Continuing excerpts from my novel of L.A. in Short Stories plus one Novela, here is part of Chapter 11. If you want to catch up, check out the first one here and the previous one is here. The one thing to remember is that each of the 13 short stories is narrated by a new character, and the novella is told from an omniscient point of view tying it all together. In this one, our new narrator, Edna, has an encounter with a character from Chapter 2
LOST AND FOUND
This has definitely been a very strange week of ups and downs, literally and figuratively. Last Tuesday, I saw my pet project destroyed by a natural disaster, and one that most Californians are not fully insured for. On the other hand, one of my favorite tenants was pulled out of the wreckage alive, and I hear that she’s found a new place to live down the street.
But… my building was red tagged, meaning that it’s going to be pulled, and I’ll be left with an empty lot worth far less, although I’m sure that some wealthy developer will spot it, offer to pay me less than market value, and then turn it into housing priced out of the range of most people in this neighborhood in the continuing gentrification parade.
Oh, the city has done some things to battle these evil bastards, but not enough. They’ve only managed to severely reduce and cap rents in certain parts of the city, but developers, who have always had the City Council in their back pockets, have also gotten laws passed that eliminate all rent control or caps on properties within two miles of a Metro station. Unfortunately, we are well within this distance, but I absolutely refused to raise my rents to sky-high levels.
It was so promising back during the plague days, too. Six months of no rents, no mortgages, and no property taxes. And we somehow survived it, like we’re surviving this quake. Except that after the vaccine, people went back to being their greedy, selfish selves. Well, some of them did. A lot of them got turned out of office, but their replacements… not much better.
As for this place, I’ve owned it since the early 80s. It was originally a small hotel, and the only reason it wasn’t a motel is because all of the parking was off of the alley in the back instead of in front of the rooms. The layout was a basic square with an empty middle where the swimming pool and courtyard lived. There was a small office up front, and multipurpose community room in back. When I bought it, I left the ice machines in place for that nostalgic touch, as well as the laundry rooms because they were necessary. While I had been able to convert the original 10 suites and 50 rooms into 10 two-bedrooms, 40 one-bedrooms, and 20 studios, there was no room in any of them for washing machines. Besides, back then, laundromats were plentiful and cheap and it was not considered an amenity.
I was only breaking even on this place, but that didn’t matter. It had been a good emotional investment. Besides, I had plenty of properties that did make me money. I had followed the advice I’d heard from my father constantly back in Schenectady: “Invest in real estate. It’s the one thing that never loses value because they’re not making more of it.”
Once I’d made my money, I did, but I’ll save that part for later. I mostly invested it in income properties managed by other people and kept it all at arm’s length, but then one day I found out about a place that intrigued me.
It was the Starlight Hotel in Koreatown, and I jumped on it, because the asking price was pocket change. Sure, if I did what I wanted, I’d never make money off of the property, but I made up for that by briefly going into the business of flipping houses, but only doing it in rich neighborhoods and only selling at inflated prices to assholes who had more money than they deserved.
Okay, maybe there’s a conflict there because I am raising prices in one place and not the other. Then again, nobody who isn’t filthy rich was ever going to buy a house in Bel Air, Beverly Hills, Malibu, Woodland Hills, or Brentwood anyway.
I rebranded the place as the Starlight Apartments and opened it up for tenants in January 1984, but I was as selective as legally possible, looking for people who most needed cheap housing, favoring gay people, and people of color, and even senior citizens, thinking that I could give them an education in tolerance in the bargain.
I kept the rent low, and my favorite tenant, Cindy, moved in something like more than thirty years ago. Technically, she didn’t fit my original criteria at the time, but she had some medical experience as a vet tech, which could always be useful. What I was charging her for a two-bedroom was less than most of the shitholes around here were charging for studios that had shared bathrooms, no kitchens, and no parking.
I don’t believe in raising the rents here, but I’ve preferred to keep this place a word-of-mouth secret… and then, in a few minutes on a Tuesday in April, bang. Gone. And the annoying part is not the loss of property. What I regret is that this was the only property I’d ever bought in order to help out people with their rent, and I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t be able to rebuild because that expense itself might be too much.
The Monday after the quake, I was sitting out in front of the tents we’d set up on the sidewalk, enjoying a coffee with some tenants when a young man in a suit walked up.
“Hi,” he said. “My name is Adrian. Adrian Miller. Do you know who owns this property?”
“Me. Edna,” I reply, immediately hating him. “It’s not for sale.”
“Well, it’s not in the greatest shape, either,” he says, and I wonder whether punching him in the throat would be considered a crime given the circumstances.
“It is not for sale,” I repeat emphatically.
“I know,” he replies. “But is it up for rehab?”
This catches me off guard. “Um… what do you mean?” I ask.
“Was it fully insured?”
“Not for earthquakes.”
“I see. And after the deductible and all that, are you able to finance reconstruction?”
“Hell no,” I tell him. “So, what do you want? Because if it’s to buy and gentrify the hell out of this space, you can fuck right off.”
He stares at me a beat, and then just laughs.
“Oh, Edna, gentrifying is the farthest thing from my boss’ mind.”
That catches me off guard even more — not just his statement, but the proof that he was actually paying attention to me as a human-being when I said my name.
“Okay, Adrian,” I reply. “Tell me more.”
“Great,” he says, taking the offered camp chair before launching into it. “We’ve been walking neighborhoods since the quake, seeing how we can help out, and I had a very interesting conversation with a woman who’s living at that theater center down the street. The one who was your former tenant…”
“Cindy,” I said and he nodded.
“And she told me all about what you’d done for the tenants in your building, which is exactly the kind of thing my boss wants to support.”
“Who’s your boss, Bill Gates?”
“No. He prefers to stay out of the public eye, so you’ve probably never heard of him. Toby Arnott. How many units was the place?”
“It had 70 units on three floors,” I explained.
“Hm. We could probably make the replacement bigger — ”
“Absolutely not,” I cut him off. “I’d prefer it to look as much like the original as possible.”
“I suppose that all depends on the codes,” he said. “Obviously, it will be updated to whatever is current when the contractor pulls the permits, but the outside could look like the original, I suppose.”
“So how exactly would this deal work?” I asked him. “This isn’t some sneaky way to buy my land without it looking like that, is it?”
“No. Toby has set up a foundation for earthquake recovery, so it would be a charitable project. At the end of it, you’d still own the land and the building. We’d just ask that you continue to rent it out the way you have been, and at the rates you’d been charging, with priority to any former tenants who want to return.”
“It sounds like I’m not the only one you’re doing this for.”
He just smiled. “Actually, you’re the first one we found that’s worth doing it for. Well, the first apartment. I think we’re going to be investing in that theater company, too.”
“I’d need to see a contract and have my lawyers look at it first.”
“Of course. The next step is to bring Toby down here to meet you and see the lot. I’ll research what the building did look like, too. Oh. Do you know what arrangements your tenants have made?”
“Some of them moved back home, as in out of state. Others are staying with friends and family. I got all of their new contact info first so I can get them their deposits back, and luckily I saved the hard drives with all of the tenant records on them.”
“For the moment, living in one of those tents over there.”
“Well, we’ll have to change that. If you can wait a couple of days, we’ll find a long-term rental we can put you up in during the reconstruction.”
“Assuming the deal happens.”
“No, we’d do that part even without the deal.” He quickly checked his phone. Ah. The boss wants me to meet up where he’s at, but we’ll both be back around soon. Do you know of any other apartments or businesses you’d suggest we stop in at?”
I mention a few — one other landlord I know also isn’t a gouger, and a couple of family-owned shops on the street. He thanks me and heads off, and I don’t know what to think about it all.
Los Angeles was such a different place when I came here. It was right after I graduated college, May, 1969. No traffic, everything was cheap, and there was a sense that the sexual and hippie revolution that had started in San Francisco a couple of years before had finally sort of made it down here. The smog was horrible, and people smoked everywhere — elevators, movie theaters, hospitals. Hell, even doctors would puff away during exams.
None of us would even think that this was abnormal until about the mid-80s.
But… what else? Oh yeah. This was the year of mainstream movies rated X. Midnight Cowboy. That one came out the same month I’d come to L.A. Of course, this was also when “adult cinemas” sprang up advertising “XXX Movies!!!” Three X’s and three exclamations must have meant that they were three times as dirty, and they were. The month after I arrived, those riots happened at that gay bar in New York, and they would wind up changing everything more than I would have ever thought, especially for me.
I was young, ambitious, and naïve, and so wound up in early July going to an “audition” in a second floor office that was above Frederick’s of Hollywood, of all places. This was a business well-known for selling sexy lingerie, although the offices above it had nothing to do with the business below it. That’s even what the receptionist told me as I signed in.
“Everyone thinks the same thing when they come in, dear, but don’t worry. The guys downstairs don’t own the businesses upstairs.”
“I guess that’s a relief,” I say as I hand her my headshot and resume, and she laughs, a little too earnestly. “Right through there… Edna,” she adds after glancing at the name on my headshot.
I enter the waiting room and it’s surreal. One side is lined with women I could swear are my duplicates — we didn’t have the word “clone” back then, but we were all clearly of a type. On the other side sat an equally similar line of young men, every one of them tall, skinny, pale, with black hair, brown eyes, high cheekbones, and hawkish noses that complimented everything about them perfectly.
I was getting a bad feeling about this, although I had no idea that I was somehow predicting a movie line that would become famous in eight years.
A woman came out of the office finally and called two of us in — “Edna Ferris, and… Stony Boon?”
Okay, I couldn’t help but think that that was a stage name. On the other hand, the guy I walked in with was easy on the eyes and introduced himself with a deep, soft voice and strong but gentle handshake. “Stony Boon,” he said, then added in a whisper, “And no. It’s not.”
We entered the inner office and the woman who called us left, closing the door. It was a small room with one desk, and a rotund, middle-aged man in clothes that were two decades too young for him, obvious toupee, and with a cigar in his mouth. Lit, of course.
Now, before Stony could tell me his real name, it was obvious that he knew something I didn’t, and was quickly flinging his clothes off, so that in about ten seconds, he was butt-ass naked and facing the director with no shame.
“Hi, Doug!” he called out, cheerily.
“Hey, Stony. Always a pleasure. Have you met…” glances at my docs, then grimaces, “Edna… honey, we’ll have to change that.”
“I did in the hall,” he says, looking at me, “But I’d like to get to know her.”
And then it all gets awkward. I don’t know where to look. I mean, okay. Stony, or whoever he really is, actually is pretty goddamn hot, although I’m doing my best to look at everything but little Stony, which ain’t that little. At the same time, I’m feeling this weird impatience from Doug, the director, while Stony just looks confused.
“Honey, did you read the sides?” Doug finally asks me.
“Oh, yeah, sure. I recognized it immediately. Shakespeare. Much Ado About Nothing.”
“Right, you read the text, but it’s a screenplay. Did you read the action?”
“Um… no. Sorry,” I replied. Doug sighed, but Stony jumped to my defense and I don’t know why. “She’s a stage-actress, man. Don’t blame her. The first thing stage directors tell actors is to ignore the directions.”
“Well, fuck,” Doug says. “That’s why I don’t do theater,” although he pronounces it as “Thee-uh-TAH” with contempt. “If you’d read the directions, you’d know that this is the scene where Hero and Borachio fuck.”
“I’m sorry… what?” I ask him.
“You have read the play right?” he demands.
“I’ve done it four times, and I’ve played Hero twice and, trust me, she and Borachio never… have relations. That’s the entire point of the whole play.”
“Not in my version, honey. Have you even seen Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet?”
“Of course I have,” I reply.
“And, in that one, they fuck.”
“They pretty much did in the original, too,” I tell him.
“Ooh. You’re uppity. I like it. Maybe I should consider you for my Marquis de Sade movie.”
“What?” Stony and I say in unison.
“Oh, honey, don’t you get uppity, too,” Doug says, clearly addressing Stony. “I can put you back in those Fire Island Fantasy flicks in a heartbeat.”
This seems to humble Stony a bit and I’m on the verge of walking out when Doug says, “Okay. Which Shakespeare couple — who actually fuck — would you like to play with your leading man here?”
Since I’m now convinced that this Doug guy doesn’t know Shakespeare from his own asshole, I snap back, “Kate and Petrucchio,” and he leaps out of his chair. “Brilliant!” he screams. “The Taming of the Screw! It’s perfect. Let’s see that audition…”