Several weeks ago, my neighbor Larry abruptly told me he was moving away. He said he didn’t want to but could no longer afford the soaring rents in our Silver Lake neighborhood combined with a now–nearly nonexistent job market. The sadness I felt upon hearing this took me a little by surprise. I liked Larry but it’s not like we were the best of friends. Though he only lived 15 feet from me, I had never once set foot in his apartment. Regardless, I had come to count on him. He was a neighborhood institution of sorts, like the colorful restaurant or bar you have never bothered to patronize but are then sad to see close. It seemed for the past decade or so that Larry could be found perched outside Café Tropical, drinking coffee and talking with the other regulars. He was informed on topics ranging from sports to politics and was an invaluable source of neighborhood gossip. I can’t remember attending a local function in the past decade that featured a free bar and did not also feature Larry. He would be missed.
In the big picture, Larry’s departure seemed further proof that the world around me was changing, and for the worse. I had seen many local institutions disappear over the years. While some left undeniable holes in the community, many of the changes had initially seemed to be for the better. I enjoyed many of the new highbrow restaurants, for instance, and, having been caught in more than one gang-related shootout, welcomed the decrease in crime that came with gentrification. But the neighborhood had also ceased to be the affordable refuge for creative misfits it had been when I initially moved here from Hollywood in the late ’80s. After countless profiles heralding Silver Lake as some sort of West Coast mecca of cool, rents in the area soon rivaled those on the Westside. And when the recent financial crisis wiped out many of the once-plentiful film-production jobs, the result was a perfect storm for valued ne’er-do-wells like Larry.
When I eventually tracked Larry down, he told me that he had survived over the years by doing an assortment of jobs designed to fund creative endeavors that have ranged from playing in bands to writing for film and television. “Everything that I have done to make money has been to support the creative work,” he said. “I’ve done script-reading, house-painting, set-decorating, management in a food-and-beverage venture, and some things I can’t really mention here. I call it all my work compost. When you’ve lived somewhere long enough, you know what it takes to get by. But all that’s trickier now. There’s less freelance money around. It’s not just large institutions that have to rethink how to survive. It’s also average people like me, who had relied on a climate that allowed you to pursue your art and make a living at the same time.”
The two of us were talking over burritos in the heart of the San Fernando Valley. If Larry’s exodus from the neighborhood hadn’t given me pause, his destination certainly had. It wasn’t the fact that he was living in the Valley, where he grew up. What troubled me was that, in his 40s, Larry was now back home living with his parents. To be honest, my reaction had far more to do with my own fears. Larry seemed pretty upbeat about the situation, but for me it conjured a haunting figure fro m my childhood known as “Pete the Hippie.” An intelligent and harmless man in his 30s with a nonironic beard, Pete lived at home with his elderly parents, doing ceramics and with neighborhood kids (including myself) smoking pot out of a winged bong. I have since lived in near-constant fear of somehow ending up a less-hirsute version of Pete. Larry noted my downbeat demeanor and confronted me.
“Look, this isn’t some sad story, John,” he stated. “My circumstances are difficult, but I don’t want to read something about me being all down on my luck. There is a total upside to my situation. It gives me an opportunity to make adjustments to my life. And I think a lot of people are re-evaluating what they are doing now, from people with high-paying positions to guys like me, who have been able to string together a compost of jobs.”
Larry relaxed, leaned back and smiled. “And look, I’m getting the opportunity to do things I would never have done back in Silver Lake. Like eating popcorn and watching Dancing With the Stars with my mom.”
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I imagined the scene, a bathrobe-clad mother and her 40-something Berkeley-graduate son sitting in front of the television watching Lil’ Kim do the rumba. It troubled me. “You sit on the couch with your mom and watch Dancing With the Stars?” I asked, my voice rising to a controlled shriek.
Larry shook his head with dismay. “Dude, I’m not on the couch with her. She’s on the couch. I’m nearby luxuriating on the comfy rug.”
We finished our burritos and walked to a local coffeehouse. It felt like a million miles from Larry’s old haunt in Silver Lake. Instead of framed Che Guevara posters, there were expensive gift baskets for purchase, and the baristas looked like soap-opera actors. It hit me that Larry was in no danger of becoming a modern Pete the Hippie. Besides the fact that he was relatively clean-shaven and seemed totally uninterested in pottery, Larry said he was working harder than ever now. He had several jobs, including tutoring kids for bar mitzvahs (his dad was a cantor), and was saving his money. He also told me the shift had intensified his focus on his own work. Far from pathetic, there was actually something inspiring about how he was handling a situation many of us could easily face. Still, I would miss seeing him around the neighborhood.
“I’m not sitting on my hands,” Larry said. “I know this is a hard time to get things done. But I’m also relatively optimistic. I believe in what I’m doing and I have huge expectations. In fact, I’ve brokered a life based on expectations. But for now — popcorn and Dancing With the Stars.”