A hometown is the neighborhood you feel resonates most strongly with you. I suppose it is usually your first town of residence, or at least one lived in during your childhood. I was born in Hollywood, which gives me great pleasure, spent a few years before any real memory in Echo Park, whiled away a bit of childhood in Alhambra, and once I was 16, lived in Irvine for 4 years. But I’ll always consider my hometown San Gabriel, where I lived from ages 3-16.
San Gabriel was very different back then in the ‘60s and early ‘70s from the way it is now. It was a community of around 35,000, I believe, with a predominant racial make-up of white and Latino, with a few Asians in the mix. Major memories revolve around typical small-town stuff. I took tap and ballet lessons at the Recreation Center. Performed in school productions at the San Gabriel Civic Auditorium. Took my first swimming lessons at Smith Park pool (I learned many years later my genius mad-scientist brother’s home-made, water-reactive explosive he launched into that innocent little pool in the middle of one night burned his eyebrows off—but that’s another story). I climbed the dragon-sculptured slides a well-known artist installed at the park. Played caroms at the little Girl Scout Shack. Watched little-league softball. Was first exposed to the heavenly pastrami delicacies of The Hat. And attended three schools.
I liked the town. It seemed manageable on bike. It seemed friendly enough. Back then, the air was very smoggy, backed up against the San Gabriel mountains as we were. But that’s all we knew. Downtown Los Angeles and Hollywood were pretty close, but unfortunately the beach seemed very far away. Our schools were fine. There was a gnarly side of the neighborhood “south of the tracks” which we avoided. Nothing drastic or strange happened in S.G., except for a gruesome mysterious murder in which a local boy and his mom were bludgeoned to death. Days later we learned the Scout-Master father in the family had done the deed, with a claw-hammer. We never learned a motive.
I had my first published piece of writing in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune. I won $10 for an epic holiday poem called “Christmas Trouble” in which Santa’s elves step up to boost production when needed. I’m flashing my buck teeth and wearing a headband in the photo, proudly holding my check.
Not long after we moved to Irvine in 1976, San Gabriel underwent a radical change. Many Chinese, and later folks from other Asian nations, came to the San Gabriel Valley. Now, the vast majority of the businesses have some sort of Asian connection and signage. And that which has remained untouched since back in the day seems surprisingly small and sometimes even a bit tired and worn. The mains streets seem rutted, the storefronts busy and blah.
I go back from time to time to get an infamous Chinese foot massage, and strong sweet coffee from a place on San Gabriel boulevard where proprietor Jimmy seems to genuinely recognize my face no matter how much time has passed. When I have the time I cruise by my childhood home—remodeled, but still there--on the corner of Chestnut and Euclid. My old high school is also still standing—apparently it’s for the less ambitious students. My former junior high was remodeled to be a new high school—that’s where all the voracious academic achievers are. God bless them. I hope they make fine, warm memories like we did on that same piece of real estate.
It gives me pleasure to think I grew up in a city with a Mission, though back then I held Catholics with considerable skepticism and ignorance. Now I am Roman Catholic myself, and I like the symmetry that I’ve taught for years in another city with a Mission—San Fernando. I don’t why that tickles me And finally, though it took me until just a few years ago, non-Spanish-speaker that I , I realized, “Duh! “San” means “saint.” Blessings upon all our hometowns.