One day I was 8 years old; then the world turned upside down: How a high-profile homicide in our quiet suburb changed everything.

I have often spoken about a traumatic childhood experience that — as much as anything — is responsible for my lifelong interest in the intersection of crime, media, and culture.

When I was 8 years old, growing up in the Los Angeles suburb of West Covina, our community was stunned by the news that a well-known, respected physician had conspired with his mistress to murder his wife. The doctor, Bernard Finch,  was eventually convicted of first degree murder. His mistress, Carole Tregoff, was also found guilty.

The trauma for an 8-year-old kid was the sudden realization that what seemed safe and reliable and true could have a sinister and hidden underbelly, that good people might actually have secret lives that could be horribly flawed and even terrifying.

Today this seems obvious. The digital age has rendered privacy and secrecy almost extinct. It is harder — not impossible, but harder — to hide ominous secrets.

But this revelation about Dr. Finch turned our community upside down and I was immediately and permanently captivated with how frenzied news coverage could overwhelm our  small community.  In fact, I even began a scrapbook of coverage of the murder trial which, when discovered by my grandfather, set off a major debate in my family. Was it healthy for little Stevie to collect gruesome crime news rather than baseball cards? Ultimately, my grandfather settled the whole business by offering me $10 ( a lot in those days) if I would throw away the crime news and start a Los Angeles Dodgers scrapbook. I took the money, but from that day on I never lost my interest in the impact of a high-profile crimes on communities.

I wanted to share a link to a story about the case in the latest issue of Los Angeles Magazine. An Internet friend of mine growing up at the same time in the San Gabriel Valley, Gary Cliser, is responsible for the story and shares my fascination with the case. Gary is also an absolutely remarkable historian and collector of photographs  that tell the visual history of both the Finch case and the larger experience of growing up in a postwar California suburb. You should check out his work.

All I know is that one day I was 8 years old, and then the world turned upside down.

My life was never the same.

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Books, the Burbs, and Me: On Discovering John Updike

I saw the strangest thing Friday.

While visiting an assisted-living facility for the first time  (I,  happily,  am not – at least for now  — the potential resident!),  we were  taken to a model room designed to show off the place to its best advantage. One touch that immediately caught my eye was a pile of books, obviously placed to stress the amount of time that would be available for quiet reading.

This would have been no big deal were it not for the fact that the “prop” book on the top of the pile was John Updike’s shattering Rabbit at Rest, the last of the four Rabbit Angstrom novels that tells of Rabbit’s  turbulent and emotionally charged Florida retirement. Without spoiling any of the plot,  his is a retirement in which any looking back is at a trail of unrealized dreams, infidelities, and opportunities missed.  Rabbit in Florida has not completely run out of what filmmaker Tom Joslin called “the steam of life,”  but the voracious sexuality and mischievousness of his youth is a distant memory.

Rabbit at Rest as an incentive to signing up for assisted living? Probably not a good choice.

But this did remind me of John Updike, who died in January, 2009  after a distinguished and prolific career as a critic, novelist, and poet.

I grew up in an middle-class  Southern California suburb in the 1960s,  and  for most of my late adolescence had no idea that any serious writers either had ever placed their characters and their conflicts in suburbia.  The fiction we read  conjured a distant, turbulent, urban world where people were expansive and outraged, a place where hyperventilating people gesticulated  and exaggerated.

We of the “ticky-tacky boxes” were condemned to talk of lawn furniture. Our “epic journeys” ended at shopping malls.

Everyone else, I remember thinking, got to live in places with grit and pain and authenticity. We, though, were simply too drab to be worthy of a novelist’s attention.

The result was that many of us high-tailed it out of the burbs in search of that authenticity. We were escaping a place that only seemed real in biting social satire like Malvina Reynolds’s Little Boxes.

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky-tacky,
Little boxes, little boxes,
Little boxes, all the same

Then — in New York City, long after fleeing the little boxes  — I found Updike.

And I learned for the first time what writers like Updike and John Cheever had been saying all along and what filmmakers like Sam Mendes, David Lynch, and Tim Burton would later  suggest in their riveting, suburban-themed work:  It’s not that nothing was going on in West Covina, California.

It’s that we weren’t paying attention.

We shopped in strip malls and lived in matching  houses that were for the most part invisible in our literature.  We certainly saw nothing of ourselves in the work of the  “ruralists” (Faulkner, Steinbeck,  and Morrison) and were even less visible in the work of the “urbanists” (Dickens, Dreiser, Mailer, Ellison, Roth, Bellow).   We were the conformists, we were the strivers, and – most shamefully  — we were beside some mysterious, larger point.

I devoured Updike. I remember one marathon weekend reading what was then still the Rabbit trilogy, and flashing back on every nameless gray-flannel guy I knew as a kid in 1950s suburbia. Of course, I realized, some of those suits had to have been the veneer for turbulent and desperate  inner lives.  Some had to have felt pain in the days before they told their kids of disintegrating families and failed businesses and cocktail hours that had become cocktail lives.

There were only a few seedy and secluded bars down near the railroad tracks, but some of those men had to have been stopping there to anesthetize something inside.  One attractive  young mother,  a dead giveaway for June Cleaver with a permanently plastered smile, could not have watched her son’s legs atrophy from polio without wrenching  agony. And one day the happy family three doors down  woke up to find an  empty closet, a missing car, and only a few remnants of a father who never, ever came back.

No Tom. No note. No Dad. Ever.

The point is that our little boxes held as much potential for emotional turbulence and longing as Steinbeck’s central valley or Dreiser’s Chicago.  Updike knew that and produced a body of work that mined middle class life for all the adultery, anger, and angst he could find. And all I can say is that — when I read Rabbit, Run, Couples, or Rabbit Redux, when I read the Maple stories – I knew that he knew.

One of the great ironies that I discovered only years later was that at the same time , two small towns over in the slightly hardscrabble town of Duarte, California, a kid eight years older than me was watching the same scene,  seeing all the rage to which I was oblivious (thanks to a family that apparently served up generous portions of it), and imagining stories he might someday write that would tear away the veneer. His name was Sam Shepard.

I still remember Rabbit Angstrom’s last words to his son in Rabbit at Rest.

“Well, Nelson,” he says, “all I can tell you is, it isn’t so bad.” Rabbit thinks he should maybe say more, the kids looks wildly expectant, but enough. Maybe.  Enough.

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.

Bear With Me: Remembering the Lazarsfeld Stanton Program Analyzer

 

Sometime in the late 1950s, my elementary school class was loaded onto a bus for the 27 mile trip down the San Bernardino Freeway from Rowland Avenue Elementary School in West Covina, California to CBS Television City in Hollywood.

 

 

 

The media were already in my blood and I just may have been the most excited kid in the class. We were going to be in the audience of Art Linkletter’s House Party to watch several of my classmates appear on a legendary segment of the show  called “Kids Say the Darndest Things.”

 

 

To this day, it bothers me that I wasn’t chosen to be on the kids segment. I never learned why. I actually remember a counselor at UCLA’s psychological services center in 1969 looking at me like I was nuts when I described it as one of my “fundamental hurts.”

 

But the real shocker was when we pulled up in front of Television City and my entire class walked onto Linkletter’s soundstage, with the exception of Rachel, Barbara, and me.  A nice man in a bow tie who looked vaguely like Wally Cox diverted us into a small screening room  studio with wires everywhere and asked us to remain seated and quiet.

 

I was devastated. No Art Linkletter. No “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” No soundstage.

 

Then Wally returned and told us that we were going to be part of an important experiment. They wanted to see how a machine that had already been around for a while, a machine that tested whether people did or did not like television shows, would work with kids. And so they gave us each two small devices, one of which we were to hold in each hand.

 

“Press one button when you like the show, Wally told us, and press the other when you don’t.”  Then the lights dimmed and an episode of the not yet broadcast sit-com “Dennis the Menace” came on the screen. For 25 minutes, I watched this ridiculous show and never lifted my finger from the “don’t like” button.

 

 

I really thought it was dumb. I was mad at missing all the fun. Story over.

 

Well, not quite.

 

Almost exactly twenty years later I was sitting in a graduate seminar on methods of media research at Columbia with a brilliant young professor, Dr. Josephine Holz. And that was the day that I learned that the machine had not been just any contraption, but something called the Lazarsfeld-Stanton Program Analyzer, a pioneering device designed by two towering figures in the history of broadcasting, Drs. Frank Stanton and Paul Lazarsfeld.  It may have taken 20 years, but finally it was the other kids who had been the losers and it was me who had been actually hooked up to the machine.

 

Oh, and I still think Dennis the Menace was a dumb show.

  

Now if you want to talk about The Jetsons, that was a work of genius.

 

 

P.S. This is an old yet fascinating scholarly article about the machine.

 

Levy, Mark R. The Lazarsfeld-Stanton Program Analyzer: An Historical Note
The Journal of Communication, 1982 VL. 32, No. 4. PG: 30-38.