Thursday, January 9, 2020

The Heart's Crossroads (Without Having to Choose Only One)

My heart yearns, reaches for different places. Not necessarily to live there (except for Ventura, where I do), or even visit, but just to know.

On California Street in downtown Ventura, which is the most direct access to the beach, at least if you're not driving (else you have to stop in the parking garage on the left side at the end of California, in the looming shadow of the Crowne Plaza hotel), there's the Channel Islands Lodge No. 214 for the Masons, though they place it on East Santa Clara, because that's where the entrance is. But the side that I gape at is on California, about three floors, all brick on that one side, going up, up, up. I look at it, I gape, and my mind thinks of...New York. New York City. My family genes in motion in my mind and my heart, being that my late father was from New York City and so is my mother. Mainly, I think about my father in such instances because he lived New York City, he drove those streets, he knew them. My mother lived in New York City too, a regular bus rider, but my father knew full well right off the rhythms of those streets, how you had to keep moving lest you wanted a taxicab up your ass as a fashion accessory. The brick of the Masons building on that side of California doesn't look as hard as the brick you'd find on some buildings in New York City, because it has never lived the life that those New York City buildings have. But in my mind, while I look up at that building from that empty parking lot, which is seldom used, I think of those streets. I imagine my father walking them at times, but mainly driving. I look for him in that brick, and I also think about how badly I want to read more about New York City, in history as well as in novels. I think to myself that I will get to it, provided other books don't get in the way. I try to carve out a section for them, because I want to try to find my father in those pages, to get a greater sense of him through the New York City that others have seen and lived and felt deep in their bones. I will.

Of course, I think about Ventura too, the history I still very much want to know. I know some, like how before the Ventura County Government Center was on that particular sprawling spot on Victoria, it was all lemon groves. Same with Via Ventura, our first apartment complex, on Telephone and Saratoga. All lemon groves, too. I also know many times over that the Barnes & Noble shopping center on Telephone, which includes Michael's, PetSmart, Ethan Allen, Sprouts, Kohl's, and a few other places which don't seem as important with how large those loom, was once a drive-in movie theater called the 101 Drive-In (for the 101 freeway, which abuts Ventura at that certain point). I also know about the movie theater on Mills, near the mall, which showed the first Star Wars trilogy when those were originally released. I love movies, which is probably why I've found out more details about both theaters than really anything else in Ventura. But I'm getting to know more, since I live here and I like it here and I hope to be here for a long time to come. For example, I know very well the security guard station not a few feet after you enter the Hall of Administration in the Government Center, as that's where I've taken so many tests, been on many job interviews, and will hopefully be working there soon, even temporarily so I can do my damndest to get my foot in the door in pursuit of full-time work. But I had no idea that there's a security command center in the basement monitoring the cameras all around the Hall of Administration. More security than the one security guard there which, no matter who it is, is always a good soul. There are terrific men and women there (When I was a volunteer at the Green Valley Library in Henderson, Nevada for five years, I knew Ed, its now-former security guard, quite well. I was also a substitute campus supervisor at La Mesa Junior High, where my father taught, for six years, which provided a kind of security on the campus, also herding students to class and escorting students to the office at the radioed request of whoever there wanted them, and monitoring everything going on during lunch). Of course there are also the maps in the Hall of Administration and the various departments, and I've been interviewed in many of them, and been there when the Board of Supervisors has been meeting, watching some of the proceedings on the closed-circuit flatscreen TVs they have at the entrance to the chamber. I want to know much more, though. I've been to the Ventura County Museum back when they had an exhibit of menus from various Ventura County restaurants in decades' past. I'd love to dig into the history in the research library they have there and I have an angle I may want to pursue as a book, about Ventura County's only empire, an unusual one compared to the typical definition of an empire, but no less important to us here in Ventura County.

And then there was today, full-on rush back into my Southern past. I'm a Southerner by birth, not by blood, having been born in Florida, so I don't have all of what the South is thought to be in personality and range of memory. I do have a fierce love of biscuits, sweet tea sometimes, but most especially storytelling as it is in the South. I adore how time is taken to tell a story well, to comb through all the memories, all the details, to slowly yet surely find that path that draws it all together and touches the heart.

I was at Ventura College this morning, where my sister has begun her latest pre-nursing semester, taking another math course as well as Children's Literature as an elective. Today was her second day of the new semester, but I went with her because the administrative assistant in my department, English, Math and Learning Resources, had her last day today ahead of transferring to the Student Services Center a mere hundred feet away, in the Admissions & Records department, a stepping stone in her ultimate career desire to become an academic counselor, as she's also finishing up coursework for her graduate degree, with the major test coming in February involving so much that made me think that the tests I endured in college weren't so bad.

That was my main objective, because when I joined the department as the Instructional Lab Technician in the Learning Resource Center on Saturdays, mainly overseeing the tech side of California State University Long Beach's Master of Social Work satellite program (there are two classes, one at 8:30 and one at 1 p.m. (with time in between for lunch), both done via webcam, with local CSU students in a classroom in the LRC set up for just this purpose, with the webcams and with microphones so they can ask the professors any questions they might have, or participate in the discussions, with one microphone per two students), Susana was not only willing to answer any questions I had, but she also informed me in my first week that even though the Associated Students of Ventura College (ASVC) office was closed on that particular Friday, she called over so that Angeles, one of the main figures there, would know that I was on campus and would be coming over to get my picture taken for my ID. I think I was there that day to also get my TB test done, as is required by the Ventura County Community College District (VCCCD, which also oversees Oxnard College and Moorpark College), and was grateful to her that I could get that done at the same time, as that ID also serves as my bus pass, all bus routes being free to VCCCD students for another school year. I might well be the only staff member who uses the bus system regularly.

So I wanted to see her in person and bid her a fond farewell, even though I had essentially done that already by email. Sure she's only going to the building next to us, but people get busy, and our department still has needs to take care of. This was also one of those days when I didn't have to go to work early downtown, and I found out yesterday that there was going to be a Classified Senate meeting from 10:30 to noon (Classified being where I am, amidst administrative assistants and others in the same realm. Even though I only work Saturdays, as per my contract, I was still very much welcome and welcomed at the meeting), I had to see what that was all about too, and as it turned out, I met a lot more people here than I do on Saturdays. I needed to get a greater sense of the college I call home. And I did.

But before that, after wishing the very best for Susana and also talking to my boss, the dean of the department, for a little bit about Jeopardy!: The Greatest of All Time (she's obsessed with it and even though she's very much a fan of "Jeopardy!", it sounds like she's even more excited about this), I spent time in the library one floor up from my department, a library that I consider my true home in Ventura. This is a library that breathes, that leads, that senses what you want and guides you to it, sometimes without you knowing that you wanted it in that very moment. It happened to me today.

At 9:45, I decided to go to the restroom in the way back of the library, which, from the Quiet Reading Room, involves walking past the shelves of discarded books and textbooks being sold by Friends of the Library, and walking past the librarians' offices as well, including the head librarian, whose mess of an office I admire. It's not a mess for the sake of being messy, but a determined search for a sense of order, just as soon as this one thing gets done, and then this other thing, and then oh look, it's time to go home. That mess has personality.

After the restroom, which is one of the many things I love about being on this campus (it's always clean, but more than that, it actual feels restful), I pulled up the library catalog on my phone to look for The Road Taken: The History and Future of America's Infrastructure by Henry Petroski, which I had returned to the E.P. Foster Library downtown in order to replace it on my nightstand stack of books with Nemo Rising by C. Courtney Joyner, billed as a sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I found that the college library had a copy of Petroski's book and I figured to get it there since I always keep space on the shelf of one of my bookcases for books from the Ventura College Library.

I tried. I looked it up and I was ready to go find it. Actually, even though I had intended it to be the one I checked out today (the other four slots of my library account are still full, with five books maximum allowed to be checked out), I got distracted once again by the Leisure Reading section near the entrance/exit of the library when I first walked into the library. It was there that I found out that last October, The Fall of Richard Nixon: A Reporter Remembers Watergate by Tom Brokaw was released and I knew nothing about it. This was the first time I had seen it. I needed to read it and there went the one slot I had for The Road Taken. In Leisure Reading, I also found The Optimist's Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age by Bina Venkataraman, and thought to myself, "Ok, I'll save that one for next time. And The Road Taken, too. And I need to write this out on the ASVC notepad I have so I can keep these in mind for the next time my library card's empty."

I don't know how or why it happened. After leaving the restroom, I had the location of The Road Taken on my phone and was going to look for it. Then, within the Library of Congress classification system that the library uses, I somehow ended up in F209, which I call the Southern section. My life. Part of my heart. I couldn't believe the sheer number of books about the South there was. I mean, I know that there are so many books about it, but this particular selection! There are four volumes of Encyclopedia of Southern Culture and I intend to read all of them. In this section, you can have your pick of Alabama, South Carolina, some of Florida and all the others, Virginia, too, that make up the South. The book that got me deeper into getting back into the past that rests within me was Heart of a Small Town: Photographs of Alabama Towns, which I flipped through and knew I could finish it before I left for the meeting. Didn't have to check it out.

I looked through these deeply evocative photos of street corners, storefronts, churches, parlors in Alabama, and also the quotes that accompanied them, which I include here after transcribing the photos of them from my phone into a Word file I called "Southern Passages":

"When I’d finished I sat on the corner of Phil’s father’s stone and smoked a cigarette and enjoyed the utter quiet of that country graveyard. I watched the Spanish moss swaying, swaying, in the two live oaks by the gate. I was in a kind of spell when I left, peaceful, thinking placidly. . . of all the generations which had passed this way since the Spaniards landed in 1519." – Eugene Walter, "The Back-Roads"

"When death visits our little town, each one left knows that he is diminished, by little or much. No man here is a nobody. Everybody is a somebody. And the sadness at death is genuine. What is more, long memories hold the departed in mind and heart. The vacant church pew, the missing face, the voice, the laughter—the good and not-so-good are remembered and missed." – Viola Goode Liddell, A Place of Springs

"What was this building used for in the past?" he said.
"It was a church, then a bank, then it was a restaurant and a fancy gambling house, and now we got it,” Halley explained. “I think somebody said it used to be a jailhouse too."
– Ralph Ellison, "The Golden Day"

"Now, as a matter of fact, I have called in the Devil just recently. He is the only one who can help me get out of this town. Not that I live here, not exactly. I think always about somewhere else, somewhere else where everything is dancing, like people dancing in the streets, and everything is pretty, like children on their birthdays." – Truman Capote, "Children on Their Birthdays"

All of these quotes are me. I yearn for Spanish moss, even though I only saw it once in person, on the way out of Florida, through Tallahassee, essentially at the beginning of a five-day cross-country drive, moving to Southern California. Death, well, I know exactly how that quote feels. And Truman Capote's quote, well, I'm not looking to leave Ventura, but as has been witnessed here, I do think about other places. But Ventura allows that. It senses that many of its residents are from other places and those places are still in our minds. It gives us space to still explore whatever we want about them, and it doesn't mind because we are here. We chose Ventura.

I loved the photos in that book, and besides these quotes, there were others also in the book that impressed me just as much that I only copied down the authors and where the quote came from in order to find where those stories appeared and to hopefully find them in other books so I can read them in full. Those authors and titles are in my phone, and that's going to take a little while. But I don't mind. The South is a significant part of who I am, not the typical South as others know it, but Southern as I know it, as I carry it within me.

So here I sit with a Ventura College sticky note with four titles on it, including one I found a little while ago in the college library catalog called Swinging in Place: Porch Life in Southern Culture by Jocelyn Hazelwood Donlon, from the University of North Carolina Press in 2001. I desperately want to read that one because I know some of that culture. I've lived it. I wish for that ease that porches bring, but I find it in other things here, including my home library at Ventura College. So that suits me.

But here is this list. And there on my shelf is not only the new Tom Brokaw book, but also How the Post Office Created America, Ten Restaurants That Changed America, and two others I had intended to read during winter break, when the campus, and therefore the library was closed, but never got to them because public library books horned in, including ones on Interlibrary Loan. I think I would like to read them now, but there's the South calling to me in those books. Is it strong enough to prevent me chucking them to the side if something else comes along that sparks my interest? Is my Southern heart stronger than that? I'd like to think so. I hope so. These ones reach me deeply, pull at me hard, beckoning insistently. Here is where I once was and I need to go back to it. I need to know more.

I used to think that I could pick only one, that it was either New York City (even though I haven't seen as much of it as my parents and ironically don't have a great desire to go beyond perhaps seeing the FDR Presidential Library and Museum some day in Hyde Park, and Strand Book Store on Broadway in New York City) or Ventura and therefore more of California history, or my origins in the South. We only have so much time to live as it is, but as it happens, I don't think it's a crossroads of the heart with me. I go down one road for a bit, turn around, and go down another one. Yet, with those quotes above and what I read in that book, the South in those words is how I want to write, how I want to live in my books to come. So maybe more of that. But the others can remain. I'm not sure yet whether I'll read what I checked out from the college library, or return them all (except for the Brokaw book) and start over. But based on what I've found there, and that F209 in the library beckons so wildly to me, I think I'll be with it for quite a while. This is the road I'll take for some time in order to reacquaint myself with that Southern storytelling tradition, which may also be in me at this very moment, to be unearthed in whatever story feels right. I don't know, but I know this feels right, right now. Hopefully longer.