The moon turns the world to black and white, except for a few leaves and the lawn, which bear a soft suggestion of green. Around the moon, its brightness has washed a vast circle of sky free of stars. I walk a way up the shadow-laced street to look at some black flowers. Only one cricket chirps in the cool night air. In the woods nearby, an owl repeatedly hoots. Here, the full moon is inescapable. It dazzles night, and tonight, its light has slipped deep into my consciousness to illuminate a long-dark memory, of another night, when the full moon surprised me.
I don't remember the exact year, but it was in that time when, in the thrall of a manic insomnia, I would sometimes spend hours alone in downtown Los Angeles. It was another autumn, but the night was not cool as it is here, tonight. It was heated by the Santa Ana winds which blow down from the desert, clearing the sky and filling the air with an electric expectancy. I remember being on Olive Street, at the top of Bunker Hill, when the neighborhood there had not yet been fully demolished. I remember walking south, down the slope that ran past rows of old apartment buildings whose brick walls radiated the day's heat out across the sidewalk. I noted the red lights that shone from windows at the ends of hallways, marking the exits to the metal fire escapes which hung over the sidewalk like the webs of some giant, geometrically obsessed spider.
I remember walking for a long time. I probably passed through the galleria of the Biltmore Hotel, with its ornate, gilded ceiling and its footstep-muffling carpets, and, usually, the music of a dance band drifting from the ballroom, resonating from the wood paneling and plaster ornamentation. I might then have gone past the main library, along the pedestrian walk that separates it from the Mayflower Hotel and the California Club, and then south through the neighborhood of office buildings, deserted for the night, and across Seventh Street into the area of old, low buildings with bare brick walls exposed by the creation of those parking lots which were gradually replacing what had once been a neighborhood of small shops and apartments.
I think I passed the Mayan Theater on South Hill Street, and walked a block east on Olympic Boulevard to Broadway, then still bright with the marquees of the old movie palaces which are now mostly shuttered. I remember looking at the small ornamental trees which lined the southern stretch of the street. They were lacy and delicate, with slender branches exposed by their sparse foliage, which fluttered in the hot wind.
I might have gone further east then, (or had I been there earlier that night- so many nights of so many years scattered through my memory like discarded newspapers flapping against the bases of lamp posts in the wind?) East was Spring Street, lined with the solid, sedate buildings of banks and stock brokerage houses, and then Main Street, music from its bars spilling out over sidewalks full of beat characters, bums and winos, trolling hookers and the johns they trolled for, all under the watchful eyes of cops in prowling squad cars. Beyond that, the dim streets of the warehouse district, full of decaying old brick buildings with painted-over windows. There, too, were the rescue missions, where the down-and-out lined up for the heavy sermons that were the price of a bowl of thin soup and a cot for the night. And there was skid row, along east Fifth Street, with the roughest bars and the cheapest liquor stores, where high school kids would go to find someone to buy a bottle of Jack Daniels for them. And there was the Greyhound Station, full of servicemen waiting for the bus back to base, and people with places to go and little money to get there, and people with nowhere to go, but who were going anyway. I always felt some connection with that last group, on those nights when I wandered the streets, no goal in mind.
Maybe I went to those places that night, and maybe I didn't, but I do remember walking back up Sixth Street and stopping at the news stand which occupied one side of a short alley between Broadway and Hill Street. I bought a copy of the New Yorker, and then went down Hill Street to a small greasy spoon diner to read it. The place was a one-person operation at night, and this night the operator was a woman I had never seen before. In those days, it seemed that most of the waitresses in small diners in Los Angeles were middle-aged women from the south or midwest, and, when I sat at the counter, I was not surprised to hear a Kansas twang as she asked me what I'd like. She was a small, brown-haired woman of about 40, greying a bit at the temples and spreading a bit at the waist. Her soiled apron partly covered a simple pale brown dress. She was the definition of nondescript. Her name tag read "Dorothy." She brought me my cup of coffee and went about her business of filling salt and pepper shakers and sugar jars.
There was a jukebox in this place, and it was the reason I came here. It had a good selection of Dinah Washington and Etta James, and, as was often the case on these nights, I was in that sort of mood. I dropped a coin into the slot, and suddenly Dorothy said "Could you play A-7 for me?"
I did so, and after the apparatus clicked its way along the row of records and fetched the one selected, the strains of a country song which had been popular a few years before came from the tinny speakers. The song was called From a Jack to a KIng, and I have long since forgotten who sang it, but I recognized it from many a jukebox in many of the diners which were studded along the boulevards of the eastern suburbs in which I lived. Unlike many country songs, this one was happy, with a lyric including lines (I probably remember them accurately, having heard it so many times) From a jack to a king / From loneliness to a wedding ring / I made a bet and I won a queen / You made me king of your heart. After it had been playing for a moment, Dorothy volunteered "That's my favorite song."
I watched her for a while, forgetting all about reading my magazine, as she busied herself with the routine side work which makes up much of the day in such jobs. She hummed along to the music as she worked, and smiled broadly as she re-filled my coffee cup. I found myself wondering how she had come to be in this place. One of the reasons I liked this particular diner was because it seemed out of place in its neighborhood. By day, this part of Hill Street was very near the center of what was left of the fashionable shopping district downtown, and the parking lot next door to the diner would be full of expensive cars driven by expensively dressed ladies on their way to and from Bullocks department store. By night, even then, the beat characters of skid row were beginning to spill over into the neighborhood, and, half a block up, Pershing Square was the den of street preachers and male prostitutes, some of whom would wander into the diner from time to time. I could hardly imagine a person more out-of-place in either of these milieus than Dorothy. I was delighted that yet another discontinuity had been introduced to the place. Dorothy from Kansas had wandered into Oz, but instead of munchkins and flying monkeys, there were night security guards and the occasional flamboyant queen wandering in for coffee and donuts.
Too, I was pleased that my mood had changed. I always enjoyed seeing how my view of my surroundings, and my feelings about them, could be altered, almost in an instant, by some unexpected event. Downtown had gone from a seamy but fascinating setting for a film noir to a quirky neighborhood where a Frank Capra story might come true, or characters not dissimilar to Damon Runyon's might walk in the door and sit down in one of the three booths in this small, florescent-lit room.
After the songs I had played on the jukebox were done, I dropped in another coin. I had noticed that, among the selections available, there was a countrified version of the old jazz standard I Remember You, performed by the British singer Frank Ifield. This particular recording was the butt of jokes among my musical friends, for its odd and incongruous arrangement and Ifield's even odder singing. But it was another of those upbeat songs, and I wanted to test a hunch. When Frank's near-yodel came out of the speakers, singing I remember you. / You're the one who made my dreams come true, / A few kisses ago, Dorothy's face lit up with surprise. "Now, that's my second favorite song! How did you know?"</i> I was pleased with my prescience, but I merely smiled and said "Oh, just a lucky coincidence, I suppose."
After a while, she noticed the copy of the New Yorker I had sitting on the counter. "I lived there for a while. Let's see, it was after I left Louisville, and before I went to Richmond. That was about twelve years ago. Worked in a little lunch room on 53rd Street."
"Well, you've been to a lot of places," I said. My satisfaction with my earlier prescience was diminished, somewhat. I had not thought that this unprepossessing woman would have been such a wanderer. I had imagined her living a quiet life in some such place as Wichita until, for some reason, she had decided to pull up stakes and head for California, as so many had done before. But she said, "Oh, yes," and rattled of a string of names, including Chicago, New Orleans, Denver, St. Joseph, Phoenix, and a dozen other cities and towns across the country. It turned out that she had spent her entire adult life going from place to place, waiting tables and frying hamburgers, living in hotels and furnished rooms and rented trailers. In answer to my obvious question, she said, "Oh, I just like going new places and meeting new people."
We talked for a while, as a few other customers came and went, but mostly, we had the place to ourselves. She told me about many of the places she had worked over the years, and seemed to remember them fondly, and in considerable detail. Finally, I asked that one question which had to be asked to satisfy my curiosity about her unusual life, but which I was reluctant to ask, since it might have been seen as prying, or the answer might alter this mood which had enveloped the place, and which I found so fascinating. "So, you've never had any family to tie you down? No husband, or kids?"
She paused for a moment, and looked almost wistful, for the first time since I had come in. "No, no family. I was married once, when I was seventeen, to a boy who had lived down the street from me. That was during the war. He was going in the army, and we didn't want to wait. It was a good thing, too."
I remained silent, waiting to see if she was going to continue the story. She was looking out at the empty stretch of Hill Street outside the dusty window, and looked as though she were about to say more, but suddenly she looked up at the clock on the wall and said "My goodness! It's going on midnight, and I'm off, and I haven't swept up!" Then, she pulled a broom from a corner and said "Could you be a dear, and sweep off the sidewalk out front for me? We just sweep everything into the gutter. I don't know where the time goes!"
I took the broom and went out into the air which had grown still, as the hot wind had died down. Under the bright street lamps, I could see the small clouds of dust raised by the strokes of the broom across the grey concrete, which was spotted with years of discarded chewing gum. When all the dust and cigarette butts had been swept into the gutter, I looked along Hill Street and saw the marquee lights of the Warren's Theatre on the corner of Seventh Street go out. Then, I noticed something out of the corner of my left eye. The streets of Downtown Los Angeles run to the ordinal points of the compass, so the long string of lights that ran southwest before my gaze were roofed by a perfectly black and starless midnight sky. But when I looked due south, the thing which had attracted my notice was there, hanging like a huge white balloon above the unadorned brick and concrete walls of Broadway's stores, which backed up to the parking lot. It was the full moon, seeming as large as I had ever seen it. I don't know why I felt such a sense of surprise, even astonishment, at seeing it. For a moment, I wasn't even sure that it was real. When I realized that it was the moon, it was as though I were seeing it for the first time. After gazing at it for a while, I went back into the diner and handed Dorothy the broom.
"Thanks, dearie," she said. "Sometimes I just get a bit behind myself." She was quite cheerful again, and gave me a final refill of coffee. About that time, the cook/waiter who had the midnight shift came in; a burly, grizzled man dressed in dingy white dungarees, like a character out of a Popeye cartoon. I said goodnight to Dorothy, and left.
I walked over to the bus depot on Main Street, and got the last Garvey Avenue bus of the night home. Whenever there was a clear view out the windows, I noticed that big, full moon riding over the city, dominating the starless sky. Walking home from the bus stop, along my deserted and nearly silent suburban street, I sensed the moon shining over my shoulder. I stayed up for the rest of the night, listening to music with the lights off and watching the patch of moonlight make its way across the floor and up the eastern wall of my south-facing room. When at last it had set, I closed the blinds and slept.
Over the next few months, when I went downtown at night, perhaps half a dozen times, I would stop in at the diner and say hello to Dorothy. She was invariably smiling and cheerful. I would always play her two favorite songs on the jukebox. Sometimes, if it was that time of night, I would sweep the sidewalk for her. I remember one night in December, when it was very cold, and my breath formed fog around me as I swept. There were a couple of nights when I didn't sweep because I had gone downtown to walk in the rain, and the glittering sidewalk was filled with reflections rather than dust. Those nights, I would sit gazing out through the fogged window at the tracks left in the wet pavement by passing cars, under the cloudy, moonless sky.
And then, one night in spring, I went into the diner to find a thin middle aged man behind the counter. I asked him where Dorothy was, but he said "I don't know any Dorothy."
"She used to work this shift, here" I said.
"Well, I work it now. What do you want?"
I ordered coffee, and sat for a while. I went to the jukebox, dropped in a coin, and played Dorothy's two favorite songs. The new guy leaned against the counter, reading a newspaper. He didn't offer any refills. After a while, I left, and wandered the night streets for a while. The spring air was fresh, but the city seemed dull to me. Just after midnight, I returned to the diner. The burly guy who had the midnight shift was there.I ordered coffee again, and I asked him what had become of Dorothy.
"One day a couple of weeks ago, she just quit. The last time I saw her was the night before. She said 'Well, I'm off to Portland tomorrow,' or someplace like that. Up north somewhere."
Again, I went to the jukebox and played those songs. I had to admit, I still wasn't particularly fond of them. But I was caught up in nostalgia, and the awareness of the way things always change. I noticed, as I had before, how those songs were about the opposite of change. They were about finding something lasting. The burly counterman recognized the first song. "That was her favorite, wasn't it? Sometimes she used to stay a few minutes after her shift just to play it. She was quite the character. I'll miss her. Always a smile when I came in for work. This new guy always looks like he sat on a pickle."
The image of the new guy sitting on a pickle cheered me up a bit. I hung around for a while, then went home. I don't recall seeing the moon, that night. Over the next couple of years, when I went downtown, I'd sometimes stop in at the diner, but it was never quite as interesting again. Then there came a period when I didn't go to the neighborhood for several years. When I returned, the first time I walked along that block of Hill Street, at first I didn't even notice that the small building had been demolished, and the parking lot expanded into its location. As always when a place which has been part of my past vanishes, I felt a wistful sadness.
It is cliche to observe that life is changeable, like the moon. It is probably also cliche to observe that, unlike the moon, the old landscapes of our lives don't return to their former shape, outside memory, and even there, they grow less bright with time. It is cliche because it is true, and inescapable, however much we might sometimes like to escape that truth. But there are those who, for whatever reason, seem immune to that nostalgia. I sometimes wonder about Dorothy, and whether she continued being one of those people who vanish out of so many other lives. Maybe she is still out there, entirely grey by now, still slinging hash in some diner. After so long, it seems unlikely. So, I wonder if she spent the entire remainder of her life moving from place to place,meeting new people, followed only by the fading memory of some tragic event in her ever more distant past, which, to me, at least, was never more than implied.