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Harbor at 6th – painted by Kim Kohler

Harbor at 6th – painted by Kim Kohler

Lavinia’s Scarf painted by Kim Kohler

The design of a floral patterned scarf with long black fringe that is draped over the utility box, partly covering a movie poster. The poster is from Warner Bros. and it advertises a movie opening at San Pedro’s beloved Warner Grand Theater.  The scarf and the poster symbolize the variety of compelling stories in our historic town. The images symbolize “Unexpected Pedro.”

Lavinia was a beauty. She was slight but carried herself with the grace of a willowy ballerina. She understood style. On the first day of 9th grade at San Pedro High she turned the head of every male student on the steps outside the doors. The Art Deco style institution was the heartbeat of the town and, on the first day of classes in 1935, functioned as social arbitrator and filter. The school would impact every person who went through its doors, for as long as they lived.

George noticed Lavinia, as she arrived with her four older sisters, all beautiful. The girls had good reputations. They went to mass, minded their mother and tried to live down the fact that, though their three-story home on 10th Street was enormous and imposing, the top two floors housed a constantly changing stream of boarders.

Mrs. Valdez was known to have a soft heart and, out of the earshot of her daughters, the mouth of a dockworker. Nobody messed with her or her girls. Her sweet, but weak husband, Osvaldo, had deserted her shortly after Lavinia was born. She had early on learned that shepherding five daughters through life was going to comprise most of her time, all of her energy and every cent she could earn. Since the age of five she had been sewing, taught by her mother and grandmother, who told her, over and over again, “Carmenita, you need to have a skill!” By the time the girls got to that first day of high school, walking up the steps together, no one doubted that Mrs. Valdez could sew. The four older girls would tell their mother about a dress they had seen in a magazine or on the screen at the Warner Grand Theater. Lavinia would draw her mother a picture. Mrs. Valdez would haggle with the fabric salesman on 6th Street and then go home and use her beat up treadle sewing machine to create dresses that every girl in San Pedro wanted to wear. Those Valdez girls were as lucky as they were pretty.

Like all the kids on that September day at the high school, George and Lavinia spent the day trying to navigate the first, nearly adult event of their lives. Swagger mixed with shy and embarrassed smiles. At 3:00pm, they came back down the school steps, Lavinia on her way to her piano teacher and shopping, and George on his way to catch the trolley to downtown Los Angeles. Their eyes met, just long enough for their hearts to be marked.

George was under of the unofficial tutelage of professors at Chouinard Art Institute. He had visited the school on a field trip when he was 12 years old, a scruffy and sensitive San Pedro kid who wanted to be an artist. On that first day of high school he didn’t know for how long he would be able to escape sports or PE to continue to make the 2-hour trolley ride, three times a week, to Chouinard. The teachers there didn’t quite know all the details of George’s life, including that he rode the Red Car from San Pedro. What they did see was a kid who could draw and who wanted to be a photographer. He was always around, at the back of the studios, looking over the shoulders of the rich art students. He found sketchbook pages disposed of on the floor, and turned them over to make his own drawings. He kept everything in an old leather satchel that he bought for a dime at the thrift shop on Pacific, around the corner from his house. The art students discarded their pencils when they got short. George had an old buck knife he found under a bush in Averill Park when he was ten and used it to put perfect points on the used drawing pencils.

The teachers and their assistants would give him change for sweeping the studios and moping the floor of the darkroom. Now and then he would have enough saved to pay the 5-cent roundtrip trolley fare and still have money left over to shop in one of the many second hand bookstores near the art school. He would pour over all the art books, some stained with graphite and charcoal fingerprints or watery paint. Others were pristine, as though the original owner opened the book just once and then realized he should go to medical school or become a lawyer. Sometimes George would copy a drawing or try to decipher the mathematics of perspective. In the studio he would look at the art students working, and with his paper propped on a drawing horse or board, he would do his version of the assignments.

Late in the afternoon, on that fateful fall day in Los Angeles, the light was hazy and a hot Santa Ana wind came through the open dormer windows, bringing in the smells and sounds of cars from below. It curled the teacher’s cigarette smoke, wafting it toward the stained Baroque ceiling of the art studio.

George, sitting on the worn wooden floor, noticed that on this day the scent of orange blossoms mixed with the pungent smell of sawdust from the pencils. From memory, and with a thumping heart, he drew Lavinia. He captured her face and the light in her eyes; not just laughing eyes but beautiful brown eyes that showed intelligence and mystery. She had revealed enough to make George remember every detail of her. With a flourish, he finished by drawing her beautiful neck, draped with the scarf she had been wearing. He sketched in the fanciful floral design and the long fringe. But for its bright colors, and the way she had tossed her scarf in the manner of an elegant and worldly woman, it reminded him of a mantilla.

In downtown San Pedro, after that fateful first day of high school, Lavinia went shopping with her mother’s friend, who drove an open-top Model A Ford. Afterwards, they went down 7th Street toward the water and up Harbor Blvd., headed for the Ferry Building.

Lavinia, so lost in thought about the possibilities of her present and future life, did not even notice that as they turned the corner to go north; her scarf was caught by the wind and billowed up and out of the car.






Posted on

June 29, 2015