Nov. 27, Santa Fe Springs – We linger in the Starbucks adjacent to the Walmart adjacent to the McDonald’s. That’s looking to our right. To the left lies El Super and Target.
We are in America. Still. The face of America might be changing, but it is only skin deep. White, black, brown or yellow, we remain pawns in the hands of the money men.
Still, the demographic wave rises. This phenomenon is the bete noire of right-wingers everywhere. So, to paraphrase the words of one of their most prominent spokesmen, I say bring it on.
We’ve picked our poison. Out with McDonald’s, in with Starbucks. Still not ideal, but this is America after all. Compromise is our supposed genius.
Speaking of America … Yesterday, I neglected to mention I finally summoned the courage to call Liz, my friendly mortgage contact at JP Morgan Chase. For the record, we’re 17 months in arrears. And counting.
I have slipped into serious depression on the subject of our misbegotten mortgage, and most days I deal with it by pretending it doesn’t exist.
Not yesterday. I leaned on the camper in the TA parking lot in Barstow and basked in the Mojave Desert warmth. I dialed Liz.
It took her a while to figure out who I was, or more properly, what my loan number is. When she did, she asked how she might help me.
“I’m returning your call,” I allowed.
“Oh,” she said.
I poke fun, but I like Liz. She’s too nice for her job.
Maybe it’s her job description. Maybe she’s the designated nice guy. Maybe she was hired to offer soothing platitudes while your financial ship slips into oblivion, to keep you off the ledge while the foreclosure process lurches forward in baby steps.
Still, I like Liz. Why wouldn’t I? She didn’t sell me the house. She wanted to know if I was interested in doing a short sale. I said in the abstract, yes, but confided I was far too depressed to get my mind around it in reality. Maybe if Chase gets up the nerve to offer a substantial incentive, I’ll step to. Until then, I’m dead in the water.
She was sweet and motherly. Said she hopes we get to Pennsylvania and get a fresh perspective on things. I might even get a job, she allowed. What an optimist!
She said, and I quote, “My hope for your family is that you get to Pennsylvania and live happily ever after.”
The underwater mortgage: It’s just a fairy tale by another name.
While Starbucks provides affordable rocket fuel, that rocket fuel can rip a hole in your stomach if you have insufficient ballast.
And so I run back to the camper to get a granola bar to stave off the rot in my belly. I’m in there for a couple seconds when someone knocks on the door.
I open the door. My eyes fall on a security gendarme. His police-issue shirt is white and firmly pressed. As are his black pants. His badge number is 2489.
Before I can say “hi,” Lester scoots past me into the lot, freedom on his mind. I chase him down before turning my attention to the law of the parking-lot universe.
My interrogator’s no-nonsense demeanor softens at the sight of Lester’s foiled escape.
“I have a kitty at home,” he says.
His name is Eric. He’s a nice guy if a little guarded. He refuses to tell me his last name or let me take his picture. But he likes to chat.
At 49, he packs a robust 180 pounds on his 5-foot-9 frame. Says he works out every day, that he used to weigh 291 pounds. Hard to imagine.
“I’ve never smoked or drank,” he says. “So there’s not a lot of wear and tear on my body.”
Something’s wrong with his right eye, though. Partially veiled by his sunglasses, it does not open during our conversation. I can’t stop looking at it. Involuntarily, my fascination grows as our conversation unfolds. It’s hard to remember salient chunks of dialogue when you give way to such a fixation.
Eric graduated from Santa Fe High School, which sits 3.2 miles due west of here, in 1982. Then he did a six-year tour in the Uncle Sam’s Army. He retains a military bearing. His back is straight, his chest thrust forward.
He explains this isn’t your ordinary Walmart RV parking arrangement. We were supposed to park on the left side of the Walmart. Maximum stay is one day.
I apologize for flouting the rules, ignorance being my primary defense.
I say it seemed like a nice enough neighborhood.
“It is nice, because we keep it that way,” he says. “If we weren’t here, there’d be homeless people, trash, graffiti everywhere.”
I say he looks like an affable fellow, that’s it’s hard to fathom him being too much of a hard-ass.
“I’m as hard as I have to be,” he says.
Eric says he’s forever chasing off RV squatters. It’s not always fun, he says. The true vagabonds, he says, unleash a mighty stench when they open the door to their rolling domiciles.
He recoils at the thought.
I ask him about the changing face of the neighborhood
He gazes about the lot, his mind’s eye peering into the past. There was nothing here but Sears, he says, the sweep of his arm taking in Walmart, McDonald’s, Starbucks, El Super, L.A. Fitness and a few smaller businesses.
“There was a K-Mart across the street and a bowling alley,” he says.
I ask if he spent a lot of time at the bowling alley as a kid.
“No,” he says. “Because you needed money.”
I asked what his dad did.
“Chrome plating,” he said. “But he wasn’t around. He was a drinker. He still lives around here, but he’s never been part of the family.”
His dad’s Hispanic, his mom French.
Was the neighborhood predominantly Hispanic when he was a kid?
“When I was in high school, about 50 percent of the students were white, with about one or two black students,” he says. “Now you can count the white students on one hand.”
When we came here yesterday, Jun was incredulous. When it comes to America’s many-colored population, my Korean friend is not the most liberal thinker. Didn’t know “Why you want to stay in goddamn Mexican neighborhood?” he said with disgust.
You don’t have to be a social scientist to recognize Santa Fe Springs as a Hispanic stronghold. When I went to Target to buy cookies last night, I was the lone gringo in the place. The demographic disparity is so obvious as to render the anecdotal evidence unimpeachable.
Not that it’s Mexico or anything. English remains the prevailing language, but Target looks to be 48-49 percent bilingual. Walking the aisles offers a Spanish primer for monolingual neanderthals like your narrator.
A bit of what I learned:
Cleaning products = productos de limpiezas
Frozen dinners = comidas de congeladas
Frozen vegetables = verduras de congeladas
Peanut butter = mantequilla de mani
And my favorite translation: Hispanic products is rendered into Spanish as “productos Hispanos.”
There is, however, no translation offered for “Can we help you find something?” Same goes for “stocking stuffers” and “making the season BRIGHT.”
But of course you can’t have everything
I ask Eric if he recalls the name of the bowling alley. He struggles to summon it from the back of his brain.
“It was something lanes,” he says.
It’s Premiere Lanes. The sign remains, safe behind wire fencing. It stands sentinel over a vacant lot and looks out over Telegraph Road.
Eric says Walmart attempted to buy the Premiere Lanes site a while back with an eye to expanding their footprint into a SuperCenter. The other businesses, he says, wielded their combined financial might to persuade city council to reject Walmart’s bid.
“They gave them some money to make sure it didn’t happen,” he says.
That’s fine with him. He says the Walmart’s just the right size as is. He only shops there in the morning, before the crowds start filing in.
We walk back in the direction of Starbucks, side by side.
“I don’t like their coffee,” he says.
The gnawing hole in my gut makes me empathetic.
I smile. We shake hands. I bid Eric adieu and thank him for his time.
Some days, America really is the beautiful.