THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDER THE HOUSE
"I think I'd like to move out here to the beach," I ventured. I was staring out the window of Ann's second-floor efficiency apartment, straining to see the ocean beyond the houses crammed along the boardwalk.
"Why? It's so far away from the hospital." (Of course, she worked at the same hospital.) I'd have to be careful answering. I couldn't come right out and tell her I wanted to move in together, not yet. She still seemed like she might be scared away by signs of clinging permanence.
"You're on the edge here. Los Angeles is so big and over-built. Where I am, its sixty miles in any direction until you get away from concrete and people. But here - I can walk down to the water, and there's nothing out there for thousands of miles. Gives me a feeling of freedom, of space, of being alone in the big city." I'd always liked space and aloneness, I figured. So why did I want to move in with someone else for the rest of my life?
"But what about Tom? You can't just abandon him, can you?" I shared a house in Alhambra with another intern. We were the sole survivors of our medical school house of five; the other three had dispersed across the country seeking the grail of perfect knowledge in post-graduate training.
"Maybe I can talk him into coming out here - he's always liked the beach." I didn't tell her he would be leaving after this first year to take a residency somewhere else. My plan was to bait and switch - get a house for Tom and I, then, when he left, entice Ann to move in.
A few days later, she came up to me at the hospital. "There's a house for rent over on Wavecrest."
Aha! She's not scared off after all; she's actually interested in having me close by! "What's it like?"
"It's really neat. It's two houses in from the street" - meaning Pacific; all the houses between Pacific and the beach were on walkways perpendicular to the ocean, with alleys behind - "and it's got this sunroom in front, all glass and light."
Wow, this was really serious. She'd been over to see it and size it up, I thought. I let her continue, which was what I did best.
"It's got three bedrooms, a refrigerator and stove. And it's $450 a month" This was three times what she was paying now, more even then Tom and I paid in Alhambra for a suburban tract house.
"You wanna go look at it sometime?"
The house was a salt box, probably forty or fifty years old. One story, maybe 20 by 50 feet. The slanted roof, covering a tiny attic, was white, and the main floor a faded deep blue. At the front, on the right, was a concrete set of stairs coming up from the postage stamp sized dirt front yard. A lead glass door opened to the main room. Immediately to the left was a glassed in porch across the remainder of the front. Windows on three sides, capturing the morning light in spring and summer, and evening sunsets most of the year. Three bedrooms and two baths took up one side of the house, the main room and kitchen/dinette the other.
We creaked through the cramped spaces, imagining what it would be like to be in a complete house, near the beach, with beds that stayed on the floor, a bathroom you could turn around in, and room for more than one in the kitchen.
I turned to Ann. "You know, I bet I could talk Tom into moving in here. Then I think we could afford it."
Ann seemed a little disappointed. "Why would you want to do that?"
"Well, we are sharing a house together. I wouldn't want to leave him high and dry. Just for a while, until he decides he can get somewhere on his own. Besides, I think he wants to live near the beach." Actually, Tom had no desire to leave Alhambra. Even more practical than I, he liked the 15 minute drive to work, and would balk, I knew, at the traffic heading into to town along the Santa Monica. But, quiet as he was, he wouldn't want to be marooned. He'd move, and we'd hardly see him anyway.
Ann set me up with the landlady. What she mainly wanted was $900 and proof of permanent employment. She seemed pleased she was getting two doctors in her house.
"The last ones who were here - complete slobs! Didn't work a lick; just parked their motor cycles here in the living room, and in the front yard." I looked down at the dark grease stains in the carpet. No wonder there was no grass out front. The landlady narrowed her eyes at me. "You really a doctor? Your hair's so long! They let you look like that at the hospital?" Slight pause. She went on, "You're an intern, huh? I guess you work, what, 80 hours a week? You got a motor cycle?"
"No, just a bike. I ride it down the beach sometimes."
"Well, just don't fix it inside!" she snapped. "Here's my address, and phone. Just mail the checks before the end of the month. If you have any problems, give me a call." She looked out the window at the house next door nearer the beach. "You ought to meet the folks next door. Regular family. He's an engineer, she writes plays. They've got a kid. If you have any problems, maybe they can help you." It was clear maintenance was going to be a do-it-yourself sort of thing. "When're you going to move in?"
"Probably this weekend. I'm on call Fri-"
"On call - have to stay at the hospital all night, then get the weeke-"
"You do this often, stay at the hospital?"
"Every third night ..."
Her eyes lit up. She glanced at me up and down, at my tie and slacks. "Great! Just keep it neat when you move your stuff in. Oh, and no waterbeds. The last folks had a water bed; it broke the floor in there" - she threw her chin at the front bedroom, where I was going to put my waterbed - "and we had to patch it up underneath, give it a little support, you know."
"Yeah, there's a crawl space under there with trusses and such. We put a new one in, so the floor wouldn't cave in."
"Well, don't forget the rent. Call if you need me." She waddled down the back steps into her car, and drove out the alley to Pacific.
When I left college, everything I owned fit in my car. That's the way I kept it until I moved into my first unfurnished house, near MacArthur Park (the one that melted in the dark in that old song). The house was two stories, with four bedrooms upstairs, and one down. I built a dining room "table" out of two by sixes, and a waterbed frame made from four 2 by twelve's, stained and nailed together. The table was too heavy to move, so I left it. The bed frame just knocked apart, and fit into my car, a '66 Dodge Charger, with the back seats folded down. It must have taken at least two car loads to move my stuff the forty miles from Alhambra to the beach.
Maybe it was the pounding that woke him up, I don't know. But after that second load, I started putting the bed together, just pounding the nails back into their old slots. I had draped the liner (an old waterbed sliced open) onto the floor and up over the side boards, and was about to put the $10 bed on top, when the knock came on the door. Ann answered it while I tried to plug the hose fitting into the bath tub outlet.
"Al, there's somebody here who wants to talk with us." Ann had a little question mark in her voice, letting me know she didn't know quite what to make of him and wanted my help. She'd been in Venice for more than nine months, and had gotten a good feel for just how crazy, stupid, or weird some of the inhabitants could be. So I perked up when she signaled her distress.
When I got to the door, I saw confusion, not concern in her eyes. We both knew crazy people, and this guy was clearly a marginally functional schizophrenic. He had the Thorazine shakes, or maybe the Prolixin hop. His clothes were there, but he'd stopped being aware of them some time ago. Somebody had talked him into a hair cut a while back, but couldn't get him to follow through with a comb. Or a razor. He was dark blond, average sized, Hollywood good-looking, and on the street.
"See, the last people who lived here let me keep my stuff under the house," he was saying.
"The last people?" I tried. Three summers on a psych ward had taught me that repeating their words back to them was a good way to help schizophrenics make a little sense. It keeps them on track, as long as you want to go there with them.
"Yeah ... uh ... they said ... I could just put ... you know, I would keep my stuff under there, I wouldn't bother you at all. I'd be very quiet coming in an out. Those last people, they said they never even knew I was there. I had a lock I'd put on that little door, to keep my stuff safe.." He was trying to make it seem like he came with the house. But he had no leverage, so he was being cautious, trying desperately to size me up through his psychotic fog.
"Now why would I want to let you do that? What would I get out of it?" I figured I could bargain with him, maybe try to inject some level of rationality in what was obviously, to both of us, an absurd situation - a crazy street bum asking for a handout, not of money, but of space.
"Well, you'd have a place to keep your stuff. I'd let you know the combination."
Schizophrenics have some kind of ESP. They know what other people are feeling, and aren't afraid to feed it back to them. It also works the other way around. I could sense that he wanted to reassure me he was normal, in some ways, and wouldn't want to hide anything from me.
"How do I know it's safe? What if you're keeping something illegal there, like drugs. Do you have any drugs?" I thought I'd start being directive with him, see how far I could push this.
" No, I don't have any ... the only drugs I have are, you know, prescription drugs, medicines I take." I didn't doubt that.
This was 1975, in LA. This guy was the same age as me, about 26. We'd been through the sixties together, and learned the same lesson - its us against them, the young folks against The Man. We had to stick together, and if your brother was a little down, and you had some to share, then you'd do your best to help. This guy was not dangerous. He had such a tenuous hold on himself, he could never put one on anybody else.
Ann's brother had been in and out of the mental hospital at Camarillo since he was a kid. She knew every bum had a mother, and maybe a sister or brother, who'd tried to have a real life with them. She'd seen lives lived so far on the edge, people couldn't see back towards the center. She knew she didn't want to live there herself, but if someone was marginal because they were crazy, or dull, she'd give them the benefit of the doubt. It seemed like a Karmic thing: if she was kind to other schizophrenics, maybe someone would look out for her brother up in Santa Barbara. She'd purged whatever demon had infested her, but she knew others never made it past purgatory, where this guy clearly was going to spend the rest of his life. We both wanted to ease his passage to wherever he would stumble next. Somehow he knew that about us.
Besides, I figured in his state, he was making all this up - just an elaborate story hoping to get us to tell him he could crash in our house that night. But I played it straight, and told him, "OK man, but listen: We don't want you staying here. You can leave your stuff under there, if its already there. Just don't bother us - we don't want to hear you or see you. OK?"
"Yeah, thanks, that's great, man. You won't be sorry. You won't see me, I won't be here except to get at my stuff now and then. I live at a house up in Santa Monica."
We didn't see him, and we began to worry about him. So one day, we walked around to the side of the house, and found the door into the crawl space underneath the front porch. It was a small, sorry collection of stuff we found there: discarded clothing, some canned food, a few prescription bottles, almost nothing of value or personal interest. For the past fifteen years, I'd lived in special environments, academic havens where the smart and rich were pampered, prodded, and prepared to propagate more smart, rich, successful progeny. It was one thing to read a magazine, or watch a film about down-and-out folks on the margin. I could even see and touch them when they came into the ER, psych ward, or medical clinics. But to live in the same neighborhood with the underclass, to share a house with someone who used a crawl space for a closet, and the street for a living room - this quite literally brought home a three-dimensional picture of another way to live. For the first time in my life, I knew how lucky I was, how fragile comfort can be, and the value of dogged persistence in building some protection, some shelter from the chaotic spasms of a world that didn't care about me, no matter how nice it seemed on the surface.
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