January 22, 2019

The night Elvis died

Gina Nahai

My mother’s sister and her husband met us at the airport and drove us to the Holiday Inn on Sunset Boulevard near the 405 Freeway. We already had a house in L.A., purchased a few years earlier, but you don’t move in to a new place after dark, or buy a car, or make any major decisions — it can be bad luck — so we stayed at the hotel instead.

In the morning, my aunt and uncle strode into the room — he lighthearted and ebullient as a kid on a new bicycle, she forever playing the part of the adult. The sun was out and the freeway beneath our window went on endlessly to the north and south.

The only thing wrong with the world was that Elvis had died during the night.

That was 40 years ago this past Aug. 16. My parents had planned to leave Iran for many years before the revolution. They were barely out of their 20s then, too young to really plan for their future. They had come because the present here was more appealing to them than what they had in Iran.

My aunt and uncle had been living in Pasadena for a good many years. After we moved here they became — and remain — our family’s favorite people. They introduced us to the precious few other Iranian Jews already living in Los Angeles. The women took English language classes together; they had dinner parties all the time, and invited all the families. On Saturdays, they met at Clifton’s Cafeteria in the Century Square Shopping Center in Century City and ate chicken potpie and green Jell-O. On Sunday nights, they all went to Ships Coffee Shop at Wilshire and Westwood, with a toaster at every table and coffee refills all night.

They told my parents where to buy furniture for the house, which dentist to go to. Someone recommended a cleaning lady — a statuesque Chinese woman with kabuki-type hair and makeup who insisted we call her Auntie Mary. She was allergic to dust and detergents, so she stayed in the kitchen having Persian tea and cake while the rest of us ran the vacuum cleaner and did the dishes. She finally quit when one of us forgot to called her “Auntie” one too many times.

It’s different, you see, when you leave before you have to. The vast majority of Iranians in this country, and certainly Iranian Jews, escaped the place in 1978 and thereafter. In those early years after the revolution, most of them would have liked nothing more than to safely return to their previous lives.

But for those families, like ours, who had gone looking for the gambit; who had been brave or reckless, visionary or desperate enough to take that great, terrifying leap of faith — for them every day in this new home was a test of the correctness of their decision. So we tried. We tried to get it right, to leave behind our old selves, to shed the shadow of our grandparents. Mostly, I think, we tried very hard to hold on to the optimism that had made our move possible.

My uncle, who announced the passing of Elvis, had left Iran at age 14, alone and with no money, and somehow ended up in Los Angeles. He had worked in a hamburger joint and slept in a church attic, moved up to working the ticket booth at the horse races track, and eventually become a banker. He had married my aunt on their third date, and bought a house sight unseen, at night, only to find the next morning that the roof was missing. He palled around with B-movie stars and had his own booth at Perino’s and a fancy new Cadillac with a permanent Barry Manilow/Neil Diamond soundtrack. Every third sentence he uttered was a variation of, “Don’t worry about it; it’ll work out.”

You have to have grown up in an old world to understand the potency and strangeness of those words. It’s a common saying here, but for my parents and the other pre-revolution settlers in Los Angeles who came from a culture where worry was a given, sorrow was hereditary and every misstep would follow you to the grave, a carefree mind and the ability to believe that things will indeed work out were extraordinary concepts.

For a while there, before life’s inevitable disappointments evoked the old habits, I think we got it right. That hollowness you feel in your chest and stomach as the plane lifts off and begins to ascend, that lightheadedness of the first few seconds of awakening from a beautiful dream before reality sets in — I believe my parents did get a good taste of that dizzying euphoria of weightlessness in those first few years after the death of Elvis. I know they managed to give their children some of that native commodity of this new world, that confidence that the present can be better, the grass can be greener, if only you dare follow that highway beneath your window.

GINA NAHAI’s most recent novel is “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.”