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.
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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 email@example.com..