As the Escrow Flies
DESPITE the long eminence of “I’m Packin’ My Grip; or, San Fernando Valley,” I apprehended the perfidious lyric of that song for the first time only a few days ago. This is due, in some degree, to the manner in which the divine Cecilias of Frequency Modulation extrude the words through a surgeon’s mask. I may be slow to riddle a dithyramb, but when the muezzins of the Hit Parade, in adenoidal concord, fuse it into a Nesselrode of solid sendings, the burden of a cantata reaches me as rumor.
From what I could gather on radio or welltempered juke box, the psalmist of “ I’m Packin’ My Grip” was merely hankering in B-flat for a life of flagrant indolence surrounded by fat kine that would always be calving. He, the Darby, and the patient heroine of all these canticles, the Joan, would munch flapjacks of lotus-flower meal all day long, and in the Western gloaming would read to each other from the annual folio of Peruna testimonials and other therapeutic intelligence which would come to them by rural free delivery.
Although the phrase “San Fernando Valley, my home” was clearly audible, I scoffed at the notion that it could mean the San Fernando Valley which is a municipal segment of the City of Los Angeles and is serviced for its entire breadth by the red trolley cars of the Pacific Electric R.R. For didn’t the balladeer sing, “a-headin’ for the cow countree” and “forward my mail care of R.F.D.” in the same canto? “I’m Packin’ My Grip,”then, was some simple cowhand’s capriccio in which frivolity limped with poetic license.
Additional assurance that the song referred to some distant clime lay in the phrase “where the West begins.” For as every Californian knows, and every song writer concurs, here is where the West ends. Surely the man must mean Fernando de Noronha, which is on the Atlantic Ocean and serves as a place of banishment for Brazilian criminals; or Fernando Po, — in some geographies Poo, — likewise on the Atlantic, whose inhabitants, according to my atlas, are called Bubis, wear little clothing, and are slowly dying out because of their addiction to strong wines.
But now that I have a copy of the sheet music and see clearly that he means California, I realize with shock how he has traduced that Beulah Land which is only three miles from my own keep in the yuccaspeckled Hollywood Hills. With that document as proof, I accuse him of laying violent counterpoint to this tranquil settlement.
The solitary particular in which his song subscribes to the facts is that it is a valley, lying north of the Santa Monica Mountains and trailing off into the Santa Susannas, the “Little Sisters of the Sierras,” as these dun hills have been named by the realestate agents. Its sixty square miles were once a smelter in which only salamanders and Gila monsters could live, but the place is now irrigated by torrents pilfered from the Owens Valley, many miles to the north. Occasionally the men of Owens Valley dynamite a section of the siphon just to show Los Angeles that they haven’t forgotten.
San Fernando Valley was named in honor of Ferdinand III, King of Castile. According to my pocket hagiography, which I bought thinking it was about hags, the good San’s specialty was persecuting the Albigenses, who no doubt had it coming.
As for its being cow countree, I know of only two representative herds. One is tended by the undergraduates of a boys’ reformatory. The other is a sodality of milkers owned by a large dairy corporation. Their queen bossy is a grand old udder just giddy with blue ribbons. They rarely appear under God’s sky, except to be viewed by nature-study classes.
The horse is known here, too; a traffic-wise animal which must be shown a signed receipt for $2.00 from its owner before it can be mounted and ridden for an hour. And in the sparse hills north of the settlement of Granada, a pungency like the crash of cymbals betrays the existence of a few camorra of goats.
Once I saw an elephant piling teak on Sepulveda Boulevard, which roughly bisects San Fernando Valley; and at Gay’s Lion Farm, admission to which is 50 cents plus tax, a man lectures every afternoon on the camel, using as his subject a ship of the desert that is just about ready to spring its rivets.
If only the bard of “I’m Packin’ My Grip” had mentioned a rumpus room in his ditty, he would have been forgiven every insolence. It is the rumpus room, with some aid from the FHA, that has really populated the San Fernando Valley. No home is too humble for one of these ping-pong shrines. It may be done with floors of terrazzo and walls paneled in tooled sandalwood, or it may be a cellule of beaver board; but if you haven’t one, your esteem in the community is at low ebb. Kids naturally abhor a place set aside for their romping, but these rooms are ideal for training a puppy, simply by covering the floor with newspapers and removing one sheet daily. What the puppy learns by that method is to read.
Every plot of ground that nourishes four walnut trees is called a ranch.
A holding with two trees and a patch of lawn, in the language of the San Fernando realtor, is known as a ranchette. One with a back yard, a barbecue pit, and a rabbit hutch is a ranchito. There is also a variety of seigniories at inconvenient locations. To these hermitages no gardener or other domestic assistant will venture. These places are called estates. Those nearest civilization are “Exclusive Homesteads”; those deeper in the veldt are advertised as “Gentlemen’s Hideaway Estates.” Here a man can breathe — get away from it all —and still be within thirty minutes of the Mocambo or Clover Club.
Perhaps the first writer to colonize here was Edgar Rice Burroughs. He named his domain Tarzana in grateful remembrance of Lord Greystoke. Other writers have settled around Tarzana in the southwestern quarter of the valley, but none has come so close to the soil as the real-estate agents who brokered the property. These land merchants can knock off a strophe with the best of them.
One, in the school of Edgar Guest and the Prince Albert tobacco advertisements, announces a certain property as: —
There’s a Bluebird o’ Happiness awaitin’ you, just aroun’ the corner, know that? Well, that’s right! Yes, sir. Well, pardner, snap out of it. I got er. I can’t describe this dwellin’ ’cause I don’t know how, but to be to the point! — She’s got about an acre O’ land, 3 sleepin’ quarters and you can all clean up at the same time without no buttin’ in; one o’ them lazy rooms goes along with it, too. An’ snoopin’ around, you walks into where they prepare the vittles. Well, that’s got me, so I wanders through the veranda, onto the patio and smells those steaks a-cookin’ o’er hickory charcoals, and looks out into the trees, the rose bushes and the world, squats down and says: “Brother, if she were only mine.” Please don’t wake me up! If you don’t want to buy ’er you might want to rent. Take your choice.
There are 225 real-estate men besides the author of that sprig of Yellow Bantam. One of them writes his sales manifestoes on a large blackboard with the snap of a war bulletin. “D-Day,” it screams. “The Invasion of San Fernando Valley is now on! Establish yourself a beach head. Here’s one you can storm on your first approach. Ranches for sale are as scarce as Germans in Rome. However, there remain a few select ones that are offered at the right prices, not booby traps. Pardner, when you sing ‘Home, Sweet Home’ in a rented house, you’re serenading the landlord.”
Some of them, with a slender advertising appropriation, use a peculiar realtor’s shorthand. Only the veteran prospect or some other realtor can make this out: —
Com. 2 b.r., dn., din., l.r., 2 f.p., r.r. pan. Phi. mah. Over 20 f. & s. ts., pers., apr., wal. Spr. sys. St. fen. ½| a, sui. tur. chix. 17 thou, ½ csh.
Decoded, this means: Compact two bedrooms, den, dinette, living room, two fireplaces. Rumpus room paneled in Philippine mahogany. Over twenty fruit and shade trees, persimmons, apricots, walnuts. Sprinkler system. Steel-fenced one-half acre suitable for turkeys or chickens. Seventeen thousand dollars. Half cash.
Real-estate agents to the number of 226 in this community may seem a fantastically large figure. Yet they prosper, and as experts in valley geopolitics they resent as upstarts their rivals in Beverly Hills who have begun to offer Valley property with a flippancy that indicates they deem this region a poor second choice to Bel-Air and its woodsy canyons.
The 56,000 inhabitants of San Fernando live well, in a hedonistic sort of way. They are kept beautiful by 140 beauty salons, cosmetologists, and scalp masseurs. They keep their skin and muscle in tone at 17 Turkish baths, 5 of which specialize in a rare miasma known as eucalyptus steam.
For more serious ministrations they have 75 physicians and surgeons and an assortment of 90 who are osteopaths, naturopaths, or chiropractors.
For the last offices to their dead they have 26 morticians, but for the quick there are 88 restaurants, 24 night clubs, 59 retail liquor stores, and 18 pastry shops.
True, there is only one branch of the Los Angeles public library, but for the adornment of their persons and homes they have 70 cleaners and dyers, 11 custom tailors, and 43 interior decorators.
Once I too thought I would inspan my oxen and quit the hills for San Fernando Valley. Secretly I read the advertisements, eschewing the bold ones. I sought the ones that whispered in shallow lineage such secrets as “Owner Going East,” “Bank CloseOut,” and “Forced to Quit.” That last one needed only a nudge, I learned after talking to the realestate man. Five thousand above the mortgage would send him spinning back to Wounded Knee, Nebraska. I was shown the house, and it was as the realtor described it — all wood and a wide yard. It was picturesquely situated on the edge of the Los Angeles River, in which I had never seen enough water to moisten a stamp.
The papers were drawn, there was a libation from the real-estate man’s office bottle of Old Smuggler, and I was to return the following day with the plunder. As I left, a bird — a raven, I think it was — cawed dolorously from the limb of what I recall was a gallows tree. North, over Tujunga Canyon, the clouds gloomed like a tragedian’s cloak, and lightning sliced the horizon. I chose to regard all this as a fanfare rather than an omen.
The next day was March 2, 1938. Look it up. Ventura Boulevard, which led me back to the realtor’s office, was a lagoon. By expert seamanship I made the opposite shore with the bullion. The Los Angeles River was a millrace. I made landfall and looked for my real-estate office. And there it was, listing heavily to starboard and heading out to sea at a good eight knots. I never saw the real-estate man again.