner Bros., and across the street from a man who sometimes played an Indian or a heavy on TV. The man up at the corner, in the house behind a tall fence, was said to be a regular on a soap opera, but I never saw him — on the street or on television. And I watched a lot of television that year, mainly The Steve Allen Show. Every afternoon, I’d come home, shut the door to my room, and turn on the big old RCA black-and-white I‘d inherited in the divorce; and laugh a little — sometimes a lot — at the antics of Steve and Tom Poston and especially Louie Nye. Of course I hated Jayne Meadows, but what could you do? She was Steve’s wife.
It was that sort of year: internalized, pathetic. Not even Frick, the dog that came with the house (and which once had a partner named Frack), helped — the stupid mutt. Only specific forays outside my insipid little world entered the realm of the memorable: beach trips with the college girls next door, and visits to L.A.‘s other great public space, its only great public square, Farmers Market. Once or twice a month on a Saturday morning, we’d get into my stepfather‘s old Falcon station wagon and slowly, methodically — come on! come on! my sister’s eyes would say across the back seat — wind our way up to Mulholland, over to Cahuenga, and down the hill to the Market. We‘d eat French toast at Charlie’s, surrounded by strangers. At school, asea in unknown faces, I felt only alone, but at the Market, this was somehow okay, even preferred: In its atmosphere of casual warmth you could be anybody or nobody, and in some sense you were both. As a space, it was nonjudgmental; cacophony — of individuals and pairs, families and groups — was its point.
So it was no great surprise that, a decade later, having left L.A. after that year in the Valley and then come back for college, I moved into an apartment on Fairfax south of Third and spent my odd hours at the Market, reading or writing over chocolate cake doughnuts and coffee. And when my wife and I moved into an apartment north of Melrose, I walked to the Market every morning, down Martel and Gardner and Genesee, through CBS Television City and past the Gilmore Adobe, to a table sometimes at the west end, sometimes the east, sometimes in the middle. Like all of the regulars and semi-regulars, I never took the Market for granted, exactly, but I did just accept it, rather than fetishize it as the tourists did. It was simply there, and like L.A. itself, it had a way of working on you, insinuating itself on you. Before you knew it, you were practically living there.
And you could, almost. What everyone has always appreciated about Farmers Market is its old-fashioned, small-town — okay, smaller town — feel in the heart of relative urbanity. And it is a small town, practically, albeit one without a hardware store and one with extremely nice-looking produce. Over the years I bought provisions there: papers and magazines at the newsstand, tea from the tea and coffee merchant, peanut butter from Magee‘s, seedless rye bread from the bakery, rhubarb pies from Du-par’s, dog and cat food from the pet shop, drugs from the pharmacy, Christmas roast from Marconda‘s and bacon from Huntington Meats and sausages from the sausage guys. I got my shoes repaired at the west end and, whenever I was feeling both lazy and generous, got them shined at the east end. And for years, I had my hair cut by old, dyed-hair George, in full view of anyone who wandered past his big window opposite the newsstand. I even bought a ’67 Plymouth in the parking lot.
But the Market is that great American rarity — commerce in support of leisure — and I spent a36 most of my time there simply hanging out. When family came to visit, Sunday brunch was expected. When we moved further away and had kids, we met other friends with kids there, and spent more time in the pet store than before. As time passed and cholesterol levels rose, Bob‘s doughnuts turned to Gumbo Pot beignets to Kokomo multigrain hotcakes to Du-par’s oatmeal. And as we aged, we watched others age around us, like the family who runs Charlie‘s: Those kids in their teens and 20s yelling out names are now in their 40s, still yelling, if a little less gracefully. I don’t like the lines on their faces any more than I like the ones on mine, but in a city obsessed with erasure and a culture fueled by replacement, this is health-consciousness. And there‘s that other thing, too: I can think of at least three people, now dead, who I saw at the Market for the last time. Real life, small town.
One of those people was the photographer Garry Winogrand, who was at the Belgian waffle place when I reminded him of our meeting a few weeks prior. ”Yeah,“ he said in his Bronx accent, ”you were lookin’ familiar.“ That‘s what the Market is all about to me. Lookin’ familiar.
Some of the familiar are extraordinary, like the ethereal Lava Lady or the Tattooed Cake-Decorating Man or June the Squeaky-Voiced Waffle ‘n’ Bobby Pin Lady (said to be the model for Lily Tomlin‘s character Ernestine, the telephone operator). But mostly the regulars are regular: Last week, I spoke for the first time to a guy who has been at the waffle, now crepe, place at the Market every time I have ever been there, I think. His name is Paul, and he was with his friend Richard, who was also looking familiar to me. How did they meet? ”We bummed so many cigarettes off each other over the years, one day we just started talking,“ says Richard. ”And we figured out we had kids the same age, in Little League.“ And so it goes.
”Everything just gets worse,“ Paul Bowles said, and I tend to agree. Change happens, and most of it sucks. But some of it doesn’t. In recent years, the Market replaced its old metal silverware with plastic (sucks), but brought in alcohol and music (doesn‘t). The arrival of Starbucks forced out the Belgian waffle and coffee people, which sucks, but Starbucks’ coffee doesn‘t. Johnny Rockets also sucks if you ask me, but then, how different is it from Du-par’s, which doesn‘t suck? Sur La Table and its elitist cooking utensils? Please. But then, I happen to like Sur La Table and its elitist cooking utensils, and don’t always want to drive to Pasadena. The Grove? It‘s a nightmare, of course. A travesty. A cultural embarrassment. On the other hand, I have a young daughter who, when asked to write an essay on a place where she feels at peace, wrote of an imaginary world called ”Girls’ Shopping Paradise.“ She and her brother always want to go to the mall. I hate going to the mall; I always want to go to the Market. You see what I‘m thinking here? One adapts.
And in any case, as with Jayne Meadows, what are you going to do? The fucking mall comes with the place now.