Archaeology of the Vernacular: Sidewalks

About twenty years ago it was my fondest desire to own a convertible--pretty much any convertible.   As soon as I was done paying off my current car loan, I promised myself, I would look into trading it for some kind of gently used convertible like a VW Cabriolet.

But something happened along the way: I started walking to places.   I soon realized that within a mile of my apartment there was a huge variety of coffeehouses, restaurants, pubs, and other amenities.  Coffeehouses in particular: in those days there were no fewer than five within a fifteen minute walk of home.   It's strange to think that only one is left, which was also the first. 

When you walk in this city, you soon become aware of a very curious thing.  The visual world you experience as a pedestrian is almost completely disjoint from what you see driving past the same spot.   When you drive you have to watch the road and traffic, foremost, and beyond that you're probably most apt to notice the billboards--the large, ugly ones on the tops of buildings.  In fact, when you were first learning to drive, the instructor probably told you to "aim high" because that was the best way to take in the surrounding traffic and other hazards, and at the same time be ready for anything that might be happening further down the road.  As a result, when you drive you are looking right at the billboards, which is exactly what the advertisers want.

Billboards on the tops of buildings.  Notice how one of them is facing the other way; the backs of the signs are even uglier than the fronts.

Depending on the circumstances, you may also be straining to read addresses from behind the wheel, or the names of streets.  You don't notice the individual storefronts, or the contents of their windows.  You wouldn't be able to divert your attention to look at anything interesting at sidewalk level, even if you could see it from where you are in the road.   By contrast, when you walk along the same block, your attention is focused entirely differently.

Pedestrian's Eye View: Note the banners on the light pole, clearly intended to draw the attention of people walking.  You'd never notice them from your car.
You notice the books in the window of the second-hand store and the chotchkes displayed at the Japanese curio shop.

You notice coffeeshops and restaurants, which were hardly visible from behind the wheel. Even if you don't have time to go in, just being able to glance in as you walk by is worth a little, and it's something you can't get from your car.  Any time you enter a shop or a cafe, it's a small chance for something significant to happen.  You may meet a future friend, lover, or spouse.  You may find that book or that music you've been looking for, or even better, you may find something you've got to have but didn't know existed until one minute before.

One thing you notice about independent bookstores and coffeeshops is pictures on the wall.  The owners seem to like it as a means of self expression.  You almost never see this in chain establishments, because upper management is not willing to trust the judgment of local employees, or even franchise owners.
Cacao Coffee House: First in the neighborhood

Inside Cacao. The last indy coffeehouse in the neighborhood

An interior like this coffeeshop is an expression of vernacular culture.  When this place opened around 1990 it had a sort of grunge-beatnik vibe with nearly derelict furniture and a cement floor.  The early 90s were a scary time with rampant crime and the Rodney King riots.  It was about then that somebody stenciled a pistol with angel's wings at the center of the floor,   and was a fitting icon at the time.  The tiki makeover came shortly afterwards.  Astroboy, seen here above and behind the counter, has been there for over fifteen years, as have many of the tiki decorations.  Other items have come and gone over the years.  Note also the paintings.  You will never see this much individuality at a Starbucks. 

Another thing you notice as a pedestrian is the sidewalk itself.  For one reason and another, every so often a slab of concrete has to be replaced which means that a slab of wet concrete has to be left unattended for a couple of days.  Since time immemorial, there have been those individuals--probably teenagers, for the most part--who are unable to resist the urge to leave a permanent record of the fact that they have been there.  As often as not, they are obliging enough to record the date, and if we're really lucky there may be a story attached to the artifact.

Back in early 1990, when I moved into a new apartment just below Wilshire, I happened to miss Richie and Linda--by forty-one years.  On January 5 1949, Richie and Linda scratched their names in the wet concrete, and wrote the date.  One or both of them returned the next day to write in 1/6/1949.   At some point in the interim a small dog or cat passed over, as did a man or boy wearing a dressier style of shoe.   Perhaps it was Richie himself, imagining himself as a film star at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, where he'd just been asked to step in the cement.

Richie and Linda.  If they yet live, they're at least seventy.

I have no idea of who Richie and Linda were, but I bet they were students at nearby University High School.  It was nearly twenty years ago that I saw this for the first time.  Since then I've moved a few times, gotten married, and now I now live about three miles away in another pedestrian friendly neighborhood.   I walk over to a local barber about once a month.   It took several visits for me to notice it, because of its worn condition, but here some people left their names in 1943.

Joan: A "1943" name if there ever was one.

Somehow the name Joan seems very appropriate for a girl who was probably born in the late 1920s or early 1930s.  If it had been Destiny or Madison, I'd strongly suspect the whole thing was a hoax.

MCH. Now you know as much as I do.

You don't pick up these tiny yet compelling minutiae of urban life parking the SUV in a lot and then entering the barber's through the back door.

More vernacular archeology may be found right over here, wherein we describe a set of 53-year-old footprints and the family of one-legged hominids who left them.

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