What We Talk About When We Talk About What’s Gone: My Lost San Pedro

By John Shannon

Memories are wonderful things, if you don’t have to deal with the past.

 — Before Sunset (2004)

An uncomfortable part of our soul gets pitchforked up whenever, in mid-life, we make a trip home, believing home is still at least roughly the same as it was, even as it’s beginning to break up into small, sharp, dangerous pieces.

I grew up in San Pedro, L.A.’s harbor, a place of marvels and mystery. (By the way, if it interests you, the non-Latino locals called it San PEE-droh. Sorry, Spanish speakers.)

When I was about 12, I would ride the town’s glory, the big auto ferry, back and forth between San Pedro and Terminal Island, across a quarter mile channel of gray, oil-slicked, toxic water, keeping watch for the occasional up-periscope of a harbor seal. As the ferry neared the far mooring, I would hide briefly under a slatted bench. The engines reversed in a shudder of backwater and the ferry’s blunt bow nudged awesomely into the creaking pilings, implying unimaginable mass. I’d hide so I could ride back to San Pedro and then to the island again without repaying the nickel fare. I’ve told this story so many times I’ve come to think I actually did hide, but I’m not so sure. Would the crew have cared a whit about a stowaway?

This was basically a car ferry, and back then the only rush of foot traffic came at shift changes at the canneries on Terminal Island. The mothers and older sisters of my school friends going to StarKist and Chicken-of-the-Sea and Van Camp’s and then coming home to drop their reeking white uniforms into pails of ammonia on the back porch. When the tuna boats were in and the canneries were canning, the whole town stank of it, as unmistakable as a skunk gone to panic under the house. The stench carried all the way uphill through the old town to my family’s middle-class Midcentury Modern house at the outer edge of civilization — the foot of the nearly empty (then, 1949) Palos Verdes hills.

The big Art Deco ferry building is still there, but it’s a maritime museum now, full of tedious models of ships, as well as an excellent exhibit on the history of local tuna fishing. The canning of tuna was invented in San Pedro in 1903; it introduced seafood to Middle America.

There’s no ferry any more. The Vincent Thomas bridge takes all the traffic now. The very suspension bridge that Robert De Niro hilariously called the “St.” Vincent Thomas in the 1995 movie Heat. Vince Thomas — born Vinko Tomasevic — was our long-serving and very powerful city councilman. He’d have loved the posthumous sainthood.

The tuna canneries are all gone now, runaways to American Samoa and other low-wage pockets around the Pacific Rim. And the tawdry and infamous Sailor’s Row — which had faced the ferry building from across Beacon Street — is also gone. Gone utterly, like the Carthage that the Romans burned and spread with salt, a city inhabited by losers, as Donald Trump would say.

Tommy’s and the Port Hole and the Anchor Hotel, which every kid in Dana Junior High whispered was a whorehouse, and, above all else, Shanghai Red’s on the corner of Fifth and Beacon, with its beefy tattooed barmaid, Cairo Mary, tossing drunks out the swingdoor all by herself. All gone now.

About 1970 the evil civic ferrets brought us Urban Renewal and decided a 10-block-square hole in the ground was preferable to that untidy past. Alas, the big hole lasted almost thirty years and never really healed. Of course I miss it all and it causes a strange flaw in the lens that keeps me from focusing.

Every building down to the seediest sailor joint served its time as part of a vast nexus of cultural bric-a-brac too extensive for any easy catalogue, and there is a kind of exhaustion that takes you over when you try to mourn this chronicle of your youth.

As a kid on a bike, I actually got up my nerve to peek into Shanghai Red’s once, saw a few old drunks slumped over the bar. But it was just a place then, not yet a famous Missing Place. And as a kid you never have the world’s full attention. The world is always looking past your shoulder at whatever or whoever really belongs there. Beat it, kid!

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Probably what I wanted to see when I bravely explored the harbor at the age of twelve was something “picturesque” in a much more Lutheran sense. The quaint, the earnest and sincere, even the iconic (but let’s try to retire that overused word). Something with a stable connection to the worldview that animated Life magazine and soothed our larger anxieties in the 1950s.

 To experience a thing as beautiful means: to experience it necessarily wrongly.

— Nietzsche

At 12, I carried my crappy little 35mm Ricoh camera down to the freighter docks just up-channel of the San Pedro ferry building. I’d been wearing the camera around my neck for some time in order to capture the world around me. And only now do I wonder what this daffy photography of my explorations was about. Did I feel I was a special node of the universe whose every encounter had to be documented? Or was I just oedipally emulating my father, who was a combat-cameraman in WWII?

One day I made my way out to the commercial piers a few hundred yards north of the ferry building. Suddenly, a Japanese sailor hurried down the gangway of a freighter and pointed at my camera, grinning and speaking rapidly in Japanese. Then he turned my little 35mm junker bottom up and cried, “Nippon, Nippon!” It actually said Nippon. A crude but certain link between us. Presumably lonely in this faraway land, he invited me up the ladder and showed me all through the freighter.

Oh, I know. I shudder today to think of what might have been on tap for a pre-teen boy in the deep recesses of a freighter that was technically extraterritorial land, but none of that happened. It was just benign UN stuff, friendship between the nations. And so in the end I captured him in black and white, plus-X, 80 ASA, smiling at me.

Was this a substitute for really coming to know him, a defense against the anxiety of meeting someone I couldn’t communicate with?

Some part of photography is probably always an attempt to tame and make sense of our world . Or maybe to substitute photos for real experience. Nobody even looks at paintings in museums any more, have you noticed? They just run around taking fuzzy cell-phone snaps one after another, or selfies in front of things. Hey, Bobby, I was actually here. I think.

Here’s a thought experiment about our precarious relationship to the past: let’s suppose they had preserved the Terminal Island Ferry, suppose that the conservationists had won a battle, for a change. Maybe it’s been kept as a ferry-themed restaurant (ugh), or, even worse, as a tourist sight tied permanently to barnacled pilings. Harbor Heritage Plaque No. 57. “This sturdy ferry once plied the waters….”

An object that tells of the loss, destruction, disappearance of objects. Does not speak of itself. Tells of others. Will it include them?

— John Cage

The ferry would be a splinter plucked from a whole texture of the past. That lovely tub would have drifted miles from the moorings of its context. As the context itself has drifted into the oblivion of nostalgia. The ferry would be a zebra in a zoo 10,000 miles from its home.

There’s so much disruption and loss in our world’s forward progress, its industrial development. We sense all this constant upheaval. I believe it’s the human longing for myths of redemption that imbues historic loss and “historic preservation” — is there any real difference? — with such profound pathos. Somehow, we convince ourselves that holding hands on vacation to look at a dead ferryboat or a mock saloon or a former battleground or a place where something was once authentic will save our urban-renewed souls and emancipate us from historical grief.

But the preserved or recreated site has inevitably been rendered surreal by its new context and new purpose — just as surreal as the hideous Ports o’ Call Village (a dying mall) only a half mile down-channel from the ferry building. Imagine, a simulacrum of a New England whaling village dropped from 30,000 feet onto a California waterfront. The psyche cries out, “Enough!”

The scientists make an inventory of the world; the moralists concentrate on hard cases.

— Susan Sontag

Here’s the crux of the thought experiment: suppose that there’s still the old ferryboat moored down there in the San Pedro channel, with its blunt ends, its low white hull, a hollow superstructure to accept a dozen drive-on cars. What are we seeing?

Just like that zebra in the zoo, it’s a forced exile. But, more significantly, it’s an emblem that we cling to in order to convince ourselves that “we” — our industrial civilization, our advance in great strides across our world, our peculiar form of progress — have done no harm, at least no harm that could have been avoided.

See, we’ve saved this beautiful relic! This consoling symbol of our past shows our good intentions. Thus we mask the total rupture of all the bonds that tied that vanished world together and could have gone on tying it to us in some genuine way. This is why I say there’s little difference between ferry and no ferry, as long as we don’t recognize the hole we’ve ripped out of the world.

Today we all live in and accept a kind of society that cannot move forward without tearing apart and emptying all the traditions and cultures and individual lives in its path — both here and overseas, now that we’ve achieved “globalization.”

I once believed this was all a consequence of Western capitalism, the constant churning of growth that needs to eat or upturn everything in its path. But now I see the destruction wrought in Eastern Europe, China, even Africa, by other peoples trying other models of rapid and forced industrialization. “State capitalism,” some call it.

But this loss will persist as long as we can only respond to the ferry, or to the hole for the ferry, with a sloppy gee-whiz sentimentality, instead of….what? Well, it’s not an individual answer, in any case; it has to be a social answer.

Okay, I’ll say it, though it may offend some: we need to construct the kind of world that does not have to disrupt everything in its path in order to move forward — a more empathetic and human society, to put it simply. Why is that so much to ask? Basically, it’s all Bernie Sanders was asking — give the poor and weak and disadvantaged a break, give them a leg up. Of course, a form of socialism claiming to do that and more had been tried before, under terribly adverse circumstances, and had failed rather spectacularly. I know all that. I have no idea whether it will be tried again, but I know our current ruthless form of industrial progress hasn’t much of a future. Look around at the cruelty, the tent encampments and hunger, the permanent warfare and the social breakdown.

 

John Shannon is the author of the Jack Liffey mystery novels that are based on Los Angeles ethnic and social history, and several other novels. His website is: jackliffey.com

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