Photo by Debra DiPaoloOne winter afternoon in the late ’80s, my father and I were sitting at the kitchen table of my parents’ high-rise Wilshire Corridor condominium when the body of a man hurtled past. It was the floor-to-ceiling windows framing a post-card view of Century City to the Pacific Ocean that first sold my parents on the 12th-floor unit when they moved there in 1983. Now that same wide-screen expanse of glass allowed my father and I to get a long, throat-constricting look at a roof jumper, as well as the unimaginably terrible sight that followed a moment later. A second man wearing the exact same outfit — blue jeans, flapping button-down shirt, brown ankle boots — whizzed past following the same rocklike trajectory. We inched our way toward the window, scared of what we’d see on the ground below.
Instead of the blood-spattered remains of an identical-twin suicide, we found a television camera crew clustered lazily around a pair of sprawling dummies. Later it was explained to me that the building manager at the time had cut a lucrative deal with ABC’s prime-time evening soap, Dynasty. When you saw an establishing exterior shot of the swank bachelorette pad of Joan Collins’ super-bitchy villainess Alexis Carrington Colby, you were actually looking at my parents’ home. That afternoon, the only thing that had been extinguished was an actor’s recurring gig as Alexis’ gigolo boyfriend, along with my last shred of evidence that the Wilshire Corridor’s so-called Golden Mile was Los Angeles’ capital of bland uniformity.
It was 1978 when my parents moved from their sprawling two-story, early 1900s ranch house in the San Fernando Valley into their first Wilshire Corridor address: a two-bedroom rental just outside of Westwood Village. Their reasons for downshifting into a much smaller location were unremarkable — kids off to college, too many empty bedrooms, etc. But what I wasn’t prepared for was how quickly they took to their new streamlined life and how it didn’t seem to bother them to be citizens of a 10-block-long swath of beige luxury condos anointed with names meant to conjure stiff-pinky European elegance — the Marie Antoinette, the La Tour, the Churchill. I’d grown up in a home where my architect father put his distinctively offbeat stamp on everything. But along with selling our family home, my parents developed a zeal for shedding the personal belongings they’d accumulated over the years. Walking into their living room was now like entering a stark, white-walled art gallery.
If their new Zen approach to decor took some adjusting to on my part, so did the cluster of tuxedoed doormen who stood at attention in front of their building. If I’d grown up in Manhattan, I probably wouldn’t have spent so much time feeling awkward about the uniformed sentries hired to greet, park cars and open the front door. But also included in the promise of 24-hour security was a phone call from a concierge announcing my arrival. My days of surprise “Hi, what’s there to eat?” drop-in visits to my parents were officially over.
The Wilshire Corridor lifestyle suited my mother and father. Soon they began moving up and down the wide boulevard, buying and selling condos until they ended up at Alexis Carrington Colby’s building. There, whatever lingering regrets I had about my parents’ urbanization were wiped out by the many perks — a heated outdoor swimming pool, a well-equipped gym, a Jacuzzi, a sauna and that strangely exhilarating jolt of recognition every time the elevator door clicked open and I’d find myself staring into the eyes of a celebrity. My parents’ building has always been a full-fledged pop-culture way station for celebrities in town for a film project or in need of provisional lodging while throwing money at a Malibu mansion makeover. Some images from my mental clip reel of temporary inhabitants: a ghostly white, vulnerable-looking Milton Berle sitting by himself on a forest-green leather settee in the lobby, waiting for his younger blond wife to bring the car. A smiling, sleepy-eyed Mark Wahlberg and his scruffy Entourage-like posse making their way through the front glass double doors wreathed in a familiar smell we all remember from 11th grade.
During the eighties, my father would often spot Michael Jackson and his tiny then-friend Emmanuel Lewis on the way to what appeared to be a religiously observed once-a-week activity — buying an armload of new tabloids and a giant Slurpee from a nearby 7-Eleven. Several times, he sighted Jackson making his grand exit in “disguise” — his famous white surgical mask. For the record, and I say this regrettably, no one in my family ever saw the King of Pop toting the 3-foot-6-inch Lewis like a baby. To make up for that, I will offer up this bit of trivia: Ringo Starr is afraid of heights. While toying with the idea of making his residency permanent, Starr requested and was given a quick home tour from my mother, who said the one-time Beatle was scared to walk out onto my parents’ pocket-size, plant-filled balcony. He did, however, take one look at the minimal furnishings and the natural sunlight streaming through the draperyless windows and exclaim, “Oooh, this is so California.”
Eventually I came to think of everyone who visits my parents’ building as a bit of a silent movie star. That’s because, day and night, just to the right of a cylindrical green-and-cream polished-marble concierge post, is a bank of small-screen monitors that stealthily catch almost everything. Occasionally I’ll be digging through my purse in the elevator or swimming laps back and forth for an hour and into my mind will pop the queasy thought that someone is studying the flickering footage of me. Yet several years ago, when I could have used some hard evidence, there was no surveillance film to be found. I’d been noticing that my parents’ neighbors glared at me when I passed them in the hallway, and that my friendly hellos were returned only begrudgingly by the employees. What had I done to deserve ostracization As it turned out, a front-desk worker had convicted me of a high crime against the people: The remote control for the television that hung in the gym had gone missing, and the staffer was naming me to every tenant who complained. I was shocked. What possible use would I have for the gym channel changer But when I confronted my accuser, he merely folded his arms across his chest, narrowed his eyes and stared at me stonily. Of course, the day came when the remote reappeared, along with the sheepish admission from one of my parents’ neighbors that it was he who had accidentally taken it upstairs. Though I never received an apology, I learned two valuable life lessons: 1. A high-rise apartment building is just a neighborhood gone upright, and 2. Gossip travels vertically as fast as it travels horizontally.
Crazy snap assumptions weren’t this (long-since-fired) front-desk staffer’s only specialty. He also thought of himself as something of an amateur behavioral therapist. Often, when guests would request that their cars be brought up from the subterranean garage, he’d let them linger in the lobby for a quarter of an hour or so before dispatching the valet. In the interim, he once told me, he’d study their expressions, measuring their worth as human beings by how they waited: patiently or with looks of instant indignation.
The (saner) bottom-floor building personnel preferred less self-serving forms of observation. I often think about this whenever my father comes to mind. Did anyone else bear closer witness to my family’s emotional trajectory when, in 1999, my father was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia It was the concierge, doormen and valets who became sympathetic onlookers to my family’s bouts of optimism and despair, saw my energetic dad bounce out the front doors for a walk during his stronger phases and shuffle in exhausted during his period of gradual weakening. Then, three years ago, it was these employees’ job to open doors and park cars for mourners who were gathering in the building’s community room just after my dad’s funeral. For days after when I entered the lobby, a thick, awkward quiet would fall. No one knew what to say to me and, to be honest, words weren’t coming to me too easily, either.
Finally, one afternoon when I pulled up in my car to the front door, a valet rushed over to me and blurted out, “Your father was such a good man.” To my surprise, I put my head on his shoulder and started sobbing.