A remembrance from Simon
This is about the day I went to the Center for the last time.
Oh, I should explain what the Center is. Y'see, in my family – for pretty much my entire life – that word signified more than just the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center on Burbank Boulevard. It was the hub of our community, our secular schul, our arts academy, sports center and hangout away from home.
I trundled into the place in diapers for day care and spent a staggering number of hours there until my teens. I made misshapen family gifts in arts and crafts classes, donned funny hats and greasepaint for rough but enthusiastic musical comedies, shot the shit with other kids and even tried my hand at improv comedy. But the Center was also where we gathered in the auditorium for political talks and bought tchochkes at the Purim Bazaar. And did every other damn thing. Most importantly, it connected us with dozens of other families - the Paleys, the Mintzers, the Shares, the Diamonds, the Beckers, the Jampols, the Browns and so many others - that formed our lifelong mishpuchah.
In the ensuing years we stayed in contact with most of those families, through tragedies, triumphs and time's other tidbits. But the Center? It became less of a hub and more of a concept. I left L.A. at age 18 and didn't come back for ten years; when I returned to the Valley Cities, the Center was no longer a center of my life. I'd stop by for an event now and then and find the place had fallen into a certain musty desuetude. The air conditioning was poor. The upkeep was spotty. The well-intentioned organizers of Center gatherings often didn't set up enough chairs, and they always seemed to throw the refreshments together at the last second without the slightest inkling of what human beings might want to consume at all, let alone at the same time. It became a trifle depressing, though the idea of the place still glowed in the furthest reaches of my consciousness.
At last, many years on, the time had come for the operation to move to a new location in the deepest valley. A farewell brunch gathered the tribes in the poorly cooled auditorium, in front of the very stage that had been the fulcrum, for me, of a thousand pre- and post-pubescent dramas (scripted and otherwise).
There were round tables. Mailing list forms. A refreshments area groaning with a random array of recently unfrozen cakes, midcentury coffee urns and cartons of Minute Maid orange juice. (What, no sardines or diet Fresca?) Reminiscences and photo ops. A wake, in short.
I felt ambivalent about even showing up, and a few old Center pals I spoke to in the days beforehand said they did too. I expressed these mixed feelings the old-fashioned way: by rolling in super-late. At one of the round tables, fanning themselves gloomily in the sweltering heat, I spied my parents and siblings. My dad, the first to see me creeping up, flashed an inimitably dark "join the fun" expression, much the mien one might expect to see on the puss of a dear old friend one chanced upon in some stifling ring of Dante's Inferno.
Dad, a Center president back in the '70s, glumly assented to appear in a group photo. Various luminaries of the organization were extolled from the podium. We heard about matching contributions for the new Center. Then my brother, ever the thoughtful time manager, suggested we make our way to the other side of the building, where a videographer was recording testimonials from Center stalwarts.
We trudged down the hallway I'd traversed hundreds of times in my life. We passed the room where I'd made construction-paper assemblages; the room where we had naptime, stretched out on mats on the tile floor after our graham crackers and apple juice; the room where I'd rehearsed songs from You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown when my voice was changing. The rooms of my first true socialization, my first creative experiments, my first romantic stirrings.
"Sime," my mom said, having dipped her Madeleine in the tea of memory, "I could just see you running down this hallway, with your full diaper."
"You mean just now?"
When we arrived at the surprisingly dark videography room, they were finishing up with someone else. I went to use the bathroom; when I flushed the urinal it overflowed, sending a symbolic flood cascading over the deteriorating floor. I reacted with a kind of wounded hostility: For fuck's sake, I know they're moving out, but this is just pathetic.
Then we made our way into the videography room, wherein the only chairs were only big enough to house the tuchuses of preschoolers. You could sit in those, the videographer lady said unhelpfully, or you could maybe sit on a table.
I was about ready to just go out to my car and drive away at that point, so fully had I let the half-assed planning and crumbling interiors become a scapegoat for my sense of loss about the place (and, via the transitive property, the salad days of my youth). But instead my brother and I hustled back to the auditorium (in which, I shit you not, somebody was by now at the microphone singing "Where Have All the Flowers Gone"), grabbed some adult-sized chairs and schlepped them back down the eternal hallway of my childhood and into the underlit videography room.
They arranged the five of us in a line and the little red light on the video camera went on. And then something happened.
The memories came tumbling out.
First my parents described the early days, the "red Center" days when progressive, secular Jews were a thorn in the side of the conservative Jewish establishment; when Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, poverty and feminism galvanized these suburban liberals. My siblings remembered their adolescence there, playing music and making friends. And I talked about the kaleidoscopic experience of growing up amid the songs and stories and possibilities ... and kind of lost it.
It was the first time the five of us had said a lot of this out loud, at least at one time, but it flowed like some kind of jazz threnody, a stately groove with bits of elegantly laced improvisation. We were alternately laughing and weeping, spinning yarns and riffing and eulogizing.
This too was like a wake. But the good part of the wake, when everyone's had enough bourbon to start telling the real stories.
The Center is moving and it won't be our Center. I'm off at the other end of the city, and the rest of the family, though still living in the Valley, has become a hub of its own. But other stories, other childhoods will start at the new building. I hope they're as indelible as the ones we unspooled on that last day.