“My bedroom wall is disgusting, can you come have a look at it?” Jane asked.
She was a tenant at an apartment building where I live and occasionally work as a building manager. Located in Toluca Lake, an affluent neighborhood just below Universal Studios, my apartment building is something of an anomaly. Just a stone’s throw away from the mansions of Bob Hope and Steve Carrel, it was once a stylish, elegant environ that budding movie stars once called home. No doubt, in it’s heyday, it was the “in” place – a hip, modern, swinging joint where you could brag about Bob Hope being your next-door-neighbor.
But sadly, that was a long, long time ago. Age and neglect had worn the once beautiful abode down, like a run down starlet who had one too many face lifts, the old gal had started to sag and show her age.
When I first took over from the previous manager, (a man whom I liked a lot, but was too overwhelmed with two new born babies to do much for the old building), the once stylish twenty unit apartment had hit absolute rock bottom. The hallway walls were marred by countless divots, ugly black marks from countless furniture moves. Every one of the exterior lights fixtures was gone, leaving ugly bare bulbs to light the tenants way – and most of these were burnt out.
The garage was pitch black at night and creepy as hell because all the florescent bulbs had also burnt out. The elevator was so poorly maintained that it constantly broke down – as did the garage gate, which would slam into the side of your car if you didn’t gun it out of the garage fast enough. Roaches and ants had taken over the entire building and would appear in droves every spring and summer. Rats had infested the garage. The plumbing system was so decrepit and rotten that the water had to be shut off every few days due to a major leak that flooded someone’s apartment.
The filter pump on the pool collapsed shortly after I was given the job, turning the building swimming pool into an algae ridden swamp. It was so bad that I literally thought an alligator might crawl out of it!
The owner wasn’t a bad guy, but he was a notorious penny-pincher. He wanted the building to be improved, but didn’t want to make expensive renovations. I had no budget, but he encouraged me to do whatever I could to “make the building nice again.”I took his encouragement to heart. This old building was, warts and all, my family’s home. I didn’t want to live in filthy, run-down, hovel – even if it was located in one of the ritziest neighborhoods in LA.
It took me three years of hard work to pull things off, but I largely succeeded. I had renovated the pool and saved it from becoming a swamp. I’d trapped every rat and driven off the bugs. I’d plastered over all the holes and scraps along the hallway walls. I’d replaced and maintained every lighting fixture and bulb, rewired the elevator and fixed the demonic garage gate. I’d even talked the owner into completely renovating the worst of the run-down apartments. Through a process of stubborn attrition, I’d replaced most of the plumbing in the building. Major leaks never happened anymore. Like a hooker who found religion; the old gal was respectable again.
Thing was, as nice as I had made the place, we were still living in a two bedroom apartment. It was nice, but it was too small for us. But more importantly, even though it was our home, it wasn’t a house.
There’s a book by Nobel Prize-winning Trinidadian author, V.S. Naipaul titled “A House For Mr Biswas” – if you haven’t read this book, you definitely should. It tells the sometimes hilarious, but often tragic saga of “Mr. Biswas” a man who spends his entire life on a fruitless pursuit of owning his own home. Most often, he’s the architect of his own hilarious disasters, but absurd luck also plays a hand in thwarting his lifelong dreams.
For years, I wondered if I was destined to be an LA version of Mr. Biswas; a doomed comical figure, wandering the city in lonely pursuit of a home I’d never get. After all, I’d been trying unsuccessfully for over two decades to purchase a house, but the ups and downs of my film career, combined with the astronomical prices of homes in Los Angeles kept my dream frustratingly out of reach. Indeed, at times it did seem as if the Universe had conspired in some preordained way to thwart my ambition of home ownership, no matter what efforts I made. And then, one day, suddenly the opportunity to our own house came along. A beautiful 4 bedroom house was there for the taking. There was just one catch: we’d have to leave Los Angeles…
Standing in Jane’s apartment, inspecting her water damaged wall, the decision weather or not to take advantage of the opportunity and move out of LA weighed heavily on my mind. I was so preoccupied by it that I had barely noticed Jane’s filthy carpet when i first walked into her unit. Finally, when she apologized for the terrible state of it, I looked down and took notice of it. The carpet had not been changed in 30 years. It was supposed to be a light cream color, but dirt and age had turned it grey with black spots and horrible stains everywhere. Part of it were so worn down that you could literally see the bare concrete of the foundation poking through. It was shocking that she’d allowed it to get this bad and not asked for a new carpet. “How come she never mentioned this to me?” I wondered to myself.
“I can get this poor old carpet replaced,” I offered, trying to sound diplomatic about the horrible state of her apartment. Jane sounded doubtful, citing how “cheap” the owner was and the fact that he’d never offered to refurbish anymore’s carpet before. I assured Jane that I would be able to convince him, she had been in the building longer than me, after all. It was state law that she receive repairs for reasonable use. Jane told me she would love it if I could pull it off, but wasn’t holding out any hope.
“Things are what they are” she said with a sigh, “They never get better.”
I didn’t want to believe that. Even if I’d struggled for years unsuccessful to buy a home, I refused to give up on the possibility of improvements. The next day I called the owner and worked my magic. I pointed out what a good tenant Jane was and how little it would cost to change her entire carpet. At the end of my lengthy plea, he said nothing for a few tense moments, then finally nodded his head in agreement. There was only one small catch: Jane would have to move her furniture out of the way on her own.
I text Jane immediately with the good news.
“Guess what?” I said.
“What?” Jane replied.
“You’re going to get new carpet!” Jane sent back an emoji: a double smily face. I felt warm and fuzzy inside – everything had worked out, or so I thought. I continued to text Jane, explaining that all she had to do was move her furniture to the courtyard for a few hours so the carpet people could do their work. I offered to move the stuff myself, just to help her out, or she could round up a dude waiting in front of Home Depot. Jane wrote back:
She didn’t text again for awhile. When she finally did, she said, “Thanks for going to the trouble, Scott, but it sounds like a big hassle. I don’t want anything done.”
I was astounded. Could she really be saying this? After I’d gone to all the trouble to help her out? Was it really that big of a deal to have her sofa moved to the courtyard for a couple of hours. Getting me to help, or even if I couldn’t, a guy from Home Depot would only cost $40 – a small price to pay for a brand new carpet. Later she turned me down on the wall repair as well, saying the paint fumes would make her sick and she could live with the water-damaged wall. It was just crazy, her apartment was literally decaying before her eyes and she didn’t want any repairs?!
But it wasn’t my place to argue with her. I told her I would do as she ask – and do nothing, but the encounter weighed on my mind – especially in relation to my own impending decision.
That night, I lay in bed, unable to sleep. The thought of leaving LA kept me tossing and turning all night long. I thought about all the people I know who were like Jane, individuals who are stuck, but can’t seem to find a way out of their predicament. I know quite a few dear friends are stuck in abusive relationships that they’re unable to end. Others who hate their dead-end jobs but never get up the nerve to quit. Others keep living in poverty for decades, hoping that their big Hollywood break is just around the corner. Another one of my neighbors, an elderly actor named “Tony,” is so stuck that he walks around in a bitter funk all day long. He’s been in hundreds of movies – but usually only playing a background character with no lines. He’s Sylvester Stallone’s crony and hangs out with the movie star on the regular.
Sly used to get Tony lots of work being his “stand in” on set, but he stopped doing that a few years ago because I guess he thought Tony had gotten too old to just stand there, so now Tony’s just hangs out in his apartment, bored and depressed. He accosts anyone who comes near him, including the Amazon delivery guys, and demands they rent his one great claim to fame at Redbox; a movie from the 80s about a guy who wins the New York lottery. Tony came up with the story and even managed to wrangle a small speaking part in it. It’s an okay movie, but it’s largely forgotten. Every time I see Tony, I can’t help but wonder: is that going to be me in 20 years, still stuck in this Hotel California, bugging every person I meet to rent “Bio-Dome” – yikes!
See, I realized a few years ago that LA had become a rut for me as well; it was too expensive to afford a home – and not just for me, but everyone. Home prices have increased by 600% over the last decade. Median rental prices in Los Angeles have risen steadily to an average of $2,400. The lack of affordable house has contributed mightily to the skyrocketing of the homeless population both in LA and San Francisco. In LA county alone, the homeless population ballooned by 16% this last year in spite of millions of dollars being spent to combat the crisis.
The declining quality of life in “The Golden State” had taken a steady toll on me. I complained constantly about the traffic, the air-quality, the poor schools, the brutality of Hollywood, etc. etc., and yet, I didn’t want to leave. Why? What was holding me here like a moth to the proverbial flame? It wasn’t family – my parents and brother had all moved away. It wasn’t necessarily friends either, as most of my close friends had moved to other parts of the country too. It wasn’t business, because I could do my screenwriting and publishing anywhere. Why was I hesitating to move out? It was strange.
What is it that makes us stay in a places we know deep down we probably should skedaddle from? Experts who have studied 911 and school shootings say this is the norm. Contrary to the common misconception that if you yell “fire” in a crowded theater that everyone immediately panics and rushes for the exits, professionals say just the opposite is true. People actually don’t go into “fight or flight” syndrome so easily. In fact, they say that most people die in disasters because, instead of running when they sense danger, they just sit there, stunned, unable to move to safety. What happens most often is that the victims feel overwhelmed and wait for help instead of being proactive.
Laying awake in bed that night, I thought a lot about this, and Jane’s bad carpet, as I continued to mull over the potential move. All I had wanted for so long was a house. Now I could get one, but it meant giving up the city I’d known my whole life. My apartment was too small, but it was part of something much bigger: Los Angeles, and, for better or worse, the city was my home.
Los Angeles was the end of the rainbow when my parents came here in the 1960s. The most progressive city in the most progressive country in the world. It had lured them from two distant lands, halfway across the world with promises of endless sunshine, racial tolerance, bountiful homes, endless economic opportunities, Hollywood glamor & glitz and limitless dreams. They thought living in LA was going to be paradise, but it didn’t pan out quite that way. They ended up divorced, jaded and disillusioned.
For me, it was different. Unlike them, I actually grew up in the City of Angles. I felt a tie to the community at large. This was enhanced by the fact that I had spent so much time in my life trying to make LA a better place.
LA is a very liberal, multi-cultural, but troubled city. The troubles that plague LA have been here a long time, becoming evident to everyone after the first racial riots we had; the Watts Riots of the early 1960s. Los Angeles, in spite of it’s progressive outward appearance, is a diverse, but highly segregated city. Different racial groups lay fierce claim to various patches of turf. Economic status determines where most people live and few venture much beyond their gated community or designated hood. Angelenos drive through every part of the city, but have almost no interaction with anyone outside their mini-enclave.
Perhaps because I’m mixed race, the segregation and de jure segmentation of Los Angeles always bothered me quite a bit. During my time here, I always tried to mix with as many different people and communities as I could and expose the seemingly radical notion that we didn’t have to live behind invisible walls. I also tried to make a difference whenever possible. I grew up on the beaches of Malibu, a seemingly rich kid who was actually middle class (just like most folks out there), but I never stayed there. Instead I explored and reached out to anyone who’d take my hand…
I worked as a guest teacher, volunteering to work in the roughest schools with the most troubled kids in South Central and East LA. I answered calls all night at the LA Suicide Prevention Center hotline in a dingy basement in Koreatown. I fed the homeless on skid row and the read the bible to a former preacher struggling with addiction for months in a park off the Miracle Mile, trying to help the man turn his life around. I defended immigrants in court, did ministry in the jails. I joined the two biggest African American churches in the city and also the most progressive white church in Hollywood. I’d peacefully protested again police abuse, but also joined a neighborhood patrol and broke up a street robbery. I became a mentor to a kid who had no father and watched him turn into a fine young man who now calls me “dad.” I did everything I could to make LA a better place – but still I wonder, did it make any difference in this big, sprawling mess of a city? Would anyone care, or even notice if I left?
I thought about all the incredible experiences I’d had in Los Angeles and all the goals I set for myself that I’d somehow accomplished; I’d gotten a movie made by a major studio, my band had played a sold out show at the Viper Room. I’d organized community groups for Coalition LA. I’d started a successful comic book publishing company. I’d seen every sports team more times than I could count. I’d been to hundreds of plays at the Mark Taper and small theaters across town. I frequented the LA Phil and gone to numerous concerts at the Hollywood Bowl. I’d seen the biggest rock and rap acts at the Forum and the Staples center, and countless up-and-comers like the Red Hot Chile Peppers and Eminiem in tiny clubs long before they were icons.
As I thought about all these memories, tears welled up in my eyes. It was then that I started to see the big picture: I’d done it everything I could here. I’d truly left no stone unturned in my LA journey.
At about five AM, I went to my kids room and stared at them sleeping in their beds in the tiny, dark room they shared. I couldn’t ask them to live like this anymore, packed together like two sardines in our small apartment. I knew what I had to do. I couldn’t be like Jane who wanted to stay as a permanent guest in the Hotel California, staring at a gross rug and a water-stained, crumbling wall every day. I refused to be like Tony, gulping down a bottle of cheap wine every night, refusing to let go of the past. No, I needed to do what the protagonist in that legendary Eagles’ song finds impossible: I had to check out. I had to leave…
And so with a heavy heart we decided, as a family, that it was finally time to leave my hometown of La-La-Land. Many dismiss LA as a phony place full of phony people. They point out it’s many flaws, noting that it’s a crime-ridden cess-pool full of racial tension and economic injustice. They’re right, LA is a totally fake, racially segregated dump right out of Blade Runner. Its home to more gangs than anywhere else in the US. It’s freeways are congested quagmires of unending traffic. It’s nice homes are totally unaffordable to anymore who makes less than a million a year and it’s smog choked basin is beset by wildfires, mudslides and earthquakes.
Hollywood, I’ve discovered, isn’t exactly a creative hotbed. More often than not, it’s really just an adult version of a high school popularity contest. Most studio executives could care less about making good films – they just want to accumulate as much filthy lucre and power as possible. The “biz” seldom rewards those with real talent, but rather bestows fortune capriciously, usually upon those who are willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead.
Sadly, I’ve watched the entertainment industry devour the souls of many of my closest friends. I’ve seen first-hand how fame, money and power turns nice people into insufferable assholes. To be fair though, maybe the former friends I’d lost to Hollywood had always been that way deep down, they just needed success to bring out the worst in them. Maybe the final truth is, LA doesn’t ruin people, it just makes them more of what they already are. There’s a dark side to the world of make-believe, and LA’s gutters are full of broken dreams and lost promises.
Even so, if one gets outside of Hollywood and the “biz”, LA also a place full of wonderful, caring, dedicated, hard working people, folks who inspired, taught and befriended me. The City of Angles is a shallow town at times to be sure, but it’s also one deep in intellectual thought if one is willing to dig a little deeper. Truly, this is a town of great artists. Writers like Viet Thanh Nguyen, Raymond Chandler, Charles Bukowski, and Nathanial West thrived here, not to mention rappers like Nipsey Hussle, Ice Cube, Snoop and Dre. LA has inspired so many incredible artists it would take me an entire month just to write down all their names. No matter where my journey takes me next, there’ll always be that part of Los Angeles in me forever. For that, I’ll always be grateful.
I’ll never forget all the amazing people I met in LA and all the incredible times I’ve had here. I’ll think of it often I’m sure in the months ahead. Yes, I’m leaving LA, but not in the angry, snarling punk rock way my favorite band “X” sang about in their iconic song, “Los Angeles” – but rather in the touching, sad, but honest way Anthony of the Chili Peppers sang about it in “Under the Bridge.”
That there’s nobody out there
It’s hard to believe
That I’m all alone
At least I have her love
The city she loves me