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  • Writer's pictureGary Gruber

The Story Behind the Stories (Part Eight)

Los Angeles in the mid 70’s was a magnificent city. It was the good old days when criminals were arrested, tried, and incarcerated. While Hollywood always had a somewhat seedy side, even the heroin users were polite. During my first week there after ferrying myself and everything I owned on the back seat of Phyllis’ 1970 Camaro, I encountered a couple of sunken eye junkies in the hallway of an apartment building I was looking at.

“You don’t want to live here”, he said. It was that kind of refreshing honesty that gave California its twinkle for me. It’s unfortunate that I did not have the foresight to have asked them to sit for an informal portrait. It would have been…interesting. If only the butt-ugly Hawaiian drag queens living behind my apartment on Highland Ave. had been as forthcoming…

Me and my Honda 305 explored every nook and cranny within about a 50-mile radius of Hollywood, which meant EVERY Mexican restaurant, EVERY Chinese restaurant, and EVERY slice of pizza available. Phyllis and I spent lots of time in Westwood, nearly every Saturday evening. Back in the day, Santa Monica was so incredibly clean you could have delivered a baby on the sidewalk with no danger of infection. I’m talking not a single gum wrapper anywhere!

Even though Jerry Brown and CA. supreme court justice Rose Bird conspired to open the borders and the pockets of every legal citizen to our neighbors to the south of our border, it would be about four years before Los Angeles would achieve an air of notoriety for having 25,000 illegals in gangs, haunting the southland with all the crap that would eventually become the de facto shit-sandwich-standard for the next 40+ years.

I knew there was a problem the day I watched 12 Mexicans move into the one bedroom apartment next to me in Silver Lake. Don’t get me wrong, they were nice guys, but it’s hard not to notice something like that without the hairs on the back of your neck rising in a permanent salute.

I missed my neighbors when I relocated to the desert the next December – especially John and Ana, an older Lithuanian couple who made the finest horseradish on the planet. Not an exaggeration, my buddy Barry is Lithuanian, and he confirmed that only citizens from that part of the world have the skill set to make this fine accouterment.

A walk past their home had the nostril clearing effect which instantly alerted you that a pot of the good stuff was on the stove.

My involvement with the martial arts required weekly trips back to the city to continue training. In the 20 plus years I made frequent sojourns back and forth, I never ever had to pay for a hotel room. Between friends, family, friends of family, and friends of friends of family, I always had a couch I could park my badly beaten body on for a night.

Lou and Loretta, a delightful couple out in the San Fernando Valley regularly hosted me. The hot mess that the L.A. freeways are now would make this kind of travelling impossible today. The ‘sardines-in-a-can’ euphemism doesn’t begin to describe what it’s like to spend 90 minutes on Hwy 10 trying to travel the 20 miles between downtown and Santa Monica.

The entire family was gathered for the weekend when I was making the rounds one evening. Loretta’s mom was a lifelong friend of Phyllis’ mom, and nicer and funnier people could not be found anywhere. When they gathered for breakfast in the morning, all three of them (including Loretta’s daughter Keri) had long robes on. A klieg light went off in my head and I bolted towards the car to grab my 4 X 5 camera and tripod. The early morning light was stunning, so I set up in the front yard facing their wooden fence.

I told them it would be a family portrait; three generations of women. As they posed themselves in front of my camera, none hesitated, winced, or complained when I gently placed a paper bag over each of their heads. I quietly inserted a film holder into my Tachihara view camera and exposed a single piece of film. I then removed the bags and we returned to the dining room for breakfast.

No one thought what had just transpired was either unusual or odd. It was, well, just Los Angeles. I continued photographing Annie (the grandma) with her husband Eugene for many more years. They lived down the block from Christine, and always welcomed us in a manner consistent with the extended family Phyllis had maintained for as long as I could remember.

Annie was Northern Italian, a region noted for a richer and belt loosening style of cuisine that made for a more robust meal.

Any way you slice it, this was a mix of good hearted, loving, faithful to God people. They are all gone now, and the earth is a lonelier place, a sadder place. If their generation was to be represented by a single candle, extinguishing it noticeably darkened the sky above. I can’t for the life of me imagine the non-stop partying that is happening in Heaven this very moment.

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