Cigars With Sam

Monrovia, California, calls itself ‘The Gem City of the Foothills’ and the old place has realized its boast, featuring a photogenic main street, well-loved parks, and beautifully restored Craftsman homes.  The town is just west of Los Angeles on the shoulder of The Sierra Madre Mountains overlooking the San Gabriel Valley. Metrolink, a light rail network echoing the Red Cars of my childhood, gives easy access to downtown LA.  I grew up here, attending once-segregated schools.  Times have changed.

In town, I developed a routine of cycling to Library Park to read while enjoying a postprandial cigar.  I paused frequently to watch people at play – a grande dame promenading her romantically ambitious chihuahua, a father and daughter practicing guitar, three earnest boys discussing Jesus – and girls,  a courting lesbian couple playing patty-cake beneath an oak tree old enough to know better.  Spanish, the second language of my childhood, fills the gaps in fully bi-lingual conversations. Todo el mundo speaks Spanglish. 

Monrovia was the long-time home of Upton Sinclair, Pulitzer Prize winning author, vegetarian, and Socialist politician. The man dubbed ‘American’s Conscience,’ Sinclair was directly responsible for legislation regulating the meat packing industry and for the establishment of a journalists’ code of ethics. His home, a beautiful neo-Mediterranean, is privately owned and well maintained.  I took a photo to share. When I was a kid I always looked out for Sinclair in the library, hoping to steal a glance at the old dragon.  It was the 1950s, the height of the Red Scare; I expected him to have a pitchfork, horns, and a tail.

Along my rambles I visited the war surplus store which was my childhood fairyland. Inside its sacred confines, one could then purchase de-commissioned M-1 rifles, black-bladed commando knives, ammunition belts, and disarmed hand grenades. Things don’t get better for a 10-year-old boy.  I also cycled past Clifton Middle School which, in my day, we called ‘CCC,’ Clifton Concentration Camp.  Gladys Webb, its Principal, predicted I’d be in penitentiary before my 18th birthday.  She was close. I was in high school.

My sister Sue and I were comped into Disneyland by her son, an engineer on the live steam railroad which circles the park.  I was an engineer there more than 50 years ago and the current generation welcomed me home with a cab ride and a circuit on the ‘Lilly Belle,’ the parlor car reserved for VIPs.  Sue and I rode in the same car once occupied by the Emperor of Japan and Governor Schwarzenegger.  Feeling imperial and indestructible, I told stories of the early days of Disney Rail when ‘Uncle Walt’ frequented the park and occasionally ran the locomotive.  Nowadays there are women engineers who do that job too.  The diesel fuel which once fired the steam engines has been replaced by bio-diesel salvaged from Disneyfat fry-cookers.  I was hugged by Engineer Alia.  That was way cool.  I wish I had a selfie to share. Times have changed!

Back in Monrovia, I watched a well-played amateur baseball game in Recreation Park while a flock of parrots squawked and gamboled overhead.  It’s avocado season and the immigrant birds thrive on guacamole.  I think they’ve gotten into the margaritas too.  After the ball game, I adjourned to the pool. Life es buena for an ol’ vato in Old Monrovia. 


Upton Sinclair House, Monrovia, California

Upton Sinclair House, Monrovia, California

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Copyright Jack Kelleher © 2014.