Tuesday, August 20, 2013

I Cover the Waterfront: Back in San Pedro

There is one photo missing from this post that sums it all up better than the pix I have here.

I used to shop at the Albertson’s on Western Avenue, when I lived in San Pedro nearly ten years ago. For the first few weeks I was there, I was greeted upon entering the store by one of those towering stacks of soda cases that grace supermarket floors during times of high beverage consumption like football season. Its structural arrangement did not depict a pixelated Trojan, the name of a high school sports team, or anything of the like. It simply spelled out the words, “San Pedro” in huge and unapologetic red and green letters.

Sheet music for the jazz standard of the same
name as the 1933 film – which ironically, is one
of maybe only two movies in the history
of Hollywood that were
not shot on location in San Pedro.
This image is lost in the vortex of my digital scrapbook of unlabeled photos, carelessly stored without any sense of chronological order, hence its absence from this post. But the idea of it stands out in my mind as what it’s like to live in the former fishing village that is home to the bustling Los Angeles Harbor, the historic USS Iowa, generations of immigrant families who were born and raised in the “Port Town,” and now, once again, myself. It is one of the few – dare I say, only? – places in L.A. County where anyone can feel welcome, can be as enmeshed in local life – or not – as they wish, and most of all, where you can actually breathe.

Ironically, I am usually told to breathe this while crammed in with way too many sweaty bodies like sardines on floor mats at my favorite yoga studio. In San Pedro, you can breathe deeply because there is space, physically and metaphorically, to do so.

Even natives of the South Bay such as myself never know anything about San Pedro and never go there, unless they know someone who lives there. When I moved there in 2004, ignorant but not blind to the town’s charm, I lived near what is arguably its heart, the downtown arts district. I enjoyed freelancing for the local magazine, finding hidden gems of stories in my new hometown with each assignment. Barbers, bakers, giant sculpture makers – each article I researched was a window on what makes a small town like this so special, and the grit it takes to believe in it, 150 percent.

Life took me elsewhere, to marriage, divorce, several relocations, and a new job. For the last four years, I’ve lived in West L.A. with my sister and her family. Although it’s been a convenient homebase with a short commute to work, when it came time to strike out on my own, I tried to contemplate finding an apartment there. But the stress and cost of living on the über-congested Westside was unconducive to homey comfort. I ranted to friends about this, but assured them I would never move any farther south than El Segundo.

Don't let the empty streets fool you: San Pedro is business on
the outside, party on the inside. At least, until the
sidewalks roll up at 9 p.m.
Trolling for apartments on Craigslist, just for fun I decided to peek at places in San Pedro. I realized while looking at photos of whitewashed kitchens and charming old buildings with fire escapes that apartments were a) extremely affordable and b) in what seemed like nicer neighborhoods than my current environment. Then it hit me – why the hell not?

Once I had a clear objective in mind rather than an abstract idea of what I should look for in an apartment, it was so easy. I took the third place I looked at, seduced to view it by an online photo of the aforementioned whitewashed kitchen. My building is in the historic Vinegar Hill District, so named, I assumed, for San Pedro’s history in the once thriving canning industry. I found out later that it was named by wags for its one-time cottage industry: homemade sour wine.

I have also been told that Beacon Street was once the redlight district, which makes sense as it overlooks the Port of Los Angeles, Harbor Drive, and Ports O’Call. Among its places of ill repute was the infamous Shanghai Red, which was located – before being torn down in the 1970s – at 5th and Beacon. 

The night I went to sign my lease and pick up the keys was propitiously the same night as the monthly 1st Thursday Artwalk on 6th and 7th Streets in downtown Pedro. I had not been since last summer, so I decided to check it out. 1st Thursday is basically one gigantic party, like artwalks all over Los Angeles are. Proprietors lure the locals and tons of visitors from outside Pedro into their shops and galleries with loads of wine, hors d’oeuvres, and sweets. There’s no pressure to buy (although it would be nice if you did!), but there is a tacit agreement among the town’s residents: just have a really good time.

Slummin' Gourmet's menu serves up uptown
ingredients with downtown sass.
In recent years, 1st Thursday has also become a welcoming venue for the much maligned food truck. A fleet of lobster roll-bearing, ice cream-vending, and grilled cheese-slinging vessels set up camp on the streets like bountiful mama sows, with greedy piglets lining up impatiently to feed.

My friends – understandably puzzled as to why I would leave the Westside for a grotty, semi-industrial outpost of L.A. County – also were concerned about my longer commute to work. When you live in the epicenter of legendary L.A. road rage, every decision in your life is predicated on how long it will take to get anywhere.

While I am still adjusting to a longer drive and a new zip code, it’s been more than worth it. Gazing at the palm trees and cranes from my kitchen window, feeling the embrace of the sea breeze when I walk out the door, and navigating the semi-empty streets of Pedro seven days a week (there are mini-traffic jams at morning and evening rush hours, but they are mere trickles compared to what you experience on the Westside), I think daily that moving back was the best decision I’ve made in years. It has felt like a three-week vacation, occasionally interrupted by shifts at work and loads of laundry.

That night at the Artwalk, the Slummin' Gourmet food truck caught my eye. The tagline, “fancy without the schmancy” is pretty apt for the truck’s delectable wares, which include dishes like lobster “corndogs,” sweet potato tots, and scallop “sliders.” It's also how I see San Pedro: for all it's Palos Verdes-adjacent, oceanside glamour, it's a gritty, hard-working beast of a town, that looks equally as good in an ILWU hoodie as it does in its best Reyn Spooner - the formal wear of choice for the sartorially ambitious Pedro gentleman.

Slummin' Gourmet's sweet potato tots and Kobe beef
hotdog: my favorite works of art at 1st Thursday this month.
I obsessed about the braised lamb shank that was pictured on Slummin' Gourmet's menu page, but it was not available hat night. The next best thing was a Kobe beef hotdog, resplendent with wasabi mayo, teriyaki, nori, bonito, diced tomatoes, and daikon sprouts. Sweet potato tots with maple chipotle drizzle were a no-brainer as a side. One occupational hazard of food truck dining is the seemingly interminable wait for your food, but an icy blackberry mint limeade kept me happy until my food was ready.

I have to wonder if GMS would have ever existed had I never left the safe cocoon of the South Bay, Long Beach, and the other smaller communities that have always been my home. Being in the “big city” forced me to grow and speak out much more than I ordinarily do. And it offered a lot of gastronomic options that were previously unexplored by me while living in the hinterlands.

But all the things that I missed while living in L.A. proper – small town friendliness, laughing with friends at the gym rather than staying out of the way of strangers, fresh air, and best of all, space to stretch out and create rather than to merely react – are now within my grasp.

I do miss living with my nephews – it was a gift to watch them grow in such close proximity. I feel the lack of a good Jewish deli nearby. But it’s been great coming back to a place like Pedro, especially at this stage in life, where I aspire more to a quiet confidence about who I am, what I love, and where I want to go. Which is something that you can only find in a tower of soda cases that spell out h-o-m-e.

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