I learned to speak at the Farmer’s Market on Fairfax and 3rd, or Farmie’s Market, as I called it, in the late 1980s. I learned by speaking ice cream. My parents would lift me up and sit me on the counters of Gill’s and Bennett’s and teach me the most beautiful words. “Chocolate, can you say chh-ooocolate?” “Vanilla, vaa-nnilllaa.” I’d study the chilled buckets of heaven, point my tiny, grubby finger toward the one that looked like, well, frozen milk, and say, “Banilla!” and the line would go wild! My parents would hoist me up like Rudy (from the hit movie Rudy) and an honorable ice cream scooper would say, “What a smart girl!” as they handed over a sugar cone with one scoop of banilla. Oh, the sweet glory of being Baby Rudy. To rule and drool sugar, and then take a nap.
Perhaps it’s the dystopian state of America or just where I am in my personal life, but when I read that Gill’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream was being forced to close after eighty years, my first thought was, “I’d lie down in traffic right now if it would save Gill’s.” I’d become Rocky Road to keep Gill’s arootbeerfloat. See, I’m not doing well. But seriously, the Gill family owned and operated the same simple, extraordinary ice cream stand in Los Angeles for eighty years. Eighty years in Los Angeles is like a thousand years in Rome. Gill’s was our Colosseum and we blew it. I wish I was the Mayor of Farmer’s Market, I wouldn’t have let this happen.
Besides learning to speak, I also learned how to be a human being at the Farmer’s Market in the late 80s/early 90s, under the tutelage of Los Angelenos in their late 80s/early 90s. They were my neighbors and we were all regulars. I hammed up the hokie-pokie with blue-haired starlets and Walt Disney inkers. I mastered the art of picking the correct old-man-hand that held the quarter, from hunched over ‘I Love Lucy’ prop-masters and other long-retired men who were like Willy Loman, except they had a place to go.
You see, the Farmer’s Market is supposed to be for all ages, all races and all income-levels. It’s supposed to be a melting pot. A place where you can get almost any kind of food but especially a cheap, good cup of coffee if you only have three dollars at the moment. Especially invaluable to the elderly, broke artists, and other bottom-shelf orphans, the Market is meant to be a place you can go to alone, but feel somewhat at home. Where you can order a lemonade and sit down and feel like you’re a human being, surrounded by other human beings.
There should be room for ice cream champions, but more importantly, there should always be room for failures and the forgotten at the Farmer’s Market. You have The Grove for fancy, festive, soulless consumption and Mario Lopez’s teeth. The Farmer’s Market isn’t for the pristine, plastic pearls that exude from the gums of Mario Lopez. It is for the faulty dentures of the elderly and the adorable, shark-like chompers of awkward children. It’s for people with either messed up or just normal teeth.
A lady with a hairnet, who reminds you of your dead grandma, is supposed to kindly yell at you to help her push her iconic, light green cart that only has three mangoes in it. You help her with her cart, she helps you with your heart, that’s how it works. Then you buy a kid some stickers at Sticker Planet, the kid sticks a sticker onto a first-string day drinker, the day drinker cries because he remembers he used to love stickers. There is a formula. It works. It’s stunning. Don’t mess with it.
My parents were savvy and picked up on the majesty of the Farmer’s Market right when they moved from New York to Los Angeles in the late 1970s. They were talented, under-employed actors (I take after them) and called the Farmer’s Market their office. They’d have a bad audition or a great audition and then head to their office to blow off steam, grab a bite or a drink, and make a few phone calls from one of the pay phones by Du-par’s.
Then they had my sister and me. We went to Hancock Park Elementary right down the street, so after school we’d go to their office a bunch. I have wonderful memories of blissfully devouring Patsy’s pizza as I watched my dad violently yell at his agent from his favorite pay phone. I also have more gentle memories of my mother being kind and conversational with basically everyone there. She made hundreds of people’s days, especially the oldies who were lonely.
I know I can never experience the ethereal beauty of the Farmer’s Market of the early 90s again. The one I adore. I’ll never feel the lightness of riding in the back seat as we cruised into the endless sea of available parking spaces, on a lazy, perfect LA afternoon. Listening to a mellow symphony of cooing doves and the lightest traffic you can imagine. Of using all of my might to close the heavy door of my mom’s 1964 Thunderbird convertible and running to catch up with my big sister who looked so cool in her bike shorts and neon green hat. Of going over the food options in my six-year-old head like it was a precious formula that would save or demolish all of mankind. Pizza and ice cream, or tacos and ice cream? The best day of my life was when my dad let me have all three. I had discovered the formula: pizza + tacos + ice cream. Eureka!
I cling to the magic, I reach for it. But, sadly, some of it is just gone. I won’t step foot in the detached, darker, more mysterious Farmer’s Market building. The one that was torn down in order to build a Chipotle or whatever. I won’t wander through the vintage maze of whimsical glass display cases lit up to showcase collector’s items and collector’s junk.
My newer eyes blinking wide to receive the messages of strange figurines, rare baseball cards, and Hollywood memorabilia sold by kooky and often spooky vendors. I can’t have the gloriously rickety Kiddy Land, an oasis for playing skee ball and wasting my parents’ quarters — that was demolished to make room for the Grove. My sneaky darling, Kiddy Land, where I’d shoot the moon on vibrating horsie or panda rides that were a beautiful lesson in the fleeting joys of life. A lesson in, “That’s it?”
I can’t have the old taco stand, the one at stall #322 before Loteria moved in. The one that I don’t know the name of because I couldn’t read yet, but I knew what was up. Those tacos were the tacos that got away. I haven’t found a dreamier, greasier taco. If my taco-soulmate is out there, please find me, I love you.
Miraculously though, slivers of that magic are still there. Gill’s was one of them. An eighty-year-old Los Angeles landmark. It should’ve been named just that, a historical landmark. Thank you, Gill family and your enchanting ice cream stand, for teaching me to speak ice cream. I will never buy ice cream from your replacement. I bet their ice cream is dumb and their decor is the worst. I hate new ice cream. I wish I was the Mayor of Farmer’s Market, but I’m not.
Like I said, I take after my parents. I have a bad audition or an exciting meeting that leads to nothing, then I head to my office. I go there to blow off steam, grab a bite or a coffee, help an old lady with her cart or an old man with his tray. I’m grateful for the Hollywood dreams that I dream. They are lonely and loyal, lovely and lean, and gracefully glimmering in Farmer’s Market Green.
Edited by Matthew Kang.
Photographed by Wonho Frank Lee. Shot on 35mm and 120 film.
Full disclosure: Editor Matthew Kang is an owner of a Los Angeles-area ice cream shop.