The Architecture of Memory: How Los Angeles Made Me a Poet




LOS ANGELES, whose sprawling internal combustion–driven all-consuming reaches I fled half a century ago, remains embedded in my imagination, so that even at this remove it appears unpredictably in my poems, fruitful goop bubbling up from the unconscious like prehistoric tar from the pits of the Miracle Mile. La Brea means tar in Spanish; Los Angeles is Latina in origin — its name in full: El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río Porciúncula, Our Lady Queen of Angels — and the sounds of Spanish explorers and settlers echo ambiguously in street names that spell out questionable histories of conquest and slave labor and coerced conversion. And so the saints come marching in through the canyons of the Santa Monicas and the San Gabriels and the San Bernardinos to declare sacred this violated landscape.

To have been born and raised in such a place is a stain on the psyche and a strange blessing, an embrace of soft air all your life, laced with whiplash Santa Ana winds sweeping off the wastes of the Mojave and electrifying an atmosphere already charged with the energies of untethered development and entrepreneurial ambition. Buildings are constructed and routinely erased, yet they remain implanted in the native’s mind like seeds of some vaguely remembered myth. Structures I frequented in formative days at times return, as here, to refresh my memory.

The Hollywood Roosevelt

My parents were married July 3, 1933, in Seattle, where they had both grown up as children of Russian-Jewish immigrants, but from different parts of that community. My mother was a middle-class English major at the University of Washington and my dad a hustling salesman who had dropped out of sixth grade to support his family when his father abandoned them. In that year of the Great Depression and in the final months of Prohibition, they chose to take their honeymoon in Hollywood, where enterprising Jews of their parents’ generation had created an industry and defined American dreams in the imaginations of moviegoers everywhere. During this first visit to California, my parents stayed at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. 

Opened just six years earlier as a lofty luxury resort in the Spanish Revival style, bankrolled in part by movie stars, the Roosevelt proved more expensive than my folks had anticipated, and my dad had to wire his best man back in Seattle to send them some extra dough. I like to imagine them, Jack 25 and Nina just 20 years old, strolling along Hollywood Boulevard in awe of the movie palaces like Grauman’s Chinese, gloriously gaudy auditoriums with grand entranceways that gave a most persuasive illusion of entering another world — certainly a more prosperous and glamorous one than Depression-era Seattle. I picture them coming back from a great meal at Musso and Frank, and a great movie, and making love in their room.

They couldn’t have known at the time that 12 years later my father would be approached in Seattle by a fashion designer who wanted to launch a line of ladies’ swimwear, and that they would move to Los Angeles in 1946 to start their business, and that I would be born a few months after that, the youngest of four kids, within a mile of the Roosevelt, at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital.

roosevelt (courtesy of https://www.pinterest.com/pin/305541155944307665/)

622 North Camden

In aerial photographs of Beverly Hills in the 1920s, the flats between Santa Monica and Sunset Boulevards are only partially developed, with houses scattered here and there on otherwise empty blocks. On one block bounded by Camden Drive, Rodeo Drive, and Elevado and Carmelita Avenues, the only house is a white colonial structure of a rather expansive character, like Tara in Gone with the Wind. By 1950, this is where we were living. The swimsuit business had boomed in those prosperous postwar years, and Rose Marie Reid, named for my dad’s designer partner, took off as one of the leading brands.

I used to be embarrassed to have grown up in Beverly Hills, with its ridiculously extravagant implications, but eventually I came to understand that it wasn’t my fault, that there is nothing to be ashamed of in one’s accident of birth — it is luck of the draw, as in a poker game, and if you manage to play your hand skillfully enough to take advantage of your advantage without blowing it on frivolous or fatal indulgences, you’ve earned your winnings. So you could say I was born with a swimsuit in my mouth, and when, as a young graduate student at UC Santa Cruz in 1969, I decided academia was not for me, I could afford, on my modest independent income, to try to be a poet.

Camden is one of a row of streets in that neighborhood named for New Jersey or New England towns — Bedford, Roxbury, Linden, Walden, Trenton — and, I would learn much later, has a special resonance with the history of American poetry, as Camden was where Walt Whitman, the wild-man grandfather of us all, spent his final years in the early 1890s. It took nearly 20 years for me to make the connection between my Camden and Walt’s, but now it feels like part of my manifest destiny. Such are the myths we make of our coincidences. These sympathetic associations are the essence of Rhyme, which gives poems their resonance.

Dolores

Dolores was a classic drive-in hamburger joint at the corner of Wilshire and La Cienega Boulevards, a teenage hangout but also a family restaurant with an indoor dining room ringed with red leather banquettes, where my father, with his working-class tastes, relished the chili con carne. My favorite dish was a plain hamburger with ketchup and a side of Suzy-Qs, french fries cut into corkscrew shapes by the machine in the kitchen.

One day, when I was about four years old, out of those swinging kitchen doors strode a slender waitress named Babs, the most beautiful creature I had ever seen, a dishwater-blondish girl-next-door whose sweet demeanor and graceful walk and deft handling of the trays captured my imagination. Although it took me about 60 years to write a sonnet for her, I think of her as my first muse, more alluring than any movie star, a woman almost within reach who brought delicious pleasures but remained untouchable, an object of awe and desire and dreams some 20 years beyond my age. I saw her only a few times before she moved on to some other job, or was picked off and married by some lucky customer.

Dolores, with its iconic one-story circular modern architecture and its vertical sign with neon lettering thrust into the mild air, has long since been replaced by a high-rise office tower, but I can’t drive past that transformed corner without thinking of that drive-in, and Babs, who taught me to be grateful for what I couldn’t have.

May Company

The May Company, that monstrous Moderne department store at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax, was where my mother took me to buy my first suit — no doubt for somebody’s bar mitzvah — but long before that, when I was very little, I accompanied her on other shopping trips and was immersed in, and somewhat overwhelmed by, the sensory richness of the setting, its atmosphere of great luxury and abundance. How could one store be so big, so vast, so all-encompassing, its four floors of merchandise offering seemingly anything a consumer could use, but most especially the accoutrements of a lady’s elegant grooming? The flowery fragrances, shelves full of fluffy apparel, stacks of soft and colorful garments, fine fabrics, fur coats, glass cases of jewelry, arrays of cosmetics — and mirrors everywhere multiplying everything — all these, combined with the stylish women gliding among the displays, were mesmerizing embodiments of my mother’s vanity.

Nina was a good-looking dame — “Ava Gardner gorgeous,” as a family friend remarked at her memorial service on seeing a photo from the 1950s. That’s when she was a socially busy businesswoman, my father’s equal in entrepreneurial creativity, certainly as vital to Rose Marie Reid, Inc. as the designer herself, but behind the scenes, the support system for the self-effacing salesman-turned-CEO whose easygoing affability endeared him to his customers and business partners. At the peak of their success she was in her 40s, my father nearing 50, and the contrast between their personalities was evident even to me: she the sparkling socialite, pleased and proud to strut her stuff, he the modest “self-made man” with the humility of someone who understood that every mansion is a house of cards, that we are always only a few steps from the street.

Her social theater — meetings, conventions, parties, dinners, receptions — was where she was able to deploy her charms to their fullest effect. My mother was conspicuous not only for her beauty but also for her sharp wit and good taste, and when she was dolled up for a night out rubbing elbows and schmoozing with the mercantile elite she cut a striking figure. To me, the May Company represented my mother’s enormous personal closet. Our tours through the aisles felt dreamlike, comforting, and disorienting at the same time, more intimate than mundane domestic interactions.

After a business crisis in the early 1960s, my father was able to sell the company and retire to the racetrack and his real estate holdings, just as the bikini was beginning to make Rose Marie Reid swimsuits passé. That’s when my mother lost her cachet and had what was called at the time a “nervous breakdown.” Like a movie star who had lost her mojo, she didn’t know what to do with herself. So she took a lover.

The May Company building now houses The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

mayco (courtesy of http://blogs.artinfo.com/lacmonfire/2013/12/15/when-new-guinea-came-to-wilshire-blvd/)

Hollywood Park

By the time we were living on Camden, the business had moved from Downtown to Inglewood, the new factory and offices conveniently located on Century Boulevard between Los Angeles International Airport and Hollywood Park, where the thoroughbreds ran in summer. On some Saturdays my dad would bring me with him to the track to hang out in his box above the finish line and gab with the various hotshots and lowlifes whose company he enjoyed. What I relished most, apart from the gorgeous horses and colorful jockey silks and the lakes and flowers of the infield and the lovely Goose Girl wandering barefoot in the lacy white blouse that exposed her shoulders as she strode with her staff — a distant, mythic, idyllic figure — were the hot dogs, slathered with mustard. I chomped them with gusto, washing them down with orange soda.

The hum of the vast grandstands as the horses came onto the track from the paddock, the PA announcer’s godlike voice, the jockeys so cool in the saddle and light in their flashing silks atop those unbelievable animals, so strong and delicate and powerful and graceful at the same time — this symphony of sensations was captivating. And when the gates rang open and the horses’ hooves rumbled over the groomed dirt, kicking up thunder, and the announcer started to call the race over the roar of the fans — it inspired something like awe.

Hollywood Park was a secular synagogue for Jews like Jack who didn’t have time for temple. As my mother’s father Moses would say, “If I want to talk to God I can go outside,” and his son-in-law subscribed to the same faith. Though he, with his Orthodox mother in a nursing home in Seattle, would never have put it this way, a day at the races among his pals was his Sabbath service.

hollywood_park_02

Gilmore Field

Out on Beverly Boulevard, just east of Fairfax, a mile north of the May Company, the baseball stadium Gilmore Field was home to the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League — until 1958, when the Dodgers came out from Brooklyn. Along with Hollywood Park and football Sundays with the Rams at the Coliseum, professional baseball was a generous gift from my otherwise occupied father. Going to see the Stars play for the first time, I had the experience of every baseball fan, the thrill of moving from the street through the dark space under the grandstands to emerge in the dazzling green light of the playing field, where the grass was brighter and the sky bluer than anywhere else in the city. And the game of baseball, with its subtle strategies and sudden displays of grace, was sublime to a six-year-old with dawning athletic ambitions.

By the time I was eight, I was playing little league and studying the players of the PCL for their batting stances and their defensive moves, for the way they wore their uniforms and threw the ball and slid into third base. The Stars and the Los Angeles Angels across town — as well as the Seattle Rainiers and Oakland Oaks and San Francisco Seals and San Diego Padres and Sacramento Solons and Portland Beavers — were pros on the way to or from the major leagues, and they had much to teach, if you picked out your favorite players and watched them closely.

I would try to imitate these players, just as I imitated my favorite poets when I was starting to write poems. The mastery of technique, combined with preparation for the unpredictable, the mental alertness, and the physical skill (writing is a physical as well as a mental activity) required of both the bard and the baseball player are principles that apply to many disciplines, like jazz, where the power to improvise is dependent on a blend of chops, imagination, and inspiration.

The rickety wooden grandstands, the advertisements on the outfield fences, the hot dog vendors climbing the aisles and waving their offerings — all these can be replicated in the upscale stadiums of today’s big leagues, but by now they are infected with the corporate imperatives of billion-dollar franchises. They lack the intimacy of those early encounters with the Hollywood Stars at Gilmore Field, men whose names I can scarcely recall yet whose bodies in motion were music to my eyes.

 (courtesy of http://waterandpower.org/museum/Baseball_in_Early_LA_Page_1.html)

Royce Hall

Before I transferred to Bard in upstate New York in fall 1966, my first two years out of high school were spent at UCLA. Royce Hall, the majestic brick-and-tile Romanesque building with its twin watchtowers at the center of campus, is famous for its concert hall auditorium, but it was also the site of many English classes. It was there, in the spring of my sophomore year, that I enrolled in Jack Hirschman’s Introduction to Poetry. Hirschman, now in his 80s, is San Francisco poet laureate emeritus. At the time I met him, he was a 33-year-old English professor in a deeply conflicted relationship with academia. Less than a year later, for reasons both personal and political, he was to quit teaching for good.

Hirschman was known on campus as a dynamic teacher, and his classes drew hundreds of students. His required readings for Intro to Poetry were The Viking Portable Blake, The Viking Portable Walt Whitman, and the J. B. Leishman and Stephen Spender translation of Rilke’s Duino Elegies. His typical lecture was an unpredictable improvisational series of riffs and raving monologues on whatever associations the poems awoke in him that day. Chain-smoking Pall Malls, he would pace back and forth at the front of the packed lecture hall and expound expansively on all things poetical, philosophical, world-historical, political, cultural, metaphysical.

His assignment for the semester was to keep a journal. That was it — no papers, no quizzes, no exams, but an encouragement to read and think, notice everyday phenomena, and record our individual consciousness in a notebook. Although I was already writing poems and had a notebook going, Hirschman’s incendiary example gave poetry a much more dangerous and exciting aura than anything I had previously imagined. His physical presence, his dramatic readings, his recommendations scrawled on the chalkboard, and his obvious passion for poetry combined to ignite in me an even more urgent desire to devote my life to this marginal yet necessary art.

Jack Hirschman’s class in Royce Hall turned me on to the existential possibility of poetry, of being a poet, a practically inconceivable career path at the time. After reconnecting in the mid-1970s in San Francisco, he and I have been friends and colleagues and sometimes collaborators — he would say comrades — in Orphic service to the muses.

St. John’s Hospital

One North, the psychiatric wing of St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, was where I got my graduate education. I had bailed out of my Regents Fellowship in the literature program at UC Santa Cruz because the contradictions between the life of a poet and the road to academic respectability were too great to sustain, especially after 1969, a year that ended with the Manson murders in Los Angeles and the Rolling Stones’s demonic concert at Altamont (I was there). The dark side of the 1960s was on full display, the Vietnam War was escalating by the day, and some of us, perhaps deluded by the psychedelic drugs we were taking, felt that a revolution was going on. The Merry Pranksters’ Electric Kool-Aid had given way to acid indigestion, and some of us lost what was left of our right minds.

Many years later I wrote a novel, The Mental Traveler, based on my adventures in and out of various madhouses up and down California, but the one I spent the most time in was One North at St. John’s, and it proved instructive not so much in curing me of my delusions — I’m still way out of the consensual mainstream, I just know better than to manifest my madness in socially unacceptable behavior — as in introducing me to many people whose problems were as complicated as mine, and in giving me a greater tolerance for and finesse in dealing with others’ abnormal behavior.

Ruthie, a fellow patient with whom I absconded to Malibu one afternoon; L. James Grold, my tall, bearded, low-voiced, low-key shrink (in whose obituary I later read that he had also been Groucho Marx’s psychiatrist); my special nurse Benjamin Gates, a World War II vet who walked with a limp, had a wayward eye, and bore a certain resemblance to Malcolm X; the family members who came to visit and revealed to me in their demeanor an interesting range of nervous responses to the setting — these were just a few of the dramatis personae who populated my psychodrama and made it feel like a master class in improvisational acting.

What I learned at St. John’s is not easy to summarize, but I gained much more in my six weeks there than I had in a full year of the doctoral program, and while I couldn’t read because of the antipsychotic medication I was fed and its effect on my eyesight, I carried in my back pocket a thick pad of paper on which I scrawled at will whatever came to me. I learned to trust the unconscious to deliver the artist’s most valuable material. The Moon Is a Meatball in God’s Spaghetti, the title I gave to those collected fragments, was a breakthrough in my personal poetics — permission to be a madman beyond the reach of parents or professors, and to be myself, however unorthodox, no matter what it took.

Hillside Memorial Park

Just north of LAX and east of the 405 in Culver City is a rolling expanse of lawn behind iron gates, where cosmetics magnate Max Factor, songwriter Jerry Leiber, actor Shelley Winters, and entertainers like Eddie Cantor, Dinah Shore, Jack Benny, Cyd Charisse, George Jessel, and other Hollywood legends, as well as less-famous Jewish personages, now rest in peace with a view of one of the world’s busiest freeways. At the center of the cemetery is a disproportionally large and dominating monument. Its circle of Greek columns surrounds a bronze statue marking the tomb of the singer Al Jolson.

My parents were buried not far from Jolson’s tomb — my father in 1983 and my mother in 2007 — beside my mother’s parents, who had lived with us on Camden until their deaths. I gave the eulogy at my father’s funeral in the chapel at Hillside, reminding the congregation that his bookmaker had called him “the classiest man I ever met,” no doubt because of his gentle manner. Not that he was a pushover — far from it; he could spot a phony a mile away and had a gambler’s intuition for people he could trust in business, a trait from the streets that was crucial to his success. I read a passage from Ecclesiastes (“A good name is better than precious ointment”) and one from Whitman that ends “And to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier.”

At my mother’s burial, as we placed the box of her ashes in the ground, I recited Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Dirge Without Music,” which includes the stanza:

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains, — but the best is lost.

Poetry cannot recoup our losses, but it can rescue fragments of what was felt, and known.

¤

Stephen Kessler’s most recent books include Where Was I? (prose poems), Need I Say More? (essays), and Save Twilight: Selected Poems by Julio Cortázar (translation).


RELATED


PRESS ENTER TO SEARCH, OR ESC TO EXIT