“Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder.” – E. B. White
Saturdays I run errands—the post office, the bank, the dry cleaners, the pharmacy– if I need to refill prescription, and the library—if I need to pick up or return books. As I go about my errands, my radio is tuned to KPCC-FM the equal to if not the superior to any public radio station in the nation.
Last Saturday I was in a particularly good mood; the day before, the Republican majority House had been soundly defeated in its attempt to dismantle Obama care.
My first stop was to return books to the North Hollywood library which is located, just a few blocks from my home, in a park named for Amelia Earhart, who was born here. There is a handsome statue of the pioneer aviatrix on the corner.
In the entry of the library I came across a cart filled with “free books.” Usually the free books are out-of-date computer manuals and books on women’s healthcare (there are rarely any discarded books on men’s healthcare). A much-worn, water-stained purple hardcover caught my eye. The title on the spine, in faded, almost unreadable, gold-lettered print said Essays of E. B. White. I opened the book and read the foreword:
“The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest. He is a fellow who thoroughly enjoys his work, just as people who take bird walks enjoy theirs. Each new excursion of the essayist, each new “attempt” differs from the last and takes him into new country. This delights him. Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and stamina to write essays.
“(The essayist) can pull on any sort of shirt, be any sort of person, according to his mood or his subject matter—philosopher, scold, jester, raconteur, confidant, pundit, devil’s advocate, enthusiast.”
“Happy Saturday,” God whispered.
I suppose E. B. White is best-known these days as the author of the classic children’s books, Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web. I was introduced to White by a college professor who considered White to be one of the finest writers in the English language.
I majored in English at Regis College (now University) in Denver, Colorado from 1959-1963. The chair of the English Department was Robert Boyle, S.J. (the best teacher I ever had). Father Boyle required all English majors to subscribe to the New Yorker magazine. E. B. White wrote for the New Yorker from 1927 to 1976. Father Boyle believed White to have the purest, least cluttered writing style of any of the New Yorker’s legendary writers, including James Thurber, and he encouraged his students to read and emulate White.
I hadn’t thought of or read E. B. White in years and now, like a fully unmerited grace, this battered, discarded volume of essays had found its way into my hands. Before I finished reading the forward, my good mood had escalated into a joyous one.
“All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” – E. B. White
I resisted the temptation to go home immediately and start reading. I continued my errands. I stopped briefly at the local dry cleaners operated by a Chinese immigrant couple, who also sell Amway products. The wife pronounces the word “dollar” the same way Bloody Mary pronounces it in the movie, South Pacific: “Dollaah.” South Pacific is my favorite Broadway musical and I’m reminded of it every time she pronounces the word.
Next door to the cleaners is an enterprise that I would venture to say is uncommon in other communities: LOL, A Comedy School for Kids. Saturdays the parking lot bustles with parents dropping off their children to be tutored in the art of improv comedy. In the summer LOL runs a comedy day camp.
I left the cleaners and filled my gas tank at a service station staffed, for the most part, by either Indians or Pakistanis—I’m not sure which—who are unfailingly courteous.
Then I drove through Laurel Canyon into West Hollywood to visit my pharmacy and take advantage of a one- day sale on expensive supplements.
Several canyons and passes divide the city of Los Angeles; Laurel Canyon is my favorite. I’ve driven through the Canyon so regularly for the past forty years—I even had a house in the canyon for a couple of years— that I sometimes feel I could close my eyes and “let the horse find the way back to the barn.” It requires a great deal of patience and compassion—and, in fact, flat-out surrender—to drive behind a virgin motorist who is maneuvering the curves of the canyon for the first time.
The canyon can be perilous; several years ago, in the midst of the last big rains, a house slid off of its foundation and into the center of the road. Amazingly, city workers cleared the road in a matter of days.
Thanks to this winter’s heavy rains, the drive through the canyon is especially lush and beautiful, filled with astonishing shades of green and wildflowers—yellow, pink, orange, lavender and blue—in extravagant bloom along either side of the road. The faux-shabby market, which is located midway through the canyon, still boasts of celebrity customers from the 60’s—Joni Mitchell, Jim Morrison, the Mamas and the Papas and others—who inhabited the canyon when it was, before its gentrification, a pot-smoking, music making, hippie paradise.
Laurel Canyon ends at Sunset Boulevard. Crossing Sunset Boulevard into West Hollywood (WeHo) is akin to entering a different universe. (New York and London have SoHo, greater Los Angeles has NoHo, where I live, and WeHo.) Roughly a third of WeHo’s population is LGBT; another 20% of WeHo is made up of Russian Jewish emigres. This creates a fascinating juxtaposition of cultures and aesthetics. It all comes together on Halloween which is a municipal holiday.
Although CVS, Walgreen’s and Rite-Aid have stores closer to my home, Capitol Drugs in West Hollywood remains my neighborhood pharmacy. The owner, Ruth Tittle, is a longtime friend. She came to Los Angeles to help her brother, Loyd, the pharmacy’s founder, run the business after he was diagnosed with AIDs. She never went home. Staff members, some of whom have been there for as long as I can remember, are like neighbors.
After I picked up my supplements, I doubled back through the canyon. Back in NoHo, I stopped to pick up a few things at the Village Market and Liquor Store which is owned and operated by an Armenian family. The best pizza parlor in the neighborhood is also run by Armenians.
Spumante, the finest Italian restaurant in NoHo and maybe the best in the greater L. A. area is owned and operated by a Spaniard from Madrid. The majority of the wait-staff is made up of family and friends who followed him here. I assumed they were Italian and would never have known otherwise if I hadn’t dined there with a visitor from Bogota. As soon as the owner greeted us, my Colombian friend said, “Your accent is Spanish, not Italian.” They proceeded to reminisce about Madrid off and on for our entire meal. I left the restaurant longing to book the next flight to Madrid.
When I drive home from the Village Market I pass the playground of the Walter Reed Middle School. On weekdays it radiates with the energy of its strikingly diverse student body. In the 1980’s I worked as a volunteer youth minister at a largely immigrant church in Hollywood. I was told that Hollywood High School, which the majority of our students attended, claimed to have students from eighty different countries who spoke 50 languages and dialects. I don’t know if my neighborhood middle school can match that but it wouldn’t surprise me.
Occasionally, I will stop down the street from the school at Marie et Cie, a combination bakery, coffee house and gift store founded by an elegant French woman and managed by her son.
On Thursday morning, March 30, NPR’s Morning Edition interviewed Trump voters from Strong City, KS (population 460.) Trump’s budget cuts may kill the program that has been a lifeline to the community’s water system.
Jim Fink, who runs Clark’s Farm and Home Store in Strong City, responded, “Would I rather see the money go for a water plant or to possibly control our borders and the security of our nation? The security of our nation is more important to me.”
I am grateful every day for the diversity of my neighborhood and the contributions that multiple immigrant communities bring to it. I grieve that so many American citizens who’ve likely never encountered the vibrancy of these communities are so fearful that they would sacrifice clean water rather than risk exposure to them.
“The world is full of people who have never, since childhood, met an open doorway with an open mind.” – E. B. White
When I got home I re-read the foreword to E. B. White’s book of essays. Essay is a much more beautiful word than blog. The first use of the word blog was in 1999 and is short for Weblog. To me blog sounds like the noise made by a backed-up toilet.
Essay has a far lovelier sound and a much more romantic history. Its first use was in the fourteenth century and is derived from the Middle French essai and the Late Latin exagium, meaning an act of weighing. The definition of essay is enormously appealing to me: a short piece of writing that tells a person’s thoughts or opinions about a subject. There are few things that give me more pleasure and satisfaction than offering my thoughts and opinions, solicited or not.
I have decided that I prefer being an essayist to being a blogger. Call me old school.
My musings further led me to recall that esse, is Latin for to be, the root of the word essence.
Two nights before I came upon White’s book I attended an exhilarating sold-out revival of the play Zoot Suit at the Mark Taper Forum in downtown Los Angeles where it had originally premiered in 1978. The lead character, El Pachuco (Wikipedia describes “pachuco” as a zoot-suited, well-dressed, street-connected flamboyant playboy of Hispanic/Latino heritage) and the other male characters repeatedly address each other with the word Esse. According to one source, (disputed by others) delinquent Mexican kids in the California school system in the 1940’s (the period in which the play is set) were designated for “social adjustment”; S.A. was stamped on their files. This may be the origin of the all-purpose “esse”, which has come to mean dude or homeboy. Each time Demian Bichir, the Mexican actor who plays El Pachuco pronounces the word esse his nuanced intonations give the word as many meanings as aloha: coming from his lips it can mean a kiss, a taunt, a seduction, a reprimand, an encouragement, a term of affection, or a death sentence. Bechir’s performance is astonishing. He has the virile magnetism of Anthony Quinn at the peak of his powers. And that’s saying something!
I had the privilege of meeting Anthony Quinn in the early 1980’s when he came to our production offices for a meeting. He had to have been in his late 60’s. (That doesn’t seem so old now.) I met a lot of “stars” during my years in the biz. Quinn had more star presence than any of them; it was palpable. He entered the room and filled it. He shook my hand and said, “I’m Anthony Quinn.” In the magic of the moment the only thing I could think of to say was, “I know.”
I love words! I don’t just love the meanings of words. I love their sounds. Their spellings and etymologies fascinate me. Over the years I’ve accumulated more dictionaries and thesauruses than are necessary or healthy for a single person to possess. That said, they provide me with wonderful company.
E. B. White’s use of words intoxicates me. He writes perfect sentences. Here are two examples. Read them out loud. The first is from an essay called Coon Tree (June 14, 1956).
“I would feel more optimistic about the bright future of man if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.”
The second is from A Report in January (January 30, 1958.)
“The idle pursuit of making-a-living is pushed to one side, where it belongs, in favor of living itself, a task of such immediacy, variety, beauty and excitement that one is powerless to resist its wild embrace.”
Not just perfect sentences, but timeless ones! And they are born out of his musings about the mother raccoon who lives in the tree outside his bedroom and the adventure of living in New England in the winter.
Listen to the rhythm as he strings the words and syllables together.
“Arthur Cole arrived one blistery afternoon after work, trailing his sawing machine behind his coupe, and sawed almost all of our six and a half cords before dark. Arthur is seventy-six and dearly loves to saw wood. He still has all ten fingers.”
There is an old cliché that says that a great actress, say Meryl Streep, could read at random from the New York phone book and move an audience to tears. I am certain that E. B. White, were he still alive, could write an essay about that same telephone book and manage to make a minimum half dozen profound and amusing observations about human nature.
My recent posts originated as an attempt to respond to, rather than react to, the election of November 8, 2016. My anger, disbelief, and my feelings of grief and powerlessness, have fueled a lot of my writing.
No more! I’m not saying “Never”; but just for today, “No more.”
I’m retiring the election and its aftermath as my blog muse and invoking E. B. White as my essay muse.
White writes with simplicity, elegance and a kind of bemused detachment. As far as I can tell, he never tries to be clever. (Too often, I do.) It’s his powers of observation that make whatever topic captures his attention capture mine, too.
Today’s entry is my first essay.
“I get up every morning determined to both change the world and have a hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning my day difficult.”
– E. B. White