Leaving Los Angeles (sort of)

First published 4/24/16

Ventura

When my husband Dave and I lived in mid-city Los Angeles, we would often escape to Ventura for a quick weekend getaway.

We liked the downtown section with its shops, restaurants and antiques. The ocean air. The slower pace.

When we came back home, I felt claustrophobic, like I couldn’t breathe.

I loved the history and architecture of our mid-city neighborhood. We lived within walking distance of LACMALittle Ethiopia and the Farmer’s Market.  I also loved our 1938 apartment, with its hardwood floors, tall ceilings and crown molding, and the fairy tale “cottage” look of some of the 1930’s houses in our neighborhood, known as “Storybook Architecture” – an L.A. architectural anomaly of the 20’s and 30’s. (These adorable little “cottages,” unfortunately, start selling at around $800,000.)

I also liked the sense of community in our immediate neighborhood, known as Wilshire Vista; it felt like a little city within an enormous one. Every October, the city would block off the streets, and hold a Halloween fair for the kids. There was also an annual festival in Little Ethiopia, with bands, food and street vendors. It was an old, established neighborhood; it had tree-lined streets and many families, and after having lived in some rough parts of Hollywood, I felt fortunate to live there.

But there were too many damned cars.

What should have been short, simple errands became sheer tests of patience, will and determination – sitting in an endless line of cars just to get into a parking lot, or circling parking lots in vain for twenty minutes – just to pick up groceries.

And the eight-mile drive home from my work in Santa Monica often took an hour or more. I tried every available route – freeways and surface streets – taking the advice of friends and co-workers. “Oh, I usually take Olympic the whole way.” “Take Pico to Centinela . . .” Every conversation sounded like “The Californians” SNL skit – the skit that will go down in history with Angelenos as painfully funny.

When we could, we would walk or ride our bikes, always a preferable option. We’d embark on what I called our Death Ride to Trader Joe’s on our bikes, up Fairfax, to avoid being trapped in our car in traffic. Despite the danger (or maybe because of it?) it was fun, and being on our bikes gave us a sense of freedom, as we zoomed past frustrated drivers sitting miserably in traffic.

I started daydreaming about what the area must have looked like in the 30’s, before there were so many cars. It must have been paradise – the people of Los Angeles, women dressed up in hats and gloves, men in suits – driving in their large Fords and Cadillacs – of which there were much fewer at the time, or taking the Red Car.

I began to loathe and despise cars – driving them, dodging them as a pedestrian or bicyclist – and seeing thousands of them on the freeway every day, crawling along.

I felt myself wanting to get away more and more. My need for space, fresh air, open roads and nature were overcoming my desire to live in the great city of Los Angeles.

Retirement?

We started talking about where we wanted to move when we retired. The conversation evolved from, “Where do we want to retire?” to “Will we ever be able to retire?” and ultimately to “Do we really want to wait until we’re elderly to move somewhere with quiet and fresh air?”

We talked about buying a house, and if it was even remotely possible.

In L.A.? No way, at least not anywhere we’d want to live. Not on our budget.

We didn’t want to find new jobs outside the city and then move. Not yet, at least. One giant change at a time.

But the commute from Ventura to Santa Monica (where my workplace is) would kill both me and our car.

Camarillo

We started thinking of places between Santa Monica and Ventura.

Calabasas? Agoura Hills? Too pricey, too damned hot in the summer.

Oxnard? Still pretty far. And the nicest area there – the beach area – was too expensive; not Santa Monica expensive, but still out of our budget.

It was Dave who said, “What about Camarillo?”

Like every Angeleno, I associated Camarillo with the enormous, sprawling outlet mall (or the old, infamous mental institution, long since defunct and now occupied by Channel Islands University). The entire city of Camarillo, in my mind, seemed confined to the massive outlet shopping center and a movie theater. I wanted to explore the region beyond the soulless outlets.

We decided to spend the night in Camarillo on a Saturday and go exploring. The city (which really seemed like a small town compared to L.A. – what doesn’t?) was confusing to navigate at first. Like many cities in southern California, it had once been a sprawling agricultural community. It still was, to an extent, but was now rudely interrupted by a freeway that cut through the center of town.

We stayed at a hotel on Daily, and ate at the Good Morning Café the next day; it was a little mom-and-pop coffee shop, decorated with historic photos of Camarillo, and biblical and inspirational sayings painted on the walls. Little did we know this was the “bad” area of town, near Barry St.; being from a very urban part of L.A.., it didn’t seem even remotely threatening. Nowadays, whenever we drive by the area, we joke, “Roll up your windows and lock your doors – we’re driving by Barry St.!”

As we drove around town, one thing I noticed is that there was a lot of space. I could breathe more easily. Driving through the suburbs, it seemed like every other street had a large park. (I thought of the “park” at Carthay Circle in mid-city – a tiny plot of land, with a statue and a bench, in the middle of a busy traffic circle.) People were out walking or bicycling, and kids were playing. As we were driving, suburban developments would suddenly end and we would be driving by acres of farmland. It reminded me of where I grew up – in Cherry Hill, NJ – it was suburban, but right down the street from wide open spaces – and plenty of trees, as there were in Camarillo. It also looked like there were plenty of hiking opportunities (we’ve since discovered the trails in the area, and go hiking often).

Along with all the open space and natural beauty, unfortunately there was a lot of bland architecture – condos and new housing developments, and lots of mini-malls. That’s one reason we were excited to discover the Old Town section. Old Town was like many quaint town centers such as Sierra Madre and Montrose, with a clock tower in the center of town, potted concrete vases, old-fashioned lamp posts; it also seemed to be the only place in town that had stand-alone restaurants that weren’t connected to mini-malls. Old Town was also right across the street from the train station; being a big train fan, I was also excited about this. There was also an Old Town “trolley” bus that took visitors to and from the train station. (I told Dave that Old Town, with its lamp posts, potted plants, clock tower and trolley, reminded me of Main Street in Disneyland; if you know me, you’ll know that’s a compliment and not a snide remark).

The second time we stayed overnight in Camarillo, we did it on a Sunday night so we could try out our commute to work the next morning. We stayed at the Bella Capri Inn in Old Town, and I stopped at the wonderful Element Coffee the next morning, a place I now frequent. Unfortunately, for my very first commute from Santa Monica to Camarillo, there was an unusually severe back-up on Malibu Canyon due to an accident; I had to turn around and take the dreaded 405 instead.  It still didn’t deter me from wanting to make the move to Camarillo, though.

We decided to try it out. We’d rent an apartment there for a while. If it worked out, if we liked it, then we’d look into buying there; if we didn’t, we’d go back to L.A.

We rented an apartment, in one of those huge, modern complexes. It had new appliances and all the amenities we could wish for; it felt more like an upscale hotel of suites. It lacked the personality of our 1930’s mid-city apartment, but it also lacked the problems (giant bugs that invaded in the summer, thin walls, no insulation, chasing down our landlady for repairs); it was run very efficiently, in a bland and corporate way. Not very homey, but we also knew it was temporary. We also wanted to take advantage for a little while of having someone else do/pay for repairs; we knew we’d be homeowners soon, and that the burden would all be on us eventually.

In October of 2015, we finally bought a house – or rather, half a house; its official term is cluster home, as it’s attached by a single wall to the home next door. It’s like a duplex, but it feels like a single home, with our own big front yard, backyard and driveway, and thankfully isn’t part of an HOA. It was built in 1978 and has its quirks (which I’ll save for another blog post), but fortunately didn’t come with an ugly 70’s carpet or kitchen that had to be replaced; it had beautiful hardwood floors and a fairly modern kitchen. It does have a popcorn ceiling, holes in the wall, and non-working light switches, all of which we’ll deal with in time. Despite its imperfections, we love our house, and feel lucky to have been able to buy for half the price of what it would have been in L.A.

The Commute

My friends think I’m crazy, making the 90-mile round trip to work in Santa Monica Monday through Friday.

But here’s the thing: it’s one of my favorite parts of my morning. I never thought I’d say that about a work commute.

Most days I carpool with Dave, who works in Woodland Hills. We take the 101 south, I drop him off at work (often going to the Coffee Bean for my morning fix), and then I take Topanga Canyon Boulevard over to PCH. The only time it’s a problem is when there’s an accident (or when school has just started and traffic is unusually heavy). That happens occasionally, but then I can at least look at the rugged mountains of Topanga Canyon, or the ocean (and the surfers) on PCH; it sure beats being stuck on the 10 Freeway, surrounded by concrete.

When I drive in by myself, there’s a few different ways I can go. Even though it takes a little longer, lately I’ve been driving past Channel Islands University, past farmland, to PCH. Then I get treated to a Southern California picture postcard view as I drove past Sycamore Canyon, Point Dume, Leo Carrillo, and the entire stretch of Malibu. If there’s traffic on PCH, I can deal with it more easily than I could back in the days when I sat on the 10; I can roll down the window and inhale the ocean breeze.

We moved here in 2014, and have never, not for a second, thought of moving back to L.A. We both still work there. We go to events in L.A. often, especially during the week, when it’s more convenient.  But when we’re heading home west on the 101, and the sky gets darker, the landscape less cluttered, and we can see a million stars in the sky, I know we’re getting close to home and I can breathe a sigh of relief. Once we’re traveling down the steep Conejo Grade, and I can see the ocean on the horizon and the lights of Camarillo in the valley below, I know we’re home.

I love L.A. I love its history and architecture, and am proud of its rich film history. I’m filled with pride when I’m at a Dodger game and Randy Newman‘s “I Love L.A.” begins to play (a somewhat sardonic ode to the city, but still, its official theme song). But the things I don’t like about it are the things everyone doesn’t like about it – traffic, smog and high housing prices. (I am also upset about the way developers have barged into my old neighborhood of Echo Park, tearing down old homes, building hideous new apartment buildings in the middle of residential areas, and driving up the rent.) The difference is that I no longer think it’s worth it to live there and just accept these things, or try to fight against them in vain.

The great thing about living on the outskirts is that it’s just an hour drive away to visit Phillipe’s French Dip, MOCA, Little Tokyo, Angel’s Flight, The Pantages Theater, Disney Hall, the historic stairs of Silver Lake – everything that’s remarkable and unique about L.A.

Then I can come back home, get some space, and breathe.

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Fiction: Haunting 2017

I’d been looking forward to my lunch with Deanne. She was one of those friends who did most of the talking, and, depending on my mood, that could be relaxing. There was no real effort required on my part for conversation. It was like watching a performance, a play. As she spoke, she would widen her big, blue eyes, toss her bleached bob around, and gesticulate wildly. She was intelligent, hilarious, and a talented story teller, and my only job was to nod and occasionally comment.

Things had not been going well for either of us lately. She was about to get laid off from Filthy Big, Inc., the film company where she’d worked for the past 10 years. I had been laid off from my record label job about six months previously, and still hadn’t found work. The break had been nice. But my severance pay was about to end in two months, and visions of huddling in a dirty blanket on the sidewalk haunted me. There were so many homeless people in L.A. now, with rents skyrocketing and jobs scarce. It was easy to imagine joining their ranks.

Deanne and I had never worked together, but our offices had been within walking distance of one another’s. We knew a lot of the same people in the entertainment industry, and shared many stories. One story she shared with me involved a 23-year-old woman named Kim, who had recently been killed in a car accident.

Kim had started work at Filthy Big, Inc. not long ago, and had been eager to break into the business. She was the executive assistant to the CEO, Don Maxwell, who’d also recently come on board.

Eager to prove himself and throw his weight around, Don wanted to show the company’s owners that he could cut expenses in half by laying off half of the L.A. staff, and relocating the entire finance department to Arizona, where both the overhead and salaries were cheaper. The bloodbath took place on a Monday morning.

The head of human resources, rarely a welcome sight around any office, appeared like the angel of death, handing out envelopes, issuing brief orders to the employees to pack up their desks. Security guards stood by awkwardly, holding empty boxes to give to the employees to collect their things, wondering when their own time of doom would eventually arrive.

A parade of shocked employees, some sobbing, others muttering angrily under their breath, began collecting their belongings from cubicles and offices: wedding and baby photos, silly toys, movie posters, achievement awards, birthday cards.

One of the employees who was laid off, though, didn’t go obediently along with the others.

It was Kim.

Infuriated, she’d stormed out of the building and down the sidewalk, walking in front of the driveway of the company’s parking garage. As she did so, without looking to see if any cars were coming out, a brand new Mercedes zoomed out of the garage, going way too fast, and knocked her to the cement.

As she lay bleeding, incredibly, she texted her boyfriend.

“R u fuckin kidding me 23 yrs old hit by fuckin Don M . . . “

Then she died.

Don Maxwell, the CEO, took off and hadn’t been seen or heard from since. Authorities had failed to track him down.

Deanne had been wanting to get together with me to tell me the rest of the story. Apparently, there was more.

“Oh my God, Barbara. I didn’t want to e-mail you, because it is just so fucking weird. I didn’t think you would believe me.”

I smiled. “You think it’ll be more believable if you tell me in person?”

She took a sip of her latte, and wiped the foam from her mouth. “I honestly don’t even know what you’ll think. You’re going to think I’m crazy.”

“As opposed to . . . “

She ignored me, and continued.

“So! After he rammed down Kim with his car, Don got really, really weird.”

“Did anyone press charges? Why wasn’t he accused of manslaughter?”

“I think there was some settlement with Kim’s family. He probably threw money at it to make it go away.”

“So he’s disappeared?”

Deanne straightened her back and rolled her shoulders, which always signified that a dramatic monologue was about to unfold.

“What I am about to tell you, was told to me by his new executive assistant.”

“The one he had to hire after accidentally killing the old one?”

“Yep – her name is Britney. So, as I was saying, Don got really weird. He started claiming his office was haunted. He said his laptop flew through the air, slammed against the window, and fell to the floor. There were ice cold spots in the office – in his office, only. He kept hearing breathing, when no one else was in the room, and one time felt a hand on his neck. A dark, shadowy figure was seen over by the window, disappearing and then reappearing.”

I almost laughed, but Deanne looked so serious, I decided it would be rude.

“How do you know all this?” I asked.

“Britney told me! She saw it, too!” Deanne burst out so loudly that a few of the other Starbucks patrons turned to look at her. “She, too, experienced the ghost weirdness. One time, she heard a girl absentmindedly humming to herself  – la la la! – when no one else was there, and felt a hand clutching her wrist – really tight! She said it hurt like hell. And there was also the constant, deathly chill; it was always frozen in there.”

“Well, you know office A.C.,” I laughed.

“No! It was a deathly, clammy chill, like you’d feel in the tomb.”

I wanted to tell her that, fortunately, I’d never been in a tomb, but I refrained from being snarky for the moment.

“And I’m guessing the ghost was Kim?”

“They weren’t sure, but since the haunting started happening after she died, that’s sort of what they figured. They were really frightened, and freaked out. So they decided they needed to put a stop to it.”

“How on earth?

“They decided to bring in a priest. They’re both lapsed Catholics.”

“You’re kidding.”

“To do an exorcism. Or some kind of cleansing.” Deanne took another sip of her latte, and took her jacket off. I was hit with the brief smell of cigarette smoke, and forgot about ghostly assistants and priests for a second; had she taken up smoking again?

I wasn’t going to nag her about it now. I wanted to hear the rest of the story.

She continued: “It was Father Olivares – some bearded, hipster priest from Echo Park. He does freestyle rap during his sermons.”

“Okay. That’s a whole other horror story. Let’s get back to this one.”

“They brought in Father O, as he likes to be called. Britney said Father O seemed amused by the whole thing at first, but when he saw how distressed both Britney and Don appeared – the dark circles under their eyes and how their hands were shaking –  he started to take it more seriously. And then he started to seem really disturbed. Telling them that he felt the presence of evil, and wanted to help make it disappear, he brought out a huge, heavy tome . . . “

“Tome. I’ve always liked that word. Go on.”

“. . . .and starts reciting something in Latin, while crossing himself and lighting candles.”

I wondered silently why they hadn’t videotaped the whole thing and uploaded it to Instagram.

Deanne straightened her back and rolled her shoulders again, and I leaned forward to hear the climax of the story.

“Britney told me that the whole room began filling with smoke – not like the thick smoke from a fire, but like a white steam, like a smoke machine. She was startled, and immediately looked around to see where it was coming from – thinking someone was doing this as a joke – but couldn’t figure it out. Father O looked really freaked out, too, upon seeing the smoke, but just kept reciting in Latin from the book.

“Then, she told me that, as she watched Don Maxwell, he began to slowly fade before her eyes. Into thin air! She didn’t know what was going on at first. She thought maybe the mysterious steam was playing tricks on her eyes. Father O didn’t notice; he was so wrapped up in reciting Latin, then he yelled something suddenly in Spanish.

“Right when he yelled in Spanish, Don Maxwell completely disappeared from sight – as if he had just been erased from the scene! He literally vanished into thin air. But his clothes and shoes and phone were left behind. Britney said it was like the Wizard of Oz `oh, what a world, what a world!’ scene when the witch melts, and there’s nothing left but her hat and broom.”

“What? What?” I was incredulous. “So what did the priest yell in Spanish that made Don Maxwell disappear into thin air?”

“Britney doesn’t know Spanish, but she heard the words `lejos’ and `demonios,’ so thinks he probably said `Out, Demon!’”

I scoffed. “Oh, come on. It would take more than that to make a CEO disappear.” I knew Deanne believed in the supernatural, but I felt annoyed that she’d believed this ridiculous tale. “I’m sure he just took off, maybe fearing that he was going to be charged for manslaughter after all, and Kim was just being loyal and covering for him.”

“Kim told me I was the only person she’d told this story to!”

“Probably because she knew you’d believe it. “

“Barbara, she was totally shaking and crying when she told me this story. And then I heard that Father O was so traumatized from the whole experience that he retired from the priesthood!”

“Wow. That is odd. So what was the official story they told everyone else? I’m sure they didn’t tell the other employees that their CEO vanished into thin air after an exorcism.”

“Britney told the other employees, as well as the police, that Don had bolted, but that she had no idea where he went – only that he left his wallet, keys, clothes, and phone behind.”

“How strange! Why would anyone bolt without taking their stuff? So you’re the only person who knows all this?”

“Yes! Britney only told me, in confidence, because she knew she could trust me not to spread it around.”

“And yet, here you are, telling the story to me.”

Deanne looked annoyed. “Well, I know you’re not going to go around telling people. Are you?”

“Of course not! I don’t even know how that would come up in conversation. `Hey, did you hear about the CEO who disappeared into thin air?’”

“It is a pretty insane story. I guess I understand why you wouldn’t believe it, but – you should have seen Britney’s face. She told me two weeks after it happened – and she looked thin, haggard, and white as a sheet.”

I suddenly felt sorry for Britney. I thought she’d just probably had a nervous breakdown. But I didn’t say this to Deanne. I know Deanne preferred to think the story was real. Britney’s over-the-top ghost story was probably easier to digest than real life problems, like the very real possibility of being unemployed soon.

We talked for a little while longer, and the subject changed to other things: our love lives, the dismal state of the job market, how bad traffic had become, and how neither of us would ever afford be able to afford to buy a house in L.A. Despite the gloomy topics, we somehow managed to end up laughing, like we always did. We gave each other a quick hug and promised to meet up again soon. I walked back towards my former workplace, where I’d parked my car in the garage.

As I passed by the Filthy Big, Inc. offices, I shivered a little bit, seeing the spot on the cement where Kim had sent her last dying text. I thought what an incredibly cruel business the whole thing was, especially for a young girl just starting out. The sadness was overwhelming. It seemed so unfair. I felt depressed.

Just then, I heard a young woman laughing. It was a very light, airy laugh, almost musical, with an otherworldly, echoing quality. It was a joyful laugh, sounding as if it were from someone who hadn’t a care in the world. The kind of laugh I hadn’t heard in L.A in years.

I looked up to see where it was coming from.

There was a young woman in an upstairs office window, with red lipstick and short black hair, laughing and waving. At me. There were sunflowers blooming all around her. I thought maybe she was laughing happily, because her boyfriend or husband had brought her an enormous bouquet of flowers. And maybe she wanted to share her happiness with a stranger walking down the street by waving at them, to say, “Look! Look what my lover brought me. I’m so happy! I’m so happy I want to show a total stranger walking by these sweet, beautiful sunflowers.”

Then she disappeared into thin air.

The flowers did, too.

“I must be tired,” I thought, and walked to the parking garage to get my car.

Carolyn Soyars, August 2017 This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.