I’ve probably written about this incident before, but I’m too tired to verify my redundancy so if the tune that follows sounds familiar, sorry about that. But even if I have repeated myself, I’m writing about it again because I draw a measure of comfort from it since in some ways presently I’m in a similar place, facing a journey (but one far longer than 2.5 miles) into the unfamiliar toward a goal whose location I believe I know or at least hope I do – but I’m not quite sure.
I was 8 years old. Second grade. I don’t remember what school holiday it was but with the day off I was given the opportunity by my mom either to accompany her shopping on the Miracle Mile at the May Company and Ohrbach’s and Standard Shoes, or spend the morning at the Beverly Hills YMCA on Little Santa Monica Boulevard, fully at the opposite from where we lived in an apartment south of Wilshire Boulevard just inside the eastern limits of that city.
It was a no-brainer. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the department stores. In May Company I played this game for as long as I could get away with it where I’d hide on the floor in the center of those big circular clothing display racks and I’d wait until a particularly lovely leg came within my reach and I’d reach through the outfits and grab myself a handful of ankle. The ladies weren’t so keen in playing so the game lasted usually for one ankle, maybe two. Both usually accompanied by startled yelps that would bring an end to my fun either in the form of a clerk and/or my mother arriving.
But the trip was bound to also include a visit to the Home Silk Shop where my mom could stand and stare at bolts of fabric and packages of Vogue patterns for hours on end.
So it was the YMCA that beckoned me and the plan was for me to occupy myself there until my mother could retrieve me after getting her fill of stuff, however long that took. That would have been no problem given the number of kids and the variety of activities that usually can be found there… carroms, basketball, gymnastics, tumbling, crafts. But it turned out there was a problem. I found this out after giving my mom a kiss, hopping out of her 1965 Mustang, slamming its door and sprinting to the Y’s entrance as she drove off down the street to the Fairfax Avenue department stores.
I found the front doors locked. Apparently the YMCA had taken the day off, too.
In a moment I was barreling down the street in the direction of my mom’s receding car, yelling after her and waving for all I was worth. But the frantic attempt to get her to see me in the rearview mirror was in vain and I stumbled to a standstill in front of the Friar’s Club building at the corner watching the metallic blue sedan get smaller and smaller until it made a right at Wilshire and disappeared out of sight. I stood there, and for a few desperate moments I was the loneliest boy in the world.
I returned to the Y’s door and tried to open it again, but it held firm. I looked around for any signage that at that point in my young life I could barely read, but found none. I knocked politely on the door. Then I knocked impolitely. Then I pounded on it with my 8-year-old fists hoping perhaps someone might be inside, but if there was anyone there they either ignored the noise I was making or didn’t hear it.
Leaning with my back against the door I slid down to a sitting position on the sidewalk with my knees pulled up to my chin. Scared. And angry. But far more scared. And beneath it all: bored. Despite somehow knowing that it was my duty to stay put, the thought of sitting there for hours upon hours upon hours until my mom returned soon become too much to bear, and I rose to my feet looking in the direction which she had gone.
Keep in mind, I was a veteran pedestrian by that time — they called me: The Latchkey Kid (cue the western music) — having walked to school at Horace Mann Elementary and back for more than a year since my first day of first grade. But Horace Mann was a scant nine blocks away. The Beverly Hills Y was much farther beyond my known and familiar perimeter.
And without more than a moment’s hesitation, I set out to walk home. Certainly I was in foreign territory and the navigational concepts of left and right or east and west and distance were still a ways out of my intellectual grasp, but I knew Wilshire was the street off of which I lived and whether it was common sense, an innate directional capability, stupidity, or dumb luck (or perhaps a bit of all four), I knew I could find my way home.
And I’m not kidding about my intellectual grasp. As an example one has only to look at the pride I had around that same time in my early development and reading comprehension in deciphering the name of a rental car agency across the street from Horace Mann, whose huge sign I passed regularly was one I had struggled to figure out. Eventually I decided triumphantly that its pronunciation involved two distinct syllables that formed words of their own.
Passing the brightly lighted sign one evening I proclaimed “Look mom: Bud Get!” from the back seat of the Mustang heading home. Preoccupied, my mother simply replied, “That’s nice,” nonetheless an affirmation that of course left me mispronouncing the word for however long it took until I absorbed the phonetic rule that a “d” and a “g” worked together in making the “juh” sound.
Boy did I feel like an idiot with that revelation.
As to how far that Bud Get sign might be from the corner of Little Santa Monica and Wilshire, I couldn’t even imagine as I stood there. Fortunately though, I turned in the correct direction and proceeded towards my destination.
I’d like to regale you with the high drama that must have certainly accompanied the oddyssey of an 8-year-old boy trekking by his lonesome across the breadth of Beverly Hills. Surely there must have been encounters with mad dogs, and grumpy old men, jaywalking, escapes from bullying teens and rescues of damsels in distress. But this is a work of nonfiction, and frankly, the only thing I remember during the heroic walk home — spent obeying all laws and signs and looking both ways before stepping off a curb — is that it took a lot longer than I expected, and I was becoming tired and disheartened enough in those last few blocks leading me to the Bud Get sign that I began to worry and doubt myself. Had I gone in the wrong direction? Is it much farther than I’d imagined or hoped? Am I… lost?
But then I got to Robertson and I saw the fence bordering Horace Mann’s playground and next I swung my head in the other direction and caught sight of the sign there across the street, and I knew I was home free. I counted down the nine subsequent blocks crossed and turned south on Tower Drive for home. letting myself triumphantly into the apartment with the key I never left home without.
The television and my toys conspired to drain away the ensuing time until my mom charged through the front door in the mid-afternoon yelling my nickname — Twig!? — even though I was right there on the couch in front of her playing with my dinosaurs. Her relief that I was safe narrowly defeated the anger and fear I saw in her eyes, and she swept me up in a big hug first before plopping me back down in the couch and demanding to know what happened.
“I walked home,” I said.
“You what!? Why?”
And I told her basically what I’ve just told you.
She was blown away. And to be honest all these years later, so a little still am I.
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Mentioned Landmarks: The Beverly Hills YMCA is no longer there; the building still stands and above the large gym window one can still see the organization’s triangular logo built in to the wall, but the space is now occupied by the Beverly Hills Community Sports Center. Obviously a personal landmark than a cultural one, the Budget rental car branch on Wilshire just east of Robertson Boulevard rented cars at that same location until the past year or so when about half the block was demolished and is currently in the midst of redevelopment as some sort of office complex. And yes, even after learning the word’s proper pronunciation, in all my times passing the place up until its destruction I called it “Bud Get.” Lastly, the poor Friars Club building, a 1961 modernist masterpiece from architect Sidney Eisenshtat was razed earlier this year, in part because the city of Beverly Hills has no protections for its historic resources.