I've always said L.A. is a small town wrapped in a big one. This means that if you grew up here you're guaranteed to run into people from your past--we're talking as far back as kindergarten--because L.A. is a terminus city, a destination that people from other places wind up and that natives don't tend to leave at all, or not for very long.
Running into your past is therefore just a matter of when; being a very big place with spaces in between its spaces, you can rattle around L.A. a long time before meeting up with someone you knew in your beginning. When that happens it feels like a large, lazy circle closing for a moment before starting another circle that could take another generation to complete. Or it could take a month. All depends on who you run into and whether you think it's worth keeping in touch. Technology notwithstanding, that's still damn hard to do here. You've got to be motivated.
Not all encounters, or re-encounters, are welcomed. Sometimes that circle closing feels like a noose, with the past rushing in like water into the lungs, suffocating a sense of closure you thought you had achieved long ago. Last Sunday I was at a meeting in Westchester with about a dozen people. I slipped in late and sat near the door. When it was over a half hour later, one of the folks sitting in the row in front of me--I had only seen the backs of their heads--approached me with a huge, knowing smile on her face. She was dark blond and trim, a bit careworn but attractive, somewhere near my age.
"Erin?" she said.
"Yes," I said. No big deal. Everybody there had introduced each other by first name.
I was startled. Nobody calls me that except people who knew me before I was married, people who know my family or people who knew me by that longtime byline in the paper. This woman seemed like none of the above. She fairly glowed. "I'm Leslie," she said, her smile widening. "Leslie McClellan." (I've changed her name for this post)
I was dumbstruck. Leslie McClellan! Of course I knew her. We had gone to elementary school together at a campus near this meeting in Westchester. That was back in 1972, fifth grade. I was bused to the school with about fifty other kids from South Central, mostly black, and Lisa lived in the neighborhood.
This was years before desegregation and busing became politically explosive, but the tensions were clear even then. Many of the local white kids were less than friendly, a few expressed openly racist sentiments. Lisa was one of those kids. I avoided her, even feared her at times. One time she snatched my purse away, emptied its contents, rifled through my wallet and laughed at photos of my family. I was frozen with humiliation.
Even when we spoke simply as classmates--and we did, I'm sure--she represented in my mind the everpresent danger of coming to white-majority Westchester, a danger that I sensed even before my first day but that I could never articulate, not even to my parents.
Looking at her now, nearly 40 years later, I didn't know what to say or how exactly to respond.. Thankfully I didn't have to. She went on to say how she had been looking for me for a long time. I was floored again. Why?
She said that someone had called her up to tell her that I had written something in the paper about my racial trials at Loyola Village Elementary in the early '70s. I have referenced that more than once over the years. "I read what you wrote and it made me very sad," she said. Her radiance had sobered. "I felt that pain. I'm so sorry you felt that."
She looked sincere. But I still had no idea how to respond. I was waiting for something else--an apology for her part in that pain, for starters. But at the same I was moved by her obvious sincerity, moved by the things she knew and sensed but maybe couldn't articulate or was ashamed to, just as I couldn't all those years ago. And I have to confess that my inner child, the part totally detached from political reality and that longed only to be liked and regarded as equal, was happy that finally Leslie McClellan, the big woman on campus, was my friend.
Maybe. But on what terms? Pity, guilt? Or she did really think things were fine back then? Was this more polite negation of my own experience that I get too often from well-meaning white folk who want to bury the racial hatchet? For one crazy second I wished that Leslie McClellan would act like the brash, overbearing Leslie that I'd known and could recognize. This woman I couldn't, quite.
In the parking lot I gave her my phone number and email. It was the only response I could come up with. The civil thing to do, if not the most honest. We'll see.
Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.