Everything changes. Everything. Especially in Southern California.
Part of America’s special nature — good and bad — is its manner of chewing itself up and building itself up again. Unused land gets laid out and built up and then the new buildings get demolished and the land is built up again. All of this seems to happen in an accelerated fashion in Southern California. It’s a sliver of the nation where something like the frontier still exists. Land to be developed. Lots of it. And once they develop it, they develop it again.
Today I drove out to what Southern Californians call the “inland empire” – an area starting maybe 40 miles east of Los Angeles. The towns have names like Upland and Pomona and Ontario and Montclair. It’s where I grew up — or at least where I grew up from the time that I was six until I left for college when I was eighteen.
As must always be the case, the towns and streets and shopping malls look nothing like they did when I was a child. But in this case it’s something more than the standard differences that occur over a decade or two. Nothing looks the same. These towns, this region, was and is the bleeding edge of the Los Angeles sprawl, which has been spreading like lava eastward from the coast for decades.
When my family moved to Upland, California in 1975, large sections of the town were still lemon groves. (In a sense this area was still very much like the area east of Los Angeles where Philip Marlowe usually ended up at the end of Raymond Chandler detective novels. Those old shacks where the bad guys were holed up. I think it’s in The Big Sleep where Chandler describes Marlowe driving down a road lined with these groves, noting how the rows look like spokes from a rushing car.) One square block would be lemon groves and the next would be tract homes. Other blocks in the grid were just fields with nothing at all but rocks and dirt.
By the mid-late 1970s I don’t think any of the lemon groves were actually being farmed. They were derelicts. They’d already been marked off for future development. They were just growing and producing their crops on nature’s autopilot because there was no point in chopping them down until some developer was actually ready to build a new subdivision. Back then, at least in my memory, the better part of the town was still in lemon groves. Certainly a lot of it. And to the east the lemons were still king.
Today, the edge of the sprawl is dozens of miles to the east, with towns and towns of bedroom communities which, thirty years ago, only existed on paper.
So old buildings and stores were gone and replaced with new ones. And the open fields where me and friends would go build forts and stalk and capture lizards when we were little kids were built over for the first time, or perhaps the second.
But none of these were my main interest today. I wanted to see something very specific.
Twenty-two years ago, late in the evening one night in March of 1981, to be specific, my mother was killed in an auto accident on Foothill Boulevard in a town called Claremont. This was one town over from ours. She was on her way home. She was killed instantly — at least in every meaningful sense of the word. And the impact of her car left a softball-sized dent in the foot-thick metal pole that held up the street lights at the intersection where she died.
The street, Foothill Boulevard, is the main drag in the region. It’s actually the westernmost part of the legendary, cross-country Highway 66 and for years after I’d see that dent — hard to notice for most people, but hard for me to miss. First as a passenger in other people’s cars I’d see it and then as a driver myself cruising over the same path countless times.
For a very long time afterwards the gash still had etches of the maroon paint from her car — for years I would guess, though I don’t know precisely how long. Then eventually those chipped or washed away. And finally it was just a dent.
These things don’t work quite the way they do on TV or in novels. I didn’t fixate on it. Hundreds of times I passed that intersection and didn’t look or even think about it. But it was always there, always there ready for me to notice, an occasional reminder.
In one of those weird, impersonal cruelties by which bureaucracies operate, there was apparently some thought at first that the city would sue my father or, I guess, my mother’s estate — such as it was, which wasn’t much — for the price of fixing or buying a new street light pole. Someone had to pay for repairing this small part of the city’s infrastructure. And why should it be the taxpayers? Or so the reasoning went.
In any case, for whatever reason, this bizarre indignity never occurred. And the dent remained for years. The last time I saw it, it had been there for almost two decades.
Later, my father moved away from the area. But when I was in my twenties I’d visit the area to see old friends and I’d inevitably drive by and see the dent. I probably saw it last in the middle 1990s – still the same dent, unchanged, with a few flecks of the paint ripped deep into the metal.
But coming back to California this time I realized that through all those years I’d never touched it. I’d driven by it countless times and very rarely I’d feel some rush of the impact of her death as my car swept past the point in space where hers stopped in its tracks. But I’d never gotten out of the car and walked up to the spot or touched the dent. There must have been grooves cut into the metal — perceptible only by touch. But I’d never stopped to feel the metal against my fingers or find its contours. I guess it had never occurred to me. Or maybe it occured to me today because I’m only three years younger than she was when she died. Who knows? One could go on about what the kinetics of that dent represented and what feeling its latent effects might conjure up in me — but it probably goes without saying.
In any case, I wanted to rub it with my hand, maybe kiss my fingers and touch it.
I hadn’t been to the area in at least five or six years and I didn’t even remember the cross street name anymore. But I wouldn’t forget the shape of the dent or the look of the intersection. I knew what it all looked like. So I drove to it knowing I’d recognize it when I saw it but not knowing quite which intersection it would be out of three or four in a row. My memory had grown hazy.
So I passed one and then another and then the intersection that I knew must be it. But no dent. I could make out a few scratches a couple feet off the ground as I drove by, but no dents. I circled back and drove by again thinking maybe I’d missed it. But nothing. Each was that unscarred blotchy metal that all the light poles there are made of. Then I gave a good long look at the pole I knew was the one. And then I extended the search a couple blocks in each direction. Nothing.
Eventually I realized it was gone. I knew where it was but it wasn’t there. I stopped by the corner where the new, unbent pole was and looked at it. I wondered what had finally prompted the change. Was it just time to install new poles? Or maybe that old pole had finally got knocked down by some more formidable vehicle. Maybe an eighteen-wheeler had ripped it out of the ground. It wouldn’t have been a match for something so large and heavy. Or maybe a new higher tech streetlight was installed. I mulled the possibilities and wondered if it mattered to me and rubbed my thumb a few times over my fingers and drove away.