The old liquor store is gone now. It has moved down the block into a new building of glass and over-sized synthetic brick. In its place is a dry-cleaning store, closed and shuttered now for some reason, and then a parking lot, much diminished since the old days, and then the new store. Through the window you could see some customers inside and the wine racks in the back, but no one behind the counter witha familiar face-no one to say welcome back.
To get to the store you have to drive through a part of Los Angeles that has nothing to do with movies or television or the houses where the stars live. Instead, you drive past the houses of aircraft workers-places where colored rocks are scattered on the roofs and the dull outside walls are lit at night with colored lights. You drive down among the oil terminals, the harbor, warehouses and oil rigs pumping slowly and presumably lucratively and then, soon, you get to the store.
There was a man who owned a store once. He was family and I worked for him. I sold liquor and beer from behind the counter and theater tickets, too. In the afternoons I would take the Ford van and I would make deliveries. I would climb the steep hills in second gear, pausing at the top to take in Catalina Island, marveling at every turn at the beauty of the sky and the sea and the perfect weather. Ever since, I have had California on my mind.
In the mornings, the old ladies would come into the store for their pints of gin or vodka. They would hold themselves up with immense, exagerated pride, their raincoats concealing housecoats underneath, their feet still in bedroom slippers, pink, fluffy things, sometimes, and they would take their pints and pretend they were buying it for a friend, someone maybe they were renting rooms to and they would shuffle off, their bedroom slippers making that sandpaper sound on the floor.
In the evenings, the relative who owned the store would go home to his house on the hill and he would make a fire. It would be cool-even in the summer it would be cool-and he would build a fire by lighting gas jets in the fireplace and afterwards you could sleep under blankets-no air conditioning. On the weekends, they would take me to visit other relatives, someone in the canyon and they would talk to me, this person from the East, as if I were a child. They would speak carefully, explaining things, talking about the weather and saying, in the manner of a parent telling a child that someday I would feel different about things, that California was inevitable. Someday, they said, I would come here to live. It was fated.
All the time, they talked like this. It was a theme-an obsession. There was one man, a cousin in meats-wholesale and retail-who came at me all the time, a one-man chamber of commerce. He had a house with a pool and he took me on his motorcycle one day and drove me around the foothills and they dipped quickly toward the sea. We cut through a canyon and hit the sea weather like a brick, the shock of the cool air nearly knocking me off the saddle. He laughed at that and when turned and headed back toward the heat. He was the only cousin I ever had who drove a motorcycle.
Those days stay with me. I think of them when the first snow has turned from a novelty to a constant pain, when the pipes freeze and then burst and the water is in the basement, when the car goes dead of frostbite or, in the summer, when the heat and humidity weigh on your shoulders-a little gift from Mother Nature to the dry-cleaning industry. It is then that I think of my old relatives and I imagine them sitting by their television sets, listening to weather reports about conditions back here and saying something like tsk, tsk. It is, I know, inexplicable to them.
But there is an explanation that has to do with work and people. I would to tell them that the work is where I live-that the weather isn't terrific but the work is there. I see them nodding their heads, understanding but not understanding. Saying, in their own way, that someday the work will let you down but a nice day is forever. That is what California has been for me-California, the West, the countryside. It is a way of questioning this dedication to work, this business of placing everything else second-your family, the place where you live. It means not living in a place where you can park at the top of the will and see Catalina Island.
So I drove by the store just to see the place, to go back in years and somehow put myself back behind the counter and wonder about the path taken since them-the road East and the choice of work9 I went past the store and then up the hill and looked at the water, shimmery and metallic blue, and then the sky, a deep, lovely blue, and felt the weather and saw the flowers and somehow wanted one of those old relatives to still be there, wanted them to know that if ever I come back it's not because they were right or I was wrong but that I had been defeated. CAPTION: Picture, County Executive Gilchrist has been in office 132 days