The invention of the teenager was a mistake. Once you identify a period of life in which people get to stay out late but don’t have to pay taxes, naturally no one wants to live any other way. Judith Martin
It was a normal Saturday morning, stirring about 11am after a late night in West Los Angeles. My roommate, an early riser, had been awake and away for hours. He probably took a quick glance inside my room and shook his head in disgust, making a noise similar to Lurch on the Adams Family. The apartment was an interior designer’s hell – – a collision of hand-me–down furniture, green shag carpet, Ansel Adams photographs, a Pothos house plant with one vine that stretched about forty feet, a television that could not receive channel 7 and a Harmon Kardon stereo system with speakers the size of the Empire State Building. The bathrooms had not been cleaned in months. When one would shower, it was usually with a petrified sliver of cracked soap the size of a postage stamp that at some point had just stopped producing lather. There was one white towel that we hung carefully when we “entertained”. Otherwise, we used the same beach towel to dry ourselves. I don’t think we ever washed the sheets.
I opened the food pantry to find a box of Corn Flakes which after shaking seemed adequate for at least one bowl of cereal. A silverfish skirted out of the light into a gap between the poorly fashioned cupboards. The refrigerator, whose light bulb had long since burned out, held nothing edible except mustard and one can of Tab. I hesitated. My stomach growled in impatient protest. I opened the can of Tab and poured it over the corn flakes, waiting until the carbonation subsided enough to see the flakes below. I lifted the spoon and opened my mouth. The Tab was cold and the cereal crisp. It was another day in the bachelor apartment and it was going to be a good one.
The El Nido Apartments were a cross section of urban Los Angeles – – a page torn from the telephone book of life. Don and Mary Stillman, veteran property managers, occupied the apartment adjacent to the entrance of this 100 unit residential apartment building, watching closely everyone who came and went through the grated gates of the shaded complex. Mary had penciled eye brows, a fake beauty mark and a dark confused wig – – a dead ringer for Bette Davis in “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane”. Don suffered from emphysema and carried a large oxygen tank around with him. He was a tough man, a sort of Lloyd Bridges throwback from his days on “Seahunt”. Don and Mary were the surrogate parents of this massive complex of singles, families and elderly.
It was our first apartment and the lack of supervision was intoxicating. Aside from the absence of hygiene, nutrition and money, we were young professionals with great prospects. The bachelor pad was certainly not the most evolved among our friends. On the architectural ladder of evolution, our habitation could be best described as Early Neolithic. We were not quite walking upright but we were certainly not living like swamp dwelling paramecium that were living at home. You may be single when you live at home but you are NOT a bachelor. We had luckier friends who either by birthright or professional occupations had more evolved living arrangements at the beach or in nicer neighborhoods. Their Bronze Age abodes were white carpets, wood floors and kitchens that looked as if they had been designed by Martha Stewart.
This cave of drywall and shag was our palace – – a sacred place to retreat from the vagaries of a new world of suits, clients, responsibility and competition. The three story complex was a hollowed square with all apartments looking out over a central open atrium contoured with Polynesian fish ponds, palms and birds of paradise bushes. The epicenter and hub of the social activity was a kidney shaped pool surrounded by ancient chaise lounges and patio furniture. At night, green, yellow and red landscape lighting would wash the foliage with a theme park kaleidoscope of colors.
We did not exactly get off on the right foot with our landlords. We were post graduate delinquents who were slow to remove the reckless mud from the boots of our less accountable college days. Periodically, we would surreptitiously take out my fly-fishing rod and cast for the ten pound carp that gathered like undersea cows, opening their mouths in insatiable hunger anytime a human walked by. With a Lays Cheeto attached to a # 8 Caddis fly, we caught – – and released, I might add, several of the bovineous creatures before landlady Mary accused us of poaching her “koi”. Koi are very expensive ornamental fish that presumably eat small cubes of kobe beef and candied krill. These monsters would devour cigarette butts or possibly a small child if it were to fall into the shallow water. Mary chastised us with a martyred, Blanche Dubois affectation. Although she lived in an apartment complex with fake hair and fake ponds filled with garbage fish, she was determined to enforce a level of decorum that we derelicts initially resisted. She was a relic and an artifact of a time and place that no longer existed outside the gates of the El Nido.
At the holidays, the apartment façade was decorated with garish Christmas lights and an artificial tree that stood open to the elements and lost its cloth ornaments in high winds. We realized this display was Mary’s way of trying to recreate a sense of home for so many people who found themselves living in residential apartments away from places more familiar and more caring. Over the 18 months we resided at The El Nido, we met people on their way up, on their way down and headed no where. My car was broken into several times. I remember feeling so angry and violated as I came out to find a broken window and the entrails of my new car stereo hanging lifelessly from the dashboard. I finally ceased investing in my audio system as I was only supplying local criminals with seed corn. Mary and Don did their best to fight off the urban creep that threatened their oasis of civility but in the end, resigned themselves to the fact that certain corners of the property were best avoided. Don would always grumble, “if I was twenty years younger, I’d catch those damn punks and string ‘em up by their hair!” He was convinced anyone with long hair was a criminal or draft dodger.
The day we moved out, Mary and Don came to say goodbye and it was as if I was moving away from home all over again. My new apartment would have white crpet, wood floors, fresh towels and bars of soap. The refrigerator would be stocked with food and I would use real plates, utensils and napkins. Yet, I was strangely melancholy when I loaded that last box in my car. It was after all, just 500 square feet of shag and kitsch. Yet, that first apartment, not unlike that first car is something you never entirely forget.
P.S : I still have those speakers and loaded with Led Zepplin IV, they can knock down a nine year old at twenty yards…