By Henri Bensussen
The Saturday Evening Post, July 14-21, 1962
It’s late afternoon on a Sunday, as we drive west on Washington Boulevard, when the sun is down behind the buildings but the streetlights are not yet on. Crowds of people move along the street and all have dark skin. Mostly its men, leaning against the bowling alley wall, walking by the barbershop, and the cigar store that sold comic books and Dad’s pipe tobacco. We pass by the little grocery where Mom bought meat from the friendly butcher, who used to tease her because she knew nothing about cooking, and the music store where Mom took me once to pick out any record I wished. I chose “A Child’s Introduction to the Orchestra,” because what did I know about music, the real kind, not the songs we sang at summer camp.
We turn at the soda fountain on the corner, closed and empty, onto Third Avenue for a view of the house that once held us and now holds unseen strangers. When we lived there the house seemed bigger and sprawling, and everyone we knew was white. When Mom took us kids downtown on the street car, I had noticed that as we crossed Normandie Avenue everything looked more crowded; people with darker skins sat at apartment windows looking out, as though that was the only space they had. Mom tried to explain it to me. “That’s the color line,” she said. “There’s a law they can’t live on our side of it.” Was that true? I couldn’t always trust what Mom told me.
Growing up in L.A., I’d learned early about difference. As a girl, I learned boys were more valued and got more freedom. We were Jewish, and I learned our neighbors tolerated us as long as we didn’t bother them by being loud, or walking on their lawns. Mom told us stories about being the only white girl the black girls picked for their softball team at L.A. High School; she was quite proud of that. Our family was good friends with a Mexican family that lived on the “East Side,” and we often visited them. As a child, Dad had emigrated to the U.S. from a Sephardic ghetto in Turkey, where the language was like Spanish. Mom’s relatives teased him about it; they were from Chicago, had come to the U.S. much earlier.
There was a lot of talk at my grandparents’ house when our extended family got together on weekends, talk about how “the colored” were moving in to white neighborhoods, about property values. An uncle had finally been able to afford a house for his family; now he would have to sell it, but where would they go, how far would he have to drive to his job? Listening to all this, it seemed to me odd that people from different backgrounds couldn’t live together on the same street; we were all humans, weren’t we, all of us strange one way or another?
One summer day I walked north, across Venice Blvd., to visit my friend Grace, and on the way passed a small house that had been vacant. A girl with black hair in braids was playing in the front yard, but as soon as she saw me she ran inside. Grace lived a few blocks farther, upstairs in a four-plex with her mother. Her bedroom had twin beds with bedspreads, even though Grace, as an only child, didn’t have to share with a brother. We sat on the carpeted floor to trade playing cards. I liked landscapes and Grace liked horse pictures.
The apartment was calm and quiet, like Grace. She had straight, fine hair the color of honey, unlike my unmanageable waves. Her teeth were straight and white; she was always clean and neat, her knees smooth and unscraped. I never stayed more than an hour, which I heard measured out by the ticking clock in the living room.
On my way home, I stopped at the house with the new girl and knocked at the door. “Can your daughter play?” I asked the woman who answered, but the woman shook her head. The door closed before I could add the word “Please.”
Much later, after marriage at 18, I met a black man where I worked who explained how the color line was broken. He called it “block-busting.” Real estate agents would find a black family willing to live in a white neighborhood, and a seller willing to accept a good price. Black agents paired with white ones. Before long, one white family after another would sell, at any price, and soon there would be houses for any black family that wanted to buy or rent one. For decades bankers used “redlining,” a so-called rule they agreed upon among themselves, to deny mortgages to blacks, as a way to keep blacks from white neighborhoods, but that rule was gone.
I wondered, noticing how his voice softened and his eyes focused on the sky rather than on me, if that was his golden time, when money came flowing in and being a real estate agent was a lot more like being a bandit in the Old West than what he did now, which was packing supplies in the shipping department where we worked.
I had missed our old house, with its sturdy walls and large kitchen, its fig trees and dirt driveway; I missed the school I’d been going to and the new friends I’d made there. Was that a golden time for me? To have a set of friends, classes opening up the world, learning how to not be shy. It was like pushing a re-set button and having your life start over, in the right direction. When we moved out to the Valley, into a large housing tract, going to an over-burdened school with too many students, the re-set button jammed; it was film flying off its reel.
We were all moving, the uncles, aunts, and cousins, spreading north, south, west; there was no longer a center that drew us together. Our weekly visits to the grandparents disappeared. I learned there’s no going back. Time erodes the past, like trucks gouging holes in the right lane of the freeways. The only way to survive is to speed ahead in the fast lane, into the future and your destination, even if you don’t know your destination.
When Dad sold the house on Third Avenue, the first one on our block, he said he was forced to do it before its value went down. He sat with the agent, a white man in a suit, at the big table in the dining room, with its paneled mahogany walls, built-in oak cabinets and brick fireplace, to sign the sales contract. It was nighttime, as though these signatures, this sheaf of papers, were a secret transaction to be done under cover of darkness. After the man left, Dad turned to me. “I had to do it,” he said.
Henri Bensussen writes from personal experience; leaving L.A. has been a guiding principle since teenage years--a wish to escape the family dynamic. After 17 years on the Mendocino Coast, she now lives in Santa Rosa, CA, which has many creeks but no ocean. She may get back to the ocean some day, maybe in the form of ash. In the meantime, the sunshine is overwhelming. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.