So what is this? You only write comments when I'm miserable? Are you foul-weather readers?
Is it boring when I'm undepressed?
Anyway, this evening on a whim I stopped by my old neighborhood where I grew up, Koreatown, the original Koreatown, which used to be just a few blocks of Olympic Blvd. between Crenshaw and Wilton. Anyway I dropped in on the Manions. I have mentioned the Manions to you before: They are a great, grandiose, multigeneraltional Irish clan who have lived on Third Avenue for sixty years (at least) and over the course of years have owned, among themselves, maybe five houses on the block. The nuclear family consists of the mom, dad, and five children--one brother and four sisters. The sisters all live now in the house where I lived for the first 19 years of my life. Their brother lives across the street with his wife. Their parents live two doors down. I have known these people since I was born, and the brother also was an iconic teacher at Immaculate Heart (as was his wife for a time). All the girls went to IH, too--one was an IH nun for a while (I think), one worked there... I think even their mother went there. The roots of Third Avenue and Immaculate Heart grow down so deep you can't even see them.
The Manions represent everything you think L.A. stands against: family, history, community, neighbors. You can stop by Third Avenue any day, any hour, pull up a chair in a kitchen, and talk... for hours. Expect whiskey. Expect laughter and whispers and tales of madness, crime, and love. And I do mean madness: For some reason the east side of the block was a hotspot of schizophrenia, suicide, accidental shootings, weird religion, mysterious death.
The Manions are the greatest community-builders I've ever seen. Growing up I practically lived at the main house, the one with the pool two doors down. To me, happiness was swimming in their pool while eating a peach. Or nightswimming, gliding along the floor of the pool in silence, with the light from the deep end shining in my eyes like the full moon.
Every summer they held a big 4th of July bash. They used to actually put on a show. They built a real stage in the backyard, had spotlights, and everyone in the family, all the neighborhood kids and several other families would prepare skits. I'm not kidding. I recall weeks of rehearsal though it might have been less. My father and brother did a skit where Ben was a little dummy on my father's lap. We also did a big jitterbug routine--Ben and I were jitterbug partners and we tried to dance like on Happy Days. We had no idea what we were doing and completely forgot the routine once the show began, but we didn't care. We just rocked out. Mike, the son, did a skit with his wife Fran where they sang the song about "Abbadabbadabba Said the Monkey to the Chimp."
Eventually the 4th of July show evolved into an annual toga party. That must have been after "Animal House" came out. I just saw a picture of myself today on their fridge in a toga. I think that picture has been there for 20 years.
They also had the scariest, best haunted house on Halloween. One year my sister Maggie played a dead lady in a coffin who would sit up and scream to scare the kids. She practiced her scream for weeks in advance, too. You could hear her down the block.
One of the sisters, Julie, gave dancing lessons to the three little girls on the block: me, my sister and Carrie Manion. Every weekend we learned Tahitian dancing and ballet. Today they gave me a bunch of photos we took of ourselves in tiny tutus by the pool, posing with baby's breath in our hair.
For a while, they also held mass in their living room on Sundays. And at this point I feel as if I've told you all these stories before. Oh well, fuck it. It's worth telling twice.
Mrs. Manion has a raspy, explosive laugh you can hear a mile away. I loved being up in my bathroom and hearing her laughter blasting down the block.
Anyway, one of the older Manions was a Catholic priest, a bit of a radical as I understand, and he would deliver mass in their living room--and since there were quite a few Catholics and recovering Catholics on the block, people came.
When everyone got scared about "The Big One" (whatever happened to The Big One, by the way?), Mrs. Manion started the earthquake-preparation committee for Third Avenue, and they would have block meetings and everything. And when crime started heating up in the Eighties, she started the local Neighborhood Watch committee. She had a police radio in her kitchen and always knew when shit was going down.
The Twin Cities are very community-oriented. It's something I value a lot and always talk about with my Minnesota peeps--Jim Walsh and Suzanne especially. I mean, National Night Out is something they actually DO there. Block party and everything. What's funny is that I realized tonight that the Manions are Minnesotan. And Angeleno. And Irish. And crazy Catholics. And Immaculate Hearters. Peaches Manion, the matriarch with the police radio, grew up in Silverlake, bless her heart. But Pete, her hubby, grew up in St. Paul, and half their family is Minnesotan. A St. Paul Irish boy who landed in L.A. and built a real goddamn community, a block and a family that provided me with the kind of roots most people just don't get here.
You can do it anywhere. All you need is people.
What's really cool is that Jake, my ex-rooommate, also lived on Third Avenue before we met. He lived on the next block down, where his dad moved after they divorced.
We have roots that go down fairly deep too.
(Fashion Leader Pat Whalen lived in our house on Third Avenue for an entire summer with Ben when they were interning at the LA Times [I believe], while the rest of the family was in Minnesota. Anyway, on Saturday night, Pat drunkenly told me he loved me. I said, Pat, you hardly know me. He said, in typical Pat fashion, "And I don't want to know you. I love you because I lived in your house." He slept in my room, I think. This was an Important Summer for Pat.)
But one thing that made me feel badly tonight is that I found out that my screed about Immaculate Heart was inaccurate. Apparently, the nuns never "went back to the fold"--they never took a dime from the Archdiocese after they left, and they never let the Church change their curriculum.
They just wanted to get closer to the Church; they didn't really want to leave. They just wanted to be Catholics in the way they felt was right, like the Catholic Worker soup kitchen on Skid Row--which is probably the one place you can find Jesus in L.A. today, if Jesus is here at all. None of their money went to pay for that big Cathedral downtown.
So I have to make a huge apology. I'm sorry for being wrong. I hate being wrong!
Mrs. Manion has one of those Irish Claddagh rings--the one with the hands holding a heart, with a crown on it. It's one of those proper Irish things I never had, because growing up we never learned about our Irish heritage. Jim Walsh wrote a beautiful essay about giving Claddagh rings to his brothers--basically, wedding rings for brothers. Claddagh rings symbolize love and loyalty and spiritual marriage. Jim married his brothers when he gave them their rings.
It's funny that I never felt like a proper real Irish person growing up, just as I never felt like a "real" Catholic. I always felt like an outsider to those things, looking in. My parents wanted us to be free of our history, I think, whether consciously or not, and they raised us without overt allegiances, rituals, stories. They moved to the farthest reach of the west and raised us alone, far from our families, far from our history, far from our roots. They wanted to be free, I think, and give us a new start. They were Americans to the core.
I probably would have done exactly the same thing. Freedom is more important than history. I honestly believe that, and in that sense, I am American to the core, too. And Californian.
At the same time, you're not really free until you know who you are.
And you don't need a ring to know what it means to be Irish. And though we never learned about Claddagh rings or the potato famine or anything, my parents (and the Manions) taught me what it means to be Irish in the realest way. They taught me just by being themselves: rebellious, intellectual upstarts, comics, romantics, poets, singers, depressives, whiskey-drinkers, failed Catholics, family people, community-builders, neighbors. Writers. They took the best parts of their history and planted those things down into the asphalt of Third Avenue.
I don't like to essentialize people by ethnicity but what can i do? I'm a writer, a cryer and a romantic; I love whiskey and song, I long for community but hate a mob. I'm Irish. I'm Irish!
My friend Jeff, Pat Whalen's little brother, has the classic combination that you see all over Ireland, like my dad: dark hair, blue eyes. He's a singer, too, a romantic, a poet, a cryer, a writer, a comedian, a drinker, an isolationist and the life of the party. I always thought he seemed so Irish, but he insisted he wasn't. Even his last name is Irish, the name of my mother's grandma, but still he said he wasn't Irish. Even his best friend is named Dylan fucking Callaghan, OK? I mean, gimme a break. But a while back he went to a family wedding and everyone was singing Irish songs and carrying on about being Irish, and he discovered that his father's whole family is kelly fucking green-blooded Irishmen. (Patrick Whalen? You're gonna tell me Patrick Whalen is fucking Norwegian?)
I knew it.
You know, too, of course, about my theory on the Beatles.
The Beatles were as Irish as Patty's pig, and I know the Beatleologists will prove me right one day.
Like I said, you don't need to know you're Irish to be Irish. It's just something you are. In fact, maybe part of being Irish, or Irish-diasporan, at least now, is about being a mystery to yourself, and slowly watching the broken, scattered pieces of yourself and your history float back together over time, shaping something altogether new and dazzling from those shards that were too tough to break. Music, Love, Words, The Group, and the desperate need to break free. You've got to break free. I think our ancestors would have wanted it that way, and would cheer us on--all of us. My parents, and the lapsed Catholics of Third Avenue. Me, and my brother and sister and our friends. Our history is awful and beautiful, but it's nothing compared to this moment.
And maybe for some people, truly being Irish means fucking getting over being Irish--never getting a Claddagh ring; never hating the English; never writing long blog entries about what it means to be Irish. Just getting on with it. Being you. Letting it go. Rocking out. Kicking ass. Inventing love and inventing your life on your own, the way you like it, because you're free. Finally.