When I went to live on my grandfather’s sailboat in the Cabrillo Marina back in 2009, it didn’t occur to me that the Port of Los Angeles was on the far edge of the city. That I would be at least a half hour’s drive from anyone I knew in L.A. In fact, the port isn’t even technically part of L.A. It’s in L.A. county but the surrounding city is called San Pedro or simply, “Pedro,” to locals.
I look back on that time as a kind of summer vacation in my 30s. I woke up every day happy to be alive. I drank my morning coffee on the back of the boat, ran several miles a day, lost ten pounds, and learned how to sail.
I lived on that 27-foot boat off and off for four months, mostly without a car – so I didn’t get away all that often. I got to know that sleepy working class town pretty well, and the communities around it, too: Torrance, Palos Verdes, Lomita – places most people don’t hear about and tourists don’t usually get to.
I didn’t really fit in in Pedro. There weren’t any cocktail bars and I’ll go out on a limb and say that none of the restaurants in San Pedro is likely to ever be nominated for a James Beard award. But I loved the place. I loved its unpretentiousness. I loved that the guy who set up a deli inside the local liquor store was curing his own pastrami and I loved that there was nothing self-congratulatory in his telling me this. Curing ones own pastrami wasn’t novel; it was just what one did.
In August I have an article coming out in Porthole Cruise Magazine. In researching it, I drove down to my old haunts. I was surprised at how much a few years had changed Pedro. The Port Authority had rennovated the peninsula on which my old marina had been. Driving along the newly paved road with the median planted full of succulents, I could not pin-point its former location. There was a place called the Dill Pickle Club. Gone. The embankment where my friend Scott once tested his all-terrain vehicle. Gone.
It’s not a bad thing. The marina was as derelict as they come. But it’s always strange to return someplace where you have a lot of memories and find that the physical place no longer exists. In fact, that it now only exists in your head.
The more things stay the same, the more they change
Fortunately, some things haven’t changed – or at least not much. One of my favorite haunts was a place called A-1 Italian imports, where the gruff staff acted like they’d just gotten off the boat from Sicily – and they weren’t so sure how they felt about being in the port of L.A. At Christmas time, they made their own salsiccia in the back. Then they hung the links over a rail above the deli counter. And each week they got a delivery from a local man who made pizza dough. They sold it in .65 cent bags. I would barely step over my friends’ thresholds in Silver Lake and Santa Monica before they asked me if I had brought them some.
When I walked in this time, I noticed the place felt a little cleaner. I recognized two of the men behind the counter. Another man I didn’t recognize, came forward and asked if I needed help. He didn’t look Sicilian. “No, I’m Mexican-American,” he told me, “I’m the new manager.” He showed me that they’d shined up their back room; they had a new stove. But the same imported pastas, meats, cheeses, olive oils and such lined the aisles. They still make sausage at Christmastime and I spied the bags of dough at the bottom of the cooler where they’d always been. They still cost .65 cents.
After getting my groceries, I drove to another place for a sandwich, the Busy Bee Market. Then I drove up the hill to one of my favorite look-out spots, and then to the Angel’s Gate Park. I wrote in my article how, when I stopped there once with a friend, a local guy told us that Michael Jordan had a photoshoot on the basketball court. My friend and I posed for the shot, imitating an ad we’d never seen. I wrote how, although I’d never been able to find that shot, everyone I’d take there would strikes a pose.
I was in luck. A young guy was shooting hoops. I waited for him and when he finished I showed him the shots. He enjoyed looking at them, and studied his technique. Then we chatted a minute. I told him I used to live in the neighborhood.
“People don’t realize it,” he said, “but this, this place is God’s country.”
After I left him I drove along the ocean, along the six-mile stretch I used to run. I stopped at another place where I once stumbled upon a gigantic bird of prey.At the park, I got out to swing. Because the swings are on the top of the cliffside, it makes you feel like if you jumped, you could hurl yourself into the ocean. This walk down memory late made me homesick for that time, my halcyon days, when everything seemed simpler – for that long summer when all I did was sail.
Up on the grounds of the Wayfarer’s Chapel, I unwrapped the white wax paper holding my meatball sub together and bit in. Words cannot express how much I love that meatball sub. It has no equal. No one else makes them like that – fatty, fennelly, and drenched in so much sauce that the bun becomes mush in your hand.
I had to give myself a shake. What was I being so nostalgia about? Those days were great, but so is this one.