Wilshire and Citrus

A man, his dog and a great depression

Illustration by Chris B. Murray

Illustration by Chris B. Murray

On a scorching Sunday in late June, my son and I finished a baseball workout, stopped at Thrifty Ice Cream on Pecos Road, bought a chocolate milk shake and took it to my 100-year-old grandmother, Lillian Lorand Dubin. She peppered us with questions about our changing little world—a new baseball team, a new home, a new dog. Most of all, she wanted to know about the dog. Then she repaid us with a dog story of her own.

My great-grandfather Erno, she told us, had a dog, a honey-colored chow named Mickey. Mickey belonged to Erno the way only certain dogs belong to certain people—for better, for worse, and forever.

Erno had come to the United States from Budapest around 1910 and settled in Cleveland’s burgeoning Hungarian community. He had been a handsome young stage actor and singer; his parents owned a prosperous lumber business in Szeged and considered acting an unworthy profession. He didn’t want to shame them, but he wanted to keep acting, so he changed his name from Laszter to Lorand. I have in my photo album a shot of Erno posing rakishly among his fellow performers; it’s a sharp crew, Budapest’s most eligible bachelors. They’re standing on a busy city street, in the back of what appears to be a wagon, ready for an audience. Among Erno’s friends was S.Z. Sakall, who would later grow portly, earn the name “Cuddles” and play Carl the waiter at Rick’s Café in Casablanca.

In Cleveland, Erno set to work making suits and courting a young woman, Lenke Marton, the second of 17 children from the Hungarian village of Szamosújvár. He married Lenke. He dreamed of making his way to Hollywood and onto the big screen. A girl was born, and then a boy.

In 1929, he and Lenke set off for Los Angeles in a brand-new Essex with their 17-year-old daughter, Lillian, 14-year-old son, Joe, and Mickey, the honey-colored chow. The car broke down in Lawrence, Kan.; there was no money for repairs, so they left Joe’s violin for collateral. They arrived in L.A. and ransomed the fiddle. Movies spoke by that time, and they did not speak with a Hungarian accent. Erno remained a tailor. With his brother-in-law, he started a clothing business. Dreams were still possible—just different ones. Within months, the stock market crashed.

Erno was a proud man, who loved his family fiercely and raised his daughter strictly. He was a cosmopolitan Jew, non-dogmatic but filled with faith in the sanctity of doing things right; he embraced America for everything America believed itself to be. He believed in culture and the beauty of language and the importance of practicing the piano. The Depression did not suit him.

What suited him was Mickey the honey-colored chow, who did not care whether he was a tailor or an actor or a man deeply wounded by the fallen economy. Mickey was by Erno’s side through work’s endless hours—fabrics were chosen, clients were measured, patterns were cut, books were kept. When the work dried up, Mickey did not leave Erno’s side. When the stomach infection set in, Mickey did not leave the bedside.

Erno died in 1932 at the age of 43.

The day of the funeral, Lenke, Lillian and Joe sat down in the car and began that longest of rides, and Mickey took off running behind the wheels. He chased the car down the street, around the corner, through the crowded avenues of Boyle Heights. He ran and ran, and finally they stopped and Mickey climbed in and went to his master’s funeral. After that, he followed Lenke wherever she went. In their bond, Erno survived—his authority, his embrace, his fierce and unyielding dreaminess.

The Lorands moved from Boyle Heights to an apartment on Wilshire Boulevard and Citrus Avenue. Lillian supported the family on the $25 a week she made as a secretary at Occidental Life Insurance. She was a champion typist; she took dictation from A.P. Giannini, the founder of Bank of America. Mickey, meanwhile, was Lenke’s constant companion; he knew Wilshire well, and Wilshire knew him, a dog about town. One day a year after Erno’s death, Lenke and her sister-in-law went shopping on Wilshire. As always, they brought Mickey; as always, they tied his leash to a post outside the store.

When they came back outside, he was gone. They walked for blocks, looking down every street and alley. They went home. Mickey did not follow them.

A year later, Lenke and her sister-in-law emerged from the same store and heard wild but muffled barking. They spotted the source, behind the passenger-side window of a Packard. The dog leapt and howled and whimpered. It pressed its nose against the window. It scratched at the glass with its paws. Lenke waited for the car’s owner to return. He arrived, he opened the door, the dog jumped out and ran to Lenke.

“This is our dog,” she told the man.

“No, it’s not,” the man said. “He’s mine. I bought him right here a year ago.”

The dog jumped up on Lenke; it practically embraced her with his paws. Lenke looked the man in the eye.

“Look at him,” she said. “Don’t you think he’s my dog?”

The man hesitated, looked, drew his breath in and let it out slowly.

Mickey went home with Lenke.

There are things dogs know and things they don’t know. Some people say it’s all just instinct. Maybe so, but Mickey had an instinct for family—and he knew this one was his.

Years later, when Lenke became too ill to take care of Mickey, she gave him to a home for elderly Jews, where he kept everyone company. He was kind to them all—and they loved him back. But sometimes Lenke would come visit, and all the old folks—no strangers to the way a feeling could endure through pretty much anything—could see that no matter where Mickey lived, he knew exactly where home really was.

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