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Ghost Time

On the refrigerator door of my small New York apartment are three photographs of my large — okay, huge — L.A. apartment. I keep them there, I suppose, to torture myself. My L.A. pad, which runs the length of a “luxury living” WWI-era apartment building, is so long, and so elegantly outfitted with built-in art deco–style cabinets, closets and mirrors, that living in it is a bit like being on a miniature version of the Queen Mary — it seems like you can just walk around, from room to room, forever.

Alas, for reasons too complicated to go into here, I don’t actually live in my L.A. ocean liner. Instead, I inhabit minuscule quarters in the East Village, a neighborhood I’ve dubbed “a machine for producing Angelenos,” since so many people who live in L.A. once lived here too. Obviously the neighborhood’s pint-size apartments, built at the start of the 20th century for pint-size Eastern European immigrants, drove them toward California. Go West, Young Man — and get 500 square feet more for half the rent!

That was the idea, anyway. Unfortunately, so many people had it that the payoff isn’t quite what it used to be. Now it’s more like, Go West, get tied up in traffic and pay almost as much as you would in New York for one extra room!

But what can you do? The world is crowded. And no matter how densely populated L.A. becomes, apartment living there will always seem spacious and civil (underline that last word) compared to New York.

Let me give you an example of what it’s like over here. Just this afternoon I ran into my landlady, who lives in the apartment directly below mine. (I read Philip Lopate’s indispensable essay for New Yorkers, “Never Live Above Your Landlady,” too late.)

My landlady, a diminutive woman composed primarily of pancake makeup, wraparound dark glasses and toxic rage, asked me if I had recently acquired a cat.

“Yes,” I said.

“Because I can hear it thumping around the apartment at midnight. I work very hard, and I need to get some sleep!”

“It’s a kitten,” I said. “It weighs three pounds and we have thick carpets, which is more than I can say for the people who live above us

“Why do you always change the subject?” my landlady demanded. “This is why I can’t stand talking to you. I’m trying to tell you that your cat is disturbing me and you start talking about the people upstairs!”

We were standing in the tiny space between the front door and the building’s inner door, in 90-degree heat, and the hatred radiating from my landlady was, as always, alarming. She is so consumed with anger that I have often thought she is destined to spontaneously combust. In the meantime, her little discourse about the cat was degenerating rapidly into a torrent of insults. I hastily unlocked the inner door and started up the stairs to my apartment.

“You fucking shit!” she called out after me. “You and your stupid wife are never going to leave, are you? You’re going to be here forever, aren’t you, you fucking bastard? Why don’t you fucking leave? This is my building and I don’t want you here! Get out! Get out! Get out!”

She was still screaming at me when, on the fourth floor landing, I unlocked my apartment door and closed it behind me. It’s at moments like this that people decide to move to Los Angeles. In fact, come to think of it, it’s why I did move to Los Angeles, years ago. And now I’m back for more punishment.

Although I stare longingly at the photographs of my Queen Mary sublet, which is in Hollywood, it’s my old neighborhood just south of Mid-Wilshire — those richly floral, rather suburban blocks between Olympic and Pico just east of Fairfax — for which I feel genuine nostalgia. It’s these decidedly unmean streets that will always represent my primary, instinctive image of L.A.

This is partly due to a sense of quasi-inheritance. By some bizarre fluke, when we first moved to L.A. in the mid-1990s, my wife and I rented an apartment that, during the ’70s and early ’80s, my older half-brother, Tim Harris, had lived in for a decade. When I was going to school in England I used to receive long, wonderful letters from him bearing the return address of 1053 1/2 South Genesee Avenue. That four-figure number seemed impossibly exotic in a country in which street numbers rarely rose above the three-figure mark and never included fractions. I’d even visited Tim there once, for about a week, some 15 years before I actually rented the place.

So the apartment building looked familiar, of course, as did the neighborhood, but at the time my knowledge of L.A. was nonexistent and, given the odds against renting precisely the same apartment in a city that covers 466 square miles and contains over three-and-a-half-million souls, I assumed my mind was playing tricks on me. But it wasn’t. My brother later told me it was a lucky apartment, a lucky building. A screenwriter and novelist, Tim wrote Trading Places there, with a writing partner who lived across the courtyard. Others who lived in the building did well also; I didn’t do too badly there myself. In fact, it’s where I finally established a career.

But we’re a family of Los Angeles exiles. Tim, who was born in L.A., currently lives in London. My mother, born Mary McDermott, grew up in the shadow of Bunker Hill, but now lives in France. Her mother, Camille, is buried in France, as is my oldest brother, Brian, also born in Los Angeles. Camille always pronounced Angeles with a hard “g,” like Anjelica Huston in The Grifters. She was still doing it the last time I saw her, 90-something years old, hair still dyed platinum blond, reminiscing about the old days in California while retired in the French countryside.

Now when I’m in L.A., I generally like to stay down by the beach. It’s a part of the city I never really learned to appreciate when I lived there, but these days a long walk along the water’s edge at sunset, barefoot between the joggers and sandpipers, is bliss. Because I never lived by the ocean, these walks make me feel like a tourist, but that’s okay. My family has always moved around, never fully settling to put down roots deep enough to call a place permanently home. After a while, not doing so becomes a habit, even after we’ve been in one place for years and the roots are so deep we’re no longer even aware of them.

During the day, L.A. still feels like my town, even though I haven’t spent much time in it lately. But at night, when I drive through my old neighborhood south of Mid-Wilshire, I feel like a ghost in a rented car, neither native nor tourist, cruising past the apartment that was in my family for almost two decades. (My own car, which I gave to a neighbor, is still parked on the street, looking annoyingly spick-and-span.) There are a handful of people I could drop by and see, but it’s already late and everybody knows that L.A. is a city that not only sleeps but sleeps early. So I turn down a desolate stretch of Pico, then south on Fairfax till I get to Venice, where I head straight for my digs near the beach. There’s something haunting about driving at night through a city you used to live in, one apartment gone forever, the other still yours but occupied by strangers.


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