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In the Garden

On a beautiful warm Saturday, the parking lot at the Huntington Library has overflowed and a line of people are walking in the street towards the library entrance.

Joining them, I noticed that the curbs on both sides of the streets all around the library, except for those touching its grounds directly, are posted with "no-parking" signs on wood stakes jammed into the lawns at regular intervals.

The manicured lawns -- I mean they are perfect, mint green, not a blemish, freshly mowed -- are in front of palatial estates that are like ambassadorial residences, enormous, grand entrances, flagpoles, one oddly flying a Brazilian flag, and Romanesque facades to modern-day castles.

A friendly Huntington employee -- the library's volunteers and staff have been unfailingly pleasant so far -- is counting the number of people walking in.

I ask him about the signs and his open expression turns to a slight smile.

He says the signs are indeed official, put there by the City of San Marino, and they are indeed temporary, only there when the great unwashed or just the non-ridiculously wealthy want to take a stroll through the gardens on a sunny day.

The employee says in careful terms, but still with an amused expression, that the locals have a lot of money and so they have influence with the city. He adds that the local government has a lot of community meetings.

So streets that are public, owned by the public and paid for by the public of California and the nation, are nevertheless treated as the private property of those who live alongside them. Because the rich do not like the rest of us that much, especially our presence anywhere on public ways close to where they live.

The amazing thing, because I have seen it plenty of times, is that the city officials don't stand up to it. They serve their masters.

But of course we and a true flood of people are walking onto the grounds once owned by the family of a fabulously wealthy railroad tycoon. And the gardens are definitely open to the public which is all over the place, speaking Chinese, Korean, Russian and of course a smattering of English, walking through the rose gardens, snuggling on benches, playing with the carp.

I had been almost forced a couple weeks ago to visit the Huntington, which is just a few blocks from my apartment in Pasadena -- funny thing, I had avoided going for years because I heard you had to make a parking reservation and the whole thing just sounded so uptight.

But none of that was true and $120 got me a year-round pass for two.

On Saturday, I wanted to check out the current exhibition, which included a chest of drawers for a woman who was killed by French soldiers allied with local Indians. Nearby is the painting of a serious, busty woman who is known, we are told, for having been courted by Andrew Jackson before he "withdrew his attention."

Another painting depicts a snow sleigh turned on its side in front of a tavern, with a man and woman spilled out. On the ground in front of their out-stretched hands is a bottle and a newspaper, clearly titled the Pittsburgh Gazette.

The explanation on the wall says the painter despised the Gazette because of its editorial position advocating compromise with the South during the Civil War.

The true objective of the day trip is a little café in the Chinese Garden where we can have a beer next to a little lake. As the tables fall into shadow and the day wanes, a brightly colored male duck starts bobbing his head rapidly, all the way up and down, as though spring-loaded, while a dun-colored female does the same.

Quick as you please, he paddles around behind her and practically drowns her as he does a rapid and frenetic bit of business. Immediately afterwards, he stretches his full torso up out of the water and spreads his colorful wings wide. Another male paddles straight over and also spreads his wings, as the female demurely swims away.

On the way out, a fit, blonde woman walking in front of us explains to her early college-age son and his three friends that Henry Huntington first bought the grounds from a rancher, then built the enormous residence, and then built the library to house his books and artwork.

Leland Stanford, she continued, was also made rich through the railroads. He and his wife Jane established the university for the youth of California after their son died at a young age.

Jane was "very emancipated," she tells the boys, and as a result the university admitted women from the time it opened, which was very uncommon at the time. She added that the school was a pioneer in the development of moving pictures and it was at Stanford that it was proved that a horse does not touch the ground when in mid-gallop.

That was the only part where the boys seemed interested.

As we walked back along the street to our car, at the end of a beautiful, sunny day, I noticed that all the no-parking signs were gone. They were no longer needed, the public was leaving.

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