UNITED STATES—At 1980 Estrella Avenue I was free to pursue my screenwriting. I was free to check out “Crime and Punishment” from the library and let it take over my life. I had a lot of hustle and ambition. One night’s extra acting work and window washing in Malibu weren’t enough to put me on easy street. I was on uneasy street: free-room—no board.
I landed on my feet, though. When I first moved my Olivetti into the fake-paneled room it was hot August, made stifling by the thick walls and painted-shut windows of the old home, and then a chill invaded the air along with the sounds of kids coming home from school, and the bright fall air was tinged by fabric softener scent of drying clothes. I wasted no time in establishing a routine. Routine is an anchor in the anarchy of artistic life.
Each new day I went to the corner store and got my morning Mexican sweet bread—the chewy brown pig or the flaky oreja. I invested a quarter of my net worth in a jar of Nescafe and got my copy of La Opinión. I read the paper in Spanish still, jotting down new words and phrases. A round fake-grain table in that clumsy ornate style known as Mediterranean I had all to myself, as well as an armchair that belonged in a doctor’s waiting room or a thrift store.
The parlor room, which would eventually be the scene of the warmest Christmas celebration ever, was bare and felt cold. Nobody hung out. No art graced its sooty off-white walls; underfoot was woolen carpet the color of cigarette ash that pre-dated the “hip” shag in most of the rental rooms.
I felt comfortable, though. It was mostly a Latino neighborhood and it was fitting, after my first stay in Mexico, that I ended up here. I could walk a few blocks up 23rd Street and over to Adams and visit Antonio Ayala who largely shaped my Spanish reading from the time I was at U.S.C. He was the owner of the Azteca book shop and nudged me away from magical realism that took root in me early and guided me toward social realism and the novels of Bruno Traven, Luis Spota, Maxim Gorky and Giovanni Papini, the Italian author of “Gog,” a satirical novel about a man who makes a fortune and travels the world. He can visit anybody he likes, be it Henry Ford or a streetsweeper. The streetsweeper usually came off better than the industrialists.
I was proud to share with Antonio the fact that I landed on my feet. My family in Taft and Watsonville could be proud of me. I did had one blood relative in Los Angeles, my cousin Mickey, who lived in West Hollywood, and I schlepped over to visit him soon after getting back from Mexico, but nobody answered. I knocked a long time. No one answered and yet his pickup was in the garage.
At the time I was hardly communicating with my parents—laconic notes and no phone calls—part of my isolation was the sketchiness and vulnerability exposed upon my return to Los Angeles, and I had imposed on myself the impossible: a condition of resuming full relations hinged on the sale of my screenplay. Talking to my mother was a downer, as a rule, and I wanted to achieve a degree of success that would leave the folks at home speechless.
Time has shown me what hogwash that was.
While typing away on my screenplay, I answered calls for rental ads that ran in the Los Angeles Times and the Daily Trojam. The ads glowed about a gorgeous Victorian home in the U.S.C. neighborhood and over the phone I diplomatically explained the shared bathroom and kitchen situation. Though I wasn’t driving yet, I had also learned to carefully map out for prospective tenants the most picturesque approach to property, past the spires of the Doheny mansion on the Mount St. Mary’s campus, a collection of opulent turn-of-century homes and lush greenery, and lure prospective tenants down the more appealing blocks of Estrella, instead of coming via 23rd street and straight into gang territory.
I believed it would be a piece of cake to rent out the two spacious rooms available, the downstairs turret room and the attic, but it was amazing how many no-shows there were. It was a good thing I lived at the house. By just stepping into the kitchen I could check on arrivals by looking out the front door, which I left open. There’d be eager beaver U.S.C. students, I’d bond with over the telephone, and then they wouldn’t show.
They were total flakes or maybe they saw how the street dead ended in gang-tagged cement where there were freeway ramparts, unsavory dudes slouching on the sidewalk, a whiff of mota in the air and a freeway running behind everything. Any shred of loveliness the Victorian home had was robbed by an unforgiving urban landscape. However, I did have one engineering student come and plunk down a deposit, my first. Piece of cake, all right. And then there was a tangle over getting a refund. After that, I religiously wrote down “non-refundable deposit” on every receipt and carbon copy.
To be continued…
Humorist Grady Miller is the author of the humor collection “Late Bloomer,” available on Amazon.com. Grady can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.