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.

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