Part 75: The Kindness of Strangers

"The past is a foreign country: They do things differently there." --– L.P. Hartley from his novel "The Go-Between."


Above is a map of the apartment (Homewood just west of Vine Street---the Southwest Corner) with the banana tree, the pervert/neighbor Boris, and the evil step-father of my friend, Mandy. To refresh, Mandy's grandmother was Ann Nobel, the filmmaker and actress. Ann had custody of Mandy at Halo and Criswell's apartment while Jenny, Ann's daughter, got herself together after she'd hit a rough patch.


Because of the "Hidden Brain" episode and this blog, I've been given more details from various people who've reached out. A filmmaker/writer/musician named Ed Canfield is currently working on a script about Criswell and Halo's apartment and all the wacky people in it, including Riley. He told me that Ann Nobel made porn films. I had no clue about that! I only knew about the B movie horror films. As Jan constantly reminded me, I "blocked things out I didn't want to hear or remember," so maybe I did know and put it away somewhere with all the other stuff I was told about but wasn't old enough to understand.


*


Sometime before the faults ruptured, causing the earth to quake in 1971, a power shift in my parent's topsy-turvy relationship favored Jan. As a reminder from previous blogs, Jan made the strange promise to Riley that she would never see or speak to anyone she knew before she met him. They'd go away together–– cutting everyone off, including her own family, which she did.


At some point in my childhood, Jan's relatives showed up, although they never stayed with us in our various addresses, and the visits were brief.


I remember meeting George and Martha, my grandparents, (it's strange to call them grandparents, because I never really knew them) but I don't recall which apartment we were in. It was a short visit, I only remember them standing awkwardly in a main room, where Jan's latest painting was on an easel. Jan was tense. Even as a little girl I could tell something was off. George made a triggering comment about a painting Jan was working on. After they left our place, Jan complained about how religious and uptight they both were, and how glad she was that I was spared from her Catholic upbringing. The truth is, I'd kill for that kind of solid education the Catholic schools provide. The uniform would've helped me out, too. I see what Jan meant about the other stuff, though.


I have a vague memory of George taking me to a toy store and letting me pick out a doll. That was on a separate visit, when Jan's uncle Victor Svetlik and his wife were in town. Victor had been "ex-communicated" from the Catholic church for marrying a divorced woman, George and Martha had cut them off as well. I've forgotten Victor's wife's name, but both Jan and Riley were related to cool people named Victor. This Victor Svetlik had been a classically trained violinist, but during the depression, had to take work in factory. My mother said the grueling factory work ruined his hands. I must've been around 7 or so when they were all in town. I said in my outside voice to the two men, "I wish Victor was my grandfather and you," I said, pointing to George, "were the uncle." They both laughed nervously, Victor the hardest and longest, and that's when George took me to purchase the doll.


Jan's sister and her three children came to visit about a year after the grandparents. I have a hazy memory of talking to them in the parking lot at the Homewood Street place. They must've stayed at a hotel. The visit was also brief, and like George and Martha, this was family––an aunt and cousins, but total strangers. I'm sure they went to Disneyland, isn't that what families from the Midwest like to do when they go to Los Angeles? I've still never been to Disneyland. We never went to any kind of amusement parks. We went to art galleries, movies, parks, libraries, and, as mentioned, the "Book Mobile" which was a place for low income kids to get free books.


I didn't have much to say to the cousins, and really just wanted to get back to frying ants with my magnifying glass in the sun, and hang out with Mandy. She and I were creating a secret language, and playing with one of Riley's broken typewriters.


We made friends in the Homewood apartment complex---- a young woman who looked just like Sally Struthers from the show "All in the Family" used to hang out at our place. She was super short with a silly sense of humor, I felt she was my peer. A tiny adult who liked kids. When someone gave me an old girl's bike with a banana seat and streamers on the handles, she'd ride around on it to show me how it was done.


A tall woman with light brown hair lived across the courtyard/parking lot. She stayed in our lives for many years. Only recently did I learn, from reading my father's journal, that this neighbor was my father's girlfriend. After reading her name on the list of women he was with in Hollywood, it gave me a little jolt, because it changed my memories a bit, my understanding of the past. I had remembered her as OUR friend, my mother's friend, someone I trusted. I'm not upset with her, (she might be reading this now, figuring out that I'm actually writing about her. Don't worry! There's no residue of resentment. I'm glad we met and you kept me from being lonely on many occasions) but probably would've been shocked if I'd found out earlier in my life.


The journal my father left behind is such a mind-blowing document, a test of my reactions, a test of how the guilt about reading it evaporated...a little too quickly? His third wife Alix read his journal when they were together in Queens, and after, she kicked Riley out. I wonder what was in that one? Or is this a continuation of that one?


*


The apartment complex with the banana tree on Homewood has since been torn down. Something about this article triggered me (here) because my parents always complained about "urban renewal" and developers, although I'm sure the place was a dump and not worth saving. I don't have much more to say about my time in that apartment complex, or even the school I went to, much of that is a blur. I spent time being confused. I remember being dropped off at a new school, late–– it must've been late because all the doors were closed. I was alone, staring at all the closed doors, so many, not knowing which one I was supposed to open. I stood in the grass, my knobby knees touching, finger in my mouth. A man came by and asked me if I was lost, and lead me by the hand to the class I was supposed to be in. Once inside, I had no idea what the teacher was talking about. Later that afternoon, it was bring your father to class day. A man came and talked about his job while his son sat quietly. The father had a "regular" job. What he did went through one ear and out the other. All our friends were actors, writers, singers, musicians, artists. I had no idea how many different jobs there were in the world outside of the art realm, and I couldn't understand any of it.


Jan wanted Riley to get a job. Like a regular job. Cooking, or whatever. They argued. Jan was tired of running out of food and being broke, but Riley didn't want his show business friends to see him cooking in a restaurant. He couldn't do it. She suggested that we had to move somewhere else, if that was the case. That was the big argument. By 1973, we would move from Hollywood so Riley could work a regular job with no risk of humiliation.


This time, we wouldn’t be moving across town, or even stay in Los Angeles, but an hour north to Oxnard, California. It was a frenzy to get out of town. Jan got rid of a bunch of our stuff, somehow got an old Ford truck with a make-shift camper that was open in the back. Joe, our friend who did the musical notation for the encyclopedia of folk music, offered to drive us. Jan either didn’t know how to drive, or it had been so long that she was too rusty, and no driver's license. Joe helped us sort all the stuff we decided to keep, some clothing, kitchen basics, Jan’s art books, and her paintings that didn’t make it into the local galleries.

Riley and Joe carefully packed up the encyclopedia, with all the books and research for the ongoing project, and they loaded the sealed, taped up, and labeled boxes into the back of the truck. Precious cargo. The rest of our stuff was shoved in haphazardly, as if we were running from a tornado.


We took off, Joe at the wheel, I sat in the middle, and Jan in the passenger seat. With all the junk crammed in the back of the homemade camper, we were like “The Beverly Hillbillies”, except without the oil money, and we were going the opposite direction.

Riley would meet up with us later. He said he had things to do, stuff to take care of.

We zoomed down the highway toward Oxnard. I didn’t say goodbye to Mandy, or anyone else. We just left.

As we drove, we noticed people honking at us as they passed us by, waving and shouting. Jan decided they were harassing us. “People are such jerks,” she said, putting her arm out the window to flip off whoever was honking. Someone zoomed past us, trying to get our attention.

“What is wrong with people? Are they making fun of us? What a bunch of assholes. Roll up the windows,” Jan said.

Joe reached out and adjusted the side view mirror. “Oh,” he said, and put his hand over his mouth.

“What?” Jan said.

“We have to pull over, all the stuff's flying out the back.

Other drivers continued honking and pointing, and finally Jan realized the people were trying to tell us that our stuff was being sucked out of the makeshift camper, like some kind of wind tunnel was created inside, a perfect storm to show the world how not to pack a truck.

We got out of the truck. The three of us looked at the miles of asphalt behind us. Bedding, clothes, towels, even some of our shoes were strewn on the sides of the road, but also the middle of the highway. Strangers pulled over, and they were running down the road, picking up our things. They were running to us, with all the items they’d gathered up in their arms, looks of concern on their faces.

“Thank you so much,” Joe said.

Joe and Jan made mad dashes out into traffic to get the rest, cars whizzing past them or slowing to gawk.

A car pulled up and the passenger handed us one of my shirts.

“I think we got most of it,” Jan said as she tried to catch her breath.

Only Riley’s carefully packed Encyclopedia was saved from the wind tunnel.


*



We finally made it to an apartment Riley rented on Aleric Street in Oxnard.


I enrolled in a new school.

I dreaded going to school most days. After a few weeks of adjusting to the new situation and wandering around at recess not saying a word to anyone, I was beginning to feel like a ghost. Sometimes, out of nowhere, for no reason I could name, a jittery, sick feeling came over me, like I was walking the plank, straight off into the cold, dark ocean.


We stayed on Aleric Street a few months, and before we unpacked completely, we were off to another house on a dead-end street called Cypress. Cypress Road. The house came with a small, converted garage. Riley turned the garage into his new office, Jan found a gallery, and the owner, a Jewish man from Austria I knew as “Mr. Lichten” would become her agent.

In the next blog, I discover exactly what "projects" my father had been working on. If you're triggered by coarse language, skip the next one.



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