John Fante would have been 100 years old today, and he probably wouldn’t have recognized the downtown Los Angeles he knew (except perhaps for King Eddy’s Saloon). But his city is preserved at least in writing. Ask the Dust, considered by many to be Fante’s masterpiece, the third of four novels featuring the struggling writer Arturo Bandini, is packed with the poetry of Los Angeles, a siren of a city. Released in 1939 by a publisher paying heavy legal damages for publishing an unauthorized edition of Mein Kampf, Ask the Dust went relatively unnoticed for years before claiming its place in the L.A. canon. Below, an excerpt.
I went up to my room, up the dusty stairs of Bunker Hill, past the soot-covered frame buildings along that dark street, sand and oil and grease choking the futile palm trees standing like dying prisoners, chained to a little plot of ground with black pavement hiding their feet. Dust and old buildings and old people sitting at windows, old people tottering out of doors, old people moving painfully along the dark street. The old folk from Indiana and Iowa and Illinois, from Boston and Kansas City and Des Moines, they sold their homes and their stores, and they came here by train and by automobile to the land of sunshine, to die in the sun, with just enough money to live until the sun killed them, tore themselves out by the roots in their last days, deserted the smug prosperity of Kansas City and Chicago and Peoria to find a place in the sun. And when they got here they found that other and greater thieves had already taken possession, that even the sun belonged to the others; Smith and Jones and Parker, druggist, banker, baker, dust of Chicago and Cincinnati and Cleveland on their shoes, doomed to die in the sun, a few dollars in the bank, enough to subscribe to the Los Angeles Times, enough to keep alive the illusion that this was paradise, that their little papier-mâché homes were castles. The uprooted ones, the empty sad folks, the old and the young folks, the folks from back home. These were my countrymen, these were the new Californians. With their bright polo shirts and sunglasses, they were in paradise, they belonged.
But down on Main Street, down on Towne and San Pedro, and for a mile on lower Fifth Street were the tens of thousands of others; they couldn’t afford sunglasses or a four-bit polo shirt and they hid in the alleys by day and slunk off to flop houses by night. A cop won’t pick you up for vagrancy in Los Angeles if you wear a fancy polo shirt and a pair of sunglasses. But if there is dust on your shoes and that sweater you wear is thick like the sweaters they were in the snow countries, he’ll grab you. So get yourselves a polo shirt boys, and a pair of sunglasses, and white shoes, if you can. Be collegiate. It’ll get you anyway. After a while, after big doses of the Times and the Examiner, you too will whoop it up for the sunny south. You’ll eat hamburgers year after year and live in dusty, vermin-invested apartments and hotels, but every morning you’ll see the mighty sun, the eternal blue of the sky, and the streets will be full of sleek women you never will possess, and the hot semitropical nights will reek of romance you’ll never have, but you’ll still be in paradise, boys, in the land of sunshine.
*Photo courtesy No Trams to Lime Street.