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08.19.2003

Hotel California

I've arrived in Los Angeles, waiting for the Big One to throw me out of the eighteenth floor of the Century Plaza Hotel. My room overlooks Beverly Hills and downtown Los Angeles, visible as a faint set of vertical lines through the brown mist. Nineteen years ago, I lived just a mile or two from here in Beverly Hills. My mother was a housekeeper for a funny old bat of a woman named Mrs. Tannenbaum, and we lived out in a little ancillary house on her property, next to the big swimming pool. I attended third grade not far away, in an elementary school that I am determined to find before I leave here, and have vivid memories of rushing home each day so that I could sit in the little house and catch the daily episode of He-Man. I was a big He-Man fan in those days, and even had some nascent feelings for She-Ra, despite my tender years. I don't remember much about Mrs. Tannenbaum, other than her very advanced years and her insistence that the only proper accompaniment to dinner was an episode of Hawaii Five-O, played at skull-rattling volumes on a faux-wood cabinet big screen TV. She was decent enough to let us have dinner with her at the table, so I got a fairly good grounding in Hawaiian criminology, later to be enhanced when my mother developed an obsession with Magnum P.I. Mrs. Tannenbaum owned an enormous Cadillac land yacht, and this was assigned to my mother for driving me to school and running errands. The thing was easily a lane wide - I rashly volunteered my mother to drive a bunch of kids on one of our field trips, and watched her hair turn white as she negotiated a spiral parking garage ramp in a car larger than many Warsaw apartments. There was about an inch of clearance at the corners, and six rapt kid faces at the windows, watching to see if we would get stuck. California was a kind of wonderland for me - I remember being awestruck by the little lemons and oranges that grew on trees right next to the pool, and by the whole concept of a snowless winter. School was nice - I was in third grade, in Beverly Hills, back in the day when California had an excellent public school system. When I left (in the middle of the year), my teacher and classmates even drew up for me an enormous farewell card, working in secret while I was banished to the library. That was back in the day when I wanted to be an astronomer - it features a particularly dashing crayon rendition of Jupiter. We switched houses halfway through the California stay, moving from Mrs. Tannenbaum's cottage to a big house up in the hills. It was right next to the house where the Manson murders took place, although you couldn't see it - it was up the hill, behind a wall and some dense trees. All of three months ago I found out that one of the victims in the murder had been a friend of my mother's, from back in her young cafe-hopping days in Poland. It must have been creepy as hell for her to work next door to such a place. --- Today in the hotel I went up to my room to fetch a clipboard, and walked in on the cleaning lady making up the bed. I excused myself for interrupting her, and she held up a printed list of names, asking if I was the Ceglowski on the list. I was worried there was some trouble, but it turned out she was just curious to find a Polish name, being from Wilno (Vilnius) herself. We talked for a while, swapping immigration stories - she had moved to the States ages ago, and didn't have much chance to meet Lithuanians or Poles. The same could fairly be said for me. It was hard for us to talk, since Polish was her second language, and I don't know a jot of Lithuanian, but I understood enough to learn that her name was Stravinsky, and her late husband was distantly related to the composer. I got to tell her that my own grandfather had lived near Wilno before and during the war, back when it was a Polish city, and that my grandmother was from Bialystok, not far from the present border. Then there was a lot of awkward beaming, and we went on our way, me to eat a tiny breakfast at "Breezes", the hotel restaurant, and she to smooth the duvet and bill my room five bucks for the bag of Famous Amos cookie fragments I had injudiciously devoured. But it left me feeling good all day, a jot of human contact within this weird and vast Beverly Hills hotel. I am supposed to stop by the sixth floor tomorrow and say hello.

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