Just blocks from StoryCorps’ set up on the Third Street Promenade is one of Santa Monica’s holiday attractions: an outdoor ice skating rink. So what if it’s almost 70 degrees? Bundle up Californians… let’s go skating!
Providing sustenance to skaters is a familiar sight: an Airstream! Perhaps this is MobileBooth West’s long lost cousin. Nothing says winter like eating hot dogs in the sun, reflected off a shiny silver trailer.
In early November, facilitators Hilary Marshall and Soo Na Pak met up in Ft. Worth, TX, and headed west towards California, taking advantage of the 4 day journey to get to know each other. Before we knew it, we’d arrived in sunny Santa Monica, where we began setting up the MobileBooth for a month-long stay on the Third Street Promenade. Below, Hilary buffs the booth to a sassy shine.
Despite the many distractions nearby (sun overhead, palm trees swaying, and the ocean just blocks away…) the Booth was set up in no time, thanks to a little elbow grease. Bring on the stories, California!
This blog is dedicated to Dewey Ajioka, 89, who was one of the first people we met in L.A. and he’s become a good friend since. Dewey, a retired English professor, is something of a fixture on the promenade. You can often find him under the shade of a tree sketching people as they walk by, or sit, or laugh, or think. Above is a self-portrait of Dewey sketching on the promenade.
Dewey isn’t interested so much in realism, as he is in capturing people’s gestures and stories. He’s known and beloved by the large homeless population here, who refer to him as "the dude who sketches." Above is a sketch of Dewey’s friend "Doc", a promenade regular who says he used to be an orthopedic surgeon.
Here’s Dewey’s sketch of Bill "The Sandcastle Man", a homeless vet who’s been building intricate sandcastles on the Santa Monica beach for the past 22 years. Dewey has stacks of sketchbooks filled with hundreds of more drawings like these. Each sketch is accompanied by a little blurb highlighting what’s unique or beautiful about the person he’s drawn. Ask Dewey about his sketches and he’ll say with a smile that reveals his three gold teeth, "I guess I’m just people oriented."
Participating in the StoryCorps oral history project marked a momentous occasion for 62-year-old Gene Parks. His great, great grandmother, Talitha Lewis, was interviewed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1938 for a “Slave Narratives” oral history. Parks recently found her interview in the Library of Congress, where it’s been archived for more than 60 years. He came to the booth today to share his personal memories of Ms. Lewis who died at the age of 105, when Parks was 15-years-old. “This is Grandma Talitha’s second time ’round in the national archives,” he beamed.
StoryCorps participants Jack and Bonnie Taylor are opposites. Bonnie loves to dance; Jack has two left feet. Bonnie can talk to anyone about anything; Jack prefers silence. But put the two together in their tailor shop, and they’re a team.
We recently visited them at “The Jack Taylor Shop” in Beverly Hills, which has been creating men’s suits for more than 50 years (Jack and Bonnie have been married for 65). Each custom-made suit contains a little label inside the jacket pocket with the customer’s name and the date it was stitched. Some of these dates go back decades, and the Taylors have a loyal fan-following.
We asked the Taylors for the secret behind their longevity–both in their marriage and in their profession–and Bonnie promptly replied, “We’ve worked because we make it work. It’s that simple.” Here facilitator Jackie Goodrich receives a custom fitting by Jack.
Arthur Winston loves his work at the MTA. So much so, that he has missed only one day since starting there in 1934. Of course, back then it was the Pacific Electric Company and Arthur was a young, recently married man. Today, with a Congressional Citation as “Employee of the Century,” Arthur figures it’s finally time to retire–sometime after his 100th birthday next month. Here he is with his family (he’s the gentleman with the hat), after his StoryCorps interview.
Near the end of the day today, we heard a whirring sound outside the booth. It turned out to be Juventiho Garcia Mata driving up in his little red scooter for his 5:30 StoryCorps appointment. Today is Mr. Mata’s 85th birthday. His granddaughter, Sonjia, set up the appointment. She was raised by Mr. Mata, who worked for Santa Monica’s Parks department all his life. When we asked Sonjia why she wanted to bring her grandfather here today, she shrugged and simply said, “He’s my favorite person.”
One of our favorite people here on the promenade is stride pianist, Barry “The Lion” Gordon. He and his “side-kick” of three decades, Rick Harper (sitting behind Barry in the black shirt), can be seen on the promenade almost any weekend rain or shine. Barry pounds out old ragtime tunes on a beat-up machine, while Rick sits behind him tapping his feet and watching “the pretty girls go by.”
Ask Barry about his life, and he’ll sum it up in a minute: “I’ve been doing this for 52 years. I’ve played for presidents and bums. I’ve had years where I’ve had two cars and cigars and lean years where I’ve barely gotten by. But I’ve never stopped playing and I’m gonna keep on playing. You have to push to be great. And whether you are or you aren’t is irrelevent… you keep on pushing… because life is in the fight.”
“L.A. began on Olvera Street,” a StoryCorps participant recently told us. So we decided to check it out. Olvera Street is the oldest in the city and in 1930 it was turned into a Mexican Marketplace to honor and celebrate the culture.
Today it’s a bit of a tourist trap consisting of a row of tiny stalls selling everything from leather bags to tamales. Our favorite is “C-26″ which happens to be the first and oldest candy store on the street, founded by Frank Martinez in 1939. These days, C-26 is run by Frank’s grandson Rey (pictured above), who grew up eating the milk pecan bars, tamarind balls and cactus candy sold in his grandfather’s shop. “I had 14 cavities by the time I was 12,” he said while shyly hiding his smile behind his hand.
Just outside Olvera street under a great big tree, we ran into this duo gusto-fully singing Mexican ballads. 83-year-old Rafael Rosales and his partner Lydia, 60, are regulars here. Rafael says he’s been playing the guitar since he was 3. He laughed, “I have long, long, long, long, long-time story to say.” Just the kind of stories we like.
We’d like to extend a heartfelt thanks to Chester (pictured above) who’s been an L.A. busdriver for 32 years, and is retiring in August. It’s thanks to him that we’ve been kept from getting thoroughly lost while exploring this city. Chester knows everything there is to know about L.A. and, more importantly, about human nature. By sheer serendipity we’ve bumped into him on his bus route in downtown L.A. a couple of times now, and on each ride he’s offered us navigational tips that serve as life guides: “There’s always more than one way to get some place. People always pick just one route… I say, pick 3 or 4!”
Philippe’s is a no-frills sandwich shop in downtown L.A. that’s been around for almost a century. Government employees, famous actors, homeless people and tourists all sit elbow to elbow on communal benches savoring the famous “French Dipped” sandwich. The walls are covered with old sports photos and the floors with sawdust.
The only thing that’s drastically changed about this place in all these years…is the price of coffee. That’s gone from five cents a cup to ten, to the great dismay of some of the old-timer regulars who’ve been coming here for decades.
Recently Elias Barajas, who’s worked at Philippe’s for 39 years, came to the StoryCorps booth with Mark Massengill, whose family has owned the restaurant since 1927. Elias is planning to retire soon and Mark wanted to record some of his stories for posterity. “This was kind of nice,” said Elias after the interview. “We see each other all the time, but we never really get a chance to just sit down and talk.” In this photo, Mark is telling us that Elias, a self-professed workaholic, is planning on taking his first Sunday off in 39 years.
When facilitator Jackie Goodrich arrived at the booth this morning, she found a crumpled dollar bill carefully tucked away in the door handle. Thank you to whoever the anonymous donor is.
Opening week in LA brought clear blue skies and a steady stream of visitors to the StoryCorps booth. Above, 89-year-old Dewey Ajioka stopped by to say Hi and figure out “what this whole story-telling business is all about.” We’ve been amazed by the range of stories we’ve heard this first week. Here’s just a sampling: a “91-and-a-half” year old lady spoke with her son about “Senior Power”, a young Mexican-American woman and her mother recalled the harrowing journey they took across the Mexico/US border, a newlywed couple described meeting at a swing dance class, and a 95-year-old gent named Herman shared his life motto with us: “Never stop talking… I certainly haven’t!”
Here’s an early morning shot of the booth at Santa Monica’s “Third Street Promenade”… our home in L.A. thanks to the local NPR affiliate KCRW, and Santa Monica’s Bayside District. The Promenade is a row of cobbled streets filled with shops and eateries. Once the day begins, it bursts to life with strolling visitors, performance artists, and pan-handlers.
Our first stop in L.A. was “The Village Car Wash.” Here facilitator, Jackie Goodrich, and advance coordinator, Zac Barr, proudly stand in front of a shined and buffed story-telling machine
2006 begins with new facilitators Piya Kochhar and Jackie Goodrich joining the tour for our first stop of the year: Los Angeles. The two feel fully prepared for whatever adventures and stories this city brings thanks to the helpful notes, pack of playing cards and portable picnic basket left for them by out-going facilitators and MobileBooth pros, Karen DiMattia and Sarah Kramer.