I first met Lil when we were nine years old. We stood on the sidewalk in front of my house on 39th and Somerset, and she shyly said hi. I was about to respond when Linda Nazaretian came by on her two-wheel bike. Also nine, she was riding her bike towards us. We stepped on the grass and watched as Linda took her hands off the bike handles while peddling, and sitting straight, crossed her arms across her chess, elbows up, showing off.
I glanced at Lil and we both smiled, first giggling, then laughing hysterically. Linda ended up bicycling up the street, smug that she had impressed us, a cool act for someone nine, but we thought it was just too funny, and it set the stage for the friendship between Lil and I.
Lil lived a block from me in the Crenshaw district. We walked to each other’s houses, visiting, eating, always laughing at something, mostly at ourselves. The neighborhood was mostly white, but Japanese Americans were moving in because it wasn’t restricted like the westside neighborhoods of Mar Vista or Brentwood. Life was innocent and fun. As we grew up we walked to Dorsey, a half-mile from home, talking homework, laughing about teachers, and our Japanese American social club, the Jeunes.
My dad bought a new red 1965 Mustang for me to drive when I passed my auto license test and we toiled waxing the car, to make sure it looked cool — it was a red Mustang. After we were done we were lying on the grass exhausted, feeling good about our work, and then my dad came out. He looked at us in disgust for we didn’t use car wax, we used shoe wax! Uh oh, he was mad. We walked away, we were so lame … but then we looked at each other and started laughing hysterically. Of course my dad didn’t feel the same way.
The civil rights movement was changing lives in the Deep South, but here it was safe. We had the posh May Co. and Broadway department stores catering to our neighborhood, Baldwin Hills and View Park. Soon the Japanese American-oriented Holiday Bowl and Crenshaw Square opened. In our small enclave we ate hamburgers and Coke freezes at Hodys drive-in, chasu/rice and saimin at Holiday Bowl, and got our hair done in Crenshaw Square. It was Little Tokyo Westside.
The summer of ’65 was hot, we experienced the Watts riots, and it was a turning point for the neighborhood. That summer there was curfew restrictions, and soon our white friends moved out of Crenshaw. But then college opened up new vistas for us — world issues and the Vietnam War were suddenly real, and affected us all in new ways; friendships expanded, but Lil and I still hung out. I continued to spend every New Year’s Day at Lil’s parents’ house — a few days before New Year’s Day Lil’s mother, Yone Morimoto, made a mean tsukemono, with salt, crisp pickling cucumbers, slivered green onions, thinly sliced onion & red chili pepper, vinegar, and sugar.
“Oishiiiii!” It was so very delicious.
On New Year’s Day I loved eating this with the traditional good-luck dishes kuromame, kamaboko, gobo, nishime and age-zushi (footballs). We sat at the Morimoto Oshogatsu dining table, filling our stomachs with this delicious food while giggling and laughing at someone’s latest escapade. We kept this up through neighborhood transitions, global changes, and all our different meals.
Lil eventually married Glenn, a cool guy from Gardena; they had two girls, and today she’s a grandmother of three. I took a different path, moving up to the Oakland Bay Area for a few years, returned, became active in the arts, survived cancer, married an African American actor from Washington, D.C., and we have a daughter.
On the last Friday of the month, Lil will pick me up at 6:15 a.m. to go sample shopping downtown, a monthly ritual, an excursion Lil and I do not miss.
We will go to Ronnie’s Diner in Culver City after to eat, exchange stories, and laugh about something, anything, just like we did when we were nine, and the numerous times in the fifty-plus years we’ve known each other.
The world has changed dramatically, but the laughter and giggles, and the special friendship between Lil and I, remain the same.
Janet Mitsui Brown is a children’s book author/illustrator, a published writer/columnist, and feng shui master consultant. She can be reached at [email protected] Sansei Stories is an ongoing workshop run by Timothy Toyama at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute. For more information, call (310) 324-6611. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.