Dad Got Mill

With his wife’s urging, a middle-aged man musters the courage to open a luxury men’s store on the brink of the pandemic.

Dad Got Mill

a short story
by Andrew B. Hurvitz

Soundtrack: Dad Got Mill on Spotify

DGM

Kathy Fessenden and I were on our daily walk around the Silver Lake Reservoir to exercise and throw out ideas.

Raised in a small North Dakota town, founded by her family, my wife worked as a Senior Financial Analyst at Disney, her only employer for the last 25 years. Kathy was the reason we could afford a house, a private academy for Nikolas, and last year’s trip to Sardinia. She was frugal. And we were well off from that.

By contrast, I stayed at home, listening to my large collection of jazz records, trading mutual funds, auditioning for voice acting jobs, researching out-of-state houses for sale.

Decades earlier, in New York, I was a junior analyst at Goldman Sachs, then a trader at Morgan Stanley, then a portfolio manager at Fidelity. At no point did I progress at those jobs.

My secret dream was to own a men’s clothing shop.
My reality was pursuing imaginary creative endeavors past 50.

Yet Kathy Fessenden loved me no matter what.
We had a strange, but successful marriage.


Go Forth!

That morning, we stopped on the west side of the lake, near a stark, flat-roofed Gregory Ain house. It was perched on a hill with a row of tall windows overlooking the reservoir.

As she spoke, I looked up at that house, floating back down to her words.

“Listen to me! You love Las Colinas Rojas and Winchester Arcade. You said if you had one place to make a store it would be there. It has all your requirements: glass roofed, English, charming.

“Am I foolish? Am I dreaming? Can we afford it?” I asked.

“We’ve had this discussion so many times. Go forth and manifest what you want in life!” she said.

“Bottom line. I’m a failure. I can’t earn a living. I’m torn up because I’m too afraid to sign a lease and open a little men’s store. I’m a wimp,” I said.

“You have my support and resources. Make 2018 your year of action. Sign the lease. Buy the goods, and get on it,” she said.

We walked, the sun came out, my mood lifted.

“Do you like the name August? I read a novel by that name when I was young, about the month when the therapists go out of town, and since I’m always in therapy with Myra Rubin, it fits,” I said.

“I like it. Nik goes back to school in late August. He can help you set up the store,” she said.

“Maybe I should discuss it with Myra first,” I said.

“She won’t give you an answer. She’ll just ask you what you think,” she said.

“I think I’ll paint the shelves Farrow and Ball Green Smoke. I’ll have perfumes from DS & Durga and dad’s favorite, St. John’s Bay Rum. And handmade socks from Japan, great khakis, nice oxfords, Irish woolen caps, Italian silk neckties, crested navy blazers, and rugby shirts. A traditional men’s store with whiskey, tweed jackets and jazz music,” I said.

“I love it. There’s your answer. You came up with it yourself, without your therapist’s help,” she said.

We hugged and then continued up the steep hill to our dark green 1938 ranch house on Kenilworth Avenue.

It stretched along the sidewalk, garage near the street, stub driveway, no front lawn.

In the back, on our enormous wooden deck, we spent many hours enjoying our expansive views over Silverlake.


Lease

I signed the lease!

Move in date was three months away, August 1, 2018. I spent the summer buying stock for the store, nervous, but excited.

$70,000 on Kathy’s credit card.

Boxes came to Kenilworth Avenue: Trucker’s English brogues, Scottish cashmeres, J Press oxfords, Ralph Lauren neckties; perfumes, wool scarves, tweed jackets, tennis sweaters, university sweatshirts, lambswool caps, brushed cotton flannels.

Nik watched me open a box of Norwegian wool sweater vests.

“Who’s going to wear that in LA?” he laughed.

“People with money go places, they don’t stay in one place. They ski in Switzerland, or they have a winter lodge in Vermont. Those are the customers who will shop at August,” I said.

He chuckled at my Farrow and Ball paint samples, picked up two cans, read the labels.

“Duck Green and Lake Red. Sounds like your new customers. Nobody buys clothes in stores anymore,” he said.


Shad Mill/ Dad Got Mill

The only thing I didn’t have were old style rugbies.

One of my 57 followers was Shad Mill of Dad Got Mill clothing, made in Los Angeles.

He had fine hashtags: #Slow fashion, #handmade, #traditional, #organic, #heirlooms, #rugby.

Shad was a former New Yorker, about my age, now living here in Los Angeles.

Blond models in striped rugby shirts populated his page.

He had a long resume in fashion, most recently as head designer at Chuck Fagan. And he made high end rugby shirts, precisely tailored khakis with old Hollywood names (“Spencer” and “Montgomery”), and unconstructed wool blazers.

He had a vaguely preposterous persona, quite pretentious, but characteristic of his age and profession. I invited him to the opening party at the store.


Colin

Again, on Instagram, I found Colin Chu, a 27-year-old vintage menswear dealer who lived with his parents in Alhambra.

We met for coffee at a little cafe in the Winchester Arcade, weeks before the store opened.

He wore high waisted jodhpurs, tucked in ivory cashmere sweater and cordovan lace up boots. Thin, smooth faced, articulate, he spoke fluently and easily in grosgrain, merino, foulard, lapel, angora and alpaca.

He talked about his eBay store, selling vintage neckties, tweed jackets, oxford shirts, wool caps, and rowing blazers. I liked his positive energy, boyish and eager.

He was active in influencer walks in Los Angeles, groups of guys who walked around men’s stores trying on expensive clothes they never purchased and photographing themselves wearing luxury goods.

I told Colin about my life: growing up in Suffolk County, New York, my love of traditional clothing, my unhappy years commuting to jobs on Wall Street, and my eventual rescue by Kathy, who convinced me to go west to get married, escape finance, and pursue voice acting.

After I spoke, I felt letdown by my autobiography.

My abridged life story was like wood floating down a river: pulled by the current, past landmarks beyond reach, moving along with no direction.

“You gave up voice acting? Why not keep working to achieve your dream?” he asked.

“Good question. No answer. I ended up as a day trader, which was more lucrative, and then I invested in real estate,” I said.

“Owning property is always a good move. One day I’ll own a house, or two,” he said.

I felt old. I referenced the golden age of Hollywood: Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, Steve McQueen, The Thomas Crown Affair, Sabrina, The Philadelphia Story, Holiday, The Birds.

All elicited a blank stare.

Bewildered, he looked at me like a father. We had nothing in common, but love, for clothes.

But he had youth and I had none. I needed him.

He would pull in young clientele, beef up social media, sell online.

He seemed ethical, honest, and trustworthy. He wouldn’t steal or lie. I could leave him in the store, go on vacation, no worries.

“I would be into working with you. I live not too far from here. Commuting is fine. I can borrow my mom’s car. How much can you pay?” he asked.

“$20 bucks an hour. 30 hours a week,” I said.
“Ok. I’ll take it,” he said.

As a placeholder I offered him a bottle of 18-year-old Scotch.

“No, thank you. My parents don’t allow liquor in the house. Our church prohibits it,” he said.


Opening

Kathy, Nik and I drove to Las Colinas Rojas early Sunday morning on the day of the store’s opening party.

The queen city of the San Gabriel Valley was in a mist. We came up through a mansion lined road of sprawling lawns and mature oaks, clouds hiding the sun, and emerged into the shopping district as the fog receeded.

We parked in back, stood in the glass ceilinged arcade, outside the store entrance, viewing it like tourists.

August was painted in Old English Monotype on the window. Behind the sign, a body form wore a double-breasted blue blazer. Spread below it were my jazz albums from the 1950s and 60s: Miles Davis, Art Blakely, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk.

Colin was inside, holding a small paint can and brush, finishing off a cabinet shelf.

He had meticulously hung the Japanese tailored Ring Jackets in the back room, alternating the coats with rigidly ironed dress shirts, grouped by colors, in a rhythm of light blue, navy, and white.

He had steamed, iron and folded.

“Have a donut,” he said, pointing to an open box.

On a round, dark wood table were an assortment of tartan scarves. A chrome liquor cart on wheels held various spirits, wine and highball glasses.

A feather duster rested against a bottle of Dewar’s.

Vintage watches were arrayed under glass at checkout. On the wall behind the register hung framed and matted black and white photographs of defunct New York jazz clubs.

“How did you learn to do all this?” Kathy asked.

“Ralph Lauren. I worked in the Beverly Hills store for two years when I was at UCLA,” he said.

Kathy leafed through a colorful assortment of rugby shirts on wooden hangers.

“Hey, these are nice. Very heavy, weighty cotton,” she said.

I walked over, concerned.

“I don’t know those rugbies. Where did these come from?” I asked Colin.

“Some man dropped a box off yesterday. I thought you ordered them,” Colin answered.

I looked at the labels: Dad Got Mill.

Kathy checked Disney Visa on her phone.

“Yep. Here’s $4,320 on the card by Dad Got Mill,” Kathy said.

“Oh, so I did. My mistake,” I said.


The Party

Trumpeter Kenny Dorham played on LP. Guests drank scotch and craft beer. They looked through the wares, admired the clothes, took photos.

They were Asian-American friends of Colin, young guys, in collared shirts, knit beanies, selvedge jean jackets, expensive rolled up denim, and dark leather shoes.

A good-looking Black man rode up on a Harley-Davidson, parked along the curb, came inside.

I sipped my iced whiskey and walked around.
Kathy and Nik smiled. The party was going well.
I met Shad.

He was a white middle-aged male, possibly fat or thin, 5’10, covered in orange turtleneck, blue and gray flannel shirt, houndstooth tweed jacket, striped university scarf, horn rimmed glasses, and green tweed driving cap, the quintessence of eastern seaboard docked at the liquor cart in Las Colinas Rojas, California.

“Dad Got Mill! Wonderful clothes. Welcome to August. I’m so delighted to have you here,” I said.

“Yes, yes. I’m still getting used to LA. Finding my way. Almost got lost coming here,” he said, toasting with his gin and tonic.

“Delighted you came. You worked for some great designers in New York,” I said.

“Yes, yes. I was the head designer for Chuck Fagan and I also worked ten years for Ralph Lauren. Things change in fashion. When I was hired at Polo in 1999, people there still looked like me. When I left they were already into diversity. Dad Got Mill is my salute to our family mill that once stood on the Merrimac River in Massachusetts,” he said.

“Oh, lovely. You take your family heritage and create a brand out of that,” I said.

“I’m the real article. So many pretend to have my heritage. I mean Ralph is an example of that,” he said.

“Well, my family worked in fishing, trucking, farming, and I was the first to go to college,” I said.

“Yes, yes,” he answered, seemingly bored, sipping his drink.

“Are you relocating to California permanently?” I asked.

“I think so. But the problem is nowhere do I really feel at home. I moved to a gorgeous 1929 Spanish duplex apartment near Sycamore and 2nd. I would have killed for something like it in New York. It’s tree lined, quaint, charming. My place has French doors, balcony, wood floors, perfect for my watercolors,” he said.

“Like the West Village,” I said.

“A few days after I moved in, I sat down with my nightly Negroni. I was jolted by loud noise. Upstairs moved an Orthodox Jewish family, The Moskowitz Bunch. They are horrendous. Three brats in yarmulkes, pounding on the floors. The noise is insane. I went up to knock on their door when they got loud, and they wouldn’t open it. They pray all the time. They won’t answer the phone on Friday or Saturday! I hear Hebrew melodies until midnight. They boil everything and the smell comes into my apartment. It’s repulsive,” Shad said.

“Maybe you should look for a place in Las Colinas Rojas,” I said.

“I don’t think I’d like it here either. Las Colinas Rojas is way too Asian, like Flushing, Queens. I’m a normal American guy. I want to live in a normal American place. Every place in LA is infested with Armenians, Asians, Mexicans, Jews. Can you advise me on where not to go?” Shad asked.

I looked around to see if anyone else could hear.

His openly expressed hatreds were startling. That he considered me an empathetic ear was unsettling.

“Please excuse me. Look in your email for the agreement on Monday,” I said.

I watched from a distance as Chad inspected his rugbies.

Colin came over, beaming.

“We have our first sale! Two Dad Got Mill rugbies. $400. And they bought a Drake’s scarf for $375, and Orslow khakis for $225!” he said.

“That’s great news! I just had a talk with Shad Mill. I like his shirts. I like his style. I like his business acumen. But I really don’t like him,” I said.

“Why?” Colin asked.

“He’s an old-style bigot, in the exact mode of his 1940s clothing,” I whispered.

“Ok. Gotcha. Let’s talk later. I see someone at the register,” Colin said, patting my shoulder reassuringly.

Shad was across the room. He sipped his drink, put it down on the tie table, left the store. I wondered how sloshed he was and if he was driving home.

The athletic, good-looking Black man came over.
“Hey, I’m Joshua. I want to shake your hand. I absolutely adore your store. This Dad Got Mill rugby is the best quality I’ve come across. How come it took so long for a shop like this to open in LA?” he asked.

His teeth glistened. His handshake was iron.

“It’s my fault. I procrastinated for twenty years until my wife told me to get my ass in gear,” I joked.

“I’m glad you did. Seriously, this is so pristinely elegant and well-merchandized. And very welcoming and diverse. I feel the love you have for all people, all the glorious rainbows in this city. You have my blessings. I’m going to post myself in this shirt tonight. I only have 43,000 followers but my wife has over 100,000,” he said.


Christmas Season

Kathy and I had planned a three weeklong, family trip to Scotland in December.

I went ahead with our vacation plans and decided to close up the store for nearly 8 weeks, from Thanksgiving to the middle of January.

A working trip.

That was my official line.

Colin was surprised.

“I can’t imagine closing down before Christmas. That’s the prime shopping season. I really need the income. I’m helping my folks with their property taxes,” Colin said.

“I’m going to source goods. I have a trip planned to visit Inis Meáin Knitting Company in the Aran Islands,” I said, half truthfully.

“It’s like throwing money away. This is your first Christmas. What are you thinking? What about all those potential customers who wander in a few days before Christmas looking for gifts?” he asked.

I had no answer.

“Enjoy your time off and come back in mid- January, refreshed,” I said.

“Refreshed? If I am not working here, I’m working at my mom’s dry cleaners. If she doesn’t need me, I’m selling clothes on eBay. And if I don’t sell on eBay, I’ll work at my father’s hardware store. I told them I’ll be working with you for the holidays,” he said.

“Ok, I’ll let you keep the store open. I trust you. Keys will be in your hands and you’ll do it all,” I said.

“Yes! That’s a good plan. We are bursting with inventory now. I counted five dozen cashmeres,” he said.


Elation

We went to Scotland. And we had a grand time. I was calm and relaxed with honest, hard-working Colin minding the store.

We spent a week in Edinburgh. We went to festive Christmas markets, Jenners department store, and the Scottish market in St. Andrew’s Square.

I purchased a $450 oil cloth, corduroy collared, tartan lined coat at Barbour Edinburgh. And a matching one for Nik.

Kathy abstained.

“I don’t want one. We’ll all look ridiculous walking around in the same jacket,” she said.

We traveled to Braemar and spent Christmas at the Fife Arms, a 19th-century inn. We ate smoked salmon, venison burgers, drank scotch and local ale. We drove further and ended up in Glencoe, along the steep sided mountains, with waterfalls and trails, red deer and golden eagles, and spent New Years at the Isle of Mull Hotel along the sound.

We visited the Isle of Iona with her Benedictine abbey and St Oran’s Cemetery, burial grounds for many Scottish kings.

We never made it to the Aran Islands. We went back to Edinburgh, and stayed our last two nights at The Balmoral, a palatial Victorian hotel.

It was a long, tiring trip back to Los Angeles.

After a day and night of insomnia and napping, still high on Scotland, I went to see Colin at August.

The store looked perfect, as usual. The soundtrack was Ahmad Jamal’s Happy Moods.

A Diptyque fig candle burned.

The pressed shirts hung in formation, the sweaters were precisely stacked, the antique wristwatches were laid diagonally across purple velvet under clear glass.

Gone was all holiday décor. Soon the spring shirts would arrive, linen and madras would replace wool and flannel.

“How was business?” I asked.

“We had some good numbers. I sent you daily updates by email. Didn’t you see them?” he asked.

“I didn’t open my email. I apologize,” I said.

“Really? You didn’t look at any of the sales figures for your store for the last two months?” he asked.


s-l1600

Valentine’s Day

I was working alone, one Friday in early February, when model man Joshua Fuhrman came in, smiling, ebullient.

At no angle was he ever imperfect.

“A little Valentine’s present since you weren’t here for Christmas,” he said as he handed me a 1956 collector’s LP: Jazz at Cal Tech, Bud Shank Quartet in Concert.

“My gosh! This is wonderful. Can I hug you?” I asked, throwing myself around his knotty physique and sea green cashmere.

“This record belonged to my dad. I honestly have no reason to keep it, as I have nothing to play it on,” he said.

I admired his outfit.

“Lovely sweater. 6 ply? One of ours?” I asked.

“Oh man you caught me. I saw the Johnston’s label here. I actually got it on eBay. Brother, I’m looking for a tweed coat,” he said.

“Come right this way, sir,” I said.

I showed him a $1,300 jacket, gray Donegal tweed, two button, notch lapel, black buttons. The way he slipped into it was graceful, though a bit tight in the shoulders.

“I work out too much. That’s why I can’t get hired. You have something less pricey?” he asked.

“Dad Got Mill has a less expensive, unconstructed jacket in blue worsted,” I said.

“Absolutely not. Don’t mention Dad Got Mill. Hate that fucker,” he said.

“Why?” I asked.

“He blocked me on Instagram. Did the same to your boy Colin. Maybe he’s a white supremacist. Why block me? I’m a god damned Ford Model. Wouldn’t you want me wearing your clothes? For free?” he asked.

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

“You have bigots out there who want to keep Ivy Trad for their own kind,” he said.

“I hope you feel welcome here. I don’t countenance any bigotry,” I said.

“Yeah, I know. I’ll be back. Probably this weekend,” he said.

I thanked him again for the jazz album as he left empty handed.


Numbers

I began to fear my association with Shad Mill. Maybe Joshua was right. I thought of removing Dad Got Mill.

Colin objected. He brought up our Shopify dashboard. A multi-colored circle was divided into percentages pertaining to each vendor.

“Dad Got Mill is 14% of our sales. That’s the largest of any brand we carry. And when the clients buy rugby shirts, they usually get khakis or denim, or both. Dad Got Mill pulls in other labels. It’s not good business to stop selling it,” Colin said.

“How many DGM pieces do we have?” I asked.

“You have 40 rugby shirts, 19 pairs of khakis, 12 sport coats. See your net costs here, and your retail here. If you remove Dad Got Mill that potentially is nearly $20,000 in sales. Keep it. Don’t pull it. You will thank me for this,” he said.


Social Media

On days we worked together Colin was like a therapist. He listened carefully to all my gripes, personal and business. He always had logical advice for my childlike mind.

Colin was also my salesman, my accountant, my merchandiser, my stylist, my social media guru. He brought in new customers. And August got some fame for reviving traditional men’s clothing stores in Los Angeles.

Nowhere in the Southland was anyone else selling handmade velvet slippers with embroidered bulldogs for $550. I fantasized that tweed suits, angora turtlenecks and camel hair coats belonged on men who lived year-round on sunny, palm lined streets.

Even with the hype and Colin’s industriousness, most days we sold nothing.

I cut back store hours. That gave me more time to audition for voice work and browse vintage record stores in Hollywood.

Now Colin came in only two days a week.

I needed him most on Saturdays and Sundays, for the weekends brought social media stragglers, crowds and chaos, nothing but mess. And Colin was highly skilled at clean-up and containment.

They arrived in packs, an obnoxious, unprofitable procession of juvenile influencer pilgrims who never spent a dime. They photographed themselves in everything. They pulled items off hangars and shelves, tried on shirts, sweaters, hats, jackets. They drank my Japanese scotch. They hung out for hours, often congregating in the arcade smoking pot. I had to make sure nobody shoplifted.

Their presence was an ordeal.

What could keep the vicarious pigs out? Something expensive, exclusionary and custom.

I proceeded with posh plans for a made-to-measure clothing event with Mr. Ian Humphries of Bosworth Woolens. I fortified our bar with a few bottles of Balvenie 21 Year Scotch at $249 each.

He flew in from London and brought his famed two button jackets with the trademark CelticCross© lapel buttonhole, and several thick books of Irish, Scottish and English fabrics. We invited everyone on our mailing list to a custom fitted weekend of woolens.

It was a dud. We made not a single sale.

It was humiliating to watch Ian run into the parking lot chasing after a young customer, begging him, unsuccessfully, to try on a $1,400 tartan wool jacket.

“You can have it for $1,300,” Ian shouted as the buyer drove off.


The Pandemic

I first heard of Covid-19 on Friday, January 24, 2020 when Nik read aloud a tweet from epidemiologist Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding.

“We are now faced with the most virulent virus epidemic the world has ever seen,” Nik quoted.

“Don’t believe everything you read on Twitter,” I said.

“Dad they’re closing down cities in China and people can’t leave their houses,” he said.

“It’s in Asia. They sound like they have it under control. Relax,” I said, never imagining the war to come.


Discovery

Colin had asked for the weekend off to attend a family reunion in Big Bear. Nik came to work with me.

I was happy, for I had a foreboding about the last days of August.

Late morning at the store, Laura F., a petite young tourist with close-cropped blond hair, tried on a medium Viyella tartan button down. She came from Chicago, followed us on Instagram and was excited to shop here.

“I only wear small,” she said.

“We have six different colored small ones in in back,” I answered and asked Nik to retrieve.

He came out empty handed.
“I couldn’t find any,” he said.
“What? We have them in stock. Look at our Shopify,” I said.

Laura picked up a $275 Harley of Scotland wheat-colored Shetland sweater.

“I love this. Do you have it in small?” she asked.

I checked our online inventory.

“Yes, you’re lucky. We have red, navy, forest green and rust, all in small,” I said.

Nik went to get them.
He came out with nothing.

“Sorry, Laura. Missing those too,” he said.

I apologized to the customer.

“This is disappointing. I thought for sure I would be walking out with a few items,” she said.

Nik sat at the laptop, concentrating, jotting down items on paper. He went in back, spent a half hour there, and came out with his verdict.

“Dad you have a theft problem. There are many jackets, shirts, and sweaters that are supposed to be unsold, in stock, but are not in storage,” he said.

“That’s impossible. Colin knows everything. He’s on top of sales to the last penny,” I said.

“Maybe he’s your problem,” Nik said.

I looked onscreen at our inventory.

“Have you checked Dad Got Mill’s khakis? We should have twenty pairs,” I asked.

“I checked that too. You have six pairs in back. What’s your boy’s eBay store?” he asked.

“I can’t remember,” I said.

“Your only employee and you don’t know?” Nik asked, as he pushed me aside to look up Colin’s eBay.

Within thirty seconds, Nik found Colin Chu Superb Vintage Menswear.

IMG_7773

There were many items from August: tweed jackets, khakis, socks, t-shirts, neckties, flannel shirts, dress shoes.

Our $600 cashmeres for $450 each.

My trusted employee was stealing and selling stolen goods.

I was diminished, degraded, betrayed.

“Please don’t tell your mother,” I begged.

“Mom should know. She’s your wife and co-investor,” he said.

“Let me handle it. Say nothing to her. I never thought that respectful, churchgoing young man would steal,” I said.

“He has half your inventory. Mom’s credit card is paying for his eBay,” he said.

“Just shut-up! Show some sensitivity. You don’t have to utter every dumb thing that comes into your head!” I shouted.

“Fuck you,” he said.

He stormed out into the arcade, passing by Joshua, the male model arriving for his weekly no buy visit.

“Hey there. Did I come at an awkward time?” Joshua asked.

“No, no. Just teenage hormones. You know how that works,” I said.

“Indeed, I do. I was there 20 years ago,” he said.

He went straight to the Italian motorcycle jacket, a $1,400 black lambskin number with an asymmetric zipper. He put it on, walked to the mirror to admire.

“Damn, I look good,” he said.
“Last one,” I said.

“I’ll think about it. It looks great over these Dad Got Mill khakis,” he said as he left.

It was always the same routine with him. Never a sale.

Next thing I heard was his motor revving. I looked out the window as he sped off on his Harley.

Nik came back with two cappuccinos.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that earlier. I didn’t mean it dad. I was wrong. I mouthed off,” he said.

“Ok. Apology accepted,” I said.

“Did he buy anything?” he asked.

I took a sip of coffee.

“Nope. He comes in every weekend. Never a sale,” I said.

“He probably sees what he likes, and buys it from Colin on eBay,” Nik said.

“I’ve got bad news. I’m afraid today will be it,” I said.

“Why?” he asked.

“I have half my inventory stolen, my buyers are gone from the pandemic, what reason is there to keep this store open?” I asked.

“I wonder what Mom will say,” Nik said.

“Use Covid as the excuse. She doesn’t need to know about my ignorance concerning Colin and the stealing,” I said.


Covid

The world collapsed and we went to hide in our house, to order groceries online and wash them outside under the garden hose, to wear masks on our morning walk, to conduct work and school online, to look out the window and observe streets without cars and skies without planes.

A month had passed since I found out about the theft. I fired Colin. He left the store keys in our home mailbox.

Kathy commandeered the dining room table for her home office. Nik stayed in bed attending school.

I was going out of my mind, unable to escape them, or myself. I had nowhere to go. Everything was shut down.

While I languished Kathy still had a job. Our entire prosperity rested upon her diligence and hard work.

She was colder, distant, bothered by something she never uttered. I probably knew exactly what that something was. But I had no guts to say it.

While she worked, I slithered out to the deck to work on the New York Times crossword puzzles and browse houses on Zillow and Redfin. Anything to distract.

After 5, I drank bourbon, whiskey or wine. I sat in self-pity, staring across the lake. That was my routine. How long could this go on?

One day I heard the floorboards shake.

Kathy marched out of the house, onto the deck, and stood over me, looming.

“You’ve been lying to me. Colin stole from you. Nik said that he found out the day he went to work with you. That’s why you fired Colin. Yet you came home and said nothing. All these weeks have passed. I knew the whole story. I waited for you to tell me. Nik is worried, terrified of you, and I’m god damned furious,” she said.

“If I had paid attention to inventory and sales, this wouldn’t have happened. My ego has been destroyed by this. It confirms every rotten thing I’ve thought about my own ineptitude. I couldn’t face you. I made an appointment to discuss this on Zoom with Myra Rubin,” I said, referring to my old therapist.

“Myra? Were you going to tell her before me? I don’t care about your oblivious mismanagement. I care about the cover-up. You lied and told our son to lie. What about Nik? When I asked him to be honest, he thought he was snitching. I trusted you. I supported you in every sense. How could you lie to me? How could you recruit him to lie?” she asked.

“I know, I know,” I said.

“How much did Colin steal?” she asked.

“Maybe $20,000 or $30,000,” I answered.

“Did you file a police report?” she asked.

“Of course not. I’m not putting him jail,” I said.

“Then how are we supposed to file a claim? Nik can’t go to college next year. We don’t have the money,” she said.

“Another calamity I brought on us,” I said.

“Do you think of anyone but yourself? All I hear is how bad this makes you feel. What about me? And our son?” she asked.

“What can I do?” I asked.

“I don’t know. You told Nik to keep a secret. It put him in pain. It put our family in jeopardy. And a crime you didn’t report to me or law enforcement. You had to know that eventually the truth would come out. You had no right, no right at all,” she said, as she broke down sobbing.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I said.

“You took all my love and trust and destroyed it. I despise you. I wish I could leave you. But we can’t go anywhere now. The pandemic took that away. The world is shut down. We are trapped. We must muddle through our pain and heartbreak here under one roof, day by day. Tonight, go sleep in the guest room,” she said.


Blue Star

Thrown out of our bed, I felt, in some way, homeless, tortured by my own histrionics.

Those who had no home, the ones who lived in the Griffith Park, set it afire. Around the city, people moved into RVs, they slept under bridges, pitched tents on the sidewalk, turned the public lands into their private campsites.

I slept in the guest room, fearful and alone, imagining home invaders. Lost was sound sleep and the old reassurances of work and wife.

There was no happiness or peace. Everywhere was catastrophe: mind, marriage and country.

People recorded a man murdered by cop in Minneapolis and every city in the United States rioted. The police were attacked, stores were looted, the President walked through smoke cleared crowds and held a Bible aloft.

There were sick and dying people around the world. The days and nights got hotter.

And everything true was a lie.


Clearance

Nik and I cleared out the store and brought the stock into the garage on Kenilworth Avenue to lay in its crypt on steel shelves behind my Lexus.

Our daily walk was conducted in silence, a masked march around the lake, timed at 45 minutes on the Nike App which always ecstatically cheered:

“This is Coach Sally! Congratulations on another amazing run, you are killing it!”


Alhambra

In August, the month, not the store, Colin texted me.

“I have money to pay you, along with some clothes in the garage. Would you consider coming by my house so I can make good to set things right?”

I drove to Alhambra, to South Monterey off Valley Boulevard, a straight street of Spanish cottages and two bed ranches, steel guarded windows, workaday shrubs, bright annuals, white sedans and garden gnomes.

I parked in front of the Chu Home, a little, yellow, stucco house with metal awnings, red tile roof, and detached garage in back, probably built for some returning veteran of WWII.

Colin, masked, in blue Dodgers cap, black t-shirt, black basketball shorts and sock footed rubber sandals, came out to the curb.

How young he was, how fresh and clean, washed and dried in Tide and Downy.

“Hi,” he said, head down, contrite.

I kept my hands in my pockets and grunted behind sunglasses and N-95 mask.

“You have something of mine?” I asked, coldly.

“Stay here and I’ll bring the clothes to your car. I have four containers. My parents are inside. I told them you were coming. They don’t know nothing, so please just wave if you feel like it. My dad is sick, my mom too,” he said.

“Covid?” I asked.
“Yes. Thank God they are not worse,” he said.
“And you?” I asked.
“Nothing. Only God knows why,” he said, scurrying up the driveway to retrieve the illegal goods.

Mr. and Mrs. Chu came to wave at the picture window. I waved back to the old parents, born in Taiwan, the father and the mother in face masks, pajamas and bathrobes.

I was heartbroken. Seeing them I lost pity for my own life of inherited advantage.

They were sick but alive, their faith and their son keeping them going.

I lost my anger too.

I thought my judgment was sound in not going to the police.

Sometimes, for the sake of justice, silence is the superior testimony.

I opened the car trunk, and Colin came down the driveway with a hand truck and boxes. He loaded in the garments, fitting the containers in neatly, the remaining inventory of August.

“Can you come over to the other side of the car?” he asked.

We stepped to the driver’s side, to hide from the watchful eyes of the parents, as Colin opened a large manila envelope thick with banded cash.

“This is all the money I made selling on eBay. I won’t keep none of it. $15,000. I pay you everything. I’m taking down my store for now. I’m applying to business school at UCLA.” he said.

“How are you able to afford graduate school?” I asked.

“I have a Jack Kent Cooke scholarship. Undergrad and grad school. Fully paid,” he said.

“You must make your parents proud,” I said.

“They think well of me. If you can find it in your heart to also forgive me, that would be the biggest gift,” he said.

“I do forgive you, Colin. You and I are settled. Good luck with your future. I think you will do very well. Please give your parents my best wishes. When times are normal again, maybe we can all meet for dim sum,” I said.

“Goodbye boss. Thank you for the wonderful opportunity you gave me, truly, you believed in me,” he said.

His mother and father remained at the window. I was the big V.I.P. who had employed their son. Perhaps they stood there to honor me, another elder, like attendees at a parade.

If they looked upon me with admiration, surely, I was undeserving of their respect.

I got into my car, opened the windows, and waved good-bye to Colin on the lawn, and to his mother and father behind the glass, all of us in our masks, all making life in pandemic time.


Home

I drove back to my street, my house at the end came into view.

Kathy was outside, dressed in a cotton top and yoga pants, leaning against the garage, cold and shivering. From a distance she was again a young woman.

I parked along the curb and got out.

“What’s wrong? Are you sick?” I asked.

“No. I locked myself out of the house. Nik rode off somewhere on his bike. I don’t have my phone. Where were you?” she asked.

“Colin’s house, Alhambra. He gave me back what he has. Clothes and 15 grand. Let me get a sweater out of the car for you,” I said.

“You’re kidding? Cash and clothes? I guess that’s good news,” she said.

I pulled out a white woolen cardigan, brought it over and placed it across her shoulders. Her teeth were chattering.

“Thank you. I was so dumb. I closed the garage, because I wasn’t thinking, and then you were out somewhere, and Nik was gone, and I was alone and freezing and had nowhere to go. I couldn’t break into our house you know,” she said, and then she cracked a smile.

“No, that wouldn’t work,” I said.

Nik rode up on his bike.

“What the hell? My parents have to come outside to wait for me! What am I like 7-years-old? So fuckin’ embarrassing,” he said.

“It’s not what you think. We are just here, quite accidentally,” I said.

“You didn’t know the code?” I asked Kathy.

“I always use the car opener to drive in. I never needed to enter it,” she said.

Nik opened the garage with the key code and rode his bike in.

We parents stayed out front.

“He made a virtual August store on eBay for you. I think he’s already had some sales,” she said.

“That’s a hopeful development,” I said.

“I think he feels some responsibility. And he knows how expensive college is,” she said.

“Colin has a full scholarship to UCLA business school,” I said.

“No kidding. Business school. That figures,” she said.

“I thought he was an angel. Then he was the devil. Now he’s redeemed. He was only trying to help his parents,” I said.

“Everyone has a motive,” she said.


Unpacked

I was happy to see a yellow and black striped Dad Got Mill rugby with white collar and the DGM monogram.

It was the last one. I made it mine.

I looked at Dad Got Mill’s webpage on Instagram.

There were black squares to honor Black people, and a Black person in every post of Dad Got Mill. All the blond men were gone, now replaced by Black men, and texts decrying racism, standing for justice, saluting tolerance, promising inclusion, remembering George Floyd.

It was the new dawn of civil rights for rugby shirts.


Epilogue

The store has been closed for over a year now.

Sometimes I’ll go into the garage and unpack the dwindling supply of sweaters and shirts and colognes and debate whether I should keep any as souvenirs.

Every so often I make a sale on eBay. Nik showed me how to use it.

I have time on my hands. We all got vaccinated. Kathy went back to work at Disney in Burbank.

Nik moved to Riverside and is in his sophomore year of college.

I am wary of going out, but tired of staying in, my life is in lived in limbo. Perhaps that is all I can ask for.

END

The White Defeatist

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A progressive architect is forced to confront his assumptions about himself, his family and his city.

After our mother’s funeral, I flew in a plane, from Little Rock to Los Angeles, accompanied by my older sister Stephanie and her catatonic, teenage son Norman.

Over Arizona, I looked out at the vast, unpopulated desert below and remarked.

“All that space, all that enormous emptiness.”

That comment induced a reaction from Stephanie, who told me about some vacant land for sale in Van Nuys near the house she rented. Perhaps she was trying to distract me from grief.

“I know you don’t like to visit me or Norman or Van Nuys, but perhaps I can lure you there for other reasons,” she said.

I hated their dirty house. It made me feel unclean.

She and her son lived in dilapidation: pet urine, hair in the drain, flies, animal hair, the stink of cat litter.

On rare occasions, I came over, and I numbed myself, on their love and their alcohol.

Often I was just down. I had yet to make a solid living as an architect. I hid out from my family.

But I had plans bursting in my head. Now, when she talked of an empty lot, my sputtering motivation ignited.


Death Money

We had both inherited a few hundred thousand dollars each: a pittance in Los Angeles, a goodly sum in Arkansas. It was just enough to induce the promise of future prosperity without granting it.

“You have to see the property Zeke. It used to be a farm. They grew walnuts and oranges here back in the 1940s. My friend Alisa Grumpfel, bought it from Martin Boyagian, an Armenian who stored stolen vehicles and rented out to illegals. Now she owns it all. An acre. She could build four houses there,” she said.

“Undocumented. Not illegals,” I corrected.

“Yes. So sorry for my use of that word,” she said.

The plane landed at LAX. We walked through the concourse, and onto a conveyer belt, gliding back with luggage, into life without mother.


Working Architect

Three years ago, I lived above a bodega on Temple St. alongside the Hollywood Freeway, near downtown Los Angeles, designing slant-roofed houses for liberal tattoos and social-minded beards of all genders.

In that insular, hilly community of tight jeans and slim shirts, I had a bit of a following. Some of my architectural renderings were framed and sold on Sunset at Marketplace.

The artist Moby photographed a house I designed and put it on Instagram. He later hired me to design a Viennese style doghouse. Miranda July wrote a poem about me and performed it at Intelligensia. Thousands of dollars blew by like winds.

Many late mornings, I went into The Drawing Room on Hillhurst, carrying my laptop, and sliding into a red vinyl booth, prepping and laying out floor plans, ordering whisky, diluting it with ice, slipping, into numbness.


Motherland

After she died, Mom came back in a dream.

She floated, laid down, in an iron bed escorted by angels.

We were in my childhood home on Maple Street in Conway, Arkansas, in the old back room.

Windows were open, sheer curtains blowing. An electric fan pulled in pink scents in notes of magnolia and dogwood.

Her silver hair was tied back and groomed in coconut oil. And a white cotton blanket inched up to her chin. I sat next to her, holding her hand, listening to her.

In her dying voice, still charged by the sputtering, electrified current of motherly love, she asked me about my plans for work, and life and staying in Los Angeles. She had a hard time believing I would settle there.

“You don’t like LA. So why live there?” she asked

“I really don’t know Mom,” I said.

“If you don’t know who does?” she asked.

“Do you want an answer on deadline?” I asked.

“Deadline. There’s a word,” she said.


Erroneous Assumptions

After our parents die we are left alone in silence with own erroneous perceptions.

Mine was always about failure, and fucking up.

My sister saw through me, kindly, empathetically.

She said she had a secret, inside scoop on the property that might benefit me. “You are the favorite architect. I know it. Don’t ask me how,” she said.

“Okay. I’ll come up to Van Nuys and look at it,” I promised.

“Not tomorrow though. I have to go pay some bills that are past due at DWP and The Gas Company. If it weren’t for a lovely friend my water and power would have been shut off yesterday,” she said.


Jardín Olvidado Avenue

The next Monday, I rode the Red Line up to North Hollywood, took a bus west, out to Van Nuys. I got off at Sepulveda.

That gentle morning, nature, after I stepped off the sealed bus, seemed so clean and earnest that it felt like a dirty trick.

I walked in sunshine, past sparkling curbs. The wind and the warm gusts felt so light, so breezy, so unburdened of Van Nuys. The public realm, so often abused, looked fastidious.

I stopped off at CVS on Erwin.

I picked up a bottle of Pine Sol, and a plastic container of bleach wipes. Housewarming presents for my sister.

 


Good Enough

Her stucco workman’s shack beckoned up an unpaved dirt path connecting Hamlin St. to Haynes St.

Stefanie never cleaned. And took pride in it. “We call it good enough, Norman and I. The dogs don’t care if you vacuum. And they love a little pee around the toilet,” she said.

But she had other worries besides housework.

She was chronically short of money.

Until now when a relief pitcher named Death stepped in and left funds.


Mrs. Grumpfel

At Haynes and Noble, I encountered a lumbering, middle-aged woman walking her well-groomed German Shepherd. The owner wore a black parka, men’s cargo pants, work boots and a face full of aggravation.

“I’m Alisa Grumpfel. You’re Zeke Kittridge,” she said. Her de-saturated blond hair was braided in two and pinned down. She had the demeanor of an affable prison guard at Dachau.

“Oh, hi—nice-to-meet-you. How the heck did you identify me?” I asked her.

“Facebook,” she said. “Around here you recognize a white face right away because they’re so rare!”

“Sit Rudolph sit!” she screamed. The dog licked my hand.

“Last night they arrested some homeless men sleeping on my property at 6517 Jardín Olvidado. Mexican scum. Illegals. Like rats in the sewer. Everywhere! Nobody reported it! All the Latinos saw them. They don’t talk to the police. We had helicopters flying over,” she said.

“How terrible for you,” I said.

“My great-grandfather Heinrich came from Bavarian royalty. He ran away from military service. But he came to America legally. He settled in Detroit and invented the windshield wiper! He made a contribution to his country! Now his granddaughter is a landlord for illegals!  Somebody has to speak up. Those animals think they have a right to graze on my land but they don’t! That’s what private property is! They aren’t Americans! But they throw THEIR rights in OUR face!”

“It’s a good piece of land. I could work with you,” I said.

“I’ve seen your Facebook page. I like your houses. I like your likes,” she said.

“Let’s talk soon,” I said, attempting to disentangle.

I walked into the house, leaving Mrs. Grumpfel and dog at the curb.


Mrs. Grumpfel’s Plan

Stefanie fixed me some over-cooked eggs with buttered, blackened toast. She served instant coffee in a red, lipstick rimmed, white mug. Flies circled around the breakfast table.

I sat, and she stood, leaning against the counter and speaking of the local tragedies: a waitress who had bypass surgery, an alcoholic screenwriter next door, a texting plumber crashing his truck into a cinderblock wall at Home Depot. Hers were stories of mediocrity squashed, potential wasted. Rote lives pounded under by the foot of fate.

I wondered if these tales were told to me as precaution or prediction.

After breakfast, we left the dirty plates on the table and walked over to 6517 Jardín Olvidado Avenue and climbed over a cyclone fence.

We beheld an abandoned lot with dead fruit trees, and a hollowed out ranch home with broken windows.

“Depressing,” she said. “I bet this was once a beautiful farm. What is wrong with this country?”

“I don’t know. I can see building a sustainable, lovely little group of houses around a common garden,” I said. “It’s not unique but it could work.”

“The owner might like that. It sounds quaint. But subversively modern,” she said.

“Alisa’s grandfather was the original inventor of the windshield wiper,” she said unexpectedly.

“She told me earlier. It must be quite an honor to come from that lineage,” I said.

She picked up a tree branch and waved it like a scepter. “Be gone ugliness!” she commanded.

“How long have you been friends with Alisa?” I asked.

“Since I moved here. I thought she was a mean lady at first. I had months where I couldn’t pay the rent and she gave me money. I never encountered such generosity and kindness. She was like a sister,” she said.

“She has a lot of friends in high places. She thinks of herself as quite an aesthete. She is a leader in Spiritual Formation & Soul Care at Bel Air Presbyterian.”


An Offer

As we walked back her house, my sister stopped. She turned to me and caressed my face. “You could move up here. Save money. Help me pay my rent. Get work with Alisa building and designing houses. Norman would like a man around here too. Consider it an offer that may expire soon,” she said opening her front door.

I stayed outside for a few minutes, near the front door, alone with my thoughts about the property and my plans. And I had yet another unpleasant conversation with defeat.

Then I wiped my shoes and went into the house, and grabbed a cold can of beer. I went into the backyard and sat down on a fat tree stump.

I decided, right there, to move up to Van Nuys. If I was going to dive in, I had to dive in.

Looking back now, I think I was driven that night more by masochism than ambition.


Movement

I painted my new bedroom in a tentative, non-committal gray-beige (Sherwin Williams’s Crushed Ice).

My days in La La Van were leisurely, lonely, and improvisational.

Norman went to school, Stephanie worked as an administrator at the VA, and I stayed in my room and drew up plans for houses.

I ate dinners with Norman. My sister often ate at McDonalds and went to evening meetings with the Planning and Land Use Committee of the Van Nuys Neighborhood Council.

She came home with fantastical tales of how Van Nuys Boulevard was soon to be remade by enormous light rail systems, lush landscaping, and organic markets. She spoke of decorative lighting and historic buildings. The rebirth of Van Nuys was prophesised by Reverend John Hainey, a retired postman and ordained minister who lorded over the VNNC.

Clearly, she, along with other spiritualists had some unfulfilled desire to make over the community as Stephanie was making over her brother.

Beyond her dirty dishes, her unmade bed, the dead mouse on the patio, and the wet leaves at the bottom of the refrigerator; beyond it all, she was a true beautification enthusiast.

 


Interludio Extraño

Alisa Grumpfel invited me to dinner at Interludio Extraño, a restaurant in downtown Los Angeles.

We ate strange little flatbreads covered in braised sweetbreads, flavored with stewed prunes, infused with weird vinegars, festooned with flowers, dropped atop the plate deliberately, feigning randomness.

Alisa wore a red baseball cap, silver cross, wide-ass denim jeans, and a green Christmas sweater with an embroidered Santa. Her sandals showed off cracked heels and purple painted toenails.

I was petrified other diners might out us as visitors from Van Nuys.

After three highballs, she began to pour seductive compliments on me.

“You’re a good-looking white man. You’re smart. You’re an artist. Let me help you build your dream.”

The dream dialogue came out of a woman’s mouth I had no intention of ever kissing. I smiled, and acted gentlemanly, knowing she might hire me.

After sharing a piece of hot chocolate cake and a melted scoop of almond ice cream, Alisa asked me if I would partner with her to build houses.

We walked, arm in arm, down 7th Street and stopped in front of an old stone and brick building with the name “Van Nuys” carved into a pediment above the entrance.

“I admire the way the old timers built,” she said.

I looked at my suburban benefactor in her Christmas sweater. I tried to separate my low opinion of her tackiness from her high architectural aims.


Walking with Norman

When the sun was hottest, I’d pull down the window shades and nap. I’d wake up for Norman when he got back from school around 3:30.

After cookies and milk, we often walked around the neighborhood conversing.

He was a taciturn boy, tall, thin and slouchy. He strode, looking down, with his hands in his pockets.

His father, craggy Don Paver, was gone for good, a pipe-smoking, wife-abusing, drug-injecting rebel from western Kentucky. When Norman was two, Don broke out of fatherhood like an escaping convict. After he tossed his duties along the road, he never returned, never sent a dime, never dropped a word of love or regret or explanation to his only son.

So here I was, a virtuous stand-in for Don Paver, in the fatherly role, pushed into it, performing like an amateur actor.

I had been just like Norman once: sullen and pissed off, aware of every single hypocrite and mad at anyone who didn’t get me. Somehow, now, the petulance of youth seemed wise to me, untarnished by the fake, cheery opportunism of adults.

“Did you know my dream is to get the fuck out of here? When I’m 18 I am going to move to New York City. Mom doesn’t know it. I’m leaving for good. I’ll wait tables since she can’t afford college,” he said.

We walked past houses with old cars, hoods open, parked in withered and neglected yards full of dogs on speed.

Obese teenagers in black stretch pants sat on the curb smoking pot; their plastic marijuana containers and food wrappers littered the street. Nothing was properly maintained: machine or human.

I looked at the surroundings and empathized with my nephew’s defeatism. But I, as an adult, had the duty, the noble duty, to deny the truth and blow out bromides.

“You’re young. You’ve got time. You’ll get out, but try to study and get good grades. Don’t you want to go to college? I think you’ve got lots of talent in so many things. Math, music, video editing,” I said.

I don’t want to die in obscurity in Van Nuys!” he said.

At Burnet St. we passed a rare sight: an LAPD car with a lone female officer parked along the curb.

It was Officer Samantha Sanchez, black hair tied back, latte colored skin, red lipstick and blue uniform. Her window was open, her manner was languid and disarming, she waved hello and we waved back.

“Hi Norman! Good to see you!” she said.

“Hello Officer Sanchez. Have a nice day,” he said. We walked on.

“That dear, sweet woman with a badge and a loaded gun,” he remarked acidly. “Last year I was drinking beer with a girl in Mom’s car and she busted us. Mom was not happy. I think Grumpfel called the police cause we were parked in front of her mansion.”

“You don’t like Alisa Grumpfel?” I asked.

“I know she has a crush on you. But she’s nothing but a rich cunt. She has everything, all the money in the world. But she has no man. So she’s bitter. Nobody is fucking her. So she hates all the minorities. She takes out her sexual frustration by being a bigot,” he said.

“But she gave your mom help when your mom needed it. She isn’t all bad,” I said.

“She’s like, here’s money for food. Now at least you don’t have to take food stamps. That would be degrading for a white woman. Seriously, she said that,” he said.

“I think she helped us because it made her feel virtuous. And she has this idea that all the minorities are lazy and if a white person is in trouble it must be an act of God. I have a horrible father who walked out on us. And now Mom and I are in debt to Grumpfel,” he said.

I had no answer for him. “I just have to be on good terms with her until the houses get built and we can sell them. I’m going to be fine. If you see her just smile and be polite,” I counseled.


The Next Door App

Grumpfel and I had formed Valley Time Homes, LLC, a name she chose which sounded to me like a bowling league. My whole world of work and family was now confined to a few blocks in Van Nuys.

Nine months into the project, I posted some preliminary drawings of the houses on Monday at 2:40pm.

Walkable, sensitively sited, each home was solar-powered with water saving plants. I thought, from my vantage point behind my laptop, I would be showered with compliments.

“Where is the parking?” was the first comment by Becky Shlockhaus.

“I hope not on my street!” added Mark Holdupp.

Kellie Barfolo complained about little houses as a drag on property values.

“You put this up in the middle of the day? My son and his wife work two jobs and have no time to post on Next Door at two in the afternoon! Maybe you need to work at a real job. Try Target or Costco!” Miranda Beagle-Pinscher wrote.

Tam Sinkdrayne said organic gardens attracted rats. She did not like the idea of planting orange and walnut trees. “First you plant fruit trees and the next thing you’ll want pigs and we’ll have a hog farm around the corner!”

Yves Dropper-Hopp, a “Deputized Government Monitor”, whose avatar was a smoking cigar, said zoning law required bigger homes with “at least three car garages.”

Martin Guerrero, a self-described “traditional Hispanic Catholic working man” said it sounded like a liberal commune and “anti-family.”

Rhonda Peevosky and Jackie DeZay objected to the idea of a communal area. “If you have a bunch of people sharing a garden who is going to pay for the gardeners? And where is everyone going to park? What if there is a party? You’ll have cars spilling out everywhere!”

After all my months of working, planning, and designing, my first foray into public comment was demoralizing.

Stefanie, tired, red-eyed, back from work, walked in the house and looked at my face. “What’s wrong?”

“A lot of angry comments about the houses on Next Door,” I said.

She threw her backpack on the couch and took off her shoes.

“I’m not surprised. Nobody is happy these days. They all hate their work. Even if a project benefits them they want to destroy it. Especially if they think someone else can make a profit. Did you hear from Miranda Beagle-Pinscher? She is the worst,” she said.

“Didn’t people, I mean Americans, used to believe in making things better? Better houses, better schools, better communities?” I asked.

“Now you just sound naïve brother,” she said.

She went into the bathroom and slammed the door.

 


Bulldozers and Champagne

“Tonight I have a little green something for you,” Alisa told me as we sat on the patio around her pool drinking champagne.  She handed me an envelope with my name on it and poured more champagne into our glasses.

We had started construction of the houses, and, per our agreement, she had paid me a few thousand for design. I was now acting as general contractor, hiring out electricians, plumbers, carpenters.

“Let us toast to the progress we are making. And let us sell some homes!” she said.

“I finally feel like a real Californian. Building houses, putting down roots, it feels good,” I said.

“Nobody really knows what makes a real Californian,” she said wistfully. “It used to be you knew a real man, a real woman, a real Westerner. Now it’s all muddled,” she said.

“They usually are beautiful and disturbed. At least in Los Angeles,” I joked. But it was nervous laughter.

It was windy that night.

The air was desert dry, and somewhere someone was burning wood.

Distant sirens rode in on the wind.

A premonition of danger, disquieting the evening, hit me with unease.

Old reckless me, younger, had been through nights like this before, when I went out drinking, and came home thirsty, passing out and awakening to broken glass and some woman screaming out in the alley.

Alisa sensed me. She looked at me. So I looked away at the swimming pool, at the underwater lights, at the pumped-in bubbles.

“I’m worried. I don’t think we’ll sell these houses,” I said.

“I’m rich. So I’m used to worrying about money,” she said.

“Huh? What do you mean?” I asked.

“There is a terrible fragility to privilege. You think it’s a breeze to be born into money? It isn’t. It has its own kind of suffering,” she said. “You might have money in the bank but you don’t have love at home.”

I hoped this was not leading to a proposal. My instincts to degrade myself kicked in.

“What do you see in me?” I asked her. “I think I’m inconsequential. I’m surprised you wanted to hire me.”

She folded her arms and shook her head.

“You want to screw up. You want things to turn out badly. That way you confirm that you aren’t any good. You have been a defeatist all along. You believe any rotten thing people say about our homes. You don’t defend the good ideas you have. Now you come to me and tell me you think nobody will buy them,” she said.

“If you think I’m a negative person, why did you come after me and lure me into our partnership?” I asked.

“I lured you? You were lost. I’ve befriended your sister for years. I saw her rotten marriage crumble. I saw her cry. I saw her struggle. And I never once saw you visit her. You didn’t come out to comfort her, you never thought about her troubles,” she said.

Her charges were exasperating.

“All you women! All you do is call out men for what they are!” I said in a fit.

“I’m just speaking the truth,” she said.

She went over to the barbecue, opened the hatch, removed the grate and dumped a bag of charcoal in. She poured on lighter fluid, poked the coals, lit a match, and stood back from the flames.

And then she handed me a plate of raw hamburger patties.

“You do the grill,” she said.


 You’re the Enemy!

“You wonder why I sound racist. Even though I’m the most tolerant woman on Earth,” Alisa said the next morning.

We were standing, with LAPD Officer Sanchez and Hector Garbanzo from Councilwoman Felicia Romero’s office, in front of our construction site, looking at spray painted gang signs (“BVN”) on the fence.

Young, stocky Hector was dressed in a tucked-in blue shirt stuffed into poly-cotton khakis, black hair slicked over his tanned head. He spoke apologetically and officiously.

“We don’t tolerate this. You are building some fine homes. We completely support you. And now, you have to deal with destruction and vandalism. I’m ashamed, quite honestly as a community leader and as a Hispanic. This is not what Van Nuys represents,” he said.

“You said you have a security camera video that may have captured the incident?” Officer Sanchez asked Alisa.

“Yep. I sure do. I know this happened last night sometime before dark. I drove by here at 6pm on my way to eat dinner and it wasn’t there. Then when I went past at 8pm it was up here,” Alisa said.

“Can I look at the video?” Officer Sanchez asked.

“I’ll email it. Right now,” Alisa said pounding her mobile.  “After you identify the garbage I hope you march right over to his house and arrest him. No doubt he is an illegal! And I’m sure his parents are too and they can all be deported! I’m not racist! I’m a law-abiding citizen. I’m sick of all the crap they bring here.”

Officer Sanchez’s phone beeped. “Ok. Let me go over to my car, sit down and look at the video.” She walked back to her squad car as we waited.

“Once again my apology. I’m going to talk to Councilwoman Romero and see how we can protect property owners from this. You shouldn’t have to put up with it,” Hector said.

He extended his hand to me and we shook.

Alisa turned away, folded her arms and ignored him.

He left and waved at me and made a thumbs up gesture.

Alisa eyed him with malice.

“Sanchez, Garbanzo, Romero! A lot of good it will do having them on our side. I remember when the only time you spoke about Garbanzo was when you were opening a can of beans,” Alisa said.

Officer Sanchez walked back and rejoined us.

“I am quite certain I know the boy who tagged your fence,” she said. “As a matter of fact he lives a few houses from here. Would you like to come with me to talk to him?”

“Oh you are the answer to my prayers! I want to press charges. If possible I’ll bring a lawsuit against his parents if he has any! I’ll make them pay for this!” Alisa said.

We walked down Haynes Street, with Alisa leading the way, and walked like vigilantes, ready to pull the suspect out, and hang him up, by rope, on the tree.

My heart beat faster anticipating a confrontation with the lawbreaker.

And then we stopped in front of my sister’s rental home, my current home. Officer Sanchez turned to me and Alisa.

“That boy on the video is Norman. Do you want me to proceed?” Sanchez asked.

Alisa gasped and covered her mouth in horror.

“It can’t be! Let me hear it out of that boy’s mouth! He’s a good kid. He has had a little trouble but he is no gang member!” Alisa protested.

“Let me bring him out,” I said.

I went into the house, alone, and found Norman sitting in the dark, on the living room floor, looking out the window, watching Alisa and the cop.

“Fuck both of them! I hope they arrest me,” he said.

“Why did you do that? Why? Don’t you know you’re hurting me too?” I asked.

“I’m trying to hurt everyone! Especially bigots, and especially cops! You shouldn’t be pals with them. You aren’t your own man! You build houses with a Nazi. And I am fighting gentrification, fighting people who want to improve Van Nuys and throw me and Mom out on the streets!” he said.

“You and your mom are going to be the new owners of one of the houses! You are the beneficiary of my good fortune. You God-Damned, spoiled, ignorant brat! You are luckier than 99% of all the people in Van Nuys!”

Alisa walked into the living room. “Norman Kittridge. Get up. Stand up and tell me why you vandalized and ruined our fence! Get up and answer me!” She grabbed him by the collar and pulled him up, pushed him against the wall and whacked him across the face with a furious slap.

He started to cry. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. But I have my reasons. I am fighting for justice and against developers. You’re the enemy. I’m sorry to say it,” he said.

And then he ran out of the room.

Alisa looked at me and shook her head. “This is what happens when you take God out of the public schools. I’m just going to pray for him. And let his mother take a leather belt to him,” she said.


My Own Epitaph

Stephanie and Norman bought into one of the four houses, and the other three eventually sold.

It was a drawn out couple of years, an experience that thrust a single, childless, semi-employed man into a family drama that yielded something some call progress.

I went to see Stephanie one Sunday after she had moved into her new house. My sister was living in my architectural creation. I was proud. But I knew how she lived. She was no rendering. She was a slob.

And in the high ceilinged room I saw spider webs on the beams above. The bamboo wood floors were caked with mud and there were French fries crushed underfoot. The 30’ long seamless white countertop was cluttered in newspapers, sliding glass doors were filthy with fingerprints, and window screens torn by dog paws.

I tried to suppress my architectural imagination and enter into reality.

“Are you happy here sis?” I asked

“Oh, it’s so wonderful. Look at it. It’s a dream. So clean and modern and functional,” she said.

“What else is new?” I asked.

“Well Alisa is in love,” she said.

“No kidding. Well some man is going to be very well taken care of,” I said.

“Man?” she laughed. “Alisa is gay. She has a new girlfriend!”

“No way! The whole time we worked together I thought she was after me. I thought I knew her!” I said.

“You are so naïve brother. There’s more to people than just surfaces,” she said.


Everything Once Looked So Ideal

I was driving in my convertible in West Los Angeles last October around dusk. And I passed a new white school not far from the light rail along Olympic. The building was smooth and glossy, low and long, and punctuated by a tall, rectangular tower.

There were solar paneled overhangs installed over the parking area. And graduated, curving paths for the disabled slithered into landscaped mounds wrapped around water fountains and polymer illuminated bollards.

It looked so ideal.

My project in Van Nuys was long completed and I had moved to Venice. I met a blond woman who wore chambray shirts. She owned a hair salon near the beach. She needed a lover and an architect so I was hired.

I drew up plans for her place and proposed a photo studio, a coffee bar, and a garden in back. It was going to be so chic and so private, and so exclusive. I was in a new place, professionally, geographically and romantically.

We lived together for a few months and then we had a falling out. We broke up over sushi.

Everything once looked so ideal.

I was recruited for work, saved from indolence, promised rewards.

But here I was again.

In the car, and looking out.

END

3/17/17