California was no golden state for 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.
One of the most iconic of these lowly centers is the Greyhound Bus terminal. When I was a kid, Greyhounds provided a route out of the dozy suburbs to political rallies, bookstores and art-house movies. Once, years later, I’d gotten cut loose from the county jail in Indio with hardly any money and the sun setting fast. I tried hitching but got nowhere. So I wandered back to town and spent most of my cash on a Greyhound ticket to L.A. It turned out there were a couple of other guys from my cell already on the bus, and we silently smiled at one another as the bus rolled across the desert, Indio falling back on the horizon far behind us.
The station I arrived at in downtown L.A. was in the midst of a bustling neighborhood, although Skid Row was just a drink away. L.A.’s main Greyhound terminal has since moved to Seventh Street near Alameda. It bears the signs of low-rent undesirability: The attendant shack at its parking lot is abandoned, “Free” has been written over a sign that once listed parking rates, and the moment you pop the hood of your car, some helpful soul will come over to help you out.
One morning two men in the outdoor bench area are talking — one wearing a blanket, the other a beat-up sports coat that’s too small for him. Sports Coat asks me if I have a pen, but when I reach for one, it breaks apart in my hand. All I can give him is the plastic straw filled with ink and tipped with a ballpoint.
“Thank you, sir, thank you,” says Sports Coat. “I just want to write down a poem for my friend.”
When he’s done scribbling, he hands back the pieces of pen.
“Keep it,” I say. I don’t ask him if he’s coming to L.A. or leaving, but I hope he stays.
Hollywood Park 1050 S. Prairie Ave., Inglewood, ?(310) 419-1500 or (800) 465-9113 (racing office)
Greyhound Bus 1716 E. Seventh St., downtown, ?(213) 629-8401