The day I entered junior high, I was off on an adventure reshaping my perspective.
This year’s tally of 48 homicides on the streets of Northeast Los Angeles has brought to mind wistful recollections of a safer time, not so very long ago.
It was in 1960, the third year the Dodgers played in Los Angeles, that I discovered Cypress Avenue. The explorations of that year greatly expanded my knowledge of the world.
I lived on Mt. Washington, where my circle of playmates was limited to approximately half a dozen other boys my age, all as removed as I was from the bigger currents of life down the hill. It’s not that we were insular. I knew downtown, Beverly Boulevard, Santa Monica and the San Gabriel Mountains in the blurred way one learns geography from a car.
But my first impressions of the villages that circled the hill were distant. They came from the sound of railroad cars slamming together in Taylor Yard--thunderous booms that rolled across the night air--and the view from Kite Hill--an orderly grid of rooftops filling the plain from the foot of the slope to the railroad tracks, in just the scale of a giant model railroad.
The closest I got would be an occasional trip to the grocery store on Figueroa Street at Avenue 26 or Al’s Hardware on Pasadena Avenue.
And so, the day I entered Nightingale Junior High School, at the corner of Figueroa Street and Cypress Avenue, I was off on an adventure reshaping my perspective.
Nightingale was at a crossroads of ethnic communities. Within a few weeks, my group of friends included Mexicans, blacks and Chinese who came from areas as diverse as Lincoln Heights, Chinatown, Cypress Park and even the William Mead housing project downtown.
A few of my friends claimed membership in one of the two dominant gangs at our school, the Avenues and the Pee Wee Jokers. It was no trouble making peace with the gang members, once you had passed the test of intimidation. That could be done back then simply by waiting until it was over. You had to show interest to attract further attention.
My affiliations formed on the handball court, where all groups met as neutrals. I was led there almost immediately by my homeroom mates, Steve Sasser and Arcadio Ybanez, who were both from Echo Park. I learned the game well enough to gain acceptance, if not admiration.
I don’t remember how, through the confusion of the playing field, I had the good fortune to be drawn to two such decent sorts as Tommy McGee and Gary Bonani. But soon, the three of us were inseparable. Every day after school, we’d walk down Cypress Avenue to Tommy’s or Gary’s house thinking up pastimes.
Together that year, we played Little League at Poplar Street playground near the train yard, we went on Scouting camp-outs to Griffith Park and we bicycled to the edge of our territory, as far away as the railroad trestle over the Arroyo Seco.
Many a Saturday, I would walk down Roseview Avenue from the top of Mt. Washington to rendezvous at Tommy’s house a block down from Aragon Avenue Elementary School. From there, we would walk to the bus stop. The bus went down Cypress Avenue, jogged onto Broadway, crossed downtown and then continued south on Figueroa Street. I suppose it went all the way to the Harbor, but we got off at the Coliseum. We bought the cheapest Dodger tickets. I think the price was $1.50 each.
While it’s true we were all decent kids, we had enough Tom Sawyer in us to take what was blatantly left to waste. And in those early Dodger years, some good box seats were always wasted. So, by the third inning, we’d be at eye-level with Gil Hodges.
On the bus ride home one night, when an ambulance went by, siren on, Tommy and Gary made the sign of the cross on their chests. I asked why they did such a strange thing.
As best I remember, they said they had been taught in catechism to pray for a soul in distress and, you never knew, it might be a friend or a member of your family.
We were always finding something to bet on. As we walked down Cypress Avenue one night, we got to betting who was brave enough to walk down a dark and scary alley. I was ready to take them up on it, feeling immune from harm. But they would have none of it and hurried along home. Even then, we were taking risks, as they knew better than I.
We grew up quickly after that year. Soon we were driving cars to Franklin High School, which was mostly Anglo then and had no gangs. The Dodgers had moved into their new stadium where you couldn’t very well improve your seats.
Gary signed on with the Southern Pacific and moved to Colton, I think, to follow the work. Tommy, I have heard, is a manager at a grocery store.
In a lot of ways, Northeast Los Angeles has changed less than other parts of the city. From the top of Kite Hill, Cypress Park looks just about the same, a grid of cottages in model railroad scale. The most significant change is that most of the tracks are gone now that the Taylor Yard is closed.
But it’s a different world than it was in 1960, not nearly so easy to grow up in. Kids don’t cross themselves anymore when they hear an ambulance and, far too often, the soul in distress is their own.