Beyond the Pines
As you may recall from the last installment, my New York
friend Ronald had a serious back operation and came out to L.A. to recuperate.
The balmy climate as well as caring company speeded his convalescence.
Also, gentle exercise in the pool of our apartment block
just north of Hollywood Boulevard helped him back to health. Among those
also using the pool were a bunch of young Peruvians, with striking Indian
profiles, like Ron hoping to make it as actors or at least extras in Hollywood.
Sunning themselves, they were listening to the number one
hit, "Strawberry Fields Forever."
Since my funds were limited, Ron and I too had to get some
kind of a regular job. Spotting an ad for a position as typist with an
outfit called Scandinavian Home Furnishings on Cahuenga Boulevard, a ten-minute
walk from our apartment, I phoned and was asked to come for an interview.
When turning up for this I found myself one of a dozen or
so applicants, both male and female, most looking like aspiring actors.
My heart sank. But my spirits soared when called in by a pretty girl giving
me an encouraging smile. The manager's daughter it so happened.
My main duties would be to type up sales contracts, Mr.
Neil Norman explained, and, if need arose, to help out on the shop floor.
Did I have any previous sales experience?
I had sold books at Doubledays on Fifth Avenue, I said.
Mr Norman smiled.
I owed my job to Neil's daughter he told me. Asked by her
Dad which of the applicants she favored, she'd told him to pick me. Which
was doubly flattering because they and he too happened to be Jewish.
Ron was similarly lucky in getting a clerical job with L.A.
County Record Office, legally bound to hire staff without discriminating
as to race.
Racial discrimination however still was rampant in the housing
market. Not only that, but in the November '64 mid-term elections, a proposition
was put on the California ballot making it perfectly legal for landlords
to reject tenants on grounds of race.
All those against this odious practice were asked to vote
No on Proposition 13.
The "No" campaign was supported by liberal show
business stars such as Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, sponsors of a huge
rally in the Hollywood Bowl. Buttons and bumper stickers urging "No
on 13" were handed out.
Whenever out driving Ron and I would eagerly count the "No"
stickers. In Hollywood they topped those urging "Yes" by two
to one. This ratio, however, was reversed in predominantly white suburban
areas, such as Arcadia, on the eastern outskirts of LA, where my married
sister lived. Every now and then we would drive out to see her.
Neither Birgit nor her husband were prejudiced, though,
and warmly welcomed Ron.
Despite a landslide victory for Lyndon Johnson the proponents
of Proposition 13 unfortunately won.
My friend was devastated. In retrospect, I can see it was
the moment he became radicalized, disappointment turning into resentment,
and, eventually, hatred of whites.
In the gubernatorial race former B-movie actor Ronald Reagan
narrowly won. Soon after being elected Reagan lived up his neo-conservative
billing by suppressing the Free Speech Movement on the Berkeley campus
of the University of California.
The protest was headed by a physics student called Mario
Savio. I remember listening to the radio news one evening and hearing
Savio exhorting a crowd of protesters from the top of a police car trapped
by them on campus for 24 hours.
At issue were information tables set up by students distributing
leaflets in support of all sorts of causes, including civil rights, and
opposition to the war in Vietnam.
Finally Reagan sent in the National Guard. The students
were forced to abandon their tables. But the brave stand they had had
made in defence of Free Speech heralded the beginning of the world-wide
student rebellion that in May '68 nearly toppled the French Government
under de Gaulle.
The first inkling I had of Ron becoming radicalized came
when he started going to meetings of the Socialist Labor Party in L.A..
My politics by contrast still were mildly left of center: a "wishy-washy
liberal" he called me.
One day we drove out to Watts, a suburb with a large proportion
of blacks, to be engulfed by race riots in the summer of '65. Watts was
a tourist attraction because of two towers erected in painstaking labor
from discarded soft-drink bottles by a local resident in his garden.
Having looked at these, we called on an elderly man living
nearby, a Russian émigré and prominent member of the Socialist
Labor Party. He'd known and fought with Lenin in the October Revolution,
he proudly told us.
Next, Ron started going up to Berkeley to take part in demonstrations
against the Vietnam War. And to smoke pot. Though later to do so myself,
this, at first, profoundly shocked me.
In summer '65, we decided to move to the Bay Area.
At San Francisco's Masonic Temple that fall, I, for the first time, heard Bob Dylan, having controversially just switched to the electric guitar; and at the City Lights Bookshop Allen Ginsberg, patron saint of the beat poets, reciting his famous poem "Howl." My hippie period had begun.