Silver Lake Ramble #1

I’m going out to clean the pasture spring,

I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away

(And wait to watch the water clear, I may

)I shan’t be gone long—You come too.

I’m going out to fetch the little calf

That’s standing by its mother.

It’s so young,It totters when she licks it with her tongue.

I shan’t be gone long—You come too.

-Robert Frost

No pastures hereabouts. I cannot introduce you to hired hands, or to witches, or to crazed hill wives. Or show you cows, or mending walls, or snowy woods, birches, or oven birds, though they are for me part of a mental landscape laid down in a classroom in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, in the fall of my thirteenth year, 1953. Frost territory. But I do invite you to walk a few blocks with me in Silver Lake, my neighborhood. We’ll make some stops, meet some people. A mile, a mile and a half. Not far. A piece of Sunset Boulevard runs right through Silver Lake, east to west, between downtown Los Angeles and Hollywood. That’s how I put it to people from Pasadena, or to Westside types, always asking, Where is that again? We’ll start at my house, the next to last one with the high gray wall, on the north side of the street, at the western end of Crestmont Avenue. Be careful, the bottom stairs get very narrow. We’ll go left on Lucile and left again at Effie. Ubiquitous Effie, we call her, for her meandering ways. Right on Maltman, right on Sunset to Griffith Park Boulevard where we’ll stop at a certain point to choose the way home.

This was Ernst’s walk, one he devised after recovering sufficiently from a heart attack and quadruple bypass in 1984 to undertake walking. In fact, he jogged. But, like Mitterrand, je ne jog pas. This I read in a French newspaper after Clinton was observed jogging in Paris: Mitterrand ne jog pas. Feel that Parisian scorn. A familiar walk then, even sometimes a sentimental one, depending on my mood. For years I saw nothing. I walked in the dark at five in the morning, bent on getting everything done before I left for work: walk, breakfast, lunch and beds made, on the road by seven thirty. I cannot persuade myself to get up so early anymore, but that was a good time for me, the world empty and ill-lit, dogs sleeping. I walked in silence and alone, heedless of a neighbor’s warning. I needed a rape whistle, he thought, should be prepared to make a thief’s eyes sting with pepper spray. I refused to let him speak to me of a reported mugging or murder on a street nearby. He thought me foolish, and probably I was, but in twenty years I met nothing more dangerous than a hungry cat hoping I would let him in to the house he’d been put out of for the night.

These days I walk when it suits me, when the walk fits into my day. And I do meet people, dog walkers mostly, sometimes caught in embarrassing straits. One guy puts down a newspaper and waits. Some people seem to have dogs only to scold them, to jerk them around, to muzzle them, to dye them different colors at Halloween, dampening their spirits generally, or turning them into babies conveniently stashed in pockets, pouches, and strollers, anything to prevent their being dogs at all. Some, when they see me coming, immediately begin talking, not to me, but to their dogs. Fine. I don’t want to talk to them either. Always that moment of agony, eye contact or not? And just when it looks like they’re going to let me off without hard feelings, out comes Good morning, curt and reproachful, making me look bad. Sweet day, so calm, so cool, so bright, the bridal of the earth and sky. Many days in Los Angeles call forth this line, but I prefer to think it to myself and go no further, since I so evidently am not the virtuous, immortal soul Herbert speaks of at the end of the poem.

Here’s Maltman already, chosen by Ernst for its lack of steepness. Silver Lake is all up hill and down dale. Don’t look for balance, order, symmetry. It’s a hodge-podge. Mostly small, cheaply made one-story houses, a few carefully restored California bungalows, small apartments facing a central court, a couple of tear-downs. Wooden fences, grillwork, tall cactus barriers. If there is beauty here, it’s flash-in-the-pan: inside an open gate, an orange cat momentarily transfixed, stippled greenery, white satin flowers with bright yellow centers in the background. Pied beauty, beloved of Hopkins. Glory be to God for dappled things! Here we have sidewalks cracked and crazed. Black asphalt laid down haphazardly where irregular pavement slabs have been heaved up by the roots of trees, those smog-eating jacarandas I’ve mentioned before, and silk floss trees (like the one in our driveway in Haiti), blooming now in Los Angeles in the fall, the bark on one side smooth and green, on the other spiked and prickery, pinkest of pink blossoms clashing, gorgeous, just at the corner, against a burnt-red wall. But eyes on the ground is my habit, the better to avoid unbearable Lost Cat signs depicting Katz, a calico with tiger-striped knee socks who haunts me for days. New, ever more adorable photographs, heart-rending pleas, escalating offers of monetary reward, until I walk with my hands before my eyes. I, whose cat sleeps safely on the window seat at home. No more. No more, I beg Katz’s inconsolable owner. I’ll call her, I think, just to say, I know, I know. But a call about her cat would only get her hopes up and make things worse.

Look down, look down. A friend of mine got a grant once to study Roman inscriptions. That had a thrilling sound, as though through study she might hear the squeak and gibber of the Roman streets. Several silent but seemingly proud contractors left inscriptions here in 1926. By L.A. standards, Silver Lake is old. C. Stansbury has been here, also Peck, Kiddington, Carlson, and Calvin McCray (all Anglos, I note). Here comes my favorite: Al Mork, Maker. Al Mork, I perceive, had a sense of himself, of the highway he was making straight. What would he think of his work now, I wonder, all upended, permanently ruined? For the city has disclaimed responsibility for residential sidewalks, which many residents like me cannot afford to repair. Silver Lake belongs to metropolitan Los Angeles and to Southern California. High voltage. Certain hieroglyphs signal surveyors. A drain inspector, too, has left his mark. And here’s a blue dolphin: Drains to ocean, No Dumping. Reminders underfoot that Santa Monica Bay is polluted, that Los Angeles took shape in a desert, lives on borrowed water. Yet no one talks about desalinization; the DWP is widely thought to be mismanaged, if not thoroughly corrupt.

Sluts fuck. Fuck sluts. A poet of equal opportunity, depending on the walker’s perspective. I give it its due. Clever catchy, I call it, praise the Anglo-Saxon, use of assonance, and pass on. STOP! In the name of love, I am commanded next, in colored chalk, and do, supplying the tune and as much of the song as I can remember. A pair of lovers set down their initials here in 1980: J.G. + H.J. KITTYRIOT and ARTCLB (I think these are bands, but The Cigarette Bums?) have been here, and someone behind a fence who owns a motorcycle begins, What Dylan did was…, which I would like to hear, but miss. What are you doing? Two guys getting out of a car. Would you be doing this if you weren’t in L.A.? Would you be playing that in Berlin? Someone has hung teddy bears on the telephone wires. How? When? There’s a lot around here that seems to me youthful, optimistic, but naïve. Someone whose 2008 white and red Triumph Scrambler has been damaged in a hit and run is hoping for some Karma here. Colored stamps spell out INSPIRE SOMEONE, NOMATTERWHATNESS, NOMATTERWHATNESS and, carefully lettered in turquoise, tilts a plank against a wall: Stop here and think of someone you love. I scoffed at this for a few days before I started doing it, see it there still, though it’s gone now. I have even grown fond of a graffiti artist, one Casio by name, whose sign is a rippling arrow which will never fly straight. No matter what.

I’m surrounded it seems by artists, writers, philosophers—lovers who wear their hearts on their sleeves.

Sentiments flimsy and shallow. Brief, not lasting. Nothing like Roman inscriptions. But they invite me all the same, as Frost did many years ago. At thirteen, I already had a head full of poetry: Mother Goose, A. A. Milne, and Robert Louis Stevenson, snippets of Shakespeare, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Robert W. Service. I knew the meaning of thanatopsis and that only God could make a tree. I had watched for the highway man by moonlight, wandered in the forest prime evil, stood with Nokomis on the shores of Gitche Gumee, sailed the ocean blue with Columbus. I was all over the map! The Pasture, the first poem we looked at in my ninth grade English class, was somehow different, and I took it inside. You come too.

Caution: Zombie Zone: a backyard taped off in red lettering. This is no season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. Leaves do not turn in Los Angeles. Instead, a hot desert wind, a Santa Ana, is blowing, and El Conejito (the little rabbit) has set up his altar for el Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead). El Conejito is the name in green on his truck advertising gardening services, but I haven’t seen this truck in some time. No longer a gardener, but an artist, I think, to judge by the installations he composes in front of his house to mark seasons and holidays. El Conejito is in love with everything in this world. Every bauble, every piece of broken pottery, anything plastic, all the world’s religions. He likes mannequins, hula hoops, bad paintings on easels, tables and chairs in intimate setting, satyrs, bird cages, wind chimes, kites, light bulbs. Are those plants real or fake? Everything fits, everything belongs. He never loses his nerve. Picture rows of life-size skeletons, separated by gravestones (R.I.P.), working furiously, each at his own computer. Arise, arise, from death, ye numberless infinities of souls and to your scatter’d bodies go, writes Donne. El Conejito’s skeletons have skipped a step, eschewing souls and bodies both, in their haste to get back online. The dead are us. We are the dead.

Next door the Germans have orderly borders, neatly spaced trolls, a hummingbird feeder, a birdbath. The husband with his glassy stare is gone now. I always thought he was hostile when what he was, was old. His wife wears a hat like Marlene Dietrich’s in The Third Man, makes her way very upright, shopping bag in hand, to the 99 Cent Store down the block, across Sunset. And here’s Marilyn, heading off on her bike. She’s eighty years old, has a fur coat, her wisteria blooms on a trestle in spring. She wants to study German for a trip to Berlin, vague air of a movie star about her. Pretty. And I don’t mean you can tell that she used to be pretty. Not still, but now. Marilyn has men coming and going. A handsome black man and another guy who drives a truck, both younger than she is. She’s glamorous and at the same time an old shoe. She worries about her children when it’s they who should worry about her, down there on her bike in heavy traffic. It’s not that she’s been here forever. Marilyn moved to Silver Lake quite recently from some other world, but I see her house as a last hedge before momentum carries us downhill, toward the homeless, the uninvited, the dispossessed. Toward those who have been left out of life’s feast.

Though the Cubano will have none of this. He has fenced himself off. His property is an island compound. A Cuba. Two houses with spacious lawns well-mowed, roses, birds singing all the day in an aviary, a Bentley and a Porsche, two-car garage. He lives with his mother whose hair in the Latin manner has never gone gray. I think she dyes it with shoe polish. Not as slick as he used to be. Not the black t-shirt and gold chains he wore when I used to bump into him at Mayfair (now Gelson’s) market. He’s a bit paunchy now, undershirt showing inside his plaid bathrobe, losing his hair, but still pretty flashy in leather driving gloves. We are growing old together, the Cubano and I, friends now, after a fashion, only because his daughter, now grown, recognized me as a Westridge teacher. Westridge means a great deal to the Cubano. Westridge is elite, exclusive, a private school for girls in Pasadena. A world apart, a world not Cuban. He doesn’t want it for himself (his business, Latin beauty products, he assures me, is immense. Immense!), and he had it for a moment until his wife insisted that his daughter return to Catholic school. Now he wants it for his granddaughter. So he flags me down to deliver a blast about his children (two boys besides the Westridge girl, difficult as teenagers, but all straight arrows now, all three with him in the business), a warm-up to his true subject. New buildings! Endowments! Tuition raises! A centennial celebration coming up. I hardly need to say a word as he makes love to the Annual Giving report. It’s enough for him to feel a connection through me to something he himself cannot precisely name. His granddaughter is well-positioned. She lives in Pasadena, goes to Pacific Oaks, a prestigious pre-school. Money is being put aside against the day when she will enter Westridge where she will have her own encounter with the poems of Robert Frost.

At the Shipley School in the fall of 1953, I was the stranger in a strange land. I had read the exciting novels assigned for summer reading, The Bridge at San Luis Rey, Oliver Twist, and Of Human Bondage (in the bulky hardback edition my mother carried with her when she left Oklahoma for New York in 1925), but had not been able to find in Haiti the poems I was supposed to memorize. My teacher’s response to my excuse was to declare any English-speaking family without the Oxford Book of English Verse uncivilized. Though her judgment was harsh, snobbish, and senseless, Miss Y. became my favorite teacher. She was a bird-like New Englander in her 60s, near the end of life (she died just before graduation in 1957), and perhaps on that day she had simply had enough of dogs who ate homework, of teaching, all endeavor, like Frost in After Apple-Picking: I am overtired of the great harvest I myself desired. Miss Y. taught without teaching. She sat well back from us, told girls over-eager with the answers to put their hands down. She said sarcastic, sometimes shocking things, showed us a painting of a girl in anguish or ecstasy, the blood of her first period pooling at her feet. That fall, without fanfare, she put The Pasture, with its gentle invitation to journey north of Boston and beyond, before us. Its promise was personal, not burdensome. I was thirteen, misunderstood, and far away from home, but I believe I saw it then without seeing, my direction, my vocation. You come too.

Quickly go past the empty house, tagged, condemned. The posted sign is too far away to read, but I suspect foreclosure. Gone overnight: a family of four, a home, the yard strewn with the children’s toys, tacky garden ornaments, Mary, Mary quite contrary with her watering can, an inflatable snowman at Christmas. And quickly again past two homeless men, their clothes in an overhanging tree. It’s almost possible to think of them as teenagers who have trashed their room, who have refused to get up this morning, quilts pulled up over their heads, or as even younger children when one day I saw them looking at a picture book together. But they are not children. They are mature men, and one of them uses a wheelchair. Provocateurs, pricks to thought, to conscience, though they ask for nothing. We should never, Ernst and I, have bought a house so close to Sunset. We should have looked toward the lake, not the city. I never should have brought you here to see that I do not stop in the name of love but, like the priest and the Levite, pass by on the other side, make my excuse the nomatterwhatness of it all. For we are going to turn the corner, leaving behind sidewalks in disrepair, lost Katz, bad Karma. Signs will fade or be taken down, litter will blow away. A new family will make a new home in the foreclosed house, and these troublesome men I cannot bring myself to look at may be gone tomorrow. They come and go, propelled by whim or physical necessity. El Conejito will take down his altar with its grim reminder of our common destiny; he’ll be getting ready for Thanksgiving soon, and Christmas. Many more sweet days, calm, cool and bright, will ensue before winter comes to Los Angeles.


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