Apr/May 2011 Nonfiction

On Our Way To Californiay!—Wonderland by the Sea

by Julia Braun Kessler

Photo by Chris Epting

Photo by Chris Epting

In those, our pioneering days, Nat King Cole was still crooning about getting "your kicks on Route 66." But the only kicks we can remember, on that long slog, were those of our restless kid's heels as they pounded us from the back seat of the old Plymouth wagon! One thing, however, that we had become certain of, as we tooled our way further and further West: the American continent was indeed endless.

That late August, we Easterners had re-embarked upon on the journey, this time from far-out New Mexico, and driven and driven, yet again. Still, there was no sight of California. And, all that while, the landscape before us had us thinking of Gertrude Stein's great sally, that there was simply no there, there!

Indeed, while we traveled, what we looked upon was a notably desolate and horizontal scene. There was shack after shack, in town after town, for mile after mile. So flat, so dry, so flimsy, and detachable appeared those dwellings filling the landscape. Where was the solidity of a structured edifice, where, the community centers and their elegant squares, or, for that matter, where were any cities at all? Even the numbers of people visible were sparse. Worse, when we tried to address them, they sounded like aliens to us as well.

It was true enough that by just looking upwards, there were those extraordinary vistas to stagger the imagination, the vastness of the horizon opening before us, those collections of monumental rocks with their giant shadows. Add to these, the titillating moments of excitement we felt while scooting amid the endless hills and dales and beside the flowing rivers, in those furious climbs through colossal mountain ranges as the old wagon struggled along. They could divert and entertain the children. Yet, where was the rest? We couldn't identify any real signs of civilization. And in the long run, all seemed virtually remote—nearly empty of life—at least, life, as we'd known it until then, way back on those buzzing Eastern shores.

What followed were laughs, during that drive, over Frank Lloyd Wright's quip about Los Angeles itself. If you could tip up the Continent like a billiard table and slant it towards the Pacific, he'd taunted, everything loose would roll into it! And this brought forth an amusing recollection of a farewell tea back at Hamilton College one June day just before our departure for California.

The remark had come about when the wife of the faculty's classicist had advised us "not to fret" about leaving that historic Eastern College. She herself had spent some time in Berkeley and found it quite tolerable. But when I enlightened her to our going, not to Berkeley, but to the University branch further south at UCLA, she had looked aghast and concluded archly, "Los Angeles! Oh, my poor dear, how vulgar!"

In the end, of course, California finally did greet us. It came upon us quite suddenly, in the form of a huge "Welcome To" road sign. That sighting had us screaming out joyfully with a hearty Hallelujah to our backs-seated kiddies. We had made it. We had made it, after all!

So, hopeful now, we approached the city of Los Angeles, confident and ready to seek out its "angelic" center. Surely, in that metropolis, we'd would find people and culture aplenty—and this hardly any different from what we had known all our lives. Soon we'd encounter there those busy, preoccupied faces of people in a hurry, the sophisticated, the smart and high-fashioned types, all rushing about on posh avenues and into the chic shops with their impressive window displays. There'd be elegant structures and tall buildings as well, on such splendid avenues, and all around us, milling crowds.

As I remember it today, we had arrived at the City just at midday and smack in the middle of the work week. Still, as we drove slowly into its center, seeking a Western version of what we'd left behind us, a hustling world—if apart from New York City—yet with it own glamor, its dash and distinction, we could spot no such thing! There were certainly ample numbers of automobiles, all polished and shining, and in the latest models, to be seen. But, pedestrians? They were few. How little did we understand as yet, of this scene. Los Angeles spread around us, running on, and on, as we circled about seeking it.

So, after stopping for a bit to examine its City Hall and its stately Court House, we strolled down towards their historic Mexican area at Olivera Street, then still very much of a community of its own. There, we provided our family with a luscious lunch of freshly-made tacos and beans and proceeded to delight our kiddies by buying them some sombreros and maracas. Yet afterwards, there was not much left to do but to get ourselves right back into the old wagon and simply head for that "other" ocean—the one that Cortez had "star'd at" and which had filled him with such wonder upon his first sighting of it those many years ago.

On we went, driving our way right through the whole of The City of Angels. Our only thought now was to have the Pacific at our feet, just as we'd been singing out about it from childhood on in this vast land of ours, that America, "from sea to shining sea!"

The town this pursuit landed us in was called Santa Monica, and we swiftly crossed it as well to reach the glorious shore. To the very end of long-running Santa Monica Boulevard we went, the finish line of "Historic Route 66" itself. And, then it was that we first laid eyes upon the figure of the City's patron saint herself, Saint Monica, standing atop the Palisades overlooking the Pacific, all chaste, veiled, and carved into a fine white stone image. Her calm demeanor, her pious stance, might well have given us an early glimpse of the devout tone of that little community, then still primarily Catholic.

But, none of it registered or so much as touched us as yet. We had reached the Pacific, and we rejoiced as the September sun graced us in the evening's balmy weather. We soon found a comfortable inn right there at the coast which would serve us while house-hunting. They even welcomed our standard poodle. What more could we ask? And, quickly unpacking our bathing suits, we happily raced towards the beach. Before us was a splendid, sandy expanse, graced with scattered palm trees, and with the afternoon sun's brilliance staring right down to warm and seduce us with Southern California's instant magic.

But in the next days, it was back to business. We need attend to getting a place to live, settling in, even finding schools for our growing offspring. Nearby the elegant University campus were potentials galore, houses which seemed livable enough to us. Little did we then understand of the super-inflated real estate values in this Western city. Such savvy was yet to come.

Back at our classy Hamilton College community, such residences were provided for its faculty, and these at modest enough sums, a necessity, considering the paucity of their academic salaries to lowly Assistant Professors. Moreover, the houses still surrounding that historic College were spacious and with grand fixings, all of which were maintained for the purpose of making their faculty families comfortable. Here, at this much solicited public institution, the University of California, now developing so swiftly in the West, there was hardly any such responsibility. In this new land, we were on our own.

And when we did try renting a place near the Campus, we discovered that in that vicinity, a month's rent could easily demand all of what my husband was to earn for the period. Besides, few enough landlords were willing to consider tenants with two very young children and a huge animal for any property of theirs. As for apartment living, little of that seemed as yet available. Mostly, what properties we were shown consisted of two-story old houses, re-structured to make two, and sometimes even three living units out of those old wooden dwellings.

Advice came fast from good-willed department folk. "Get yourselves over to the Valley!" they urged. We were we to learn what that meant: cheaper houses for rent and sale. Yet, between the Valley and the Campus, there were those incredible distances, that endless traffic. It staggered! We'd not yet become addicted to automobile life, California style. Soon, however, we saw, that such was indeed to become an appendage in every enterprise.

But what just about did the trick in souring us was the revelation that San Fernando Valley's climate included intense heat for many months of the year, and was, even then, smoggy (smog itself a new phenomenon we'd yet to absorb). Worse still was the prospect of having no ocean nearby. Our own Manhattan may have been dirty, crowded, even unlivable, but a walk by the Hudson River or in Central Park brought ocean air and renewal, a freshness straight from the Atlantic. To us, what Valley living meant now was going into suburbia, with plenty of space perhaps, and plenty of kids, but not much else to recommend it. This was the very notion that had forced us from New York City, that "center of the world," and into such "exiled" environments in the first place!

So, we hunted on, stubbornly, doggedly, to stay "within the University's cultural community." To the North, the South, the East, and West of it, and everywhere we could, but with little success. We had really begun to despair. Time was slipping by; the Fall was upon us. Then, one day, by a ridiculous stroke of fortune, as we drove about idly scouring the Santa Monica streets, we chanced upon a man hammering up a FOR RENT sign in front of a house. Virtually an unknown sight thereabouts. The house seemed more like an extended cabin to us, and it really was in shambles. But, we swallowed hard and immediately agreed to pay the preposterous sum he demanded.

An odd enough circumstance had been its source. The sign-poster had just arrived to survey the property that his grandmother (or some relative in a distant family, who had recently died there) had left to him in her will. And, since he was in a hurry to look to its management, he'd come briefly to Southern California from way up North for that purpose alone, aiming to get right back to his own business within the week. He wanted to see the house occupied while contemplating what he might eventually do with it.

Good enough, we thought, and even managed to get him to agree to a paint job before his departure. And, after taking a hefty deposit and making his instructions clear on where to send his monthly sums, that gentleman, our godsend, went his way.

So began our life in Santa Monica by the Sea. A place, which we were soon to discover, that had seen little of the like of us until then! Everywhere we looked were churches, and each week our neighbors appeared to fill them. Most impressive of these was on Lincoln Blvd, just above Wilshire Blvd., the cathedral-like structure and large crowds of Santa Monica's Catholic Church. We discovered that nearly every family around us was of that faith, and moreover, that their children attended the nearby school, which the church itself provided them.

Well before our miraculous rental, while hunting there, we had dealt with several of Santa Monica's real estate people, only to observe the looks on their faces as my husband's first name was patiently spelled out to them for their applications. It's Hebraic-Russian tones hardly came trippingly to their tongues. Many questions about our "origins" had inevitably followed. Indeed, these guardians always screened their clients and made sure they were "suited to Santa Monica's standards and style of living!"

Growing up back East as we had, we'd already known some of such prejudices, yet long since had New York City opened up to its ethnic populations, welcoming white people, at least (the big breakthrough for "Blacks" had not yet arrived, with the Mississippi marches yet to come, and, as for opening up to those then still referred to as "Orientals," that came later still). Yet, with the influx of European Jews, during and after World War II, when many distinguished European figures of learning, as well as those possessing an infinite variety of skills, appeared there to escape Nazi persecution, there were far fewer barriers left standing for us.

We had enjoyed such liberation for years, and to us all such bigotry seemed ancient history. Not so! Much in the manner of those times, here in the "hinterlands" of America—as we stubbornly called them—the "No Blacks," no "Orientals," and "No Jews" bias was yet in evidence. We saw them later too, when trying to buy, although in Southern California such strictures were already sub rosa and unwritten, even if strictly adhered to in many neighborhoods.

Despite all, Santa Monica living seemed superb in so many ways. Its early morning fogs were appealing, its coolness during the long autumn heat waves, too, and especially its lack of smog, a misery already afflicting the central city's summers. Then, too, there was that beach close by—wide, sandy and welcoming, especially in those late afternoons when my husband could extricate himself from his teaching or his late office hours at the University Campus. We would all jump into our old, reliable wagon and head for the Pacific to our wild romp in that sea.

And when, after the year had elapsed, our landlord, now proceeding with his renovation plans, asked us to vacate his premises, we were blessed by yet another rescue. This time from a Santa Monica-residing University friend, who called our attention to a house newly for sale nearby her house. It was then that we were to witness that brazen reluctance to sell to "Jews" coming to the fore once more. This time, it was the house-owner's own intolerance. We persisted, however. And despite his unwillingness to allow our "setting foot on his on his property while he still remained on the premises," slipped ourselves in during an "Open House." We managed to ramble through, find it adequate, and make a bid to secure it. We even contrived before that next school year was out to discreetly move ourselves in.

Moreover, our nearest neighbor, a widowed, aging lady and a devout Catholic, was sympathetic to our plight. She took us in hand to smoothe out the difficulties we seemed to present for the other residents of the street. She soothed, re-assuring them that we posed little threat to the value of their property, perhaps even, that we might prove quite respectable neighbors. In those first years, we were careful to keep to ourselves, arranging that our children, when not at the local schools, should play with other University kids.

Inevitably, however, our little ones would engage with the neighboring children, who seemed cordial enough. And, now that we had settled there, such unpleasantness was receding altogether, and our lives resumed as before. We considered ourselves lucky in our location.

Even so, it was these children who soon communicated to us the whole of this much messier tale, and did so via our own guileless kiddies. Nor could there be any doubt about that message. It came through, loud and clear!

One indication of the kind of speculation that went on among them concerning our family became apparent that Spring, when we were getting ready for our first Passover celebration. Indeed, the circumstances that brought them to our attention were truly bizarre.

My own widowed, New-York Mom had newly migrated from the East to join us in Los Angeles, though she had chosen to live over near Fairfax Avenue, an area even then more gemutlich to Jews. And that year, she had offered to hold our Passover Seder at her new apartment.

To our dismay, we had learned that her invitation for the celebration would not include our poodle (we still took him along on most evening visits with friends, since he hadn't yet, after our several cross-country moves, become accustomed to being left behind), putting us into something of a quandary.

Yet, after the children had pleaded with her, she finally relented, but only on the condition that he be completely scrubbed and groomed for the occasion. Somehow, this became the single detail catching on as the subject for the kiddie's street chatter. And, what came of it all, might have given us a rollicking good laugh, if it hadn't also shocked us so as well.

Apparently, it was their Catholic school's messages that had brought on the confusion. One child wanted to know, "Are you really gonna circumcise your poodle for your grandma?" Yet another asked, "Will that make him kosher for Passover?' And finally, out came the gist of it: "Would our poodle's blood make our unleavened bread?" Quite enough to confirm our initial uneasiness. (For centuries such tales were told of an innocent sacrificed at Passover for the blood leaven of matza. We recognized it as a key tenet of anti-Semitic persecution.)

Nor were such unsettling incidents always initiated by the confused young of the families around us. I well recollect another such embarrassment occurring some years following, when a perfectly delightful young neighboring lady, whose son was the same age our own third child, then a California-born toddler, made her own blunder. The two little fellas had befriended one another, spending much of their time outdoors together, speeding about in their "zoom cars" across the wonderfully flat sidewalks of Santa Monica's streets.

A native Californian, she had merely meant to be cordial and welcoming. And her invitation had been offered innocently enough. We must join her (myself and our young one) along with her kids for luncheon one day at the posh Jonathan Club, at Santa Monica's shore. And since the beach season approached, I agreed willingly, so we set a date.

However, upon mentioning this to my husband, I was soon informed of what he'd learned of this organization's adamant anti-Semitic membership prohibitions. When the time approached, I grew progressively more nervous at the idea of accompanying her there, even for an afternoon.

Our good-natured neighbor, in truth, hadn't so much as a clue to the existence of such restrictions. So, you can bet on that afternoon's having been memorable, given the people I was introduced to, or more properly, inspected by, during that seemingly endless excursion.

Somewhat later on, there developed still another fracas. This one accompanied our boy's decision to join a Santa Monica troop of the Boy Scouts of America, a national group that we were soon to discover had not yet opened its doors to minorities. As a result, the child's petition came as something of a challenge, even an affront.

Our son had done so at the urging of his Cub Scout friends, and despite their efforts, his applications went unheeded. So when the squabble among the local Scouts escalated, we found quite a surprise would await us as we returned home one day. In pure mischief, these kids had poured out a bottle of chlorine bleach to design a huge white swastika sign smack in the center of our otherwise green front lawn!

Considerable effort would be required to put things right again after that outrageous incident. It seemed like mayhem, even chaos that we were facing. First off, came meetings with the "shocked" parents of these local Boy Scouts, and this followed by the process of determining which of them composed that guilty group. Yet, my husband and I quickly resolved that whatever might finally come of this, we wanted, above all, to see these children take responsibility for their own act.

And when the parents volunteered to pay for a complete gardener's restoration for our lawn, we adamantly refused their offer. Instead, we demanded that the work be undertaken by the irresponsible fellows themselves. And, that they work as long and as hard as it took to do that job entirely to our satisfaction!

The wonder of it was, that that was exactly what did transpire. And for several weekends, these "penitents" labored indeed, managing to restore the property to its pristine state. We were also gratified to share their parent's own satisfaction in that outcome. But, clearly, my young son wanted nothing more to do with Boy Scouts, local or otherwise, from that moment forward.

During those first years in California, to be sure, many preoccupations overshadowed, indeed, took precedence over these neighborhood nuisances. A far more important consideration was the situation my husband found at the University itself. For within his own English Department, discrimination still persisted This was the early '60s, after all. Yet, when gazing about him then, he learned that among some 60 to 75 men and a couple of women in that department, there were few "ethnics" to behold. It consisted strictly of the WASP variety, perhaps with a mere two or three exceptions. Could those appointments (and thus my husband among them) have been accidental? One couldn't help wonder.

Indeed, what astonishes most in any reconsideration of those times, is just how segregated America remained, and this after fighting two World Wars, presumably to end just such prejudice. We had, in fact, seen prejudicial "snobbery" aplenty at our Little Ivy College back East, but here, in the open world of the pioneering West? Who'd have suspected? Even so, there could be little doubt about it. Among those at UCLA then teaching in the great tradition of Anglo-Saxon Literature, few had as yet acknowledged that any individual could conceivably qualify for such a post were his origins different from theirs!

We were primed for any surprises after this, with many yet to come. Still, we could rejoice at having joined now with a vast University, a campus gaining in stature, and a place hosting scores of open, generous, learned people. We were hardly confined to those within one department there. Unlike the elite but tiny squirearchy we'd come to know back at Hamilton College, we found ourselves on a sprawling campus surrounded by a broad spectrum of wonderful American types.

Probably though, what took us most aback in the course of "acclimatizing" ourselves to the California style of life, were those first encounters with Jewish Californians! These were Westerners who had, like ourselves, supposedly been bred as Jews. Whether religious or secular, we did expect at least some sense of familiarity from them!

No way. Jewish Californians appeared total strangers. How they prided themselves on their accents—or more accurately, their lack of them. Apparently, sounding like New Yorkers was to sound Jewish, a disaster in the West. It was hardly their style to seek out any of our kind. New York Jews! By reputation and definition alone, ill-bred, un-American even.

Yet, New Yorkers we were, and could hardly modify our Eastern delivery, our modes of speech, our skepticism, or even comprehend such a disciplined behavior. And how this outraged and was deplored by these new acquaintances!

Their stance struck us as utterly defensive. They hardly permitted themselves the slightest difference from the majority surrounding them, seeming determined at all times to appear as WASPY as their neighbors. Even the mention of a pastrami sandwich on rye bread seemed to breach that propriety. But then again, we'd yet to locate a decent one of those in all of Southern California!

And I suppose the capper came when I sought out my first Western Yom Kippur service at the University Synagogue (a ritual of remembrance for my father I'd never neglected, despite my distinct lack of religious fervor). Not only had I driven myself to it (strictly forbidden on that holiest day of the year), but then watched open-mouthed as a collection plate was passed along for cash donations (handling money on that day is even more unheard of!). Who knows, I could just as well have been sitting at any Sunday church service, from the look of it.

But then, here in the Wild West, such were the hazards. So when the service concluded, I too joined with the rest, turning to my neighbor to give him a big hug while pronouncing a hearty, "Howdy, partner, and a happy New Year to ya!"

We'd come a long way and found our wonderland.


Previous Piece Next Piece