For an Iranian Refugee, the Closing of an L.A. Kmart Is the End of an Era

”It was the first store I’d ever seen that sold everything from women’s underwear to kids’ bikes.”

On Sunday, November 25, the Kmart on 3rd and Fairfax finally closed, and with it went the first tangible proof I ever had that I was no longer in post-revolutionary Iran.

 

My family and I came to Los Angeles as protected refugees in 1989, when I was 7 years old. The first time I entered that Kmart and saw not only an escalator for shoppers but an escalator for their shopping carts, I knew that I was no longer in Tehran.

That cart escalator, which runs from the first floor (apparel, etc.) to the basement (housewares, etc.) was still there when I visited for the last time a few weeks ago. I was sans shopping cart and had to fight the urge not to go for a joyride on the magical contraption that first enthralled me almost 30 years ago.

Back then, I didn’t speak much English, but I remember being proud of myself for instantly recognizing the letter “K” in “Kmart.” It was the first store I’d ever seen that sold everything from women’s underwear to kids’ bikes. And it was conveniently located next door to a Ross Dress for Less that’s still there today. Ask any immigrant or refugee and they’ll tell you how grateful they are for Ross’s discount duds.

That Kmart was also the staging ground for my first brush with pre-adolescent self-restraint. My sister, then 10, and I would peruse the aisles of children’s apparel and marvel at the colorful dresses and graphic T-shirts. We’d shed our headscarves—mandatory for female children and adults per Iranian law—and our long, modest jackets the prior year, and were still overwhelmed with our new American options for fabulous attire, none of which we could afford.

I knew our father had lost everything when we came to the U.S., and though I badly wanted a purple sweater with a white cat on it, one I had eyeballed for the entire winter of 1990, I never dared ask my father to buy it for me. My sister was pining for a New Kids on the Block jacket, but also worried about burdening our family. Mostly, we didn’t want to put our parents in a position to have to decide whether to put back some groceries so they could buy us a few frivolous items.

I never did get that sweater, and my sister never got to wear Jordan Knight’s face on her back, but we always came home with plenty of Sunny Delight, which, in all our culturally unaware glory, we actually mistook for real orange juice. Then we’d wonder why it never helped us overcome the colds and allergies we were beginning to develop from L.A. smog.

During our first year in the city, my family and I had a wonderful routine every Saturday night: To pass the time, we would walk around the old May Company on Wilshire and Fairfax, and I would try to look at the ground so that I could evade the glory of the little girls’ designer dresses. Back then we were all mesmerized by the building’s shiny, gold exterior, which in the years after would fade like a gold lamé jacket that had accidentally been thrown into the dryer.

The May Company building gave us the impression that the streets of America were literally paved with gold. The area where our new dreams of freedom were unfolding was even called “the Miracle Mile.”

After the May Company, we drove a few blocks to Kmart, where I would beg my parents for a shopping cart just so I could put the damn thing into the cart escalator and hop on the other escalator parallel to it, arriving before my cart and feeling like a princess whose fairy tale carriage had arrived for her—only my carriage was covered in graffiti and contained the remnants of an old banana.

We would end our night at the old Sizzler on Wilshire, just west of Fairfax. There was no greater sight in the world for our refugee family than the rows and rows of salads, entrées, and desserts. I confess that we may have had a hand (and a spoon and a fork) in that location’s closing.

LACMA bought the May Company building in 1994, and in 2019, it will open as the site of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. As for the Kmart, it’ll become the site of a mixed-use development with both residential and retail space. If I could, I’d erect a statue of a solitary shopping cart to memorialize what the defunct big-box store meant to a young refugee—and of course, it would be covered in gold.

Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer who previously served as Executive Director of 30 Years After, a non-profit organization that promotes civic action and young leadership among Iranian-American Jews.


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