Anthony J. Mohr
if, toward midnight on Saturday, March 20, 1965, you had attended a civil rights vigil at the Federal Building in downtown Los Angeles, you would have seen me sitting on the steps to the main entrance, writing what I thought would be a love letter to Gwen.
The decision to write it was impromptu and, because I had not brought any paper, I scribbled in the margins of a page from the entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times that had been lying on the ground. Surrounding me were thirty or so people, silently urging Congress to pass what would become the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I had hoped that joining them would help me forget Gwen, but it didn’t.
She had spun into my life the night we met at a party in January and danced to the Herman’s Hermits hit, “I’m into Something Good.” She had dimples and green eyes; she wore her brown hair in a flip and spoke in complete sentences. She stood 5 foot 3, just right for me. She danced beautifully and didn’t mind that I couldn’t.
On our first date a week later, in a brightly lit booth at Stat’s Coffee Shop on Wilshire Boulevard, not far from our houses, she leaned toward me and asked, without prompting, without apparent reason, “Isn’t it scary for a boy to think about supporting a wife and family?”
No girl had raised this topic with me before, but coming from her, the question wasn’t frightening. In a moment of rare bravado, I said that didn’t worry me at all, that I could do it, and I almost said I wanted to support her.
She smiled, sipped a Coke, and pushed up her sleeves to show her forearms.
We had so much in common, it seemed: two white, native Californians who were proud of their suntans. Like most of our classmates at Beverly Hills High School, our fathers were successful; our families, known. We each had landed small acting parts; mine, a single scene on television and hers, a walk-on in a Disney movie. And like many of our classmates, we were consumed with getting into a premiere college.
On our second date, after leaving a basketball game that Beverly won, she suddenly leaned her head against mine for half a second—long enough to convince me she cared. When I won the primary election for student body vice president, she ran up and hugged me. That night, she called to invite me to a girlfriend’s sweet sixteen party. Through January and February, we watched sunsets at the beach and traded laughs about movies and teachers.
On the steps of the federal building, my classmate, Peter, sat nearby. He was short and skinny with a pale complexion, an overgrown nose, and eyes set too close together. During our junior year, he had narrowly avoided suspension after publishing several issues of an underground newspaper, which he titled The Soche, Beverly High slang for a kid in a desirable clique. His work combined satire with rant—“There will be a mandatory meeting of the KKK at noon on the front lawn. Please bring your crosses.”
He published three issues before the administration posted guards near the lockers. They viewed whoever was behind this mimeographed sheet as radicals and labeled them “Ignorant Foes of Student Government.” The following Monday, five copies of The Soche came in the mail to my house, along with a note asking me to give them to my friends. “Help us,” it read, but I was too scared to do so. I was a cub reporter on the school paper, and our faculty sponsor warned us that anyone who worked on an underground publication would fail the class.
One day while I was watching my mother snip roses in our backyard, she asked why I spent time with Peter.
“He’s interesting,” I said.
“He’s so unlike all your other friends,” she said.
My mother continued with her pruning and said nothing more. When she didn’t approve of somebody, she ended the conversation after one sentence. The only sound came from her scissors and some birds in the trees.
Once, on a date with Gwen, I mentioned Peter. When I did, she said “ick” and called him an “A-number one fool.” I failed to defend him.
Like most of my classmates and their families, I cheered civil rights activists from the sidelines. I had read articles about their struggle in Time and in Life magazine. Over dinner, my parents condemned segregation and made sure I understood that all men were created equal. But I never thought of becoming active in the movement. That is until Sunday, May 31, 1964, when Peter took me to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
There were 14,000 in the audience, but when Dr. King rose to speak, their cheers made it sound as though the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum were filled to its 93,000-person capacity. From where I sat, halfway to the top, near the fifty-yard line, Dr. King was a speck, but his voice was massive and mellifluous. He was an icon beloved, en route to legendary status, a man whom, that morning, my father had called a “black Jesus Christ.” Peter rocked back and forth, slowly at first, then faster when Dr. King attacked Proposition 14, an initiative to repeal California’s fair housing law. “Legalized segregation,” was Dr. King’s phrase that brought Peter close to tears.
I kept the program from that day and put it carefully into a drawer. Martin Luther King’s speech convinced me to attend more rallies and even a sit-in. Still, I hovered at the edge of the movement, because I wanted to succeed in high school and thought that friendship with Peter was the social equivalent of playing with matches.
During the year I saw Dr. King, I had been upset by Beverly High’s benign neglect of the outside world. But by March 20, 1965, I was a senior; better yet, a student leader, an archetype of the establishment. I had become an editor of the school paper. I held a student government sinecure with an official-sounding title: Commissioner of Organizations. I belonged to the Knights, our boys honor club whose members wore black pullover sweaters with a white Maltese cross sewn on at chest level. Once, during nutrition (the ten-minute mid-morning break when we were supposed to eat something healthy), Gwen walked over to me at a vending machine the moment a Granny Smith apple clunked into the tray. “That sweater looks so neat on you,” she said. She tilted her perfect head, and the smartly dressed classmates who swirled and chirped around us merged into a blur that framed her in sharp relief. I wanted to hug her, but our school manual, The Norman Guide, warned that it was taboo to “hold hands or demonstrate affection.” I didn’t touch her. I still needed the recommendations of the vice principals to propel me into a rarefied college. Instead, I bit into the apple, heard it crunch, and felt the juices run down my throat.
I was no longer willing to risk my college chances by attending any more marches and sit-ins with Peter. Our school administrators were not above guilt by association, and in 1965, their power was fearsome. If these autocrats despised one thing, it was a rebel, a label that included students who embraced the Civil Rights movement too tightly. The administration wanted us to support the status quo, even though the status quo included the de facto segregation that permeated Southern California’s schools. They wanted to hear cheers and yells at ball games, not on street corners. The boys and girls they liked: tucked their shirt tails into their clean slacks or tan Levis, wore tailored dresses or skirts with sweaters or blouses, combed their hair smoothly, and worked to build school spirit. Those were the students whom they recommended to the best colleges, and in Beverly Hills, college meant everything. That’s why so many families struggled to live there. Ninety-seven percent of the high school’s graduates went on to college. Better still, between twenty and thirty students a year matriculated to the Ivy League (then all male), the Seven Sisters, and Stanford. The mother of one close friend put her on Smith College’s registry at birth. Another set of parents hung Princeton banners in their child’s bedroom starting at age five.
I’m sure Gwen abhorred discrimination, but she planned to apply for early decision to Vassar the next year. That meant another twelve months of currying favor with the vice principals. If the administration turned against her, then her A’s, her student council positions, her first prize in the Soroptimist Club essay contest—all these would mean nothing. Vassar would turn her down, and she’d have to settle for—her words—“a safety school like U.C.L.A.”
Sitting on those steps, I took a bit of pride in the fact that Gwen would have been shocked to know where I was, that I was risking my privileged campus status to attend this vigil, with Peter no less. I said so in the letter and added, in my Beverly High prose: So were the people here when I told them where I was from. They couldn’t believe that anyone living in our Eden would care enough to come here, even to be a mere observer.
I was still dating Gwen but could feel a distance growing between us. One weeknight shortly before March 20, I lay on my bed, pulled the telephone from the night table, and dialed her number on the rotary. I was in my favorite phone position: supine, fiddling with the receiver cord, ready to relish Gwen’s elegant voice.
She said she was busy. “I’ll talk to you some other time, okay?”
The dial tone sounded before I could get out a full sentence.
Unable to start my homework, I stared at the ceiling. With eight words, Gwen had jerked me back to the fringe of our high school world, where the teenage me feared I belonged. Gwen had lived in Beverly Hills since kindergarten; I had slipped into the school system during the sixth grade. Gwen lived with both parents; mine had divorced. Her A’s arrived with ease; the ones I received came with a struggle. Gwen played volleyball with the Girls’ Athletic Association. I couldn’t catch or dribble. I was beating up myself in this manner when Peter called.
A racist federal judge had enjoined the American Civil Liberties Union from conducting a voting rights demonstration outside his courthouse, Peter told me. Now some activists were planning a calculated risk—a vigil, which would take place there outside court hours.
“Want to come with me?” Peter asked.
I’d be hearing from Wesleyan and Williams and Cornell and Brown within a month, plenty of time for the administration to tell their admissions committees what I had done, especially if the police made arrests.
I accepted Peter’s invitation. The mutineer in me lingered, the desire of a disgruntled teenager to peek beyond the five square miles of Beverly Hills.
A police car eased by the Federal Building. The night noise of downtown Los Angeles consisted of a low, steady hum of cars and machinery, the urban version of crickets in the woods. The area was empty. In 1965, downtown L.A. was a low-rise wen, a place to leave at sundown.
It was turning cold. Someone started to sing the Civil Rights version of “I Shall Not Be Moved.” “De facto segregation, it shall be removed.” Two or three clapped their hands. It was closing on 1:00 a.m., the hour when, on our most recent date two weeks earlier, I’d returned Gwen to her Spanish stucco house with its primary-colors porch lamp under which she ran her fingers through her hair and offered me her widest smile.
I shook my pen. The moist air made it skip. I was writing small, threading my lines between an ad for My Fair Lady at the Egyptian Theatre and an announcement that at 6:15 p.m. on Channel 2, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas would speak on “the Negro’s fight for voting rights.”
That fight had been brutal; deadly for many in the South. While as far as I know, the gun, the club, the rope, the hose, the dog, and the bomb had not yet been used against African-Americans in Los Angeles, as they had in the South, some were eager to change that. Maybe that’s why I wrote, at any moment a race riot could break out. I could be killed. However, it’s more likely that passage represented an attempt to make Gwen admire my courage. Whatever the reason, my sentence was exaggeration. Our vigil was small, and the night was too damp and chilly for a melee.
A brown-haired girl struggled to her feet. “We’ve got to stand together,” she said. I don’t recall that anybody followed her lead, and I remained seated, pondering what to write next to Gwen.
“Everybody, stand,” Gwen had said at the sweet sixteen party to which she had invited me. She pushed back her white wooden chair, put her white napkin on the white tablecloth that lay on the circular table, and popped up. Her tanned face and arms glowed in the garden lights. She pressed her lips into a grin and peered some two hundred feet across the lawn to a makeshift stage. Beyond it was the mansion in which the birthday girl lived. Her parents had left the doors wide open, but I didn’t see guests wandering through the house. Maybe nothing inside interested them.
“Is the band ever going to play again?” Gwen asked everyone seated at our table.
I was holding a fork laden with carrot cake that I wanted to eat, and a remnant of backbone told me not to obey Gwen by rising. The other couples at the table also remained seated.
The band resumed, and we headed to the dance floor. Three fast songs later, we returned to our table, on which the waiters had placed petits fours with icing that featured the birthday girl’s first name, written in flowing script. I bit into the first syllable and savored its sugary taste.
The band’s next break was briefer, thanks, Gwen believed, to her protest.
“Sometimes,” she said, “you have to take a stand.”
On the step below me lay a picket sign with the word vote on it. A horn sounded somewhere nearby. A bus deposited an old woman under a streetlamp, then sputtered off. Even in the dark her clothes looked dirty. She peered at us for a moment before she shambled away.
Here is what I wrote on the other side of the newspaper, next to a humorous column by Art Buchwald: Gwen, I’ll say again that I have tremendous liking for you, but it is painful to see you immersed in the complete apathy that permeates so many in our community. After a pause, I continued: Granted, it is safe, but it also is stifling. If you had a choice between secure monotony or precarious living, I’m sure I could predict your answer. Writing these words depressed me, for they confirmed what Gwen and I did not have in common. This was not a love letter anymore.
All was calm, as a vigil should be: a stationary, quiet demonstration. We lost another degree of temperature. A couple huddled under a blanket. Behind us, the seventeen-story art moderne Federal Building looked imposing with its stepped rectangular massing, its plain exterior, and an entrance set behind fluted columns that reared up three stories. My butt and the back of my thighs felt cold against the granite steps.
Peter asked what I was writing.
“Just something,” I said as I put my hand over the letter. The Gwen side of me was not Peter’s friend. My letter didn’t mention him.
Somewhere out of sight, a truck roared to life and let its engine idle. The sound of trash being dumped followed. Before long, its smell reached us.
“This is foolishness,” Peter said. “Let’s go.” Peter liked marches and chants—the vigil had started to bore him. Maybe he was cold, as I was, as Gwen had become.
At home, my unfinished letter went into a drawer. I wasn’t old enough to appreciate how much it had bent the truth, especially this passage: My feelings toward you probably are no secret, but even though you are blessed with beauty and charm, I have noticed that you just don’t seem to care about people or issues or events. Maybe, but that sentence orbited a fact I was afraid to admit, even to a scrap of newsprint no one would see: Gwen didn’t care about me. That hurt, and I lacked the courage to confront Gwen, lest she vanish over the margin. She mattered to me then. She knew when to say “how interesting” and when to say “neat.” The first time I went to Gwen’s house, she had stood at the rail at the top of her staircase and said, “Hi, Mr. Editor.” After one hour-long phone call, she said, “I have to hang up, parce que it’s almost ten o’clock.” She said, I think on date number two, “When I marry my millionaire…,” and the phrase didn’t ring shallow. It felt lovely.
The last line of my missive read as follows: You and thousands more will have to choose.
I had zoomed into hyperbole. What was Gwen (let alone the thousands more) supposed to choose? Thirty thousand white people lived in Beverly Hills and, looking back, I doubt they perceived the need to choose anything. Their California remained a carefree warren of fun and fantasy, still isolated from the rest of the country. And I inhabited the epicenter of that place, a community that, school administrators aside, offered one idyll after another.
But I had a choice: send the letter or keep it in the drawer. Remain, albeit with alacrity, on the fringes of my two worlds or step soundly into one of them. The decision deserved more thought than I gave it.
For the final months of high school and the summer before college, I chose to remain a boy, a Beverly Hills boy. Civil rights would have to wait. Wait for me to outgrow my Knights sweater. Wait for the student council to adjourn. Wait for me to finish lunch on the upper tier of the school’s front lawn with its view of the Hollywood Hills. Wait for me to complete my tennis lessons, piano lessons, fencing lessons, and riding lessons. Wait for me to body surf at Zuma Beach, compete in speech tournaments, sail on my step-father’s catamaran, play Marco Polo in my friends’ swimming pools, dance at the new Sunset Strip night club exclusively for those under twenty-one, make eight-millimeter movies with my crowd, party on lawns as blue as Jay Gatsby’s, wave at tourist buses that eased down our streets in search of celebrity homes, enter car rallies, eat hot dogs at buildings built like hot dogs and donuts at buildings built like donuts, and devour every crumb of time Gwen allocated to me. It was with gratitude, never guilt, that I accepted her meager rations.
Our relationship died a natural death as I prepared to leave for college. For reasons that have nothing to do with Peter and everything to do with grades and scores, I wasn’t bound for any of the elite schools that lay within range of Vassar. I was heading to the University of California at Santa Cruz. Maybe that’s why Gwen dialed back our dates to, at best, one a month.
Sensing the end of whatever we were, I asked her to dinner; not at a high school place like Stat’s or Truman’s Drive-In, but to Musso & Frank Grill on Hollywood Boulevard. I wanted a quiet booth where we could say something deep to each other, like good-bye.
My mother had recommended the place. We had been sitting in the living room, my mother on one of two facing white couches, I on the other, with a varnished wooden table between us. After we picked Musso & Frank, a silence came in.
Usually when that happened, Mom was the one to break it with an interesting comment about anything, but not this time. The silence ended for a moment when I posed the question I had avoided since January. I asked my mother what she thought of Gwen.
“She’s a very pretty girl,” my mother said.
Anthony J. Mohr has been published in California Prose Directory, The Christian Science Monitor, The Coachella Review, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Eclectica, Hippocampus, The MacGuffin, War, Literature & the Arts, Word Riot, ZYZZYVA, and two Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies. Three of his pieces have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. By day he is a judge on the Los Angeles Superior Court. Once upon a time, he was a member of the L.A. Connection, an improv theater group.