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Richard Pryor and the rush of fries

DAVID SILVA

On the northeast corner of a major intersection in Huntington Park is

a small fast-food restaurant -- an orange-gray, greasy-looking joint

that looks like it’s seen better days but actually never did.

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No one will ever try to preserve this restaurant as a historic

landmark. Its architecture is dull and somewhat dysfunctional -- the

drive-through lane is too narrow and the drive-through window so high

drivers have to get out and stand to grab their orders. The food

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served in it is the same unhealthy, sloppily prepared food you’ll

find in any one of the thousand or so franchises of which it is a

part.

But although it looks like it was built out of pressboard and

construction paper, the restaurant has the distinction of being one

of the very few structures remaining in the city from the days of my

youth. It was there when my family moved to Huntington Park, was

there when I visited just recently and will probably still be

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standing long after my obituary is written. For this reason and

others, the restaurant has great meaning to me.

My friends and I spent a good chunk of our lives hanging out in

the booths of that place. It was where we went after school, where we

fled to when things got too crazy at home, where we all had our first

dates when we started caring about girls. The front of the restaurant

overlooks the streets that led to our homes and the town’s main drag,

and we would sit and eat the sloppy burgers and greasy tacos, killing

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time as we watched the people come and go.

It was where my best friend Mike and I took our first, tentative

steps toward friendship, not an easy thing, since he and his brothers

used to pick on me all the time. Mike had asked me if I wanted to go

get a bite to eat, and when I told him I didn’t have any money, he

surprised me by offering to buy. As we sat eating our tacos, I

noticed across the street a pair of bulldozers tearing down the old

bank building next to the 7-Eleven. I didn’t know it at the time, but

it was the beginning of a years-long effort at gentrifying the city.

“Hey, you ever listen to Richard Pryor?” Mike asked.

“Are you kidding? I love that guy! My mom doesn’t like me

listening to his albums ‘cause they’re so raunchy, but they’re her

albums! My whole family loves him!”

So we spent most of the lunch recounting some of Pryor’s filthiest

material. After a while, Mike told me he and his brothers and dad

moved to H.P. because his dad had lost his job and his mother left

them. I didn’t know how to respond to that, so I said: “Nah, your mom

probably left ‘cause she hated you. She took one last look at that

big nose of yours and packed her bags.”

Mike stared at me for a moment, then started laughing. I laughed

too. And that was how we cemented our friendship -- through comedy.

He and I both loved irreverent humor, and it became the foundation

upon which our relationship was built.

The years fell away in a rush of French fries and heartburn. From

the window of our favorite booth, my friends and I watched the ugly

old strip malls get torn down and replaced by newer, uglier strip

malls. Then one day, Mike offered to buy me lunch again at the

restaurant, and in the course of that meal told me he and his family

were moving away. The city had finished with the commercial stage of

gentrification and had begun the second stage, which was to buy out

all the adjacent, run-down residential properties and replace them

with high-priced town homes.

“We gotta leave by the end of the month,” Mike said nervously.

“The landlord said he refused the sell, so the city condemned the

property and now he has to sell. I think we’re moving to West

Covina.”

“West Covina? Where in the world is West Covina?” I asked, pushing

away my fries because I’d lost my appetite.

“I don’t know. But it’s supposed to have better schools. My dad

says it’ll help me get my grades up for college.”

I stared at my fries for a long while, avoiding eye contact.

Finally, I said: “It doesn’t matter. Go to a good school. Get better

grades. Your mother will still hate you ‘cause of that nose.”

Mike laughed. We threw our meals in the trash and walked home and

said goodbye, and I waited until I got home before I started to cry.

Eventually I made new friends -- Jack, Danny and Eddie -- and we

spent our free time hanging out at the same restaurant, looking out

at the boulevard and watching the pretty girls go by. Across the

street the red, six-pump gas station was torn down and replaced with

a blue, 12-pump gas station. But the restaurant never changed, and we

began to feel that it belonged to us, that it could never be taken

away.

Then one day when I was 16, Jack’s uncle, Johnny, entered the

restaurant, flashed a smile at the cashiers and walked into the

restroom. Johnny was the de facto patriarch of his extended family

after Jack’s dad skipped out. It must have been a full plate for

Johnny, looking out for his sister and her kids along with his own

wife and disabled daughter. They relied on him for everything. But it

would remain a constant puzzlement to Jack why Johnny did what he

did, which was to lock the door of the restaurant bathroom, take a

.45-caliber automatic out of his pocket, and shoot himself in the

head.

We stayed away from the restaurant for a long time after that.

When we finally did feel comfortable enough to return, it was Jack

who first noticed that the bullet hole from Johnny’s suicide was

still visible above the restroom door. The owners had never bothered

to plaster it over. Every time we would leave that restroom we would

look up at that bullet hole and think of Johnny’s smiling face.

The years passed, and it became clear the city’s big effort at

gentrification had failed. No one wanted to buy those pricey new town

homes, and soon the panicked property owners unloaded them for

pennies on the dollar. Many of Huntington Park’s former residents

began to return. Not that it mattered to me, as I sat in the

restaurant with my girlfriend, looking out at bustling Pacific

Boulevard.

Angel and I had come to the place to weigh the pros and cons of

getting an apartment together in Orange County. Having decided we’d

go for it, I realized that this was probably the last time I would

eat at the restaurant.

“Why did you want to come to a dive like this?” Angel asked,

wrinkling her nose as she pushed away her greasy burger.

“It’s got a lot of memories for me. You know,” I said offhandedly,

“my friend’s uncle shot himself in the restroom here a few years

back. I bet you can still see the bullet hole above the doorway.”

“That’s horrible!” she said disgustedly. “This town -- " she

looked out on the boulevard, shaking her head. “You really need to

get away from here.”

I looked out the window, watched the cars come and go. I heard the

front door open and looked over, and for a moment saw my friends

enter the restaurant as sweaty-faced boys. Saw them horse-playing at

the counter as bewildered teens. Saw them walk out the door as

sad-eyed men. I blinked hard and the vision was gone.

“It’s not so bad,” I said, picking up my tray. “The food could

have been better, I suppose. Come on, we’d better go. You don’t want

to be in this neighborhood after dark.”

* DAVID SILVA, a Burbank resident and former Leader city editor,

is a Times Community News editor. Reach him at (909) 484-7019, or by

e-mail at david.silva@latimes.com..


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