Discover more from Make More Pie
Meet the Neighbors
"Forty Bucks and A Dream: Stories of Los Angeles," chapter 18
I am serializing Forty Bucks and A Dream: Stories of Los Angeles on Substack. Below the current piece is the Table of Contents, with links to what’s posted before. If you like these stories please consider becoming a paid subscriber. Feel free to share!
MEET THE NEIGHBORS
In eighteen years in Los Angeles; I lived in five homes, moving progressively from west to east. Each time, the rent was higher and the house larger. Correspondingly, my neighbors went from working class to the sorts that keep a 1972 Jensen Interceptor in the carport, not to drive but because it is such a beautiful object.
The neighbors at Curson Avenue in West Hollywood were mostly Armenian, including the dozen or so housedress-clad older women in the apartment complex next door, women who would verily ululate at our fence when they realized we were having another get-together for two hundred. On the other side was a two-story complex where my brother’s friend Todd lived. Todd was a plumber who shared an apartment with his mother-in-law, an Armenian widow in black, and his SoCal, short-shorts-wearing wife. At twenty-four, Todd already had two kids, the first born blind. Todd spent every afternoon in our yard smoking pot, and that’s where he was when his wife banged open the screen door and stood on their balcony.
“TAHD!” she screamed, “I’M PREGNANT AGAIN!”
“Cool,” Todd squeaked, holding the smoke in his lungs.
I next moved, while pregnant, to Holly Drive, a street that runs up to the Hollywood Reservoir. Tim and I had the big front house. Behind us was a duplex where the owner lived. Dave was about forty, and had one of those nose jobs that leave the nostrils so large you can see into the skull. Dave’s parents owned the property; Dave was a musician (or said he was) and a nice guy, but I don’t think he had any friends, because he was always trying to pal around with us. One day, I found him in our driveway with a couple of young guys, painting a rock with a $50 can of varnish he’d taken from my storage shed. You may wonder why he was doing this; I sure did, and asked with all the good will of a woman entering her ninth month of pregnancy during a heat wave. Dave’s young friends shook their heads, said, “Later, dude,” and left Dave there, squatting beside his shiny stone.
There was another house on the property, where M and S lived. M was a musician who played his electric organ at all hours; he was a nice guy who regaled me with stories of how former tenant Nick Nolte, or maybe it was Gary Busey, used to dive through the window screens. S I rarely saw, and spoke to only once, when I woke up to the sound of screaming, and found her in the driveway, standing over the carcass of her cat, which had been eviscerated in the night by a coyote. We often had coyotes trotting up and down on our street. I don’t know what S did for a living, but am going to go out on a limb and say she was an actress, because I once found several hundred headshots of her strewn beneath an underpass to the 101 Freeway, looking gnashed and wet.
I do know both she and M were Scientologists. Occasionally, M would sit in our communal yard with Tim and talk about the astral possibilities the religion offered. Tim is an open-minded guy who believes in both UFOs and that Jesus Christ is his personal savior. But after an hour of hearing M talk about how the human race is descended from alien warlord Xenu, who seventy-five million years ago came to the planet Teegeeack (a.k.a., Earth) aboard a DC-8, Tim would come inside saying, “Nanny, white people are crazy.”
M became fixated on buying a house, a goal that seemed to do something to his adrenal system, as he appeared to never sleep again. One night around ten, we heard a vehicle backing up fast into our communal yard.
“We have to be out by tomorrow!” M said, trying to run as he carried a loveseat on his head. He slid it into the back of the van and took off. This procession went on for hours, during which I realized I had a book of his. The van was gone, but the door to his house was open. I called hello; there was no answer, but I could hear was a man’s voice, speaking in soft even tones. I took a step inside; the voice became louder, it was saying something about taking proactive steps, today! I followed the voice to the back bedroom, where, sitting on the bed and surrounded by half-packed boxes, was S, listening to a motivational tape while slowly sewing sequins on a hat.
Dave soon moved to Colorado, and rented his place to two young musicians. A few months later, he called me: the musicians had left, he needed new tenants, and would I mind showing the place? He’d take $200 off my rent for my trouble.
I first showed the house to a couple that looked as though they never missed laundry day. I was Miss Perky as I led them up the stairs, telling them what a great neighborhood it was and so close to everything and how you could just jog right up to the Hollywood Reservoir, and with a little flourish I opened the front door, to a wave of fish death so bad I retched. The electricity had been turned off sometime after the twenty or so pounds of raw fish had been loaded into the freezer. There was graffiti on the living room walls, the bedroom had been painted black, and in the middle of the wood floor, someone had charred several birds. And I was still trying to play the cheerful realtor, saying, “Let’s go downstairs and see the music studio!” which was the property’s big selling point, a soundproofed room with wall-to-wall carpeting. I tried to push open the door, but there was something in the way. That would be the five hundred pounds of broken glass, glass a foot high throughout the studio, an inconceivable amount of glass, and I’m saying to the couple, with just a little work…
My next house was on Robinson Street, on a not so great block in Silver Lake. My first night there, there were two bursts of automatic gunfire that had me pulling Tafv, not yet three, from her loft bed beneath a window. Within the week, the Filipino owner of the mini-mart around the corner would be shot in the face, and for the next month would sell customers their cigarettes and bolillos while wearing so much gauze he looked like the Mummy. There was a duplex in front of my house, and I had two neighbors. One was Paul, who was my age and worked in the art department on commercials and videos, and when he wasn’t working watched a lot of NASCAR. He was a great gardener, and grew about thirty kinds of fruits and vegetables in what was ostensibly my yard; not only did we eat well, but to this day Tafv insists she and I grew the garden.
My other neighbor was Claudia, a ninety-year-old Russian with a wee beard. She spoke almost no English, but liked to have Tafv over for a cookie. The only time I saw Claudia upset was when Paul and I were in the garden, and I was wearing a bikini.
“Shame! Shame!” Claudia said, shaking a finger at me. She died within the year. Paul, Tafv and I went to her memorial, in a Russian Orthodox church around the corner, a miniscule chapel done in imperial reds and purples and full of frightening icons and sweet smoke.
I next moved to Valleybrink Road, in Atwater Village, to the lower part of a Spanish-style duplex that had ceiling beams in the living room and nothing else to recommend it. My first week in the house, I woke to a ladder being slammed against the outside wall and firefighters banging on the front door; the upstairs neighbors had somehow ignited the roof. The following day, the couple, middle-aged, stocky and perpetually short of breath, told me they’d inadvertently started the fire while burning literature they deemed heretical to their faith, and would I like a copy of the Scientology bible Dianetics? They’d love to give me one; they had hundreds; they were distributors! Not only that, but because I seemed like such a smart girl, they wanted to cut me in on their business, if I’d just follow them out to their garage, where inside were dozens of boxes of Amway products. Didn’t I just see myself selling laundry soap and disposable toilet seat covers?
They moved soon after, and were replaced by another Scientologist. This one had three or five children, depending on which ex-spouse she was fighting with, including a curly-haired six-year-old who did not attend kindergarten because her mother thought it was some sort of racket set up by the Los Angeles Unified School District, a little girl who used to knock on my door and ask me to read to her. I saw her one Sunday morning wearing a bonnet and skipping down the walkway.
“We’re going to L. Ron’s birthday party!” she squealed. This, though L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, had been dead eleven years.
The landlord of this house was a judge in children’s protective services. She stopped by a few times, each time with a different female minor, introducing the girl, invariably in Catholic school uniform, as a ward of the court who was temporarily living with her. But if you called the judge after five P.M., you reached her nighttime persona, the one so drunk she fell asleep while talking to you on the phone, until a moment later, you’d hear this or that girl take the phone and softly hang it up. I once woke at five in the morning to the sound of grunting below my bedroom window, and there was the judge, on her hands and knees, ripping up the flowers I’d planted.
I hated this house, it was dirty no matter how much I cleaned, and always cold in a way that got in your bones. Later, a friend said he’d known the couple that rented the place before I did, and before them, a couple from the Midwest had lived there. The Midwest couple’s second week in Los Angeles, it had rained and rained, until the Los Angeles River, usually a few inches of water in a concrete channel, ran twenty feet deep. I’ve seen the river do this; the transformation is terrifying, this little trickle is suddenly a raging Leviathan churning with downed trees and cars. About a block from the house is a gate that leads to the river’s embankment, and the couple had gone down there, to see how much the river had changed, and were there when a kid skidded his bike and went into the water. The man had jumped in to save the boy, and both were instantly gone. The woman, my friend told me, had then barricaded herself in her bedroom—my bedroom—for six months before leaving Los Angeles.
The house I would be leaving in Los Angeles was on a cul-de-sac in Los Feliz, near the Shakespeare Bridge, under which there is not and, as far as I know, never has been any water. I’d loved this house. It had three bedrooms, a real bar in the basement that was once a Shriners speakeasy, and a separate studio shaded by a fifty-foot pine. Our neighbors were Cameron (with whom I shared a fondness for Emilio Pucci, if not the ability to afford the ones he sells in his lovely vintage shops), and Jeff, who would watch our kitty when we went out of town, not merely feeding and watering her, but spending time with her, because, he told me, he was “concerned about her mind.” They lived in the mid-century modern glass house across the street, a historic Schindler into which they poured about a million dollars and which attracted many slow-moving vehicles of guidebook-carrying, camera-toting German and Japanese tourists.
Beyond their house, on one of the highest ridges in Hollywood, is the Griffith Observatory. This I could see it from my bedroom. There are many places in Los Angeles whose ostensive beauty I will debate; the Observatory is not one of them. No matter how many times I visit, I am impressed by the stillness; how separate it feels from the lights below; the way the Astronomers Monument and the dome broadcast their resolve that they are not going anywhere. It was while standing outside the Observatory at sunset in January 1989 that I felt tired in a way I’d never felt, and realized with a start that I was pregnant.
I drove Tafv up to the Observatory one night, soon after we’d decided to leave Los Angeles. Aside from two parked cars of lovers, we were the only people there. We ran around the monument and lay in the grass and reminisced about how, for Tafv’s eleventh birthday, we’d had a limo drive her and her friends up here. Yes, I’d hired a limo, for $200, to drive us around Hollywood for a few hours. The girls had loved it; they blasted Christina Aguilera and No Doubt while I, the sole adult, sat in the back and poured one shot from the cut-glass decanter of brown liquor, and thought, what the hell, if it makes her happy.
“Tafv’s going to hate you forever,” had been my mother’s first comment, when I told her, we were moving to Portland. When I’d recovered the composure to ask why, she said, “Because you’re taking her away from her friends’ lifestyle.”
“You know what I mean.”
She saw me uncoupling my daughter from certain advantages. I tried to tell her that this, too, was the point. Yes, Tafv was accustomed to movie premieres and grand houses, to vacationing with friends’ families on Lizard Island and Lanai. I was grateful for the love and generosity she’d been shown. But the “lifestyle” was changing, and now included the eighth grade girl who did coke in the school bathroom with the $100 a day she stole from her parents, and the girl who lost her cell phone nine times in six months and each time was simply given a new one, and the fifteen-year-old boy who, when a girl turned him down for a date, went to Tiffany, bought her a diamond bracelet, and asked again; she said yes. And the six-year-old sibling I watched scream and kick the Mexican maid because his mother had not bought him a Frappacino, whereupon she drove to Starbucks to get him one. Half a dozen girls Tafv knew were cutting; twice as many had eating disorders, were on antidepressants or both, and several, at thirteen, were in rehab. This, shoehorned amongst the facials and auditions and pedicures and voiceover classes and headshots and nutritionists and therapists and private Pilates sessions so they could fit into the $300, size-two Miss Sixty jeans, just like their mothers.
My mother brushed off my complaints. She was of the opinion it was all sour grapes with me. And then she called Tafv to ask her advice on an appropriate high school graduation gift for her step-grandson, just a little something, and Tafv said, “A car.”
Not that I was immune from imagining we were off to the hinterlands, a place where culture meant canoeing and all meals included salmon.
“New York, Los Angeles, Portland,” I said to Din. “What’s next, Anchorage?”
“It’s going to be okay, baby,” he said, which made me recall, after I moved to LA, how Tim affixed to his cap a pin that read, We don’t care how they do it in New York.
We gave our landlord notice. We put everything we owned in boxes. I stood beside the roof-high bird of paradise that grew by the front steps and watched the moving truck drive away. Din would follow the next day.
The night before we gave up the house, I drove to get us dinner. I wound through the side streets of East Hollywood, passing a group of young Hispanic men with shaved heads loitering in front of two gigantic mounds of clothes and a busted-up desk. I wondered what precipitated this mess, and whether anyone cared. It was in front of an apartment building whose awning sagged to chest height, and I remembered, six years earlier, a friend of mine whose housekeeper’s sixteen-year-old son being shot dead on this block, part of a lover’s triangle I never got the whole story on. I remembered his mother, her eyes begging but also, not in the room as she asked me: Did I have an answer for what happened? Was there going to be resolution?
I sat at Palms Thai’s counter and drank a Singha as I waited for the food. I was reading a book the journalist Cathy Seipp had lent me, about home keeping, and smiled at the sentence, “The main purpose for giving parties for children is to remind yourself that there are children more awful than your own.”
I carried the bags of food to the car. I turned north off Hollywood Boulevard, passing the Trianon, a turreted apartment building that looked like a castle, and then turned east, where I saw a young man lying in a driveway. He had on jeans and sneakers, his feet were crossed, and one hand rested on his chest. He looked like someone taking an afternoon snooze on the grass. Except it was eight o’clock on a winter night, and he was lying on concrete.
A middle-aged man had already pulled his car to the curb. He approached the young man and crouched over him. Blood was unfurling beneath the left shoulder.
“Call 911,” the man said. He was pale and shaking.
“I’m calling,” said another man. He was walking a dog.
“What happened?” I asked.
“He got shot, just now,” the shaking man said. He looked as if he were going to cry.
“By who?” I asked.
“Two guys, in an SUV,” he said, and pointed east. I looked back at the young man and knew he was not sleeping; he was too still.
I hit the gas, my first thought being to find the SUV. Was that it, the one that made a U-turn in front of me? And then I thought, but they have a gun. There was a time when I’d have followed anyway; ten years earlier, I’d chased down a guy who’d just robbed an LA Eyeworks on Melrose; I’d sped after him and screamed until he looked as though he were afraid of me, and then a cop car cut him off, and my job was done. But tonight, I thought, realistically, what can I do?
I called Din. “I’m on my way home.”
Home, which Tafv did not want to leave; from which Din was already out the door. I was in the middle. What would I do for work in Portland, where people were sensible and genial and set achievable goals?
“You won’t find anyone up there like you,” said my friend Mary, during a fare-thee-well lunch on the patio in Chateau Marmont. Her sentiment terrified me. But there were my own achievable goals: a house I owned, a half-step off the freelance treadmill, which was lucrative but just. There was also the somewhat comforting notion that, when I turned forty-three someplace other than Los Angeles, I would not be considered in need of immediate revivification, eyelifts and root tints and vaginal rejuvenation, whatever that was. Whatever it was, it was starting to be heavily advertised in the LA papers, ads always accompanied by a photo of a woman in a bikini. Though I knew she was probably a model, I’d stare anyway at her crotch and wonder, what have they done to you, and why were you so ready to submit? And what comes next? We’d all heard the rumors about the cadaverous actress who’d had her anus bleached in order to show her much-older and stratospherically famous lover a baby-pink pucker.
You might contend, if someone wants to whack or blanch her privates, it’s her business. And I agree. But if you’re born and raised in Los Angeles, as Tafv was, you’re confronted with these procedures more often than you brush your teeth. When she was six, and standing next to me at a pharmacy, I noticed Tafv’s little brow tensed in concentration. I followed her gaze to a young woman with humongous breast implants, engaged in the everyday act of examining a can of Comet. In the car, I explained to Tafv how the woman had come to look like that.
“So they’re blow-ups,” Tafv said, a term that stuck and which we’d used for years, only now, when I mentioned that her friend ______’s mother had blow-ups, Tafv said, “Mama, stop, she’s really nice.” And of course she was right; my daughter had what I did not, the ability to see this world, the entire world, through graceful eyes.
And she genuinely loved Los Angeles; what teenager in her position wouldn’t? A rundown of her recent outings included trick-or-treating with Pamela Anderson and swooshing down a giant slide into Gene Simmons pool. At a mall in Palm Springs, her friend’s mother handed the girls $400 to spend while she, the mother, got a manicure, then changed her mind and gave them another hundred, in case they wanted lunch.
To Tafv, this was real life. And it might have been, but not one I could support, or would. I’d never earned more than $54,000 in a year, but if I earned ten times as much, I’d still know what an Aunt Bea’s Pretzel costs. That giving a child $500 to blow in thirty minutes almost always does more harm than good.
Still, part of me was titillated Tafv was brushing up against so much gloss and fame; that for her this all-access pass was baseline. This was why my mother feared Tafv would never forgive me. Din, on the other hand, had no use for it; he was done having the lotus-eaters tell him Los Angeles was the center of the universe. Anyone who flies in an airplane knows it’s not true. But how do you convince a young girl of this, after she’s been flown to and from Australia, Business Class, to spend three weeks on the set of The Matrix, which her friend’s father is shooting? How do you explain it’s going to be better in Portland, where it rains two hundred and sixty-eight days a year? Where she will go to public school? Where, when we visited the local mall, she frowned and said, “These kids are so Hot Topic.”
You can’t, or I couldn’t, and so let her gorge on what was on her table, including what would be the last bat mitzvah she attended in Los Angeles. It was in Beverly Park, a gated community above Beverly Hills where the properties are so vast and spaced so far apart they appear around each sweeping curve like another kingdom. At pick-up time, the other parents and I were made to wait by the tall iron gates outside the bat mitzvah girl’s estate. We did not refrain from gawking at the eight-thousand square foot guesthouse, the several ponds, the acres of lawn on which we could just make out the silhouettes of prancing teenagers before they disappeared behind the next rise, scraps of their laughter coming to us on the wind. How big was the place, anyway?
“About as big as Disneyland,” the security guard said, with the qualification that he usually worked at the owner’s Malibu property, so, he didn’t really know.
Tafv and her friends came down the boulevard-wide drive.
“This place is amazing,” Hef’s son said. “Way, way bigger than mine.”
“Mama, it’s the coolest house in the world!” Tafv squealed, floating backwards to the car in order to get one last look. “They have three swimming pools, one filled with Evian water!”
FORTY BUCKS AND A DREAM: Stories of Los Angeles
4: The Waxer
7: Punch Drunk
12: Porn for Women
18: Meet the Neighbors
19: The Pathos of Failing
20: Bite and Smile