September 29, 2018

At the Car Wash

On the eve of my 43rd birthday, I decided to cross something off my to-do list.

I went to the car wash.

It's not my car was that dirty. After all, I'd let a man who'd told me he was a Chinese prophet only pretending to be homeless wash my windows at the gas station the weekend before.

But the United Oil at La Brea and Slauson—conveniently on the way home from Huntington Park, where I'd been celebrating someone else's birthday—isn't just any car wash.

It's a Tomorrowland ride into the sky, a millennial version of Googie that takes the "drive-in" concept to a whole new level.

Given its history at the nexus of car culture, it's no surprise that LA would have its fare share of fabulous gas stations—from the recently landmarked 76 station in Beverly Hills (circa 1965) to the "Helios House" ARCO station (formerly BP, circa 2007) at Robertson and Olympic.

But this is the only one I've seen that offers a car wash that's worth taking the long way home—though much of its appeal is an optical illusion. You don't actually drive on the roof from the concrete on-ramp and across the steel canopy above the gas pumps. The ramp simply ascends and descends up, above, and down behind the gas station market.

And either because it's so visually attractive or just conveniently located near LAX in the traffic-heavy Mid-City LA, the wait is too long (with no escape off that ramp) and the washing is too short to contemplate the future in any meaningful way.

With a project cost of about $8 million in 2009, it was the most expensive United Oil station at the time—designed by Kanner Architects to resemble or at least approximate the feeling to a freeway ramp.

Who would want that? After all, taking Slauson is one way to avoid the freeway.

But it's in our blood—even if we weren't born here. For true Angelenos—those of us who love it here and want to stay—the transfusion happens slowly, maybe even imperceptibly.

And then one day, you realize you're waiting in line for a ride like Autopia or Radiator Springs Racers at Disneyland and you're making a list of the gas stations and car washes you want to hit before you die.

I needed a car wash anyway, at least eventually. And I'll need one again. I might as well make it interesting rather than a chore.

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September 25, 2018

A Recurring Dream

I've been having this recurring dream.

It's not the same as the dreams that plagued me for most of my adult years (that is, until recently)—being back at school, getting lost in an unfamiliar place, struggling to open my eyes to see, falling backwards, or driving off a cliff.

It's not even the sleep paralysis that occasionally wraps its arms around me, nor the night terrors that send me leaping out of bed to chase an invisible intruder into the kitchen.

Fortunately, most of that nighttime nonsense ceased once I adopted my cat.

But for some reason, by some impetus, I now have nearly the same dream every night—though the supporting characters might rotate and the exact circumstances may bob and weave around actual historical events and dramatic imaginings.

I dream that I'm still in touch with my parents—sometimes actually staying with them in their house or even living in my old bedroom—and I'm trying to get out.

I'm packing, collecting, scheming, and ruing the day I ever let them back into my life.

In my awake reality, of course, I haven't heard a peep from my parents in over a decade.

But while I'm asleep, I find myself alternately telling myself "They're not so bad" and asking myself "How did I end up back here?"

I'd gotten out!

And I have to get back out again.

Usually, in my recurring dream, I'm planning a clean break—to drive away one day and never turn back. Stop calling. Go into hiding. Change my identity.

But that's not how it happened in real life, all those years ago. I didn't even know it was happening at the time.

What I thought had been a stalemate or something of a game of "chicken"—who would give in and call the other one first?—turned out to be more of a one-sided, decisive event.

There was no fight, no ultimatum, and no declaration nor letter of intent. From either side.

And by then, I'd already picked up anything of mine that my mother hadn't thrown away. There was nothing to pack—and nothing I'd want to bring with me anyway.

But in my dreams, I'm still sorting, giving away, throwing away. I'm opening dresser drawers and hiding under the clothes hanging in my old closet. I'm folding and fitting into suitcases, rolling up posters and picking up shoes from the basement stairs landing.

My car is parked somewhere out on the street or in the driveway—at least I have my car—but I can't quite remember which way to drive to get out of Eastwood.

I worry about getting everything and not having to go back, especially because the locks were changed, and I don't have my old set of keys anyway.

How did I let this happen?

I have to get out—and this time, for good.

In the waking hours, I've stopped wondering what I'd do if one or both of my parents reached out to me. I'm relieved they haven't.

And I don't think I'll wake up one day back in their house. My dad commandeered my old bedroom a long time ago. My parents had erased any trace of me there long before they exorcised me from their lives.

They did me a favor, of course, by letting me go. I'm much better off now than I was back then.

Are they still alive? As far as I know. Are they still together? As far as I know.

Do they regret what they've done? I bet they don't.

I don't know if I'd feel better if they did.

But clearly, my brain is working overtime to clear things out while I'm asleep. I've already unpacked a lot of these issues while conscious, so I hope my subconscious can manage to pack it all up and ship it out to wherever it needs to go.

And I can move on to dreaming of better things.

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September 23, 2018

Photo Essay: How An East Coaster Helped Turn San Juan Cove Into Dana Point (Updated for 2020)

[Last updated 8/10/23 11:19 AM PT—Video embed added at bottom.]
[Updated 3/30/20 10:22 PM PT—info on the sinking of the Pilgrim added]

In the 19th century, before the Oak of the Golden Dream and the first gold strike that led to an influx of would-be prospectors, there wasn't much reason for East Coasters to come out West.

It was wild, savage, and inhospitable. To those from more "civilized" regions, it might've felt downright prehistoric.

But in 1835, Harvard student Richard Henry Dana, Jr. caught the measles, was put on leave, and set sail on a brig-type tall ship called the Pilgrim.

Photo Essay: A Museum of Railway Giants and One Missing Big Boy

To be honest, I really only wanted to go to the RailGiants Train Museum to cross it off my list.

I'd only heard about it in 2013 when the crown jewel of its collection—the "Big Boy" steam locomotive—had been reacquired by Union Pacific to return to its rolling stock as part of its Heritage Locomotive fleet.

At 600 tons and 132 feet in length, it reportedly dwarfed all the other choo-choos in the museum's collection—and once it left Pomona in early 2014 to return to Cheyenne, Wyoming for restoration, I couldn't think of another good reason to visit its former home.

But I had to go and find out anyway. I'd rather confirm disappointment rather than be left wondering. And of course, like most places in the LA area, RailGiants is quite fascinating when you bother to take a closer look.

For instance, with all this talk of building high-speed rail between LA and Vegas, behold the Santa Fe 3450. It provided passenger service at a speed of 110mph—in 1927! By comparison, most Amtrak trains today go about 65 mph; and while Acela service can reach 150 mph, because it shares the tracks with slower trains, it usually doesn't go that fast.

And then there's the museum visitor center and gift shop, located inside the repurposed Arcadia train station, erected in 1887 for the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Valley Railroad but rendered obsolete by construction of the 210 freeway. The gingerbread-style Santa Fe station has called RailGiants home since 1969.

Besides the 3450, the museum's "gateway locomotive," among the museum's static displays are a few train cars that you can actually climb aboard. But for the Nickel Plate Business Car No. 6, you need somebody with a key to let you in.

This Pullman-built luxury car, built in 1923, was originally owned by the Palos Verdes Peninsula Railroad Company. When it was rebuilt in 1935, it had room for a dozen passengers and crew of two.

The red curtains, crystal chandeliers, and carpeting were installed specifically for the upper-class passengers who'd be taking the train to the Del Mar horse races.

After that, the car served as a makeshift sales office for a housing development in Orange County. And when the last house was sold, the railcar was up for grabs.

Looking back, I realize now that seeing this Pullman car ultimately inspired me to take the sleeper car to San Diego for an overnight trip.

It was better than most motels and vacation rentals I usually stay in.

In fact, I would've booked myself a staycation right then and there, if accommodations were made available to the public.

But while some people do get to sleep on this train every now and then, it's more likely the museum volunteers and members of the Southern California Chapter of the Railway and Locomotive Historical Society who maintain and restore the rolling stock in its collection.

And fortunately, a museum that's been around as long as RailGiants has must have more than one or two interesting locomotives. (Especially after losing the biggest one in its collection.)

Equally intriguing—and available for boarding—is the Santa Fe Horse Express car, which once transported race horses to and from the LA County Fair racetrack. Also manufactured by Pullman, it's something of a movie-star train car, having been used in the film Seabiscuit. 

And just to prove how much the RailGiants collection doesn't rely on the presence of the Big Boy, there's also the Santa Fe Caboose No. 1314—the crew accommodations that have been not-so-affectionately referred to as either a "shanty" or a "jailhouse"—and the turn-of-the-century narrow-gauge locomotive that hauled ore along a short line railroad until 1946.

At just 72 tons, it could only go as fast as 25 mph. And unlike a caboose, it wasn't trailing a bigger, more powerful locomotive that could essentially tow it. That was it.

Parked behind the U.S. Potash Company little guy is the steam-powered Southern Pacific 5021. Built in the mid-1920s, it remained in service until 1955.

It retired after spending much of its final years in the Portland area, though it initially serviced the route between Sacramento and Reno over the Sierra Nevadas.

It's the last of 49 such locomotives to survive, but there's something else that makes this one even rarer.

The SP 5021—along with the Union Pacific 9000, also at RailGiants—are two of the four surviving three-cylinder steam locomotives built in the United States.

Used for fast, heavy freight service mainly between Wyoming and Iowa, the coal-powered, 4750-horsepower UP 9000 was donated in 1956.

And while the Union Pacific "Centennial" 6915 may not be as heavy or as long as the "Big Boy Steam Dream," it's still the largest and most powerful diesel locomotive ever built.

This fast-freight locomotive is actually powered by two diesel engines, which drive a generator that provides electricity to electric motors.

Built in 1969 upon the centennial of the "the last spike" completion of the transcontinental railroad in Utah Territory, this one was only in service until 1984—though one of the other 13 remaining Centennials is still in service in Wyoming.

Maybe I'll eventually get to witness the refurbished Big Boy in action. There's talk of some kind of excursion happening within the next couple of years. I just might have to travel father than Pomona to get to it.

And now that I've ridden a few trains along scenic excursion routes, I'm spoiled. Why just look at them when you can rideor drivethem?

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September 19, 2018

Photo Essay: The Largest Craftsman House in the U.S. Changes Hands

It was a gloomy day.

But then again, this summer has been unseasonably overcast and humid.

I might not have known that I was in LA at all, except for the fact that I was spending my weekend doing what's most familiar to me.

Once again, I was snooping around a historic property—this time, perched on a 300-foot cliff.

An estate sale had brought me to Beachwood Canyon in the Hollywood Hills to explore a sprawling craftsman mansion known as Artemesia, built in 1913 for Swedish-born construction magnate Franz (or "Frank") O. Engstrum, commissioned by his son (and partner in the family biz), Frederick.

But I wasn't there to buy any of the patio furniture on the porch or the internationally opulent wares that were tagged and displayed inside.

As usual, I was there for the historical, physical, architectural estate—which had just been sold for only the fifth time ever.

Once 12 acres but since subdivided, Artemesia still consists of the main house plus a carriage house, pump house, and former deer park.

I wanted to check out every little detail...

... from the outdoor sconces to iron vent coverings and the carved front door.

And at 13,290 square feet, with eight bedrooms (plus a sleeping porch) and seven baths, there was a lot of architect Frank A. Brown's design to look at.

Even if it's not all original.

Brown, a contract architect for Commonwealth Home Builders, created coffered ceilings (which have since been gilded)...

...and installed no less than six fireplaces, all of which are the work of the great ceramicist and tilemaker extraordinaire, Ernest Batchelder.

In fact, although Artemesia's architect never had the star power of, say, the Craftsman duo of Greene and Greene, its architectural history represents a certain coming together of the greats.

The master suite's leaded-glass skylight is rumored to be the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany (who also contributed to another Craftsman masterpiece, The Gamble House).

There are also bathroom tiles by Gladding McBean and a huge, house-encompassing player pipe organ (with sunken console and multiple echo chambers) by the "Father of Organ Building in the American West," Murray M. Harris.

Although the lower canyon has been taken over by a gated community (one that supposedly is called home by Brad Pitt), one of Artemesia's characteristic lanterns still marks the entrance at the bottom of the winding access road.

It's a shame that more people weren't lined up to check out this Hollywood "castle on a hill," as the sun finally decided to show its face.

Part of me wanted to buy something just to have a souvenir of the place—but I've been trying to scale down and scale back on my possessions, so I really don't need or want more stuff.

Maybe I don't need a memento. Maybe I'll get to go back someday.

Who knows what the new owner has planned? There have been so few owners in Artemesia's 105-year tenure.

And I doubt this next one will be the last.

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