The ghosts of that 1920s apartment were in the air when we sat on its rooftop drinking wine, one summer’s eve at dusk. We could almost see old Betty’s skinny frame still making her way up Las Palmas Avenue, taking a walk with Kooky Carol or visiting Mary Ann Andrews next door. Of course, after a few good glasses of wine, you really could imagine almost anything up there on that four-story brick building. So classic it looked with its iron fire escape and creeping jasmine vines and two gargoyles at the entrance, that in the ‘50s its facade had been used in an old Perry Mason episode.
Over the years its flat rooftop had also served as a topless sunbathing spot for resident would-be actresses; our 360-degree perch as we watched puffs of smokes dotting the city during the L.A. riots, and a sometime sky-view love den for the boys who frequented the Thursday night men’s club, around the corner on Highland.
But on this night, it was our long-talked about wine-on-the-roof get together. Jeff even carried his Victrola up there, and we took turns cranking it up, as it played the same warped scratchy 78 over and over –that even in its aged condition still sounded sweet. There were probably people hanging out on apartment rooftops all over Hollywood that evening in June, as it was in the air to do that very “Hollywood” thing – take in the city while drinking wine and talk about how fabulous it all was, or wasn’t.
Jimmy made videos for Madonna; his girlfriend Patty was a mortgage broker, in the then hot real estate market; Jeff had one book under his belt and a few sold screenplays; and me, freelancing as either a $15-an-hour glorified production assistant (read: typist) or part-time publicist – the P.A. part when the P.R. business wasn’t so good.
We had a red and a white, a candle in a bottle and our wine glasses crowding the small rickety table with its rusted legs on that squishy old roof. We clinked our glasses, took that great-tasting first sip that all the rest tried to live up to, sighed our collective “ahhhs,” and marveled at the record going round and round and round, slowing down before we cranked it up and going round again.
We never really got around to discussing our current projects, and after our first glass the conversation segued from noting “how perfect a night!” to how not-so-perfect Jeff and Patty had felt. We bemoaned life in Hollywood and how it could produce such unspeakable pain, even though two of us back then were in our 40s, and the other half, Jimmy and Patty, weren’t even close to scraping 30. Some apartment roofs they were talking deals, plays, and movies. This one — we were discussing colonoscopies.
I had just taken to drinking green tea and rather naively suggested it as a possible antidote, thinking the discovery of this magic elixir would be embraced. But Patty, the sickest one, scoffed at the idea as she swallowed another glass of wine. “Bunch of bullshit that!” So I poured her another glass.
And it seemed to work well as the current medicine of choice, while Duke Ellington’s “Dusk” on the Victrola also intervened and diverted our attention to our 360 view of Hollywood with downtown L.A.’s reflective high-rises in the distance; palm trees everywhere and seemingly so close we could touch them; old courtyard apartments and Craftsman houses alongside ‘60s architectural eyesores, and, always, the Hollywood sign. We marveled at the illusion of the TV Guide logo that seemed to be floating in midair above its high-rise headquarters on Sunset Boulevard, the mere suggestion of its presence causing us to wonder aloud – “So what’s on TV tonight?” But, oh how we hated that industry’s “non-stop production schedules” that had churned our insides.
“I couldn’t eat any more of those tacos on that last job,” Jeff said.
The TV culture thrived while we didn’t — made its money and then let us go in the off seasons. But Jeff didn’t mind. He’d work long hours for three months, then “sit on the dole” for another three writing his scripts at his kitchen table. Get up in the early a.m., boil a pot of coffee, and stay at it into the evening.
When Jeff’s phone rang in his apartment, just below on the top floor, we looked down to the house next door, certain it was Mary Ann Andrews ringing for him. We could see her silhouette through the drapes and the white glare of her TV screen. A housebound-aged actress, it wasn’t quite as easy for her to enjoy some quick relief from her pains.
“That’s all she does, all she does,” Jeff whispered, as if she could hear us four stories up and over the blare of her TV, “is call me and ask me to help her. And I try and help her, but I can’t always, you know.”
She hadn’t come out of that place in ages, the walls inside bearing very dusty memories, as she sat sequestered since the love of her life died suddenly, over 50 years earlier. A music conductor for movies, he took the wrong prescription pills one night while working with an orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl. Mary Ann Andrew’s life faded that day from an 8×10 beauty, who had parts in Elvis movies, to becoming a part of everything in that house, attaching herself to it like the dust that seemed to be growing on the walls. “She really was beautiful,” Jeff said. “You should see her old photos. She still is beautiful, actually…”
His thoughts were interrupted by a party in the apartment across the street that had started picking up steam and solicited the agreed rumblings from my cohorts, who all lived in the building we were perched on, about how loud “those parties” get across the way. Patty screamed her disdain the loudest. “Patty…” Jimmy sighed. Two and half glasses of wine in and he was still the more sober of the two, as her comments and laughter became progressively more amplified. But Patty was fearless. Not only was she a hot mortgage broker, but she also rode the ponies on the weekend — English saddle style no less.
“That’s nothing compared to some of Jeff’s parties,” I interjected. His soirees attained that status from the cast of characters he’d assemble in his antique-stuffed apartment that evoked old Hollywood–complete with its framed Hurrelle print of Jean Harlow on a bearskin rug in the foyer. Jeff’s parties were only second to Salvador Dali protégée photographer-artist Steven Arnold’s “salons” that were always well-stocked with the boy models from his “Epiphanies” pictures, and an assorted array of old Hollywood types, as everyone mingled among the surreal photo sets. After going to a few of Steven Arnold’s salons, Jeff’s little cake and coffee get-togethers were never the same.
“Remember when Kooky Carol baked that pink cake for my party?” Her hair still in curlers, Carol brought over a cake an hour before the party started. “Well, how sweet is that!” Jeff remarked, and gave her a quick hug before she ran back downstairs to finish getting ready. But for fear of what might be running around in Kooky Carol’s apartment, and, therefore, residing in her stove – Jeff deposited the cake in his toilet – that also served as his apartment’s makeshift garbage disposal. Kooky Carol’s good-natured self was kept intact, as he quickly baked another cake and displayed it as the kitchen table’s centerpiece. She liked that it had received such special placement.
“I remember, because I had to help frost it,” I chimed in. “Wouldn’t you know this one would happen to have a can of pink frosting on hand?”
“You should have seen Kooky Carol’s apartment! She had books piled to the ceiling.” And she had an equal amount of stories about her days as a ‘60s groupie making babies with famous rock stars. If Kooky Carol caught your ear, you’d have her like an ornery puppy gnawing at your pant leg the rest of the night – spinning her endless stories, as if on a tape loop. We never heard the end of it once Carol spotted herself on old newsreel footage of the hippies in Golden Gate Park and how she had to “get that out to the world so they know who I am!”
“That was also the night that Debra, who had a thing for Jeff, told his sister she just knew he wasn’t gay,” I say rather innocently, thinking Jimmy and Patty having lived in the building five years, must have known that he was, in fact, gay.
“I didn’t know that about you…” Jimmy said thoughtfully, “…that you were such a heartbreaker, that is,” –a sly smile crossing his face.
“Didn’t I ever tell you about the time I caught these two guys up here, and informed them that they had either better let me participate or leave the premises, before I called the cops?”
There wasn’t much Jeff didn’t catch sitting up all those nights working on his scripts. He sort of loosely functioned as the de-facto neighborhood watch when he’d take a break to drink a cup of coffee on the fire escape and see car break-ins, kids spray painting the building, and especially had an eye for spotting random love making.
“Let’s not even get into the time he bought a telescope!”
“Ah, and a bit of a voyeur!”
“You’d have never made it in my family,” Patty says to Jeff, as she and Jimmy made the startling confession that they were escapees of a strict religious upbringing. Jimmy and Patty on the verge of having it all, raking in more than a decent living — on the run from the conservative Texan bible pounding, right-to-bear-arms crowd. Hard to picture that’s where these two sprouted from –I figured both either to have gone to Hollywood High or enjoyed a rich upbringing in the Palisades.
“Yes, this is what the devil hath wrought,” Jimmy laughed as Patty said, “I’ll drink to that” and swallowed down another glass of wine. “We’re not leaving a forwarding address the next time we move!” They may have lived a couple of states away from their families, but they wanted that door shut even tighter. “But that’s half of Hollywood, right?” Jimmy noted. “Escapees from another planet.”
“It feels like another planet with the price of real estate these days!” I said. “This shack I used to rent in Silver Lake is going for over half a million! I felt like taking over pictures of what the place used to look like when I lived there ten years ago.” To which Patty, our mortgage broker gal, immediately launched into a slurred percentages-and-rates speech that even on her third or fourth glass of wine, was very quick and succinct, delivered as if she was closing a deal over the phone.
Looking over the vast array of real estate that surrounded that old building, Jeff leaned in and whispered his mantra of the time, “Yeah, but the market is going to crash.” He was also watching every deal in that neighborhood, and no matter the price, houses were snatched up as fast as they were put on the market.
“It was all so much cheaper back then. We coulda got it for a song.”
“If only we had a pot to piss in,” Jeff cracked. “Remember when me and Jean moved in here, and she slept in the closet? I’d get up every morning and see her feet sticking out.”
Our stories led to the other various characters that had also inhabited the building over the years: the famous Warhol drag queen who painted “her” apartment pink, bought a finch and named it Estelle. “She’d wander up and down the halls complaining that it was RuPaul who was getting all the magazine ads!”
But it was old Betty who was mostly on our minds. Her ghost always hung over us when we got together, and we never tired of talking about her. Our eyes glistened when we thought of her gray hair, “in a flip,” and how she “always had on her bright red lipstick when we saw her at the bus stop on her way up Melrose to buy some shoes” — flipping her flipped hair with one hand, the other hand parked on her hip, as if to say, “Mr. DeMille…” accented by her usual “bah” and “harrumphs!”
“When Betty’s husband died, she put a note on his car: ‘Please do not ticket this car as my husband died, and I don’t know how to drive.’”
Betty was also not given to whispering. Something Jeff and I found out when we took her to see “Titanic”. When the Paramount logo came up on the screen she announced, in her cigarette-laden voice, “Paramount!” And then, “Bye, bye Titanic!” as it sunk. “She told us afterwards ‘I thought that movie stunk!’”
“Oh my god!” Jimmy said, as Patty had to lean up against him she was laughing so hard.
We drank more wine and glasses were filled freely, our stories became louder and joking was at a peak. Thoughts of colonoscopies were long buried as we let the magic of the Duke take over, everyone feeling lighter, freer, happier, inebriated. Jimmy and Patty tried to do the foxtrot, but her heels kept tripping on the squishy asphalted roof. It was only a matter of time before we’d lose them to a nicer place- it seemed the price of housing was driven by the 20-somethings who were already mortgage brokers and on Madonna’s payroll.
And talk of Betty led to the building’s ghost stories that made Patty shriek and the hair on Jimmy’s arm rise: the woman whose son died on the second floor or Jeff waking up in the middle of the night, because he felt like someone was sitting on the edge of his bed.
“How about the woman who wandered into Jeff’s apartment, the night of Betty’s memorial?!” That is, he and I both thought we saw someone “walk in and head down the hallway to the bedroom,” but got sidetracked by requests for drinks and the others in the room. Patty shrieked again and tossed back another gulp of wine.
Down on Las Palmas we saw Kooky Carol walking up the street. “She was Betty’s dumpster-diving-for-coupons buddy every Wednesday night before trash day.” Now, she just sort of wandered around by herself, wearing headphones, listening to her music. “Old Betty…”
And our ghost stories led to the realization of how cold it was getting up there as a breeze was blowing, the candle started flickering out and the bottles were nearly empty. The sun had started to set and we watched the crows fly by and settle into the tops of the palm trees. Everyone turned down the offer of the last sip, as if it would have somehow made that whole night disappear seeing that last bit of wine gone.
Jeff offered everyone coffee to which Patty replied, “No way! We only live on the second floor!” She was certain they had another bottle back in their apartment. “Come on Patty,” Jimmy replied, as he helped her up, her hand resting on his shoulder as he led her down the stairs.
“Count me in for coffee, as I don’t think I’m ready to drive home, yet,” I said.
Dusk faded into black, and it seemed that maybe the wine was actually wearing off. I stayed on the roof for a few minutes taking it all in and spotted a family of raccoons wandering on Mary Ann Andrews’ fence, going for their nightly treat of peanuts that she left out for them. What a curious mix of wildlife we lived among in the Hollywood landscape.