4. Home Free

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A place and a street encapsulated a whole city and time.

UNITED STATES—She was a good-natured house, robin’s egg blue hidden in a drab, soot-muted gray, where I’d have my free room on the corner of Estrella Avenue and 22nd Street. Brad, my mentor and savior, gave me a brand-new receipt book where I’d be recording all the names of those USC students clambering to live here. A telephone was installed. I met Juanita, the beleaguered neighbor in the duplex behind, and collected the extra sets of keys. I met the guy who was the street drunk. The hoodies hanging out of the porch and porch steps, and dispersed as Brad and I approached. No need to talk tough, though I was already trying to look tough.

She had a turret with a cone-shaped roof on top and on top of that a decoration like the handle on an old school schoolmaster’s bell. Touches of former grandeur, like the carved railing of the stairs, when in the 1900s this was the elite neighborhood of Los Angeles (Fatty Arbuckle’s home, now a home for priests, was just a few blocks away).

The turret room on the first floor was empty. A quiet couple from Oaxaca lived in the turret room above. She was pregnant. He was young and grave. They kept to themselves. He parked his Japanese mini pickup where the lawn should have been if there had been a lawn. Among the other residents of 1980 Estrella Ave. there was a security guard, an office worker, this fellow somber with somber glasses and cabbage whiskers who seemed to have no job. Downstairs by the kitchen was the young couple from Puebla, young and fresh and hadn’t been worked to death, who stitched clothes in a factory downtown. In the middle upstairs room of the window bay, that was Mac Murphy’s man cave. A florid faced electrician, thick sandy hair and mustache; he worked for the Owner. The other available room was the attic on the third floor. The house had these two features that you don’t usually have in Los Angeles—an attic and a basement.

Racially—and you had to look at it that way—we were four people from Mexico, two with African heritage and two white dudes, me and Mac. Who couldn’t have been more opposite. Mac seemed much older and rowdier—all of 32 years old. He would be the first person I would ever visit in county. Come to think of it; those from each ethnic group constituted perfect opposites: the fun-loving Mexican couple versus the quiet couple who stayed to themselves, the cocky African-American security guard and the somber one.

Now come to my room. It was the smallest of all the rooms; it did have a private bathroom where I could shower in privacy. One of the privileges of being manager. Once this room had been a laundry porch.

A writer always sizes up a place to live by looking at one detail: where am I going to create? It is a perspective that mingles imagination and a little necromancy. Where was I going to further toil on my screenplay “The Persecuted” with its Dostoevskian title and story of Satan-worshiping youth. Here I would be creating with a view of fake wood paneling that I associate with used-car offices. Tacky, but as my new pad was free I could not be choosy and, in fact, accepted it gratefully. I bought one piece of furniture, an assemble-yourself desk at a Korean furniture store for the amazing price of $20. It was very low, almost child sized. On it rested my typewriter and the telephone, so I didn’t have to groan any more as I reached to the floor to answer it when the Owner could call me around six am. For many weeks the Owner existed only as a voice in my ear, friendly and energetic.

“You are an early riser,” Mr. Pyle said.

“Yes sir,” I said, knowing full well that I was not. I had a gift for sounding wide-awake at any hour.
The one remarkable feature of this room was a large window on one side, next to a back door that had been nailed shut. The window revealed a gap where the 110 Freeway curved toward the ocean and San Pedro. Not 30 yards away the cars whooshed by. It was a river of cars, always the same, ever changing. You’d be surprised. This river was a font of peace; the freeway when I gazed out the window served to refresh me and soothe my restless ambitious soul.

To be continued…

Humorist Grady Miller is the author of the humor collection “Late Bloomer,” available on Amazon.com. Grady can be reached at grady.miller@canyon-news.com.