Mental map

We all keep a mental map of the places where we grew up. All these years, “my Los Angeles” has remained preserved by teenage memories. It consists of my old school, two malls, the bowling alley and the ice skating rink. Each of my friend’s houses is on the map, as is the beach—not so much the sandy part filled with sun worshippers, but the boardwalk that runs from Venice to the Santa Monica pier. The bookstore where I worked for three summers in a row is on the boardwalk—and, just a few blocks up, Main Street, with its shops and cafes. Everywhere else, where someone else might perceive a vibrant city, I saw outskirts and filler. Now and again I would accompany my dad and stepmom to some place downtown or in Hollywood and a new spot would be added to my map—though how it fit with the rest was vague. The house where we lived was the center of the map, like a tack holding everything else down.

Now, in returning to Los Angeles, I hoped to superimpose another kind of map on that same space. I had a list of every synagogue within a 10 mile radius of my dad’s house. Several of the synagogues on my list I recognized—in particular, one on the Venice boardwalk and another on Main Street. I had walked passed them hundreds of times and, if I gave them so much as a passing thought, it was to lament the injustice of so unexciting a building daring to interrupt my window shopping. Some synagogues on my list I didn’t know existed and, yet, they were adjacent to landmarks on my mental map—one near the bowling alley, another a few blocks from the ice skating rink. Others were located in the blur of city, and I resorted to a street map of West L.A. to put them in context. I realized this venture would most likely render my mental map obsolete by providing a new frame through which to see the city, a spiritual skeleton I hoped to flesh out.

When I left for college, my three-year-old brother Alex wasted no time in taking over my old room; our house was two bedrooms and he had been residing in the dining room-turned-nursery all his life so I suppose it was only fair. Now he was grown and out of the house and I took over his old bedroom. “Take that!” Some long-dormant aspect of my teen-self snapped as I fell back on his bed.

I was staying so long that I actually unpacked.

My dad wandered in and suggested we drive the short distance to Santa Monica. He wanted to search for the concrete slab on which he claims to have helped me write my name in back when I first moved to Los Angeles. I had no memory of writing my name in wet cement. I couldn’t decide what was more surprising: that we had engaged in this subversive bit of bonding or that my dad remembered it. I knew the sidewalk my dad was referring to because it had tons of names and ran the length of an old apartment building a few doors down from where we had lived. Back then, that apartment building had been occupied exclusively by Hasidic Jews. I was curious to find my name, but I was even more curious to see if the Hasids still lived there.

23 thoughts on “Mental map

  1. “I realized this venture would most likely render my mental map obsolete by providing a new frame through which to see the city, a spiritual skeleton I hoped to flesh out.” Love your map intro and how it fulfills its promise in this sentence.

  2. When I read your description of where each Synagogue was, the first thought that crossed my mind was “It’s just like in Texas – the smaller the town (area), the more different churches there are!”

    I hope your name is still there, and the Hasidic population you remember. I’m betting they are!

    Yours in Christ

  3. Corrina. I think L.A. is the perfect metaphor for your journey so far. Each time you visit a different church, you find a new perspective and, quite often, an otherwise hidden gift. L.A. is a lot like that; you never quite know what’s around the next corner or what another neighborhood has to offer. I hope you found your name in the cement—and a bit more of what you’ve been seeking on your journey!

  4. So glad your dad is “with you” in a part of this journey. Glad you could see yourself and him through his eyes. Such a boy thing– writing in concrete. And he included you. 🙂 Can’t wait to hear what you found and if the Hasids were still there!

  5. OK, so, I feel cheated!! I’m waiting to see the name, that part of yourself that lies embedded in the territory!! I’m not so far from my old haunts that I can’t set out on a lark on a free day and take such a journey….I’ve done that more than once. I grew up in Eagle Rock (North East L.A.), and have occasionally set off to seek some childhood memory. Occasionally I’m rewarded, as when I drove around a neighborhood in Hollywood looking for a church that some friends took my brother and me to when I was about 6. There is this curious corner in my brain that uncannily remembers places I’ve been, and I remembered certain landmarks (hadn’t been there since perhaps 7 or 8 yrs old). I rediscovered this church, which is now, guess what: a synagogue!

    • Loved your comments, Walt. Yes, things change. Not long ago a friend and I who both had some roots in Glendale at different time periods decided to drive over and visit some of our old haunts. He was showing me places he had worked and lived in Glendale and I was showing places where I had lived, worked and worshiped. I remembered that Glendale had one of the grandest Christian Science churches I had ever seen. Very Greek looking with the big Corinthian columns out front. I guess architecturally one would call it Greek Classic. As we drove by it I saw it had become an Armenian church. Later I read that Glendale was a place where many Armenians emigrated to. When I turned 50 I decided to return to my childhood home, Newport, R.I. It took several days but every day I walked the entire city and visited several childhood haunts that I had dearly loved. Among them St. Mary’s church where the young Kennedys were married. Also I have always loved America’s first Synagogue, Touro Synagogue which I had visited during my high school years as part of a group of students belonging to the Newport History club. It played a role in the underground railroad for slaves making their way to Canada. I walked the beaches I had walked on and played on. It was a very rewarding thing to do.

    • Walt, I remember playing on the hillside behind my grandmother’s apartment house on Laguna Street just across from Echo Park, and old wooden St. Athanasius church on the corner. Funny thing is, I had no idea Sister Aimee’s temple was just up the road until I was an adult. My grandmother loved Brew 102, a cheap, foul beer concocted in a very sketchy brewery just off the 101, dangerously close to a huge gasometer–she bought that sludge by the case. My wife and I were walking the Boardwalk area Corinna described about a year ago. Like you, I get re-acclimated pretty quickly to old familiar territory. Maybe its another way God helps us the Return to the clearer and simpler times of our youth.

    • Hi Frank and Tim:
      I remember both those churches you mentioned, particularly the Greek columned Christian Science on in Glendale. My Grandma lived on Maryland a couple blocks away, and I remember passing that grand, mysterious building all the time I was growing up. And Yes, Glendale now has more Armenians than any place on earth, I believe. Even their consulate is there.
      Tim, I’d forgotten about that old wooden church til you brought it up. It seemed out of place, like some pioneer cabin in the midst of 1950s modernity. As a kid, we’d go over to Echo Park Lake to go on the boats, and I’d wonder after the Angelus Temple….the name ‘temple’ was scary to me for some reason….can’t tell you why. And Brew 102….there was one bottle that my dad kept in the fridge and never drank for some reason. It was there literally for a few years. I think my mom finally threw it away after my dad died….it was half frozen!! I regret never asking her why it sat there so long….

      • I took my first illicit drink when I stole a sip of grandma’s brew as a kid. Probably explains why I’ve never been much a drinker…

        • You guys are killing me! Your exchange was so delightful….humorous….sentimental…..and certainly showed how tightly we hold our childhoods/young lives. But you are all such “city boys.” My mental map of my young life was very different in texture. My Grandfather homesteaded his farmland in the early 1900’s and built a home for his family….my Dad and Mom built our home right beside the first house in the mid-century, so I grew up not knowing much at all about blocks and the buildings that you all remember. I did gain a very healthy sense of spirituality on this land, however, and my sisters and I still have ownership of it, although it is farmed by someone outside of the family….No boys to take over….and none of the 4 of us “girls” wanted to be wheat farmer’s wives. I actually fled to the city and really have never left! Although, I love going back Home….and being a part of the land and the big sky and the wonderfully mysterious geology of Central Washington State. It is always good for my Soul…or whatever I might call it. It opens me up and I am grateful that this place and this experience is still there for me.

          But this is where I needed to put that rear view mirror comment! Looking back is always interesting, but may not reflect the way things actually were….for example, Shelley and the short lockers and tiny drinking fountains. And the wonderful discovery of Corinna’s about something that her father remembered that had not really made it to her mental map. My older sister and I often talk about this phenomena because we were pretty much raised the same way in the same time and the same place, but we have some pretty start differences in how we saw things. We bring ourselves….our experiences and our individual ways of looking at things into the reflection every time.

          • Yes, we are all unique even when we grow up in the same family. When they were all alive I use to enjoy hearing my mother and her seven sisters recall their young lives. The three oldest had much different stories to tell than the four youngest. Sometimes I wondered if they had lived in the same house. But here and there there is usually a thread that weaves an interesting family tapestry. Because I was the first born of all the cousins that followed I have often felt like a bridge from one generation to another. These days I laugh at myself as I realize I am now over the bridge. One of the best gifts they all gave me was the ability to laugh at myself. We had a lot of laughter even in the most trying of times. I miss them all. My mom who was a middle child has outlived them. She is 94, healthy except for a mean case of arthritis and very mentally alert. I sometimes smile at current health concerns. Here’s a lady who always ate what she wanted, never took a vitamin pill, never exercised, gained a little, lost a little and loved to dance. She still has all her own healthy teeth. She was told she would never have another child after me because of some problem with her uterus. She never gave it a thought until she had my brother seventeen years later. Life is good even when it doesn’t seem like it.

            • Frank, I do agree with you: there are strong threads that run through all of my sisters and me, connecting us to each other and, in our case, to the land. Goodness, I can’t imagine eight sisters. It is a challenge sometimes with the four of us! How rich for you to have such a family……I come from a “woman-dominated” family, myself. My cousins are female, too. It is interesting to talk with friends who have brothers in their midst. Very different in many ways.

              I also grew up in a family where humor was valued. Thank goodness. Not jokesters…not pranksters….just kind of an understated, dry humor. This is one thing that keeps me alive and moving forward. I have laughed at myself often times, but I am also a pro at dark humor. Not everyone gets that, however.

              • Hurrah for the humor noir. One of the fortunate things I find in the category is how often it seems to play only to me. Moments of irony or humor discovered effortlessly, tickled into consciousness by circumstance, revealed in some synchronicity that may (and frequently does) violate an element of taste, protocol. or just plain niceness. Thank God I’m usually able to avoid outward expression except for the occasional meeting of eyes across the room that acknowledge “Yes, we’re unique, but there is also an area of commonality.”

            • My two sisters and I were born about 8 to 9 years apart from each other–I guess my parents liked to pace themselves, so we, too, have very different memories. I was the youngest and our family had already moved to the OC before I came along, but both my sisters grew up in L.A. So, we all had very different perspectives on our childhoods. The house I grew up in is between my current home and my workplace, and every now and then, I drive by. Like Shelley said, it looks a lot smaller now than it did when I lived there.

              Reflection is good if you can put it to use today; otherwise its just nostalgia. I think all of us idealize our childhoods to some degree, but like St. Paul said, there comes a time to put childish things behind us. Occasionally, I participate on another blog that discusses historic L.A. buildings and neighborhoods. Some of the members are the “I wish we could go back to those times” types, but others point out that, for its ills, this is the time and world we live in, and we need to deal with it on its terms, not the way we wish it could be. Besides, the old days weren’t that rosy–segregation, epidemic illnesses, unrecognized pollution, and that evil Brew 102, are part of the past as well. I’ve tried to keep the things of value and let the rest lie in distant memory.

              • So agree about the idea of reflection being useful if you can put it to work….to make changes or to re-engage with a course of action. But sometimes it is just fun to take a bit of time to think about how things were when…..Doesn’t mean we want to return to those times and places…for sure….. I hope not….. no…. never, thank you very much! MET

                • No way-zits, cracking voice, awkward first dates…yuk! But I did have a bitchin’ 1965 aquamarine Chevy Biscayne with raised white letter tires and air shocks that could jack it way up in the back. And a wicked 8-track tape player!

                  • Mine was a 1949 Ford convertible—-cream colored with a cream top. Prone to air locks in the gas line which it would exhibit in hot weather at the most inopportune moments. It was used, for sure, but what a beauty. Stick shift, of course. And it could get up and roll on those long stretches of country highways. A ’49 model was only good for a radio! That was a good time. Thanks for reminding me! MET

                    • And to bring this back to topic….I was realizing that my mental map was, by necessity, expansive, not compact. Although we lived next door to my grandparents, the nearest neighbors were a mile away as the crow flies. My best friend through elementary lived several miles away. I have lots of “mapping” from my young years just around the farmstead, but after that, cars were required to get anywhere. I think that my experience is similar to farm kids everywhere….as yours obviously was to those of you who grew up in the city. Different perspective on the same topic.

  6. I think it’s so interesting how our childhood mental maps encompass such small areas, relative to the cities/towns in which we grew up — yet everything seemed so vast. And whenever I’ve gone back and visited those places, they always seem so small! Case in point, my elementary school always seemed so huge. I can still see the auditorium, the gym, all my classrooms… and they appear and reappear, disguised, in my dreams all the time. But when I went back to visit, I kept cracking up at how short the lockers were, how low the drinking fountains, how short the steps! Of course I was small then too, but it was fun to juxtapose the “real” school in my memory, which shall ever live at the “original” size, with this familiar but somehow not quite real school.

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