Shared Stories: The House on New Jersey Street

In an era without cellphones, Yolanda Adele knew how to keep herself occupied when there was no one around to play with.  Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center.  Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program.  Curated by Carol Kearns.

By Yolanda Adele

In my preteen years, I lived with my mother in a small, rented “Arts and Crafts” style house in the East Los Angeles Boyle Heights district.  Its design was influenced by the renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

The front porch was spacious. I’d often sit out there on the full-size divan and greet our neighbors as they walked past our house after they got off the street car at the corner of our block, carrying their metal lunchboxes. 

There was only one bedroom, which I occupied.  It had a screen-less window that looked out into our Gypsy neighbor’s drive-way which supplied me with many interesting views of their colorful life-style, but that’s another story. 

My mother used the dining room as her bedroom.  It had a built-in mahogany buffet table next to her bed.  The kitchen had a built-in ironing board and a walk-in pantry.  

The backdoor led into a screened porch that served as separate entrance for boarders who rented the upstairs area that had been converted into six bachelor flats - one-room furnished apartments.

Whenever a room was not rented, I’d love to let myself in with my Shirley Temple doll, movie magazines, chalk-like candied cigarettes, vinyl records, and portable record player in tow. I‘d quickly pull down the Murphy bed and get Shirley cozy in it. Next thing to do was plug in my record player -  and my imagination. 

To anyone peering in, it might seem like a dingy room with a lonely child in it, but they‘d be mistaken.  Within those four walls I was in control of my environment, my Magical (“tinsel”) Kingdom where I was the reigning starlet.

The sparsely furnished room was transformed into a mansion, not unlike Tara. The essence of Miss Scarlett O’Hara loomed among the icons from the silver screen.  I’d often see the likes of Clark Gable, Charles Boyer, Robert Taylor, or Cary Grant looking back at me from the oval mirror above the dresser. 

I’d coyly raise my imagined Waterford Crystal champagne glass in a mock toast before returning my attention to the girls, Bette Davis, Susan Hayworth, Rita Hayworth, and Lana Turner. They were beautiful and sassy in their own, signature way. 

Of course, all of us girls smoked cigarettes, but none quite like Bette. 

She could blow different sized smoke rings that hovered over the guests like halos, or demons. Whenever Bette spoke passionately, she’d wave her cigarette holder like a wand to punctuate her point of view. 

The most thrilling scenes were watching Bette motion to Paul Henreid from across the crowded, star-studded room when she wanted “a light,” and he’d gallantly rush to her.     

From his inside jacket pocket he took out a solid-gold cigarette case engraved with his initials, a gift from her. He removed a cigarette for himself, put it to his mouth, and slid the case back into his pocket, never taking his eyes off of hers. 

He took her cigarette, put it to his moist, warm lips and lit their cigarettes simultaneously; after which he handed one to Bette as their eyes locked. In that smoldering, charged moment, I held my breath before exhaling the smoke from my candied Lucky Strike cigarette.     

Big orchestra music from my small record player filled the room with the sounds of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Embraceable you, followed by Irving Berlin’s Let’s Face the Music and Dance. 

And dance they did. The room glowed with the bevy of brightly colored gowns the star-divas twirled in. Luscious, sweet floral fragrances from their perfumes mingled and permeated the atmosphere. 

Alas, the chime from the Good Humor truck coming down the street often broke the magic.  Shirley usually cried for an ice -cream sandwich.  I’d quickly pick her up and yell over my shoulder as I ran out the door, “Darlings, you all go home to Hollywood now, the party is over.”  

I always returned to clean up after my illustrious parties.  I’d put back the Murphy bed and gather my belongings.  All the while I’d plan the guest list in my head for the next gala event, knowing that there would always be enough room for my imagination, and the cast of hundreds, even if we had to move the party down the hall to another vacant apartment.