Gardena – First entry of my WIP memoir

I have been enrolled off and on in a memoir writing class over the last year or so.  During that time I have written several vignettes, dealing with various subjects, parts and times of my life, working off of whatever popped into my head in the days before the next class assignment was due.

Throughout that stressful process I had been struggling with how I wanted to organize those stories in a way that might make them interesting for my audience, which essentially means my two daughters.  They both know a lot about my immediate family, mainly my mom and my sister, as my girls have spent a lot of time with both of them over the 25 years of their own lives.  They are both acutely acquainted with my own self-image and my cynical sense of humor.  However, as young women of the millenial generation, I don’t think they, like many of their peers, have much appreciation for or understanding of the struggles and challenges faced by their foremothers, especially those like myself of the baby-boomer generation.

In the end, at least for the time being, I’ve decided to organize my stories chronologically as much as possible. Fortunately for me, then, I have already written the first story I wanted to tell about the beginning of my life, which took place in Gardena, which is thus also one of the Places of My Life.  Here it is…

I have a lot of good, but hazy memories, of my childhood in the small town of Gardena, California.  Those memories include a range of the usual neighborhood activities, though my childhood home was situated in an unusual location which was not ideal when compared to current standards and preferences for raising a family in safety.

Gardena is a city located in the South Bay (southwestern) region of Los Angeles County.  Some believe the city was named for its reputation for being the only “green spot” in the dry season between Los Angeles and the sea.  Gardena officially became a city in 1930 when it incorporated itself as protection against a heavy county tax imposed on a planned park project.

Gardena is bordered by two cities, Torrance and Hawthorne, that big beautiful park developed by the county that Gardenans didn’t have to pay for, and two neighborhoods, Athens and Harbor Gateway, that are officially part of the city of Los Angeles.  Athens (and I didn’t know till now that it had a name) is a predominantly black, heavily Hispanic, relatively prosperous unincorporated community.  All the schools in Gardena were part of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest public school district in the nation, with a reputation for extremely crowded schools, large class sizes, low academic performance and incompetent administration.

Harbor Gateway (as it was renamed by the city of LA) is a narrow north-south corridor situated approximately between Vermont Avenue and Figueroa Street north of Interstate 405, and Western and Normandie avenues south of I-405. The territory was acquired by the city of Los Angeles in a shoestring annexation, specifically to connect San Pedro, Wilmington, Harbor City and the Port of Los Angeles with the rest of the city.  Despite being part of the city of Los Angeles, some parts of Harbor Gateway have a “Torrance, CA”, “Gardena, CA” or “Carson, CA” address because they are serviced by those cities’ post offices. This is where I lived from my birth, on Wednesday, April 26, 1955, until we moved (a whole ten miles and ten years later) to Torrance, so my sister and I could complete our early educations in a better school system.

503 w 157 realtorWe lived at 503 W. 157th Street, on the corner of a busy main street, Figueroa. Fig ran along the side of our house  and the street in front of our house was the entrance to the neighborhood.  Fig was on the side of the house you can’t see in this photo, which I can’t believe I was able to find today online, so maybe the house still looks like this, as it did when I lived there! No matter what they’re called today, like subdivisions or some such other high-falutin or modern terms, I will always associate happy memories, wherever I live, as having taken place in a neighborhood.

Kitty-corner from us across Figueroa was the Spanish American Institute.  I guess I really never knew what went on there, I just knew, or at least I think I can recall, that a small herd of cows may have been housed or stabled there.  I had no idea at the time what function the cows may have served at the institute but we could smell them and touch them and I think maybe even ride on them, unless that was just a figment of my childhood imagination that I choose to hold on to, among others.

sai cattle being examined by bob  kathy hedges
There really were cows across the street!

Our neighbors, both close by and farther afield, encompassed a variety of family sizes, arrangements and ethnicities, during the first ten years of my life that my own small and homogeneous family lived in this little house with the carnations (which had a beautiful smell) and geraniums (whose smell made me want to puke) that grew in the ground along the non-busy side and the large fig tree that anchored the far corner of the brick enclosed back yard.

Gardena, like many of the suburban areas of Los Angeles, now probably falls within the category of urban sprawl but, back in that idyllic time, it was one of the new bedroom communities rising out of the rich California farmlands that were initially cultivated by Japanese and Mexican families.  I know that my family, Dad and Mom, added a master bedroom and bath, with a fashionable walk in closet, to our house, probably around the time my sister came along, about 4 ½ years after me.  I also know that two very different families, in almost every possible way, had lived next door to us in that ten year period, on the other side of those flowers and brick wall.

The first family there was the Millwees and oh my god!  They were four typically rambunctious blonde and freckle faced boys.  Mom was Esta, an unrefined woman who spoke with maybe a slight Okie accent and had the dusky dark skin tone and long lanky physique to match.  Dad was Don, Sr., a construction worker or some other outdoor manual laborer of that time and place, like maybe an oil field operator.  I don’t think he was around very much; he had to work a lot to support that large and active family.  I remember the two older boys, Donnie and Brad, and how I would halfheartedly chase them around the grass and the yard and up the fig tree, sometimes even walking dangerously balanced along the brick fence that separated our ordered backyard from their chaotic one.  Most searingly, my most ingrained memory of trying to act like one of the boys is the one where I stepped off the fence into their backyard, in my rubber go-aheads, only to encounter a nail sticking up out of a block of wood there that ended up with its point embedded in my foot.

On the other end of the spectrum was the second neighbor family, a pretty traditional Japanese one.  Theirs, like ours, was composed of a mom and a dad and two little girls.  I don’t remember a lot of details about those people, but image of the beautiful, colorful, large and sort of exotic Japanese dolls, encased in glass, that were prominently displayed in that home, made a long lasting impression on my by then expanding and inquisitive mind.

I think the neighbors across the street were Filipino, with a grandma who nurtured a beautiful rose garden.   I remember proudly bearing a few of those fragrant colorful blooms to a favorite teacher, with the stems wrapped in a wet paper towel to preserve them, surrounded by aluminum foil to preserve my fingers from the thorns.

I don’t think I have ever again lived in such a relatively small geographical area that encompassed a similarly large diversity of neighbors.  This early exposure to the variety of colors and languages of America’s citizens probably, especially in retrospect and in comparison to the places we lived while my kids were growing up, opened my mind and my heart to appreciating all of our wonderful differences!

El Camino (Junior) College

El Camino College is a two-year public community college located in the unincorporated area of Los Angeles County known as Alondra Park.  In 1907, the California State Legislature, seeing a benefit to society in education beyond high school but realizing the load could not be carried by existing colleges, authorized the state’s high schools to create “junior colleges” to offer what were termed “postgraduate courses of study” similar to the courses offered in just the first two years of university studies.  I often learn new information from Wikipedia about my hometown and home state and, even though Wikipedia does not vouch for the accuracy of its facts, I know from personal experience that ECC was really thought of as the local high school extension program when I graduated from West (Torrance) High in 1972.

The El Camino Community College District was officially established as of July 1, 1947 and today serves nearly 23,000 students of a diverse background mostly drawn Southern California’s South Bay, including the cities of El Segundo, Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach, Torrance, Lawndale, Hawthorne, Lennox, Gardena, and Inglewood.  Wikipedia lists the following diverse group of celebrities as ECC enrollees, though most did not graduate before they left school to pursue their dreams and finally gain financial success and public acclaim:  Frank Zappa (avant garde musician, Rock N Roll guitarist); Brian Wilson (Beach Boys founder); Chris Montez (singer); Suge Knight (Rap impresario); Fred Dryer (Actor, producer and former football defensive end in the NFL); Bo Derek (actress and celebrity);Chet Baker (jazz trumpeter and vocalist).

Many members of my school’s class of ’72 planned to “attend” ECC, which really meant they planned to register for classes to satisfy their parents’ post-graduation requirements that they either get a job or go to college.  Many of the surfer dudes and dudettes who matriculated in the local So Cal beach cities, plus a few Valley dudes and dudettes, briefly flashed their proofs of registration at any of the many local Junior Colleges, then merrily skipped out to play and party for as long as their parents bought that excuse as justification to continue to provide financial support to these older, but still juvenile in many ways, delinquents. “JC’s,” as they were dubbed by high school guidance counselors  who recommended them to these kids and their parents in hopes that some might benefit educationally, or at the very least be kept off the streets as bums, were very nearly free then, too, which was an added bonus for all concerned.

A brief history of California’s public education philosophy and resulting systems reveals that in this area my home state has for a very long time demonstrated forward thinking and a leading edge approach rare among its peers, one which continues to this day, even in today’s trying economic and social environment.  A collegiate “department” of Fresno High School was set up in fall of 1910.  This later became Fresno City College, which is the oldest existing public community college in California and the second oldest existing in the United States. In 1921, California passed legislation which allowed for the creation of community college districts and launched the current model of community colleges that would now offer general education courses for which knowledge and credits could be transferred to four year colleges and universities. The first ever transfer student was from Modesto Junior College and transferred to Stanford in 1922.

I never attended El Camino as a fulltime regular student at any point in my undergraduate, graduate or post-graduate educational programs.  That doesn’t mean, though, that I didn’t ever take advantage of the free, or at least very low cost, educational opportunities available to any and all Californians through the community college system.  I know I took a math class at ECC at some point, which I initially thought may have been a trigonometry class that I know is generally a pre-req for calculus, a subject which is now a requirement for admission to most of your better MBA programs.  I dodged that bullet, though, as it was not a requirement at UCLA’s Graduate School of Management when I applied there in 1978.

I have always done well with accounting, or any figuring that revolved around dollars and cents i.e. “real” numbers.  I struggled through basic Algebra in high school, which may have been a class that I repeated at ECC.   I really never progressed past basic Algebra, though I may have tried to do that at ECC.  I never understood made-up numbers, like sines or cosines or tangents, when I first encountered them while trying to prepare myself for grad school, just in case I might have needed to know at least what they were.  I might have been living in either the Los Angeles City College (LACC) or West Los Angeles (Community) College when I tried trig.  I don’t recall for sure, though, probably because I was so confused by just the full and proper name of that daunting subject.  I do recall, though, taking professional certification courses in contracts management at WLA, where I also clearly remember meeting a 6”8” dapper fellow student who was not a basketball player, or any other type of athlete, I don’t believe.  We went on exactly one date, where I learned that a Cadillac was the only standard automobile that could accommodate his length behind the wheel.  That guy and that date and that semi-related story were clearly memorable to me since I still recall all those details, though probably not to him since he never asked me out again.

Last in my ECC saga is a story that came to mind as I was writing this post, which I related to Husband as a reminder and a clear indication of the value my family put on education, along with a statement about how much it cost them to help me achieve this goal, even back in the 1970s, when college costs were considerably lower than they are now.  As I was graduating with my BA in International Relations from the University of Southern California, a private school which was very expensive then in relation to public universities, a gap which has closed considerably in the 21st century, my mom said “Look, my arm is staring to grow back,” by which she meant that she and Dad had been paying “an arm and a leg” to send me there.   My more reserved and ever-practical father took the opportunity to tell me, at that late date, that he wished I’d gone to El Camino first and then transferred to USC.  Thanks to Hubs and Dad for reminding me of one of the latter’s more endearing qualities.

The 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education was a turning point in higher education in California. The state funded four year college and university systems were to limit their enrollments, yet an overall goal was to “provide an appropriate place in California public higher education for every student who is willing and able to benefit from attendance”, meaning the junior colleges were to fulfill this role.   The Master Plan for Higher Education also banned tuition, as it was based on the ideal that public higher education should be free to students (just like K-12 primary and secondary education). As officially enacted, it states that public higher education “shall be tuition free to all residents.” Thus, California residents legally do not pay tuition. However, the state has suffered severe budget deficits ever since the enacting of Proposition 13 in 1978, which led to the imposition of per-unit enrollment fees for California residents (equivalent in all but name to tuition) at all community colleges to get around the legal ban on tuition. Non-resident and international students, however, do pay tuition, which at community colleges is usually an additional $100 per unit (or credit) on top of the standard enrollment fee. Since no other American state bans tuition in public higher education, this issue is unique to California. In the past decade, tuition and fees have fluctuated with the state’s budget. For much of the 1990s and early 2000s, enrollment fees ranged between $11 and $13 per credit. However, with the state’s budget deficits in the early-to-mid 2000s, fees rose to $18 per unit in 2003, and, by 2004, reached $26 per unit. Since then, fees dropped to $20 per unit, down $6 from January 2007, which was the lowest enrollment fee of any college or university in the United States.

Of course, that was almost ten years ago now, and I know, again from personal experience, that those costs, or fees, or tuition, or any combination thereof that they are called now, are going back up again.  I know this from my youngest daughter, the possible future psychiatrist, who recently completed refresher courses in biology and physics at Santa Monica College, yet another two-year, public community college located in the greater LA area, as preparation to hopefully perform well on the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) which she plans to take for the first, and hopefully last, time next month.

The caliber of the student bodies, the challenge level of the coursework, and the competition for admission to any and all of the fine and still comparatively low cost institutions of the California Community Colleges System (CCCS) have risen dramatically since my spotty presence there during the 1970s and 80s.

California Dreams

There are so many facets of California, both mythic and real, that created, nurtured, formed and molded me.  My beliefs, my politics, my continuing education, my standards of living with and being among people anywhere and everywhere, are deeply rooted there, in my experiences and more importantly in my memories.

I grew up in Southern California and lived there for the first fifty years of my current sixty-one.  I was born on April 26, 1955, at Daniel Freeman, a Catholic hospital which no longer exists, in the city of Inglewood.  I lived with, my parents and younger sister, in Gardena.  We moved to Torrance in 1965, where I graduated from West (Torrance) High School in 1972.  I completed my BA in International Relations at The University of Southern California in 1976 and my MBA from UCLA in 1980.  I had various jobs in Hawthorne, Los Angeles, Torrance, Seal Beach, Downey, Lakewood,  Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach, Huntington Beach, Cerritos and Los Alamitos.

When I met my husband, who’d come to live with his brother in California in 1972, he owned a home in Long Beach but before that he’d lived in apartments in Fullerton.  He’d had various manufacturing jobs in other local areas and was currently working at the port. Our first home together was in Lakewood.  Both of our daughters were born at Long Beach Memorial Hospital.  Our family moved to Huntington Beach in 1994, and we lived there until we moved in 2006.  My mom moved to California in 1944, traveling by train from New York with her parents and younger brother.  My dad flew to California from Germany by way of England in 1945, with his single mother so that they could join her older sister and her family, who had been lucky enough to find their way to the Golden State of opportunity several years earlier, before their family and home were decimated by World War II and the Holocaust in Europe.

After the famous Gold Rush to the West in 1849, California’s name became indelibly connected with fast success in a new world, the “California Dream.” California was perceived as a place of new beginnings, where great wealth could reward hard work and good luck. The notion inspired the idea of the “American Dream.” For people flooding the fields there, California promised the highest possible standard of life for the middle classes, the skilled blue collar workers and small farm owners. Poverty existed, but was concentrated among the migrant farm workers made famous in The Grapes of Wrath, who were seeking the dream, too. It was not so much the upper class (who preferred to live in New York and Boston). The California Dream meant an improved and more affordable family life: a small but stylish and airy house marked by a fluidity of indoor and outdoor space, such as the ubiquitous California bungalow, and a lush backyard—the stage, that is, for quiet family life in a sunny climate. It meant very good jobs, excellent roads, plentiful facilities for outdoor recreation, and the schools and universities that were the best in the world by the 1940s. Even if, for many if not most migrants to the golden state, “the dream outran the reality, the California Dream (was and) is a love affair with an idea, a marriage to a myth.” Even today, observers report a common stereotyped perception that people are happier in California, a perception anchored in the perceived (though I have experienced it to be real) superiority of the California climate.  Later cultural phenomena – the rise of the Hollywood film industry, Silicon Valley, California’s aerospace industry, the California wine industry and the Dotcom boom – continued to feed into the California Dream during my lifetime.

The Spanish explorers originally thought that California was an island.  After all, the name California comes from a mythical, some might say dreamy, Spanish island ruled by a queen called Califia that was featured in a Spanish romance written in 1510.  California is the most populous state in the United States with the nation’s most populous county and its second largest city.  The state is bordered by the other U.S. states of Oregon to the north, Nevada to the east, and Arizona to the southeast.  Unlike most of the country’s “flyover states,” California shares an international border with the Mexican state of Baja California to the south and of course the vast Pacific Ocean is its entire western frontier.  California’s diverse geography flows from mountains in the east to coastal beaches, islands, bays and cliffs in the west, from the redwood forests of the northwest, to desert areas in the southeast. The center of the state is dominated by the Central Valley, a major agricultural area. California contains both the highest point (Mount Whitney) and the lowest point (Death Valley) in the contiguous United States.

Mount Whitney
Death Valley

Mount Whitney (l), the highest point in the Contiguous U.S., is less than 90 miles(140 km) away from Death Valley (r), the lowest point in North America

The state’s current and modern economy is centered on the “clean” and “shiny” businesses of finance, government, real estate, technology, science and other “professional” services, though its “dirtier”  agriculture industry has the highest output of any U.S. state. If it were a country, California would be the 8th or 9th largest economy in the world, and the 35th most populous.  California is the 3rd largest state in the United States in area, after Alaska and Texas, and itself is often geographically bisected into two regions, Southern California, comprising only 10 large and diverse counties, and Northern California, comprising 48 additional more homogeneous counties.  Its Sierra Nevada mountain range embraces Yosemite Valley, famous for its glacially carved domes, and Sequoia National Park, home to the giant sequoia trees, the largest living organisms on Earth.

As part of the Ring of Fire, California is subject to tsunamis, floods, droughts, Santa Ana winds, wildfires, landslides on steep terrain, and has several volcanoes.  Earthquakes are common because of the state’s location along the Pacific Ring of Fire. About 37,000 earthquakes are recorded each year, but most are too small to be felt.  Although most of the state has a Mediterranean climate, due to the state’s large size, the climate ranges from subarctic to subtropical. The cool California Current offshore often creates summer fog near the coast, especially famous in San Francisco but also a moderating climate factor in the other major coastal cities of San Diego and Los Angeles, though more so in many of the beachside suburbs listed above, where I lived for most of my youth and adulthood.  Just a few miles inland, though, summer temperature extremes are significantly higher, with downtown Los Angeles and other famous and infamous interior suburbs and cities, like Pasadena, San Bernardino and even beautiful downtown Burbank, where Johnny Carson once reigned, being several degrees warmer, and smoggier, than at the coast.

Brentwood, Tennessee (not California)

Brentwood is an affluent neighborhood in the Westside of Los Angeles, California.  As a member of a group of nearby neighborhoods that are affluent, it is known as one of the “Three Bs”, along with Beverly Hills and Bel Air.  This Brentwood is now most famously known as the site of the 1994 stabbing death of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, by her ex-husband, the now infamous, O.J. Simpson.  Brentwood is also a city and an affluent suburb of Nashville located in Williamson County, Tennessee.  This Brentwood is little known outside of the Nashville area, unless you’re an already wealthy local celebrity or an aspiring country music star.  I certainly didn’t know anything about the Brentwood in Tennessee, until we made the difficult decision to Relocate there in 2006.

Husband had been working for the same large company for 25 years.  We were both in our very early 50’s when husband’s employer told him they were moving from the L.A. area to the Nashville area.  At first, I didn’t want to go.   My entire family lived in California, I had a good, cushy and flexible job, and I was spoiled by the whole situation, but knew we would not be able to stay in California unless husband could find a good new job that he might like to do for the next 15 years at least.  In 2006, I had been working for a small company for almost 10 years, and for the last five years of that part-time, which gave me a lot of flexibility as a parent.  Our two daughters were of high school age; one about to enter and the other with two years to go.  We reluctantly decided that a move at that time would be the least disruptive of our looming unsavory options.  After all, Tennessee’s climate is relatively temperate.  We thought there would not be too much snow in the winter, compared to the far northern US, and not too much heat and humidity, when compared with the Deep South.   There was no state income tax and the overall cost of living in the Volunteer State was low compared to the Golden State.

We started house hunting in Brentwood in late 2005.  We’d decided to settle there since it was touted as having the best public schools in the Nashville area.  I might have known right off the bat, though, that this city would end up being not my kind of place, when the realtor made a point of emphasizing that it was only a day’s drive from the beach, by which he meant Florida.  Blind and overwhelmed fool that I was, I assured him that this fact was unimportant, since I’d lived near the beach all of my life but didn’t go there very often anymore.   More so, I should have taken a clue as to the pending uncomfortable affluence of the place when he showed us houses in a private gated golf course community and a home formerly owned by a current country music superstar, on that first visit.   It’s amazing to look back on it now, but the golf course homes were “too much” and Trisha Yearwood’s house was not enough, maybe because she didn’t have kids, I guess.

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Snowfall in February 2006, when we signed the purchase contract

On our second trip, we finally settled on the purchase of a home The Highlands of Belle Rive, the third or fourth subdevelopment in one of the town’s older subdivisions i.e. after Belle Rive I, II and III.  Passing the signs with fancy-shmancy subdivision names, like  Carondelet and Concord Hunt, Fountainbrooke and Fountainhead, The Governor’s Club, King’s Crossing and Princeton Hills, should have been my second clue that this city would end up being not my kind of place.  This was also the first time I recall ever hearing anyone use the term “subdivision” and we’d always lived in usually unnamed and untitled i.e. anonymous neighborhoods that, if anything, were identified by the closest major intersection.

The HOBR (Highlands of Belle Rive, the very fancy title of our swanky and exclusive-sounding “subdivision”) and our new house, on a quiet interior corner, and steeply pitched, lot, did have beautiful views, ready access to Brentwood High (3.5 miles down the hill) and the Deerwood Arboretum (1.5 miles up the hill).

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Photo of view taken from our patio, the only flat spot in our backyard!

When we completed the second of our two moving trips in the early summer of 2006, we made two startling new discoveries, both courtesy of my mom who had come out to help us settle in, inspect the place, and prove to herself that it wouldn’t be too hard to visit us in the future:  (1) Two of our new neighbors were also California transplants due to relocation by the same employer and (2) summers in Tennessee, even if it wasn’t Florida, could still be extremely hot and really humid.  It was so uncomfortable to be outside, even in the evening, that none of us felt like going to the park down the hill to watch the July 4th fireworks.  Mom was also the person who bestowed the title “The Beverly Hills of Tennessee” on fair Brentwood, after she found out what it would cost to finish the basement.  This ended up being nearly a third of our purchase price, mainly due to the city’s requirement to have a bedroom window for egress and where our classy and meticulous contractor found a boulder that required a few weeks between storms to remove.

School started in August and in September the HOBR HOA held a Labor Day get to know you potluck supper up the hill at the closed end of my new short cul-de-sac block.  By then, the weather was closer to comfortable and I met some of my more-established neighbors on that socially level and financially egalitarian playing field, including some young transplanted (from Seattle and New Orleans, I think) entrepreneurs who took pity on my lonely soul a few years later by employing me to write some of their press releases on contract.  Found out when I was working for them that they were also Emmy winners who kept a condo in a downtown Nashville high rise as their office space.  Still pretty fancy for this California bumpkin!

By now the reader may have an inkling that, as noted in Wikipedia, Brentwood, Tennessee, is also known for its rolling hills as well as being one of the wealthiest cities in America relative to the average cost of living, and is also Tennessee’s best educated city, proportionately, with 98.4% of adult residents (25 and older) holding a high school diploma, and 68.4% of adults possessing a bachelor’s degree or higher (2010 Census).  On top of that, Brentwood is located in  Williamson County, which is ranked among the wealthiest counties in the country. In 2006 it was the 11th wealthiest county in the country according to the U.S. Census Bureau, but the Council for Community and Economic Research ranked Williamson County as America’s wealthiest county (1st) when the local cost of living was factored into the equation with median household income.

As I set out to “find myself” in this strange new place, this atypical California girl encountered many unexpected roadblocks, which proved frustrating to my pursuit of new friends in real time, i.e. in my five year residence there, but, in the comfort of my current and comfortable 20/20 hindsight, I now find them to be oh so understandable.

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