The Rip Post




Last Rites for the House of Lou. . .
(Feb. 18, 2004)

        It was an unassuming little house even when it was new, back around 1925 or so. Whitewashed rows of hand-hammered wood planks, with little peeking-eye windows, all in a long rectangle, and a shingled peaked rooftop. Enough room for a small family, especially if they were small people. Perfectly typical when it was new, perfectly antique as it awaits death today.
        The tacky, rambling, chain-link Rent-A-Fence went up last week. The construction equivalent of draping a sheet over a corpse's face. Bulldozers lurk in the near future.
        Not that the little house was special, really. Albert Schweitzer wasn't born there or anything. It was no more unusual than any home where births and marriages and aches and heartbreaks and jubilations and sickness and compassion and horror and ecstasy live.
        You wonder, though, looking at the dear little place, now a bit crooked at the corners, wrinkled around the eyes, if anyone will miss it. If any of the people who loved it are around to care that it will soon be smashed into prosaic splinters and hauled away as debris. The junk of joy.
        But wait---come to think of it, there is something special about the house. It's in a neighborhood known as Sawtelle, one that not so long ago was almost entirely Japanese-American. The odds are that the people who bought it---if not built it---were immigrants or first-generation Japanese-American, and the odds are that they were ordered out of the house and shipped off to "relocation" camps during World War II. The odds are, also, that they didn't get the house back after they were released.
        But this sad history will die with the utilitarian crunch of the bulldozers.
        I happened to know the house's last occupant. Well, I knew him slightly---which is sometimes the best way to know people. On the other hand, talking to Lou, you had the feeling that you knew him, through and through, right away. He had nothing to hide, except contempt for chicanery, and he didn't hide that very well.
       Lou hung around the front yard, leaning his bulk against a leprosied white latticework fence that bent at odd angles, snake-like. It was a toss-up which was leaning against which, really. He materialized in early afternoons, like an old tortoise seeking sun, arms folded on the fence's top beam, and watched passers-by. He looked a lot like Hemmingway, what with gray beard, wispy strands of gray on balding head, and canny gray-blue eyes. Or rather, he looked like Hemmingway after a few too many Thanksgiving dinners.
       "Just takin' a break," was his standard issue greeting to anyone who made eye contact or nodded, or voiced the occasional "how's it goin'?"
        Most people---secretaries and fashion designers on lunch breaks, silk-suited stockbrokers shouting into cell phones---ignored him. Deliberately averted their eyes from the weird old guy on the unkempt, falling-apart lot with the "for sale" signs. For Lou did no maintenance on the property, really. The pepper trees dropped their skinny, crescent-moon leaves on the rooftop and sidewalk, the weeds had their way with the lawn, camelias went shaggy, roots brashly upended concrete slab and fencepost. Lou didn't care, and of course, not caring makes people with pressed pants and tight sphincters nervous. Some quickened their steps while passing by, and Lou seemed to delight in singling them out:
        "What happened to your arm?" he yelled one day at a cool guy whose right shoulder was dark with inked banality.
        "Fresh tattoos," the guy said, his defensive tone easing at the sight of Lou's many-toothed smile.
        "Oh. Thought your wife beat you!"
"I don't trust anybody," he declared once, looking me right in the eye. "I don't trust you as far as I could throw you!"
       I take a lot of walks in the area, and Lou and I would get to talking once in a while. "How's it goin'?/Just takin' a break" turned into tidbits about local restaurants (he claimed to know the better noodle joints), and eventually into actual conversation. He lived alone, his wife having bailed out a few years earlier, and he liked screwdrivers in the morning. Things usually went something like this:
        "Hell, I just want to sell this place and get the f--- out of here."
        "Get out---where? And do what?"
        "I want to get a camper. I got a book about all these bars that are right along the border between the U.S. and Mexico, and the U.S. and Canada. I want to get the camper and drive to every one of 'em, and write about it."
        "Are you a writer?"
        "Architect. But I can write okay."
       Turns out he'd worked on a bunch of west side buildings, and had taught architecture---or was it art history?---at some local college. At least I pumped that much out of him; he wasn't much interested in discussing his work, except to say that Frank Gehry is a phoney and L.A. is going to hell, architecturally and most other ways. Can't say he got much argument from me.
        And so we held forth about the debacle in Washington D.C., the tyranny of mass media, the nonsensical popular culture, cult of personality, obsession with wealth, and other such topics that misanthropes thrive on.
        "I don't give a s---," he would say. "I get up in the morning, have breakfast, have a couple of screwdrivers, read the New York Times, take a nap, and come out here."
        I told him it sounded like paradise with an ocean view, which gave him a laugh. He must have wondered about somebody stopping to talk to a guy who essentially was. . .trying to get somebody to stop and talk to him.
        "I don't trust anybody," he declared once, looking me right in the eye. "I don't trust you as far as I could throw you!"
        "No reason that you should," I replied.
        That seemed to establish a bit of trust between us.
        I only knew Lou to shuck the jaded tone once. His voice took on the sober, forthright delivery of a scholar---I mean downright authoritative, with a touch of passion---as he carried on eloquently about "for my money, the greatest artist who ever lived is Joseph Mallord William Turner, master of light!" I couldn't get him to stop talking about it, not that I wanted to.
        Inevitably, Lou would get back to talking about hitting the road in a camper, and inevitably, I would offer to buy his house if he'd sell it for oh, ten grand.
        "You got $750,000?"
        Well, somebody did.
        In the days when the little house was built, yards were important. Breathing was important. Space around a house was as natural as a front porch. Today, space around a house is practically an affront. Slavering developers prowl the streets, hungrily eyeing empty air. Where I see trees and flowers and sky, they see concrete and money.
        And so it will be with the House of Lou. All the pepper trees and floppy camelias and sky and ghosts of 1920s sensibilities will soon be eaten up by fat, dull-witted condos squatting on every profitable square foot of the lot. And a little piece of old Sawtelle, and L.A. history, and Japanese-American history, will go pffft.
        To which I repeat the last words I heard Lou speak, in our last "just takin' a break" palaver between like-minded strangers. . .
        "So long, pal."


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