It starts with a Facebook photo at a water park in Brooklyn. People are in bathing suits, in cutoffs, in tank tops, cooling off in fountains and little urban pools. I am in a long sleeved shirt, long pants, a floppy hat, dark glasses; to protect myself from the sun. Fear-based attire. Vanity attire. Protect the complexion at all costs.

I title the photo: “Gertrude Stein goes to the water park.” And I think, “Yes! Put Gertrude in a place not at all of her time, her understanding, her world and see what happens.“

Where shall we put her? How about the landscape of my childhood: Los Angeles in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

I tell the brilliant Los Angeles photographer Ed Valfre–who captures all kinds of Los Angeles in all kinds of moods–my idea. He is enchanted with the idea.

I dress as her. I don her traditional attire, in preparation for plunging back into Los Angeles. People are skeptical. They say, “You look nothing like her.” Alice B. Toklas, maybe. But Gertrude, no.

I don’t care. Because it’s the idea of Gertrude. The unapologetic portliness, the determined way she places weight more in one foot than in the other when she stands, her heavy shoes, her brooches, her men’s sweater vests. Her solidity. And the same unblinking gaze in every photo.

I can’t lie. I do this to amuse myself; I love incongruity. Fortunately, Los Angeles-based photographer Ed Valfre–who explores all of Los Angeles capturing its tableaux and its nuances–thinks it’s funny as well. So we set out to drop Gertrude into the Los Angeles of the the 1960’s and 1970’s, the Los Angeles of my childhood.

In my childhood, LA felt like a prison. Concrete. Asphalt. Needing a car and not having one. A sun that burned too perfectly bright. Hideous strip malls, garish advertisements, harshly lit gas stations. I was there, just in time to see the corporate, the developments all replacing the solid, the beautiful the natural.  Razed fruit orchards, disappearing horse farms, low slung ranch houses turning into stucco apartment complexes. The obliteration of history. My world is floating away, I am floating away.

Can things just hold still?, I beg. Can I grab on to something, hold it in my hand, call it mine? Can I be from somewhere, historical, traditional, grounded? I have to get out, to something not about to disappear. I flee to Paris at 17, longing for the old, the solid.  I cut my knee tripping on a cobblestone street my 3rd day there and am thrilled. Cobblestone, I think. Cobblestone is history.

Gertrude had the privilege of Paris in its glory. Uncrowded and unpolluted. Holding court with the Moderns–the painters, the writers, the intellectuals. A household, a social life kept neat by her lover and companion Alice B. Toklas. Gertrude the anchor, the leader, the queen bee. It all seems so perfect. I want to force her to experience my world of anomie. So I shove her into it, from a place of envy.

When I look at these photos, I see that this does not bother her at all. Gertrude is Gertrude against the harsh blue sky of the Southland, an airplane almost scraping the top of her head. She is at home on the fake donkey in Olvera Street, holding her own next to the kid smoking on the bench in Chinatown. She is not flummoxed by the harsh lighting of the 7-11 or the garish pink of a Slurpee.

Mostly, though, she’s just funny. She’s the funny of incongruity. And with that amusement comes a certain relief, at least for me:, her persistent solidity in what I still think of as a quickly shifting landscape. “I am Gertrude,” she seems to say. “I am here. Hold still, I’m pinning everything in this changing world to one place. Nothing changes while I’m here.”

— Jenny Beth Schaffer


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