Speech, Part I
Alhambra, California, Summer, 1949
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the city of Alhambra California was a sleepy little town adjacent to Los Angeles, attached to its southwest corner. At least this is what I think I remember. Maybe it’s what I really want to remember.
For example, if you start at the bustling Santa Anita Race Track in Arcadia, and drive west on Baldwin Ave, through Arcadia, crossing Duarte Avenue, then heading through Temple City, crossing Las Tunas Ave, still staying on Baldwin Avenue, you are going in the right direction. When you come to Garvey Blvd., you turn right, and keep driving. There are a couple of more turns onto narrow streets, and little avenues. When you see a quaint little yellow store, sitting at an angle to a bend in the road that looks like a corner, you are entering the quiet town of Alhambra, California, where I was born.
I remember driving to the old home in Alhambra on Saturday mornings with my father, who diligently helped my grandmother with the yard and repairs, even after we had all moved away. I loved watching the newer houses of the early fifties give way to the old established traditional homes that I remembered, while the lathe and plaster construction finally effaced into the old Spanish architecture that had been in Alhambra almost a century.
As you first entered into Alhambra, an old, long, low general store, made of adobe with lapis blue tiled arches sat on the corner, surrounded by palm and oak trees, would introduce the town – its feeling, ambience, elan, if you will. Alhambra was an old town, a town that had formed itself close to, and around the old, unrestored San Gabriel mission of the seventeenth century. Little narrow streets drifted outwards from the little store and the mission. Lush oak, palm, and pine trees lined the cozy streets, and formed a canopy over the street, so one felt like they were in a magical tunnel of shiny emeralds, while the sun peeked through tiny openings in the branches and thick leaves.
Curtis Avenue, where I lived, was a narrow, cozy winding street made of old concrete, the kind with rocks in it. Even in the late forties the streets were so old that the concrete was bleached white by eras of baking sun, and stones poked through the road like random cobbles. In the summer, black rubbery tar oozed in the cracks, feeling warm and gooshy. I knew all of this because I was very young, and very close to the earth. Not a whole lot escaped my attention from my eyes down to the earth – about three feet. There was a lot going on down there on the ground, on the gentle front lawns, in the flower beds, sidewalks and curbs.
The curb on Curtis Avenue was my favorite spot. I remember sitting on the curb, looking down at the rocky cement, the black spongy designs in the road, the ants going about their business, the occasional cat meandering up and down the hot sidewalk, and then rolling in its dust and warmth. I felt alone and happy and free, just sitting there – watching everything, elbows on my knees, chin in my palms.
So it wasn’t out of the ordinary when, one mid afternoon, I watched Freddy’s father drive up the street, and turn the car left, into the driveway across the street. In the hot sun, the trees cast deep cool shadows across the driveway, and over the car. I sat there with my elbows on my knees, looking across the street in hopes to see Freddy. Freddy was the young boy who lived there, and sometimes he’d come out and play with me. He was nice and funny and fun. Maybe Freddy was in first or second grade. He had blonde hair and bright blue eyes, and he always carried his light brown teddy bear with him.
It also didn’t seem strange when Freddy came out of his front door with his teddy bear, and came over and sat beside me. He had a couple of cookies, one was for him, and one for me. We sat awhile, throwing pebbles into the street. He mumbled some things I couldn’t understand and sort of waited. Nothing seemed strange about Freddy saying he was hot, and going back to his shady driveway, where he sat on the rear bumper of the family car eating his cookie and holding his teddy bear.
And, nothing seemed out of the ordinary when Freddie leaned over sideways, curled up and fell asleep on the broad back bumper of the big black oblong family car. When his dad came out of the house, got into the car, backed it out of the driveway, and meandered down the street with Freddy fast asleep on the bumper, nothing about that seemed odd either. After all, I was new to the world, and everything was up for grabs. I watched the car, and Freddy, fast asleep, slowly disappear down the shady street.
After Freddy disappeared, I sat on the curb, looking up and down the street in hopes of seeing my friend Billy, who usually was up from his nap and playing by this time, when suddenly, the entire world erupted in action. Freddy’s mother ran out of the front door of his house calling “Freddy! Freddy! Freddy! Has anyone seen Freddy?!” She was frantic. She ran over to the driveway and picked up Freddy’s teddy bear who had not made it to the excursion on the bumper. “Has anyone seen Freddy!” His mother held his teddy bear. She began to cry. She ran across the street and stood over me weeping and saying things to me. I looked up at her as I remembered Freddy sitting, then sleeping on the bumper of the car as the car slowly drove down the street, but I couldn’t talk yet, and the vision of Freddy’s slumber, moved in my mind’s eye as I pointed down the street. Because that’s the most I could do, point and remember.
At that moment my grandmother appeared by me, and so did my mother and my father who had just arrived home from work. Freddy’s mother was crying, and I had a crowd of huge tall people towering over me, asking me loud, fast questions all at the same time, while I calmly remembered Freddy, happily sleeping while the car slowly vanished down Curtis Avenue. I looked up at the fortress again, Freddy clearly in my mind, and calmly pointed down the street.
It was a rough afternoon and evening for everyone. When the grownups realized that Freddy wasn’t anywhere to be found (of course not, he was on the back bumper, sleeping) they started saying scary things that could have happened to him.
“He could have been kidnapped!” his mother sobbed, hugging her little boy’s teddy bear.
“Somebody could have picked him up!’ somebody started crying.
It was then my grandmother removed me from the front room into the kitchen where I ate dinner alone. I remember the evening sun coming in low, through the window pane, casting it’s long geometrical rays across the red slate floor, the sound of my father trying to console Freddy’s mother amidst her sobs, her other son, Robert, and daughter, Joan also trying to help, and more neighbors knocking on the door, being greeted by my mother and grandmother. There were few telephones in those days, at least in our neighborhood, so everyone had to sit and wait and hope and wait some more.
The sun set, the voices quieted, I think I heard praying as I began to drift off to sleep in my grandmother’s four-poster bed. Then, eventually, through my dreams, I heard the doorbell ring, and then a chorus of “Freddy! Freddy! Freddy! You’re back!” There were choruses of laughter and tears, followed by another story, then more laughter.
Before I fell asleep, I heard the father’s low voice telling and retelling the whole story, with Freddy interrupting to tell his side of the story, and then, everyone laughing about the day’s adventure. It was a soft sound, a night sound, and a very happy sound, as I once again remembered my friend Freddy, curled up on the rear fender of the car, as he slowly vanished down the tree-lined street, sound asleep.
Alhambra, California, 1950