Friday, May 24, 2013

Places I Have Worked and Lived

When I was in my late twenties Mom loaned me the down payment for a tiny cottage in Echo Park which at the time, perhaps like Downtown or Boyle Heights now, was edgy. I do not remember paying my mother back or whether or not this had been expected of me. The property, a 1924 cottage on a walk street about as long as a short block, was kind of a hard sell even to, in the argot of the era, “urban pioneers.” It was the first place I could make my own. The kids call the house on the walk, the Owl House because it reminds them of the Winnie the Pooh illustration. I could see my neighbor's living room from my kitchen window. She was a handsome, sophisticated woman, about ten years my senior. I was intimidated by her. One night I saw her alone in her living room and emboldened, called and asked her to join me for dinner and was surprised when she happily accepted. I found her more accessible than I'd imagined. We'd both grown up in the valley but she was from south of Ventura raised by artsy educated bohos in a beautiful modern house. The stuff I grew up with is now back in style but in my college rejection of the bourgeois I just loathed it. I copied my neighbor's color combinations and then she'd repaint her place using even better colors. She inspired me to amass Mexican masks and California pottery. The first blank canvas I had was thrilling.

My friend Larry and I planned an elaborate scavenger hunt through L.A. The list of items is in a box in the garage but I remember that the first clue was placed in a locker at Union Station and at the finish-line was an elaborate party on the patio of the Owl house. We spent months planning it. Larry had necromantic predilections but also an affection for whimsy. He collected skull and Scottie dog ephemera. He referred to his Fairfax area 30's Spanish apartment, chock a bloc with cherished items, as the Casa Del Muerte. He wanted a live Scotty dog to name Mrs. Danvers, a wish eventually fulfilled. He was an audio engineer and painstakingly made a cassette of all our favorite songs from lps which he labeled “Shock the Geezers.”

My favorite picture of my friend Frank, who died of AIDS, is taken on the porch of the Owl house. He is thoughtful and gorgeous. Later he became an encyclopedia of physical maladies. I grew impatient with him and pulled away. I had not realized, nor had he until he was much more symptomatic, that he was stricken. I did not talk to him for about two years before he died. I learned of his death much later and felt ashamed but I cherish the photo that reminds me of the happy times we had in my first house.

My elegant neighbor taught me about genteel poverty and well cut clothes and Mac makeup. She knew Ed Rusha personally and edited an extremely high tone big budget scholarly magazine. We took two trips to Mexico together. She had a moody, fragile side. I pulled away a bit when her mental health began to fray. I failed to support her in a battle with a neighbor, who was indeed provocative, that sent her into a tailspin. I wrote a letter to the neighbor suggesting that he be more considerate of her but I would not take part in a law suit she instigated and from what I am told lost. She stopped returning my calls about ten years ago and I hear she is living off the grid in New Mexico. Larry died, still in his forties, of diabetes complications. My memories of different phases of my life are tied into buildings I have lived and worked in. Earlier homes are recalled in monochrome but the Owl House is vivid color.

When I became pregnant I was concerned about the walk. Even in the earliest stages of pregnancy, I was at least a hundred pounds overweight, and the walk became challenging. My first “grown up” reading was Jack Smith's daily column in The L.A. Times. His description of the Mount Washington hillside neighborhood enchanted me and I decided at about age nine that this is where I wanted to live. We looked for days at houses with a portly realtor who sported a gigantic diamond crusted wedding band and referred to his boyfriend as his “spouse” which was not that common in early nineties. We had a couple of offers rejected and lost out on a few others. We agonized about one house that was out of our financial range. It had a pool. There was urgency. The realtor was patient and comforting. The cheapest house on his list was in lower Mount Washington. Every room was painted a different shade of red. There was shag carpeting and furniture that looked like it came from government surplus. The owner was a sex therapist. We removed many mirror tiles. My neighbor from the walk street helped me with the colors. Casamurphy is now the house I have lived in the longest. I've chosen the colors for the last couple paint jobs all by myself and am satisfied with the results.

My next real estate transaction was when the city bought the huge office warehouse via eminent domain. My dad fought so long on agreeing to a price that by the time he finally settled we only had about two months to find a place and move 10,000 films. Which is a number an employee threw out twenty years ago so I just always say theatrically ten THOUSAND films but the truth is I have no idea of how many films I have. My dad and I looked at a number of commercial buildings and we couldn't find anything that would work as an office/warehouse. A sign went up on a building two blocks east. We had sold off and shipped batches of films back to the distributors, as the non-theatrical business faded away in the advent of video. The building was smaller than anything we'd looked at but it was cheap. It was a divided office with a jeweler on one side and a collection agency on the other. It is devoid of charm but Dad had very little use for aesthetics when it came to business. We shed a bunch more prints. The employees had to cut huge racks down for the much lower ceilings. We were jammed in but made it work. It was a cash transaction so there was no big negotiation drama except for the daunting move itself.

My mother was no longer competent to live alone at my childhood home. She was placed in a facility that was as nice as these institutions can be, although none of them are really never very nice at all. It seemed nice to her though and after a rocky week or two she adapted gloriously and nabbed a boyfriend and I was even notified by management about some hanky panky. Simultaneous to relocating my mother to the home we had to clean out the house she'd lived in for over fifty years and the phrase “depression child” should give you a clue as to the volume of its contents. My friends Dan and Nancy handled what was an incredibly emotional sale. I met Nancy because one of my children was struggling with the flute in the elementary school orchestra. When asked what instrument he wanted to play and he impulsively said flute only to learn later that 10 year-olds are not often familiar with James Galway or Jean Pierre Rampal and the flute is considered a girl's instrument. Nancy nevertheless instructed him patiently for several years until she finally accepted the futility. Nancy and her husband Dan are musicians. I have always considered myself first and foremost a writer but have accepted the need to ply another trade to earn my keep. Spuds says that it's fine to train for a profession, even if you have the soul of an artist. If you really love doing something you will continue to do it. For me, giving up the notion of supporting myself by writing has freed me up to do the kind of writing I find most satisfying. I have made the most of running a business and often have actual fun with it and have made many wonderful acquaintances. Faced with two kids, a mortgage and the rapidly changing music industry, Dan and Nancy became licensed realtors. Nancy continues to teach flute and play with a few small orchestras. I suspect she gets more pleasure from making music now that her livelihood is less dependent on it. Like I have made the best of running a business and pretty much enjoy it, Nancy and Dan have taken to real estate. My mother's home was one of their first listings and I am forever indebted to them for shepherding me through one of the most difficult things I have ever done.

The business has changed again in the fifteen years we've been in our smaller office. Digitization means that our work is less labor intensive which has spawned more competition and caused us to be less profitable. The building that once seemed so tiny is suddenly too big. I interviewed a number of cheap-suited commercial realtors. Dan and Nancy did some research and found me Bruce, sort of a commercial version of them. He loves the wheeling and dealing but also takes satisfaction in seeing that his clients better themselves. Bruce used his imagination and encouraged me to lease out half of the building rather than sell. We kept the big open room with film racks and a little storage room became my office. Bruce found a nice production company to lease the other side for two years. The tenants left and the economy has improved to the extent that now it's time to sell. We've had several offers that have fallen apart for one reason or another. I know we're going to have to move but I don't know when or where. It's crazy making but when I mentally remove myself from the equation it is remarkable to see Bruce in action. I don't know what, if any creative aspirations he started out with but he writes with a clarity and eloquence that elevates his avocation to the stratosphere. He was a gymnast in an earlier lifetime. I think with Bruce as with Dan and Nancy the experience of intense and exhausting practice has informed their approach to other endeavors.

Last week I had some gnarly dental surgery done. If you like gross out stories I will tell you in person but I'm going to spare the more delicate readers. This happened while I was texting back and forth frantically with Bruce the realtor madly trying to salvage a deal the ultimately fell through. Joe College was my post-surgical caretaker. Duties included a 2 a.m. emergency room visit. We still have issues, like in any parent/child relationship but as he drove me back to my motel in the middle of the night I felt enormously safe with him. He returns for summer break tonight with a bunch of great kids that I've come to love over the last two years. Himself's reaction is as you'd imagine but I love having a house full of kids. In September when I return from dropping Spuds at Bard I'll return to a new office and the house will seem incredibly empty. The kids are moving on and before long will have their own homes to furnish and decorate. I hope though that their memories of our house are always in vivid color. 

1 comment:

FionnchĂș said...

My dad told me he moved about 30 times as a child--to stay one step ahead of the landlord in the Depression, I assume. I moved growing up four times which (the last time) was traumatic as this break marked the end of my "happier" childhood. I am glad for your own stability at Fulton Ave. and the Owl House and of course the place that has no nickname now. The boys have memories of one place that surrounds them and the colors and furnishings inspired by your vision provide us all with our own recollections and a place to settle into--just look at the dogs + cats. xxx me