Tuesday, January 17, 2006

My Secret Gardena: A Grandmother Tale

I am calling from my car to announce that I am circling East Los Angeles like a helicopter looking for a clearing.

In my mind’s eye, I can see my granny standing near the table next to the window as the phone rings. It doesn’t beep or trill or screech. Somewhere inside the old-fashioned apparatus that my grandmother expertly splits in two and places against her ear, there is a little tiny hammer that strikes a little tiny telephone bell that, literally, rings.

As she lifts the receiver, Granny smoothes the cloth on the table and surveys the length of her block on 139th street through her screen door, both up and down. Then she says unhurriedly, as if her voice is made of maple syrup, “hello-ooo. This is Mary. Oh, hi sugar, my beautiful granddaughter. Where are you?”

“I am right here on San Pedro, so I’ll be there very soon,” I answer.

This is only true in a relative sense, because every time I begin my descent down Granny’s street I rediscover the winding back-roads of Gardena. That is, I get lost.

If I were a normal, sensible person I would follow the internet map, stay on the freeway for ten more miles, and circumnavigate this crazy third-world labyrinth of industrial warehouses and burned out projects. But I am not a normal sensible person. Rather, I follow the sentimental landmarks punctuating my childhood memories, which, obviously, are no good for driving.

But I simply cannot resist. I have to see it. I have to know that it is still there.

Driving intuitively, I scan the wide boulevards, which are sparsely strewn with boarded up businesses and bullet-proof liquor stores, for other signs of life, or better, signs of families. Way over to the left, I spot low buildings, like bungalows, and something green, perhaps a hedge, so I turn at the corner. I drive a couple more blocks and then turn again.

Eureka! Halfway down the block, I spy a handful of handsome, young men milling about in the driveway before dinner. I call out to them, explaining my query. The boy who approaches my car is tall for thirteen and very polite. He flashes a big white smile, admits his ignorance quickly and apologetically, and summons his little sister from the house by turning toward it and yelling. “Sissy” emerges onto the porch, which prompts the immediate appearance of “Dad,’ who waves to me and calls out to his wife, “Mama, come out here and tell this girl how to get over to one-three-nine street!”

A woman with a smooth brown face and the same gorgeous smile as her boy emerges from the backyard. The whole family accompanies her to my car. “Mama” does not look old enough to be my mother, but she clearly knows her stuff. Rather officially, she wipes her hands on a dish towel, confirms that I am less than a mile from Granny’s house, and kindly points the way.

Somewhere at the heart of Gardena, sandwiched between the notorious Compton and the infamous Watts, lies this magical community, where approximately one hundred black families continue to live quietly in very modest houses with small, immaculate lawns. And, I assure you, the handful of bright young men, who are waxing the car in the driveway or standing by while someone cuts the grass, are always eager and ready to engineer a special small town welcome for anyone who is lost on her way to Granny’s house. Which is why, I highly recommend the surface route.
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(Inspired by a Conversation with the San Diego Women’s History Museum)

1 comment:

El Mapa No Es el Territorio said...

What a beautiful post darling. I love imagining you driving around Los Angeles looking for Granny's house, especially since I have never actually seen you behind the wheel. It seems like a magical tale. Lots of love from the Caribee.