Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Valley Jews

Top 10 Home Buyer Surnames
Los Angeles County (2000)

1. Garcia
2. Lee
3. Rodriguez
4. Kim
5. Hernandez
6. Lopez
7. Gonzales
8. Martinez
9. Smith
10. Perez

Source: California Association of REALTORS;
Cited in “The Changing Face of the San Fernando Valley” by Joel Kotkin and Erika Ozuna

For my mom, the escape was narrow.

“The gangs have just gotten out of control. They will there too, one day. But not yet,” she whispered confidently. Her phone was certainly nestled deep into her shoulder as she used her two hands to play video Poker on a little digital machine while the local news blared on in front of her.

I agreed. I’ve been trained to condone my mom’s old world perspective on a finite number of issues, especially when she is in a good mood. And she was. It was her last night as a resident of the San Fernando Valley after over forty years in domestic exile. In the morning, she and a freight company would move her life from one of the smaller models of a freshly paved gated community at the top of The Valley to one of the smaller models of a freshly paved gated community east of Palm Springs.

She hadn’t called me to mark the occasion. She called because the TV said my suburb of San Francisco was the epicenter of a small but newsworthy earthquake. That meant for a moment I understood peril, narrow escapes and the importance of location, location, location.

Worry is my mother’s version of love. And not worry about the real things —the car crashes, the secondhand scorn and the trans-fats— that kill most people. She’s invested in distressing over the disasters of largess. If something is going to take something away from her, it is something huge: a small-scale tsunami, a Biblical riot of Philistines, a crazed, ethnic sniper. Something notable that the local news would tease on newsbreaks, possibly even preempt programming for. Then she’ll call for the details, leaving a concerned message on my voice mail, “I hope you aren’t dead.”

Her worrying occasionally brings us together and mostly keeps us apart. She’s fine as long as neither of us is about to be swallowed by ever-present menaces that target me because she’s so good at worrying about them.

It’s from below her cloud of persistent, disjointed, hazy fear that I see the northern corner of the San Fernando Valley where I grew up in the 1980s. It really was one of the safest places in the world for a pre-adolescent Jew to wander aimlessly. A contained world of two-car families living in grandiose one-family homes, built in no particular style except “suburban.” Property lines clearly delineated and similarly landscaped. The aberration of a basketball hoop or an open garage every few blocks reminded you that people did live inside. It was a world contained by gray walls of concrete block that no human could see over unless they were up on tiptoes or got a boost from a fellow gang member. A world so safe that if anything terrible happened to a child it ended up on TV. And that all appeased my mom, slightly, even though danger was just outside every cul-de-sac. “Why is that gate open?” she’d ask whenever she drove by, aloud and to no one.

And the escape was always narrow; they were always closing in fast. Ask her. Just down Parthenia Street, just past the movie theater, that’s the projects. It’s worse than Tijuana in there. That’s what the police say on TV.