The Other Side of the Grove
It may look like just another Disneyland, but i find the Grove a place where worlds collide. I don’t just mean the big chain stores such as Nordstrom and Barnes & Noble butting up against the kitschy independently owned stands at next-door’s Farmers Market. It’s easy to bristle at yet one more chain-store mall, but I like not having to drive all the way to the Westside to shop at Nordstrom. That goes double for Sur La Table, which used to require a trip to Santa Monica or Pasadena. And there’s always room for another Cost Plus or Anthropologie. That it can all be enjoyed while munching a cinnamon sugar doughnut from Bob’s in the Farmers Market only adds to its allure.
This corner of L.A. has always held a special draw for me. I grew up near 3rd and La Brea, blocks from where the Grove now holds court. Back in the late ‘60s, that sleepy stretch of the city was anything but hip. Where the Grove now sits was the Gilmore Drive-in Theater. I saw “True Grit” there, wearing flannel-feet pajamas. I loved the twinkly retro promotions for the snack bar that ran between shows, how we laughed, being Mexican Americans, when they tried to make taquitos seem exotic. But we crunched them happily in the back seat, feeling that we were somehow getting away with something.
At that time the hub of our commercial life was the Town and Country shopping center at the corner of 3rd and Fairfax, across from the Farmers Market. It had a distinctly small-town feel, and still does. The first time I went to the Grove, I tried to get caught up in its Main Street feel. But I realized that while it offers the illusion of small-town familiarity, down to the bronze statues of children selling lemonade, it is not small town at all. As hard as the Grove tries, the real deal is still across the street.
There you’ll find my favorite childhood restaurant--Andre’s Italian Restaurant & Pizzeria--which remains one of my regular haunts. There we would slide our trays along the counter as we chose from the large copper chafing dishes: spaghetti with meatballs or shrimp Creole sauce, baked chicken, lasagna. It was a neighborhood favorite: inexpensive home-style cooking. It was the place my mother would take me after open house night at school and where I’d see other kids from my first-grade class, suddenly strange in the context of their families. (“Is that Sandy Vitowski’s dad?”)
Aside from some remodeling and a few additions to the menu, Andre’s is the same, down to the counter and the chafing dishes. The fellow who makes the pasta fresh each day has been working there since I was in third grade. Most of the other employees have been there more than 10 years. I’ve known the manager, Aron Celnik, since junior high. His twin brother, Howard, was in school plays with me. Aron got a summer job at Andre’s at age 15 and worked part time as he completed high school and college. He became a stockbroker, but after the crash in 1988, he couldn’t sleep at night. He called his former boss, Mike Gagliarducci, who is Andre’s nephew. Aron came back to his old job, and he has been there ever since. He’s the kind of guy who always asks about your mom and remembers that you like your salad dressing on the side. When the neighborhood suddenly had a huge influx of immigrants from Mexico and Central America in the 1980s, Aron learned to speak Spanish.
The prices remain amazingly affordable. But what’s just as attractive is the sense of community. I see people of all ethnicities and generations sharing tables and falling into conversation. At Andre’s, people feel comfortable enough to connect, partly because the staff take the trouble to remember you. It’s said there is no sense of continuity in our sprawling metropolis. But there is at Andre’s. Ask Perry, the vendor who has been selling newspapers in the same place for 38 years.
Perry sits in his folding chair outside Whole Foods Market. He wears thick Coke-bottle glasses and an L.A. Times canvas change apron around his waist. He’s got a round face, gap-toothed smile and ears that stick out like Shrek’s. He’s been there every day starting at 8 a.m. on weekdays and 6:30 on weekends for 38 years. As a child I never paid much attention to him, he was just the “newspaper guy.” When I spoke to him recently, I noticed that his overcoat was soiled and badly frayed at the pockets and collar, and his nylon Dodgers cap had a large, dark stain at the edge of the brim. He’s 80 now and walks with a cane. He takes the bus to work. “I took over this newsstand from a little old man, years ago,” Perry tells me. “He was always falling asleep, and how can you sell any papers that way? I took it over and I really built it up into something.” As people passed by, they greeted him by name.
“People like me,” says Perry with his straightforward Midwestern cadence. “If they don’t like a vendor, they’ll go someplace else, but they like me.” He came here with his father from St. Louis 40 years ago. Before that he worked for a St. Louis utility company, but he quit to take care of his mother when she was diagnosed with cancer. “I was a young man and I quit a good job to take care of her. What could I do? But I’m glad I did. I really miss her, especially on Mother’s Day. I try not to let myself go down, thinking about it too much.”
When Albertson’s, which had replaced the old Safeway, left and the property was vacant, Perry’s business dropped dramatically. “With no supermarket, the ladies don’t come to do their shopping, so they don’t get a paper.” Now that Whole Foods is on the site, he’s getting more customers.
“I have something big planned with this establishment,” he says with a knowing glance at the busy supermarket. “I’m not going to tell you what it is, but it’s something big. And I don’t mean that I’ll be filling out an application for employment, if you get my drift.”
I stick my head into Wigs Today and say hello to June, the owner. There my friends and I would buy funky clip-on hair pieces, great for when you want that Charo look. June and I chat about recent happenings, and she tells me that this will be my lucky year. “Luck runs in four-year cycles; for four years all good things come to you,” she says. “People have to know how to catch luck when it comes along. Some people don’t, but I think you do.” I leave feeling optimistic.
Sandwiched in among the Big Kmart and Payless ShoeSource is Saka’s 5 Dollar Clothes. It’s reminiscent of the stores of my childhood but with an edge that reflects a more competitive world. Merchandise is everywhere. Clothing is packed on circular racks and it hangs all over the walls. Everything is a deal: $5 and $10, maybe $25. The owners, Buddy and Alma Saka, have been there 12 years. Buddy is the buyer and he knows that the business hinges on his ability to figure out what people want. “If I don’t buy right, you don’t come.” He is heavyset and diabetic and not feeling well due to the heat. He argues halfheartedly with Alma about the hiring of a new girl that he deems unnecessary. Alma dismisses his complaints with a shrug and a smile, like a mother dealing with a sweet but petulant child.
The place has the slapdash feel of someone’s messy living room. While I am there, Saka’s is packed with customers, among them two African American women and their mother looking at dressy evening gowns, a group of young Latinas who speak in rapid-fire Spanish with Alma, and a petite, elegant blond woman who holds up a linen sun dress and remarks, “It’s $15, can you believe it?” I think of the boutiques across the street at the Grove, of the people paying $55 for a cotton T-shirt or picking up a $350 handbag. It’s a different universe just steps away.
A young Latina maneuvers her baby’s stroller up to the cash register. She wears a faded T-shirt and leggings with beat-up sneakers. She is shy and speaks uneven English. In a barely audible voice she asks if she can see one of the handbags behind the counter. Alma reaches for a red vinyl handbag, embossed with a faux designer label. It is $22 and the young woman looks at it for a long beat before handing it back.
The Grove may have a concierge and snappy security personnel, but the Town and Country has Percy and Rico. The two security guards wander through the parking lot from Sav-On to Big Kmart, keeping their eyes peeled for people sneaking off to the Grove. They tow roughly 20 cars a day. They are tall, heavyset men. “We’re like superheroes out here,” Percy says. “We stop guys trying to steal stuff from the Big K, have cars towed. But mostly we help old ladies open their cars, keep people from getting robbed.” Before I can ask about crime, Rico chimes in, “There are a lot of vagrants here at night.” I tell them I’m going to lunch at Andre’s. They are planning to go there on their break; they know Aron well. I ask about Perry the newspaper vendor and Percy says soberly, “Perry is a piece of history around here. We don’t let nobody bother that man.”
There has been a string of supermarkets where Whole Foods market now stands. They all had a slightly rundown feel to them, with bruised produce and floors that could have used sweeping. Today it is one of the key locations for seeing worlds collide, L.A. style. Among the young professionals sipping cappuccino and heading off to yoga are elderly residents of the rest homes behind Canter’s delicatessen. They come with their coupons and navigate around the giant sunflowers and gleaming organic produce.
I wander into the skin and hair-care section and discover a tall, trim 50-ish woman who resembles folk singer Emmylou Harris. She’s promoting nutritional supplements and having what seems to be a lively discourse with an older Russian woman. After a few moments I realize that the Russian woman speaks little English. The Emmylou look-alike tells her that if she takes blue-green algae she will feel an increased vitality. The older woman nods politely and points toward the Burt’s Bees skin cream with avocado oil. The saleswoman brightens and says, “Oh, this is a fabulous skin-care line. It’s made with botanicals and it will greatly reduce the appearance of fine lines.” The Russian woman waits patiently before pointing again to the avocado cream. Finally, the saleswoman stops, realizing, “Oh, you’re looking for an actual avocado.”
I decide to lunch at Andre’s, and while I wait in the line, Perry shuffles in behind me. Behind the counter, Sonia Gomez serves Perry’s food without taking his order; she knows what he wants. She also knows what I want, which hasn’t changed much in 30-odd years: junior half and half, meat sauce, salad, garlic bread and a Coke. She asks me if I know Perry.
“Es buena gente, este senor, muy buena gente” (“He’s good people, this gentleman, very good people”), she says. Perry peers out from behind his thick glasses and smiles.
Just weeks after this meeting, I learn Perry has passed away, taking his secret “big” plan with him. I feel a sense of loss just as I have mourned at other times when some hallmark of my old neighborhood is torn down. I think we all have the idea that our childhood stomping grounds will stay as we see them in our sun-drenched memories. We lived adjacent to Park La Brea, which was inveterately uncool: big, bland, postwar middle-income housing. I identified the changing seasons by their flower bed plantings: pansies in the fall, poppies in the spring. In the years before I started kindergarten, my mother would indulge me by driving through Park La Brea after we took my brother to school. It was a point of neighborhood pride to know your way around its twisting, maze-like streets, to stand on the corner where Alandele Avenue meets Alandele Avenue and not only know how you got there, but how to get out. I am frequently tempted to go in and see if I can still find my way.
At the Grove I spoke with a young Korean student who was working at a kiosk to make extra money. His job there was just a pit stop on his way to his real life. At Town and Country, there are people for whom a job at Big Kmart or Andre’s or selling newspapers from a wooden box is real life. You might actually have to walk across a major thoroughfare to investigate it, a foreign concept to Angelenos. But across 3rd Street you’ll find another side of this city, the side that I know from a lifetime of experience as the real Los Angeles. You will find community, familiarity, continuity--all the things that people say we do not have. Those things exist for me like a parallel universe on what I call the other side of the Grove.