Mementos 11: California Family
[I’m preparing for mitral valve surgery November 15, 2016. One of the instructions is to bring mementos with me. The best way to do this without hiring a moving truck (Diana’s suggestion) is to put some of what I would bring with me on this blog. I can then access it on my phone. That is my goal here]
In 2000 and 2009 Diana and I traveled to California to rediscover places that I’d been, uncover links to her family in California, and unearth things we would learn about together. Mostly this is a montage of photos of those times and something about what made them important to me.
Both times the plan was pretty broad, and covered some of the same routes, the same territory. The details, however, were different. This diagram, on the front of my photo book of that trip, gives a sense of the scopes of both trips.
Diana’s cousin Ardis Jackson lived in Sausalito and we arranged on the first trip to stay with her, after we arrived in San Francisco. Ardis had early in her life studied with Frank Lloyd Wright in Taliesin (Wisconsin) and insisted that we had to see the Marin Civic Center, which he had designed. We got some insights from her about the building, and about the architect, that we could not have gotten from any docent. And we visited Point Reyes on the coast North of San Francisco with her,
where this picture of her with Diana is taken.
Another mission of mine was to reconnect with Raymond Boyington, my closest friend in high school. We had maintained a correspondence for a while as we went our separate collegiate ways and for a short time after. But we lost touch with each other even, as it turns out, living in the same city for a time (Los Angeles) without knowing it. In the early days of the internet is was possible to find an address and phone number for a friend free of charge — more convenient than, say, going to the public library and combing through volume after volume of telephone directories in the hopes of finding the person one is searching for. And that internet search is how I found out that Ray was living in San Francisco, and we made arrangements to meet and have dinner in his San Francisco apartment. This copy of
Ray’s photo comes from that visit (my only photo of that is underexposed by poor lighting and no flash).
Nine years later Ray had moved with his partner, Jack, from the high rent district to Richmond, having bought something they thought would be affordable. The foreclosure crisis had hit, the economy was on the skids, and, as we drove around San Francisco, Ray pointed to office and residential high rises in the city that were virtually empty because no one could afford them. Now Jack was facing a crisis of his own, as a city employee who had been fired, which had repercussions for them: Keeping their Richmond home was problematic and at the same time the housing environment made it unsaleable.
After leaving San Francisco, Diana and I went South to Santa Cruz, where my friend from undergraduate school at USC now lived. He had gone on to UCLA Medical School, graduated and become a psychiatrist. Our efforts to keep in touch had been much more regular — he and his wife, Jill, had been to visit us in Chicago on an almost annual basis; and while I lived in Los Angeles, I had visited his home in Lomita while he did his residency at Harbor General Hospital. I had also made the trek to Santa Cruz to visit with him, but this was the first time traveling there with Diana. Bill and Jill had planned an intensive couple of days with us, but the centerpiece was the visit to the Steinbeck House and Steinbeck Museum in Salinas. The
very term “Steinbeck Country” evokes memories and emotions that come from the short time I’ve spent in The Valley — not so much the Salinas Valley, but mostly the great San Joaquin, and the places in between. The smells of Cannery Row are gone forever in Monterey, but the ghosts of the smells still haunt the place, make you wonder about the gentry having dinner in the high priced restaurants along the way.
We are also delighted that the Museum had an exhibit of the photos of Tina Modotti, who had been so much a part of the revolutionary artistic ferment of Mexico in the 1920s, joined the Communist Party of Mexico, and who later participated in the the Spanish Civil War. She had come to Mexico with her photographer friend Edward Weston, but soon struck out on her own. (The novel, Tinisima, by Mexican author Elena Poniatowska paints a vivid portrait of her and of the period, and is available in a number of English and Spanish editions.)
From Santa Cruz we headed South through Salinas and through the Los Padres National Forest West of the San Joaquin — mostly oak woodland and chaparral country — to “the 198,” the highway that traverses the Valley from the Los Padres to the foothills of Sequoia National Forest. The 198 leads through Hanford, which at one time had held a large Chinese community, immigrants who had worked building the railroads and were farmers bought property here until the “exclusion acts” recognized that capital no longer needed to exploit their labor. They had found a kind of refuge in Hanford, with a vibrant commercial district called China Alley. What I knew about this place came from a Los Angeles Times article I’d read many years earlier. You know how some piece of trivia sticks in your mind and memory, every once in a while pricking you as if it were a sliver? A high level delegation from the only recently recognized People’s Republic Of China were in California, and one of the places they wanted to go was China Alley in Hanford, where a world class restaurant was reputed to be serving their world class cuisine, perhaps “the legendary Imperial Dynasty Restaurant” mentioned here. We were hoping to get to our campground cabin in General Grant Grove up in Kings Canyon, so as we drove into Hanford it was late afternoon, not quite the dinner hour, and no bustling commercial district greeted us. We had a meal in the one restaurant that was open — there did not seem to be any other place to eat anyway. Like most rainbows, there was no pot of gold at the end of this one. But there was a China Alley, and I know that it was not simply a figment of my imagination that I read about in in the Los Angeles Times.
The next time through the Valley, 2009, our route was different leading to Sequoia, taking us out of the mountains and into Bakersfield, looking for a different cuisine, but with a similar result. When I was in medical school and involved in the Student Health Project, a meeting was called for students in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and the location was half way between in Fresno. I rode up to Fresno with one of the physician mentors of the Project, Don Weston. We left late in the afternoon, as classes ended, and 2 hours later made our way off the highway toward the east side of Bakersfield. Don told us that whenever he traveled through the Valley he’d stop for dinner at one of the Basque hotels in Bakersfield. Bakersfield boasts the second largest number of immigrants in the U.S. from Basque Spain (second to Boise, Idaho). The immigrants came in the second half of the 19th century, after the gold rush, settling in the fertile foothills on the east side of the Valley, where herding was temperate, sheltered from the intense summer heat. They specialized here, as they had in Basque country, in herding sheep for the woolen industry and for food. And so hotels were established in Bakersfield to cater to this group of workers, who would come in for several days (or longer during shearing season), stay at the hotel and eat the boarders’ food provided.
Don introduced us to a sumptuous family style meal, with one course after another rolling out, beginning with cabbage soup, beans, and thin sliced pickled tongue, and leading through a cornucopia entrees and side dishes to dessert. When Diana and I came off the highway of out Sequoia, we found our way to the Basque section of town, only to find it as closed up as Hanford’s Chinatown had been 9 years earlier. The restaurant I had been to was probably Noriega’s, but it could have been Woolgrowers too. But they were not open. And we made our way to one close to the highway that was a poor representation of what I was looking for. Both Woolgrowers and Noriega’s are still around though, and next year, when I go to visit in California, I want to go there to celebrate!
Diana and I, still in 2000, then went on to General Grant Grove. Much of my camping and hiking life in California was spent in Sequoia National Park and Forest, and in Kings Canyon as well. But this was the first time for me staying in Kings Canyon — we didn’t have with us the equipment that would have made camping pleasant, so we rented a cabin for a couple of days. I was horrified by how breathless I was on a short walk in that altitude, more than a mile high. I knew then that any dreams I had of reaching Emerald Lake again were now pure fantasy, that I could only get to places this high up on wheels. Nevertheless the magic of the big trees dwarfing us reasserted its hold on me. To this day, the image of me with my neck craned to look upward into the boughs of sequoias 100 feet and more above me contrasts with that of Diana, examining the tiny flowers in the undergrowth by the paths on which we were walking. The exception to this was, on the way out of the Forest and onto the Valley floor, still about 3,500 feet up, Diana and I stopped to look at the middle fork of the Kaweah River. Here I delighted to find a snow plant, one of my favorite discoveries in the mountains many years earlier. The snow plant is not a fungus, as I thought. Instead, it’s related to manzanita and azalea except that it has no chlorophyll and therefore lives by absorbing food from fungus in the ground that gets its nutrients from the surrounding pine trees. Its above ground flowering stalk grows from these underground fungal mycelia as the snows thaw in late spring.
From here in to Los Angeles (there are a number of extraordinary murals in the small town of Exeter that are worth stopping to see; especially since you have to drive slowly anyway, because I am convinced that most of the town revenue comes from speeding tickets), where we visited friends and comrades, caught up with Diana’s relatives, and paid homage to the Watts Towers, and I made my first visit to the “Great Wall of Los Angeles.”
While I lived in Los Angeles, I wrote about the mythic Watts Towers and its creator Simon (“Sam”) Rodia in an essay that has long gone missing — unless I am merely making it up, which could be the case. In any event, there is an official web site for the Towers and much more on the web now, so I’m not going to write that here. But the Towers continue to be one of the most spellbinding places I’ve been, where I always want to return. And the fact that Diana and I stumbled across similar places in Wisconsin (Dickeyville, Prairie Moon and Grandview, Nick Engelbert home in Hollandale are places we’ve been) only makes the Towers more wondrous.
In a way, the Great Wall is the painterly comparative to the Towers. Judy Baca, founder of the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) in Venice, CA., began this project in collaboration with L.A. youth in 1974. Over the next 5 summers many youth participated in its production, and extended the length of the mural to over 2,700 feet. The ongoing process of restoration and extending the historical work through the end of the twentieth century — originally entitled “History of California,” it only covered the time through the 1950s — has included more than 400 young people in the process, some the sons and daughters of the youth who originally worked on the mural. It’s an unknown history, a history from the bottom, it’s our history. And that’s why standing on the side of the Tujunga Wash and looking down the dry flood control channel to the wall on the other side, what really grabbed my eyes and my heart was the smiling, determined and encouraging visage of Paul Robeson. And then there was the sheer enormity of it!
Nine years passed, another trip to California, and this time on the advice of Susan Martinez we had one major objective in San Francisco — to see the hidden mural of Diego Rivera on a campus of the City College of San Francisco. Coming in to the Bay Area this time we were picked up by Ray Boyington. We stayed with him and Jack while on our various rounds, but as much as we appreciated the hospitality, we were much more delighted with their companionship around and about — in the first place Clarion and
Balmy Alleys, both filled with colorful murals with Susan Martinez, who joined us for this excursion. Then Ray drove us by way of Twin Peaks, overlooking San Francisco, to Chinatown and North Beach. Diana and I walked around for a couple of hours while Ray went home, and then returned with Jack to join us with Diana’s cousins for dinner in Chinatown.
The trip to the theatre building where the mural is displayed was another issue. In 2009, with the economic plight that the schools found themselves in after the economic meltdown, the building was only open by appointment (!) so we had to arrange to have it open. Thanks to Susan, I had made the connection and so we anticipated no problem except that the building was locked when we got there (we had difficulty enough finding the building in the first place). Phone calls went unanswered, and Ray, Diana and I stood stymied outside the building perhaps for half an hour, while another couple, coincidentally up from Los Angeles, joined us to attempt to see the mural. Finally the person came to let us in. The panel shown here, the tree of liberty, really struck home with me. John Brown’s fight against slavery has been for me a beacon in American history; his son Owen lived and was buried in the foothills above Altadena near Los Angeles; and in 2010 I made a special trip to visit his farm in upstate New York. And Old Brown is the centerpiece of a panel that uses the famous words of Thomas Jefferson about the tree of liberty, something that Diego
Rivera latched onto, and even more to what the figure of Brown represented.
After renting a car in Oakland Diana and I drove to Santa Cruz where we stayed with Bill and Meggin. We convinced Bill to drive back with us to San Francisco the following night to a screening of the Red Poet, a documentary about the life of San Francisco poet Jack Hirschman. I think he enjoyed himself — at least he had the good manners not to say no — but it was a great time for Diana and me to see Jack again and to hook up with some of the wonderful poets in the San Francisco scene that I have known. Any thoughts going back to those days bring me to the time Sue Ying and I caught up with Jack in his haunt, the Café Trieste, and we wandered about North Beach, Hirschman’s booming voice singing out “Jackie and Susie and Lewie”! Standing outside the place where the film had been shown, walking over to the car to head south, we had a chance to talk with Sarah Menefee, our dear friend and comrade poet, and embrace one last time before leaving.
Then, after lunch in Santa Cruz with the Harmons, it was off again to the Sierras, this
time through Merced. I knew this route well, having lived in Planada 7 miles East of Merced for one summer. The towns along the way are etched in my memory, Los Banos, Dos Palos, El Nido (nothing more than a gas station) and Merced; and when we got to Merced we called Sal Sandoval, a physician friend who practices in Merced. Some years ago we realized we had an acquaintance in common, a woman I had known from that summer in Planada. At that time Flora Martinez lived in the labor camp for the workers of the Del Monte peach orchard. The camp was an all year camp, permanent dwellings rather than simply for the migrant labor force. They were brick dwellings to, not the ramshackle clapboard that most camps were made of. And they had trees and some residents had planted flowers.
Flora was one of a number of volunteers who helped out at the clinic and with the head start kids and other community activities, people I got to know that summer as we went our way in the Valley that summer. Dora Bustos, who worked despite the difficulties she had walking, Vera Salcido, whose laughing countenance would bring brightness to anyone; Sarah Gracia, always gentle and kind; all patient with us as we were more than anything under foot that season. And of course the Rosales family, Hector, 19 years old and working with us every day, and his father, brother and sisters who worked in the fields, the family that invited us in to their household to share a meal after the long day’s work. The memories of how we learned flood back. So I had asked Sal to see if we could take Flora, Sal and his wife Gloria out to dinner, and he said he had arranged it.
We met Sal and Gloria at their home and drove with them to Flora’s house, no longer in the camp. And we were surprised by the fact that she had prepared dinner for us — it would have been an insult to insist at that point to take her out to dinner. We were so flattered, and so we stayed and talked and I’m sure we made no sense, whatever it was we talked about, but the welcoming smile on her face remains with me.
I told her about a poetry book I’d read that mentioned the camp that we knew back then as the “Red Camp,” or “Montgomery Camp,” where many of the migrants lived who came up for the season in Planada. Later, on the trip through Los Angeles, I stopped at Tia Chucha Café Cultural and ordered two copies of the book, one for Flora and another for Sal, by Diane Garcia. I wrote this letter to her when we got home, received a gracious letter in response and heard, through Sal, that the book was appreciated. She was still active in community affairs even into her 90s. I was sad to hear a few years ago that Flora passed away.
We reached Los Angeles after a day trip to Giant Forest Village and the fruitless quest for a Basque restaurant, stopping first at Tia Chucha. I’d known Luis Rodriguez since he was just out of high school, we worked together at the Guild Complex, but we’d never read poetry together. This night at Tia Chucha we did read together in the open mic. Then on to stay with Margie Ghiz, our good friend and comrade from the Midnight Special, who invited some bookstore people over for breakfast so we could catch up.
When I worked at Midnight Special in 1983, we moved the store from Venice to Santa Monica. Shortly after the store moved, Sue Ying curated an art show there — I think it may be the only one I ever helped hang. The artist was Jamaican born Adrian Wong-Shue. The pieces were modestly priced for the most part (my budget could not afford any of it) and there were some pieces that I really liked. The prices on these were far above the rest of the work on display, and I could see no relation between price, complexity, size or any rational reason I could give. Finally curiosity got the best of me and I asked what led him to price these pieces as high as they are. With the hint of a smile on his lips, he said there are some paintings he just doesn’t want to sell.
Our paths did not cross again until some years later I spotted a sign indicating he was having a show on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. When I got to the gallery, I found he had been there for the opening, but that had been a month or so earlier. And then a mutual friend of ours came through Chicago and mentioned he had been asking about me. And so we got in touch again. He was still working in Los Angeles, and obviously very successful. And in 2009, on my way to California, I made sure to contact him to see if we could connect. The day that we stayed with Nancy Shinno and Patrick Burrows, I arranged for us to go see Adrian at his studio, and for Lorraine Suzuki and Nancy’s daughter Tomoko to meet us there. I didn’t realize we were actually crowding into his home.
Adrian showed us the work he had been doing and told us about how that first exhibit at Midnight Special took place. Without a car and living in the Rampart district of Los Angeles where the rent was inexpensive for a living/work space, he went to school in Santa Monica at Antioch (where he also worked as a security guard). He tried, as a student, to get galleries to take his work. They refused. He’d call making believe that he was an agent. They still refused. Everywhere he was refused, until finally a gallery on La Cienega (kind of the gallery row of Los Angeles) agreed to look at his work. He gathered material into a portfolio, dragged it on public transportation from central LA to the west side, not an easy trek, and got to the front door of the gallery. He rang the buzzer, the gallery owner looked at him, and told him no.
These were the circumstances under which he met Sue Ying, who told him without question he should display his work at Midnight Special. Sue had met him because he was in a group of expatriates from the Caribbean, many of them students of the revolutionary process going on at that time, the University at Kingston, Jamaica being a center, with a peak developing in Guyana.
At dinner at the ABC Seafood Restaurant in L.A.’s Chinatown that night, the last night of the 2009 trip, the conversation was wide ranging about art, politics and life. Standing outside the restaurant and bidding farewell, Adrian hinted again at a smile as he insisted that I have a talent of having a wonderful array of friends. Diana and I knew we had been through an amazing 10 days. The people we know make such a special, caring family. It’s really important to understand that about the human family, “los pobres de la tierra” as José Marti calls us.