John Fante , beautiful Berendo , and Bunker Hill

fante 006

There is a John Fante Square in downtown Los Angeles near the Central Library . There’s a sign there , at least , high up on a pole , above the winos and the yuppies and the students and the office workers and the nervous tourists  and the cops .

I just finished re-reading Fante’s  ASK THE DUST  which was originally published in 1939 . It’s set downtown . His narrator , young Arturo Bandini , styles himself a famous writer , but he’s just starting out . He’s published only one story and lives hand-to-mouth ; has trouble paying his rent in a run-down Bunker Hill hotel ; needs the old neighbor who borrowed  15 cents from him to pay him back .  He writes letters home to Colorado telling his mother what a great success he is , but please send a little more money while he waits for his publishers’ checks to come in .

Fante was living on Berendo Street when he wrote  ASK THE DUST .  Berendo is a few miles west of downtown .

I worked at Virgil Middle School at First and Vermont .  Berendo M.S. was the next middle school over , nearer Wilshire Blvd.   Virgilians  would routinely ridicule our neighbor school because they answered their phone :  Good morning / afternoon .  You have reached beautiful Berendo .  We took to calling ourselves Vicious Virgil . We shared the same overcrowded , gang-infested , rundown neighborhood .

In the thirties that Berendo neighborhood was , I think , rather upscale . Those old , once-elegant apartment houses are still there , although they are not now elegant . Bullocks Wilshire , an elegant art deco department store built in 1929 , is not too far away , although it’s no longer a store . The Ambassador Hotel , built in 1921 , was also in the area . The original Brown Derby Restaurant was there , too , built in 1929 . At Third and Vermont was a recreation complex with cold water pools and a hot water plunge fed by hot springs under the building . It was called the Bimini Baths , and the electric trolley lines from downtown had a Bimini Street station .

Arturo Bandini lived on Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles . Bunker Hill was once the hillside home of early L.A. millionaires . Their mansions covered the hill . Angels Flight railway took people up and down .  Bunker Hill has been completely redeveloped , though . The old mansions , by the way , had survived for a while as  boarding houses and cheap hotels . The struggling writer Arturo Bandini lived in one . He often climbed out the window of his room onto the hillside to  walk down to a bar for a 5 cent beer ,  or to the Central Market , or to the Spanish -built Church of Our Lady .  Angels Flight disappeared , too , in 1969  ; but the old cars were saved and their Flight restored in 1996  , although not exactly in the original location . A few of the old mansions were saved too , by the way , but I’ll save that for  another post .

Charles Bukowski , the Drunken Poet , wrote the introduction for the 198o publication of  ASK THE DUST .  Bukowski writes about his time , starving and drinking and trying to be a writer , in the Central Library , searching for any books that said something , were about the people and the streets around him , and were not just lifeless word -tricks .

I suppose when Bukowski read Arturo Bandini’s story , he saw a reflection of himself in the fictional character . He could also recognize the setting , the L.A. streets and buildings , the cheap rooming houses and cheap-beer bars .

I will not attempt a review of the Fante novel . That’s not the point of this post . I suppose what fascinates me , and inspired me to write this post , is the sign above the street near the library , at the foot of the excruciatingly different Bunker Hill of today .  JOHN FANTE SQUARE ,  huh ? I wonder if anyone on that corner ever sees the sign and wonders who that guy is .  How many have read his books ?   He had lived on Bunker Hill in the 1930s , worked as a busboy and whatever else brought in a buck , and worked on being a writer .  His characters roamed those downtown blocks , as he had .

Bukowski wrote a poem to Fante .   

John , you’re in the big time now .

you’ve entered the Books of


right there with Dostoevsky ,

 Tolstoy , and your boy , 

 Sherwood Anderson

the drunken poet wrote .


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