There's a song by The Eagles, written by Don Henley and Glenn Frey, which tells about how man inevitably destroys the places he finds beautiful. Maybe you've heard it. It's the final tune on their Hotel California album and it's called "The Last Resort."
I've always felt that musicians and their music are our traveling companions through life. Songs are like postcards from a time and a place that we've visited in our days gone by, both physically and emotionally. It's lovely how we associate our sentiments. We all experience a "sense memory" that transports us; a familiar taste, or sound, or a scent that returns us to our mother's kitchen. For me, it's the smell of Juicy Fruit gum that instantly floats me back to my childhood, rooting through my mom's purse with gold metal snaps, where she always kept a few foil-wrapped sticks.
And we all have that certain song. A tune, tucked and filed alphabetically in the milk-crate album rack of our memory, that for whatever reason, reminds us of another time in our life.
Back in the early '90s, while living in Los Angeles, I was a young man working at Vendome Liquors on the border of Beverly Hills. It was a very big store that had been there for many years and hundreds of gift baskets went out every Christmas. There was an older, soft-spoken gentleman working there as a salesman with a desk in the wine department and his name was Charlie.
Charlie was probably in his mid-80s, retired, working there for a little extra money and something to do after his wife had passed away. He had a white, swan-like head of hair and wore thick-lensed eyeglasses, always neatly dressed in his striped tie and short-sleeve button-down shirts. He was just the nicest, sweetest man. Never a bad word about anyone.
Every now and then, when the store was slow, I would go over to Charlie's desk and ask him about the "early days" in California. He was always happy to talk to me and I think he enjoyed my visits to his desk as much as I did listening to his stories. He knew I enjoyed classic movies and sometimes he would tell me of the old silver-screen stars that he had bumped into over the years: Judy Garland, Burt Lancaster, Buster Keaton, Kirk Douglas, Gene Kelly and so on.
But this one particular time—I remember it was just about sunset and the sky was glowing springtime warm outside the big store windows over Olympic Boulevard—Charlie was telling me about the Los Angeles he remembered of the early 1920s.
I vividly recall him standing there in the quiet store, with his hands on his hips, just staring out through the plate-glass window, gazing out through his eyeglasses to the setting sky. He told me how the air smelled so sweet back then from the beautiful magnolia trees, and how you could breathe in the oranges from the miles upon miles of orange groves that you could see all the way from La Brea Boulevard.
"Rolling hills. Groves and groves of orange trees, as far as the eye can see," he said. "Oh! And the beautiful purple jacaranda trees. Like walking into a painting."
Then he got quiet for a moment, never looking away from the window, as if his memories were projected across the sky outside and he was watching them flicker by. He began talking about his wife and the dances they would go to. The first little cottage they purchased off Fairfax and the good times they had together and where they ate and where they danced and where they would meet when they were dating. He stood there, facing the outside, as I remarked about how I wish I could have experienced L.A. back then. How nice it must have been to smell the magnolias and the orange groves before the traffic and smog took its place.
He was quiet again and I didn't say anything, knowing he was wistfully lost, off somewhere in his mind. I just stared out the window with him, the two of us standing there for the longest moment. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw him reach into his back pocket for his handkerchief. He removed his glasses, put his head down and just held his handkerchief tightly against his eyes and I knew he was weeping.
For just a second, I felt bad for stirring up a regretful longing in the dear man. I looked for something to say but was wise enough to just let the moment be. After a minute, he wiped his face, smiled at me, patted me on the back and, without another word, turned away and went back to his desk, where he sat, looking off out the windows once again.
Charlie is, I'm sure, as long gone by now as his far-off, magic, sunlit days of Southern California. But whenever I hear that Eagles song—about a "place where people were smilin'"—I am always moved by it. Especially the last verse's woeful decree: "You call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye."
I always think of Charlie and his wife, and his stories of an early paradise that must have been something to see.