by Michael Scott Moore
“Okay, amigo?” says Miguel from behind the counter, stepping out of his tiny bathroom.
Bougainvillea spills over the patio fence outside, and the restaurant’s name—La Casita—arches in festive letters across the window. I sit behind the letters in a stream of colorful sunlight, eating chips from a basket. The orange plastic chairs were purchased cheap from a school-district auction in 1983; I remember when they were still used in class.
“What are you doin’, flunkin’ all the kids?” Miguel says.
“Not all of them.”
“If they come in here, I’ll give ’em free food.”
“You should put up a sign.”
“Maybe I will.”
Across the street I can watch people drifting in and out of DiSilvio’s, which is a beach market, not a liquor warehouse, though you can see stacks of beer and liquor cases through the windows of an upstairs storage room where wooden rafters crisscross like rafters in a barn. Dos Equis, Corona, Miller Lite—the beer they sell on a hot day could fill a backyard pool.
Kids know I work here. It’s become a legend at school. Fred Madison’s sagging old mug must seem like a fixture behind this window, and they giggle at the occasional grease stains on their essays. Most of the time I work at home, of course.
Prometheus was guilty of hubris because he gave people fire, but also because he tried to bring wisdom. For punishment, Zeus chained him to a rock in the mountains.
I’ve educated three generations of pupils in Calaveras Beach, and the latest batch, with their modern phones and fancy laptops, seem least prepared for the future. “The aim of education should be to teach us rather how to think, than what to think,” as the man said, but sometimes I feel like the trainer who points at something for his loyal, sweet-tempered dog to fetch, while the dog just stares at the hand.
“Whaddyou got ’em writing about?” says Miguel.
“Oh. Well—Prometheus on the rock. And the gift of fire.”
“No shit, huh.”
Miguel wears a soiled white apron and a hairnet. He’s fifty-five or older and has a drooping mustache. He was born in Mazatlán, which for a while was a sister city to Calaveras Beach. He moves around the small restaurant cleaning tabletops and finally hands me a fresh basket of chips.
Most of the kids must see a bland, old fellow, devoted to local concerns. It’s true that I’ve been a sort of all-purpose local citizen. Lifelong teacher of civics, US history, and English; onetime wrestling coach; frequent member of the school board; maybe an old pedant overdue for retirement. Also a member of the Parks and Recreation Commission. After leaving the Army I was a jazz enthusiast, too, and even after I settled down with Mary Ann, I penned the occasional liner note or review for DownBeat magazine. Those pieces embarrass me now. The voice isn’t really mine—it was a put-on, the sound of a scene rather than an individual. What’s interesting is that I thought I was quite the individual at the time. I believed I stood out from the rest of the squares on the high school faculty. But to be a truly free, original, and moral individual—someone who ventures and suffers and delivers something good to the world, like St. Anthony or Prometheus (both bringers of fire)—well, that’s the definition of a hero, isn’t it?
I’m not one of those.
“Say, Miguel. Do you remember a guy named Nick Gabaldón?”
“Not sure I do, no.”
“Mary Ann and I met him on the beach in Santa Monica, a long time ago now. People called him the first black surfer.”
Miguel’s eyes light up. “Oh, he was that dude who paddled all the way to Malibu.”
“That was before my time.”
Nick Gabaldón learned to surf on a patch of sand reserved for “Negro bathing.” He owned no car, but he wanted to surf Malibu, so one day in the late ’40s he decided to paddle up along the curve of Santa Monica Bay to the Malibu Pier. That’s about twelve miles. He paddled back in the afternoon. He kept at it for weeks, the same route, along this enormous bay. Black and Latino people (Gabaldón was mixed) found themselves no more welcome in Malibu at the time than they were in Calaveras Beach; but surfers were a free-thinking crew, and some of them gave him a lift.
Nick Gabaldón—now there was a hero, in my opinion. The first African-American to surf the Malibu Pier? The first on record to surf, period? But who remembers his name?
When I first moved here as a boy, during the Depression, Calaveras Beach was a sparse outpost of houses and farms. Buildings stood alone on their plots with plenty of sand in between. The Red Line ran out from LA, clanking along the beach—people who rollerblade on our bike path may not know it used to be a light-rail corridor. One vacant lot butting against the Red Line looked particularly neglected, nothing but weeds and Coke bottles. When I passed it on the train, I would ask a few old-timers, “What’s the story on that?”
Some would say, “I don’t know,” which might have been true. Others would say, “Kid, you don’t wanna hear about it.” That’s the answer that got me.
Growing up I started to hear stories about a black-restricted beach in the neighborhood. As a grad student I checked some deeds in the Hall of Records and interviewed the few people in town who could remember “Bronzeville Beach,” and it turns out the vacant plot had once been the site of a supper club, a coastal spur of the South Central jazz scene. I was drawn to the story for obvious reasons. People used to make fun of the “West Coast” jazz scene because cities like New York and Chicago were so much tougher and more cultured, but LA had a lot going for it. Before the ’65 riots, South Central wasn’t an urban ghetto so much as a lively ethnic neighborhood. Central Avenue ran through a district of churches, theaters, chicken markets, and cabarets. The silent film business in early Hollywood attracted ragtime players from New Orleans, and they established a scene in South Central—people called it the “Brown Broadway.”
A black couple set up a bathhouse and a supper club way out here on the coast, in 1912, on what came to be known as Bronzeville Beach. It was almost the only place in LA at the time for African-Americans to enjoy themselves by the sea. The couple, Wilma and Charles Bruce, bought the property from a famous developer named George Peck. They built a bathhouse and a small hotel with a restaurant upstairs. Also a fishing pier. The music was more conservative than the hot stuff in South Central—Jelly Roll Morton putting on glamorous downtown shows at the Grand Hotel, and so on—but the miracle is that jazz existed here at all. Bronzeville Beach patrons were well-heeled African-Americans who came out on the Red Line or in cabriolets with white-walled tires. They could stay overnight, and some thought to buy property here. Soon there was a colony of so-called “Negro” cottages by the water. The neighborhood was never very large—about two square blocks near Eleventh Street—but black people in those days weren’t supposed to swim. Just like Nick Gabaldón wasn’t supposed to surf.
The city we call Calaveras Beach had started as a cluster of three or four developments, each with its own name. In old pictures it resembles a frontier town, with a hardware store and a saloon. By the ’10s and ’20s it filled in with hotels, a municipal pier, and even a bowling alley. Moguls built saltwater plunges and so forth. People started to drive Henry Ford’s automobiles.
The beach towns had a small Klan membership, but in the spring of 1913, a huge crowd of people marched up Center Street, now called Calaveras Boulevard, in peaked white hoods and robes. Most were outsiders. They tied up traffic for half an hour. They walked in silence behind a lead Klansman with a burning cross, passing the Bronzeville enclave—on purpose—before continuing on to a Baptist church. They paraded right by where I’m sitting now.
This kind of thing continued through the ’20s. There was talk about the “morals of the community.” One group of locals tried to plant liquor at the club, which under Prohibition would have given authorities an excuse to close it down. In 1923 someone lit a mattress under the building, which failed to spark a major fire, but then one of the cottages burned. I have trouble explaining these events to my students now, but racism in those days drove people right up a tree. It was a form of insanity. You look back at old photos of well-dressed, respectable white people turning out in the ’50s to keep black people from going to school in Mississippi; you see their distorted shouting faces, and there’s no other way to describe the hysteria—social insanity.
Of course, most major scandals in Calaveras Beach have turned on real estate values, not the “morals of the community,” and in the end it was impossible to mask the nature of the complaint. The crucial man in this regard was George Lindsey. When I met him in the mid-’50s, he showed no malice toward Negroes; he was a retired real estate broker with almost no hair and deep-set, querulous eyes. He told me the race problem in America would be solved “perhaps in five hundred years,” but until then, it was a businessman’s job to protect his investments. He said the Negro community on Bronzeville Beach had been a “belligerent minority” who disturbed the peace.
“How did they disturb the peace?” I asked.
“Why, just by being there!” he said. “They were hurting my real estate values.”
This man Lindsey convinced the newly incorporated town to wield eminent domain, and in 1924 the Bruces were served with a government demand to sell the dinner club as well as their personal home. The stated intent was to establish a “public park and/or playground” on the land. Of course the city fathers had no desire to build a “public park and/or playground.” But the Bruces had to sell. After a few years the black population dispersed, although one old woman, I believe, still lives here. George Lindsey’s project succeeded. Our beach town was poised to become a lily-white corner of greater LA, and since the authorities had closed the enclave so publicly, they couldn’t very well sell the land to private investors, though they seemed reluctant to build a park.
So that explained the barren plot.
Not a popular story. But I earned my master’s digging it up. Mary Ann was pregnant with our first son at the time. I couldn’t type properly—I still can’t—and she typed my dissertation while I did the dishes.
Prometheus brought fire to the people so they could cook their goats.
YES, BUT WHY ELSE?
Ron DiMartini strolls across from DiSilvio’s with two bags of groceries and piles them into a BMW parked by the window. He’s plump faced, with small blue eyes and thinning black hair, and he wears an expensive watch. I wonder if he recognizes me. He wears flip-flops and a UCLA tank top. A pair of sunglasses hangs from the hem, at chest level, but he plucks them up on his way in.
“Hola,” he says to Miguel.
“Good, good.” He orders a burrito and some chips. “Business okay?”
“Not too many customers for a Saturday.”
“We got a lotta takeout,” says Miguel.
DiMartini nods and glances around. I return to marking up papers. At my age, you start to think of your legacy, and Ron DiMartini will be forever linked with what I believe is my main bequest to the town.
After a while, he pays for his food and leaves.
“You think he recognized either of us?” I ask Miguel.
“I don’t know, he never talks about it,” says Miguel.
“That’s kind of strange.”
Ron’s a relative newcomer to Calaveras Beach, but even longtime locals envision this place as a paradise where time stands still, with no future or past, just a beautiful parade of suburban sunny days. He manages a local bank called Playa Community, down by the pier, which specializes in real estate loans. I joined the Parks and Recreation Commission about five years ago, and pretty soon I found myself at loggerheads with Ron.
The city did build a park on the vacant lot in the ’60s, but named it after our sister city: for three decades we called it “Parque Mazatlán.” In 1999 I pushed to change the name to “Bronzeville Park,” with a memorial plaque about the racist events. I found some allies among newer members of Parks and Rec, and we submitted a plan to change the name. It should have been easy. Miguel and his family even turned up as unofficial representatives of Mazatlán. But when the secretary read out our proposal at the first City Council meeting and opened the podium for comment, something peculiar happened. A real estate broker named Melissa Cagle stood up to argue that changing the name to Bronzeville might “harm relations with Mazatlán.” She was a well-put-together blonde lady, dressed in a dark blazer and nylon slacks. Her group of associates included other banking and real estate types, none of them known to Miguel.
Then Ron DiMartini stood up in a black suit with an electric-blue tie. He was bullish and broad shouldered, slick and professional; with a raft of figures he argued that real estate prices “might be adversely affected by a reminder of such a dark chapter in our city’s history,” in his opinion as a bank manager and mortgage broker. He hoped the council would reconsider this “ill-advised initiative.” When he sat down, I noticed him touch Melissa Cagle at about waist level.
“Have you met these people before?” I asked Miguel.
“Oh, I seen that guy around.”
“What do they care about the sister-city program?”
Miguel shrugged. “Got me.”
After the meeting I introduced myself. DiMartini’s smile was friendly and bright. I noticed an Ayn Rand pin on his lapel. That’s intrigued me ever since. Because what started at the council meeting was a three-year power struggle that nearly split our town in two. Led by DiMartini, opponents to the name change rallied behind a handful of people with a small but honest grievance, related to the defunct Mazatlán program, and we became the “old guard.” Or the “entrenched interests.” They honestly seemed to believe—with these business interests behind them—that they were mounting a noble rebellion against Parks and Rec and the Powers That Be.
At the next meeting, Ron gave another round of property figures and expressed his sympathy for “the people of Mazatlán.” In his impressive dark suit, he seemed to sway the room. The council steered a course of compromise. “There must be another way of paying tribute to the former residents of Bronzeville Beach,” one member suggested.
Soon there was brisk debate. Councilmembers as well as people from the audience gave their opinions, one at a time. Everyone had slender microphones with a glowing red ring at the top to indicate who had the floor. As people argued, the red glow jumped around the room.
“We could rename the Cultural Center.”
“Or give them a statue.”
“Give who a statue?”
“Hang on, how much is this going to cost?”
“The people of Mazatlán—”
“Look, if I can have a say here for a minute,” someone at the public microphone said, “the point is, ladies and gentlemen, the point is that people here are used to that name. It would confuse the people here. Never mind the people of Mazatlán.”
“Why do the names of streets and parks have to change all the time?” someone else shouted.
“This is political correctness.”
“The park’s already named after Mexicans!”
After that meeting I re-introduced myself to Ron DiMartini, just to see if he understood the irony of his position.
“You know the original black landowners were driven out for the same reason?” I said. “The locals worried about real estate values.”
“Well, that wasn’t my understanding,” he said. “I thought they were burned out by the KKK.”
“I’ll send you a copy of my thesis, if you’re interested,” I said. “It’s part of our public filing.”
“Oh, you’re the thesis writer.” He gave a big smile and glanced around the auditorium. “Well, we’re just standing up for our interests here as we see them. Maybe with more information I’d change my mind. But I think there’s an overtone here of accusing people of racism. Renaming the park seems to be some kind of litmus test, and that’s worrisome, Fred, quite frankly. I hope that’s not your intention.”
“Not at all.”
He smiled and gave my arm a firm squeeze. He was a large man who must have seen me as the local equivalent of a schoolyard nerd, a bespectacled bureaucrat correcting the record. I wanted to say I’d been a wrestling coach.
“Listen, thanks for the information,” he said.
The controversy dragged on for three years—until last summer, in fact, when it was overtaken at the City Council by useless and pompous declarations about the war in Iraq. Don’t even get me started on that. I spent a few years in the Army in Korea, but I suppose I’ve become a pacifist in my old age. Prometheus refers to “hubris” as another word for “violence” in the play by Aeschylus, and I make sure my kids understand that before we move on. War is a plague, and the ignorant enthusiasm for it that people in every generation exhibit must be one of the suicidal mysteries of mankind. These hysterias seem so real at the time, so deep-rooted and strong. But they vanish like dandelion fluff.
I met Nick Gabaldón once, as a freshman at Santa Monica College. It was on the beach after one of his marathon paddles. Mary Ann and I were both eighteen, innocent as could be, relaxing at the end of an afternoon by the Santa Monica Pier, and Nick hauled a huge, hollow, wooden board up the sand. I recognized him from school. He was a handsome, half-Mexican upperclassman, older than the rest of us, with wavy hair and a thin mustache. He wore white swim shorts and a sling vest as he emerged from the water near the Casa Del Mar Hotel.
I ventured a joke: “You just get in from Catalina?”
He smiled and sat down to catch his breath. The sun had lowered on the horizon. The beach was deserted, except for people having drinks on the patio at the Casa Del Mar. We had not the faintest clue where we were sitting. But we introduced ourselves, and Nick said he’d just been surfing in Malibu.
I thought he was joking and asked how long it took to paddle all that way.
“Oh, I take about three hours at it.”
“You go there and back?”
Mary Ann giggled. She was a high-spirited young lady who liked a good joke; in fact she thought everyone was “having her on” or “pulling a fast one.” We went on in that vein for a while, until she said,
“You didn’t really just paddle in from Malibu.”
“Well, ma’am,” said Nick, polite and smooth in almost a Duke Ellington manner: “Yes, I did.”
“Why, that’s ten or fifteen miles away,” she said. “What’s wrong with the waves around here? Why would you want to paddle all the way up there?”
He stared with a wry half smile and said: “You ever hear of the Ink Well?”
“I don’t think so.”
“It used to be roped off, so you and I wouldn’t be able to mingle. But this right here is what they call ‘Ink Well Beach.’”
Once we understood his meaning, it was as if Nick had sworn a blue streak.
“I beg your pardon,” Mary Ann said.
“It’s not my name for it.” He laughed. “But unofficially all this is for Negroes.” He waved at the sand south of the hotel. “And I guess some folks think our color comes off in the water.”
“That is a disgusting idea,” said Mary Ann.
“That’s how it is.”
The sun turned red on the horizon and brushed the front of the Casa Del Mar with its curved colonnade and its palm trees. The front-facing hotel windows burned bright orange. Nick was about six-foot-three—the tallest, politest, most regal-looking kid you could imagine. But Ink Well Beach ran in front of a storm drain. After a rainstorm the beach here would have been fouled by Los Angeles runoff.
Nick told us: “They had another spot like this one down by Calaveras Beach, but it’s long gone. You ever heard of Bronzeville Beach and Supper Club?”
“As a matter of fact, I have,” I told him.
“Same deal there,” he said.
For me it wasn’t just anger, but moral fervor. It started small, like a gas flame spurting up—a pilot light in a hallway heater—but I’m not sure it ever went out.
Mary Ann and I were still churchgoing kids in 1950 or ’51, whatever year this was. She wore linen dresses and liked to bury her nose in good novels, and she intended to be a housewife—the simple future we envisioned included kids and a house in the suburbs. The ’60s hadn’t even been glimpsed. But Nick, without even trying, had lit a fire inside us both, and to this day I don’t think he learned how important our conversation became. I went on to write my thesis, and we joined the Fair Housing Movement as graduate students, trying to ban provisions in property contracts known as “covenants,” which prevented the onward sale of a house to black people, or Latinos, or whatever the covenant stipulated. Extensions of the Jim Crow laws, basically. We helped get rid of them.
Miguel appears with a clacking pitcher of ice water.
“Those kids gettin’ it down?” he says. “Or you think they need my help?”
“I might hire you to tutor them, Miguel.”
“You just lemme know.”
Outside, the sun has started to angle over the roof of DiSilvio’s. My mind isn’t on grading papers. I lean back in my plastic chair.
“Say, is that beer still available? I might be done for today.”
“You got it.”
“You know what gets me about DiMartini?” I say when he returns. “For him it was like a day job. He came to the City Council meetings and claimed to speak for you. But then he disappeared, as if it never really mattered.”
“And now he can’t remember your name.”
“Maybe not.” Miguel shrugs.
“He seemed personally offended that we wanted to change the name of that park. But when he lost, that was it. He just moved on as if nothing had happened.”
Miguel shuffles back to the kitchen. “Don’t let it get you too excited,” he says, but it has. It’s got me all worked up. You choose your battles, and either they mean something or they don’t. DiMartini didn’t mean it. That’s what bothers me. I came to see how ignorance and a lack of character—everyday human failings—accumulate to form something intolerable. I don’t think DiMartini’s a bad guy, but after those first City Council meetings, I understood that the spirit of George Lindsey was alive and well in Calaveras Beach.
“Hey, whatever happened to that dude you mentioned?” says Miguel after a minute. “Nick Gabaldón?”
“Oh, Nick? He got himself killed by surfing too close to the Malibu Pier.”
“You gotta be kidding.”
“Not at all. He ‘shot the pier’ with his board. Tried to surf between the pilings. I guess a wave swept him into one, and it knocked him out cold. People who were there said they didn’t find his body for three days.”
“I’ll be damned.”
“He was still a young man. They call him America’s first black surfer.”
And, I might add, the godfather of Bronzeville Park.
“I never heard that part. About the pier and all,” Miguel says.
“He loved being there so much he paddled twelve miles out of his way. All that powerful effort, just to reach a place that would get him killed.”
“No shit, huh.”
“No shit, Miguel.”
Anyway, long story short—George Lindsey had it wrong. To improve race relations to the extent that black people earned somewhat-equal rights in America (under President Johnson), and the Bronzeville Beach subterfuge could be recognized in Calaveras Beach, we didn’t need five hundred years. We needed a few decades in my lifetime. I think that’s not bad. It shows you what some foot leather can do. Now there’s a terraced green park where I once saw Coke bottles and cigarette butts. The sign has a new brass plaque explaining the name of Bronzeville Park. It cost more grief and time than anyone expected, and of course it doesn’t right the original injustice, but a few paragraphs of history, written with my help, are engraved there. I think of it as my lasting contribution to the town. Well, mine and Nick Gabaldón’s. Almost no one went away disappointed, including Ron DiMartini, if I can venture to speak for him. Of course, I can’t say what the future will hold, but our plaque has hung there for almost a year now, like a natural part of the landscape, and real estate values have only gone up.
Michael Scott Moore is a journalist and a novelist, author of a comic novel about L.A., Too Much of Nothing, as well as a travel book about surfing, Sweetness and Blood, which was named a best book of 2010 by The Economist. He’s won Fulbright, Logan, and Pulitzer Center grants for his nonfiction; Yaddo and MacDowell fellowships for his fiction.
He worked for several years as an editor and writer at Spiegel Online in Berlin. He was kidnapped in early 2012 on a reporting trip to Somalia and held hostage by pirates for 32 months. The Desert and the Sea, a memoir about that ordeal, is out now from Harper Wave.