Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Almost Paradise

The following story is by Erik Himmelsbach, a Valley Village writer and television producer. His short story about Valley bar mitzvahs, “Fried Chicken,” appeared in the anthology Another City: Writing From Los Angeles (City Lights, 2001). He occasionally blogs at Valley Boy.


Almost Paradise
By Erik Himmelsbach


I moved to the San Fernando Valley in 1973. Just 8 years old at the time, my life was about to spiral downward faster than Lindsey Lohan’s acting career.

Prior to the move, I lived in a small Venice house with my mother and stepfather. Life was comfortable, predictable, and secure. In a blink, my stepdad lost his job, sold the house, and moved us over the hill, where I was tossed into a veritable 20th century Hades -– a rough-hewn suburbia filled with tropical fish stores, camper shell lots, and lots of familial discord.
We moved into a fortress-like apartment on Columbus Avenue in Sepulveda. It was a stucco labyrinth of one-, two- and three-bedroom cocoons in which the downwardly mobile could blast their bulky wall-unit air conditioning while plotting their way out of their hellish lives. The place even had a name –- The Columbus Gardens, I believe. The building’s highlights included a quasi-religious mural and rusted chandelier in the foyer that housed the mailboxes; and a piss-filled pool were Marco Polo was played mostly in Spanish.

But I couldn’t get too comfortable. Before long, I was bouncing from one crappy apartment to the next. By 1975, I shared a one-bedroom hovel with my mom on Langdon Avenue in another scenic section of Sepulveda; my stepdad had jettisoned us a year earlier for a woman he met on the graveyard shift at a machine shop in Chatsworth. Mom was a mess during the pre-divorce period, subsisting on speed, Diet Pepsi and Sego pudding. She tanned by the pool but did little else but muse about her health. Clearly, a bronze, drug-addicted, layabout wife wasn’t a good fit when we were struggling to make ends meet, so Stepdad cheated and bailed. Just like that, it was just the two of us. My mom was under 30, and now twice divorced; meanwhile, I became one of those kids –- the ones with the single parent, beholden to welfare and food stamps.

I found myself ducking close to the Pop Rocks and Abba Zabba while Mom opened her wallet in the grocery store line. Then again, the government-issued paper kept me in Count Chocula, so I what did I have to complain about?
We were alone, but not really. Mom wasn’t good at alone. Several weird guys worked their way in and out of our lives, until mom finally settled on a man named Doobie in early 1978 (I know, she really knew how to pick 'em). He was a hippie/biker scenic artist, short and fuzzy with a Jewfro and two earlier marriages. In that sense, they had much in common. Doobie knew Mom from way back -– from high school at Hamilton more than a decade earlier.

As their relationship got serious, Doobie became itchy to shack up with his new old lady. But he didn’t want to stay into our sketchy neighborhood. He wanted to be able to park his cherried-out 1956 Buick Century without fear of theft. Let’s just say he had a very unhealthy relationship with automobiles – a shiny sticker on his car read “Gas, grass or ass. No one rides for free.” Such the badass. Then again, Doobie's instincts may have been on the money. One of our Langdon Avenue neighbors was a kid named Bobby Bloom, who, a few years later, murdered his family in the dead of night.By early 1979, Doobie had found a safe place to park his car: Granada Hills. I hadn’t really spent any time in there during my first five years in the Valley. I knew Sepulveda; I bought comics at the newsstand on Parthenia and Sepulveda. I played Pong at Padrino’s Pizza, ordered bubble gum ice cream cones from Swenson’s. I knew Panorama City -– I rode my 10-speed to Sepulveda Park, or to the Americana for a movie or Tower Records to spend hours browsing.

I even knew Northridge -– my uncle owned a linen shop in the Northridge Fashion Center, and I earned extra money working there as a stock boy. The RTD to the mall was a straight shot down Nordhoff. But Granada Hills? That was another planet. It seemed so far away -– all I knew was it was on the way to Magic Mountain. Yet when the last of our stuff landed at our new pad on Encino Avenue, I already felt like a brand spankin’ new kid. This was not the ghetto. I wasn’t surrounded by apartment buildings stacked up against each other. This was a real neighborhood. Blocks and blocks of ranch houses as far as the eye could see. And we were living in an actual house. Never mind the septic tank in the backyard. Never mind that it was a rental. Never mind the overgrown lawn and the tumbleweeds and the clotheslines. Never mind the collection of junker vehicles Doobie parked on the front lawn. All I knew was I was back on Respectable Street.

Yeah, baby, the white trash Jews had arrived. And I could actually invite friends over to the house without squirming. Actually, I still squirmed, given the composition of Doobie’s paintings. One, for example, was resplendent with dancing penises with wings and duck feet (did I mention he dropped a bit of acid back in the day?). As you can imagine, that was a real conversation stopper.My life had been all brown smog, yellow dead grass, chipped paint and fast-food wrappers on the sidewalk. Now I was right at the center of a Prius commercial (if, of course, Prius ads existed 30 years ago). Our street had no sidewalks, only the remnants of orange groves that had once littered the landscape. Nearby White Oak was a beautiful city unto itself, with skyscrapers of exotic trees that kept the sunlight out. The shops along Chatsworth Street near our house were mostly mom and pop. Everything changed.

At last I could let my freak flag fly: I plastered my walls with Devo and Rachel Sweet posters, snuck girls into my bedroom for all sorts of good clean fun and parked my first car (sigh) -– a white 1968 Chevy Camaro -- on the lawn in the backyard (Doobie’s cars took up all the space up front).

I became a regular at Tempo Records, where I bought Blondie’s “Eat To the Beat,” Talking Heads “’77” and Dyan Diamond’s “In the Dark.” I fed my sweet tooth at Frosty Queen, where I discovered the decadent pleasure of butterscotch and chocolate malts. In high school, I even worked there for a week, before my sloth got me fired. Decades later, I still visit on occasion, still get the butterscotch/chocolate malt. I still see the old guys who own the place, but I never say hello –- even though my L.A. Times review of a dozen years ago hangs from their front window.

I spent hot summer days playing tennis at Petit Park, where I inhaled a lifetime of third-stage smog. I looked up and admired the Odyssey in the near distance. This majestic dome of a banquet hall on the hill was, to me, a symbol of bar mitzvah nirvana. Totally cooler than The Sportsman’s Lodge, Ventura Room, or, worse, the venue where my own bar mitzvah reception was held: Nob Hill in Panorama City.

Strangely, my only GH phobia involved Granada Hills High School. For some reason, I was convinced that the school was filled with uptight rich kids who wouldn’t accept a low-budget renter such as myself. (Some self-esteem issues die hard, I guess). I allowed myself a few weeks there in 10th grade before bolting for the comfy, down-market confines of Monroe High, near my old stomping grounds and filled will all my friends.

But I eventually warmed to the Granada crowd. While in high school, I worked as an ice cream boy at the Coffee Barrel, which was Granada Hills-adjacent (technically known as Northridge), at Reseda and Devonshire. The joint called itself a diet restaurant, and preyed on the overweight folks who spilled out. from the nearby weight watchers meetings. I knew better, having torn the labels off many products in the kitchen in the back to disguise calories. The restaurant was mostly staffed by Granada kids, with whom I hung and partied with. Many of them, also felt at home with me. Several, in fact, projectile vomited on the hood of my Camaro after long nights chugging Bacardi and Coke at Porter Ranch. Good times.

I lived in Granada Hills less than four years, but it became who I was. More than any other Valley community, my perception of “growing up” is in the shadow of the Stardust Liquor Store. If anyone asks, that’s where I’m from. Though the reality is that it’s just a sliver of my life, it’s my Leave It To Beaver, the place where I discovered my sense of Valleyness.

I’ve driven my 7-year-old son, Emmett, past my old house, even though it’s been torn down and replaced by a two-story abomination. I’ve taken him to Frosty Queen, even though he doesn’t love it as he does Menchie’s in Valley Village, where I’ve planted my grown-up roots. That’s okay. He’ll have his own memories. Me? I’ll always have Chatsworth Street.

2 comments:

  1. RE: The Coffee Barrel. Wow, My parents and grandparents owned and operated both the Fallbrook and Northridge stores and then the Tarzana store Thin's IN Cafe. I was a kid of course, anyway I am enjoying your blog, though I don't know what to say about the "Label Peeling" im not sure what to say to that, I do know that the business was legit because I was there when we recieved our shipments of Fructose, sorbitol and other low cal no cal sweetners, we always recieved non and low fat cheeses etc... I worked with my family at the Thin's In Cafe for years until the quake in 94 we never recovered from,thats where id do the recieveing.

    Besides what you said about the labels I liked this blog entry :) , I am 38 and lived in the valley all my life, i live in chatsworth now, I too still frequent Frosted Queen on chatsworth st., Holiday Burger etc.. I am very sad to see Woodlake Bowl be demolished..

    Randy Sherry
    randysmailbox@gmail.com

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  2. Wow, great article, I really appreciate your thought process and having it explained properly, thank you!

    Banquet Halls in San Fernando Valley

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