I’m writing a story. There’s a house in my head in which the story takes place and it’s sort of ramshackle -pigeons in the eaves, rats in the walls, bars on the windows- but older, with historical texture. An urban squat. I wanted a picture near my desk that I could use for inspiration.
In my literary imagination there are three people warring over the building, each with a different agenda, each inclined to ruthlessness but for different reasons.
Sunday I tramped around looking for the house and found it down in Pico-Union.
A wooden medallion in the fish scale shake pattern called out to me from a block away, like a third eye peering from the forehead of the dormer.
No sooner did I pull out my camera than a woman in her 60’s came running out of the backyard demanding to know: who I was; who I was working with; why I was taking pictures. She demanded I surrender my Nikon as I had no permission to take pictures of her house.
This happens. My friend Johnny, being short, officious and unobtrusive, can walk right up to people at the Art District brewery and start snapping away with a bazooka-sized lens and no one bats an eye. Me, I come off as threatening somehow, hulking, a stander of one’s ground.
Through the bars of the metal fence I explained the meaning of public domain. It was not a constructive dialogue. A rights based defense only made her angrier.
Then her manner abruptly changed. She burst into tears. Her name was Claudia and she was in the middle of a legal drama, she told me. She’d let a room in the house to a woman who ‘had a necessity’. Only the woman had stopped paying rent months ago, and had refused to leave. Legal Aid took up the woman’s case, and now the court had decreed Claudia must pay the woman $18,000 to move out. As one might surmise from the photo, Claudia didn’t have anything like that sort of money. City officials were poking around the house, doing inspections, demanding repairs she couldn’t afford, citing her for things relating to her ‘illegal unit’, which in her telling was a third bedroom connected to her daughters room by a door with a deadbolt. Claudia assumed I was another Official Person bringing misery to her door. She had lived there, a block from the freeway, since 1991.
She asked that I pray for her, and for her ‘tenant’. She apologized for her anger.
I wished her well. Driving home I had two thoughts. It is the nature of Los Angeles, no matter how fanciful a plot, reality will get there first, and be more interesting. Confoundingly, even in its ruination, the house was worth $650,000, according to Zillow.
Then a third thought occurred to me, this morning.
What if everything she told me was a lie? What if the true owner of the house was chained in the back bedroom and only the cat on the porch railing knew the truth?