I had my degree and it was time to venture into the future. It started with a stint at a museum in Long Beach, California, before taking off for Europe. There wasn’t all that much to do in the town and about the only thing that was interesting was the beach with tankers looming on the horizon. The early morning tracks in the sand were symbolic of time that was and is. I tried sketching in my free time, but inspiration seemed to be on holiday.
Attempts at infusing life into the ambience included a jazz concert. Jazz a la carte. The gigantic moorish auditorium was filled with good-looking lusty girls, dressed in satins and petticoats, accompanied by undernourished drones. Here and there a few ponderous males, dark and massive, filled the hall with their well-being. Like Peterson – a big man with a light touch, someone said. And the other musicians – strange, somehow unhealthy, living in a world of their own. Paul Desmond stood there hunched and sunk into himself, and his playing, fine as it was, seemed somehow lifeless. Brubeck was an automaton as he moved his head from side to side, his feet up and down, the rest of him motionless. Yet the Afro-Cuban drumming though, a physical not a mental action, used the whole man. For me it was made up for by the warmth of Sara Vaughn. A beautiful personality for whom everyone was a friend. She was singing a song when from the balcony came the tinkle of a bottle, a titter from the audience. She broke into her song – “I heard it too.” Sang another phrase – added, “bad bad whiskey”.
Long Beach was synonymous with Signal Hill.
Obviously it meant there was a place from which to send a signal, but for whom? From whom? Pirates? Approaching enemy ships? Turns out that in the 1500s the Puva Indians used the hilltop to signal to other tribes out in the Pacific Ocean Bay. It’s now 1955 and I am curious if anyone is still sending signals from up there. Just the day for a walk, not too warm but sunny. Climbing up past green lawns and pink stucco houses, I suddenly move back in time, as a fine old house with great dark windows looms up over a desert landscape. There’s a sudden flash of glowing red where the late afternoon sun knifes through the window panes and alabaster bric-a-brac and caresses a crimson sofa. Strange staring porches are engulfed in their houses, bleak windows, old, mysterious. A girl – lean, young, immovable – sits on the steps of one. A white long-nosed dog guards the entrance to a second house. The third has three doors opening into dimly lit corridors that seem only to lead to more doors. A flat white sky. A hot smell of weeds suffocating in their self-made wilderness.
Soon derricks appear, first one then another and then still another, encroaching on the houses, straddling them. Dust blows past me, past the straw-grass, up the charcoal clefts of burnt earth, over gray remnants of an asphalt pavement, joining others where even the dead grass no longer stands. A stubborn palm tree refused to leave its post, although the houses had long given up. A sign – a street, an avenue – stands in this midst of nowhere, showing nothing but that there once had been.
The derricks rise up over the barren earth. Monsters, an army of ghostly dinosaur skeletons multiply like the brooms in the sorcerer’s apprentice, gathering behind me like an ever-growing horde. This is the hill and I am surrounded, not by people, for there are none, but still by some kind of life. I stand still and their heartbeat fills the air, as they move up and down, up and down, in a ceaseless rhythm. Long-necked hammer-headed katydids three times a tall as I, they swing their heads and not for all my staring will they stop. A few stand uncaged and black against the sky. Small pools of oil-glazed water darkly catch the sun. My fingers have the feel of it and of dust, my mouth the taste of it.
A house that used to be, still sits amid the scraggly grass. Incredibly a brilliant flash of blue shines in the weeds, and moves, becomes a peacock – where, when? A bantam rooster wanders comfortably past to some half fences where golden pheasants sit. Against the cages lean boards slip-covered with the skins of rabbits turned inside out to dry. But people there are none. Only the soft whirring of a motor when I pass too close, the distant chugging of an older one further away. Suddenly I feel these metal creatures will continue living, pulsing like the waves, forever. Giant mosquitoes sucking the oil blood from under the surface of the earth.
This was Signal Hill in 1955 as I slowly moved back down to civilization before the setting sun sank below the horizon. A fitting farewell to this part of my life. A brief stop in NY and I would be off, I would become “The Watcher”.
To be continued . . .