Finding the Fatherland in Torrance
Although I often think that I am a typically rootless Californian, having only recently landed here, the truth is I have nearly a century of family history in the state. During my sojourn to southern California, I connected with various strains of my family, all connected by my great-grandfather -- "little Mr. Biggs" (he was barely five foot tall) -- who arrived here shortly after World War I in Torrance.
Torrance is a place where so many others I've known (Bryce Digdug, Friendatella, Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights) have roots. I've driven by it many times, glancing over at its towering oil derricks yet never felt compelled to actually enter this city where my great-grandfather brought many of his 10 children through the years while he wandered the country hitch-hiking, getting into bar room brawls and managing to shirk responsibility.
All of his children have been gone for nearly a decade, and on Thursday one of my cousins from Riverside took me to meet his first and oldest living grandchild, a woman of 99 whom I'd never heard of until recently. Her home was supposedly a museum to our family history, and I wanted the chance to meet her, especially since I'd heard that her health has been fading. She has recently been moved to an extended care facility that is in a private home in Huntington Beach. Two sweet Nicaraguan women greeted us and told us that she was napping but to go ahead and say hello. We knocked on the door and heard no response but entered, seeing a small bed with a mound of covers. My cousin boldly rustled the covers and then lifted them to unveil a tiny near-centurion without her teeth or glasses. A bit disoriented, she soon knew who my cousin was, and then I was introduced. I explained who my grandfather was, and she immediately responded "Oh, I used to play with Lucille." My heart nearly stopped. Lucille was my father's parents' first born child, who died in 1914 from a tragic accident at the age of three. I had never known of her as anything but a painful memory that caused my grandmother to leave the room in tears at the mention of her name. The tiny woman on the bed shared a couple of stories of playing with dolls and kittens with Luceille, and then my cousin reached for a pile of papers on her bedside that she had wanted us to have.
They were three essays she wrote in 1922 -- the year my father was born -- recounting the family's journey across the country to settle in California two years earlier. The descriptions were vivid and poetic, especially for someone only 12 when they were written. A polo match and chamber recital at the Broadmoor Hotel (which had opened only three years earlier) in Colorado Springs, the foul-mouthed, dirty oil field workers of Amarillo, a handsome Navajo boy's profile caught nearly romantically outside of Taos and a dirt road leading from Arizona into California were all captured with pointilistic detail.
My 99-year-old cousin is likely the young girl in the nautical hat above. My dad is the baby being held by his father, and his mother is the woman in the center with her head turned. This photo was probably taken around the time the family headed west, and my great grand father is the mustached man on the right.
Later that evening, I caught up with a dozen cousins in eastern Orange County, seeing my father's face reflected in almost half of the room. Amazingly, I had met only two of the relatives in the room, separated by thousands of miles and nearly 80 years of parallel lives until this journey.
Today, I felt compelled to actually enter Torrance -- a town that has produced a quirky list of celebrities that include Quenton Tarantino, Michelle Kwan, porn star Lucy Lee, several NFL, MLB and MLS players, Bill Clinton's brother Roger, a few NASCAR stars and guitarist Larry Carlton.
So I slipped over to where our family first settled in the late teen at 1321 Carson Boulevard, a mix use business of tax service, insurance and who knows what. It is surrounded by Circus Doughnuts, car washes and tire repair shops, panaderias and sushi joints.
With only minutes to spare I headed north to the famed Alpine Village, about a half a mile north of where my family first arrived in the west. Bryce Digdug often raves about this oddity on the Pacific. I've been to the "Danish village" of Solvang in northern Santa Barbara County and have enjoyed it tackiness. The Alpine Village makes Solvang look like a UNESCO cultural heritage site. When I arrived, I saw several thousand cars for a swap meet where people were sorting through rags. When the Filipino security guard asked if I were there for the swap meet, I responded that I was there for the Alpine Village and he looked a bit shocked. He pointed me to the parking lot where there were five other cars. I wandered around this odd, odd place and into its shops filled with large German women and smelling of must. Each spot smelled of mold, filled with dusty Hummel figurines or sun bleached copies of Der Spiegel. I managed to purchase a special memento just for Bryce and then headed north to LAX where I was greeted at Avis by a sea of swine flu obsessed attendants in surgical masks.