Defining Moments: A Project

I’ve been wanting to do this for awhile: create a chrono-log of my memories as a native angeleno. From my earliest on up be it a recollection fuzzy or crystal clear, paragraph to novella in size, mundane or meaningful, it’s important that I attempt a compilation of my memories.

And so we begin with the earliest concrete bit of recall, and it is indeed a moment — and a fleeting one at that. Probably pretty mundane as well. Definitely fuzzy on the details such as when. I’m going to say it was 1967 mainly because I have pictures of me during my third birthday that year taken in the courtyard of the Hancock Park adjacent  apartments on Westminster Avenue just north of 4th Street. In one picture in particular I’m sitting in one of those old  pedal cars and holding a popgun rifle and not looking very thrilled.

If it weren’t for that photographic record I’d actually have no memory of my third anniversary, so thanks to those black-and-white images I can bracket an inexact timeframe for this memory. In other words I was either a pre-birthday two or a post three. Enough about that.

The memory is a simple one. After a bath, my mother had put me down for the night, but for whatever reason I was restless and unable to go to sleep. I was already well conditioned about crying and that it should only be done if there was pretty darn good reason and not being able to score some shut-eye on queue was certainly not one of them. Goodness knows I’d tried to add it to the list but all it brought was loud stomping up the stairs and a thrown open door where my mother’s backlit silhouette would ask what’s wrong and in telling my shadowmom I wasn’t sleepy she would respond gruffly and most seriously with the demand that I figure out a way to keep quiet and get sleepy and quick. That’s not meant as some sort of attack on her child-rearing skills, she just didn’t have the inclination to baby me and in retrospect I actually can appreciate that.

So instead, I kept my trap shut and my eyes dry and decided to just get up and grab a look around.  Having at some previous point mastered the art of climbing in and out of the crib I had long outgrown I clambored over the rail and down its side to the floor of the bedroom whose door was open a crack allowing in light from the hallway.

Mother was downstairs talking on the telephone and nothing beyond the door — the bathroom, my mom’s bedroom or the top of the stairs — held any interest for me so instead I padded across the floorboards to the window, which faced east, and looked out into the night.

And there it was that I saw a big blue bird off in the distance. It wasn’t a real bird, just a large lighted sign on the wall of a tall building however far away that had a bird’s head sideways atop a big round moneybag body.  There were some words around the sign, too, but I didn’t know how to read yet.

I have no clue how long I stood looking out the window at the sign and the night and whatever else might have caught and held my attention. Same goes with whatever thoughts might have been provoked by the view. But I do remember that when I got bored or sleepy or both I padded back across the floor, climbed up carefully as I could into my crib and drifted off perhaps to dream of giant glowing birds.

It wasn’t until many years later that I realized what I was seeing was Union Bank’s long-extinct logo high up on what had been their 22-story mid-Wilshire building on the southwest corner of Wilshire and Western. For awhile in the 1990s it was famous for its huge murals of Shaquille O’Neal and now the murals are gone and the high-rise is in the latter stages of being renovated into contemporary loft housing. When I was 13 I learned the apartments were torn down to make room for a box of condos; my first exposure to the erasure of landmarks to my personal history.

Below is a Google Earth still that depicts the line of sight between my toddler eyes at the proximity where the long-gone window would have been on Westminster and the sign’s location on the tower’s woefully windowless west-facing wall (shown here):

(click to enlarge)

Distance had little meaning to me as a child and I always thought the floating bird as far away as the moon and twice as big. Instead, it was but a half a mile away as a bird might fly.

And until this moment I never realized my relative proximity to the assassination of Robert Kennedy that took place another half-mile’s further flight away at the Ambassador Hotel a week after my fourth birthday — a date I happen to share with his brother John. Had I looked out the window that night? Or maybe the faint sirens stirred me in my sleep? Who knows. But I do know that after the shooting, Bobby Kennedy was taken to the nearby Hospital of the Good Samaritan. Where I was born, he died.