I had targeted today as a time I could visit some of the homes I have lived in, to say goodbye, before moving from California to South Carolina. I whipped through the early morning obligations, then hit the road to Lynwood.
In the early 1920s, Arthur Burk bought two plots of land in the barely incorporated wheat fields, named after a local dairyman’s wife. His body had left the Missouri Ozarks to move to California, looking for a better chance in life. His heart never made it, and his various clunkers traversed Route 66 many a summer, going back to visit his heart.
He was so po’ he couldn’t afford the last two letters of the word – and that was before the Great Depression hit. He was a union carpenter and made enough to start building a house on one of the lots. He could usually afford to buy two more boards every week, after the bills were paid.
He moved his wife and mother in as soon as the house was wrapped with tar paper, and the rough subfloor was laid. They carefully saved the tops cut out of tin cans to nail over the knot holes in the subfloor, to minimize the number of rodents indoors.
This was the house my dad was brought home to, and where we lived during our occasional furloughs. Counting my children, five generations of Burks lived there. I lived there when I was 3, 9, 15, 19 and mid 30s.
Lynwood is a Prophet city and never does anything by halves. In the 1950s and ’60s, it proudly claimed the title “All American City.” That was social code for the fact that the Whites were deeply racist, and the realtors were exceptionally committed to keeping the town White.
It was the quintessential “Leave it to Beaver” middle class city, disconnected from many realities, smug in their self-absorption. Attractive. Safe. Bustling. At risk. Clueless.
The State of California decided to build the most expensive (and one of the most poorly built) freeways in the world, Interstate 105, which cut through the southern part of the city.
This resulted in the loss of a lot of taxable property, and the creation of low value zones next to the freeway. The Blacks from Compton began to move into the cheap housing, driving property values down some more.
The Whites divided. The politically and economically unengaged, fled. White flight drove property values down fast and hard. The White government officials doubled down on every form of political shenanigan to remain in power.
Eventually the Black community took over, the tax base crumbled, crime spiked and when my family and I last lived there, after Grandma fell and broke her hip, it was a bloody, broken town. Drugs and violence, ugliness and hate shouted relentlessly.
Just before we moved out the last time, the Hispanics began to move in and the race wars that were slightly covert between Blacks and Whites became old west shootouts between the Hispanics and the Blacks, typical of any wounded Prophet town.
The drug trade was highly profitable. Both sides wanted to control it. Corruption soared. The seven term mayor went to prison for 188 months convicted of 35 counts of extortion, fraud, money laundering and making false statements to investigators
In time, the Hispanics won. The Blacks fled en mass. And the middle class Latinos took over government and drove the Hispanic gangs out. Lynwood is once again a middle class community. No graffiti. Lots of nice cars. Most houses remodeled and upgraded. Hundreds of mom and pop businesses striving and thriving as they redefine the community.
Only the proliferation of fences and guard dogs keep us aware of the fact that the cruel days are still well within memory.
Cars were more abundant than curb space. I parked and walked back to 11259 Pope Ave. It was nothing like when I lived there. The current Hispanic owners had changed out all of the old windows, enlarging them, stuccoed over the wood siding, and had planted a small forest of trees on the two lots.
A LOT of money and love went into that house after we left.
The lawn was deep green, manicured and obviously loved. Grandpa would have smiled. He despised watering devices and treasured standing in the yard in the evening, watering with a hose.
I pondered my roots there.
It is a city that has produced more than its demographic share of fiercely competitive people.
Venus Williams; Duke Snider; Pete Rozelle; Kevin Costner; sundry less well known athletes and entertainers.
Grandpa was stubborn in his convictions in his own fairly quiet way. He just didn’t budge.
When he died, Grandma stayed in the ghetto, living alone, without a dog or security system — and tried to learn Spanish in her 80s so she could communicate more lovingly with her neighbors.
And their sons, and grandchildren, and great grandchildren are not exactly blowing in the wind types, either.
It was there, in the worst years of Lynwood’s history, that I spent my three years of the dark night of the soul. It was there, in a stupendously delegitimized community, that God met me in that historic encounter and established the core message of my own legitimacy – even while I was so broken.
I walked the neighborhood for a while. Few things survived unchanged. The Will Rogers Elementary school that my sister attended for Kindergarten. The Chevron station. And the Jack in the Box.
I went in and bought a vanilla shake I didn’t really want. Just to spend a buck there.
But really, nothing had changed. It is still a Prophet city. And they have a drive for excellence. And they have dreams and will bust their knuckles to make them come true.
New faces. 77% identify Spanish as their first language at home. New look. Same town.
I had seen enough. No need to wander through all my old haunts, like I had planned to. Lynwood is in good hands.
And I can take with me my heritage. It was there that heaven visited my hell.
And never left.
I drove from there to La Mirada where Ann and I first lived in a two bedroom apartment. At the time, it was called San Bruno Terrace. It was a friendly little community. Generic.
It was a slap in the face to see the walls, fences, gates, security cameras and nasty signage all over. La Mirada is still a very low crime neighborhood. What’s up with all this hostility?
I was surprised that I could not walk to the corner unit we rented. The memories of the layout of the place are too far to the back. Or maybe pruned.
I went back to the car and pondered who I was then.
Ann and I were young, full of love and life and we had it all together.
I worked graveyard, got off at 7:00 a.m.. I raced home to give her a kiss and the car keys, then jumped on my bike to make it to my 7:30 journalism class at Biola University, while she took the car to her job.
We had life whipped at 20. We were devout Commie-hating Americans. Both our dads had served in the war. We were Christian members of the best denomination in the world.
We had drunk deeply of the mantra from both our Depression-era families: go to college, get a job, work hard.
We had the formula. We were going to arrive.
I remember my shock when my uncle ripped us for the unmitigated gall of having a two bedroom apartment, as newlyweds. THEY had lived in a studio apartment and paid their dues in life, moving up slowly. Who did we think we were?
Well, certainly not graced with any humility or poverty spirit, that was for sure.
I pondered the 20 year old I was.
Dumber than a rock. Building castles in the air with foundations of fantasy. Naively believing the cultural drivel. Running headlong toward some pretty rough stuff because of cluelessness.
But we were happy. Life was good. We drew great comfort over our deep investment in the mutually held dream that would never work. There was an abundance of shallow joy as we crossed paths occasionally on weekends, and celebrated our dreams.
Young love. So beautiful in its simplicity, in the years before bruises and scar tissue and fear and failure twisted it like a pretzel.
So how do I see the 20 year old me? What frame do I use?
I don’t know.
I drove away from there deeply conflicted.
I battle sincere stupidity in others, year in and year out. Sincere stupidity is simply not a currency that spends well with the devil or the bank or your boss.
But the (hopefully) wiser me, scarred in spirit, soul and body, lacks a lot of the ability to enjoy and love life the way Ann and I did in those early years.
How to frame it?
I drove to the neighborhood called “The Rocks” in La Mirada. It was next to the auto salvage yard and the oil refinery. When the wind blew from the west, we suffered through the sulfur smell that is the quintessential brand of refineries.
Back in the day, we could “assume” a VA loan without a credit check. A vet was moving out under duress, so we hocked everything but our shoe laces and moved into our first mortgage – I mean home.
I began my love affair with fixing broken homes there. “Fixing” is a very loose term. Still there was a satisfaction over being homeowners.
The American dream was working. We were on our way up. Hard work was the secret and we were up for it.
During that time, I was working for a Christian organization and was struggling with the poverty spirit, dishonest handling of money and the blatant, ruthless politics going on.
At the time, I really second guessed my decision to leave there and go work for a secular company. In retrospect today, there is nothing to second guess. It was a good move.
Emboldened by my minor successes at patching a wall here and there, we rented that house to a bunch of Biola students and bought a mega-fixer in Buena Park.
The stucco was painted black. The trim orange. The yard was a jungle. And the interior of the house needed sooooo much help.
I was full of myself. The bank was foolish. We bought and invested vastly more time and money than the market could bear.
Roland was born there.
And the dream began to die there.
I went through my first church split during that time and still loathe the memories of people using the Bible as a machete to slaughter others in the name of God.
I am a fighter.
But that was beyond repulsive.
Today, the property is significantly upgraded from what we invested there. I arrived in time to watch the housewife piddling around the yard with the body language of someone who has a home, not just a house.
It was a hug.
In the midst of the pain, there are a lot of great funny/dumb memories of all I learned about remodeling in that place.
Last stop for today was a funny little house we bought after selling the other two.
It was a tiny old house, tucked in between two sets of apartments. We set to work turning it into a thing of beauty.
And we did.
Such mixed emotions there.
My life was coming undone. My emotional and physical health were quite ragged.
Through it all, I was playing as hard as I could to make the house better than it could be.
And I succeeded. It was a lovely little bungalow when we sold it and ‘most everything else, as our family of three fled the area in dismal defeat, seeking to restart in Oxnard.
So much pain during that time, but when I look back, it is one of the most true-to-me seasons of my life.
I played to the very last down in the ball game. Never took a knee. I left an offering of my nature, my passion for excellence, for the next person who would never know what it cost me to finish well.
No ambiguity there.
I lost my place in the society. A rather dramatic failure at 26 years old.
I left true to myself in one area that mattered a lot.
Much to ponder.
The seeds of the 26 year old’s failure were there in that happy, loving, visionary 20 year old.
How do I frame him?
I still don’t know.
Copyright April 2018 by Arthur Burk