I moved to California in August of 2008. From then until December 2010, I lived in North Hollywood. You may imagine many things when you hear the word “Hollywood,” but you will find absolutely none of these things in North Hollywood. If you think you see a high-powered Business Professional speed walking down the street in a fine suit while talking on their Bluetooth and slamming back a tall Starbucks, it’s actually just a Neighborhood Schizophrenic cursing at himself as he stumbles down the street in a thirty-year-old blue rayon suit, drinking Old English from a can. It’s the ghetto of the southeast San Fernando Valley. In parts. Some parts like the NoHo Arts District, are chic and expensive. I never lived in those parts.
My first apartment in North Hollywood was a two hundred and thirty-five square foot studio without a kitchen or a proper sink for doing dishes so I put them in a large plastic bin and did them in the bathtub with the water from the showerhead. It was the cheapest place I could find south of Burbank Blvd, so I didn’t mind. You get what you pay for, and the neighborhood was actually pretty cool. The building was sandwiched between a liquor store and a delicious Caribbean restaurant, just east of the Ralph’s on Magnolia and Vineland. Ralph’s are open 24 hours a day and often have 50% off specials on beautiful cuts of steak. Having one within stumbling distance was great. Across the street was a Kansas City BBQ that served nice and crispy sweet potato fries, next to it a very chill cafe operated by three Armenian brothers with an enclosed-patio outback with a very Zen garden feel to it where I’d often go to do some writing. They held open mike’s some nights; my friend did a stand-up set once. Later they sold the place and the new owners kept it closed half the time, perhaps using it as a Front for illegal activities. That’s a shame. It was a great place, once.
My studio was on the second floor and the only staircase was on the end opposite the entrance. To get there, you had to pass through the seemingly longest hallway in existence, where the walls and doors and ceiling and floor were colored a nauseating shade of white that made it seem as if they were slowly closing in on you. I felt like I was in The Shining every time I walked it.
But this wasn’t the Overlook Hotel. The Hedge Maze was replaced by and crowded, sharply winding parking lot and instead of an opulent ballroom with _ there was a workout room with one rackety treadmills and two old nautilus machines that were always broken.
There was a short, soft-spoken old man always hanging around, but it wasn’t Scatman Crouthers. Rather, an ex-actor from upstate New York who only owned two shirts. He claimed to have once been a great stage actor and that he’d written a screenplay he was going to give me to read that his friend who worked for Spielberg told him was “the best thing she’s ever read.” It was about single moms and 1% Biker Gangs or something. He claimed on many occasions that he that he and Brando were good friends in the fifties when they both lived in New York, and that he knew for certain that Marlon was bisexual. He didn’t say how he knew this for certain, and he always made a point to say that he definitely wasn’t gay. I think he felt the need to assert that, since he lived in a two hundred and thirty-five foot apartment with another dude. But I understood that they weren’t gay, just broke and crazy.
The two creepy twins in blue dresses had a doppelganger as well, in the form of a 6’3, 280 lbs man with ginger hair and some sort of condition that was most likely schizophrenia.
My first encounter with Mr. Fat Ginger was about a month before my last. I was in the parking lot and he, being new to the building, decided to introduce himself by following me around saying “I got raps, raps and traps and yeah, I got raps, heh-heh,” over-and-over again and laughing through the sides of his clenched teeth. I didn’t know what “I got raps and traps” meant, but didn’t care to ask. I wasn’t sure if he was even talking to me or just babbling to himself while he smiled at the person next to him. So I just laughed and nodded like I “got it” and kept walking, at a fast enough pace but not so fast as to draw attention.
I saw him around a lot after that. I always said hi. Half the time he ignored me. Those were the lucky times. When he did want to talk, hopefully it was in the parking lot or main lobby so I had enough room to slide around him and escape. But when I saw him in the narrow hallway, I was fucked. As I said, it was a very narrow hallway, and he was a very wide man. Physically, I had no choice but to stop and talk, or push my way though. That would have been unwise. He stopped me once to talk and it ended up fine. I listened to him gripe about this that and the other thing. See, yesterday, the punks in Apartment 18 had complained about the loud levels at which he played gangster rap songs at 11 o’clock at night to Jill, the Landlady, and she told him to shape up or ship out (in so many words). So he bitched Jill being a bitch and I professed to agree with him completely, even though Jill had always been nice to me. He was upset but not distraught. His Dad as- according to him- a big shot lawyer, so he could sue Jill to Hell and back if he wanted, he claimed. Awesome, that’s sweet, I told him while nodding like a dodo bird. Eventually, I found an opening and we parted on good terms. I only saw him one more time, and it was one to remember…
One hot night in August I jaunted over to Ralph’s to get some Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream and came home happy. But as I walked down the long and narrow hallway, I saw a giant white and red blob that was in fact Mr. Ginger himself, marching down the hall at a fast and purposeful pace. I smiled and waved, hoping this would be one of those times he ignores me. It wasn’t. He was walking right at me, like he’d been looking for me.
Apparently, he had been. When he stopped in front of me, he crouched over and looked me right in the eye and said the follow:
“Hey, last night I showed you that gun I said it was real. I was kidding. It was fake. And someone called the cops on me and I’m getting married. Did you know that? Well I am and I can’t have this so I need you to tell me 100% honestly, please, was it you who called the cops?”
Then he stared right into my eyes and waited for an answer.
For the Record: I had not seen him or his fake gun the previous night. I hadn’t even left my apartment the previous night, not even for a Ralph’s run. So this was news to me, that I saw him flash a fake gun and then perhaps called the cops. But he was clearly very serious, so I took him seriously and said in a soft and sincere whisper of a voice “No. I didn’t even see the gun and No. No, I would never do that.”
This seemed to convince him. He nodded solemnly, loudly clapped his hands together and said: “It was Apartment 18.” He brusquely turned around and stormed away, wagging a finger in the air and bellowing “I knew it!” as he did. I marched down the hall and up the stairs at an extremely fast pace, entered my apartment, closed the door, promptly locked all three locks, then exhaled with the force of a hurricane and said “what the fuck was that??” as I ran my shaking hands over my pale sweaty face. I decided then it was time probably time to get another apartment.
One day my kindergarten classmates and I were sitting in a circle talking about what had happened to us over the weekend, when a shrimpy, wiseass kid said “Ms. Puia, yesterday was the worst day of my life. My grandfather died.” He said it very matter-of-factly with little trace of the actual sadness in his tone, for he was young and neither he nor I could truly understand the finality of death at that point. That was the first time I ever considered the idea of someone dying in real life, rather than just in a cartoon or on the news or in a history book. A few months later, I experienced this phenomenon first hand.
Dr. Walter Fenstermacher, my maternal grandfather, was eighty years old when I was born. He was a tall, thin man with glasses and a gentle heart. He had three daughters, the youngest of whom (my mother) was born when he was forty-nine. I was his first grandchild, and the first male to come from his line. Needless to say, my very existence excited him tremendously. Although I was quite young when he died, I still have many memories of times spent with him. He used to tell me a story called “Frank, Fred, and the Naughty Horse” that took place on his boyhood farm in Michigan. The details of the story are murky (in fact I think I got the title wrong), but I believe it involved a Naughty Horse who did something to injure a good Horse (Frank or Fred, maybe?), which resulted in the Good Horse having to be put down. Maybe that was my introduction to the concept of death? Who knows? Anyway…
Pa (as I called him) died the day before my seventh birthday. When my Mom got the call from her sister, she was preparing for the my friends to come over for my Friends Birthday Party, as opposed to my Family Birthday Party, which would happen tomorrow. She didn’t tell me about his death right away because she didn’t want to ruin my party, so she put on a brave face and played the part of the happy hostess. Looking back, this took incredible strength on her part. It’s something I can’t imagine myself ever being capable of doing. I don’t have kids, so I don’t know first hand how easy or hard it is to make sacrifices for their sake. But I do have parents, and I highly doubt I’d be able to keep it together for more than two seconds if one of them died. Because I love them, because they do things like suppress insurmountable grief to make me happy for a few hours. So she stayed strong and kept quiet so I could have fun, until around noon the next day, after I had opened my presents, eaten my celebratory breakfast, and got a couple solid hours to play with my new toys before she and my father sat me down and told me that Pa was dead. Before I could even begin to process this information, I ran upstairs crying.
I didn’t go to his funeral. It was in Rochester, and we lived in Massachusetts at the time, so my parents went and my brother and I stayed with my Aunt Patti, Uncle Neil, and their kids Sean, Kyle and Meghan. They were family on my Dad’s side, so they barely knew Pa, but they were family all the same and very good people so they showed me great compassion and love. That was the first time I saw Batman (1989), staying there that weekend. I think my parents hadn’t wanted me to see it, thinking it was too dark. Maybe it was for my age, but it was a dark weekend, so I could handle it. The irony that after my first experience losing a loved elder I watched a movie about a man motivated by the death of his parents was lost on me then, but isn’t now. Seeing that must’ve really hit me over the head with the theme of the weekend, which would go on to be one of my biggest fears through the rest of my life: “One day, your parents are going to die.” Yikes. But enough on that…
I wish I’d gotten to know Pa better. To talk to him as an adult and ask a thousand questions about his life. He must have had many stories. Born in 1903, he became a successful surgeon and even served as a Colonel in the Army Medical Corps during World War 2, where he ran a Surgery Outpost in France. When he became too old to perform operations, he set-up one of the first modern Emergency Rooms in his hospital and ran it for ten more years. A brilliant guy, but his kindness and gentlemanly ways were what I remember most about him. I remember how he always took Grandma by the arm to help her walk and opened doors and pulled out chairs for women of every age. He was the embodiment Old School Chivalry. This made a lasting impression on me so I took his code of chivalry for my own. Today I (hopefully) always make sure I always open doors, say “after you” and offer to help women carrying heavy and not-so-heavy things when they look to be in need of a hand. It’s a habit that’s served me well, so I owe him one I guess.
As I grew older, I still thought about him quite frequently. Whenever I’d get in a fight with my Mom, I’d always imagine that Pa looking down on me, sad and disappointed at how I was acting. He was the visualization of my conscience. Back then I still believed in the Monotheistic idea of God, but it was still Pa I thought of when I imagined “Our Father, who art in heaven,” for he was the loving old man in the sky looking down on me that made me want to be good. Not because I feared his wroth, but because I feared disappointing him. I still feel that way, and still wonder daily what all the dead people I know really think about me. It’s something I’ll never know. All I know is what I thought of them and how they made me who I am. I was seven when Pa died, but I remember him, and I know that having known him helped shape some of the best parts of who I am today.
When I was young, my Dad used to tell me stories before bed, as many fathers do. Often he’d read books like “Miss Nelson is Missing” and “Ira Sleeps Over” to me and he would always do amazing voices for the different characters that made me laugh high and loud. He had a very enthusiastic way of delivering the line “Ira? What’re you doing here??” that got me every time. This made me want to learn to read, and fast.
My Dad was (and still is) an avid reader, and I wanted to be just like him in every way possible. I always wore my blue suit around the house because he had a matching one he wore to work sometimes. When I was six I faked having bad vision so I could get glasses and look like him. (Three years later, my vision got bad enough for glasses on it’s own, and continued to get worse and worse until I couldn’t see further than six inches without glasses. So in the end, Dad’s genetics gave me no choice but to be like him.) As I got older, the desire to be like him in every way faded. I didn’t want to be bald or have spider-shaped varicose veins all over my legs, but I still wanted to be well read and to be a great storyteller, like him.
Sometimes, Dad would tell me stories of his own creation. Usually they involved the characters of my favorite movie, show or book at the time coming to visit me on my birthday. Here’s an example:
It’s my birthday and I’m at my house in Austin, Texas with my Mom, Dad, baby brother and all my friends. (We moved to Massachusetts from Texas after my fourth birthday, but for some reason my Dad continued to set the stories there. Perhaps because he wished we’d never moved?) I’m opening presents and having a good time, then the doorbell rings. This startles every one, for all the guests have arrived. Who could it be? I open the door and ask (in a polite and adult tone) if I can help the gentleman at the doorstep. He says his name is “P.N. Gwinn” and came to bring me a present. He gives me a wrapped box and scuttles away, laughing/quacking as he does.
BACKGROUND: At this time I was obsessed with Batman, but it was before Burton’s Batman hit, so all I had to cling to was the Adam West chef-d’oeuvre Batman: The Movie. Therefore, this “P.N. Gwinn” character looked a lot like Burgess Meredith. Years later, after Burton and later Nolan released darker incarnations of Batman into the world of cinema, my Dad remained an odd type of purist who maintained that any deviation from Batman as Adam West portrayed him is akin to blasphemy.
So Mr. P.N. Gwinn leaves and we put the present in the presents pile. Then Batman and Robin show up, just in time, and give me some cool gift. Actually, I remember at least once my Dad told me a version of the story where they got me something I already had, then I politely thanked them anyway. Anyway, I open a few more gifts before I come to Gwinn’s, at which time I eagerly tear it open. Batman and Robin watch intently, guarded and ready to pounce if trouble lies wrapped under the slick, bright paper. I tear the last bits off, open the box and…
It’s an umbrella. Weird. Might as well open it. So I start to open the umbrella. I press the button and slowly slide it open when suddenly, Batman gasps. He’s had a Eureka moment. Senses trouble. He warns me “No! Wait!” But it’s too late. I have opened the umbrella and, much to my surprise, it is a flying umbrella!
I hold on tight and it takes me upward. So my Dad grabs my foot to pull me down. But he is pulled up with me. Then my Mom grabs his foot, but she is pulled up too. As we rise higher and higher into the sky, each one of my guests grabs the foot of the last person to grab a foot, and soon we are all flying over the city of Austin. I’m scared. This is wacky. But finally, we come to a large Public Pool that was in our neighborhood. “Chris, let go!” Batman yells just as we get over the pool. So I let go and we all fall into the pool. Afterwards, we laugh and joke and forget all about the danger we just faced. A great birthday all around.
For a time, I was really into Back to the Future, so my Dad worked them into the stories. Each one involved Doc and Marty coming to my birthday to tell me I had to go to one of my future birthday to help stop yada yada yada from happening. I remember once it took place at my 16th Birthday, and I at this time had a girlfriend named FeeFee. FeeFee was mad when I decided to go off with Doc and Marty and stormed out of the party. Doc apologized, but I just smiled, cocked back by head and said with all the confidence in the world, “They’ll come back. They always do.” The weirdest version of these tales I remember was one when I was, I don’t know, anywhere between 8 and 14 (in the story). I told Doc and Marty that I wasn’t really into Back to the Future anymore and didn’t want to go on any more adventures with them. I think this was prompted by me telling Dad I wasn’t into Back to the Future anymore and wanted a different story. Maybe this was his last one? Anyway, Doc and Marty didn’t take this news well. They got bitter and angry. “Oh yeah?” said Doc, spitefully. “You don’t want to come with me, then maybe I don’t want a piece of cake.” Marty and Doc left in a huff. Soon after, the Delorean came screeching back into our driveway, and Doc and Marty from a different timeline visited me. They were shocked and mortified when they heard how they’d behaved earlier and apologized profusely. They said they understood if I wasn’t as into Back to the Future anymore as I once was, but hope we can move on as friends and look back fondly at the time we spent together. All was forgiven and we decided to move on, as friends.
I’m sure he had Star Wars stories too, although I don’t specifically remember any. I do remember that he told me Darth Vader’s name was Jim Skywalker before he became Vader, and I took his word as Gospel. Later, my cousin Nate told me his name was Anakin. When I told my Dad this, he smiled and said, “Yeah, but everyone loved to call him Jim,” and laughed wildly to himself. I think his stories were as much about amusing himself as they were amusing me, which is often the way it must be when writing. The stuff you write should make you laugh first, and hopefully everyone else will then follow your lead.