The Rip Post


OLD LOU

by Rip Rense
(Originally published in "The Rense Retort.")

I see Old Lou several times a day, shuffling up and down the street outside, through this nondescript neighborhood of old, '50s-era apartment buildings and sterile condo hives. West Los Angeles has all the personality of a shoebox. Oh, there are some nice gardens here and there, and a few wavy palm trees -- and the weather's nice -- but character isn't in abundance. You find more color in midnight.

I would never have even thought of this sprawling Monopoly board as a neighborhood at all, except for Old Lou. He makes it a place.

He's tall, with sandy red hair, freckled arms, and the sculpted, baked features of an old Norwegian sailor. His eyes are periwinkle, and his eyebrows go up together in amusement when he speaks. He wears a rumpled khaki fisherman's hat, to keep the blunderbuss L.A. sun off his balding head, and a sky-blue windbreaker, droopy jeans, running shoes. As he meanders along, he rocks a little, from side to side, like a train. For a guy of 86, call it a spirited gait.

Old Lou clucks and makes a high-pitched patter as he strolls. First time I heard it, I didn't even link it up with the man moving down the sidewalk. When I did, I figured him for another member of the straggling parade of lost, deranged souls -- otherwise known as The Homeless -- who wander around, jabbering, barking, drooling. One old black guy regularly rolls his shopping cart through the neighborhood at three or four in the morning, snarling away in a piercing, raspy, fiend-voice about Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam.

It was when I saw the squirrels following Old Lou that I realized the clucks and patter had purpose. Out came the little creatures, springing from palm trees, zipping up telephone poles, tight-roping along power lines. Sometimes whole families of them would come hopping -- chattering back at Lou, their tails twitching. And the crows would appear from nowhere, flying expectantly in circles above. Lou's clickety noises and squeaky voice were news. And the headline was always the same: "Food."

The old boy's pockets are full of peanuts and walnuts -- full when he starts his walk, and empty when he finishes. He's become part of the local animal ecology; a cog in the support system of West L.A. wildlife. Some of the squirrels gather at his feet and take the peanuts from his hand; others timidly hang back and wait for him to move along. The crows swoop and land in his wake, pecking away at half-walnut shells ... and cluck. Did you know that crows cluck? And when the crows and squirrels don't come around, the cats come down, tails straight as chimneys, for head-scratchings. Any dogs out for a walk with their masters pause to get a pat on the back.

There is another ritual in the life of Old Lou, I found. In the early mornings, about seven, he hops into an old beige Mercedes and speeds mysteriously away. One day I discovered myself in traffic with him, and followed. Where was he headed -- the Peanut and Walnut Emporium? No. His destination was a little Swiss bakery called Emille's, where they bake everything fresh every day. A genuine neighborhood place in a universe of Disneyesque mini-malls. I discovered the old boy carrying on in broken Spanish with some of the nice ladies who work there, as he savored a cup of coffee and a butterhorn. It was clear that they knew him well.

Once in a while, I stop to chat with Old Lou, just because it's the neighborly thing to do. Not many folks seem to chat one another up in L.A., except for the paranoiac, "how's it goin'" and "have a nice day" salutation (translation: "you're not going to hurt me, are you?"). But then, not that many denizens of Monopoly board neighborhoods stick around long enough to become friends with one another, anyhow. Lou has lived in a little house around the corner for 30 or 40 years.

"Morning, Lou," I said one day.

"Howdy!" came his smiling response. "Or Buenos Dias!"

"You speak Spanish?"

"Oh, yeah, a little. I studied it up at the high school here, in night school, 30 years ago! Can you believe it? I'm 86 years old!"

"Really? You look 60!"

"I feel 60! Thanks."

"Must be the pastries at Emille's."

"You go there, too? I eat there twice a day! Morning, and evening! They got some good stuff there, y'know."

"Yes, I know. I've seen you there. I don't think they could open without you!"

His eyes smiled, his eyebrows went up in amusement, and he chuckled indulgently at the cornball remark.

We've had similar exchanges from time to time, whenever I bump into him during his squirrel-ministering walks. He's told me a little about a life spent as a carpenter and that he was in Pearl Harbor when it was attacked. We build shaky little bridges of pleasantries across the great gulf of our respective ages, and life experiences.

Such is the stuff of which neighborhoods are supposed to be made.

(Editor's note: Lou passed away in May, 2002, just shy of 90. )

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