When the Santa Ana of Your Childhood Is No Longer What You Remembered

The city has a promising identity, just as it did years ago, but it now pulses with the vitality of a new generation.
Illustration by Faye Rogers

The drive from Laguna Beach to John Wayne Airport is a short one, but I take my time, plodding along Coast Highway and up Newport Coast. The lush landscapes and sprawling houses unspool outside the window in a band of bright greens and corals. My grandson sits behind me texting his girlfriend. Next to me, my husband plays Candy Crush on his phone.

Cars go around me. I don’t care. The longer the trip takes, the more time I have with my grandson before he returns to college after Christmas break. When he leaves, as with all his visits, the life drains out of the house, and I’m not ready to go back to it just yet.

“You mind if we take a detour before we go home?” I say to my husband, Ron, after our grandson disappears into the terminal. “We’re so close to Santa Ana. I’d like to go past the Broadway Street house. I haven’t seen it for a while.”

Ron doesn’t really have a choice. I drive most of the time now, something he said he’d never let me do. But we’ve been married more than 55 years, and I’ve worn him down, so I turn left instead of right on MacArthur before he has a chance to answer.

Heading in the direction of Main Street, I grip the top of the steering wheel too tightly. I don’t recognize my own hands, thin-skinned and snaked with protruding veins; my kids used to call the veins on my mother’s hands tree branches. Now my hands are hers.

As we turn right, the streets lose definition, colors meld to dull beiges, and we pass the vacant lot that used to be a bar called the South Seas, where my mother worked as a cocktail waitress. Her tip money would be strewn across the dresser in the morning when I woke up.

“Look at that,” I say, motioning toward a GameStop, which used to be Gracie’s Malt Shop, at the end of a battered strip of stores across from Lathrop Intermediate School. “I used to go there with my friends for Cherry Cokes.”

“Hmm,” he says, for a moment looking up from his game. “Remember cherry phosphates?” But it’s not really a question. He knows I remember cherry phosphates.

Three blocks down, on South Broadway, metal bars cover the downstairs windows of the Hewitt House, a 126-year-old historic home where I lived from 1954 until the early 1960s. Sheets of bleached plywood block some of the upstairs windows and most of those on the apartments behind the main building. The dead grass in the front yard flattens like a brown mat. My mother, who trimmed the lawn’s green edges on her knees with scissors, would be mortified.

“Why is there no parking on the street anymore?” I say, pulling around the corner and past the garage where I kept my first car, a 1949 Ford that Ron—then my boyfriend—painted in auto shop at Santa Ana College. I park across the street from the church lot where my
brother rode his go-kart and left black skid marks that made the pastor furious.

“Too many people with too many cars,” my husband says. “I’ll stay here.” He isn’t as fond of dwelling on the past as I am.

I contemplate knocking on the door so I can peek inside the house, but a young man wearing a sock cap exits the front as I approach. He doesn’t notice me. What I most want is to see the swimming pool, but from the look of the house, I assume it’s full of stagnant water. I strain on tiptoes to peek through a hole in the stone wall. The pool is gone, the space now a maze of stacked boxes and bins, machine parts, and dismantled barbecue grills. Gone, too, is the smell of chlorine from the bags my mother changed every weekend. Gone are the shouts of my friends as we pushed each other into the pool and the feel of my bathing suit’s tight elastic on my thick thighs.

This is where I first met Ron. He rented one of the back apartments. At that time, the buildings were new, and the pool sparkled.

Numb from the experience, I return to the car.

“I can’t believe it,” I say to him, close to tears. “They filled in the pool, and the apartment where you lived is in shambles.”

I start the car, unsure of which direction to go, maybe to another place I lived nearby. We can’t visit the church where we were married. It’s been torn down.

“Let’s go downtown,” I say.

My husband plugs his phone into the car charger. “This is just making you sad.”

“I know,” I say, but no matter how distant and fragile the memories, I’m still tied to this city.

My mother’s parents moved from Taft, 35 miles southwest of Bakersfield, to Santa Ana in the ’30s. I’m not sure what brought them to Orange County, pos-sibly a job or the promise of one. Every-one who knows the answer is dead.

“What are we looking for?” Ron asks. He can’t sit in one place for long, because of his back. “And when are we going to get there?” he adds, smiling, repeating what our kids used to say on road trips.

I head downtown. On side streets, graffiti, strange and spidery as an alien language, bruises buildings, and neon Checks Cashed Here signs flicker in store windows. We pass the West Coast Theatre where we saw “West Side Story” in 1961, the alcove where we stood in line now clotted with leaves and debris. The marquee reads, “Welcome to Temple Zion.” “I’m not sure where there is,” I tell Ron.

There used to be bouncing in my aunt’s truck along MacArthur Boulevard as it rolled out like a ribbon to Pacific Coast Highway. Or watching Ron play football in the Turkey Day game at the Santa Ana Bowl, the air heavy with the scent of hot dogs. I waited outside the dressing room for him to come out after the game, his hair wet, his body still warm from the shower.

I long to reimagine my young self, our young selves, in this context, in a mainstay of constancy, but everything has shifted too much to recognize. I wonder where the city and that boy and girl went.

Everywhere a memory, retrieved and reordered to form my past, but the landscape fades and disappears like an apparition. I thought the memories would forever remain intact: the smells, the sounds, the sense of life stretched out before me, Aladdin’s carpet unrolled and ready to whisk me into the future.

Now, signs of new life sprout from old, no-longer-familiar spaces—The Artists Village, 4th Street Market, Calle Cuatro Marketplace, Velvet Lounge, and Playground, a stylish restaurant. The city has a promising identity, just as it did years ago, but it now pulses with the vitality of a new generation.

It’s true, the neighborhood isn’t what it used to be. But why does it matter? I’m retired and living in the place of my dreams. These streets have no bearing on my life at this moment, but to admit that time has altered the city is also to admit it has altered me. Just like my youth, the place of my youth no longer exists, and I can’t deny the sadness this transformation brings, for the city and for me.

“Let’s go home,” I say, turning the car around. I know where that is.

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