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Legacy of the Eastside Boys

Erin J. Aubry is a staff writer at the L.A. Weekly

My father’s trumpet came out on Saturday at dusk after he finished the lawn work--along with the wooden music stand holding finger-worn sheets of Bach, Mozart and Miles Davis’ “Sketches of Spain.’ He always bowed his head and ruffled the keys before playing. Sometimes his music sounded tired, like he got some days, but mostly it was golden: “The Shadow of Your Smile’ and Bach’s “Joy’ phrased in low, guttural notes that he seemed to be playing only for himself. I stood away from the music, behind the wrought-iron porch railing in silent admiration.

Larry Aubry’s life work was built on the notion that things would change for the better. But it appeared to me, even at the age of 6, that the battle for true social equality, as much as it shaped my own view of the world, might ultimately be lost. So what, I wondered, sustained his faith? What were his songs made of?

My father, who is now retired, has been a jazz musician, a postal worker, a county probation officer and a human relations consultant. But he was, and still is, an Eastside Boy. Not a formal organization, though fully deserving of its upper-case status, the Eastside Boys are a loose contingency of men who were part of the first critical mass of black people to integrate metropolitan L.A. They grew up in the ‘30s and ‘40s in the 5-square-mile area bounded roughly by Main Street on the west, Long Beach Avenue on the east, Slauson Avenue on the south and Washington Boulevard on the north. Hemmed in by de facto segregation, with Slauson as the Mason-Dixon line, few blacks lived west of Main.

Everybody left the Eastside when they could, as soon as they could, starting in the early ‘50s; it was an outward flow that in retrospect was a hemorrhage, an exodus by black people from a place that both built them and bound them. It’s an old story to all of us now: the sudden fury of flight and the broken economy left in its wake, like debris scattered in the aftermath of a storm.

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Still, out in the new territory of the Westside and South Bay, of Crenshaw and Ladera Heights and Baldwin Hills, a lot of promise was realized in the form of college educations and fruitful careers--more opportunities for the Boys and their children. The Boys gave to one another, and there was nothing especially noble or self-sacrificing about it. But they now find themselves where they never expected to be, in the role of heroes and gatekeepers, living connections to the last era of bountiful times for black people. They are the flash points of a social upheaval that cast off segregation and laid a new course.

They are not entirely sure they have traveled it well, but they continue their work at scholarship foundations and law offices and high schools, and they continue to meet with the easy regularity of their youth. In these and a thousand other ways, they keep alive their traditions of togetherness, which institutionalized racism made both ordinary and imperative--and which, ironically, post-civil rights Los Angeles has made nearly impossible to maintain.

I wonder what traditions I can create, whether theirs have passed me by. Recently I have been consumed with my own past. I flash on happier moments in high school, when I was incurably optimistic. There was nothing to me that couldn’t be perfectly placed in the magnanimous geography of the future, which seemed to be forging itself out of days that oozed along with typical Southern California languor. Promise was as close as I ever got to religion, this private, heady faith in things unseen. But the business of believing, of going forward, has proven to be a peculiar process, often no process at all. Belief has thinned over time, worn clean through in spots. It’s illusory; some days, hope that was once as sturdy as a tree trunk has shrunk into a reed, thin enough to encircle with one hand.

In the worst moments, my despair--that my achievements won’t match the depth of my parents’, that my generation’s sense of purpose will never cohere, that I will always flounder in isolation--feels like a permanant condition of being black, of being always behind, like someone who longs to prosper but has only $100 a month. So I am anxious to know if I have failed the Boys, or if they have failed me, or if questions like these are my overindulging in personal crises, an emotional luxury the Boys couldn’t afford but that they have afforded me. Maybe I, like them, am charged to move on no matter what, despite having a tenuous grasp on the good life I am heir to (apartment, running car, diplomas, singlehood, chronic debt). Except that I don’t exactly know how to to move, or where.

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So in the midst of my despair, I decided to seek the Eastside Boys out. None offered up any definitive answers. Yet I was struck at how easily they assumed the depth of my faith, when I so often could not. In spite of a city so changed from what they knew, so disparate and willfully disconnected, they never assumed my spirit was broken--because neither was theirs. Not yet. I took their assumptions like a gift. In my talks with them, between their words and attentiveness and willingness to hope, I could make out the strains of my own particular music again. I could pick up my own instrument and play it.

*

My father seethes for a moment over something I’ve just told him: that the production designers of the film “Devil in a Blue Dress” said they had to scour libraries to turn up what few photographs existed of black L.A. in the ‘40s. “Oh, bull- - - -,’ my father snaps. He is sitting in the living room of my parents’ Inglewood home. “There’s tons of people with all kinds of documentation who live right here.’

It’s hard to interview my 63-year-old father. He wants to help. He wants me to see the Eastside Boys project through, though he never quite says any of this. I sit still on the sofa, as still as when I used to listen to his music. Only then he didn’t know I was there. He shifts uncomfortably in his seat.

“I didn’t have any friends,’ my father says when I ask about relationships other than family. His fingers drum the arm rests of the rocker. He talks in the jazz speak of his generation, his voice low, his phrases as fitful as a scat singer’s. “I don’t have many friends now. I hardly socialize.’ That’s true. Despite the breadth of the Eastside, I don’t recall my father bringing home acquaintances. Our visitors were family, uncles and cousins and grandparents.

Wasn’t Hal Miller a friend? Daddy doesn’t answer.

He says instead that he met Hal at Carver Junior High, where they both played in the school band. Daddy then went on to Fremont High, at San Pedro and 76th streets, in the late ‘40s, one of a handful of black students when the school was just starting to integrate. (Hal was one of the few black students who attended Los Angeles High at Olympic and Rimpau boulevards.) Daddy was only 13 when he started high school. He stuck close by his nephew Paul, who was only a little older but much taller and more imposing.

“We went to school every day and got the hell out,’ Daddy says. “It was horrible.’ He laughs.

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Daddy, though, has been a regular at Hal’s law office in Leimert Park for years. Now he goes there almost daily, sometimes with his brother. My Uncle Thomas suffered a series of strokes and can’t really speak anymore, but he likes places where he can sit and follow talk about things he knows and remembers. Eastside things.

Daddy has warmed up a little. He acknowledges that “my whole thing was the Eastside'--family, friends, professional concerns. He started going to annual Eastside reunions at Hal’s house in the early ‘70s; he goes into his bedroom to retrieve a picture Hal took at one of these events. Daddy is unsmiling, cool, wearing a burnished leather coat and goatee. He never missed one of those parties. Veering close to sentiment, he backpedals. The Eastside, he says, really belongs to Hal. “It’s an era that meant something to him,’ he says. “Not just the past, of course, but the present. The Eastside is his whole deal.’

I let these contradictions fall and settle on the two of us like rain. I sympathize deeply with my father’s reluctance to give voice to something that might be blown off its tenuous course by words. I, too, fear language’s power to magnify as well as diminish everything in its path. I ask him again, my eyes fixed on a blank notebook page, what the Eastside meant. He figures we’re finished recording.

“To me, it’s more a a matter of. . . It’s a good feeling for me. It’s a linkage to a past. It’s the sort of environment where it’s devoid of judgment. It doesn’t matter who you are. Judges to janitors.’

*

Damn right, says Hal Miller, there was no caste system. Hal’s voice is brusque and, despite his having been born in L.A., Southern-flavored. “Everybody knew everybody and they lived together--doctors, lawyers, butchers, domestic workers. There was no crime. You didn’t have no chance to commit a crime. The old ladies would be sitting out all day on the porches snapping string beans in a pot, yelling at each other across the street, telling each other the news. Shoot, if you did something bad in school, the message would beat you home. You’d get a whipping at school and another one would be waiting for you when you walked in the door.’

I smile--how many times have I heard this from older people? But Halvor Thomas Miller Jr. is talking business. He’s an attorney, and he delivers his story of his beloved Eastside like a brief. In many respects he is like my father: clipped, authoritative and devoted to family. He’s not sure how to treat me, like a daughter or a journalist. He gives up on the question for the moment and looks out the car window.

I am rolling down Eastside streets with Hal on an overcast morning. He’s agreed to be my tour guide. He’s tried to be offhand about it, about the whole prospect of this story, but he’s taking this task as seriously as he takes his role of unofficial flame keeper of the Eastside Boys.

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Hal’s mother was born in Oklahoma in 1904. His uncle, Loren Miller, owned the newspaper the California Eagle and was a celebrated attorney who helped win the 1948 Supreme Court case, Shelley vs. Kramer, that struck down restrictive housing covenants and enabled blacks to integrate. A local elementary school is named for him. His cousin, Leon Washington, launched the city’s other black paper, the Los Angeles Sentinel.

Hal’s Leimert Park law office is a pit stop for any number of Eastsiders. Mornings find a clutch of Boys drifting in and out, shooting the breeze to the tunes of straight-ahead jazz that plays constantly over Hal’s sound system. Although Hal still practices law, his great passion is organizing Eastside functions. During one of our conversations he picked up a ringing phone and waited barely five seconds before snapping, “No, I can’t talk now about that--I’m doing the Eastside.’

A paper banner advertising last year’s Eastside reunion is taped to the wall of Hal’s front office, more prominently displayed than the photographs of W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King Jr. and other black leaders. In the early ‘70s, Hal started having annual Eastside parties in in his Southwest L.A. home. They would start in the afternoon, and by 4 the next morning the house was overflowing and people were still coming, about 500 in all.

These get-togethers were strictly male affairs, informal fraternities in the tradition of ‘40s social clubs such as the Cosmos and the Blue Devils. Several times, men showed up with their wives or girlfriends, then pleaded ignorance when Hal informed them the party was not coed; he says that a “No Women Allowed’ sign hung prominently for 20 years. The women were sent home. “Completely sexist,’ my father says amiably, not exactly by way of condemnation.

The crowds got so out of hand that, in 1994, Hal decided to go public with his party and organized a massive event--women included--that he dubbed the Eastside Boys Reunion (the sanctity of Eastside maleness maintained in the title). Hal and his committee planned on booking a hotel ballroom before realizing that the Convention Center was the only place large enough to accommodate everybody. It wasn’t easy to get, but Eastside Boy Tom Bradley intervened.

Hal frowns and scratches a thick, combed-back shock of hair. Sitting in my Mustang with his knees drawn up to his chest, he watches the passing streets intently. Suddenly he is leaning out the window, cranking one arm like a traffic cop as he points out places I have to see: the old streetcar barn at 53rd and Avalon; a bowling alley christened by Joe Louis; the Masonic Temple; the site of the jumping Bucket o’ Blood club at 51st and Ascot, which was also the end of the B-car line.

We flash by row after row of neat, squared-off houses with lawns in front, and though some lots have clearly suffered from age, most are well-preserved. I narrow my eyes and can see their original colors, glistening rose and robin’s egg blue and ochre, on a sunny day some 60 years ago. Small businesses still dot the corners of the residential landscape, laundermats and liquor stores and such. We peel slowly away from the houses until we are riding south along Central and the commercial district, or what is left of it. Hal makes me brake for the Blodgett building at 23rd, the SuperRanch market at 48th, Williams Cleaners at 51st. He speaks proudly about each, though his speeches could be eulogies.

He wants to stop near the old Dunbar Hotel at 42nd Street, to pull behind a building in an alley. A small alarm in my stomach goes off: This is a bad neighborhood. I angrily push the thought aside and concentrate on trying to see what Hal sees. Hal is out of the car and pressed against a wire fence. A knot of Latino construction workers behind the fence eyes him with mild curiosity.

“We used to sit right here in the alley and listen to the music,’ says Hal, when it was the Downbeat Club. Hal takes his elbows off the fence and squints through his glasses at the brick facade. Duke Ellington’s uncle lived nearby. Duke and Johnny Hodges would practice in his garage for hours and then come here to play. “When we were little boys, we’d meet the musicians when they took their dope breaks out here. Man, Central was nothing but clubs--the Downbeat, Club Alabam, the Plantation. It was a mecca for servicemen during World War II.’

We go south on Central to 51st Street, Hal’s old street, and he straightens up and grabs the car door handle like we’re about to go over the edge of a waterfall on a logjammer ride. He barks at me to pull over to a stop, and as soon as I hit the brakes he’s out of the car and striding up to a building where a group of teenage volunteers is cleaning up graffiti. This is the old fire station where Hal and his friends would wait for the firefighters to go home, then jump out of windows onto trampolines used for rescue practice.

Hal’s best friend was a white boy named Spencer Moxley; fully a third of 51st Street was white in the 1930s and early ‘40s. One day a gang of black boys jumped Spencer and beat him up; Hal tried vainly to intervene. “My mother sat me down that day and explained to me about racial bigotry,’ he recalls. “That’s when I first became aware of it.’

In his eagerness to get a look at the station, Hal missed the “Wet Paint’ sign on the wall and now his palms are streaked white. He mutters “Damn!’ under his breath and frantically tries to wipe the paint off on the grass. I suppress a laugh; for a few moments, he is 10 again.

*

I am driving through the Eastside and thinking the obvious: Avalon Boulevard ain’t what it used to be, The street has a funereal air. Between the empty lots and shuttered storefronts are small businesses with weathered signs hand-lettered in Spanish, fast-food joints, tiny churches, nearly invisible motels. People do not walk so much as stand, look pointedly around and then hustle off to some hastily recalled destination.

At 46th Street, faded red printing on a stucco facade for decades announced the location of Corky’s. Inside, patrons sit elbow to elbow at the bar and the jukebox blares Chaka Khan, B.B. King, the Ink Spots, the Temps. It’s an old-time tavern filled with black folks who moved out of the Eastside long ago but return here for a beer and a game of dominoes. “They come in the afternoon and leave before dark,’ explains Corky Gaines, who inherited the bar and a handful of other businesses from his father in 1958.

This is not my world; I rarely drink, and I see the inside of bars even less. I sit close to Corky, who presides over the scene like a latter-day Santa, down to the ample girth, bushy beard and twinkly good humor. Corky’s a die-hard Eastsider. He was born here and is one of very few Boys who have remained. He and his wife, Awanda, have a house on 43rd Street, not far from the bar. Three years ago, their 16-year-old son, Cory, a bright and promising student at Jefferson High, was shot and killed barely a block from home. He and Awanda buried him and stayed on.

“It could have happened anywhere,’ Corky says. He tells me this at home, in his den where it’s quiet, surrounded by framed photos of a smiling Cory. I don’t know what to say, so I drink the lemonade he’s given me. Awanda is from Pennsylvania. She realized long ago that Corky wasn’t going anywhere. Their house is both cozy and expansive, once a daily hangout for their son and his friends. But it is also hemmed in, staked out by iron bars that run along the perimeter of the spruced-up lawn. Awanda sighs. “It’s just too bad,’ she says with a catch in her voice, “that kids now don’t see what the Eastsiders had.’

Until he retired from the post office last year, Corky came to the bar every day at 4 p.m., when he got off. After retiring, he decided to lease the bar to a woman named Ruth Jackson, a former bartender who, like Corky, is a lifelong Eastsider. Now a sign outside the building simply says “The Bar,’ but the regulars still come. And Corky still goes by to talk with them. He insists he is not looking to pull up roots. “Never will,’ he says. “My wife and I will never sell the property. Not going nowhere.’

*

Once Walter Gordon Jr. figures out what I’m doing (“What’s your name?” he barks on the phone, “Aubry? Oh yes. I know of a lot of them’), he agrees to tell me the history of the Eastside. He sounds more than pleased. L.A.'s black history is a specialty of his.

Walter is 89 and still busy practicing criminal law. He dresses in suits and thick-soled brogues and stoops a bit. His wife, Clara, ushers me into a sitting room and tells me to wait, please. Their Leimert Park home is neat and quiet, except for the occasional yap of a Pomeranian. Walter comes in and shakes my hand; I feel as though we’ve made a pact of some kind. He settles into his armchair, eyeing me expectantly. “Aren’t you going to use a tape recorder?’ It’s less a question than a demand.

“Well, no, but I have a notebook.’ It suddenly seems terribly inadequate. “I’m interested in your overall impression of things, not necessarily every detail.’

Walter doesn’t cotton to this, I can tell. He wants me to get every word and preserve it. How else can young people learn? He launches into an intricately detailed history of blacks in the city that, despite its plain delivery, unfolds like a fairy tale.

In the beginning, Negro activity was concentrated downtown, around 2nd and Los Angeles streets. That was about 1920. Black folks worked as redcaps and porters for the Southern Pacific Railroad, which originated at 5th and Central; the black thoroughfare was a single block of Central Avenue between the railroad and 6th Street. That thoroughfare began creeping south; it went as far as 9th, then 12th, 18th and, by the 1920s, 25th Street. Walter’s father had a real estate office at 25th and Central and, despite pressure from the real estate board not to sell to blacks, was kept busy.

Walter got to know the neighborhood helping his father show places to prospective buyers and renters, including black celebrities who, despite their stardom, couldn’t live in white areas. Walter also had a paper route that required him to pick up black newspapers such as the Chicago Defender at the train station and deliver them to sites along Central Avenue. Gordon remembers the people who started giving black L.A. some definition, some muscle: J. W. Coleman, owner of the city’s largest black employment agency (“A giant of a man, 6-foot-7, with a misshapen forehead’); YMCA director T. A. Green; the Blodgett who started the city’s first black-owned savings and loan at the eponymous building at 25th and Central. I think of my whirlwind tour with Hal, that breathless attempt to revisit what never existed for me.

As a young man, Walter was a member of the L.A. Forum, a black civic organization that met every Sunday in an office at 8th and Wall Street. Black and white attorneys from all over town met to discuss discrimination. Led by the imposing Coleman, the Forum exerted pressure on whites to modify the restrictive business covenants that circumscribed life in L.A.

Block by block, year by year, blacks expanded their boundaries southward along Central. When Walter returned to L.A. from law school in 1936, Central was just beginning to hit its stride as a hub of black business and a mecca for jazz. It would be the best of times for the Eastside Boys. Segregration was still virulent, ubiquitous, but its heavy hand had also compressed the brightest hopes and aspirations of black people into a potent square of time and space made all the stronger because of the strictures placed on it; life, as the laws of physics dictate, found a way. And there was the hope, passed from one generation to the next, that the barriers of segregation would finally come down, but that none of the institutions built in its face--Jefferson High and Central Avenue--would come down with it.

Walter looks up from showing me piles of photos. The hour is growing late and I am a little fatigued from trying to absorb everything. He shakes his head slightly. “Is this what you want?’ he asks, gesturing toward the pictures. He studies me through his thick glasses. “I have a feeling that I’m not giving you what you’re looking for--what you want.’

I leave the Gordon house feeling vaguely guilty. Driving away, I think Walter is right. I listen avidly to the stories of how wonderful everything was, and I want to hear about the tragic moment when someone, or something, took it all away. There is no such moment. The Eastside Boys were part of the driving social forces that blew their history to the wind. There are no heroes or anti-heroes. The Boys may live now with their point of origin in their sights, but they do not go back. Their heroism lies in not going back, in recognizing the truth and going forward. That is what I want for myself.

*

“Come in, come on in,” Billy Benfield exclaims before I can get my name out. Billy lives on a street that slopes up to affluent Baldwin Hills--a pipe dream in Eastside days. His apartment is old and rambling, with a palm-tree shaded balcony that affords a grand view of the Crenshaw district. He unlatches the screen door, takes my hand and pumps it. He laughs and gives me a hug; his gaiety is infectious.

While I sit and listen to scratchy jazz playing on the radio, he brings out the photo albums and scrapbooks detailing his glory days as a track star at Jefferson High. Jeff was the Eastside high school, known for its champion athletes and innovative jazz instruction (thanks to music teacher Samuel Brown, the school produced such luminaries as Dexter Gordon, O.C. Smith, Ernie Andrews, Frank Morgan and Teddy Edwards). Along with church, school was the most important social center of the Eastside; if you brought somebody home to meet your folks, they immediately wanted to know your affiliation to those two institutions. (“And if they didn’t belong to no church,’ remarked Hal, “then the old folks would say, ‘Well, you better just go on and take this boy back to where you found ‘im.’ ') Eastsiders did go to other schools besides Jeff--L.A., Polytechnic, Jordan, Fremont--but they were outside the proper boundaries, virgin Westside turf.

Eastside boys know Billy Benfield, or know what he did. “Oh, Billy,’ said Corky when I mentioned him. “Yeah, he ran track.’ The school had championship track teams for 20 years beginning in the ‘30s, and Billy was a distance runner on Jefferson’s city championship team of 1939. High school sports were regularly covered by the Sentinel and the Eagle, but that year was magic. “I got my picture in the L.A. Times,’ says Billy, pointing to the yellowed clipping with unabashed pride. “Can you imagine?’

That Billy grew up poor on the Eastside seems to have fueled rather than dimmed his natural optimism. He and his mother rented an apartment at Stanford and 32nd Street for $5 a month. His mother worked days as a domestic. Billy sold papers along Central Avenue or carried grocery bags to people’s cars for spare change. He was broke a lot. He sometimes ate dinner at the homes of such prominent Eastside gentry as the Houstons; Norman Houston founded the Golden State Mutual life insurance business (now at Western and Adams). “The Eastside Boys had a real cohesive thing, but we figured that’s how it was everywhere,’ says Billy with a shrug.

Jefferson and the track team were Billy’s finest hour. He has since worked as an electrician, pipe fitter and real estate maintenance inspector, retiring seven years ago from the city Housing Department. His beat covered much of his old neighborhood. Next to the Eastside, Billy is happiest talking about his 39-year-old son, Benet, and his grandson. Billy’s been divorced a long time and went through several periods when he didn’t have much money. “We’d get a loaf of bread some afternoons and sneak in a football game at the Coliseum, UCLA games. He didn’t mind. We got closer. Later on, when he grew up, he took me to the ball games.’

Billy has high hopes for a new hot-sauce business that he started last year with Benet. The Eastside Boys have helped get it off the ground; at the 1994 reunion, they bought cases of the stuff to put on the 300 tables. Billy can’t understand why I’m not married, a bright, promising girl, with the blood of the Eastside running in my veins. Why, he says, men out there must be crazy.

He walks me to the door. I take a mental picture of him in his baseball cap, blue corduroy shorts and sneakers. Billy is still turning the Eastside over in his mind. “We didn’t realize what we had at the time, so we didn’t know what we would miss. I take my son through the Eastside sometimes,’ he says, “but all I can do is tell him about it.’

*

The electronic board at the Convention Center flashes a greeting to the incoming line of cars: WELCOME TO THE EASTSIDE BOYS REUNION. The night is mild enough for strapless gowns and not quite chilly enough for the fur wraps that are nonethless in abundance. The sea of couples--about 3,500 in all--surges toward the ballroom. I feel distinctly under-dressed in my Lycra dance-club getup. This is an Oscar gala with no awards.

Looking a little bewildered to find himself decked out like a kid at a high school prom, Hal hovers near the door, grasping hands and dispensing hugs. “You see,’ he tells me at one point in the evening, as Eastside Boys-turned-jazz singers Ernie Andrews and O.C. Smith wail a tune onstage, “we couldn’t get media coverage for this, not these days. All these black people out, but no violence, no shooting.’ He laughs, a little bitterly. “You would think that in itself is a story.’

I sit at the table reserved for my parents, sister, brother and me. The room is United Nations-conference scale, too big to see all four corners from our table. A large video monitor hangs from the ceiling, but its scope is woefully inadequate. Daddy spies a friend across the room and goes to intercept him. On the way he is besieged by scores of people he hasn’t seen in 10 or 20 years; I hear Daddy’s animated voice clearly above the din and know he isn’t coming back.

That’s all right. No one is really staying put anyway, just resting their feet at whatever table is on the way to another table and another set of friends. Like the rest of the younger people here tonight, I watch and marvel at an event that I--that we--almost certainly will never host. Daddy reappears occasionally with a friend in tow, a little breathless and smiling. “Hey, hey, hey, check this out,’ he says, shaking his finger continually at the person behind him. “Did you meet this guy? Do you remember him? You probably were too little, but, man, he was around all the time at the house. Yeah, yeah, he used to. . . . ‘

I smile with my hands in my lap, nodding, not really remembering at all but wanting to sustain the evening however I can. Daddy, satisfied, talks on and claps a hand to the man’s shoulder. His hands rake the air with the same expressiveness they had when he played the horn.

I think back to 1970, when I was 8 and he ran for state Assembly, putting bright orange posters of himself up all around South-Central; a rare instance, the only one I can recall, of Daddy doing anything resembling self-promotion. It was a handsome picture, depicting him with thick wavy hair and moustache, tie knotted firmly in place. His smile was small and uneasy, and I don’t recall his laughing around friends then, even his most ardent supporters, nearly as much as he’s laughing now. There was no need to reflect then; there was still the belief that black neighborhoods would survive the loss of neighbors.

I begin walking what seems like a mile to the dance floor. I get waylaid myself, by Corky and Awanda. I know Billy’s in the room somewhere, talking up his sauce that’s on every table. Other people I meet listen closely to my name, then grab my wrist if they recognize it. “I’m so glad you came,’ they rasp in my ear.

I try jitterbugging, with somewhat awkward results--"Soul Train’ this ain’t--but I am happy taking part. These are not dances I know. But my feet and I have much to claim. I think about Hal’s pronouncement: Things will get better. I can shift the current of history with a flap of my wings. I can deepen its tone with my instrument. If I walk away from L.A., move off to another frontier and take up another tradition, my passage from place to place will be well marked.

Hal thinks I’ll stay on. He says L.A. is just a place where people stay put. Clearly he’s going nowhere; L.A. holds the dreams that are left. “Natives don’t leave,’ he says. “For a lot of us, this is the end of the line. This is nirvana.’

My father calls me one morning not long after the reunion. He talks fast, a wind storm blowing by many subjects: politics, the state of education, my Uncle Edris’ health.

One other thing. “How’s that story coming?’ he asks.

“Which one?’

“The Eastside deal. Have you turned it in yet?’

Daddy’s been checking on this story like a sick child, like something entrusted to him. I choose my words carefully for the prognosis. “Not exactly. I’m still working on it. It’s a challenge. It’s long. Longer than most pieces I write. Different.’

“Uh-huh.’ I hear papers rustling. “Well, you know, Hal’s been asking about it. He wants to know. That’s really his deal. Of course, you know that.’


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