December 17th, 2004

5th street los angeles 1905

The Raw Material of Maps, and a Slum Revealed

I got hung up on Terraserver, the service that almost redeems Microsoft. They have upgraded, having acquired bigger, higher resolution color aerial photographs of many places, and many of them are quite recent. The small images are the default, but you only need to click on the large size icon once, and everything you open thereafter in that session will be full sized. I've noticed that the little red pin icons they use to mark the location of the address for which you have searched is frequently off by a block or more, but that's a minor problem.

The major problem is that I like it too much. I just spent two hours looking at pictures of places I haven't lived in decades. To my surprise, the first house I ever lived in is still there. It was substandard even then, and I'd have thought that it would have been demolished by now, but it's clearly recognizable. I was doubly surprised by the size of the place. I knew it was tiny, but in the aerial photograph it is quite easy to see that it is actually smaller than the two-car garages of nearby houses.

The place must have been only a bit over 300 square feet. At times, there were as many as seven of us living there, when my aunt and her daughter stayed with us for a while. There were two other houses on the same lot- one next door and the other in back. The house next door is still there, but the one in back has been replaced by what appears to be a duplex with four garages. Many other, and larger, houses in the neighborhood have been replaced by new multiple dwellings, but our tiny house has survived, though a small addition has been stuck on the back of it. Even with that, it's still smaller than a two-car garage. If I could buy it, I could put it in my current back yard for use as a shed, if it weren't hundreds of miles away.

I'll bet that the current owners have removed the partition, though. It was a one-bedroom house, but my parents wanted two bedrooms, so they got the permission of the landlord to put a wall down the middle of the living room which was the width of the house. One side became a second bedroom, and the other was a combination living room-dining room. A realtor might call these rooms "bijou." In fact, the original, undivided room could be called "bijou." In houses built today, there are frequently closets bigger than those two rooms.

So I think it likely that the partition has been removed. If so, I wonder if they found the belt? When my dad was putting up the wall, before the sheet rock was all on, my older brother, then about five or six years old, dropped into the wall the Sam Brown belt with which my mother was wont to smack him on an almost daily basis as punishment for his numerous transgressions. He reasoned that the loss of the belt would lead to some less rigorous system of punishment. The belt was duly sealed into its tomb, from which my father was unwilling to retrieve it once the crime had been discovered. The wall was built, the belt was lost, and that was that. Consequently, my brother soon found that there were other belts in the house, and one of them was used to inform him that the sticking of belts into walls that were about to be sealed up was yet another act that would not be tolerated.

I'm happy to say that I was much easier to keep in line than was my older sibling. We lived in that house until I was six, and I heard the story of the Sam Brown belt many times. When, on rare occasion, I was sufficiently unwise to do something that would incur maternal wrath, my mother would glare, and point at the wall with the flowered paper in which the notorious strap of leather (which I had never seen, having been born after the incident took place) lurked like some malevolent closet monster, and she would say "Do I have to open the wall and take out the Sam Brown?" The unseen implement of punishment, made monstrous by imagination, was an effective deterrent.

Wow, my childhood was quite SoCal Appalachian, wasn't it?


The display of Xmas lights at the end of the block is beginning to attract gawkers. They drive slowly up the street, turn at the cul-de-sac, and pause to take in the spectacle before returning to the cross street. I think that the occupants of the house may be involved in some sort of competition- something that, in the spirit of the holiday, might be seen as a potlatch of wattage. People who can't afford to squander electricity get to come and see what can be done when it is used with extravagant abandon. They leave behind, as an expression of their gratitude, the odor of exhaust fumes to mingle with the scent of pine in the chilly air.

I, of course, continue to prefer the sight of the moon, which tonight is a fat, almost half-full smile displaying a hazy halo and trailing a drapery of thin clouds. This scene may lack the gaudiness which draws so much attention to the earthbound electric display, but it does possess a subtle elegance, and provokes a feeling of serenity. In a while, the Xmas lights will be turned off, and the moon, settling westward, will glint from behind a delicate filigree of pines. I am pleased with the relative mildness of the evening, and the absence of the recent wind, as this will allow me to remain outdoors in comfort as I watch the moon set, and perhaps hear the owls or a passing flock of waterfowl, filling the dim night with ageless sounds.