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Until I was ten years old, I lived in Los Angeles, just a few miles from the LA Coliseum. I still remember the address: 1711 W. 60th Street. Isn’t it weird that I would remember that address? I haven’t lived in that house for 72 years, yet there it is, 1711 W. 60th Street, a permanent little memory in my brain, probably occupying space that I might have used all these years for other things.
My home was located in one of those quintessential LA neighborhoods you see in movies every now and then, a row of palm trees in front of little pastel-colored stucco bungalows. I visited there a few years ago and the neighborhood looked exactly the same. Apparently, time doesn’t pass when you’re a little pastel bungalow in LA.
There was an Italian woman down the street, the mother of my buddy Pat Smaldino, who bought live rabbits from a farmers’ market downtown. She would come home with a rabbit and hang the poor thing upside down on a tree in her backyard and then club it to death with a baseball bat.
I usually avoided Pat’s backyard when her mother did the clubbing, but one day I walked into the backyard by mistake and, before I could avert my eyes, I saw Pat’s mother swing her club and hit the wriggling and squealing rabbit on the shoulder instead of the head. She swung again and hit the head of the rabbit a glancing blow. All this time, this rabbit was screaming like a baby. If you’ve ever heard a rabbit in distress, you know that terrible sound. I finally turned my head away but still heard the thwack of the coup de grâce. I ran home, crying all the way.
I’m now 81 years old and two clear memories out of that little downtown LA neighborhood have traveled with me all these years: an inconsequential address and a traumatic scene of horror.
I suspect the image of the rabbit who cried before he died had much to do with me being overly sensitive to animal suffering to this day. There’s a particular television advertisement for a non-profit animal rescue outfit that shows an emaciated dog chained to a post. As soon as I hear that ad’s familiar music, I either turn away, as I should have years ago in Pat Smaldino’s backyard, or grab for the remote to turn the channel.
It’s also possible that the image of the screaming rabbit had something to do with my desire not to be complicit, in even the smallest way, in the killing of animals for my food. I’ve been a vegetarian, off and on, for a good part of my life, and my conscience nags me when I’m off my vegetarian diet. That screaming rabbit won’t even let me enjoy a hot dog.
As Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”