UNITED STATES—Samuel Johnson, the British wit and man of letters, said that he never knew a man with a toothache to be a philosopher. Well, this concept I tested now and then during my time at 1980 Estrella Avenue. I suffered periodic molar aches and would just tough it out. They seemed to come and pass like rain clouds. Meanwhile I’d chew on hot damp teabags.
The poet Eric Brown told me about getting a free check-up at USC dental school and having a tooth filled. It made a good story when people asked if I’d had my teeth taken care of and told them I went to the dental school. I learned that getting people to believe you were getting the proper care was the next best thing to having the proper care.
Mac Murphy, the electrician who worked for the Owner had a couple missing teeth too, likely from a fight. This dental defect gave him a sly smile under his thick red mustache. When Mac mentioned it once, I told Mac he could go to the dental school. But he never made it, that I know of, because of the flurry of events.
It began the weekend of Lincoln’s birthday. Not only did I go to my first meeting of the Bohemian Group on Saturday, then on Sunday welders came and completed the wrought-iron fence around the property. Funny how I had been worried about Jacinto not being able to park his pickup, and now he, his wife and baby had already flown the coop, leaving one more empty room for the manager, me, to fill and there were new keys to copy and perhaps an added attraction to renters. So the bars had finally gone up as somebody got out from behind bars to join our household.
On Lincoln’s birthday the long-awaited wife of Lawrence Brown was freed from Sybil Brand, the women’s prison nestled in the hills of East Los Angeles. Lawrence was invested in this moment, since he rented the room in September, clear eyed and full hopes for the future. He was so diligent about his job at the airport. Seeing Sam Johnson, the mailman, bring the letters from her and seeing how Lawrence arranged his room for her and kept it immaculate, it got me involved also in the arrival of the woman named Joy.
To my recollection, Joy had hard scowling eyes, was suspicious. I won’t hold it against her; she’d just got out of jail, and she wasn’t easy to talk to as Lawrence. She wore only pants and a drab charcoal sweatshirt. Her arrival corresponded to a time when things got dicier all around. On the day she came I walked around Vermont and Pico, made a note “I was only harassed by one drug dealer.”
From behind the closed door of the Browns’ room voices were raised, and there was the ghostly appearance of a zombie-eyed woman in a satin robe in the dead of night, outdoors from my room, looking for Jack, the straight-laced security guard who lived upstairs and had recently had stuff robbed from his room. There was weirdness happening around the periphery, and it was not so easy to tell who was clean and who was not. I even began to not feel so good about going out after dark to the 7-Eleven on Figueroa.
I saw Lawrence’s wife in the kitchen, and I always thought of those envelopes radiating crosses and notes of “praise Jesus.” Her bulging eyes were hard. Lawrence was always vague about what had gotten her into Sybil Brand. Armed robbery, drugs? I didn’t want to pry.
Meanwhile, Mac had bought a Kawasaki motorcycle. He was very proud and drove it down Estrella for me and the security guard, showing off full throttle. Afterward he was so excited he chained it on the porch. Mac took it to work in the morning and then he got busted coming home at night, not having a taillight. And he lipped off to the officer and probably had a lunch of champions under his belt. Oh well, one person got freed from jail and another person went back.
Humorist Grady Miller is the author of the humor collection “Late Bloomer,” available on Amazon. Grady can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.