What We Talk About When We Talk About What’s Gone
by John Shannon
—Before Sunset (Richard Linklater and others)
I was about twelve when I rode the big auto ferry back and forth between San Pedro and Terminal Island across a quarter-mile channel of gray, oil-slicked, toxic water, keeping watch for the occasional up-periscope of a harbor seal. I hid under a slatted bench as the ferry neared the far mooring, the engines reversed in a shudder of cavitating backwater and that blunt bow awesomely nudged into the creaking pilings to imply unimaginable mass. I hid so I could ride back and back again without repaying the nickel fare. I’ve told the story so many times I’ve come to think I actually did hide, but I’m really not so sure. Why would the crew care a whit if a kid or a couple of kids or every kid in San Pedro rode back and forth all day on their ferryboat? It was a car ferry and the only rush of foot passengers came at shift change at the canneries. The mothers and older sisters of my school friends coming or going to StarKist and Chicken of the Sea and French’s and Van Camp’s and then flopping their reeking uniforms into pails of ammonia on the back porch. When the tuna boats were in and the canneries were canning, the whole city stank of it, as unmistakable as a skunk gone to panic under the house, a stench that carried all the way up through the old town to my midcentury modern house at the edge of civilization, at the foot of the nearly empty Palos Verdes hills. My family lived in the postwar suburbs two miles west of the art deco ferry building that always looked like a lost outpost of the high school. Today it’s a maritime museum full of the same tedious models of big steamships that used to clutter up the Cabrillo Marine Museum over at the beach.
Vincent Thomas Bridge
There’s no ferry any more, of course. The bridge takes all the traffic now—the very suspension bridge that Robert De Niro hilariously called the St. Vincent Thomas in the 1995 movie Heat. (Vince—actually Vinko Tomasevic—the old wheeler-dealer San Pedro assemblyman would probably be amused by his random posthumous sainthood.) The tuna canneries are all gone, too, runaways to American Samoa and other low-wage pockets around the Pacific Rim. And across the street from the ferry building the gaudy sailor’s row of Beacon Street is famously gone. Gone utterly, like Carthage spread with salt, like a city once owned by losers. Tommy’s and the Port Hole and the Anchor Hotel, which every kid in Dana junior high whispered was a whorehouse, and above all, Shanghai Red’s on the corner with that husky tattooed Cairo Mary tossing drunks out the swingdoor. All gone. About 1970 the evil civic ferrets brought us Urban Renewal and decided a big hole in the ground was preferable to that untidy sort of past. My friend Russ wrote me recently,
“Tommi’s brother Robert and I toured the area shortly after the condemnation order went out. One second-floor joint was still being used as an informal flophouse for street thugs, and the floor was littered with snowdrifts of stolen handbags. We made a noise prying an old dinner menu off the wall in one hash-joint, and tw o or three shamblers surrendered, thinking we were the Fuzz. Har har. Them was the days, laddie!”
Of course I miss it all. But.
We all know L.A. is the city that eats its history. Don’t blink or it’ll be gone. Kleenex architecture. Sure, but. The problem is I don’t think I know the right questions. Every public building down to the seediest sailor joint serves its time as part of a vast nexus of cultural bric-a-brac too extensive for any easy catalogue, and there is a kind of exhaustion that takes you over when you try to mourn this chronicle of your youth that you carry around in your head. I think I peeked into Shanghai Red’s once, saw a few old drunks slumped over the bar. But it was just a place then, not yet a famous Missing Place. Why would it stand out? And I was only a kid. As a kid you never feel you have the world’s full attention. It’s always looking past your shoulder at whatever really belongs there. Beat it, kid.
Probably what I wanted to see then was the picturesque, in a much more Lutheran kind of way. The quaint. Something earnest and sincere. Something with a stable connection to the kind of weltanschaung that animated Life magazine. Alas. More characteristic of my thinking was the day I carried my crappy little Ricoh camera down to the docks just upchannel of the ferry building. I’d been wearing the camera around my neck for some time by then in order to capture the world outside myself. And only now do I wonder what this daffy photographing of my explorations was about. I had already sneaked inside the radar dome at the top of San Pedro Hill, found its flickering cathode ray tubes inexplicably unattended and shot them as proof. Proof! I’m lucky I didn’t get clubbed by an angry MP. I must have needed this proof for something. Maybe I was trying to confer some sort of carry-away reality on the world I was experiencing at that alienated age and having a hard go of it—and only in part because my dad had bought that cheap fixed-lens camera at a pawn shop and for years after I assumed that softness of focus was somehow an innate failing of my technique.
Some part of photography is probably always an attempt to colonize and tame and make sense of our adventures (or substitute little paper squares for real adventures). As I say, there was one grand day when I approached being truly adventurous and made my way out onto the commercial piers not far from the ferry building. Abruptly a Japanese sailor hurried down the gangway of a freighter and pointed at my camera, grinning and gabbling incomprehensibly. Then he turned my little 35-millimeter junker bottom up and cried, Nippon, Nippon! It actually said Nippon. A crude but certain link between us. So, presumably finding himself bored in this faraway land, he took me up the ladder and showed me all through the freighter. Oh, I know. I shudder today to think of what might have been on tap for a cute pre-teen boy in the deep recesses of a freighter that was technically extraterritorial land and not even the United States, but none of that happened. He had no intention of turning me bottom up until I cried Nippon! Just UN stuff, friendship between the nations. And I captured him in black and white, plus-X, 80 ASA, grinning and waving and fuzzy as ever. Was this a substitute for knowing him, a defense against the anxiety of meeting someone I couldn’t really communicate with? (What if there were no rhetorical questions?)
The radar screens, the big freighter engines, the Japanese grin—are they in some way tamed or captured or befriended by being on Kodaprint paper that was test-stripped and printed up in my own crude darkroom in the garage?
Does not speak of itself. Tells of others. Will it include them?
I think the lost sailor’s jungle on Beacon Street is more the key here, or better, the lost ferry itself. Let’s suppose they’d preserved the Terminal Island Ferry somehow, that the desperate do-gooder conservationists had won one for a change. Maybe as a restaurant, or worse, as a sight tied permanently to barnacled pilings like the old victory ship the SS Lane Victory they keep over by the cruiseship terminal. Stand right here with your camera. Harbor Heritage Plaque No. 57. “Once plied these waters ...” But the physical reality of the ferry is just a splinter plucked from a whole texture of the past, and even if that lovely tub were still around today it would have drifted miles from those moorings of its texture, or its text, as the deconstructionists say. As the moorings themselves have drifted into nostalgic oblivion. The ferry would be a deracinated zebra, a meaningless boat at a meaningless dock that is the exact analog of a zoocage on the wrong continent for its poor occupant. At best, if they had tried to save a representative chunk of the ferry’s ecology, we’d have a fragment of that habitat, a few objects that might still reverberate amongst themselves on some level: one ferry, one sailors’ bar, an old fireboat, and a sign announcing fish harbor—like California’s Highway 49, “the Gold Rush Highway,” or Julian and its sad apple pies, or Disneyland’s Main Street—places that are famous for what they aren’t. Try to get it all into one snap, take a rendering of the zebra home with you at one more remove from its world and make it an indoor pet.
SS Lane Victory in better days
I’m reminded here of the Lone Pine Film Festival. Once a year outside Lone Pine in the Owens Valley—the place where Los Angeles famously stole all the water—about halfway between Mojave and Mammoth Mountain they set up little kiosks in the weathered and picturesque Alabama Hills west of town. Each kiosk shows an 8x10 from a movie that was shot on that very spot, Gunga Din, King of the Khyber Rifles, High Sierra, innumerable cowboy flicks. Look at that overhang, there’s the Lone Ranger ambush site. That ring of rocks is where they built the deathcult temple and Sam Jaffe and all the brown people chanted Ka-li! Each time I see the crowds thronging one of those kiosks, I think—These people are visiting this place because it’s famous for pretending to be another place. Calculus and its layers of abstraction always worried me and I dropped out of math at San Pedro High School because, though I could understand X as an unknown quantity, I could never grasp f(X), a whole new layering of the unknown. It’s that second layer of abstraction that defeats me—like growing nostalgic for nostalgia.
And speaking of the Owens Valley, home of the poor defeated Paiutes, I can’t help thinking in turn of the Ghost Dance that Wovoka, one of their medicine men, invented. In the last days of the Euro triumph late in the 19th century, with everything they knew destroyed and their society under unbearable stress, this man had a vision for everyone to dance night after night, dance to exhaustion and all the dead braves and all the dead buffalo would come back. Within a year the messianic dance had spread across the Great Plains and spawned Ghost Shirts that were impermeable to Cavalry bullets. Sitting Bull was arrested and murdered for dancing the Ghost Dance but it was only really suppressed after F-troop (the 7th Cavalry) rode into Wounded Knee and shot all the old men, women and children.
illustration of a ghost dance by Frederic Remington
I believe it is the American longing for myths of redemption that makes historic loss and “historic preservation”—is there any difference?—so full of a similar pathos. Somehow, we’re told that holding hands and looking at a ferryboat or a saloon or a rocky hillside or a place where something was once authentic will save our urban renewed souls and emancipate us from historical grief. But the preserved site has almost inevitably been rendered surreal by its new surroundings—just as surreal as the hideous Ports o’ Call Village only a half mile south of the ferry building, though this particular atrocity is at last being torn down. Imagine it, a simulacrum of a New England whaling village dropped from 30,000 feet onto a California waterfront. We are beyond even the pretense of the authentic. The psyche cries out, Enough!
Let’s stagger backward (rather forward) to stand against a railing and look at something that’s only a single remove from the authentic and examine what we’re doing when we do so, this social rite we’ve created of playing sightseer in a former reality—the act of gawking at what advertising sometimes calls “an actual fake.” (I’ve seen it written, I swear, and the Gene Autry museum is full of it.) There’s something at this level still to be understood. Here’s a thought experiment: suppose that there’s an old ferryboat moored down there in the San Pedro channel, with its blunt ends, a low white hull, a hollow superstructure to accept a dozen drive-on cars, a shiny black stack on top. Or not. What are we seeing?
The parallels between staring at that ferryboat and gawking at the zebra in the zoo are rather exact. They are both exiles from worlds that no longer exist for them. They are both emblems that we cling to in order to convince ourselves that “we”—our society, our advance in great strides across our world, our peculiar form of progress—have done no harm, at least no harm that could have been avoided. See, we’ve saved this beautiful relic. This consoling sign. Thus we mask the total rupture of all the bonds that tied that world together and should have gone on tying that world to us today. This is why I say there’s little difference between ferry and no ferry—as long as we recognize the hole it’s left in the world (and what is a ferry terminal except a hole for a ferry?) And as long as we can only respond to the ferry (the hole) with sentiment instead of ... what?
I think I know but I hate to say it because it’s going to offend. It’s not an option that an individual sightseer can choose in any case, it’s social, it’s an action and probably a drastic one at that. Today we all live in and accept a society that cannot move forward without tearing apart and emptying all the traditions and cultures and individual lives in its path—both here and overseas now that we have achieved “globalization.”
We need to build the kind of world that does not have to disrupt everything in order to move forward, a more human society to put it simply. Is that so much to ask? It was tried once and failed rather spectacularly. I have no idea whether it will be tried again but I know this way we have now hasn’t much of a future. Look around at the social breakdown. We’re already entering the Ghost Dance of our society.