Larry Harnisch reflects on Los Angeles history
||This vintage photo of a young girl on the beach at Santa Catalina Island has been listed on EBay. Bidding starts at $9.99.
Photograph by Steve Yeater / For The Times
The son and grandson of Pullman porters, Garrard `Babe' Smock Jr. was honored at Railfair '99 in Sacramento, and his recollections appear in several books about the profession. "I've seen the good, the bad and the ugly," he said.
A Life on Track
* It wasn't always a smooth ride, working the rail lines. But for former Pullman porter Babe Smock, it worked out fine.
July 28, 1999
By LYNELL GEORGE, TIMES STAFF WRITER
This was supposed to be his moment. But when all was said and done, it didn't quite go off as planned. He wasn't really disappointed, though. "It didn't surprise me," he said.
In a lilting voice as elegant and burnished as our romanticized memories of first-class train travel, Smock recalls his 30-plus years as a Pullman porter and tells you that he saw "the good, the bad, and the ugly."
Still, taking in the crowds that descended on Railfair '99 here late last month, it was difficult to believe that trains and train travel ever faded from favor. Thousands converged on the Old Sacramento riverbank area to wander about what has become one of the largest railroading events in the country, if not the world.
Amid the gleaming, four-story high locomotives and the dining cars outfitted to the last egg cup, Smock, 81, waited for the festivities to begin. Having traveled 300-some miles from his home in Los Angeles, he stood proudly in front of a Canadian sleeping car built to Pullman specifications.
For 30-plus years, he'd fluffed pillows on a car like this, fetched extra blankets, miraculously divined more space where no one else could find another inch.
"I had them die on me, I had them born on me," he confided in a quiet moment. "I'd run to tell the Pullman conductor, 'Hey, we have a new passenger about to come aboard!' "
He did it sometimes without a nod, let alone a thank-you. For Smock and hundreds of African American men who crisscrossed the country on the nation's hot network of humming rail, it was life as a ghost, as an invisible entity.
They were "seen" only in their absence--or worse, when a mistake was made, a duty overlooked. Because they remembered things, these men were forgotten.
The value and import of these lounge, sleeping and dining car attendants often has fallen outside of history's margins, or are mentioned in passing merely as "color" in the more windy recollections of the life on the rails.
At Railfair, although he and the car had been tucked into a far corner of the California State Railroad Museum, Smock finally was to be honored for his service. This small salute was an attempt by museum docent Gracie Murphy to correct decades of deletions or oversights.
But the commemoration somehow didn't make it on Railfair's printed roster of daily events, and assembled in front of the sleeping car to honor Smock, there were only about a dozen people.
He nonetheless stood dutifully once again, answering questions about the car's particulars: dimensions, capacity, sleeping configurations, a porter's daily duties. Then came a series of speeches from various officials from Amtrak and the A. Philip Randolph Institute, a longtime labor and civil rights champion of railroad men. There was a quick reading of a proclamation from the office of California Sen. Teresa P. Hughes (D--Inglewood) honoring the contributions of the African American railman. Finally, it was Smock's turn.
In his moment in the spotlight, he said but a few words--about his past, about his future. "As I've said, I've seen the good, the bad and the ugly. The people of nobility, they're easy to spot. They will always call you Mister."
Providing Jobs and Controversy
There's an old, say-no-more aphorism, an adage traded among African American railroaders--"Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves and George Pullman hired 'em." It's spoken without anger or remorse, peppered only with a bit of irony.
George M. Pullman, a farm boy with a few woodworking skills, got his first taste of the limitations of overnight passenger train travel--hard bunks, no sheets, pillows or blankets--as a young traveling contractor, and by 1881, he had built not only a profitable empire but also a dubious reputation.
"For all the accolades and nostalgia that have surrounded George Pullman and the Pullman Co. over the years," writes David D. Perata in "Those Pullman Blues: An Oral History of the African American Railroad Attendant" (Madison Books, 1999), "it must be recognized for what it really was: a finely tuned, big-money operation. . . . [He] paid his employees poor wages while controlling their income, rent, commercial trade and social lives."
"Travel and Sleep in Safety and Comfort" was the Pullman motto, but never, in the early years, did his employees feel even a remote sense of security on the job. But there was little room to wander. Employment prospects were largely limited if not nonexistent for black men in post-slavery America. Those who hopped aboard Pullman cars figured out how to make the best of the traveling life--not only satiating a traveling jones but making them celebrities at home.
It wasn't, however, until 1925, when activist A. Philip Randolph began his long fight to organize and ultimately unionize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, that salary and day-to-day working conditions began to improve. And that struggle continued into the last days, when the speed of affordable air travel caught the public's fancy and the Pullman porter slipped away.
In the years following the civil rights movement, black pride was enunciated through chants of "black power." Not only did these men's contributions fade within popular culture, but a generation of black youth (who were beginning to see possibilities opening) looked upon these men with unease as semi-elevated servants.
What people tend to forget, says Raymond Butler of the Randolph Institute, is that there aren't "too many black families who can't trace those who work on the road. They worked those jobs so that their children could have better."
A Chance to Recognize Some Unsung Heroes
Gracie Murphy, 37, a product of the younger generation, read Perata's book (in which Smock and his brothers are featured) and wanted to dig deeper. Hot off Colin Powell's push for Americans to volunteer, Murphy, who'd grown up in the San Fernando Valley before moving to Sacramento, decided to inquire about docent work at the California Railroad Museum.
It didn't take a long look back on her own family tree to find a tenured railroad man. Her uncle Ashley Mason (after whom her son is named) worked as a porter from 1918 to 1962. Other than some certificates, photos and his 35-years-of-service pin, she knows little of him. As tribute to him and the other faceless, often nameless men, Murphy figured she would pitch an idea to the museum's powers-that-be.
Drafting a proposal with Perata's help, Murphy dreamed up an installation that would include parts of a Pullman exhibit on display at the African American Museum and Library in Oakland as well as panels and photographs from Perata's book. She also wanted to invite and honor the living men, not just the memory of them.
"They shaped the whole notion of rail travel," Murphy says. "We have linen and silver on the table and we take it for granted. It's not so much that it's a black thing. It's history. It belongs to everyone."
As a boy who grew up riding those great passenger trains with his family, and later in life worked as an Amtrak attendant himself during high-style passenger service's twilight years, Perata also has noted that the majority of books, magazines and exhibits have focused on the physical equipment rather than on the people who worked on it.
"What made those trains and the railroad great [was] the service," Perata notes. "The train itself was just a cold piece of steel."
Despite the lengthy guest lists and all the good intentions, the tribute Perata and Murphy hoped for rests deep in the valley separating expectations from reality, with nothing to bridge it.
The museum's staff sees it as a communication breakdown. "I'm a bit surprised that they weren't happy," says Kathy Taylor, executive director of the museum foundation. "Had I known that, I would have done something about it. Babe here talking to people was a great experience for the public. . . . We didn't have enough time [to make it a] real huge event."
To which Murphy responds: "I had nothing but time on my hands. All I needed was their OK to invite people. But they dragged their feet."
Just Another Bump Along the Way
Tangled somewhere in the middle is Smock. Smock isn't the sort who would tell you, straight out, if he were offended or hurt. His demeanor is as crisp and unwavering as the steam and starch press of his old uniform, his outlook broad and unhindered.
This afternoon, back home, that bump on the rails now days behind him, he's seated in his small, spare living room, which overlooks the golf course's ninth hole at Country Village, a retirement community in Mira Loma, spitting distance from Riverside proper. He sits in a low easy chair; his friend Bobby Rose, a tall Ed Bundy-type, slinks by carrying his own Styrofoam cup and his smokes to sit awhile.
"I'm being interviewed over here, Bobby--come in, sit down and be quiet!" Smock mock-snaps. Bobby takes a seat, zips it. Soon he's cat-napping. Smock's daughter Erica, 9 (he has five children, the oldest now 60), flipping a cobalt blue Play-Doh pizza, skips in and out of the room now buzzing with visitors. Smock's only salute to his years on the railroad are some videotapes he keeps stacked on his TV, and a wall with a few photographs of him, brothers George and Virgil and some friends clustered around a story.
Born in Los Angeles in 1918, Babe, the youngest in a long line of train men (thus the nickname), says the railroad hadn't been his first choice. It was music, "but there was no field for me. I played violin. My teacher took me as far as she could and . . . wanted to know if I would like to further my music, which I did at that particular time." Smock lights up a Tareyton, but not before asking if the smoke might bother anyone. "So she wrote to the Cleveland Conservatory of Music, and to the Juilliard School, and when they found out that I was black there was no openings. That was 1936. So I said forget it. My father asked me if I wanted a job on the railroad, and I said no. But then, later, I said I would go. And the first trip I made out of town, the man gave me a $100 tip! Music went out of the window. From then on I stayed on the railroad. I hawked the violin for $2 to go to a USC football game. I lost all the interest in music."
The tips never got much bigger than that first-blush windfall, but that was OK by Babe. By then he was caught by the rhythm of a life that changed every day like a set of fresh sheets--always a new vista, a new start. "I was on what you call the rip track," he remembers. "I ran wild. I could be in Chicago today and be in New York tomorrow. Come back two days later and be in Washington . . . Boston or Omaha, Nebraska."
He rode some of the nation's most luxurious and storied trains--the 20th Century Limited, the Broadway, the Bostonian, the Columbine. He played host to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, his wife, Eleanor, her friend and frequent traveling companion Mary McCleod Bethune, the president of the National Council of Negro Women and color-bar-crossing soloist Marian Anderson.
"She was traveling with her company . . . sitting in the lounge. These people were so busy looking, I started to tell that man--'You're gonna have to turn that paper over if you're going to read it.' It was upside down!"
It certainly wasn't all high-class and glitter. "As I've said: the good, the bad and the ugly. We'd have those who'd call you 'boy' . . . thought he was a big shot when he'd say that. My brother Virgil used to say: 'Boy's' not on this trip. He stayed at home.' "
But the customers were easy compared to the Pullman Co. "You're living so much hell working for the company, everything else is easy. You'd grin and bear it. But when I come along in '37, the Brotherhood had just been formed . . . we could go to the Brotherhood if we had grievances. . . . Before, you were just automatically fired if you say, 'I'm not going out tonight because I don't feel good.' "
Maintaining Dignity for the Family Name
Smock says that weathering it, for the most part, was about having a strong sense of who you were, despite any and all that was hurled your way. To be sure, some broke down, spent their last days mulling over old anger and distrust. "We were in the younger set, and we ignored it, but the old porters, they would get huff and puff with it. But I would ignore them."
For G.W. Smock, no amount of money was worth losing face, tarnishing a family name.
"From the very beginning in my family, my folks taught us to be in the courteous manner--it was 'Yes, sir' and 'No, sir,' that had bearing on us. Those old porters with their 'Yassuh' and 'Nossuh,' head bowing and scraping, that was their tactics--but I was raised with an intelligence. I've always felt that intelligence would get you ahead of anyone who wants to belittle ya.
"I don't have wealth, but I do have the presence of mind to be intelligent. A person can treat you like a dog, but if you treat them with intelligence it belittles them."
"They didn't give you no Rolex in Sacramento?" Bobby, who's been snoozing in the corner, opens one eye.
"What, didn't they give you a plaque or nothin'?"
But Smock, characteristically, prefers not to stay there in that low place. "I didn't pay no attention to it." He steers the questioning outward, "Everything was free. . . . It was a vacation as far as I was concerned . . . I got a pen, a clip to put your keys on." The old coping mechanism kicks in, like the spring action of a pocket watch protecting the delicate crystal.
From this vantage, all said and done, how does Smock see his career, his life? "I don't feel slighted."
His reward came years ago; it still comes every day. "I learned more out of that Pullman car than you could have taught me at school. It took me down to New Orleans to find out that King was coming on with his kids and the Audubon Society down there wouldn't even let them go into the Audubon Park. When I was going to school they wanted us to save our pennies to send back to the Audubon society, yet we couldn't even go to the park!
"I've been down there. I've seen it. All. And I say: 'Babe Smock, you are lucky. You are Godsent lucky' . . . I'm like that poem of Langston Hughes': 'I Am Somebody.' I feel that I am somebody. I've seen it, I've been there, I've done it. I've done some good and I've done some wrong, and I don't have no regrets for none of it. The good Lord called me today, and he said: 'I want you up here.' Then he said, 'No. You're not finished yet.' "
"City Life," painted by Victor Arnautoff in 1934.
In San Francisco, the Depression's artistic legacyBy Christopher Reynolds,
Reporting from San Francisco
10:20 AM PST, March 07, 2009
Stocks have crashed, industry is shuddering and banks are failing. The restless unemployed will soon fill the streets. Yet in San Francisco, some crazed optimist in the Pacific Stock Exchange Tower has hired Diego Rivera to decorate a private club for stockbrokers.
Could this be the most doomed, stupid idea of all 1930? Here is Rivera, an intermittent communist who'd met with Stalin in Russia only two years before, perched on the scaffolding above the financial titans of Sansome Street. He's supposed to sketch grand visions of happy, healthy California, its produce plump and shiny, its hills dotted with oil wells, the Golden State agleam with capitalism. All this, a year into the Great Depression.
What is the muralist thinking? What are the stockbrokers thinking?
Photograph by Tom Uhlman / AP
Mary Ann Sell holds one of her
more than 25,000 discs.
View-Master to stop selling scenic photos
Fisher-Price will continue making discs of more popular cartoon characters.Associated Press
March 8, 2009
Columbus, Ohio — Amber LaPointe's introduction to one of the country's greatest tourist attractions came from small square pictures on a white wheel.
"It was like you could look into a world away," said the 28-year-old from Toledo, Ohio. "My only image of the Grand Canyon was from the View-Master."
The iconic reels of tourist attractions, often packaged with a clunky plastic viewer and first sold to promote 3-D photography, are ending their 70-year run after years of diminishing sales.
Collectors like Mary Ann Sell of Maineville, Ohio, are dismayed.
They Lost -- They Were Lucky
The Baumans, mother and daughter, had dinner at 9 o'clock last Sunday -- not an unreasonable hour when you're relaxing in a pleasant coastal resort likeBaja California's Rosarito Beach.
But now, looking back, they're more than a bit sorry that they didn't skip the meal, head back for the U.S. border, and turn in early.
Miss Lorraine Bauman, 34, and her widowed mother, Mrs. Katherine Bauman, 63, both of Santa Rosa, were among the unfortunate many seized by Mexican federal police in the resort's gambling casino that night.
But they had their good fortune, too. So far they're the only Americans who have been released following the raid.
"We've been released outright, I guess," she told me by telephone from Chula Vista last night. "Right now, we're busy trying to contact relatives of some of the people who are still being held."
I asked Miss Bauman, who is owner of a gift shop, how she and her mother happened to be caught in the raid.
"After we finished dinner," she replied, "we were told that we could go into the gaming rooms if we just filled out a card. Why not, we decided.
"After we filled them out, we were directed into a room where there were a bunch of blackjack tables. I was going to leave right then."
"Why was that?" I asked.
"I only like to shoot craps," she answered. "Then a man told us there was another room with crap tables. I've played before at Las Vegas, so after going in and watching a while, we each bought $20 worth of chips.
"Do you know," Miss Bauman told me, "that when those men came charging in, I'd built my bankroll up to $110, and that Mother had hers up to $80 or $90.
"When those men broke in with shotguns and machine guns, I thought they were bandits. It was about 15 minutes before I saw a man in uniform and knew what was happening."
"How were you treated?" I asked.
"For the first two hours they wouldn't let us women go to the rest room," she said. "The men had to wait longer. About four hours. It's already been in the papers about not getting anything but toast and coffee to eat and about how they took our possessions.
"But, on the whole, after the initial shock, they treated us very well, I'd say."
Doctor Was Helpful
Then she continued: "Especially, my mother and I. One of the other prisoners was a doctor from Tijuana, and he was extremely helpful in convincing the soldiers that my mother, who's a diabetic, should have her nerve pills back and get her insulin shot."
U.S. Vice-Consul Joseph Cicala also was helpful, she added. "It was because of my mother's health that we were released, I'm sure."
"Did you get all of your possessions back?" I asked.
"When we were let go, they told us to pick out what was ours from a pile on a big table," she said. "But when we checked the wallets we had in our purses, they'd been cleaned out. More than $800 between us, we had.
"When I asked the young interpreter about our money," she explained, "he just smiled.
"He said, 'Aren't you glad you're being released?'"
Miss Bauman sighed heavily.
"I suppose I'll never see it
"And to think," she added wistfully, "I almost came home a winner for the first time in my life."
Blisters, Bites at Palm Springs
Blisters, Bites at Palm Springs
Some people go to Palm Springs on the week end to lay around in the sun and relax.
But I don't. I go for professional reasons.
It's one of those never-ending demands of my job. I've got to keep my finger on the pulse of Hollywood, and on week ends, that's where you find the pulse.
Admittedly, while I'm there, nothing happens. The whole transplanted colony just lies flat on its collective back and stares through blobs of soiled cotton directly into the sun.
Nobody talks to anybody else. At least not until twilight.
I've yet to come back to the city with a story worth printing. But that's unimportant. What matters is that every Monday I've got a fresh sunburn.
And a fresh sunburn on a smoggy winter morning in Hollywood is as good as having your name in the social registry. Especially, if you have those weird white circles around your eyeballs.
No matter how insignificant a bum you really are, you can bluff your way into anybody's cocktail party or private office if you drop the word casually that you went to "The Springs" for the week end, and you have even the slightest hint of a blister on your nose as evidence.
Usually, I go back and forth between the La Paz Hotel and Noel Clarke's Ranch Club.
Then, during the wild round of midweek Bel-Air cocktail parties, I can drop some of the knee-slappers that Duke Mitchell told at the Ranch Club, or I can tell everybody that singer Clessa Williams should get the role of Texas Guinan in the life story of George Raft.
To an outsider, these little comments may not sound too jazzy. But to us, they have meaning. At least, they show that I'm on the inside.
Actually, this week end, I finally got my first hot story out of Palm Springs.
There Was a Hungry Burro
It happened very recently. A Ranch Club guest was visiting with his 4- or 5-year-old youngster. During the afternoon, the kid went out to the stable area and tried to make friends with one of the 17 burros who pull the club's chuck wagon on Sunday morning rides.
The lad fed him a piece of sugar he had swiped from the dining room. And was promptly bitten by the burro.
It wasn't -- from what they tell me -- a very serious bite, but all precautionary antitetanus and rabies shots were taken.
Finally, the father and son returned home. Then, a few days later, the Ranch Club received a voluminous four-page letter damning the club, its employees, its burros and Clarke for allowing such a thing to happen.
The management considered the letter for a couple days, and finally dictated a formal reply which said, in effect:
We are, as you are, deeply sorry that your little boy got bitten by one of our burros.
We must advise you that our chuck wagon is drawn by a team of 17 burros, all of whom look very much alike.
However, sir, be assured that if we find the burro that bit your boy, we will personally kick the hell out of him.
And that's what I mean about Palm Springs. It's not only where Hollywood goes on week ends. It's the last of the Wild West I love so well.
"The Cuban rebel leader, Fidel Castro, has dealt the tourist business in Havana an awful blow," Braven Dyer wrote, adding that the incoming revolt didn't stop the celebrity golfers from having a great time.
According to Dyer, his party was stopped by soldiers as they drove from the Havana Hilton to the golf course. Johnny Weissmuller, an Olympic athlete who became famous again in a second career as Tarzan, "let out his jungle yell and the gendarmes promptly lowered their rifles, smiled and yipped 'Tarzan' as they waved us on."
Other celebrities of the era along for the trip included Buddy Rogers, Hoagy Carmichael and Bob Crosby.
Readers learned that the Havana Hilton had only five floors open because "the rebels have scared people away." Dyer detailed dinner one night: "You never saw such food. The most popular drink with tourists is the frozen Daiquiri, made of rum so light you hardly know you've had it until the roof caves in."
I realize this was a different era, with different standards, but a golfing trip to the Cuba during the revolution? Maybe there's a hard-hitting piece from this trip I haven't found yet. I'll keep looking. This story just read like a travel brochure and should have been spiked.
The rebels took control of Havana on Jan. 1, 1959. Probably plenty of available tee times that day.
Photograph by Jay Jones
The Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast, Fall River, Mass.
|By Jay Jones
Reporting from Fall River, Mass.
Karen Zorn and her boyfriend fled their cozy bed-and-breakfast earlier this year. It wasn't that the place was dirty or the neighbors noisy. Zorn says they grabbed their bags and left for a nearby motel after discovering that, apparently, some of the other guests were ghosts.
The couple had just finished checking in to the B&B in Fall River, Mass., when things started to go awry.
"We went up to the room and it was freezing cold. It was the coldest room in the house by far. And that kind of spooked us out," she recalls.
Read more >>>
||Above, time to start planning summer getaways to Tahoe ... At left, fruit peddler Leonardo Vett, accused, along with his wife, of stealing diamonds from local jewelry shops.
"Vett looks like a Jew but says he is an Italian," The Times says in one of those stunning details that fill early 20th century newspapers, adding: "His wife, a pretty little woman with soft, dark eyes and a wealth of dark hair, cannot speak a word of English."
Also, Police Sgt. Sebastian (I wonder if this is future Police Chief Charles Sebastian) is blockading stores in Chinatown suspected of running opium dens on the side--at least to white customers. White men are willing to pay more for drugs than Chinese American customers and blocking the whites has forced several stores to close, The Times says.
What about Chinese American opium addicts? Apparently that's not considered a problem.