Train Versus Pedestrian on Valley Boulevard | KCET
Train Versus Pedestrian on Valley Boulevard
In Partnership with the South El Monte Arts Posse
"East of East" is a series of original essays about people, things, and places in South El Monte and El Monte. The material traces the arrival and departures of ethnic groups, the rise and decline of political movements, the creation of youth cultures, and the use and manipulation of the built environment. These essays challenge us to think about the place of SEM/EM in the history of Los Angeles, California, and Mexico.
We lived in the shadows of factories and processing plants. I remember the tall smoke stacks off of Seventh Street, lit up like massive Roman candles at night. I remember the smell of chemicals and solvents mixing with the scent of vinegar from the Vlasic Pickle Factory, fresh bread from the Golden Foods Bakery, or strawberries and cherries from the Hansen's bottling plant. I grew up with the sound of semis barreling down Nelson Avenue and Orange Boulevard, steel plates banging and grinding against one another, and the low, droning hum of train wheels gliding over the metal tracks running parallel to Valley Boulevard, that long stretch of thoroughfare running west into South El Monte, Rosemead, and East Los Angeles and east into South San Jose Hills, Walnut, and Diamond Bar.
As a young boy, I would ride my bike through a wide empty field that lay just north of Valley Boulevard and the railroad tracks, a lot sandwiched between a junkyard and yet another factory. Bits of paper bags and torn strips of newsprint would get caught in the thorny stems of wild bushes that grew in the grime-coated soil, and I'd pedal through the thin trails that wound through the field, smashing the countless stink beetles that skimmed across my path. A rusted chain link fence separated the perimeter of the field from the railroad tracks. I'd hear the whistle first, the sharp howl that pierced through the endless roar of rush hour traffic on Valley.
That whistle, so mournful, so aching. I heard it at night as I slept with the windows open on summer evenings in our house in La Puente. I used to imagine those trains travelling through mountains and tunnels, across forests and deserts, venturing well past our ramshackle homes and dilapidated strip malls, their cheap stucco exteriors flaking and bubbling off like reptiles molting their skin, past the steel and metal towers of the factories and processing plants, far away to places someone like me would never see.
Every month, I had a doctor appointment at the Orthopedic Hospital in downtown Los Angeles. My mother didn't speak English, but she knew how to read numbers and could navigate the byzantine RTD bus system, which we'd use to get us there. Early mornings once a month, we'd walk down Orange towards Valley, step over the steel ruts of the tracks, and wait for the Number 484. This would carry us down Valley, under the 605 Freeway, to the South El Monte bus terminal, then to the 10 West, past Cal State Los Angeles, and into downtown. I remember miles of walking down crowded streets, standing in front of the courthouse, watching lawyers in suits toting leather briefcases with shiny brass buckles. I remember travelling back home, arriving exhausted, the suspicious glances and menacing nods of those doctors lingering in my mind no matter how hard I tried to forget them.
My father drank heavily all throughout my childhood and into my high school years. Of the bars along Valley Boulevard, there was one in particular, El Chaparral, which was his favorite. He was there the night that he died. He'd been celebrating his retirement from the carpet mill. He planned on leaving my mother and returning to Michoacán, to live out his last days on the parcel of land that had been in our family for decades. It was late in the evening. I'd come home from pulling a shift at the Puente Hills Mall where I worked at a store that sold greeting cards and "over the hill" gag gifts. My mother and sister were at my sister-in-law's baby shower in Whittier; she was nine months pregnant with my niece, and they would spend the evening eating cake and unwrapping gifts. The house was empty, and I had ordered Domino's Pizza and was watching music videos well past midnight when I saw the headlights of my sister's car pull into the driveway. An hour later, as I was about to crawl into bed, the taste of pepperoni and cheese and garlic still on my tongue, there came a knock on the front door.
A police officer was out on the stoop. With him was a boy I recognized from my high school named Rudy. He was popular and good-looking; all the girls liked him because Rudy was Latino but had blonde hair and cool, green eyes. I ran with a completely different crowd. I was sure he had no clue who I even was. Rudy wore a polo shirt with the word Explorer stitched in gold thread across the right front pocket. My mother had woken by now and was standing in the living room with us. My sister, a deep sleeper, was out, I was sure, her head buried beneath the covers of her blanket. I don't remember what the officer said exactly, but by the time they had stepped out of the house, walked down the driveway, and hopped back into the squad car, I knew that my father's body had been found, the side of his skull cracked and bleeding, a few feet from the railroad tracks along Valley Boulevard. I knew that he'd been rushed to Queen of the Valley Hospital in West Covina where he was pronounced dead. I had to translate all of this to my mother.
One witness said he was at El Chaparral when he watched my father stumble across Valley Boulevard. Once on the other side, this witness reported, my father encountered a man. A few minutes later, there came the sirens, a helicopter circling in the night air above. Then my father's body being strapped to a gurney and placed inside the ambulance.
"That man," the witness said to us, "I think he robbed your father. Took his money, smashed his head in with a rock, and left."
It made sense, we thought. There were all sorts of shady characters who hung out around that place at night. And his wallet was never found. That was the story we told people, the myth we created around my father's demise, that he'd been robbed and beaten coming home one evening. We never asked for an official police investigation. We mourned, laid my father to rest, and moved forward.
It seems wherever I live, railroad tracks are always within close proximity. I never plan this. It just happens. Even now, here in the Central Valley, miles away from the spot where my father died, my home is less than half a mile from two rail lines that snake through the city of Fresno. Random train whistles punctuate my days and drift into my bedroom on chilled currents of night air. I hear them when I'm out running errands or at my desk writing. In this way, I often think, my father is with me. It was that sound, pulling and tugging at me all those years, that made me decide to order his autopsy report. The envelope arrived on a hot July afternoon, but I didn't open it right away. It sat on my dining room table for a few weeks before I mustered up the courage to peel back the adhesive and review what was inside.
The truth is that he wasn't beaten and robbed that night. The evidence suggests that my father decided to end his life by lying down on those railroad tracks. But he must have come to his senses at the last minute. Maybe the air sobered him up because he heard the approaching train and tried getting up and out of the way, but it was too late. It sideswiped him on the side of the head. By the time his body was found, he was unresponsive, void of any vital signs.
Since I discovered the truth about my father's death, the lie we grew up telling -- about a strange man, an encounter beside a pair of rusty railroad tracks, his missing wallet -- has, in many ways, become a myth, something my siblings tell their children. And now that I know the truth, I don't correct them, and I don't know why. Perhaps it's easier for us to reconcile so much of the shame we harbored for my father while he was alive, when we would watch him stumbling home drunk from the bars. Perhaps it's easier for us to confront the regret of not having done more to help him deal with his addiction while he was with us.
"If only we had more time with Dad," my brother told me over the phone one time. "But he was killed."
"Yeah," I said. "Whoever did it is still out there, too."
And at night, when I hear the whistle of the train, just before I'm about to drop off to sleep, I think how easy it is to hold on to a beautiful lie rather than an ugly truth.
Yes, I tell myself. It's easier this way.
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