Covina and West Covina, California: Where I first dropped the dishes.

Covina Orange

I know that one person’s nostlagia  can be another person’s mind-numbing boredom. Sometimes the  things from the past that most touch us, that most bring us to life, are things which no audience — not even an audience of one — is eager to hear about.

So some of us keep a lot of our memories to ourself.  Or we try.

Last week, I had the still shocking experience of learning that one of my graduate students here in NYC grew up in the same southern California suburb I did, and that her family owned the Five Lanterns Chinese Retaurant, in Covina, California, the place I had my first job in 1965.

It's a UPS store now.

It’s a UPS store now.

I was a bus boy in that wonderful Chinese Restaurant, one of only two Chinese Restaurants for miles around in a suburb that — to this day — I recall as one of the least diverse places I have ever seen or visited.

The result is that, in the last week,  I have been overwhelmed with memories  of two  towns, West Covina and Covina, California, from which I had supposedly escaped close to 40 years ago.

Today at the former site of The Five Lanterns Chinese Restaurant: My First Job, 1965, Covina, California

Today at the former site of The Five Lanterns Chinese Restaurant: My First Job, 1965, Covina, California

I may have more to say later: For now, all I am feeling is the flimsiness of concepts  like escaping,  “getting away from it all,” or starting over. They may be occasionally useful in the course of a lifetime, but it seems that I have rarely  been able to truly escape or get away from anything.

Memories, joys, and hurts travel. And travel well.

I dropped an enormous tray of dishes at that restaurant. On a busy weekend night.  And until last week, that tray was gone forever.

It’s back.

A Tike style mug from The Five Lanterns Chinese Restaurant. I broke quite a few of these one night in December, 1965.

A Tike style mug from The Five Lanterns Chinese Restaurant. I broke quite a few of these one night in December, 1965.

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Life Magazine and the End of Innocence: April, 1968

dickand Jane

Think of every episode of Leave It to Beaver or Father Knows Best that you’ve ever seen.

Think of every stock photo and stereotype about 1950s and 1960s suburban America. Think about Dick and Jane reading books, gingham aprons, milk served in pitchers and cookie jars.

Think about kids lined up for polio shots, Ed Sullivan, and service station attendants wearing well-pressed uniforms.

It was not a complete fiction. I know. I was there.

But also – while you’re at it — think of whiteness, of blocks and blocks of white families doing white things, opening mail boxes to find magazines filled with stories about patio furniture and backyard BBQs and vacations in station wagons. And think of house after identical house, where any internal emotional turbulence or troublesome external social ferment could always be neatly hidden beneath the veneer of Cub Scout meetings, bake sales, and summer vacations.

Think of a whiteness so relentless that it was both everywhere and nowhere, pervasive yet so taken for granted that it could hardly be noticed. Imagine a place where you could come of age without ever seeing a black person in the flesh.

I thought of all these things – suddenly and without warning — in the middle of giving a lecture this Wednesday to 150 undergraduates about the rise of demographics, targeted media, and the death of mass circulation magazines. I talked about bloated audiences who, in their lack of demographic desirability, held no interest for advertisers starting to strategically target their messages. I thought of Life Magazine, on the verge of collapse. And I then I remembered the day that this issue arrived in our mail box.

Martin Luther King had been assassinated two weeks before. The event stunned and horrified us. I was fortunate to have parents who had taught my sisters and I about racial injustice. I still treasure the memory of one of my father’s finest moments when, hearing me utter an offensive racial remark at the age of eight, followed the charming fashion of the day and filled my mouth with a bar of ivory soap.

But we lived where we lived, and this magazine arrived like a live grenade. Martin Luther King, Jr. was dead, and now we had to look his wife straight in the face. We had to see her grief. Even worse, we had to contend with her serenity in the midst of the horror. We had to imagine her husband with his eyes closed, stilled and silenced.

I know that sometimes, in our zeal to construct compelling life narratives, we look back and overstate the significance of events. But I also know that nothing was the same after that magazine arrived. Our comfortable world had been pierced by the reality that rifles could silence a man’s passion and indignation.

And there is no dramatic or profound ending to this story.

Nothing magic happened. Miraculous revelations of tolerance were nowhere to be seen. There was no justice and nothing was flowing like a mighty stream. Our neighborhood stayed the same. Most people remained remarkably skilled at maintaining a willful blindness that obscured the anger and ferment brewing in distant places.

But never again could we claim, at least not with a straight face, that we knew nothing of that other world where guns were fired and justice denied. It arrived on the cover of a long-defunct magazine, and somehow we sensed that the dream deferred, festering like a sore yet so invisible in our blindingly white world, would soon explode.

Any of You Use the Internet for Time Travel? I Do.

I have to ask you a question. 

I have been using the Internet for almost a decade now in sort of a strange project. Very early on, I realized that digital tools could make it very easy to find lost friends, people from many decades in the past who had somehow touched me, and even to locate people who had caused me pain.  It has been an astounding journey, full of surprises and sadness and sublime joy.

And what I wonder is whether any of you have had this same driving desire to use the Internet to find people.  What kinds of discoveries have you made? Have you been knocked for a loop by the unexpected paths taken by people you find?  Have you learned things about people that were unexpected, or maybe even life-changing? 

I have so many stories to tell that a colleague has been suggesting that I write a book. I have come to see my hobby as a kind of time travel or excavation of the past. Sometimes I call it “personal archaeology.”  And some of my “digs” have led to truly jarring discoveries. Others have lead to powerful insights about my own past and present. Is this something any of you do? 

Two quick stories. 

1. I am fortunate to have had many wonderful teachers in my life.  But in 8th grade I had a genuinely abusive teacher who belittled me and demeaned me and caused me great pain. I have always planned that some day I would tell him how he hurt me, but he truly did disappear. Until several months ago.  Now my dilemma is whether I contact an 85 year old man in a nursing home and tell him the deep sadness he caused me. Or is the fact that I am even debating this a sign of my own failure to process and resolve such an old wound? 

2. As a late adolescent, I knew one guy who was revered as a golden boy. He was an athlete and a brilliant student and handsome. Yet he also had another little problem: He viciously and relentlessly sexually harassed young women. If you knew him at all, you despised him. If you saw him from afar or knew him only superficially you were dazzled. Three years ago I decided I needed to know the life path that someone like that took. Did he end up dazzling or disintegrating?

Actually both: Sometime after medical school, in the midst of a successful practice, he was charged and convicted as a sex offender. While I still rage over a society that was so blinded by the light that they enabled or overlooked his violent misogyny, I felt that my early suspicion and loathing was, however belatedly, confirmed. 

Have any of you gone in search of people?