Published on January 4th, 2019 | by Cheryl Klein1
How to Map a Moving Target
You handed me a beach ball that was also a globe. “Show me on the map where we live,” you said, and I pointed to the bottom left of the United States. “Show me where Nana and Papa live.” It takes us an hour to drive there without traffic, but as far as you could tell, I pointed to the exact same place on the world map.
You love streets and directions. I can see you charting it out in your mind when you ask, “Is this the 110 freeway?”
When I started this small map of your favorite places, you were three years and seven months old. Now you’re three and eleven months, and our local Target store has almost completed its remodel. GPS technology has made it so maps don’t need to be reprinted, but it erases everything that existed more than five seconds ago. This is my urge to capture and excavate. This is for you, my baby cartographer.
The Inspection Chamber in Our Sidewalk
The day that Gramps helped us earthquake-prep our house, and pried open the rusty rectangular door in the sidewalk to inspect the water valve inside, was a remarkable one for you. You point it out every time we walk by: “Gramps open that. He fix the pipes.” You study your surroundings, and I study you; the transitive property makes me see the world anew.
“I was there when I was a baby?” you say when we stroll by the hilly block where we used to live. I point toward the blue-gray duplex whose bottom half we occupied. Your room was an illegally converted garage. Every six years, we had to convert it back for a city inspection. We put up with it because our landlord never raised our rent.
Your first views from your crib were bookshelves, file cabinets, a window that was level with the ground. The cats peered down at your from the patio.
The Snake Park
A meeting was held to decide what to do with the old gas station lot, and the community said: We want a park. They built it and we came, the babies of gentrifiers, the older children of long-time residents, the woman who sleeps on the platform above the slide because, she says, the shelter is too much drama.
Everyone calls it the Snake Park because of the tubular slide that spits you out of a rattlesnake’s mouth. Yesterday you befriended a little boy in Vans, and the two of you ran and ran. It was hot, even close to sunset, and your hairline was sweaty. You stood on the faux rock formation and called out, “We pretending to jump in the water!” And you jumped.
You meet your friend Chloe and her mom here, with your Mama, every Sunday morning, while I stay home and write as much as I can. They’ll be moving across the country in January. The circumference of you knowledge widens and widens.
From your perch in the red plastic cart, you talk loudly about how much you like broccoli. Strangers compliment your adventurous palette, and I have to confess that liking broccoli, in your world, has nothing to do with eating broccoli. You will celebrate it all day long, but the only food you are here to eat is the lollipop you get for finding the stuffed mascot hidden in one of the aisles. Mascots vary by location, so we talk about the Tabitha Tiger Trader Joe’s and the Freddy Eagle Trader Joe’s.
Last summer a man fleeing police ran into a Trader Joe’s—not our Trader Joe’s, but close enough that we might stop there on the way to a friend’s house—and a hostage situation ensued. Police fatally shot the manager, a young woman whose lingering Facebook ghost reveals a history of anti-gun activism.
This is supposed to be a celebratory list, with perhaps a thread of wistfulness about your world getting bigger. Your life is privileged by many measures, but there are reminders of danger, of randomness, of the landscape’s ability to rewrite itself at any moment.
When you were a baby, your godfather bought you a little raft with holes for your legs in the middle. This summer, it was a vest with floaties on the arms like giant biceps. He finesses his strategy to help you adjust to the water the like a baker puzzling over a pie crust. You are not feeling that vest. But the thing that always wins you over, eventually, is Nino himself.
Recently he said, “I’m not going to push. I’ll ask once, and if he says no, I’ll just accept it.” But by the end of the day, you were holding onto his neck as he paddled out to the deep end.
An homage to the pagodas that were an homage to an imagined China, this metro station straddles College Street and peers down on the place I used to work. The train would make a tight northward turn and come screeching through our staff meetings.
You love all trains, from The Little Engine That Could to the light rail that runs through our neighborhood, creating veins of new development and soaring property values throughout Los Angeles. But you love Chinatown Station the most, for its three stories of escalators, its view of freight yards and the school bus lot.
That view will change as you do. Already, the other side of the station faces a new luxury apartment complex with a sleek fountain that you also love.
I am trying to capture a vanishing city. I know it’s impossible. I’m part of the problem, with my white skin and access to capital. I’m a victim of the problem, with my nonprofit salary and my queer person’s hesitation to just up and move to some affordable little spot along the Rust Belt.
I am trying to capture you. I know it’s impossible.
One stop past Chinatown, there is this grand remnant of an older L.A., built on the site of the original Chinatown, which was built on the site of Tongva villages. I don’t know how to create a map that doesn’t blanket over other maps.
You want to sit in the heavy cushioned seats reserved for Amtrak ticket holders. You know nothing of velvet ropes. You want to climb the found-object sculpture at the east end of the tunnel and peer into the fish tank and throw coins in the fountain. You want pretzel bites from Wetzels. You want to ride the escalator down, down to the “underground train,” where the Red and Purple Lines depart for destinations west. You run in this place like you run this place, and it makes me a little proud and a little nervous, that you don’t have a suburbanite’s reverence for crowded transit hubs.
Someday soon, I will show you Don Normark’s photos of Chavez Ravine. I will not read the book flap that describes a “poor man’s Shangri-la.” I’ll let you see pictures of Mexican-American kids and their dogs and their sticks, and you will see the health and humanity that developers could not.
They saw dirt roads and tin roofs and “blight” and opportunity. They dragged residents out by the wrists and ankles in the late 1940s, and promised they could return to newer, better housing. Better because it would be newer, better because it would be designed by outsiders. Utopian housing projects sounded like communism to the powers that were, though, and the land sat until someone suggested a baseball stadium. What could be more American?
The world is complicated, and we and a million other Latinx people in L.A. love the Dodgers. Mama is the baseball fan in our family—she came here as a kid with her baseball-fan dad when their local Angels were on a losing streak—and she might note that, technically, not every hit is a home run. I know as much about this game as you do. In another year or so, you’ll lap me. But for now we eat our snacks and run through the air-conditioned memorabilia hall on the bottom level and wave our giant foam fingers.
Last time we went, Mama lost her keys, and we waited in the semi-wilderness adjacent to the far-flung parking lot while she visited lost and found. We sat among the eucalyptus trees and the trash, the humane traps that someone had stocked with cat food. We breathed in Chavez Ravine.
There are two near us, the Arroyo Seco Stables and the San Pasqual Stables. The former is a hundred years old, not repaired in fifty. Surrounded by rings of rusty horse trailers and flat-tired cars. Chickens free-range alongside black-and-white cats. “The chicken scare me!” you laugh when a rooster lands in front of us.
We drive by every day and don’t always stop, but we speculate what the horses are doing, what they’re eating and drinking, whether they are wearing their jammies yet. Once I asked you what you thought a particular horse’s name might be and you answered “Macaroni N Cheese Lopez,” which is maybe the best name I’ve ever heard, for any creature.
The San Pascual stables are bigger and better maintained and therefore—you will come to know this about me if you don’t already—my second favorite, behind Arroyo Seco. When we get out of the car, you say “It smell like horses!” Hay and manure and girls I would have envied almost to the point of physical illness when I was in elementary school, practicing their jumps in private lessons.
“It’s almost like Spirit,” you say in reference to a horse named Red. Spirit is the star of an animated Netflix show about a love affair between a horse and a middle school girl in a temporally ambiguous Wild West. If it had existed when I was eight, it would have been my favorite show.
You have recently started making connections this way: It’s almost like….
Before we read your train book describing a viaduct as a long bridge over a valley or a river, I couldn’t have told you exactly what a viaduct was. On long drives, I try to pique your interest by referring to overpasses as viaducts, but the True Viaduct as far as we are both concerned is the Colorado Street Bridge in Pasadena, site of car commercials and suicides, spanning a cradle of curvy streets and expensive homes. Its old-fashioned lamps light up at sunset, a row of glowing bubbles connecting neighborhoods.
Late at night, when you’re having trouble sleeping, you say in a small voice “I want to go to the viaduct.” In the afternoons, when I’m driving you around trying to get you to nap, you protest by saying “I don’t want to go to the viaduct!”
Wikipedia tells the story of a mother who leapt from the bridge with her baby. The mother ended her life, but the child landed in a tree, and lived.