There was also more sneezing today. It might be the dust from autumn leaves being ground into powder by traffic, or perhaps I'm coming down with an autumn cold. But if it is an autumn cold, it will be the first I've had in over a decade, and also the first in over half a century during which I will be unable to reread the copy of Kerouac's On the Road I bought at the used book store on Del Mar Avenue in 1963. It was October when I caught the cold that year, which in those days of living in L.A.'s debilitating, pre-regulation air pollution, and being exposed to childhood or adolescent germs at school day after day, I ended up catching almost every year.
That year when I started sneezing and sniffling, and had nothing mew in the house to read, and knowing that if I was to be stuck in the house for a few days I would be wanting something to read, I took my snotty self up the block to Hellman Avenue, then down the hill three blocks to Del Mar Avenue, where the ragged end of an old business district still stood, the remnants of a larger neighborhood shopping area that had been wiped out to build a cloverleaf interchange when the San Bernardino Freeway was built in the early 1950s.
The neighborhood had been called Wilmar, probably named for an early resident, or some early property developer, or perhaps someone connected with the Pacific Electric Railway, which shortly after 1900 built the suburban commuter railroad line that opened the area to development, and which had also been wiped out by the freeway project. I never found out, and the name was falling into disuse since the Post Office had combined Wilmar with nearby Garvey and Potrero Heights to become South San Gabriel around the time the freeway was built.
The cornerstone business that had survived was a corner drug store called Wilmar Pharmacy. next to it, sharing the same building, was either a small hardware store or a grocery store, and the next building down the block held the one of those that wasn't in the drug store's building. My memory half a century on has lost track of exactly where things were. But these three businesses each probably occupied no more than two thousand square feet. Maybe a dozen or so other businesses along the two short blocks south of Hellman Avenue were smaller.
One of the businesses was a tiny, low-ceilinged used book and magazine shop, across the street from the slightly larger record store, which had long since gone from selling new records to selling only used records. I had only lived in the neighborhood for a few months at this time, and had actually never been in any of the stores other than the drug store, so I wasn't sure that that I would find anything of interest in the tiny book store to occupy my housebound days of viral misery.
The rather musty little room had piles of old magazines on a couple of large tables in the middle, and on a low shelf that ran along the front show window, and there were shelves of mostly paperback books along the side and back walls.
It actually did not take me long to run across the paperback of On The Road. I had just read Kerouac's newest book, Big Sur, which had been recommended by a friend who was a fan and who, though merely 17 years old, was possessed of the conceit that he was the last beatnik. It was the first Kerouac I'd read, and I thought I'd better catch up with the other adolescent intellectuals and read more, so I bought this paperback of On The Road, and took it home. I didn't stop up the block at the small lunch counter with seven or eight stools and two or three tiny tables that day, as I had not yet begun drinking coffee. I would do that soon, along with other things I was doing for the first time that year.
I did indeed come down with a cold, though it might have been that very night that my friend the last beatnik stopped by and we went out for the first time to a Mexican restaurant called Benny's, which had previously been a drive-in called Tyler's where I had often gotten hot dogs and hamburgers when I was younger. It was my idea to try the place, as nostalgia had kicked in. For some reason, colds always bring on bouts of nostalgia for me, perhaps because I had so many of them in my childhood. As I was in a nostalgic mood I didn't try the Mexican specialties that night, but took a chance on the hamburgers. That can be risky at Mexican restaurants, but Benny turned out to be a versatile cook, and though it wasn't much like Tyler's hamburgers had been, it was good. Over the coming weeks, Benny's would become the hangout for my friends and me, and though I usually indulged my nostalgic memories of Tyler's whenever I went here, I gradually accumulated experiences that would make Benny's a source of nostalgia on its own in later years.
I began reading On the Road that night, and using up boxes of Kleenex as the cold kicked in, and the book turned out to be perfect for the circumstances. The narrative took place in the time of my early childhood when I was first becoming aware of the passage of time, and some of the characters, not much older than my older brother and his friends, reminded me of them. Parts of the book are set in Los Angeles, and I recognized certain places with which I was familiar, and other parts were set in San Francisco, which I had visited only once, many years earlier, but for which I had already developed nostalgic feelings. I fairly wallowed in them, and longed to somehow recreate that past which, due to my tender age, I had missed despite having been alive during it. In fact I would soon attempt to recreate it in words, and of course would fail, but that failure only intensified the desire. The unrequited love of the past is a fearsome thing.
So time continued to have the upper hand, as it always does, and over the decades I would, whenever I found myself coming down with a cold in autumn, pull my copy of On the Road of the shelf and re-read it. The book came with me when I moved to Northern California, and it was one of those I took from the box and put on the shelf in my room, while many other books remained packed away due to my lack of shelf space, until all were incinerated last year. I can't remember the last time I re-read the book, but it was over fifteen years ago, and perhaps as long as twenty. I just don't get colds as often as I did when I was younger.
Other illnesses have taken their place, but they don't trigger any feelings of nostalgia for me. Now it is autumn again, and something is making me sneeze, and that book is on my mind, but not on my shelf. I wonder if the Goodwill store will get a copy in? I don't think Kerouac is as popular as he once was, though, as I haven't seen any of his books there in the several months I've been frequenting the place. It would surely be interesting if one did show up there now, though. Finding it on the shelf of that still rather alien place would be almost like being transported back to Wilmar, and again being in that stuffy little store that closed down almost fifty years ago, one of a long list of places I once knew that have been swallowed by time.