Sunday, June 5, 2011

Autobiography Pt. 36


           Los Angeles was baking hard under the late August sun, with temperatures into three digits. It didn't bother me as I had the address to the elusive pin-up queen's home scribbled on a paper in my breast pocket and the car AC on full blast.
 I'd have crawled across the Sahara to get to her.
As I right-turned the rental car on to Van Ness Boulevard I started getting nervous. Events and people usually don’t faze me much, but this was like meeting Jimmy Hoffa, Emelia Arheardt, or Judge Crater, but with better curves.
          My fan magazine THE BETTY PAGES had been in print for five years, and her fame had spread worldwide during that time. I'd see women walking down the street with black bangs and knew that my exposition of The Tease From Tennessee had resonated through the momentary culture. I’d guess that at least a million people were interested in the outcome of her story, and I began to feel the pressure.
         The pressure to complete the search before somebody else did had begun to wear on me. The Case of the Missing Pin-up Queen was getting to be common public knowledge, and the odds of somebody else finding her grew by the day. I could only imagine spending the rest of my life getting comments like "Gee Greg, I always thought that it you would be the one who found her. Too bad."
         But meeting Betty Page was not on my agenda. She'd made it clear that as her "biggest fan" I'd be the most disappointed to see what she'd become. As her biographer, I felt that it was imperative to at least see the place where she was spending her final days and I pressed on.
         Van Ness Boulevard cuts through miles of Los Angeles and the length of the ride was something I hadn’t expected. The neighborhood looked pretty good as I turned on to Van Ness, and my first thought was that if Bettie live around there she wouldn’t be doing too badly. I scanned the buildings for an address and was shocked to discover four digit numbers instead of five. As I drove, the neighborhoods slowly began to age and decline: sad structures of peeling paint and rotting shingles decaying in the merciless California sun. It might have been my imagination, but the air seemed to get hotter with every passing block .
         Sooner or later I’d be sending the The Dark Angel flowers, and I began to look for a florist. Ahead on the right was the EL Blanca Rose Florist, a small mom and pop establishment. Unfortunately neither mom nor pop could speak English, but their eight-year-old daughter had come through the door shortly after I arrived and we made arrangements for future deliveries. On the spur of the moment I decided to buy a dozen roses and leave them on her doorstep. Long-stemmed pink ones were the choice, and I cradled them in my arm as I returned to the car and gunned the engine.
         Van Ness was running out fast. Ahead, there were few structures, and distant mountains grew closer. As the numbers on my paper got to be a closer match with the houses, I began to look for a parking space. I had to make a U-turn to get one, and parked my shinny new rental model between a couple of old junkers. The contrast made me uncomfortable.
         I got out and dug into my pocket for the slip of paper with her address. Before I could, a voice boomed from across Van Ness. “What you want is down de alley!” It was a huge old black woman on a lawn chair, cooling in the shade of a large low-hanging tree. She was about forty feet from the curb, and twenty feet behind her was a dark green single-story house.
         So there I was, a lone white boy in a what appeared to be a rough Hispanic neighborhood, with roses in arm, and a confused look on his face. She repeated her message. “What you want is down de alley!” I turned around and sure enough an alley cut between two single-story houses. Why I followed her directions I’ll never know, but I obediently strolled into the alley. It didn’t seem like a set-up to separate my money from my person, so I proceeded ahead.
         The chill from the air conditioning in the car immediately evaporated and the top of my head and shoulders started to heat up. Sixty feet down, the alley ended and turned sharply to the left , and I stopped at the turn. Nothing but old garbage cans, garage backs, and trash scattered about. Dogs barked in sweltering back yards. I turned around to see an old Air-Stream trailer parked in a back yard. My heart stopped. Was Bettie really living in abject poverty? As I neared the door, I could see that the handle had been lost and a piece of rope held it shut. Then came the realization that something was missing. I listened, but couldn’t detect a running air conditioner. If it was 102 outside, I could only imagine that it was like inside the oven on wheels. I wondered where the nearest appliance store was, and if I’d need an interpreter to make the situation right.
         Suddenly, two black children charged out of the house and into the back yard. “Hey kids.” I shouted “Does anybody live in that trailer?” Both just shook their amazed heads “no.”
         I wandered back to Van Ness, watching the big woman get bigger with very step. As I hit the street again, the lady hollered for a third time “What you want is down de alley!” I looked at my paper again, checked the nearest house number against mine. The address that I was looking for currently featured a loud black woman on he front lawn! I checked for traffic as I crossed the street.
         By the time I reached her, I could see that she had a royal girth and years of experience etched in her face. “Does Bettie Page live here?” I asked, and my voice unintentionally trembled.
         “You delivering flowers for her?”
         “Sort of, I bought them up the street and wanted to bring them over myself. I’m kind of a fan.”
         She gave me a curious look, and began attempting to stand up.          “I’ll go get her.”
         “No. NO. Please just give these to her and tell her that I love her.”
         She smiled an ancient yellow grin as I handed her the roses. Turning on my heel, I bolted from the property. A single car impeded the rush to my rental. I kicked the engine alive and hot air blasted out of the AC.
Before it could begin to chill, I looked across the street to see the far-away Venetian blinds part in the front window. Two eyes stared out. Betty. A second or two later, they closed and that was the closest I ever got to the Missing Pin-up Queen.

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