I traveled by bus everywhere, from my house to school and back. Everything about the city felt abbreviated, stenographic. No single center or piazza, all places of interest were spread out for miles. Los Angeles had many personalities.
The city stretched west and south, like a quarter moon winking at the Pacific. West of downtown, movie and television studios existed behind fortressed walls, along Western, Sunset, Hollywood Boulevards.
Shops, theaters, public buildings sprung out here and there, where you least expected, like candy-caned carousels arrived for vacation season. The entertainment industry seemed to be displayed prominently everywhere. A movie star’s picture in a hair salon, at a bus stop, across the sides of a bench at the bus stop, across the interior and exterior of buses.
Billboards dressed the city. A Pepsodent model smiling broadly from miles away, a sinuous blend of product and personality, obscured the function of the building it covered.
During my first years in L.A. I traveled to and from school on the bus. Even downtown Los Angeles, or downtown Hollywood didn't look too different from the many other centers of real estate and money transactions, created not for meeting and enjoying people, but for doing business.
Once, the entire family visited a distant relative in the suburb of Burbank, a community at the far end of a canyon on the way to San Fernando Valley. These people praised their neighborhood.
The evening conversations were all all about moving to a better place, a place without traffic, without crime. My uncle and his family had thought a great deal about moving to Burbank, hence the visit and conversations.
Theaters anchored the neighborhoods as churches did in the old world.
Boarding the bus on Western, I traveled North to Hollywood, passing department stores, high rises, dime shops, pawn shops and tattoo parlors. Miles did not mean much. Distance was determined by how many stops the bus made, and how long each stop took. My entire trip, if all the bus transfers were aligned, only took forty minutes. But, if I missed just one bus, or the weather had caused delays, the trip could take three hours.
When I first arrived and attended the Berlitz School on Wilshire Boulevard, the Miracle Mile, I passed the glamorous Bullocks Department Store, The Ambassador Hotel, The Brown Derby. I only had a two hour class, but I would find time before or after class to take a 'passegiata' the way I did back home. At times, I caught myself walk the entire stretch, a quarter mile or more, from Western to McArthur Park. This was the closest thing to a downtown, I thought.
We lived on Slauson and Second, in the neighborhood adjacent to what now is called South Cetral. Back then, it was a sleepy place, a strip of commercial shops on busy Slauson, with single family homes on Second Ave. Our apartment was on the corner, on the second story of a building owned by my uncle, with shops on the ground floor. Downstairs, we owned a grocery store that carried a variety of products. Uncle was forever stocking the cooler. The main items to leave the store were beer, soda, cigarettes and penny candy. Without these products, we made no profits.
At closing time the family took up posts, to keep teenagers from creating confusion. Crowds would show up at closing time as though they had a part to play at that store. And we had parts too: uncle would be at the door, locking it up and letting people out but not in; his wife at the register. When I was in the store, I took up the post by the candy case, making sure nobody grabbed and concealed. The closing could take anywhere from ten minutes to a half hour.
One night, two men came to the door after it had been closed, and asked to be let in to purchase milk for a baby. My uncle shouted that we were closed. They raised their voices, pushed the door, and refused to leave. I knew one of them from my bus ride. “Wait, Uncle, I know him. He takes his little girl to his mother in the day time for babysitting. He rides my bus. He really needs milk.”
“Makes no difference to me. They ought to know.” Uncle would then call the Police if he smelled that something was wrong. The police never came.
On the bus, I tried to take the seat behind the driver, though I felt uncomfortable in my uniform. I avoided eye contact.
I needed all the time I could find to study. At home, I was in charge of cooking and cleaning and babysitting a two year old and an infant. It was eight or eight thirty before I could get to the books. Many nights I fell asleep while studying, sitting on the floor in the walk-in closet that had become my study. My five-thirty alarm found me all crumpled up, still needing sleep, still needing to study.
Janitors, seamstresses, clerks, students, all crowded the bus in the early morning hours. I never saw the same people both ways. Their work days were longer than mine, day people and night people, by the look on their faces, carrying their weariness on their shoulders, and on their eyelids.
On Wilshire, going west, well dressed old ladies, getting to the hair dresser or returning from shopping, dressed in matching outfits with hats and gloves, talked about the food they ate and the people they me. I wondered what a Cobb salad with green goddess dressing was. I made a mental note to ask Theresa, who knew people who went out for lunch. She had told me about a sweet sixteen birthday party at Scandia’s she had attended where they served pancakes and ice cream. She mentioned that Scandia was a famous restaurant frequented by all the movie stars. Janette knew many girls in our school connected to movie stars.
School sponsored Mother-Daughter Teas. My uncle’s wife could not attend, but I went as a volunteer to help serve. For the occasion, Theresa thought I needed a special dress and she brought one to school for me to use. Her aunt, an older widow who seemed to enjoy the food and the music provided by the chorus and the music department and assorted celebrities, pointed out Mrs. Bob Hope and Mrs. Danny Thomas were in attendance that day. I served them and tried to remain focused on my next chore.
The event I wanted to attend was the Father-Daughter Dance.
It was going to be just the two of us, Uncle and I, and maybe, the prohibition against speaking Italian in the house would be lifted. Not being able to speak your native language is a frightful feeling, a nightmarish situation where you are gasping for air, everything around you pressing in, like a tomb, and you are not able to speak anymore. There were no words to ease that feeling. In my dreams, I would return back home and speak no stops, in Italian only.
When I woke up, I became mute again.
Uncle never attended any of the events, pointing out that the school was pumping the guests for more money. The entire family did come to graduation, June 1963, at the Hollywood Bowl, and for the first time, they met Theresa and her family.
Before June, I enrolled for education courses that would start in September, so my graduation was not such a big deal after all. Uncle insisted that a BA was not worth while, that if I returned to Italy I would not be employable any how. The real reason for my continuing my studies was because his wife had just had another baby and I was needed at home.
One late November in 1963, on my way home after classes, someone’s transistor radio in the back of the bus changed suddenly from music to news. The young man with the radio was asked to turn the radio up. People became agitated and loud. When I got off the bus, I still didn't have the right information.
At home, I learned that that President John Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. We watched television all night long.
I began to notice fewer old people on the bus. Theresa’s aunt, in her late sixties, talked about growing old. “Oh, it’s not safe for old people. It used to be, we used to take the bus to Santa Monica, lunch at Pacific Ocean Park, and come home late at night, never worrying about anything."
I could not define the feeling around me. It was not just my life that was uncomfortable and chaotic; but everybody's. The entire country was in mourning.A beloved president had been killed in the middle of a busy street in America.