Frankly, Los Angeles was the last place in America I wanted to be in 1999 after graduating with flying colors from an Ivy League university back East. But the rent was cheap — $400 a month paid to my friend’s sculptor father. I lived in the unheated corner of his warehouse studio. My room came with a thin carpet, a space heater that blew out the fuse box thrice daily, access to a free washer-dryer, and a great view of the L.A. River’s trickle.
I spent 13 months there, watching movies of the normal and X-rated varieties, jerking off both literally and intellectually — reading great books; thinking about death; celebrating friends’ birthdays by buying them the fixings for white Russians; occasionally wheedling invitations to a young C-list actor’s party in the Hollywood Hills. Inevitably the guest list would include a cavalcade of freaks: homeboys, agents, swimsuit models, trannies, perhaps a man with a tattooed face.
I lived in Atwater Village, and my neighbor was Ed Baker. He lived in the corrugated tin shed on my asphalt front yard and took great pleasure in sharing his unassigned thoughts: how tectonic shifts hundreds of miles away caused cracks in the blacktop; how there was a kinky, little-talked-about relationship between Ginger Rogers, Mickey Rooney, Ava Gardner and Satan; how the telephone wires over our home carried conversations from Los Angeles to Hong Kong. (Ed thought he could hear them.) Occasionally he’d paraphrase a short passage from theBook of Revelation, just to let me know what was coming.
Ed was 70-something, I was 24. There was a history of insanity in my family line, and I knew manic depression usually kicks in between 20 and 30. I wanted to wait it out somewhere nice. Ed helped me.
I could have chosen any number of cities, but then I would have missed out on my glamorous party life, the flood of Ed’s imagination and the legion of cats that spilled forth from his 10-by-10-foot shed in such profusion I sometimes thought of him as a Noah figure with a very limited mission statement. He loved those cats. When he wasn’t talking about faded Hollywood icons, earthquakes or apocalypse, he’d go into great detail about their roaming, underfed, undomesticated lives.
My landlord allowed Ed free shed and board, in exchange for keeping watch over the sliding gate and chainlink fence that separated us from the L.A. River’s concrete banks. Somehow he thought he might keep the Frogtown Boys away from the riverside where they liked to hang out at night. The Frogtown Boys were the local gang, and Ed had a vested interest in keeping them at bay. They spent night after night using his feline friends as target practice. Pop-pop! Pop-pop! Now I have pity for the man, and sympathy for the fate that surely befell many of his companions, but at the time I was ignorant. Instead, I spent most nights wondering why there were so many mufflers blowing out on the entrance ramp to the I-5.
How Ed ended up as Catman is a bit hazier. There was talk of his mother, a nurse who’d set her crazy boy up for life with the local V.A. hospital. They evidently had an ongoing relationship with Ed. I was told they gave him pills. Whatever they gave him, though, it wasn’t strong enough. He looked like a true vagabond. His clothes were held together by duct tape and he walked with a mean shuffle, as though he’d been in more scuffles than any of the animals he cared for.
And then there were those delusions, the depth of which I could never be certain. Was Ed really crazy? Or was he just living so far off the grid he stopped bothering with the quotidian shit that fills our days: topping off our gas tanks, checking e-mail, paying the electric bill? That stuff doesn’t matter if you live in a tin box and need only enough juice to fuel a couple flashlights, and enough cash to buy tins of Purina.
Normalcy was the opposite of all this but nothing could erase deeper fears that I’d meet a similar fate. Was this just a preview? As I said, the last several generations of my family were crazy people. (Substitute “alcoholic haze” for “affection for cats” and you’ll get a sense of their problems.) Specifically, my father was found dead on a train platform 15 years previous. His body was discovered in the room where commuters picked up their morning doughnuts. It was locked from the inside and he was bleeding internally, near the spot he’d been hawking newspapers. Those papers later reported foul play was suspected, though to this day, there’s been no final verdict.
I’m sorry I don’t have a Hollywood ending. Ed didn’t inherit a million dollars or turn out to be a chess prodigy with a beautiful mind. I never sold a script about him, nor did I plan to. So why’d I put up with it? Well, I always wondered what Dad might end up like if he’d lived a long time, and I think Ed Baker gave me a certain insight. I mean, only in Los Angeles could you live like that — where the city meets the country and the mountain meets the smog. They say L.A.’s a place where you can avoid seeing how the other half lives. Ha! So yeah, life is a complex system rarely mastered by young people, but I was working on it, and Ed and L.A. helped me see the light — or at least shed some on a place I didn’t want to end up, but I certainly needed to see.