I should know better than to make assumptions about where an essay will go, even if I know the subjects really well. And yet, I did. My parents are Angelenos by birth—Torrance and Burbank respectively—and spent their childhoods in the late 40s through the mid 50s in the heart of what most people consider the city. I figured, then, that they carried their childhood homes with them into every subsequent place they’ve lived. I was wrong, at least in terms of the way they see it. Or, maybe that’s just it.
Maybe that’s not the way they look at where they are.
My parents moved. A lot. And yet, it occurs to me that wherever they went, they ended up in places like the Los Angeles they experienced first, which is to say not the city as I’ve ever known. The city they were born into and learned as children was a place of streets ending in open spaces and neighborhoods of varying complexions and complexities in a satellite’s orbit of the already massive downtown. In essence, they lived in small towns that became one of the world’s primary examples of urban sprawl.
Or, maybe more precisely, they lived in an adolescent version of a metropolis: gangly and uncoordinated and surging in spurts of growth both impressive and only fully understood long after they were over.
The childhood Mom remembers happened in Compton and Paramount. What she recalls about that time is strikingly, well, L.A. but not if you’re looking at it through today’s lens. From their house on Rayburn St.—which cost all of $4,000 when they bought it—there was a neighborhood full of kids and open fields at the end of the block. Grandpa Jack worked at Northrop, which meant his salary paid for the house, food, and “always a vacation each year.” In short, it was a life as removed as he could make from the one that found him selling popcorn on L.A. street corners when his family arrived during the Great Depression.
The two things she remembers most clearly from the six years she spent in Compton are church and school, the former because she made friends there that she is still in contact with 60 years later, and the latter because of how diverse it was. “It seemed like every group of kids was in school with me. All the way back then there were Latin and Asian students. And special education students were mainstreamed. Kids were kids when you went to school.” This held true even after her family followed Grandpa Jack’s job and the rest of the aerospace industry to the high desert town of Palmdale before the freeways cut through downtown, creating the more rigidly singular ethnic demographics of Compton more familiar today.
This would make living in the South in the mid-60s like visiting alternate realities.
Dad grew up in Burbank when it was an extension of the film studios and the aerospace industry. Grandpa Clark was gone by the time he turned one and that left my father, his older brother, and his mother Eleanor as the “only single family I can think of in the neighborhood” he told me once. His neighborhood was not nearly as diverse as Mom’s, but it made childhood a communal experience. Grandma worked to keep them in their house, sometimes sending them to school in a cab, others to the dairy by the airport over a mile away to pick up milk for the week. When Dad had eye surgery, the neighbors applied the salve each day after he left the hospital and there was a standing football game ranging from the middle of Pepper Street to the front yard of another family’s home. Once, Dad and Uncle Rich rode their bikes all the way to Griffith Park. “It had to have been six or eight miles and I was probably only nine years old. That was a long way.”
What he recalls most was that everyone was pretty much the same: working class and involved in each other’s lives. “I know that some of the other families would be sure that we got included with their kids in activities. It was a friend of mine that got me to play baseball. Otherwise, I never would have. You got the feeling of being in a smaller community attached to the bigger one. But you could find anything you wanted in terms of cultural influence in L.A.”
When pressed, both my parents say they identify with life adjacent to Los Angeles more than inside of it, and for basically the same reason: their lives in the high desert boom town of Palmdale, which grew to a city of 10,000 almost instantaneously in the mid-50s.
“When we got there, the town had one stoplight and most of the roads were dirt” Mom said. Dad was in Future Farmers and played on the offensive line on a football team that looked like Mom’s school in Compton. Mom skipped a grade in school and spent her days quietly being one of the smartest kids in the room. They dated and broke up and got back together. But Palmdale remained constant until it was time for them to move on. This explains why they liked living in a place like Borrego Springs with its no stoplights, 220 kids from Kindergarten to 12th grade, and furnace heat. It was nostalgic.
The move from L.A. to Palmdale also set the pattern for their lives. Time and again they moved from a place that had established itself as part of a growing metropolitan area to another in the early stages of doing the exact same thing. After high school, Dad enrolled at Cal Poly Pomona, and a year later they were married and living in the eastern reaches of L.A. County still replete with cow pastures and citrus orchards now almost completely commercial parks and freeways. Then it was Georgia, Missouri, and Alabama in short order thanks to Army. Then Imperial Beach outside of San Diego before the two merged into one giant whole, then Riverside for more of the same, then Ft. Worth before you couldn’t distinguish it from Dallas, then back to California to spend long stretches in cities that would eventually be swallowed by larger ones near them.
And everywhere they went, that’s where they were. Totally. There was no nostalgia or missing where they’d last been, let alone Los Angeles where they’d started out. In fact, when I asked them—separately—whether or not they ever thought they’d move back to L.A., they both laughed and said the exact same thing. “No, not at all.”
“I mean, what say did I ever have in where we lived?” Mom said. “We went where we were supposed to be and stayed as long as we were supposed to.”
And yet, L.A. was with them in subtle ways. In 1965, my dad and another soldier stepped into a Memphis diner on their way from Fort Leonard Wood Missouri to Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. They sat down, ordered, and sat at the table for as long they had before the bus pulled out again, never getting served. It was only much later that Dad realized what had happened: the other soldier was black.
“I mean, it was stupid and it would never have occurred to me that was the reason,” he said. That just wasn’t what he knew from living in Southern California.
Mom had her own “what is going on here?” moment in Alabama when a handyman came to fix something in their duplex and took the opportunity to turn the moment into a sermon of sorts on race (the horrible, heretical sort). “Then he’s saying ‘Well, you know, in Genesis, Cain killed Abel’ and then he’s saying that’s where black people—who he said were inferior—that’s where they came from and I’m wondering ‘What planet have I landed on?’” The same went for the separate water fountains and bathrooms and lunch counters that made even less sense to her. “To a Californian, we were so appalled by the attitudes. We couldn’t wrap our heads around it.”
When I asked how people responded to their being from California, she laughed.
“They were terrified. They believed the whole fruits, flakes, and nuts thing. We had some missionary friends who refused to come visit us when we moved back. I said, ‘Well where do you think all those Californians came from? They came from Texas and Oklahoma and Alabama!”
So what was different between where she was and where she grew up?
“Sure, people discriminated [in L.A.], but it wasn’t the same. People were people. That hasn’t always been the case, but it wasn’t uncommon where I grew up.”
Maybe, in that light, Los Angeles has been more present with my parents than they think. No place makes living with people outside of one’s own race and ethnicity more a part of the fabric of normal. Or, as Mom put it:
“We just lived like people lived.”