On the bus ride back to Jim’s place we inventoried our resources … about six bucks all told. Not quite enough for gas for the four hundred or so miles to LA. Not to mention food!
So we turned to our den mother for sage advice and help.
That would be one R.C. Gorman, a strikingly handsome, affable Navajo artist, who along with his Rock Hudson type partner Scott hosted our unofficial beatnik hangout.
A few friends and I had carte blanche at the place, an older bungalow complete with roomy cellar (perfect for an artist’s studio), just a few blocks up from the Mare Island Strait.
I loved the place, not only because it proved to be a perfect, and eminently safe place to bring an occasional girl friend, but because Gorman filled it with colorful characters, from San Francisco female impersonators to writers to artists and to gallery proprietors. It had to be the most fascinating place in all of Vallejo for its brief, but brilliant life span.
I’m not sure what Scott did for a living, but he didn’t seem to enjoy steady employment. And since he’d taken to hanging-out in park restrooms, he was rarely home. Perhaps these activities, individually or jointly, led to the police stake-out of their place (a couple of men wearing fedoras sitting in a Ford a few doors up and across the street) … or maybe not. But Scott’s subsequent arrest and change of address to San Quentin answered any questions we had about his work.
Gorman fared better. About a year or so after my LaLaLand adventure, he had his breakthrough San Francisco art exhibiton. He’d taken a few of us cubs along for moral support, but he didn’t need it. The party given him (and us) that night in the ultra wealthy condo overlooking the city and bay was an eye-opener. Royalty from the SF art crowd packed the place, giddy about Gorman. I stuck to the champagne, canapes and caviar, from time-to-time assuring our mother that his success was really, really happening. I’ve never witnessed anything quite like it.
This proved to be the launch pad for Gorman who went on to achieve memorable success. He would subsequently become bff with Andy Warhol, and regularly receive celebrity visits from Hollywood stars and some of America’s leading aristocrats, like Jackie Onassis Kennedy, at his Taos studio.
Upon Gorman’s death in 2005, flags throughout the entire state of New Mexico were lowered to half-staff in his honor.
Gorman’s work now sells for six-figures, which makes me wish that I’d kept the portrait he painted of me. Oh well! You could say he was remarkably talented.
By now you’re probably thinking that Gorman would be your last choice for counselor or guru, and perhaps you’d be right. But he did have a big heart, and seemed to genuinely care.
After discussing our plans, which he tried to talk us out of, he declared them insane, wild and exciting, and gave us all the money he could scrape up … about $24 in all.
He wished us luck, and as the cops in their fedoras watched, we drove off to LaLaLand on our grand beatnik adventure!
We arrived in LA late that evening, coasting to a stop in front of the Warner Bros studios. We’d run out of gas after putting every last cent we could find into the tank to cover our remaining miles into the city. Except for a near-death experience involving a logging truck and a red light (I figured it was better to run the light rather than consuming excess petrol with unnecessary stopping and starting) our journey was uneventful.
We tried our best to sleep, Jorge’s lanky frame squeezed in the back seat, me up front, but it was difficult, kind of like trying to sleep in a cold storage locker.
Morning came with the rising sun, much earlier than we were used to. It didn’t come with breakfast, but we were in LA and we were adventurers! After walking for miles, vainly looking for pop bottles to cash-in for deposits, and shoplifting a package of bologna, our adventure took on a less auspicious aspect than it had at dawn.
So after choking down as much bologna as we could, feeling a little despondent about our prospects and more than a little sorry about our self-inflicted plight, we took off again, not searching for adventure, but rather searching for food!
We started walking, knowing not where we were, knowing not where we were going. After a short time we found ourselves in an older, elegant residential neighborhood that had not yet succumbed to urban decay.
Large, leafy trees lined the streets, their canopies providing heat relief for the stately Victorian homes that sat behind broad expanses of healthy, green lawn. Hungry as we were, we couldn’t help but surrender to the grandeur and tranquility of the place. It was like a soothing balm … until we detected the intoxicating aroma of fried chicken!
Never has fried chicken smelled so downright delicious! Just a whiff made my mouth water … literally! No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t stop my feet from walking down that long driveway, past the front entrance, under that porte cochere drapped with a bounty of blooming wisteria toward the source of that heavenly aroma.
I was drawn to it like a moth to a flame. I had to go.
Jorge, on the other hand, somehow found the will power to stay put. As a matter of fact, when it came to having anything to do with strangers, he seemed remarkably able to summon a similar restraint.
When I reached the far end of the house, I warily looked round the corner … and there, filling a very large kitchen window stood Aunt Jemima!
A real life, honest-to-goodness Aunt Jemima! I could hardly believe my eyes! She wore a hospital white cook’s outfit minus the stove pipe hat. She had one of the friendliest looking faces I’d ever seen with a broad, genuine smile. She somehow seemed to exude an aura of goodness and kindness that made me feel somehow uplifted … not to mention what the fragrance of fried chicken did to me!
Umm umh! I just had to have some!
I marched up the back steps as if I owned the place. I figured timidity wouldn’t help me now. I knocked, took a step back and waited. Aunt Jemima appeared looking for all the world like an angel coming to my aid.
She seemed a bit surprised to see me standing there all alone on the back porch (Jim was still out on the sidewalk under the Sycamores, rooted in place), “Lordy, lordy child, what’re you doing there? What is it you want?”
“Well you see, mam, me and my friend Jim were wondering if maybe you had some scraps of food or leftovers you might be able to spare?” I replied, employing my most pitiable voice.
“What? What’d you say child? You say you want food? Well, my, my my! You get in here right now and we’ll go ask the missus! Come on in now, come on” she instructed, opening the door wide, moving her plus size frame to one side.
I entered a kitchen filled with those lip-smacking aromas … fried chicken, mashed potatoes, pies! If heaven existed, I’d surely found it!
Through the window in which I first saw Aunt Jemima, I could see Jorge’s head poking round the corner of the house. I waved to him to come in, which he did without any undue lack of hesitation.
He seated himself in an out-of-the-way chair and scrunched-up like a kid watching a scary movie, while our “aunt,” our hoped-for savior escorted me through a two-way swinging door with a round window in it for our audience with the missus.
The scene in the adjoining room startled me. The missus had apparently converted her elegant Victorian manse into a boarding house for an surprisingly large number of boarders. There were least 20 of them sitting at long communal tables feasting on our cook’s savory fare.
It was a lively group. The din of their conversations and the clatter of the dinnerware filled the room … until I entered, at which point all activity and small talk stopped. Every head swung to watch me as I approached the missus.
She sat in a small chair in a corner of the room where she obviously enjoyed watching her boarders eat. A very senior citizen, absolutely ancient to a sixteen year old, she leaned forward with her chin resting on a hand cupped over a well used cane.
“Yes? What is it ?” she asked, straightening up a little and peering at me over her glasses. “What is it?”
She seemed puzzled, but not more than her hyper-curious boarders who were still frozen as if caught in a still-life painting.
Not wanting to unnecessarily broadcast my entreaty, I bent down, and still using my most plaintive tone, whispered, “Well, mam, you see I was wondering if maybe me and my friend Jim could have some leftover scraps of chicken or something?”
“Eh? What’s that you say? Speak up son! I can’t hear you!” the near-deaf granny replied.
I tried again, a bit louder, still in sotto voce in an increasingly futile effort to thwart the busybody boarders. But after a couple of more tries, I threw caution to the wind and began shouting. When I finally broke through the sonic barrier, the missus pushed down unsteadily on her cane and rose.
She escorted me past her astonished boarders who’d just begun started talking again, saying over and over, “Well, my, my my, you come with me son. You come with me. My, my, my.”
When we reached the kitchen our “aunt” had already begun to dish-up a couple of plates to overflowing. Fried chicken! Mashed potatoes! Gravy! Oh, the wonder of it all! Had we Michelin stars to award that night, we would have given the entire batch to her!
As Jorge and I buried our faces in our delectable feast the old lady peppered us with questions … What are you doing here? Where are you from? Where are you going? Where are you parents?
Jim just kept quiet, but I figured we needed a good story for the missus. We didn’t want the authorities involved, and after all, a few white lies wouldn’t hurt. Besides, the worse off we appeared, the better off she’d feel helping us.
But as soon as I started I found I really couldn’t stop. It was like getting caught in a traffic jam. I told her about an abusive uncle in San Francisco who’d spent my meager inheritance on drinking and gambling …
“I couldn’t take it any more, mam,” I informed our benefactress. “I just had to get away! Jim here has relations in LA, so we’re gonna find them. They’ll help me get settled here!”
“Well, my, my my! My, my my! Do you know where they live? How are you going to find them?” she asked.
“Oh, don’t worry mam. We’ve got us a few addresses. We’ll find them tomorrow I’m certain!” I replied, wishing I’d not started down this path, but there I was, trapped! Jim kept his head straight down in his plate.
“Are you sure? How do you know you’ll be able to find them? Do you promise you can?” she asked with the most caring and sympathetic of voices.
“Oh, yes mam! For sure! No doubt about it!” I reassured her.
Aunt Jemima looked on, a bit skeptically. She wasn’t entirely convinced … but she had no doubts about our complete and absolute love and appreciation of her cooking which we devoured until we could devour no more.
After a couple of slices of pie a la mode, we gave them both our sincerest thanks, absolutely promised we’d find Jim’s kin the next day, and left re-energized with full stomachs and grocery sacks filled with goodies from the missus and Aunt Jemima.
Things were starting to look up! Things were definitely starting to look up!
Next … Did the kids’ lot continue to improve? How in the world did they find more food? And what about money? Find out in Part 3 of Lost in LaLaLand … BEAT, BY A GROCER; A RAT PACK, AND DINO’S SAGE ADVICE
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