Thursday, September 18, 2008
JOHN FANTE BUS TOUR
I was outside King Eddy Saloon near the corner of Los Angeles and Fifth streets when a guy wearing a beat-up Dodgers hat started yelling at me. “Why’d you have to come to my bar?” he repeated three times before I knew he was talking to me. There I stood, minding my own, wondering what his problem was. Then it hit me: Between bites of a juicy red apple, without thinking, I took a picture of the bar’s logo, a tell-tale sign that I had something to do with the tour bus parked out front and the nearly 50 patrons who commandeered the watering hole without warning.
More drinks in me and I’d have considered punching him, but he was right. What was I doing at this dive? And on this tour? I’m not a photo-snapping tourist from the heartland. I was born in Torrance, raised in Lomita and live in Long Beach. I’ve been downtown more times than Angeleno transplants name-drop theater groups.
But there I was. Camera in hand, I sat in the bus’ back row for a two-plus-hour trek through Bunker Hill in search of author John Fante’s old stomping grounds. Born in Colorado in 1909, the late writer moved to the neighborhood and penned some of the best books you’ve never read. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, perhaps you’ve heard of Charles Bukowski. He called Fante his god and that’s got to count for something.
The luxury ride sat out front of Skylight Books before loading up a group who looked like they could have been this 28-year-old’s parents. Stocked with air conditioning, clean seats and televisions showing pictures of the author-turned-screenwriter, the journey began with a reading by Fante’s daughter. Armed with a first edition of 1938 novel Wait Until Spring, Bandini, Vickie Fante Cohen shared an amusing blurb written by her mother Joyce about her father’s penchant to begin his process fully clothed and ending up naked by the end of the night.
Our guide instructed us to look left, for what I can’t remember. Perhaps that had something to do with the modern-day view of the 101 north interrupting what was supposed to be of some significance to the elder Fante. Next was a stop at the Old Plaza Church, where our leader read a passage from the criminally neglected 1939 novel Ask the Dust, recently ruined on film by director Robert Towne and stars Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek. Fante protagonist Arturo Bandini sits at the steps of the holy site while a hooker asks for a date. He turns her down and the dichotomy versus good and evil was more profound as I looked toward Olvera Street for a sea of fanny pack –wearing weekend warriors overthrowing city culture. This summed up the entire trip: Amazing tales and pictures drowned by the drab concrete that come with redevelopment.
The remainder of the tour was focused more on Bunker Hill and how it related to Fante. Unfortunately, I was hoping for the opposite. We hoofed it to the new Angels Flight before heading to the third floor of the Angelus Plaza for a showing of Kay Martin’s 1950s paintings of Bunker Hill. Exquisite as they were, one guest summed up our stop when she asked if any of the featured works had any Fante connection. No, they don’t, she was told, and we were off to Pershing Square, where we were given a treatise on the poor planning of this supposed public space.
The website ran by Esotouric, the company that hosted the event, mentioned stops at important Fante-related places such as the Goodwill, Clifton’s Cafeteria, the library’s reading room and the Terminal Annex Post Office. We got none of those. In its place were complaints about the heat, a stop at a massive hole where the Hippodrome used to sit and dangling a carrot regarding the location where Dust was written. Organizers mentioned the address and said the tour visited the spot last year. But not us. Omitting 826 Berendo Street felt like flying to Memphis and not going to Graceland.
A blend of disappointment and appreciation struck as I exited the bus. I longed for more Fante, but was content with any morsel I was given, which is exactly how I feel about his work. The Buk tour is in December, but there are no less than 10 bars within walking distance from my apartment. Hitting those would be a more fitting tribute to Fante’s most well-known disciple.