This was the brain fart, along with the Letters, We Get Letters! post that set me off on the path to self-publishing Tales from the Back of a Bus last year across all the platforms I could manage, even recently Barnes and Noble and Smashwords. So, yay. Forward momentum.This was originally posted May 20, 2016
Once upon a time, a long time ago, I was bolder than I was bright and just picked up and moved to Los Angeles at the age of 19. [That would be 1979 for the mathematically impaired.] I went with the hopes of gaining California residency, then applying to UCLA to get in their film school. Disco was about to happen, Three Mile Island nuclear plant was about to spring a leak [and we were going to think it was a publicity stunt for the China Syndrome movie], and I was going to run into some spooky-ass shit–spookier, even, than butt-loads of Hari Krishnas every weekend and Mormons doing their missionary work.
If you’re playing along, this is episode 6 of the Spooked! series, in which I elucidate how an avowed atheist and science geek can be all about the UFO conspiracy theories [just being open to the idea of them, at least], ghosts, bigfeets [myself included], and the rest of the cryptid clan. You can read my other brain farts hereabouts, too [as I recover them from the suckhole that is the internet].
My friend Logan had been accepted to UCLA [I was not. Wah!] and he moved out there in the fall of 1978 to start college. He found us an apartment on Kinross Avenue during that first semester, and I moved out after the turn of the year, in January 1979. The apartment was the size of a postage stamp: about a 20 x 30′ living room with a Murphy
bed in the wall [!]; a kitchen the size of a disappointing closet; a normal-sized apartment bathroom [but no shower, just a tub, toilet, and sink]; an entry hall and a useless 10 x 20′ ish room that used to be a kitchen but had been gutted to justify call calling the joint a “one bedroom.” The kitchen corpse’s floor was covered in the remains of linoleum, mostly cardboard and glue, with which we would entertain ourselves by competitively pulling up as large a strip of cardboard without tearing–you know, like trying to peel an apple into one continuous strip. Good times! Otherwise, we didn’t spend a lot of time in there. The floor was icky, and so was the vibe of the room.
This steal of a “one-bedroom” apartment was $500 a month plus utilities. In 1979. I can only imagine what it’s going for now that it’s been gentrified and yuppified. [Don’t ask me what those cages are they added to the front. No clue. They weren’t there in the 70s. We would have go-go danced in them for spare change, I’m sure.]
The building was old, suggested by the ornate entryway at street level, but I have no idea how old. Once, when trying to turn up the heat on the water heater, I found a box of old letters that had been hidden back there. A good chunk of them were about someone on the Vaudeville circuit, and someone else trying to get his Veteran’s benefits from the Civil War increased. So built somewhere between 1865 and the end of Vaudeville, at least, but I’m guessing the 1920s or 30s.
On the ground level right below us was an original generation Pottery Barn [with mainly actual cheap-ass pottery and glass from Mexico], and a Chinese restaurant in the center. Somehow our phone line got crossed with the restaurant’s and I took many an order for Kung Pow Chicken that mysteriously never got delivered. They also hated us because, rather than pay for our own garbage removal, we dropped ours from the roof into their dumpster in the alley, there on the left, making quite a racket. That was always fun. At the end of the building, there was also a little boot boutique. Across the street, there was a bank [with one of the first ATMs in the nation] and an honest-to-goodness record store. Movie theaters everywhere, as well as restaurants and bars.
Eventually, I turned that defunct kitchen into something of a writing space. I set about writing or tried to, despite having to work full time at the Bank of America around the corner [literally, you could see into the breakroom from our bathroom window], and part-time at an Arby’s. That I can still eat at Arby’s despite having worked in one is a testament to the power of Arby Sauce. Also, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Gregory Peck order a “Big Montana and a Jamocha shake.” [Of course, you never will. He’s dead, and they don’t sell the Big Montana any longer.]
It was an exciting time. Martha Raye [Google her, kids], Dustin Hoffman, John Rubenstein, and other celebs too numerous to remember banked where I worked. Still others just showed up in the vicinity. I ran into Peter Falk, Columbo himself, buying vinyl at the record shop across the street [it was pretty much all vinyl then, to be clear]; and nearly stepped on Charles Bronson at a fair at UCLA. I watched Linda Blair film part of Roller Boogie at Santa Monica Pier, while on roller skates myself. A Rolls Royce containing Lucille Ball nearly ran me over as I was trying to cross Wilshire Boulevard to get to our favorite diner, Ship’s. Ship’s was the setting for a good chunk of my first novel, Tales from the Back of a Bus, which you may remember from my rejection letter post awhile back.
I got some glorious rejections back then. Danny Arnold, producer/creator of Barney Miller; the producers of the execrable David Soul ‘Salem’s Lot mini-series [my adaptation was better but too long, so neener]; a bunch of others. The point being, I crammed a lot into those months I lived there. A lot. I got a novel out of two separate adventures, one trying to get a job, the other trying to go see Fantasia at the Cinerama Dome [while hopped up on hash brownies] with my other bestie from high school, Tomás, who joined us about six months into my stay.
As always, though, there was some weirdness other than seeing movies while stoned or running into drunken celebrities at the neighborhood bar. That apartment was spooky. The shag rug in the entry hall and the closet-sized kitchen smelled like sadness and sex. I know that because I slept on that patch of rug in a sleeping bag for the first couple of months there and nothing would get the smell out. Nothing.
The French windows were uncovered, so we got blasted with streetlights, the old school orange, sodium arc deals, so there was always a feeling of high contrast film noir in there at night. The hallway outside the apartment doors was tiled, so echo-filled. One side of that hall was open to the roof, where you could climb out and relax in an Astro-Turf©™ wonderland of potted succulents and shabby lounge furniture. It was also where you were liable to find Ledge, the building’s cat [if not on the ledge outside your window].
Working a full and part-time job, plus trying to write stuff in the odd off-hours, kept things busy. There wasn’t a lot of time to sun worship up on the roof, but once in a while, we’d have people over and [since we didn’t have a television or air conditioning] the roof was a good place to visit and drink beer and wine into the wee-smalls. Which we did.
One night, though, perched on one of the plywood boxes covered in plastic grass, I had the weirdest, most invasive image slam into my brain that I had ever experienced. I’m getting goosebumps now, just trying to remember the details to set down here.
I had the implicit image of someone reaching out from under/around the box I was seated on, grabbing me, and throwing me to the ground. It felt violent, it felt overtly sexual, and it did not feel good. I must have gasped or turned white or something because people noticed. I explained what happened, how it felt. There was much discussion that night about the history of the building. Much wondering about what the fuck just happened [and whether it was a real thing or a figment of my writerly imagination].
It felt like rape, probably murder, too. Sadly, there was plenty of that going on and still is. We had Logan’s friend Diana had stayed with us for a bit after she had been raped at a UCLA frat party. Her rape kit is probably still languishing in a storeroom somewhere in the bowels of the police station.
I really wanted to dig into the story, but this was 1979: no Google; no smartphones; not even personal computers. If you wanted to look up a building’s history, it was the Hall of Records. Crime? Off to the microfilmed newspapers at the library. I was working two jobs and trying to write. I never made the time. Now there’s so much history, it’s hard to narrow your search terms enough to not have a bajillion results.
It shook me up pretty well. Like shaken baby shaken. After that, I don’t recall spending a lot more time out there on the roof. I kept to my little corpse of a kitchen, trying to work. Eventually, we rented a floor sander and got rid of the cardboard floor, stained and sealed it, made it useable. We still didn’t, other than me. No love for that space, no
matter what we did to it. We tended to keep the French doors closed, keeping the vibe out of the living space. Life went on.
One of the many great things about Westwood at the time, there was a couple of great bookstores. One was a tiny place specializing in science fiction and horror. I got to meet Stephen King there when The Dead Zone came out.
The other was a place [Brentano’s, I believe] where you could buy used books. I got my hands on a review copy of King’s The Stand. Not knowing what it was about, I dove in. Just as I was getting to the part about the Captain Tripps killer flu outbreak, I sneezed and freaked the fuck out. I came down with a cold that made reading it all the more surreal.
So I was out sick with Captain Tripps for a couple of days. I was happy as a sneezy clam because I had the apartment to myself and a thick-assed book to read. It was not uncommon for me to say so long to the boys, get lost in the book, and look up to find them coming home from classes or work and not even notice the passage of time. The Trashcan Man was dancing his way into Vegas and I hear someone moving around in the corpse of a kitchen. I look up from the book and see the figure of a man moving from right to left past the French doors and out of sight. He was wearing a fedora, so I thought it was Tomás, who wore his late grandfather’s hat pretty much 24/7 [he’s wearing in the harmonica picture above, as a matter of fact]. So I said something clever, like “Hey, T. What’s up?”
“How was your day? I didn’t realize it was so late.”
Then the front door [one of those heavy-duty, quintessentially California doors, with medieval nail heads and a wrought iron Judas trap] swings open and Tomás yells out, “Honey, I’m home!” or some such, and I pretty much shit myself. I did one of those cartoon/sitcom pointing at him and the French doors, burbling, “but, but, but” and wondering what the fuck just happened.
I had to go look, of course, but there was no one in that corpse of an old kitchen. No way out, either. Not without Tomás seeing whoever it was leaving through the door through which he was about to enter. There was a service door near the water heater, but I don’t recall it ever opening, and it was just a yard or so down from the main door, so Tom would still have seen whoever sneaking out.
Those were the strangest of things I recall. I remember a lot of other stuff. A lot. Sitting behind Dick Van Patten and David Carradine in the movie theater to see Alien. Martha Raye and her toy boys coming in to deposit her residual checks. The great old movie houses. I remember fondly the poor boy lunch at Alice’s Restaurant—soup, cheese, fruit, and a hunk of baguette for cheap. Trying to not step on hard-shelled snails when walking around after the rain. Hedges of jade plants. Seeing Bette Midler doing her mermaid schtick at the Hollywood Bowl. Going to the Troubador. Seeing the stage and film versions of Hair a few weeks apart. Taking my parents and brother to Disneyland on the bus. Seeing Pat Collins, the Hip Hypnotist, do her club act somewhere on the strip. Bunches of stuff for almost 40 years ago.
But if you say “Westwood” to me, I think of these two things first. Okay, maybe the Fox movie theater, and then these two things.
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