The Pasadena YWCA
by Bruce Patterson, February 15, 2017
I can’t remember when my dad moved out the house for good. Must’ve been sometime between my 12th and 14th birthdays. I can’t remember when my parents filed their divorce papers or when they were finalized in court. Getting a divorce was no easy task back in the days of Jackie Kennedy. Can’t have these gold-digging, goldbricking women left unsupervised; can’t have their children living off the honest, decent, hard-working taxpayers. Lots of I’s to be dotted and T’s to be crossed before the judge decreed your divorce justified; lots questions to answer, Holy Men and Legal Clauses to satisfy, papers to shuffle and wheels to grease.
But, no matter when it was that my dad finally walked out once and for all, I was relieved at first. It’d been all my dad could do to keep me in school, off the streets and out of JuVee—my poor mom stood no chance.
I was also looking forward to some domestic tranquility. Seemed my whole life my mom and dad had been battling every now and again. Typically, once he’d had enough, my dad retreated to Dusty’s Bar down on Ave. 64 and York Blvd. Since the two story, 1880s-era brick building was built on the old stagecoach road (“dusty,” right?) up the Arroyo Seco to the Hoosier Colony of Pasadena, it’s now a Nationally Registered Historical Landmark and a Real Estate office). If, when my dad came back from Dusty’s, my mom was still unwilling to welcome him home, off he’d go to the Pasadena YWCA.
The YWCA offered clean, quiet and cheap rooms, and the net profits generated by the gymnasium, weight room, swimming pool, steam bath, cafeteria, hotel and boarding house went to performing Good Deeds, that last more than what my dad was willing to settle for. Still, once the dust settled and he returned from the YWCA, they both assured me that every marriage has its “ups and downs.” I wasn’t to take their battles too seriously and, of course, each fight was the last one. They still loved each other. Then they had me to think about.
My sister is six years older than me, and she got married and left the house shortly after her 18th Birthday. No, she wasn’t pregnant, though my niece arrived a year or two later (she’d get killed when she was fifteen). When my niece was born, I was living with my sister and brother-in-law down on Ave. 49 on the leeside of downtown’s Mt. Washington.
My new brother-in-law was a veteran of the foster home circuit and a multi-sport jock playing football for Cal State LA, and my dad wasn’t too impressed with him at first. A child of the Chicago’s Depression Era immigrant slums, my dad knew talk was cheap and ends ain’t shit without the means of getting there. When you’re young and full of appetites and plans, you’ve got no family and no money—not exactly a blueprint for success.
When my future brother-in-law sat down alone with my dad and tried to convince him that him being a general laborer on construction sites was just his way of working himself through college, and how he had three brothers, and how they pulled together, and how he was going to get himself a Teaching Credential in Physical Education and then become a gym teacher (while playing halfback, he’d fractured his skull and—one lucky puppy—he showed no lasting ill effects. Unless you count being banned for life from playing contact sports an ill effect). My dad, while admiring the young man’s grit, spunk and ambition, remarked that, as a practical matter and in light of his admirable intentions, him taking responsibility for his daughter sure wasn’t going to lighten his load any. Marrying his daughter could, in fact, turn into a real liability if she gets hurt in any way. Besides, the longer they waited, the better off they’d be: nothing risked, nothing lost. Ah, but theirs was a true love and my dad was forced to keep his little girl happy.
When, some years later but right on schedule, my brother-in-law went to work as a gym teacher (he’d eventually also become a coach, student councilor, driving instructor, union rep and PTA activist) and seeing how my sister had grown into a beaming young mother, my dad was, as he’d put it, “as happy as a clam.” (Look carefully and you’ll notice how a happy calm is one that’s always grinning while keeping its mouth shut.)
But I’m the only person my dad ever took to the YWCA Cafeteria, I’d wager. The first time he and I walked in, I was just tall enough to see the offerings as I was sliding my giant tray down the tracks. What I remember the most was getting to choose what I wanted to eat. That wasn’t true in regular restaurants seeing how my eyes were bigger than my stomach and my dad was picking up the tab. Since by then I’d grown up enough to enjoy polishing off my plates, the cafeteria was gastronomical paradise: meatloaf and pot roast, mashed potatoes and mac’n cheese, cinnamon apple sauce and gentleman’s corn, pudding and Jell-O topped with glops of real whipping cream served with authority and upon my request. And so it went now and again over the years.
The last time I remember us eating at the YWCA, I was a gangly six-foot teenager and we sat out on the shaded patio. He’d remarried, had two step kids, had regained legal custody of me and we were at the Y for old times’ sake and to have a heart-to-heart. There isn’t much profit in lodging the down and out, or in feeding the hungry, and the facilities were starting to show their age (Like my dad and a Free Ireland, the Pasadena YWCA was born in 1921). I remember because we argued some about me wanting to quit high school when I turned sixteen and start making some money, and him thinking I was talking silly.
While my dad thoroughly enjoyed arguing over ideas and principles, politics, business, strategies and tactics, he couldn’t abide silliness, especially silliness coming out of his own son. Knowing full well that the wise can act foolishly, and the fool wisely, still he was absolutely convinced that, as a practical matter in this nickel-and-diming world, there were Wise Men and then there were Fools. At the very least, he stressed, the wise ones get through this life with a lot fewer bumps and bruises and hurt feelings than the fools do. The wise also do a whole lot better job of keeping ahold of their money, which ain’t easy in a racket designed to keep your labor dirt cheap while separating you from your wages.
Just because I was born with nothing, my dad stressed, that didn’t mean I’ve got to die with nothing. If, in my old age, I wind up eating out of trashcans and dumpsters like that old hobo that hangs out behind Gil’s Market, my dad icily predicted, people will think it’s my own damned fault. Nobody loves you when you’re broke, son, don’t you ever forget it. Me and your mom, we know. Sooner or later, you’ll know, too. One way or the other.
And what, pray tell, must a foolish boy like me do to grow up into a wise man like my dad? First I must find something I really enjoy doing that benefits society in some way. I need a job that pays me at least enough to keep me and mine well fed, healthy, comfortable and, preferably, out of the slums. Once I’m working, I’ll have rent and bills to pay. I’ll also hafta save money for when my car breaks down and for when I get sick and miss work. Eventually—and the sooner, the better—I’ll want to save money for my kid’s educations and for me and my wife’s retirement. Again, living wisely means finding out what I’m seriously good at—and good for—and then doing it and getting better at it until I’ve “mastered” it. It means getting better over time at everything I do in life. Most importantly, it means not squandering my inborn talents. As individuals striving with others toward the good life, we’re obligated to use our talents and to use them well.
With my inborn abilities and his backing, my dad guaranteed me, I could breeze through college and, after graduation, pick whatever career that fits my bill. If ever I decide I’m in the wrong job or line of work, I can quit and do something else. So for me to turn my back on education just for some skinny little ditch-digger’s paychecks to piss away on girls and to show off for my sidekicks would be worse than silly. Because it’d be over a year before I’d turn sixteen, my dad didn’t want to hear about it till then and if then.
After returning our trays inside, and while heading for the front exit, we passed a threadbare woman sitting alone at a table who looked about half past beautiful and pulling up to nowhere. She reminded me of my mom in the loony bin and, conceivably, a future version of myself.
My dad seemed to like getting me starting all over, and there I was back to Square #1. Which is worse: the frying pan or the fire?
* * *
Who knew we’d now find ourselves living The Good Life in the World’s Greatest Country on Earth by watching endless reruns of a demented Captain Kangaroo doing magic tricks for grateful children having excellent hygiene, sealed lips and impeccable manners? Who knew our American Way of Life would dissolve into everybody watching the same endless re-reruns of advertisements for ourselves? Who could’ve guessed we’d wind up sequestered in isolation booths where even World News Tonight is re-reruns delivered by fashion model kindergarten teachers with nice tits and backed with finger-painted chalkboards equipped with automatic erasers? Ours a universe of mercantile offerings squeezed into spitballs shot out of bean-shooters squeezed between Napoleonic artillery barrages of Orwellian spectacles: “Spaghetti? You wanna real spaghetti? Lookie here: no need to boil water; no mess to clean up.”
Back at the Dawn of the Information Age and the World Wide Web, I saw a magician answering random questions from a live studio audience by looking into his computer monitor, tapping some typewriter keys and—voila!—reciting the correct answer in ten seconds or less.
“What year was Marco Polo born in?”
“In 1254, ma’am, in the Republic of Venice.” The audience erupts into cheers and applause.
I, too, fell for it and, of course, it was a con. If there’s one thing I’ve learned these last couple of decades, it’s that I’ll hardly ever get a straight answer out of my search engine. For instance, before I started writing the above little ditty, I wanted to include a sketch of the facility and the bare bones of its history and institutional culture. So I cranked up my search engine, punched in “THE Pasadena YWCA” and pushed my “sic it” button. If old Dusty’s Bar is now a NRHL, and whole damned books get written about Hollywood’s extinct Brown Derby and Rudolf Valentino’s Love Nest down in Beverly Hills, there must be some stories about to the Pasadena YWCA. The now vacant building takes up a whole city block and it’s right off The Old Plaza in the Old Town Pasadena Historical District, for Christ’s sake. Seemed like a no-brainer that some things happened there that made headlines. But I got nothing but a kaleidoscope of ads for the YWCA, the YMCA, Health Clubs, Exercise Clubs, Athletic Clubs, Golf Clubs, the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Woodcraft Rangers. I also got the position papers of “community groups” made up of lobbyists and shills for or against this development or that there development across the street. My search engine was so mum about the Pasadena YWCA it made me suspect some unspeakable scandal had exploded inside the place and, for the sake of generations yet unborn, all mention of it has been banished from the public record.
As disheartening as it was to learn that the story I wanted was of no interest to my search engine, I did happen upon one interesting tidbit: the first licensed female architect in the State of California, one Julia Morgan, designed the Spanish-style building. She also designed Hearst Castle and was a prominent member of the Cities Beautiful Movement. Punch in “Julia Morgan” and you’ll get plenty on her and hers. Swinging between the links like Tarzan the Ape Man, you can spend a whole day admiring all things Real Estate if you wish.
Science tells us that the more sales pitches, commercial jingles, blips, teases, lies, myths, repetitions and trivialities that get thrown at us, the less we can focus our minds on any one thing and the stupider we get. If you wish to hide a needle, stick it in a haystack. But if you want to find a needle, forget about searching haystacks. Read a newspaper or a news magazine; read a book, read all three.