A Visit to Old Los Angeles and Environs

26. San Pedro Again; Catalina (Part 1)— Arrival.


Brent C. Dickerson

Copyright © Brent C. Dickerson

Index to Episodes (click here)

My Evening in San Pedro.

• When I asked to be let off at Point Fermin, I hadn't realized that the nearest trolley-stop was about two miles away; and so it was that I trudged back to the only "sure thing" I knew—where we had been in downtown San Pedro earlier in the day. Many of the charms had disappeared with the daylight; the moon's pale illumination seemed to bring out another side of life. The flowery yards of the day were now a wilderness of dark shapes tossing nervously in the wind. A break in trees and bushes revealed what was in effect if not in fact the neighborhood junk yard; and, when I spotted some dogs there, I anticipated a noisy canine pandemonium centering on me.

• But the dogs gazed at me for only a moment, silently, really with a look of camaraderie, I felt; and then they yawned and continued their junkyard vigil. As I hiked the dark residential streets on my way, I recalled the asseverations of our host at STEAKS — OYSTERS — MUSHROOMS earlier in the day as to the friendliness of his establishment, and thought that perhaps I would be able to telephone the "folk" in Long Beach from there, as I undoubtedly would be later than anticipated in returning. The evening was cool and breezy; I was, however, beginning to get a bit out of breath by the time I walked in the steakhouse's door.

• "Well, sir," said our host, who happened to be sitting at the bar with a sailor, "back so soon, and welcome!," quoth he, all smiles and courtesy. "And panting, too!" said the sailor; "$20 says he'll —" "Sorry to interrupt, friend," quoth I, laying my hand on his arm, "but I'm in need of a telephone . . . ?" "Mister," says the sailor, "you're new here, so I won't kill you at once; but you know what happened to the last feller who interrupted me?" "You made him say, 'I beg your pardon'?" "No, mister—you see that blood stain on the floor?" "Isn't that a pile of lint?" "No, on the other side of the pile of lint." "That's no pile of lint," said the host; "my place is clean." "Bob," quoth the sailor, "that's the biggest [I'm leaving out some words, dear] pile of lint I've seen since a sheep died in the hold of the Bonaventure three years ago this Easter." "No, it isn't." "Yes, it is; and I bet $10 this young guy here could out and out blow it out the door from where he stands." The host looked me over, and said "From where he stands? $10 nothin'; $25 says he couldn't move it a foot. And it's not a pile of lint." "You're on!" And so they both look at me. "Well, I'd like to use the telephone, actually." "Mister," says the sailor, "I know you have a good heart—and good lungs, too—and I hate to annihilate the innocent; and so I call your attention to that object nailed to the opposite wall." "The wall over there?" I asked. "No, sir; the wall over there." Well, sure enough I could see through the cigar smoke curling up that there was some dim object nailed high on the opposite wall. "Those," said the sailor, "are the ears of a feller who made me lose a bet." I squinted again at the wall, and could hear the host and the sailor whispering to each other behind me: "$50 says he gets up on a chair and looks." "You're just trying to get him to move from where he was standing!" It was at this point that a guy—it turned out to be that reverend with the bloody nose—tipped over and spilled his whiskey on my sleeve as he went down. "Bet's off," said the host to the sailor; "he landed on your 'pile of lint'." The sailor responded, "$5 says the parson's dead." Quoth the host, "You're on! Doc should be here any second." He turned his attention to me; and, slipping a cigar into my pocket, said: "So sorry about your sleeve, sir; should dry off in a moment; here, let me get something to make it smell better. Lottie," he called out, "bring out the atomizer!" "I beg your pardon...?", quoth I. And so a rather florid woman comes out from in back with a gallon or two of perfume, and starts drenching me one puff at a time, saying, in a pinched baby voice, "Straight from Paris, darlin'." Well, the aroma was enough to peel the paint from the walls, and I no more wanted to linger there than I wanted to be tossed off a cliff; so on the pretext of getting a breath of fresh air, I stepped over the prostrate reverend, stepped out the front door—and sprinted a block to the trolley-stop, where I sprang onto a trolley which was just leaving—and, good gracious, who should be hopping off it just as I am hopping on but that dreadful Dr. Nicholas from a few days earlier, who winks at me and says, "Always something new—and unexpected—hahahaha!", adding—a few days too early—"Happy Independence Day!", as the trolley and I leave him behind. The trolley-man sniffs and then looks at me as if to say, "Well, I know where you've been," so I go to the rear of the car and hang out the side to freshen up a bit. After a few miles, it occurs to me to ask where this particular trolley is going. "We're for L.A.!" says the trolley-man, cheerfully. "And say I wanted Long Beach...?" Well, no need to go into detail about the next couple of hours; but let it suffice to say that it was with great pleasure that I saw my third or fourth new trolley-car of the evening coming up to the Hotel Virginia in Long Beach.

As it happened, Minnie was in the lobby talking to a young man "strictly about tennis" (she said later to Mother) when I strode in "looking like a murdered gigolo risen from the dead" (she said later to me). "Ulf!" quoth she. "I beg your pardon...?" said the young man, not having seen me stagger in. "Pip of an evening!" said I, with an attempt at nonchalance. "Excuse me, Edward—this is my hairstylist. He's highly continental, you know," she shouted back to her tennis gent as she hustled me up to her room. The door safely shut behind us, Minnie looked at me in amazement, opened all the windows of her room, and said, "Either join the Navy and ship out immediately, or shower and change clothes before Mother sees you." "It's all very innocent," I began to explain. She plucked from my pocket the cigar advertising "Steaks—Oysters—Mushrooms", said "Oh yes indeed!", dropping it right back in, and shooing me out the door. Well, dear, what was I to do but go back to the room I shared with Charley to get my change of clothing before showering? I opened the door, Charley took one look at me, winked, and opened the windows. "Here's the cigar you lost," said I. While I showered and changed, Charley sent my suit down to the front desk to have it cleaned. And so it was, half an hour later, that I stood knocking at Mother and Papa's door to announce my return. Papa opened the door, and, after looking at me a moment, said, "Glad to see you, young man!". "I . . . I was delayed," quoth I, as Mother scrutinized my appearance; "the trolley took me to Los Angeles . . . but here I am, safe and sound! Well, off to bed—goodnight!" And I rushed off to bed before it occurred to anyone to ask me for any specifics.

A Voyage to Avalon, Santa Catalina Island.

• The ship for Santa Catalina Island was to depart early the next morning from Wilmington, near San Pedro—too early for me, as the few hours' sleep I got after my adventures left me still numbed and exhausted. At breakfast, young Frederick Johan remarked that he noted "evidences of illness or degeneration" in my appearance. Anna gave me a curious look, but said nothing. Charley and Minnie studiously talked about the weather and the coming voyage. The baby was uncharacteristically silent. Mother gave me a very penetrating look, then shot Papa an elbow in the ribs. "And so, Ulf," he said, a little ill-at-ease, "tell us about your adventures in San Pedro." "I stayed at Pt. Fermin," said I, "until the sun went down—I suddenly got to thinking about Estelle"—and dear, I must say, at the mention of your name, the strangest look I've ever seen came over Papa's face—"and, before I knew it, an hour had passed by, and I had to walk to the trolley-stop . . . and . . . and on my way, I had a spiritual encounter with a man of the cloth." "Did you indeed!?!" Mother exclaimed. "On my oath," said I, "I've never had a preacher affect me the way this one did. Well, what with one thing and another, I hopped the wrong trolley, and it took some doing to get back here. Could you pass the cream, please?" I sighed and added, "I must say I'm beat!". I figured I was out of the woods pretty safely, until a boy from the front desk came up to me at the breakfast table with my now-clean suit. Mother looked at me and said, "You had your suit cleaned? Already?". "Why, we're leaving—'do it post-haste' thought I last night. All my exertions yesterday, well—it smelled something awful—right, Charley?". "Dreadful! When is the taxi due?" And so it was that we had to rush through breakfast and get driven, bag and baggage, to the steamer dock. The early morning was gray and misty. We could hear the water lapping at the pilings beneath us as we stood on the dock waiting to be allowed on the ship. There was quite a press of people—all sorts, all ages. Then they opened the gangway, and we piled aboard.

• Our ship, the Cabrillo, was clean and tidy no matter what direction you looked at her from. Minnie was apprehensive. "And if we sink?", she asked. "Then swim!", said Mother.

• The hum of the engines intensified, and—we were off! We sailed down the channel past the ferry terminal, Southern Pacific Depot, San Pedro's front street, and City Hall. As luck would have it, our late host and Lottie were standing at the park's railing, caught sight of me, and started waving vigorously. Already rather on the droopy side, I slid down further in my seat; but young Frederick Johan shouted, "Look who's waving!", catching the attention of the whole family. Charley said, "Look, Papa—our innkeeper from yesterday is waving at you." Papa duly stood up and returned the wave as Mother asked, "And who's the woman?" "Must be his wife!", said Charley, as I whispered to him, "I owe you another cigar..."

• On the San Pedro side of the channel, the land with its last few houses angled away from us.

• On the other side, we slipped past Dead Man's Island. Anna sighed and said, "Such a cheerless name." "Inaccurate as well," quoth young FJ; "it should be 'Dead Men's Island'."

• The passengers were milling around excitedly, finding their way—each in his own way—to each of the cardinal points on the ship so as not to miss any sights. "Like chickens at feeding-time!", remarked Mother, who sat calmly in her chair next to me. I sat at the balustrade and rested my weary head on the rail, feeling the gear-changes of the engines rattle through my bones. Anna sat at the rail in front of me, looking back at the mainland disconsolately. Papa winked at her, bringing a little smile to her face. Meantime, Minnie had managed to let her hat blow into the lap of a nice-looking young gentleman behind her.

• The Cabrillo proudly sailed towards the break in the breakwater.

• We left the mainland behind, and passed its last outpost, the lighthouse on the breakwater. Pt. Fermin loomed in the distance.

• Immediately—immediately!—the ship started tossing in the choppy water. A good portion of the faces which had been so filled with jollity a moment before started to pale and indeed take on an appropriate sea-green tint. Minnie's hat had meantime been restored to her head; and Mother personally stabilized it with four or five additional hat-pins.

• Just for the experience of walking on a ship that was moving up and down and left and right in such a fashion, Charley and I made my way up to the bow—please note "bow," dear; "front of the ship" is for you land-lubbers. Quite a number of rather serious-looking folk had taken up positions there, where, as I heard someone there put it, "the wind is strong enough to keep your breakfast where it should be." —Not quite strong enough, it appeared to me. Young Frederick Johan would pick his way through every few minutes in his circumambulations of the deck, looking this way and that towards the wide horizon. For his part, Charley—whose sea-legs had evidently been left in port—found an empty chair and, with much pleasure, lit the cigar I had given him the previous night. "Destroying the evidence!" said he to me at the first puff. "But let me tell you what really happened," I began, only to be waved off with a "Tut, tut!" as he settled into enjoying his smoke.

• Life on board ship quickly became drowsy, with the low clouds and mist swallowing up the mainland behind us, and nothing emerging from the obscurity ahead of us. I left Charley to his smoke, and returned to the others. Papa was squinting into the distance, and finally declared, "Well, it appears to me that we can see about half a mile in every direction." "Half a mile of water!" cried Minnie. Mother turned to her and said, "Since when have you been looking at the water, Minnie dear?", which left Minnie with no response to make. The baby was evidently born to the high seas, as I had never seen him calmer—no doubt he thought the rocking boat was nothing more than a big cradle. Quite the opposite, though equally silent, Anna was marbled every shade of white, green, and blue; and when I offered to help her make out her will, Papa said, "Don't tease your sister. In her condition, she couldn't sign it anyway."

• And so it was that nearly two hours had passed in this way when suddenly I heard several shouts from different parts of the ship, "Look!," "There it is!", "I see it!". All eyes were turned forward; and increasingly through the rapidly-clearing mist we could see brown, rocky hills rising out of the waves, with steep canyons decked with greenery between them, coming down to meet the waves at little coves.

• Mostly they were devoid of signs of mankind; sometimes we would see a boat with fishermen, or some excursionists exploring a cove's beach.

• The ship had changed course, and we were skirting along the shoreline; and about the same time the mists and cloud-cover disappeared. Now and then, we would see a hut or boat-house as we went along; and maybe a little wharf would dip its toes meekly into the water; but mainly the island sights were hills, valleys, rocks, grass, and trees. At one point between coves, a rock formation jutting out into the water made an arch.

• Young Frederick Johan spotted some goats moving through the brush on a hillside; and a few ravens took to the air in one canyon as we passed. A sweet resinous scent hung in the ocean air; the waves crashing on the pebbly beaches and rocks were a nice change from the couple of hours of burbling ocean we had been hearing. And so we swept along; even the sufferers from sea-sickness suddenly rose, miraculously cured. At length, the man on whose lap Minnie's hat had landed pointed ahead to a large conical rock nearly surrounded by water, and said, "That's Sugar Loaf, and Avalon's just 'round the corner!".

• As we came around the rock, the most enchanting sight—other than you, of course, dear—met my eyes. A fanciful little town of towers and peaks and gables and flags and banners and signs and boats and pennants, people strolling on the front street, scurrying along the pier, sitting on benches or rocks watching our ship come in—a cozy little bay and canyon—well! How can I describe the feeling of seeing such a sight rise up upon us after two hours of flat ocean, and half an hour of seeing nothing but wilderness? Truly, it was like turning from one chapter to the next in a fairy tale!

• The buildings climbed up some of the hillsides. The main pier lay right at the center of the bay's arc, though there were other smaller ones as well.

• What an odd feeling it was, the ship heading straight forward into town, as if planning to go right up the street into the hills beyond. As we came in, Papa pointed and said, "See that big building right at front, with the lawn? That's our hotel, the Metropole." We all looked at it silently, trying to construe what it and the town might hold for us in the next week.

• Slowly . . . slowly . . . the ship came in to its mooring.

• Meantime we could see that a large crowd had gathered on the front street at the foot of the pier.

• Several rowboats full of youngsters came around the ship once it was fast; the faces looked up at the passengers expectantly. "What are they waiting for?" asked Anna. "Perhaps they're cannibals waiting for dinner," quoth I; "Jump in!". Then some passengers started throwing coins over the side down into the water—and the children dove down for them. "Oh, let me try!" said Minnie, taking out her coin purse. The first coin she tossed was a quarter—and it landed squarely in the bottom of one of the row boats. "That's too easy, girlie!" shouted one of the boys up to us, picking it up and pocketing it; "get some practice for your pitching arm!"

• Next, she carefully aimed a half-dollar into the drink below, and half a dozen divers plunged into the sparkling water after it, to Minnie's delight. I must say, it was fun just to see Minnie acting like an excited little girl again! One of the boys surfaced holding the half-dollar aloft. Taking in the scene, as silver showered down into the water, and the divers splished and splashed around, Mother blinked and said—with a smile—"Well, I never!".

• The rest of the world—if there was a rest of the world—seemed far away; there was no sign of the mainland on the horizon; and, once in the bay, all we could see of the island was the immediate area of Avalon Bay and Avalon Canyon.

• The islanders and already-arrived hotel guests who had massed on the front street left a narrow file for us to pass through. "'Tis like a cattle-run!" said Mother, gazing from the deck of the ship, crowded with passengers waiting to be allowed off and trying to find family members in the confusion. "I still say that we should watch out for cannibalism," quoth I; "you never know what customs prevail on islands." Papa, surveying the scene with a great deal of pleasure, said, "They'll be after the young and tender for dinner; the old and tough ones, like myself and Mother, should be safe"—for which statement Mother honored him by batting him over the head with her parasol.

• Charley had long since fallen asleep after smoking his cigar at the bow of the ship, and only awoke feeling the ship cease motion in the bay; starting up from his seat, it took him some time to get through the press of people to join the rest of us. The scene was a busy one, what with the passengers shouting excitedly to each other, the ship's crew and men on the dock similarly shouting back and forth pursuing their duties, baggage handlers' carts rattling along the planks of the pier, and the cries of the seagulls wheeling above us, not to mention the less distinct sounds from the boats in the harbor and the people ashore. The passengers were kept aboard pending the baggage being unloaded and sent to baggage claim or the hotels; but this only gave us more time to enjoy the scenery, get oriented, and throw coins to the divers. Finally, the ramps were opened, and we passengers all poured onto the pier, the young and limber darting forward as possible. We didn't know what to expect once we gained the shore—it's a strange feeling to look ahead and see that you are to walk a distance between two lines of people who are obviously there for you. And yet, the feeling was not strange but wonderful when, as we went forward, the whole town was there saying—each person in his own way, and to people they didn't even know—"Welcome!", "Glad to see you!", "Howdy, folks!", "You made it!". As we walked, Anna whispered to me, "All these strangers greeting us so warmly, it's a bit as I imagine it must be on finally getting through St. Peter's gates." Can you believe, dear—In the crowd there meeting us, I even thought I saw you for a moment, but lost you as soon as I saw you. "You're still groggy from yesterday," said Charley; "Take a deep breath."

• I figured that, if I was seeing visions, "groggy" wasn't the half of it; so I took Charley's assessment to heart, and—rather than to accompany the family through the formalities of checking in and climbing up to our room—I threw myself onto a bench on the hotel's front veranda, asking young Frederick Johan to fetch me when things were settled. The crowd greeting the steamer had quickly dispersed, and the town settled into a relaxed sort of offhand activity—so relaxed that, as I gazed out over the panorama of the view from the hotel, I found it hard to stay awake.

• The regular splash of the small waves washing on the beach just fifty yards away lulled me to sleep!

• When I awoke hours later—young FJ said that he came down twice to wake me, but judged from the depth of my sleep that it would take a felony to bring me out of it—the sun was starting to set.

• And as I watched colors of orange and apricot broaden and deepen across the sky, first Anna came down and sat with me admiring the view; and then the others quietly joined us one by one, half an hour spent there silently together with nothing to occupy us but drinking in the beauty of our surroundings. A profound calm came over me as darkness overspread the sky and embraced us all together.

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