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Pregnant Pauses, Toys in the Crawlspace 

A writer’s encounters with L.A.

Thursday, Oct 6 2005
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We moved to L.A. in 1988 in a ’74 Corolla, pregnant, jobless, no insurance. My husband, Kiffen, had intentions of acting. I would write. We shipped out 200 pounds of books from the South. The days became temp jobs at banks on Wilshire (my MFA in playwriting a joke) and substitute teaching for LAUSD. A night out meant Ships coffee shop or House of Pies, where the cashier had nails so curly she needed a spoon to scoop change.

The Corolla up and died at a regular clip, so we kept jumper cables in the trunk. They got stolen. My brother-in-law, an embittered TV cameraman, fled L.A. for Hawaii but gave us a couch from The Jeffersons and the lease to his Hollywood apartment at 716 Valentino Place, a building squatting in the shadow of Paramount Studios. Valentino’s ghost was said to roam the halls. Our neighbor, a frail actress, Suzanna Kim, played Little Fool in The Good Earth, 1937. She wore eyelashes pasted to her lids and always propped a tiny black shoe in the automatic locked gate and forgot about it. To make a connection, I told her that we had spent the previous year teaching English in China. She wept and said, “I was born there!” But she never remembered us from one day to the next. Our apartment came with a roommate whose father sent him dope from Hawaii for rent money — we were so naive and so broke and so pregnant.

Our son, Flannery, was born at a birth center in Culver City and we paid off the birth early ($2,250) because of a $500 discount. I was home within four hours of giving birth. A neighbor, Aphrodite, helped me up the steps since the elevator was broken and Kiffen had to find a parking space safe from “street cleaning.” Aphrodite looked at me with incredulity and said, “He was born today? And you’re home? Why?” I began to cry. I was 26 — not ready.

By the time we had two kids, we were both teaching full-time, though I still wrote plays, and Kiffen occasionally acted in theater. At Garfield Adult School I was asked to teach a class of teen moms. I was reluctant, but found that I enjoyed working with these girls, many of whom had been told, “Don’t use your big fucking dictionary words with me.” I took groups to the theater, and I grew close to two girls who had babies at 14 and again at 17. We wrote a play together called Waiting for the Bus. I also thought that teaching them to write their own stories might be a kind of birth control. It wasn’t. By the time the play was finished, both girls, aged 20, were pregnant again, but professional actors performed a great staged reading, ironically at Paramount Studios near Valentino Place.

I attended a shower for one in an apartment perched near the 10 freeway — a mixture of cake and sadness and shower games with baby pins. But I had to learn to shut up about my disappointment. To be honest, the girls were doing better than their mothers. They weren’t drug addicts. They finished high school and some community college. They still had ambitions of writing. In July, one of them invited me to my first Tupperware party at a park in El Monte. I saw both young women, now 27. They have jobs and four children apiece. We watched demonstrations of salad spinners, jogging cups with key holders, and Jell-O molds — the perfect dishes for any shower.

What I thought would be my big Hollywood break came when Diane Keaton attached herself to my football novel, Offsides, in 1996. As we got to know each other, I told Diane about my work with teen moms, and how one of the girls was without a bed. Diane bought her two beds that Kiffen and I hauled to East L.A. one Christmas.

And to show my gratitude for her interest in Offsides, I invited Diane to our home for dinner, never dreaming she would accept. When her assistant called to set a date, I think I gasped because the assistant asked, “What? Didn’t you mean it?”

I had little time to prepare our 760-square-foot sheetrock stucco dump in Silver Lake for Diane Keaton. The backyard garden was its one redeeming feature. Concerned friends offered their homes as a decoy for the dinner.

I peeled off the spider webs and kid art, and painted the walls autumn harvest. It didn’t look great, but it was an improvement. I had the 1928 toilet replaced with a new low-flush model from the DWP, which made our cheapo landlady hit the roof. I had to find the right Merlot, organic tomatoes from the Farmers Market. A friend made a mushroom quiche. Kiffen whipped together penne pasta and sauce. Our kids were 7 and 9. In a fit of cleaning despair, I threw their cardboard cars, airplanes, old toys, battered bikes and Hula-Hoops under the house so we could eat outside, but not have to step over Appalachia on the way to the candlelit table under the apricot tree near the jasmine King Kong topiary.

Before Diane arrived, I warned both kids not to mess up a thing. They sat meekly while we waited for Diane and her 2-year-old. Once we were gathered around the table, my 7-year-old heaved a dramatic sigh, and Diane inquired if she was tired, and Lucy said, “Yeah, I’m tired! We had to work for you!”

I tried to laugh but was too horrified, and then Diane’s daughter discovered the dung heap of child junk under the house just below the Nerf basketball hoop. We shot hoops by candlelight.

Diane championed Offsides for three years, but it died in development between Lifetime and Fox Family. There were no more dinners, and Offsides went out of print. We had another child, Norah, now 6. Flannery and Lucy are in high school. It was eight years before my next book, a children’s novel set in Appalachia, was published. We still rent.

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