A Visit to Old Los Angeles and Environs

16. La Fiesta de Los Angeles/La Fiesta de las Flores
and the Closer Environs.


Brent C. Dickerson

Copyright © Brent C. Dickerson

Index to Episodes (click here)

We bid goodbye to downtown. More Chinatown. Sonoratown.

• "Is there any speck, any scintilla of downtown Los Angeles which we have not scrutinized with an attention more than normal?", asked Minnie one warm morning as the family relaxed on Aunt Sigrid's veranda. A trolley-bell clanged in the distance. "Why, yes," said Charley, a bit disconcerted, indeed a bit hurt, as if having been accused of hiding something; "There are several blocks of south 700s, and a few north 100s, plus . . . " Charley's voice trailed off as Minnie rolled her eyes, and Mother looked down at the baby and gave a heavy sigh. "My dears," cried Aunt Sigrid abruptly from the open doorway, kitchen-towel and dripping breakfast-plate in her hands, "surely you're going to the parade downtown I mentioned the other day . . . ?!? It starts in just two hours!" Papa lowered his newspaper, slapped his knee and said, "By jingo—I forgot. Shake a leg, folk!" You see, Papa always called us "folk" when dealing with us en masse.

• As we approached the route, we began to run across the entrants preparing to take their places. This fierce unit of caballeros was at the very head of the procession. Minnie was much taken with the gentleman third from the left; unfortunately, his face is hidden by the horse's head. Charley noted that the names of these particular Mexican cowboys were probably Smith and Jones, "with the occasional Müller," he added.

• A little farther on, a flower-decked carriage of young ladies was waiting to enter the cavalcade. "I should like to be the driver of that one," said Charley. Young Frederick Johan hoped that he had a good supply of handkerchiefs, as the young lady immediately next to the driver appeared to be allergic to the flowers. "Or possibly to the driver," Mother ventured.

• The children were ready to play their part in the festivities as well. "They are much better-behaved than the adults," said Papa. "And then they will grow up," said I.

• We hurried on to the parade route, mostly on Main Street. Quite a show, I must say! Anna and I tried to count the flowers on one carriage. "I should prefer to count young ladies," said Charley. Mother looked at him for a moment, then said, "I do believe that the California sun is overheating you, Charley." Minnie suggested that it might be best to lock him in his room during the sunny hours. "I should think it wiser to lock him up at night," said Mother. And who should show up selling peanuts to the crowd but Chester? You can see him in the picture, thirteenth from the left, next to the man in the straw hat.

• In the parade, there were reminders of all aspects of this diverse mix called Los Angeles; we were delighted to see Chinatown represented. Young Frederick Johan was interested in the mechanics of the dragon's head, with its moving eyes and mouth. But the baby cried.

• The city had had as guests in the 1901 parade no less than President McKinley and his wife, just a few months before he was assassinated. Charley informed us that the President's float had 20,000 roses on it. "I bet there were 20,003," declared Papa.

• We ended up at the old Plaza where we began our visit a week ago. Remember the Lugo House, which became St. Vincent's College and then the Canton Bazaar? Here is the view you'd see from its front steps, looking west across the Plaza.

• The ladies and the baby sat down there at the Plaza, while we men-folk decided to climb up Fort Hill and take in the view. After we had left the ladies, it seems that the dragon from the festival parade showed up first at the Plaza, then went his way—east, of course—into Chinatown. Anna and Mother followed, leaving the baby with Minnie on a bench in the Plaza. It seems that there is a ceremonial feeding of the dragon!—and that is what they saw.

• Sidewalk merchants had high hopes concerning the dispersing crowd.

• Around the corner, in a dark lane, they came across a fortune teller. Seeing Anna's attention caught by this, Mother rushed the two of them right past, saying, "Our fortune is to keep walking..."

• In rushing away, they got lost, "going from lane to alley to crevice," as Anna said later. Seeing an open door, they went into a Chinese drugstore to ask the way; "We despaired when it appeared that neither party could understand the other. Mother thought that, whether words were being understood or not, she knew what would help; and she held up some coins to let him know that we'd tip him. At this, the gentleman behind the counter smiled broadly, and vigorously pointed in a particular direction, so we thanked him—I gave him a nickel—and so we went in the direction he pointed."

• "We went through a beaded curtain into a long dark hallway. We could see light coming from under one door; and so I knocked lightly as we opened it and came in. Several tense but distinguished-looking gentlemen were standing around a long table. They looked up at us with mute surprise. We all stared at each other for several moments, when Mother said, 'Oh my stars, we must be interrupting a meeting of a board of directors!'." Mother took up the tale, and said, "At this, the man at the head of the table smiled and said, 'Ma'am, you've hit it right on the head. If you and your sister would step up, I'll explain just what we're doing here. You see this wheel? This here's a wheel for a new kind of automobile, and we're a-testing it to see if it's fine and dandy to use. Professor Hiawatha Haroldio here, straight from the Institute in Paris, sets this little ball going as the wheel turns, and it settles where the wheel is a little weak.' I thought how interested young Frederick Johan would be in this bit of industrial science! Then he sticks out his thumb towards the other end of the table where another gentleman was arranging some tokens in some squares. 'Meantime,' he says, 'Andrewsiolio down there, our chief accountant, is figuring out the company payroll for this month. Ain't that so, Dr. Andrewsiolio?' 'You betcha,' said the good man. The first man took it up again. 'The lovely Miss Vanderbilt over there,' he said, gesturing towards the corner without looking until he saw the quizzical expression on everyone's collective face, as there was no one 'over there'—'Just where is the lovely Miss Vanderbilt, Professor?' 'I believe she went upstairs with a depositor.' 'Did she now? Well, always hard at work, our executive secretary Miss Vanderbilt!' 'Sir,' I said, 'I am proud to hear it. Such hard work is what makes America great!' Tears welled up in his eyes; he grasped my hand in the most gentleman-like manner and said, 'God bless you, ma'am!' He took a moment to recover himself, then continued, 'The rest of these fine fellows is major stockholders overseeing our doin's here. Now, we was about to continue our deliberations, which is private so as not to let our competition in on the game, so to speak, so if you dear ladies could continue on through that door—no, the other one, with the lock—we could get on with the future of America here.' Well, we certainly didn't want to interfere with the future of America, so we thanked him and left the way he said."

• Mother continued that "This took us into a dark passageway between buildings and under back-windows, an alley full of smells and materials none of which promised well. At the end of the way was a door..." "Two doors," interjected Anna. "Indeed you are correct, two doors, concerning which Anna and I debated whether to open the more-used-looking one or the less-used-looking one." Anna explained, "We reasoned that surely people were sensible enough to tend to choose the better way than the worse way, and so I opened the more-used-looking door." "This," said Mother, "showed us a dim room with, in the corner, a gentleman reclining against a pillow."

• Mother continued, "We both curtsied, and Anna said, in a bright, clear voice, 'Good afternoon, sir! I hope you are well. Might you be able to direct us to the Plaza, if you please?'." "Alas," said Anna, "to this, there was no response. I suggested to Mother that perhaps he did not see us curtsy, or we did not curtsy deeply enough to foreign specifications." Mother added, "This seemed reasonable. We repeated the operation, more deeply. This time, he looked up at us, trembling, rubbed his eyes once, then twice, blinked, and then made as if to offer us his pipe. Anna whispered to me, 'He is obviously trying to be friendly. Perhaps if we sit down and smoke with him, in due course he will advise us.' Well, taking up smoking seemed to me to be a thing to be avoided if possible, and so, backing out, I said, 'First, Anna, let us see what is behind the other door.' Once out in the alley again, she selected the less-used-looking door. This opened to a bright scene, out of the glare of which a voice said, in perfect English, 'Yes, please, good day, ladies; how may I assist you?' The voice turned out to belong to a Chinese scholar, who then had his student lead us to the main way which led to the Plaza, where we found Minnie flirting with two policemen and a bricklayer." "I was not flirting with two policemen and a bricklayer. The bricklayer and the policeman with thick, wavy brown hair were admiring the baby, and the black-haired policeman with the gray-blue eyes and muscular build came over to see what was happening."

• That evening at the dinner table, Minnie—with a certain amount of indignation—enlarged upon this. I might as well relate the whole thing, dear, as it will give you an idea of the general tenor of our sessions at the dinner table. "Oh, I had the nicest conversation this afternoon. The baby and I were sitting there in the Plaza pleasantly watching the passers-by while the rest of you were ranging about. I had turned to watch a dog get run over by a trolley—it managed to get out of the way—and when I turned back, I found a bricklayer squatting on the sidewalk in front of me." This interested young Frederick Johan. "How did you know that he was a bricklayer? He could have been an attorney, or a ship's captain, or a watchmaker. Any of these people can squat on a sidewalk." Anna hazarded that tailors had a certain tendency towards squatting, though perhaps not on public sidewalks. Minnie sighed wearily, and said, "He was covered with brick-dust." This was not good enough for young FJ. "He could have been an accountant who was taking a short-cut through a brickyard, and stumbled several times into brickpiles." "Yes," said Papa, "I see it all now: a drunken accountant who had just been fired from his job." "Because of alcohol!" was Mother's interjection. "No doubt he neglected his children and beat his wife," pondered Charley, as his forkful of potatoes hovered near his mouth. "Could you pass the cabbage?", said I. Minnie pursed her lips for a moment, then continued. "He had just cleared his throat and made an admiring gesture towards the baby, when..." Charley asked just how one might make an admiring gesture. This question appealed to Aunt Sigrid's theatrical training, and so she asked me to join her in some open space in front of the piano so that she could demonstrate. "Strike an heroic pose," was her prompt to me. I did. She took a step forward, made as if seeing me for the first time, clasped her hands together rapturously, and, turning towards the audience, cried, "O joyous wonder!" as she fell insensate at my feet. Charley thought a moment, then asked, "Is this what the bricklayer did?", as Aunt Sigrid and I returned to the table. Papa said, "Never have I heard a bricklayer say, 'O joyous wonder!'." "It wasn't a bricklayer," said young FJ, "I'm certain of it now." Minnie ignored all of this and continued, "He had just cleared his throat and made an admiring gesture towards the baby, when the cop—" "Policeman," said Mother. "—When the policeman with the wavy brown hair suddenly appeared, and the bricklayer skulked away." "That settles it," said young FJ; "it was an accountant who was embezzling his company's funds, and hiding the cash in the brickyard." "I'm still waiting for the cabbage," said I. "After watching the bricklayer round a corner and disappear, the policeman turned his attention to us. 'Nice baby you've got there,' he said. 'Yes, he is a plum, isn't he?", said I, looking down at him. He considered for a moment, looked me over, and asked, "Are you and your husband visitors here, ma'am?" Now, wasn't that sly? Obviously he wanted to get to know me better. So I said, with as much coyness as I could muster..." "Not much, then" said Charley. "—I said, 'Oh, I'm not married! I couldn't tell you where his father is right now.' 'Is that a fact?', says he, and goes on to make some nice chit-chat with me. 'So, Miss, how does it come to be that you're relaxing in our Plaza this fine day?' 'Well, Officer, it's like this. After walking up and down the streets all day, day after day, a girl gets a little tired.' 'Why, I bet she does!', he laughed, 'I thought I had seen you out and about somewhere before,' says he. 'I certainly hope it wasn't when my underwear was being discussed!' Yes, Mother, I know that this was perhaps a little daring; but it was a strange situation and I hardly knew what to say. This stopped him flat for a moment, and just then the muscular policeman comes up. The two of them whisper a word or two to each other, then turn to me. 'I wonder, Miss,' says the first policeman, 'if you're staying around here...?' 'Oh, yes, sir,' I say, 'we have the nicest place—second floor, girls at one end of the corridor, boys at the other. We're traveling as a group, you know.' 'Wouldn't do to have you all together in the same room!' says the second policeman, with a smile. 'Think of the noise and confusion,' I say. 'Clothes getting all mixed up!' laughs the first policeman. 'Oh, it wouldn't do at all!', I said, and we all laughed together. The first policeman, having wiped the tears from his eyes, put his hankie—" "Handkerchief" said Mother. "—Handkerchief away, and took out a little note-pad. 'I wonder, Miss,' says he, 'if I could have your address...?' Well, aren't men forward here? It quite took my breath away; but I had just managed to give him my address when Mother and Anna returned from Chinatown." There was a long pause at the table—well, not so much a pause as it was an intermission in which I asked Anna to pass me the butter. Aunt Sigrid had a certain look on her face, and said, "One of the policemen had wavy brown hair, the other was rather muscular?" "Why, yes," said Minnie, coming to terms with her dinnerplate. "That's very curious! I had two men of that description knocking about an hour before you all came home. I opened the door, and they didn't seem to know what to say; they just had sheepish grins on their faces; and we all simply stood there looking at each other until Reverend Hanson happened to come by for his socks." "For his socks?", Anna queried. "Oh, dear, yes! The poor man has a terrible problem with his socks." " 'Darn them!' he says," theorized Charley through a dinner roll. Well, and so on and so forth—I'm running out of paper—but that's what happened with Minnie and the policemen at the Plaza. And the bricklayer.

• Meantime, we men were aiming to scale the not-very-dizzy heights of Fort Hill. In this view from the east slope, the Court House with its tower is a block behind us. The Plaza is behind the trees at the right edge of the picture; we are looking north over one of the oldest sections of town, a precinct called "Sonoratown" by old-timers. This is the area we were about to walk through as we approached the hill. The street running diagonally at center is the street variously known as Buena Vista, Eternity, and North Broadway over the years. At one time, you could find the city cemetery at the end of Eternity Street . . . The wooded ridge in the middle distance is the location of Elysian Park.

• Some of the other onlookers from the parade were dispersing in this direction, too, though, as we proceeded, I began to feel as if I had entered another world. The conversations of passers-by, and stray words overheard from within the old buildings, were more likely to be in Spanish than in English. Some people in the street looked into our blue eyes as if to ask, "Why are you here?".

• Here and there in this oldest part of town—and it was a bit shabby in places, I must say—were remains of some of the original construction on the site. This alluring palace is evidently the oldest remaining building in Los Angeles—the Avila Adobe—dating back to the 1830s. At least, under all the signs and siding, it is.

• "And I think I see some of the original settlers, too," said Charley.

• In truth, it was most decidedly not a prosperous part of town, and I was beginning to feel a bit uncomfortable. As we passed these two, young FJ whispered to Papa, "I can't even tell if they're Indians, or Mexicans, or Negroes!" "Well, young man," Papa said, after reflecting a moment, "Well well. Well. All three, may well be. Well, but they are your brothers, that's what they are—excepting the ones who are your sisters." "Papa," said Charley, who is a bit of a snob even at the best of times, "if they are my brother and sister, you sowed some unusually wild oats in your youth." Oh! If you could have only seen Papa's face as he shot Charley such a look! But Charley was oblivious.

• As we passed the little window of one of the best-preserved of the old adobes, I caught a glimpse inside.

• The reason no one was there to see me as I looked inside is that they were all out on the porch!

• At the next corner, we stood debating amongst ourselves which way to go. "Gentlemen, my name is Brown," said an amiable-looking young man from a doorway next to us, extending his hand; "I think perhaps you are lost?" "Why, thank you, friend," boomed Papa—he forgets that he doesn't need to shout above the machinery—"not precisely lost, that's a fact, but I guess not knowing where we want to go." Charley puffed his chest out, and added, "Oh, yes, everywhere I look, I see the pretty local girls—I can hardly keep my mind on where I'm going!" Papa, young FJ, and I looked on silently, and, as you'll understand in a moment, growing paler by the minute. The amiable man bowed ever so slightly, and said, "You are too kind to us, friend!" "Not at all, not at all—I'm speaking the complete truth—I'd tell you if I saw any ugly women." Papa's eyebrows went straight up. Charley looked down the street. "For instance, it took some searching, but, do you see down there, a block and a half away? Walking towards us?"—he pointed—"The one with the big nose? Oh, merciful heavens!" The amiable man peered in the direction Charley indicated, and said, with some leveling off of his amiability, "That is my cousin." Charley gulped and said, quickly, "No, no, the other one with her; I can barely stand looking at her for more than a moment." "That is my sister." "I...I'm not being clear, I see," Charley said, thoroughly rattled; "I mean the frightening-looking old one limping along in front of them..." "That is my mother!" A few moments of stasis ensued, a frozen Charley staring into the distance, trying to think of what to say next, the amiable man silently flushing red, and we standers-by beginning to ponder what morticians might charge in Los Angeles. Finally, Charley cleared his voice and said, "Mr. Brown, now that these three ladies have come closer, I see that what makes them stand out from the crowd to my poor vision is that they are so much more beautiful than everyone else I can see!" This made the amiable man squint at him; just as he opened his mouth to make a remark—and I couldn't say which way it would have gone—his mother strode up, boxed him on the ear for lounging about the street while they were waiting for him at home, took him by the collar, and dragged him back the way they came, the three damsels honoring him with well-considered and highly pertinent commentary all the while. This inspired Papa to grab Charley by the collar and drag him the opposite direction around the next corner, where he said I don't know what to Charley (and, if I did know, dear, I don't think I could report it to you). Young FJ and I think we saw Charley's pocket-flask flying through the air at one point, followed by the sound of glass breaking in a near-by alleyway; but of course it could have been anyone's pocket-flask. I don't have a picture of the forthright ladies of the Brown clan; but young FJ ran across this picture of some of the good-looking local people dressed up in traditional garb, which will give you a taste of the flavor of the place.

• A few doors down, we peeked into a Mexican hat shop. "Suppose we all came back to the Plaza wearing Mexican hats," theorized young Frederick Johan, "—What a sight that would be!" Papa looked at him a moment, and said, "Fine idea, fine . . . but think of us on the rest of our trip, either wearing the hats all the time, or carrying them, or packing those gigantic things." "Which is to say, dear brother," quoth Charley, "that they'd be an accursed nuisance." Seeing young FJ's disappointment, I added, "But of course, once home, we could send for some. Just the thing for Christmas!". Young FJ stared into the distance, and thought aloud, "I should like to show up for Christmas Eve Service wearing a sombrero." With a half smile, Papa gave me his "don't give the boy ideas" look.

• Just around the corner in a weedy alleyway, we came across an Indian woman sitting against a crumbling adobe wall. She had laid out baskets on the ground to sell. "Good afternoon, Ma'am," said Papa, doffing his hat. "She don't hear!" cried a strained voice behind and above us, where a little man dwarfed by his moustachios stood in a little balcony all rococo with rusty ironwork. Charley—his manners much mended—then said, "Well, we must try to look friendly then," and bowed a little bow to her. "She don't see!" cried the man. "Then how the devil does she manage her baskets?" I shouted up to him, a little exasperated. "She don't!," he said, adding—a bit ambiguously if you ask me—"That's for you..."; and he walked back into the darkness of his building. Papa saw my questioning look, and said, "I do believe, yes I do, I do believe he means boys that it's for us to exercise our notions of what's right." And so it was that the three of us—young Frederick Johan was already at the other end of the alley waiting for us—and so it was that the three of us ended up walking around for the rest of the day, each of us carrying one basket, and looking I think like snake-charmers between jobs. Later, Minnie said that our notions of what's right seemed more expensive than the common idea; but Papa said he judged the Indian woman had a lot of overhead.

• Young Frederick Johan had not had enough of climbing; and so, seeing the High School close by—we had seen it from the Court House tower a few blocks south the other day—he ran to the building; but we found it locked tight. Originally, the High School was on the site of the Court House, but then the site for a new high school was moved to this location, previously the city's first Jewish cemetery, and once upon a time the site of Fort Moore.

• Not far away, on a hillside overlooking Sonoratown, was Sisters Hospital. Young Frederick Johan had a notion to run over and climb that tower; but Papa said that going any further would put us all in the hospital, and to stay; so we trudged back to the Plaza, baskets in hand. The genesis of Sisters Hospital was the Los Angeles Infirmary, founded by the Sisters of Charity in 1857.

• Papa took a notion to visit Elysian Park the next day. "This," said he, "puts me in a bucolic mood—a bucolic mood!—and there is no other way to put it." And thus it was that Papa, Anna, and I visited several city parks, and sites en route to them, over the next few days. All this communing with Mother Nature in her leafier aspects was not at all to the taste of either Minnie or Charley, each of whom—as Mother quickly divined—had romantic aspirations "indiscriminately bestowed among the natives" as Frederick Johan reported her as saying to Aunt Sigrid. And Mother declared herself to be quite content with "looking at trees in backyards which grow quite as satisfactorily as trees ten miles away."

• Papa admired the geometric beds as much as the more wild areas. A little girl declared this one to be "her bed." Papa put his finger to his chin, and said, "Why then, where's your pillow?" While the girl screwed up her face thinking over the question, Papa reached into his pocket and gave her a piece of candy.

• We reached a spur which gave us a view northeast over the Los Angeles River towards the little community of East Los Angeles. The little river was a source of endless amusement to Papa, whose brother old Frederick Johan—alias "the Captain"— ran a working steamboat—the "Lola Lou"— out of St. Jo. "This river!" said Papa. "I should like to see what the Captain would make of it with the Lola Lou." Anna thought for a moment, then—winking at me—said, "Papa, a steam canoe would be just the thing."

• Around the spur, the San Fernando Valley opened out with its agricultural fields and meandering river.

• Just then, we heard someone behind us clearing her throat, and a sad young woman approached us, leading the little girl whose "bed" we had just visited. "Sir," said the young woman, quietly, "I beg your pardon, but did you give Virginia a piece of candy?". "Miss," responded my Papa, with his usual courteous faint bow, "if that is Virginia, I did." "Sir," she continued, "you must not give the orphans candy; it makes them yearnful." "Miss," said Papa, "it might well be dangerous to make sweet little girls yearnful; but it is most certainly dangerous for their attendants to leave them unattended for any length of time." The young Miss blushed a sad blush as Papa turned to Virginia. "Virginia, have you eaten that piece of candy? Speak up." Virginia allowed as she had. "Here is another. Put it in your mouth immediately; it will cancel out the yearnfulness arising from the first." Papa later confessed to me that he had no idea what "yearnful" meant. As this was going on, Anna and I had a notion that Virginia might be spanked as soon as we were out of sight; and so we whispered to Papa, and he requested "no, demanded" to accompany them back to the Orphanage "to make a full report to the authorities." And so, we followed their little buggy "with the saddest little horse I ever saw," said Papa. The way led through rural areas and pocket-sized settlements which looked as if they hadn't changed in fifty years. For instance, this is what they called "Station M."

• We had seen the Orphan Asylum looming on the horizon east of the city, in Boyle Heights, many a time, and been curious to see it more closely. As we approached the building, we could see that neither the sad young Miss nor Virginia had any idea what was to be reported "to the authorities." I said to Anna that the main entrance yawned like the mouth of Hell. She looked at it, and asked me when I had seen the mouth of Hell, and how I knew whether or not it yawned. "Your point," said I, smiling, "is well taken. I should say, rather, that it yawns like a country well." "My thought exactly," said Anna. By then, Papa had put on his most serious demeanor, and the lot of us marched straight into the office of the superintendant, a florid man of the cloth, with a pair of eyeglasses too small for his head. "Sir," said Papa, "I should like to report that young Virginia here has struck me..." "Has struck you, Sir?" said the reverend, in astonishment. "Has struck me, Sir, with her maturity and modesty, and is a credit to her keeper as well as a fine example to Society at large. I bid you good day." And we left.

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