Broken Dreams, Broken Lives

There are certain points in our lives -- if we allow ourselves to slosh honestly around inside our head -- when we face the grim realization things just didn’t work out the way we had planned. That we’d derailed somewhere along the line, and now we’re just a runaway train, fueled by the turbocharged inertia of life. This is where Mom’s brakes went out, in the land of heat and smog and Naugles. Driving barely functioning cars without air conditioning. Inside leaky roofed dwellings with paper-thin walls and cottage cheese ceilings. Waiting for the postman to deliver the food stamps and welfare checks so food could be bought and bills paid. This is where her heart gave out.

The San Fernando Valley killed my mother.

Nine years ago this week, Mom died quietly before dawn, at the Henry Mayo Medical Center in Valencia. But the poison that slowly sapped her spirit and snatched her dreams had been consumed 20 years earlier on Columbus Avenue, just south of Parthenia Street, in a town – Sepulveda -- that’s been erased from the map.

The fortress-sized apartment complex was called Columbus Gardens. As you unlocked the glass door to its entrance, you’re confronted with mailboxes and a mural that implied entrée into the gates of heaven -- clearly, a sick mind was at work here. A swimming pool sat at its center, surrounded by a quad of buildings. In the back, rows of carports. In 1973, it was a standard issue Valley apartment. There were a million of ‘em, from Tuxford to Topanga.

Today, Columbus Avenue feels used up, dirty and dilapidated. Barbed wire ominously adorns fences. Scores of people stand aimlessly at all hours. This is not the land of the upwardly mobile. It wasn’t much different when we arrived three decades ago as immigrants from the Westside, forced to sell our Venice house for $30K because stepdad lost his job.

The house in Venice was small, but it was ours, a symbol of an American dream only midway through its first act, we believed. Mom could finally exhale: she had a house, a happy marriage. To this point, she’d lived a Lifetime movie. She met stepdad at 21, having already endured a divorce from my biological pop and the heartbreak of giving up her second child to adoption. But things were looking up. Inheritance money had set us up in our little hovel, and stability was bliss. Stepdad worked the night shift as a quality control guy for a West L.A. wheelchair company. It was perfect.

But when the wheelchair factory handed out layoffs, we couldn’t make the mortgage, so we pulled stakes and headed north. To me, it was a great adventure; It was summer of ’73, and Griffey’s House of Television ads were all over my favorite radio station, KGBS. We were moving within spitting distance of this great landmark (at Nordhoff and Sepulveda) and I was stoked.

The Valley was an odd place 30 years ago. Unlike the huddled masses of immigrants that populate my old neighborhoods today, the Valley of the early 70s was a fiery receptacle of white trash, filled with those who’d loaded their pickups and their old ladies and trekked west to the land of opportunity. They settled in Sun Valley and Arleta and Mission Hills because its sleepy pace reminded them of home. They wore mustaches, had foul mouths, drank quarts of Bud in brown paper bags, and wore scary tattoos before it was cool.

Still, I sensed that many of our neighbors were stopping on Columbus Avenue on their way to a better life. We, on the other hand, were just starting a downward spiral. Stepdad had no better luck finding work over the hill and needed Mom to help out. Sick with high blood pressure, sick kidneys, and negative self-esteem, she was unwilling to venture far from our apartment. We were so desperate we even pimped out our collie. Poor Gypsy. We had already taken her backyard from her. Now she paced, filled with stress, back on forth on our small balcony like a canine veal. We took her to a stud farm where I watched a muzzled male mount my pet in hopes of impregnating her. Those squeals of agony may have well been Mom’s. And just our luck. Gypsy didn’t even get knocked up.

Desperate, and faced with a crumbling marriage, Mom spent her days at the pool, slathering on the Coppertone and dieting like a fiend, thinking that a transformed body would save her relationship. But stepdad had already moved on, meeting a mistress (later his wife) for late-night rendezvous at the Lamplighter in Chatsworth.

The dream was over. Another husband had come and gone. There would be one more of those in her lifetime, but not before Mom and I scrambled around the Valley – from a shared condo near Chatsworth Park to a one-bedroom apartment on Langdon Avenue. We were living Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

I grew up and out, but Mom always hung tenuously by a string, never living, only existing. Her only real requirement was to not be alone. Otherwise, she was merely ambivalent about whatever life threw at her as she bounced from a rat-infested ranch house rental in Granada Hills to white elephant trailer near Lake Castaic, and a cabin in Frazier Park, where her sick body finally caught up with the spirit that had abandoned her somewhere near the Roscoe exit on the 405.