The following is part one in a list of things I knew nothing about before owning a house but are now slightly more familiar to me. Some of them are simple or profound joys. Some are great headaches. This is not to say I am an expert on any one of these things (though Lex may be), but rather that during the last few years I have gradually become less ignorant of each thing’s existence. Nor is it to say I am smarter for knowing these things, though if wisdom is a secret that, once heard, exposes itself as utterly inapplicable, perhaps I am wiser.
1. Curb Appeal
I flew into Los Angeles from New York, where Lex and I lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment. It was early in the summer, and I was going to stay with my sister and her husband for a long weekend. I wanted to get a first look at the Los Angeles real estate scene before Lex and I moved there two months later. My brother-in-law picked me up from Bob Hope Airport in Burbank and took a back way through Glendale to his house. The next day I went with him to Target, and somehow we ended up going west on the 134 (#2). “This is the 134 Freeway, along the Pasadena Mountains,” he said while driving and casually sweeping his left hand to the south. “Down there, that’s Mount Washington,” he said and with the confidence of his hand gesture seemed to add, and everything else you know nothing about—from the downtown skyscrapers to the great void to the west, which no matter how hidden by a hazy sky, you will come to always sense—You’ll live somewhere down there.
Most days an agent took my sister and me to see houses for sale, but I don’t remember how many places we saw or where exactly they were. LA confused me then (more as a mass of streets and boulevards and highways than in the continually deepening and stereotypical metaphysical way), and, as the real estate agent drove my sister and me around, a pop CD in the car played at low volume, ending and starting over. A diva’s Top 40 hit would catch my attention once an hour or so, between houses, which I saw without any geographic or temporal reference points. The agent could have driven me in circles for hours between showings and open houses that were all, for some unknown reason, along a single block in Mt. Washington, and I wouldn’t have noticed.
Five years ago I had no inkling of the impending, but now I am surely swimming headlong down the river to full-fledged maturity. There are many valid ways to define adulthood. In some cultures maturity is gained through some kind of traditional ceremony. Then there is of course physical maturity, which for most species is absolute and inevitable. But one can also postpone maturity; this is the approach on which I am an expert, yet today I venture into the unknown, with more vigor than before, with a Gatsby-esque reinvention. I do so now because even if fate and the caprice of others may determine my true destiny, I have found physical maturity to be neither fickle nor mysterious.
More than a few times this frightened me in a way that made the past seem to die off and become immemorially “then, before adulthood.” Ergo, for you the formative years are over, there’s no more slacking off (and perhaps no more fun), so, like Gatsby, you must take what you want now, or you never will. I was feeling torn to say the least. Plus there was also the understood reluctance that comes with all big decisions (that feels like an understatement, if I may indulge myself in this case), and the idea that my life had arrived, and that the brave thing to do (because this is what I truly wanted) was to stay the course and jump blindly into the future beside Lex, leaving the past behind, frightened me even more than the alternative, which was to hold on kamikaze-style to irresponsibility, where it seems the grass is always a little greener, especially if your own ambitions hem you in. So I have begun to see my two-bedroom in Edendale (#4) as my modest mansion, as the jumping-off-point into not just picket fences and Fourth of July barbeques but into a new, responsible, proactive, mature me.
5. School Districts;
6. Fixed-Loan Mortgages
In the late summer Lex and I flew to Colorado and picked up the car I had considered mine in college, but my parents had used as their dog transporter for five years while I lived on the East Coast. Though of course by the time my parents picked us up at the airport the car was immaculate. (Anyway my dad’s name had been on the title all along.) Lex and I drove it to Los Angeles via Phoenix to see her family. In Phoenix, I borrowed from her brother Bret Easton Ellis’s Less than Zero and read it before we left to drive to California a few days later. When we got through the Inland Empire (#7), and reached LA, we didn’t stop, just got off the One-oh-one (#8) at Vermont and continued west down Sunset, past the Chateau Marmont (#9), and through the Sunset Strip with a stop at Book Soup (#10). Then we drove all the way through Beverly Hills to the beach. This is not the route any normal Angeleno would take, but because we had nothing better to do in the face of daylong house hunting sessions with the agent, and because we were still far from reaching that irrational yet endemic hatred of LA traffic that leads to road rage, we drove Sunset from East Side to West Side.
While sitting on the beach, I read a lot of Steve Erikson’s Zeroville. It wasn’t until the drive back along the highway—back toward my sister’s place—that I realized Less Than Zero and this book made a poor combination for such an oblivious newcomer; both books present LA as symbolically random and directionless, and I found myself tempted to huddle and hide from the imposing concrete city. For Ellis it is a place where killing a coyote with your car on a dark and winding road is treated no more nonchalantly than friends kidnapping a young girl. For Erickson it is where you meet a friendly vagrant who steals your television and decades later robs you at gunpoint, and this repeat encounter is only slightly less inevitable than an earthquake. In this fictional LA (a city obsessed with images anyway) there is no event or future event either dependent or distinct from another; it is chaos; everything is all just part of the atmosphere, which washed over me through the car window in the form of yellow light and tacky billboards. So after we took the Ten, to the One-ten, to the One-oh-one, listening to “LA Woman,” I worried Los Angeles would end up a place of either sunny personal growth or impending catastrophe.
11. The Arclight Cinerama Dome; 12. Lockboxes;
13. Interest Rates
Before my sister got married and moved into a bigger house with her husband, she had lived in a tiny duplex in Edendale. When I visited her years before, I had begun to see the city, in a sweet, naïve way—the way a tourist sees the city. Yet what I saw others have described better than I could; though the mission of Nuestra Señora Reina de los Ángeles was a rural place, in 1883 Helen Hunt Jackson, originally of Amherst, wrote Echoes in the City of the Angels” describing, in the voice of a visitor to a foreign land, her view:
… of a precipice wall covered with bird-cage cottages, the little, paling-walled yard of one jutting out in a line with the chimney-tops of the next one below, and so on down to the street at the base of the hill… [T]he houses are lilliputian in size… but do more for the picturesqueness of the city than all the large, fine, and costly houses but together.
Like the perched homes Jackson described, my sister’s apartment was on a hill and the bathroom’s window looked out across the valley. My fascination with the view was perhaps just a naïve repetition of long-documented reactions, since from there I saw “a stretch of view which makes each hour of the day a succession of changing splendors.” I didn’t know then that I would eventually see more than just the view. You had to stand on your tiptoes and look over the top of a cinderblock wall lining the next property three feet away, which I always did before exiting the bathroom at the back of the duplex, to marvel at the exotic and mysterious quality of the view across the valley, to the top of the complementary hill, in the crest formed by two columns of palm trees. That was six or seven years before I would live with two of those trees, before I’d know “more of Los Angeles than its lovely outward semblances and mysterious suggestions”; that is to say, before I had any inkling of the inevitable leap I would make into my current arrangement, back when I was sure that LA was just a nice place to visit.
14. “West LA Fadeaway”; 15. Spanish Style;
We put an offer on a place in Atwater with a fruit cocktail tree (#17) in the back, but it was so small that even before hearing back about the house we were brainstorming ways to fit a refrigerator in the kitchen. There was also another attractive place that had very nice, original Spanish tiling (#18) in the bathroom and kitchen. Looking back, with the aid of a map, I’ve determined it was in the Glassell Park area. An eight-foot wall surrounded the small backyard, and if you stood back a little you could see over it. On the other side, the smooth patchwork grass of Forest Lawn Cemetery sloped upward two hundred feet. This is the kind of detail in these houses that didn’t especially bother me but, unlike the tiling, wasn’t ideal.
Over the course of two months living and housesitting in my sisters’ homes, teetering on the edge of catastrophe in the form of stress-induced breakdowns, trying not to outstay our welcomes, we had looked at thirty-some houses. I knew I was attracted to Edendale and the “East Side” (which I now know is not really the East Side) if only because one sister used to live there, making it the only familiar neighborhood. Also I appreciate its eclecticism and history; with Arlo Guthrie, old film studios, and old Hollywood communists lurking from the past, I could at least feign some youthful idealism.
Eventually, after another month or so of looking at listings online and in person, spending all our free time on real estate websites, among the “MLS Reports” (#19), after we had moved from one sister’s apartment, back into the first sister’s place, and gone out with a different agent to see more houses—houses with pernicious cracks in the baseboards or “un-permitted” (#20) back bedrooms—long after we had started school and jobs and routines even without a home base, we saw the house we would ultimately move into. The online thumbnail didn’t show the actual building; just the palm-tree lined street—the skinny trunks and shrubby tops crested along with the rise of the black asphalt on the ridge and then shrank into the depth of field in the background.
Chris Black lives with his wife in Los Angeles. He is a former associate editor at Black Clock and wrote feature articles on rubber duck races, birds of prey, and other mountain topics for The Vail Trail weekly.