Jigsaw Takes Jane Down Memory Lane: Old Los Angles
House on Harvard Street: Where Jigsaw Grew Up. One of the things I loved to talk about with Jigsaw, was the difference between old and new Los Angeles. On this particular day–and for no reason I can think of–I asked St. John to take me to the house where he grew up instead of our usual writing “haunts” like Denny’s, the Parker Center basement, the Amtrak train station or Taylor’s Steak House. I’d listened to his stories about how different the Old LA of trolley cars and ladies who dressed in their finery to shop at stores like Bullocks and May Company was from the New LA of clogged, intersecting freeways that zig-zag for miles and miles with bumper-to-bumper traffic, towering glass and concrete skyscrapers and the ever present smog that’s getting better, but will never resemble the clear, blue skies of the 1920’s.
The drive to St. John’s family house from downtown LA took a bit longer than half an hour. I used that time to ask questions more focused on the city he calls “his beat” than on our usual topics of conversation: murder, crime, killers, cases he’s worked on, and our manuscripts.
Finally, he pulled to the curb of a house on South Harvard Street in a neighborhood of tract houses with the same appearance: fifteen hundred to eighteen hundred square feet, shingle roof, small patch of grass for a front lawn painted one of two or three colors – light tan, orangish-brown or deeper shade of brown. I asked what he liked about this house as a young kid,
“What I liked,” he began, “was its proximity to a large field where I’d play baseball and lie in the grass watching airplanes take off and land. I’d dream of being in one of those airplanes and going to places so different that the small, routine life our family had: get up in the morning, have breakfast, go to school, do homework, eat dinner then go to bed. Day after day. Year after year.” St. John rolled down the car window, leaned out, and had a wistful look about the place where his dream of becoming a policeman began to take shape.
I asked, “What are some of your recollections about those days that stand out?”
“What I remember most was how humiliating it was to accept handouts from neighbors because there wasn’t enough to eat. My father spent our grocery money on booze, so my poor mother had little left for us kids to eat. Those memories have stuck with me and were the impetus to get a government job, be financially secure and independent.”
St. John explained what it was like watching his mother’s anguish at dinnertime and how that became the impetus for his determination never to have to face those days again. When I asked what he did for fun, he offered to take me to a different part of LA where the good times rolled!
He parked the Crown Vic near the old Ambassador Hotel and opened the car door for me. We walked inside a building and down a flight of stairs into a large, empty ballroom that had the look and feel of a bygone era.
“This is where I’d bring a date,” he said as he led me to a platform set up for a band. It felt like a movie set from the 20’s–musty, worn and tired, but magical. “I’d take her to one of the big clubs like this, where Benny Goodman would play “String of Pearls”, and we’d dance cheek to cheek. Then we’d go out for a milkshake. I’d be in heaven!” He took a step away and said, “This is where the piano was. And this is where the violins were. And here was the horn section. Can I have this dance, Miss Panic?” I said, “Of course, Jigsaw.”
For a moment, I was back in the 20’s thinking about music, milkshakes, and a young, rookie cop.