November 30, 2012

Photo Essay: At the Station Down in San Berdoo

I first visited the historic Santa Fe Depot in San Bernardino on a grim, winter day in February 2009, heading to the Ontario Airport to fly back from that first, life-changing visit to Joshua Tree. All the doors to the good stuff were locked, and the museum was closed.

I was able to visit it again recently on another gloomy day, but with a few more rays of sun...

...after a new coat of paint had given it a bit of a facelift.

Plus, a historian was there to point out the old Harvey Girl dorms...

...and where the north shops used to be on the other side of the tracks, which are now still filled with freight trains...

...and the occasional commuter line and Amtrak, though the ticket booth has long-since closed.

The station is lovely, reflective of high class train travel of days of yore, with its original ceiling light fixtures...

...and closed Harvey House restaurant, which can be viewed through the slats of some window blinds.

They hope to reopen it one day soon.

The wall tiles and red Mexican floor tiles are original too...

...including in the lovely lounge outside the ladies' powder room.

The San Bernardino History & Railroad Museum at the Santa Fe Depot does conduct depot  and museum tours on the first Wednesday of every month, and the museum is open most Saturdays. There's lots of stuff to look at in there, from precision-accurate clocks and watches to signals, bells and whistles, maps,  wagons, and ephemera - all located in the former baggage room with its great rolling garage doors and original brick floors.

Maybe next time I'll take a train out there. I don't take enough trains in California.

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November 29, 2012

The Forbidden Haunted Mansion of Spadra Ghost Town

I admit it.

I'm often irritated with the world.

I am oft filled with frustration.

And there is little I find irksome than being welcomed into some location or event where photography is verboten.

The world must be documented!

How will anyone know I was there? How will anyone who wasn't there learn what it looked like?!

A mildly acceptable compromise is being allowed to photograph the surroundings and happenings, but forbidden from publishing them.


Such was the case at the Phillips Mansion, one of the last remaining landmarks of the forgotten town of Spadra (now part of Pomona).

Fortunately my forcibly private photos—which turned out amazing, frustrating me further—remind me enough of what I saw to be able to report it here.

Built in 1875 by wealthy rancher and developer Louis Phillips in the classic haunted mansion architectural style, of fired red bricks and with gas lighting, the mansion served not only as Phillips' private home until his death in 1900, but also as the Spadra post office while Phillips was postmaster. 

The Southern Pacific Railroad ran through part of the property. 

After changing hands several times, and falling victim to vandals, Phillips Mansion was saved by The Historical Society of Pomona, who intervened in 1966 to prevent demolition and industrial redevelopment. Unfortunately, the Whittier earthquake destroyed much of their restoration, and severely damaged the landmark in 1987. Original china crashed from shelves. Walls cracked. The roof leaked.

For years, all anybody could see was the exterior.

But since that time, tremendous restoration work has been done to the interior - particularly the ground floor - with some period-appropriate furnishings and wares replacing lost originals. Phillips' Weber piano and stool from his music room survived, but wallpaper has been stripped. Mirrors hang, reflecting natural light streaming in from frosted door windows. A fixture clings to a teetering ceiling panel, which has shifted enough to leave a gaping hole above.

The banister alongside the stairs leading up to the second floor shines like new lacquer, but the stairs themselves seem to sag in the middle, where feet once padded up and down a line of carpeting which has been peeled away, leaving the wood underneath lighter, exposed.

Upstairs, the sun streams through lace curtains, even on a cloudy, rainy day. It reflects off the paper peeling off the walls. It illuminates closets with overturned bathtubs, and streams into bedrooms with dropcloth-covered chairs.

And then there's the attic: the spookiest, shadowiest part of this mansion, whose hauntings may be real or imagined, or purely an architectural aesthetic. The walls and floors are lined with plywood, giving the beams and supports plenty of room to breathe. Lamps stand unplugged by these uppermost windows. Everything appears at a strange angle, as though the mansion were truly a funhouse. A ladder leads up to the widowmaker roof.

Everything creaks.

I guess I can't blame The Historical Society of Pomona Valley. They've worked hard to restore and protect it from vandals, scavengers, looters, etc. And like any other museum, they want to encourage visitors when the house is ready for its coming out party. I'm sure they don't want to promote the damaged condition it's still currently in.

But I love the beautiful ruin of a place like that, its upper floors drawing me to their wounds and scars. I'd rather count the layers of paint like rings on a tree, rather than see them covered up with a fresh coat, no matter how historically accurate the color is.

And I'm grateful to have gotten in at all. Apparently the mansion was opened up as a haunted house a few years ago, but public access has been incredibly restricted since.

One day, it'll be ready.

And maybe one day, I can show you my photos.

Related Post:
Photo Essay: Where the Dead Rest in a Dead Village

November 28, 2012

Open Letter to My Biological Sister

Polaroid self-portrait circa 1990

I have a hard time calling you "Dear." I have a hard time calling you "sister."

It's been over seven years since we've seen each other. It's been at least three years, maybe four since we've spoken on the phone. I don't know, I've lost track.

It's been six months since I messaged you on your birthday. It's been two months since you didn't message me on my birthday.

At some point, you decided to break free from me. I don't know when. I didn't notice.

I'm glad you don't need me anymore.

We grew up 15 months apart, nearly the same size, wearing the same furry winter coats - so much so that we were always mistaken as twins. As much as you always wanted to be the older sister, you were always sensitive, naive, intimidated by and shrinking away from everything. You waited in vain for our parents to bestow privileges on you, but they were too busy manipulating us and pitting us against each other. They considered every permission a favor, every gift a loan. We owed them for our miserable lives, lives we never wanted despite Twinkies for breakfast and Barbie Doll Dreamhouses.

You always thought if you were a better daughter, our family wouldn't be falling apart.

You always thought if I could just be quiet, our mother wouldn't scream and cry all the time, threatening to drown herself in a warm bath.

I could not just be quiet.

I seized life, demanded freedom and lipstick and pantyhose and chorus and drama club, despite the emotionally bankrupting line of credit that I racked up with them.

Throughout our lives sequestered in that house together, I would wonder from day to day if I would be your best friend or your worst enemy. When I cried myself to sleep nearly every night, you told me to shut up because I was keeping you up. When you stayed at home the nights of your proms, I acted out the entire Grease soundtrack in our basement to entertain you.

When you went away to college, not necessarily upgrading roommates from me to a suicidal, evil-note-writing nutjob, I sent you cassette recordings of all of our stuffed animals, singing songs and performing skits to cheer you up and keep you company.

When I followed you the next year to the same college, you didn't want to introduce me to any of your friends because you were afraid they'd like me more. Some of them did like me more.

So there.

I needed you most when we were really young, when I was getting bare-bottom spanked with an unfinished wooden board in the basement, when I was exiled to the hot attic in the middle of summer as punishment for something I didn't do. You couldn't help me then. You could never help me.

And so as I grew up, I learned to not need you.

I haven't needed you for a long time.

I thought I'd expelled you from my life altogether six years ago when I refused to spend Christmas Day with our parents, to avoid seeing you. I'd decided my life was better without you. They were aghast and appalled but agreed to meet me for lunch the next day. That was the last time I saw them, and a month before the last time I spoke with them.

I had a nice break from you after that, letting the toxicity of our family seep out of my pores, learning to absorb the love bestowed upon me by another family who didn't seem to require blood ties in order to love me.

And then two years later you came crawling back to me. It wasn't the first time you'd begged for forgiveness. It wasn't the first time you protested too much. And I knew that eventually you'd crawl back to our parents, to those who've done nothing since we were born but poison the well, rendering us paranoid, discredited, phobic, suspicious, and worst yet, alone in this world.

They tried to convince us that the world was out to get us, when in truth, the world was waiting for us to be brave enough to enter it. They always protected us from everything except the one thing that was harming us most: them.

You always needed our family more than I did.

Then again, I eventually found family somewhere else. Someone's family always took me in: Nicki's, Chrissy's, Jon's, Michelle's, and through it all, Maria's. You never had that. You never found it.

Maybe you've found it now, and that's why you no longer need me. Good for you. You don't have to explain. You're doing what you have to do.

It's not your fault. You're damaged goods, too.

Have a life. Live well. Take comfort in your cats. I hope you're happier without me. Neither one of us needs a reminder of our dysfunctional past.

But don't think you can come in and out of my life as you please. I'm getting off the rollercoaster and focusing on the family whose love I need not question.

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November 25, 2012

Photo Essay: Ziplining With the First Lady

When in Vegas earlier this month, I decided to go back to Bootleg Canyon for another zipline flight.

photo courtesy Jena - Flightlinez Bootleg Canyon

I was hoping to book one of their sunset or nighttime runs, but when I called to make the appointment, they said, "Do you want to zip with the First Lady at 1 p.m.?"

"Uh, Michelle Obama?"

"Yeah. It's a public flight. She wants people to come."

"Uh, OK!"

And so I arrived at 12:30 - alone, of course - and waited. The staff excitedly asked us if we knew who we'd be flying with that day, and we all nodded - we'd all already been told.

We waited as 1 p.m. passed and they still hadn't arrived. We waited as they called to say they were on their way. We waited until they arrived, and we realized it was indeed a First Lady we'd be ziplining with, but not the First Lady of the United States: no, it was the First Lady of Nevada, Kathleen Sandoval.

photo courtesy Jena - Flightlinez Bootleg Canyon


The zipline tour operator tried to recover gracefully as we all tried to figure out the mixup that resulted in them staffing up on extra security and photographers, and an extra long wait for all of us. We set off in our van along the rocky road up to Bootleg Canyon, eyeing the group, wondering...

...had the person taking the call assumed Michelle Obama, without mention of her name? Had they asked, and whoever called to make the appointment just went with it?

photo courtesy Jena - Flightlinez Bootleg Canyon

Once I was up there, all geared up, it didn't really matter what had brought me there, on that day, at that time. It was enough that I was back...

...and ready to fly.

The weather on my second visit was a vast improvement from the first, sparing me the rain and freezing wind.

The experience from my first time also spared me the fear I'd battled before.

I felt like a pro this time, and the runs passed quickly.

And next thing I knew, it was over.

I'd like to go back on a hot summer night, though that would require me being in Vegas on a hot summer day, which I wasn't able to work out this year (not even after my Joshua Tree retreat).

But that's OK, because I've already got my mind on planning next summer...

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November 24, 2012

Photo Essay: Where the Dead Rest in a Dead Village

One expects to find lots of ghost towns in the former gold- and silver-mining areas of California (namely, in the Eastern Sierras, like Bodie).

But Los Angeles County? What about its ghostly past?

I've posted extensively about Surfridge, the community that vanished from its oceanview bluffs next to LAX (which you can read about here, here and here), but there are other towns and villages that have vanished from our maps and the public consciousness, not too far from here.

Case in point: Spadra.

November 23, 2012

Shop Girl

I'm going through a little bit of an identity crisis right now.

Or, to put a nice publicity spin on it, a dramatic rebranding.

With my waning career in the music industry and my burgeoning career in tech both having come to a screeching halt, the former largely of my own doing, I have returned to familiar territory to fill in the gaps in my income and daily schedule.

I have become - once again - a shop girl.

Fifteen years into my career, having worked at the corporate level in marketing, manufacturing and distribution of consumer products, I am back in the trenches, on the front lines of brick and mortar retail.

I buckle belts for women who sell advertising at ClearChannel. I zip the dresses of women who plan events for Beverly Hills hotels. I yank down the hems of women who could hire me, and for women who once could be hired by me.

I call these women at their homes and on their cell phones to tell them about our Black Friday shopping event.

And I am damn good at it. So much so, that less than two weeks into my new job - which is supposed to be seasonal, which is supposed to be temporary - there is already talk of promotion.

And now, more than ever, I have no idea what my life is going to be like a few months from now.

Can a shopgirl be taken seriously in the board room?

Can a frumpy dumpy hungover music exec be taken seriously as a shopgirl?

Who ever thought I would be styling anyone?

Regardless of whether I belong in either place, one fact is abundantly clear: I am miserable in one, and happy in the other.

In my new "office," I'm surrounded by beautiful, touchable fabrics, good smells, grateful clients, and words of praise.

I am remembering what it's like to excitedly go to work, stand around for five (or more) hours, and run around hoisting hangers full of cardigans and jeans and winter coats and dresses, rising tiptoe in my already lofty heels, feet swelling, arms straining to reach the highest sale racks.

I respect authority enough to be obedient.

I am proud of my successes, as diminutive as they may be.

I am learning new things.

Aren't these the important things in life? Aren't these the things I've been searching for?

All I really know is that I spent all day today, on Thanksgiving, wishing I could be working there, instead of feeling alone, intruding on other people's celebrations.

At least at the shop, I could've made Thanksgiving my own.

At the shop, I can be my own girl.

Related Post:
Back to My Roots
The View from Above

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November 22, 2012

Open Letter to the Hipper Than Thou, On Thanksgiving Eve

I am livid.

I am not of the frequent complainers. I am not on any customer service blacklist that I know of. If I'm ever of the vocal minority, it's to bestow praises on those that have served me well.

But tonight, on the eve of Thanksgiving, I'm not doing so well. I'm living off my retirement funds and just scraping by on those. I've taken a million steps back to a job at the mall just to fill in the gaps.

I don't have any family to spend Thanksgiving with, and my only invitation this year for Thanksgiving dinner is a standing pity invitation by a very sweet family who wants to make sure I have somewhere to go, if I have nowhere else to go.

I've considered seriously - up to this very minute - not going, for fear of dredging up the old stories of  my family dysfunction and rehashing the failures of my job search and the dead ends of my career.

Worse yet, my sister unfriended me on Facebook sometime in the last couple of months, though I just discovered it this morning.

And so instead of drowning my sorrows in Thanksgiving Eve imbibing - on the night bartenders call "Black Wednesday" - I decided to go see a rare film at the Silent Movie Theatre, hosted by the non-profit repertory The Cinefamily.

I came home from a midnight screening at 12:30 a.m. totally deflated, in tears, carrying a bag of popcorn spilling over in my arms, clutching a Diet Coke dripping with sweat, ridiculously large for this time of night.

I promptly sent the following letter to The Cinefamily to retell the events of my busted, wasted evening, which would have been better spent doing just about anything else:
Attention Management: 
I have just returned home from waiting 45 minutes outside in the cold for a movie that was not going to be shown. 
You knew it wasn't going to be shown and yet you did not tell me when I picked up my ticket at the box office. You didn't tell me while I stood outside freezing until after midnight for the midnight screening. You didn't even tell me when I spent $8+ on a large soda and small popcorn, or when I struggled with the butter dispenser.

When I took my seat in the theater, the announcement was not apologetic. Thanks for the offer of warm beer, but no thanks. 
When I returned to the concession stand, your box office attendant asked me, "What, did you want a refund or something?" Uh, yeah.

I wasted my Thanksgiving Eve on you. Thanks for nothing. 
I am appalled at your poor management and lack of customer service. I cannot believe the cavalier attitude and the lack of communication I encountered tonight. For a small, boutique, niche, NON-PROFIT business, you must value your patrons or you will perish. 
I cannot comprehend how or why you think this is OK. 
Thank you for the refund of the $8 ticket price, but what about the concessions I purchased and had to place between my legs as I drove home? What about the service charge for purchasing advance tickets online? [Note: the ticketing agent refunded that too, thankfully.]
What about the shivering? My sore feet? My wasted evening? 
Please advise. I strongly urge you to make good. 
Regretfully yours,
Sandi Hemmerlein
The thing is, I only saw one other person walk out with me, refunded. No one else seemed to mind. All the people who seemed to know each other in line outside - some kind of insider community of film nerds and hipster geeks who ornament their septums with mustache-shaped piercings - then cheered at the alternate choices of films they were given instead of the scheduled screening, as though it was enough for them just to be there, regardless of what actually happened while they were there.

But I was there for the film, all alone, in my pajama bottoms, slippers, hoodie and glasses, wishing I were in bed instead, shivering in the cold.

Being subjected to yet another insider community I'll never be a part of is torture for me, always.

And wasting my time (and money) on people who don't deserve it - to the sacrifice of doing something else which could have been so much more exciting, captivating, and gratifying, even if it was just sleep - ranks as an utter disaster in my book. Even in the smallest, most meaningless circumstances like a stupid movie I never heard of until earlier this week, at a little independent theater run by a bunch of self-important jerks whose lack of interpersonal skills will ensure their ultimate demise.

Happy Thanksgiving to me.

Time for bed.

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November 21, 2012

Photo Essay: Las Vegas Springs

Sure, it was a good stopover point on the way to California for the gold rush, but like many desert towns, Las Vegas sprung up because of its proximity to natural springs.

The water made its way down in the form of snow melt from Mount Charleston, sunk into the ground and traveled downhill along an aquifer until it hit a fault line, which stopped the flow. Once enough pressure built up, the water traveled upwards, bursting through the surface, attracting plants, animals, and humans alike.

The Las Vegas Valley was once littered with the resulting spring mounds, though most of them have been bulldozed for commercial and residential development.

There exists a remaining historic spring mound at the sprawling Springs Preserve, which features acres of botanic gardens, hiking trails, museum exhibits, and historic structures... a well...

...the old Spring House, now in ruins...

...the caretaker's house, also in ruins...

...and a chicken coop.

Plenty of life still thrives there...

...though Vegas has left its naturalistic past way far behind it.

But at the Springs Preserve, there is still a place to ramble in the wild... the beaten path...

...but not so far from the Strip...

...with the Stratosphere tower in the visible distance.

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One Hand on the Wheel

[photo added 11/28/12]

I always drive with one hand on the wheel.

I don't need my right hand for shifting, my automatic transmission doing most of the work for it.

No, while the left hand steers, the right hand scans the radio. It digs in purse for lip gloss and tweezers. It fumbles with phone and unscrews cap from bottle under arm.

It flips visors and adjusts mirrors.

It turns the air from hot to cold and back again.

It fiddles with the emergency brake release button.

It grasps the gear shift as my left foot reaches for a phantom clutch.

It rests on my thigh because no other hand does.

The right hand is busy, and does not grab the wheel.

Why won't I drive with both hands? Wouldn't I have more control over steering? Wouldn't it be better to have a nearby hand to sound a warning horn and help veer out of a rogue driver's way?

Should the right join the left at the wheel?

Doesn't the left get tired doing all of the work by itself?

But there's so much else to do...

...with the other hand.

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November 20, 2012

Photo Essay: The Living Ghost of Yermo

Up in the high desert, near Barstow (not my favorite town), there's a famous ghost town called Calico, up in the Calico Mountains. Although I've driven back and forth past it many times, I've never gone, because the former silver mining town has been converted into not only a tourist attraction (like Bodie), but a veritable theme park, thanks to being rebuilt by Walter Knotts himself of Knott's Berry Farm fame.

I was never very into historical reenactments. But Calico does host mine tours and have a historic railroad, so I should probably go. One day.

On my way back from Vegas this week, I discovered another ghost town outside of Barstow: Yermo. Technically, Calico is in Yermo, but Calico is Calico, and I discovered that Yermo is most certainly Yermo.

Yermo, whose name is derived from the Spanish word meaning "wilderness," is an exit off of the 15 freeway on your way to or from Vegas, but instead of bringing traffic to the town, the construction of the freeway allowed travelers to pass right by it. Once a thriving town of places to get gas, something to eat and drink, and to stay the night, many of the businesses closed, leaving a few residents, a Marine base storage unit, the Burger Barn, and Peggy Sue's 50's Diner.

Peggy Sue's is not short on advertising. But most Vegas travelers bypass it in favor of Baker (home of the World's Largest Thermometer), Barstow itself, or not stopping at all and just getting to their destination more quickly.

A classic and original 50's diner, Peggy Sue's was built in 1954 out of railroad ties and mortar from the nearby Union Pacific rail yard. Appropriately enough for its Calico-adjacent location, it was purchased by a former Knott's Berry Farm employee and reopened in 1987.

In the mid-1990s, he and his wife had dreams of expanding the diner into another local theme park attraction...

...replete with a soda fountain, pizza parlor, five and dime store...

...and a dinosaur park.

But instead of being a popular destination, an oasis in the desert - as was the plan for the Rock-a-Hoola water park in nearby Newberry Springs - it remained merely an oddity, an eccentric roadside attraction that, although worth the detour, gets overlooked way too frequently.

Perhaps people only stop in Calico and don't have enough time to cross the freeway. Perhaps there just aren't enough other attractions way out there, in the middle of the desert.

But Peggy Sue's is just so emblematic of the desert dream: to provide something where there is nothing, shelter for those who are lost, food and drink for those hungry and thirsty, whimsy and entertainment amidst desolation and drought.

It's a little slice of comfort pie.

And it delights.

Related Post:
Water Park, Thrice Abandoned

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