Thursday, May 5, 2011

Renting Los Angeles

by Stephen J. Gertz

The following originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine, January 7, 2007. I've been jammed-up the last few days and readers will, hopefully, forgive the reprint of a story that has nothing to do with rare books beyond the author's full-time entry into the trade at its end.

I recently moved out of a place I temporarily rented. It was just a rest stop, a place to recover from a reality OD: lost marriage, lost career, lost home, lost balance, lost confidence, lost spirit. I lived there for seventeen years.

In Los Angeles, where the lost seek to find or be found, frequent moving is a survival sport--the average tenancy for renters is five years, so staying in one spot for a 17-year stretch must be some kind of record. At least it is for me. In chronological order, it beats the 15 years in the brick row house I grew up in in New York City; the two years in the 3BR lower duplex on Eastborne in Westwood that my mother, my sister and I moved into when we migrated to L.A. in 1967; a year in the small 2BR 4-plex on Pandora Avenue near Beverly Glen after my sister moved away, where screenwriter Robert Towne rented the bachelor as an office and Warren Beatty would occasionally drop by, from a distance offering a tentative wave and hello as if, just in case, he knew me (the guy's blind as a bat even with glasses); the one-room dump above a small store on Washington Boulevard near La Cienega after I left home, where the landlord "re-porcelained" the bathtub with a coat of white paint that would peel off in the water and leave chips all over my body when I emerged; the flop joint I shared with two friends on Purdue in West L.A., site of my only LSD trip but no amount could hallucinate the place into a palace; the two-bedroom I shared on Clark up the street from the Whisky on the Sunset Strip, where the call girl in the apartment next door, alas, thought I was sweet and hands-off adopted me; the two-bedroom lower duplex on Holt Avenue south of Pico I shared, after passing the landlady's qualifying quiz, "Milkhik or fleyshik?," understanding kosher even if I didn't practice it; the big two-story 2BR Spanish Revival on Orange Street near Wilshire that my then-GF and I rented but she sayonara'ed the day before the move so I lived there myself, hemorrhaging the rent; the small, dark one-bedroom on Beverly Glen between Olympic and Pico owned by Fritz Feld, the character actor from '30s-'40s Hollywood who made a career playing eccentrics who punctuated sentences with a succinct slap of hand to mouth that created a pop! exclamation point and who was married to Virginia Christine, Mrs. Olson of the Folger's Coffee commercials; the dilapidated 1BR bantam bungalow on Bay Street in Santa Monica that the landlord had subdivided to rent the cubbyhole bedroom separately but that, fortunately, no one was fool enough to move into; the upper duplex on the 23rd Street strand in Venice that I shared with a female friend who owned nine cats that hated me and the feeling was mutual; the 10 years in the place in Mar Vista that my wife and I lived in, one in a cluster of seven cozy, rustic cottages atop the highest hill in the neighborhood, with a view from our second-story bedroom of the ocean to the west and to the east the Hollywood sign; the six months in a one-bedroom in lower Beachwood Canyon in the immediate aftermath of our split.

I was evicted from that last apartment. I desperately challenged the landlord in court, and what fun it was to take the witness stand and be compelled to admit that, although a grown man of 38, I was destitute with no prospects, anguished words undiluted by tears that I could not hold in despite a herculean effort to maintain my composure. My whole, failed life congealed in that very public, naked moment. Nineteen eighty-eight was not a good year.

And so, feeling flat out of potential with my future behind me, I found a garage apartment in back of a house near Palms and Sawtelle, returning to Mar Vista just a few blocks from where my ex and I had lived but a light year distant from when the marriage was working, work was working and I was content.

The place was tiny. Yes, you could swing a cat in it but only a kitten, the runt of the litter. Small kitchen and bathroom, and a 9-by-12 knotty-pine paneled bedroom/living room that by the time I shelved books floor to ceiling on all walls and planted a desk, bed and television had three feet of floor space and no room for company, not that I was doing any entertaining. It was a comforting, monastic cell, a wood-frame compression bandage with a roof. If I needed to breathe, there was a petite patio with a fiberglass awning outside my door that opened onto a well-tended garden with flowerbeds and fruit trees that I shared with the landlord.

Jose "Lupe" Hernandez was the owner of the place, a quiet, gentle, humble man, a mason who had worked hard to buy the property and worked harder to maintain and improve it, crafting the elaborate and extensive brick paths, steps, porches and cinderblock perimeter walls with his own hands. A widower in his early 60s when we met, he seemed to understand my need for privacy without discussion. I had been a bit apprehensive about having the landlord so close and potentially underfoot; not a problem. And I was not a problem. Because I didn't want him coming inside the apartment and disturbing my hiding place, I rarely asked him to fix things; there were never major repairs to be taken care of and I dealt with the small stuff myself. I was quiet in the hole I'd dug for myself, hunkered in for the duration of my convalescence.

After the one-year lease was up, it was never renewed; we just continued under month-to-month terms. He seldom raised the rent and when he did, he awkwardly apologized for the necessity.

We saw each other when he was working in the garden or on one of his improvement projects, rarely exchanging more than a few words but always pleasant, sometimes philosophical. I met his son and grandkids. On holidays he'd have his family over for barbecues in the shared yard, always inviting me but I'd politely decline. I could hear their laughter and conversation as I sat on my bed reading or watching TV. It sharpened my sense of isolation and made me withdraw further into myself; people make the lonely feel lonelier.

Work was intermittent, and I spent an enormous amount of time alone. I often wondered what Mr. Hernandez thought of me--we were always Mr. Hernandez and Mr. Gertz to one another--but he was never intrusive, he never inquired. He saw me through a minor heart attack, attentive as I was stretchered out that morning early in 1990, quietly solicitous when I returned 10 days later. A few times a year he would visit his family in Guadalajara, asking me beforehand to keep an eye on things, take the garbage cans to the curb and return them. He retired a couple of years after I moved in, his shoulders worn out from a life of manual labor, and was around all the time then, certainly aware that I was almost always inside. At one point during the mid-'90s, he returned from Mexico with a bride. She didn't speak English and my Spanish was negligible. We exchanged simple holas as I was leaving or returning, and I wondered what she thought of the guy living in the back, always there but rarely seen.

Five years into my tenancy, I met a woman and began a five-year contest of wills, a relationship doomed from the start but a life preserver, the two of us shipwrecked on the shore of a desert isle. She told me I was the best man she'd ever been with--which didn't speak well for her prior choices--and she, well, she'd have me, which was all I needed to know, my prospects otherwise nonexistent. With a career, material standards and a need to stretch from time to time, she didn't like being in my apartment, and though I was not comfortable doing so, I began to spend all my time at her townhouse in West Hollywood, returning to my place every other day or so to check in on things.

In a desperate attempt to demonstrate that I was worth sticking with, I went back to school and studied occupational therapy, which I was good at but hated in clinical practice; skilled nursing facilities and hospitals not pleasant in the extreme, I scrammed. I helped Mr. Hernandez with his shoulder problems, and though it cost me $20K in student loans I was quite gratified to be able to do for him.

I'd grown to intensely dislike staying at my girlfriend's all the time--I never felt at home--and when the lease on love expired I was glad to return to my micro-villa.

Many years into my tenancy, I asked Mr. Hernandez to call me Steve. He invited me to call him Lupe. But it was too weird, and we continued to address each other formally. By now, I'd begun to see myself as a protector for Mrs. Hernandez when she was by herself; I know Mr. Hernandez felt that way and I was proud that he did. We had mutual respect for one another, concern and trust, and I saw him more than I saw anybody else. He was, though I never thought of him as such, my best friend.

Los Angeles is an easy place to love but a hard place to like. The view from Bel-Air at 3 o'clock in the morning in June, when the city is blanketed in fog and you're above it all, a full moon illuminating a surreal ocean of clouds, the highest points in the city appearing as a heavenly archipelago; seagulls flying across a pink, lavender and vermilion spring dusk striated with gray clouds and entering a zone of fading sunlight that transforms them into a flock of brilliant, gently undulating stars in V-formation flight; the cast of the moon on the Pacific producing a hypnotic phosphorescence seen through a copse of tall, thin cypress; the apocalyptic beauty of a giant red sun within an ashen sky the morning after a Malibu fire--such scenes provoke deep, primal adoration but act as an intermittent reward schedule, just enough to condition you to endure the daily traffic grind, the housing costs that bleed you weak and the stress of an accelerated, demanding world that has laid waste to the laid-back lifestyle. L.A. is the lover you stay with for the occasional great sex despite emotional distance and loss of intimacy, for what once was but is no longer, and you stick it out, like life, because it beats the alternative.

In early 2000, I began to emerge from the wilderness. I found steady work that was satisfying if not remunerative. A little less than two years ago, I began a cross-country Internet romance, introduced by my '90s ex-GF who had returned to Tampa and become close friends with this woman. Thus pre-screened, Hank and I enjoyed what began as an attraction of interests and intellect and blossomed into a full-blown passion. Hank sold her house and moved out here so she could breathe stimulating, alligator-free culture and we could be together.

I gave notice to Mr. Hernandez and hunted down a place for us. Our rent budget, of course, was blown. (Need I add that what Hank took away from the sale of her home wouldn't qualify as a down payment on an L.A. birdhouse?) Worse, though, was that the landlord's agent--an agent, not the landlord himself--had an exasperating habit of responding to inquiries about things that needed to be fixed before move-in with a dippy smile and a palms-up get-real gesture that accompanied his mantra: "But it's only a rental!" (It's a phrase I've since heard so often that I'd like to tattoo it on his forehead.)

I wanted to meet the landlord; I needed a relationship. I finally did. Without eye contact, he limply shook my hand, squirmed out a few words and turned to talk to his sycophant. I blinked and he was gone, no goodby, no nothing--tenants, apparently, aliens never to be dealt with face to face. Mr. Hernandez had spoiled me rotten.

Moving day. I'd been seeing Mr. Hernandez on and off over the last 30 days, briefly discussing Hank, whom he'd met and liked. During a weekend visit of hers we'd made quite a bit of after-hours mambo music, and we ran into him as we emerged in the morning. When I returned from taking her to the airport, he was in the garden. He rose and with a shy grin expressed a simple, genuine "congratulations." It was a pregnant felicitation, an amen to all the years alone and the struggle to right myself, a blessing to the future and happiness, and yes--are we not men?--a thumb's up on getting laid. Now I'd packed the last few boxes into my car and was ready to turn in the keys. In the movie version, our mutual reticence dissolved at that moment, we gently hugged, I said, "Goodby, Lupe," he said, "Goodby, Steve," resolution achieved, credits roll, fade to black.

No such thing occurred. Instead, I simply gave him the keys. I wanted to say, "Goodbye, Lupe," but I couldn't. Mr. Hernandez he was, and so he remained as I remained Mr. Gertz in our farewell. And 17 temporary years were over, a snap of the fingers--like that! I met him when I was 38; I'm now 55, he's 75. I drove away, never to return.

The rent is driving Hank nuts, L.A. isn't holding her in thrall, and forget about the freeways. As I write this, our lease is almost up. She wants to look around. Maybe we'll find another, cheaper place with as much space. Fat chance, I'm thinking, but we'll give it a shot. She wonders about Seattle. I wonder too. I've lived in L.A. close to 40 years, and while I stopped feeling like a New Yorker decades ago, I'm only now feeling like an Angeleno, and the commitment is weak. I sure as hell don't want to invest a single extra dollar of our money to improve our landlord's property. He sure doesn't--after all, it's only a rental. Then again, maybe we'll stay right where we are, in L.A. Forever: permanent, if only temporary.


  1. AH, I can relate.

    Raised in "the city" I was the iconic New Yorker and felt I was in exile during all 25 years in LA.

    I only lived in 4 places, a 2 BR rental over a garage in West Hollywood, Billy Dove's spanish colonial under the Hollywood Reservoir, a grand 2 BR with pool backing up to Griffith Park in "The Oaks" of Los Feliz and finally the 6 BR for 3 people in BHPO.

    I loved LA about 4 days a year, when the Santa Ana's blew out the smog and I went crazy like everybody else. Toward the end, my loathing disolved into a kind of detente. When my son graduated high school, and left for a New England college, I made my escape and never looked back.

    Weather is life affirming and weather is something LA lacks.

  2. There's no way to deliver a standing ovation over the Internet, so this comment will have to do. This is the best, most articulate story of any kind that I've read online (or anywhere) thus far.

    I can definitely relate to spending years "in the wilderness". I've certainly been there. I'm glad you're finally back on track. Oh yes, let's hear it for mambo music!!!


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