The Sidewalk Santas


“Everybody counts or nobody counts”

Harry Bosch, The Overlook by Michael Connelly

For as long as I can remember, my mother has lived by particular philosophies. She repeats them to me often, no doubt hoping to impart their wisdom. (I am not always a willing recipient of her advice.)   The single belief she most tries to live by is to treat everyone with equal respect. She says that she doesn’t want to die and have to explain to God for the way she treated people on earth but I suspect that she is just an innately decent woman and concern about Saint Peter refusing her entry to the Afterlife doesn’t really enter into it.

Late one Saturday morning just before Christmas Jamie and I climbed into his car to go Christmas shopping in Beverly Hills. On our way out of Santa Monica I remembered that my mom and many of my work friends enjoyed See’s candy so I suggested stopping at the See’s branch at the Century City Mall on the way into town to pick up chocolates for everyone.

Unfortunately, Jamie’s phone rang as we were pulling out of our driveway on Third Street, changing our plans. Something was wrong at the studio so we headed in the opposite direction, merging into the jam on Lincoln Avenue pointing toward Culver City. After the problem was solved and the irate client soothed we headed toward Beverly Hills the back way, turning right onto Motor Avenue near the old MGM lot, then right onto Pico at Twentieth Century Fox Studios, then left onto the Avenue of the Stars.

Beverly Hills was overflowing with both locals and tourists. The sidewalks on North Canon were so packed with dawdlers and gawkers that we were often pushed into the car-clogged streets where we would surely have been run over if any of the cars had been moving.

We had planned to pop into Nate ‘n Al’s on North Beverly for a late lunch after we were finished but the line stretched out the door and up the block toward Little Santa Monica Boulevard, appearing to go all the way to Sunset.

“Wow, look at that line,” I sighed, resting my shopping bags on the sidewalk at my feet.

Jamie nodded. “Do you want to wait?” he asked.

I shifted my weight, undecided. “Yes and no. No because I will be ready for a bungalow at the Motion Picture Retirement Home before we get to the front but yes because I am starving.”

Jamie glanced at his watch. “I have to go back to the studio so let’s just eat at the Greek in Culver City.”

“Oh, great idea.” I loved Mykonos, the Greek restaurant on Washington Boulevard because I had a sentimental attachment to it. On my first full day in Santa Monica, Jamie had dashed out of the studio and brought me lunch from it because we had no food in the house.

The rest of the afternoon passed in a blur – the studio, lunch, and grocery shopping at Whole Foods. It wasn’t until we were turning right onto Third Street that I remembered See’s.

“Shit!” I exclaimed.


“I forgot See’s. Damn. And now we are nowhere near the mall.”

“We’ll go to the one on Wilshire.”

“Is there one on Wilshire?” I asked in amazement.

“You really need to learn to drive,” Jamie observed as he passed our house and slowed to a stop near Mary Hotchkiss Park.

“I can drive,” I answered defensively.

“Can isn’t do,” he said.

He was right; I rarely drove in LA because I was terrified of the traffic, especially on the freeways. My niece, Vikki, had watched me drive once in Beverly Hills and likened my vehicular temperament to a frightened Pomeranian. Embarrassingly enough, she was right.

Jamie had asked me a question but I had scarcely heard. “Oh. What?” I asked. “I wasn’t listening.  Sorry.”

“Why can you drive in Manhattan but not here?”

“Because Manhattan is a grid not an afterthought, and besides it’s an island so I can’t really get lost: if I see water I have gone too far.”

“Honey, just face west and keep going. If you see water here you have gone just far enough.”

He was right; we could see the ocean from our bedroom window. I had never thought about it that way.  All I really needed to remember was that Malibu was north of our house and the Marina was south.

We found a parking place in the small lot behind See’s and turned the corner. Seated on the sidewalk, huddled together directly in front of the shop, were two thin and dirty people, a man and a woman. I presumed that they were homeless; Santa Monica had a lot of homeless people. Shoppers walked over and around them on the crammed sidewalk. Watching, I felt terrible and it seemed suddenly frivolous to be buying candy.

Jamie had already reached the shop, however, and was holding the door open for me. I glanced over my shoulder as I entered. While in the tiny, sweet-smelling store I couldn’t concentrate on which of my family and friends liked what sweets; I was thinking about the two people leaning against the outdoor wall and peered out through the plate glass a couple of times.

Jamie sidled up to me. “What are you looking at outside?”

“Those two homeless people. I know there are social services but it just seems so awful to be out there when everyone else is celebrating with their families and friends. It’ll be Christmas Day soon and they won’t even care because it’ll look just like every other day. I don’t know. It just seems wrong.”

“So do something.”

“You mean, give them money?”

“Laura, you grew up in New York City. You know perfectly well that any money you give them will probably go for drugs or alcohol.”

I considered. “Do you think they’d like chocolate?”

Jamie blinked.

“I mean, I know that food is better but they may well be eating at one of the outreach centers. Maybe they would just like to have a treat, a present. I am going to buy them Santas. Do you think that’s stupid?”

Jamie grinned. “No, I don’t.”

We added two large chocolate Santas to our stack of gifts. Just before Jamie opened the door to step outside I pulled the two chocolate figures from the shopping bag he carried.

I walked over to the man and woman. They avoided my eyes so I crouched in front of them. I held out one of the Santas to the woman. “Merry Christmas,” I said.

She stared at me then slowly reached a thin hand to accept the chocolate. “Thank you,” she whispered.

“You’re welcome.”  I turned slightly to face the man and repeated the words and gesture. He turned to stare at his companion then accepted the chocolate and croaked, “And happy holidays to you, too.”

We smiled at each other then I rose and met Jamie where he was waiting for me at the corner near the parking lot.

Of all the Christmas presents I have ever given or received, I remember those Santas clearly. I am not foolish or naive enough to think that one chocolate Santa will change anyone’s life but it helped; it made one day better for all of us.

I have two dear friends, my Zen friends, Helen Kuryllo and Debbie Levin, who are my mother’s true philosophical daughters because they do things like this every day. They, along with my mom, are my examples of how to coexist peacefully with the world, doing no harm and attempting to do good. As I am nowhere near as decent a person, I may not always appreciate their daily lesson, but I need it.  Especially, during this holiday season, I would like to be like Helen and Debbie, to be the example of how to live well.

Merry Christmas.

Welcome to the Hotel California

beverly_hills_hotel_facebookOur little house in Santa Monica wasn’t air-conditioned, so on the hot days, we would walk down the hill to the beach where there was always a breeze and the water was cool. Weekday afternoons after work were best because the beach was practically deserted then; the only sounds were crashing waves, shrieking gulls, and the occasional zzzzzzing of bicycle bells on the Strand, the paved path that runs from Will Rogers State Beach in the Palisades all the way south to Torrance. We would walk north toward the Pier then sit on the concrete wall bordering the beach to watch the sunset. The sand glowed gold for miles in the pink light while the plashing Pacific glittered at its edge. Palm trees cast their long, shaggy, grey shadows. I always found this experience restorative. Rarely was an afternoon so dreadful that a stroll along the seafront didn’t dispel the stress and gloom. By the time we were ready to trudge up the hill for dinner, the sun had set and the breeze had picked up.

The heat had been oppressive during the week before our twenty-third wedding anniversary. For hours we sat on the front porch in the evening after our beach walks, eating ice cream and trying to decide what to do to celebrate.   I wanted to go away for the weekend but Jamie was too busy at the studio so we tried to devise a day trip or some other out-of-the ordinary event that would be special and fun, but not take us too far. Despite batting ideas around like two cats with a wiffle ball, we never came up with anything we both liked and eventually we ceased discussing it.

The Saturday of our anniversary I awoke at dawn feeling damp and queasy. The house was silent; Jamie was still asleep, although Spencer opened an eye to watch me. I pushed my bangs from my damp forehead. Despite all of the windows being open, the air was still, making the room stuffy, and I could feel a thin sheen of sweat glistening on my body. The room was really hot. If it weren’t a weekend, it would have been a terrific beach day.

I slid out of bed and padded downstairs in my skimpy, cotton nightgown, Spencer at my heels. After pulling open the heavy oak door, I read the thermometer affixed to the wall and was surprised that the temperature outside was already 87. That didn’t bode well. If our house was a pizza oven now, the Valley must be a sauna. That meant that all roads in and around Santa Monica and the beach itself would be packed with day-trippers seeking relief from the sweltering heat. I doubted any would be forthcoming, anyway, on a day like today: since we lived only three blocks from the beach, we could usually feel the breezes flurrying up the spine of the walkstreet and this morning there were none.

I sat on the top step and pulled my hair up and tied it in a messy knot wondering how to spend today. I doubted we would be doing anything special since we hadn’t managed to agree on what to do. The walkstreet was silent. The fronds on Jean-Pierre’s palm trees hung motionless in the still air. No one was moving except Spencer and Simone, the neighbor’s cat. I peeled my bare legs from the gritty step and wandered back into the house to flip the coffee pot switch. No matter how hot the day, I needed my steaming morning caffeine.

Balancing the mug on my Kindle, I returned to the porch to read the LA Times. By the time Jamie awoke, I was pretty much through all of the stories that interested me.

“Jeez,” he said, leaning against the doorjamb in baggy khaki shorts. “It’s gruesome out here.”

“Want to go to the beach?” I asked, already knowing the answer. Jamie hated crowded beaches.

“Hell, no. It’ll be packed with all the Valley people. Why they don’t just swim in their pools I’ll never know.”

“So what should we do? I hate to waste a perfectly good Saturday. And it is our anniversary so we should do something special, something memorable.”

Jamie pulled his left hand through his tousled hair. “Well, I have to pick up shirts at the laundry and your dress at the dry cleaner.”

“And after the thrill of running errands has passed?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe we’ll go out for dinner. Let’s see later.” He retreated upstairs toward the bathroom to shower.

“I want to do something fun!” I shouted after him. I sighed. Anniversaries were always bigger deals to me than to him.

I was still reading on the porch when he returned talking on his cell phone. He kissed my ear and trotted down the stairs, disappearing over the rise of the sidewalk.

Figuring it would be nice if I didn’t sit around in my pajamas all day, I hoisted myself up from the porch swing and started up the stairs to shower, but the heat immediately drained me of all energy so instead I flopped on the bed, picked up my Kindle, and read some more. When Jamie returned a little over an hour later, I was still lying on the damp and rumpled sheets engrossed in my novel.

“Hey, I know what we should do today,” he said, pulling the plastic wrapping from my black cocktail dress and hanging it in the closet. “And it’s something special. Let’s go to the Beverly Hills Hotel. We can get a room, hang out at the pool, have dinner in the Polo Lounge, and not have to deal with the traffic or the heat.” I stared at him until he added “And celebrate our anniversary.”

I considered; while it sounded like fun, it would certainly be an expensive twenty-four hours just to avoid sweating on the beach with families from Studio City. But it wasn’t just for that; it was for our wedding anniversary. It would be romantic, like a miniature second honeymoon. Actually, the Beverly Hills Hotel had always reminded me of the Royal Hawaiian on Waikiki Beach where we had honeymooned all those years ago. “Okay.” I stood. “And while I’m in the shower, you can go next door and ask Debbie to babysit Spencer.”

Within an hour we were standing in the lobby of the iconic hotel, cool, filtered air flowing enthusiastically around us. Jamie handed his American Express card to the desk clerk and I rubbed my hands together and gazed at the famous Don Loper-designed banana leaf wallpaper covering the wall leading to the stairs. “Whoa, it’s actually chilly in here,” I said.

The clerk heard me. “You folks from out of town? From someplace hot?”

I giggled. “Yeah, Santa Monica.”

His eyes widened. “No way. You came ten miles to Beverly Hills when you live by the beach?”

“It’s unbearably hot there today and we live in a turn-of-the-century beach bungalow with no air conditioning, so, yeah, we came ten miles.” I grinned.

He smiled back displaying his perfectly even, perfectly white teeth. “I guess you won’t be wanting the Visitors’ Guide to Beverly Hills then.”

“No, thanks.”

Our room was lovely and cool, but we were eager to relax by the pool, to read and have a snack, so Jamie unpacked quickly, tossing our few clothes into a couple of dresser drawers. We changed into our swimwear and headed downstairs.

The pool area was bright and sunny, perfect for soaking up local color. We chose lounges near the restaurant because I like to people-watch and there is always a lot to see in Beverly Hills. One common sight that never failed to amuse me was a woman wearing a swimsuit and 6-inch Jimmy Choo stilettos carrying her $15,000 alligator Birken to sit by a pool. I wasn’t disappointed; there were four of them.

After we’d been roasting for a few hours, watching the sun descend over the stately palms and the pink stucco walls, Jamie suggested we return to our room to shower and dress for dinner.   Hand-in-hand we wandered up the sloped and curving path, dipping our heads under low-hanging giant bird-of-paradise leaves, until we reached the elevator.

Back in our cool room, I watched the television news while Jamie showered, then he took my place on the sofa to wait while I did. I had just squeezed my eyes shut, squirted shampoo into my hair, and begun to lather when I sensed that something had changed. I couldn’t hear the television anymore. The gusty sound of air conditioning billowing softly into the room from the large vents seemed to have stopped, as well. Rinsing my hair and face, I opened my eyes. The bathroom was shrouded in darkness.

“Jame!” I called. “It’s dark in here. What’s going on?” No answer. “Jame?” Just as I finished wrapping my hair in a towel in preparation for climbing out of the tub, I heard the door latch. “Jamie! What’s going on?”

The bathroom door opened and he entered. No light followed him. “I don’t know. The emergency lights are on in the hall. The power seems to be off on this entire floor.”

I shrugged into a robe and we felt our way through the furniture to the balcony and slid open the thick glass door. Everything outside was black. “Listen,” Jamie said. “You can hear the traffic sounds.” He was right. The night was so eerily quiet that we could hear the whoosh of the cars on Mulholland and Sunset.

“Geez, it’s like the aliens landed,” I observed tying the sash of the terrycloth robe. “What do you think is going on?”

Jamie shrugged.

“Do the phones work when the power’s off?” I asked.

“Oh, sure. They have enormous generators here.”

“So call the front desk and ask,” I suggested.

Jamie stared at me. “You mean now, along with the other four hundred people who are in this hotel tonight?”

I stared back. “Yes, unless you want to be the only one out of four hundred and two people who don’t know what’s going on.”

He lifted a brow. “I won’t be the only one; you don’t know, either.” Regardless, he felt his way to the phone and dialed the front desk; amazingly enough, someone answered. Evidently, there had been a serious traffic accident in Beverly Hills and a car had hit a power pole. The power would be out for hours, probably throughout the night.   Of course, the hotel had generators but not enough power to run all of its functions. Unfortunately, one of the biggest drains on electricity was the air conditioning; that had to be sacrificed, however the management foresaw no problems as a cool night was forecast and they had plenty of fans. Would we like one? If we did, one would be sent to our room, along with extra flashlights. No, regrettably the Polo Lounge would not be honoring our dinner reservation this evening as the emergency had forced its early closure.

I sat on the carpet and listened as Jamie relayed this to me. “Doesn’t this room cost a boatload of money?” I asked.

He nodded. “A boat and a half,” he agreed.

“Well, that must be the definition of irony, then. Spending a zillion dollars to find ourselves in the same situation we were in earlier today in Santa Monica for free.”

“Not really the same,” he said. “We still had power in Santa Monica.”

I burst into laughter and rolled over onto the carpet.

“Okay,” I gasped, “so we are extravagant idiots. Whatever. It’s done now. We’re here. The current question is what next? We need to find somewhere for dinner. I’m starving.”

“Well, since there’s no Polo Lounge, where do you want to eat?

“Wherever you want is fine.”

Jamie shrugged then thought for a moment. “Pink’s?” he suggested.

I considered briefly. This night wasn’t going to go the way I had expected, anyway. My fantasy of a romantic stay in a fabled Southern California hotel with rich furnishings and endless amenities seemed a lot less likely now with the reality of whirring fans, no dinner, and a pocket flashlight to find our way along the corridors. Why not complete the evening by sitting in plastic lawn chairs and eating chili dogs in the dark on La Brea Avenue?

“Sure, why not?” As I pushed myself up from the thick carpet a lock of damp hair slapped the side of my face. “Let me just . . . oh, you know what? Without electricity I can’t dry my hair.”


“So by tomorrow morning I am going to look like Little Orphan Annie with a magnesium deficiency.”

Jamie shrugged. “We’ll check out early. No one will see you.”

I scowled. “Thanks. You might have said I’ll be beautiful anyway.”

“I might have,” he agreed, holding out his hands to help me rise.

I grabbed both of his hands. “That’s why I married you, you know, twenty-three years ago today. Your undying romanticism. Besides, I knew you’d be the kind of man who’d buy me a chili dog for dinner, then take me camping at a fancy Beverly Hills hotel with no electricity.”

“Glad to hear it. Then you’re not disappointed with the result. Happy Anniversary.” He kissed my damp forehead. “Come on, get dressed. I don’t want to have to spend the rest of the night standing in line behind the tour bus from Rancho Cucamonga just to get a hot dog.”

“Oh, sure, like tourists from Rancho Cucamonga drive all the way to La Brea at this time of night,” I scoffed as I pulled a white t shirt over my wet hair.

“No, they are there. I went for lunch one day and the line was down the block.”

“I think that was because it was lunchtime. It’s . . .,” I glanced at my watch on the bedside table “after nine. Ohhhh, hey, how late is Pink’s open, anyway?”

“Three a.m, on a Saturday.”

I grabbed his arm and propelled him toward the door. “Oh, honey, come on. Let’s get going. I want you to have plenty of time to make friends with all those tourists in line.”

The Most Over-Privileged English Teacher of All


Jamie’s job at the studio came with quite a few social, business, and political obligations. While they were always glamorous, they were usually not a lot of fun. Well, not a lot of fun for me. Jamie networked and schmoozed the room all night while I perched somewhere and watched the Beautiful People in their native habitat. People seldom spoke to me; I wasn’t in The Business, which made me all but invisible.

One night we went to Paramount Studios on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood for a fundraiser for a prominent Democratic presidential candidate. Dressed to kill in tux and cocktail dress, we left the walkstreet before it was even dark; these events always had astounding levels of security.

When we reached the lot, it appeared that half of Los Angeles County was attending this fifteen hundred dollar per plate dinner. Parking was a nightmare with everyone crowding their Mercedes, Bentleys, and Jags into the narrow Hollywood side streets lined with tiny bungalows and curious locals sitting on their front stoops eying us.

I was wearing five-inch stilettos and it was four blocks to the studio’s famous stucco gates. “Damn, they couldn’t provide a drive on pass for this,” I grumbled.

“Not at our donor level,” Jamie answered as he slowed his steps to match mine. “Besides, look at how many people are here. They’d all want one.”

“Are we all going to be in the same place?” I asked. “How big a stage are they using for this, anyway?”

Jamie shrugged. “I don’t know which stage we’re in; they’ll tell us inside at the reservation table, but all of these people aren’t going to be with us. You could get in the general lot party for two-fifty but no dinner, just entertainment, and maybe a movie star or two.”

“What’s the difference?” I answered. “Nobody ever eats at these things, anyway. Except me, I mean. I always wonder what happens to all of the uneaten food. What a waste.”

We’d finally come within sight of the studio; the Bronson Gates and the burbling fountain were right in front of us; behind it stood Security, the event entrance complete with beautiful young women as greeters, the gate itself, and finally, more Security.

We waited in line for a few minutes and, upon checking in, received tiny black and white clapper-shaped paper tickets with the Paramount logo and our names on them. I watched as other people received their tickets. They were all different shapes denoting which level party the holder was permitted to enter. That made it easy for Security to shepherd the visitors to the correct part of the lot for whatever level of entertainment their donation entitled them to attend.

Our dinner was in a stage on the other side of the lot, so we began the trek. On the way, Jamie saw lots of people he knew so the journey took a very long time, what with all that stopping and chatting. As I waited for him and wished for a studio golf cart to appear, I watched the lower-priced ticket holders turn toward the sets where their events were in full, raucous swing. There were snack booths with hot dogs and popcorn and kiosks selling bottles of water and soda and Paramount souvenirs. Gary Busey’s band was playing on the New York street.

When we finally reached the cavernous building where our dinner was, Jamie left me at the door. “There’s Hawk. I have to talk to him.” A peck on the cheek and he disappeared, sucked into the crowd like a genie returning to his bottle.

The soundstage was freezing so I pulled my pashmina across my shoulders and surveyed the room, watching the Great and Good of LA’s business, political, entertainment, and social worlds air-kiss and pretend to pay attention to one another while looking over each other’s shoulders in case someone more interesting or useful entered their orbit. I wandered about a bit, got a Perrier from an obsequious bartender, and pondered my seeming invisibility.

Finally, tired of my thin, Italian spike heels clacking on the cold concrete floor, I scouted what seemed to be a suitable table and sat down. Even though there was no seating chart, I knew Jamie would find me. He always had the scores of times we had done this.  I plopped my Timmy Woods Eiffel Tower evening bag on the table and waited.

A bustling woman in a sparkly lavender evening suit approached. Ignoring me, she began to spread purses, shawls, and documents at every seat around the table. When she got to me, she stopped and stared. Her expression fixed itself into a placating professional smile. I raised an eyebrow.

“Are you planning on sitting here?” she asked disingenuously.

“Yes.” I had rather thought my intentions were obvious.

“Oh. Well, we need a few more seats.”


“It’s for the agency personnel working on the campaign. We all need to sit together.” Ah. A PR flack.

I looked at her then slowly cast my eyes around the room at other tables she might choose. I returned my gaze to her face and smiled.

Realizing that I didn’t intend to move, she tried a different approach. “Wouldn’t you like to sit with your colleagues?”

“My colleagues?”

“With the other members of your agency.”

“My agency?”

She was wearying of me and my seeming obtuseness, of not getting her way, and of her plans falling apart. Her smile froze and her voice tightened. “Yes, dear, your ad agency. Which agency are you with, by the way?”

“I’m not in advertising.”

“Really? What do you do?”  The standard LA question by which someone determines just how nice to be to a stranger, in this case, an inconvenient one.

“I’m an English teacher.”

“You’re an English teacher?” she repeated shrilly. “You’re an English teacher and yet you’re here. Fifteen hundred dollars a seat and you’re here. You’re the most over-privileged English teacher I’ve ever met!”

My eyes widened and I stared at her. She blushed furiously. Apparently she realized just how obnoxious that sounded but it was too late to stop the word flow. Now she began babbling in an attempt to mitigate the damage.

I lifted my Tower bag from the table with my right hand and waved the left at her as I stood. “You know what? Forget it. Take your table even though it isn’t actually your table.”

I turned and pushed my way through the crowd until I found Jamie. He was standing with some people I knew so I joined them. It turned out that we were supposed to sit with them, anyway. He pointed out the table and I sat down again. I was really annoyed at how rude that idiotic woman had been. “So what if I don’t work for an agency?” I fumed inwardly. “At least I don’t wear purple polyester to an event attended by the President of the United States.”

Jamie finally sat down. He chugged some Diet Coke and the speeches started. A salad arrived. I picked at it. A waiter asked whether I’d like a mini-baguette. I shook my head. Jamie frowned; my appetite is legendary. As I had said, I really am the only person who eats at these things.

Jamie leaned over and whispered “What’s wrong?” in my ear.

“Oh, nothing. Just something some PR bitch said to me.”

He frowned. “Who?” he asked.

I shook my head. “I don’t know. Some porky woman in an ugly, polyester, Ross Dress for Less dress and a bad dye job.”

“Why do you care what some hack says?” he asked and kissed my cheek.

I shrugged slightly. “I don’t know. I don’t care.  It’s just . . .” My voice trailed off. The politician droned on. This night was really turning out poorly. I expected people to ignore me but no one had ever before been deliberately cruel to me.

“Ah, screw it,” Jamie said. “I know a better place for dinner. Come on.” He pulled me up.

“Where are we going?” I grabbed my evening bag and trotted after him.

“You’ll see,” he answered as we crossed the threshold of the soundstage.

We wandered back through the lot, past the revelers, the loiterers, the Hollywood hangers-on, the night shoot crews, and Gary Busey’s band. We walked back under the famous arched gates and re-crossed Melrose then retraced our steps through the tiny postwar bungalows on North Windsor Street. When we reached the car, I leaned against the door and pulled off my shoes; my feet had had enough, too.

We drove toward La Cienaga and turned right onto West Olympic. I was beginning to suspect our destination. When we eventually turned right onto Pico I was certain.

“It’s so late we ought to be able to get a decent parking spot,” I said, looking slyly at Jamie’s profile.

“You figured it out?”

“Yeah, I figured it out.”

I was right. In front of us the neon Apple Pan sign glowed. It was a great choice – it served the best burgers in LA.

It wasn’t until after we’d ordered our steakburgers with Tillamook cheddar and I’d covered my Chanel dress with one-ply paper napkins that Jamie noticed I had left my shoes in the car. So what? The place was almost empty. No one had noticed and even if they had, no one was about to question my right to be here.

The PR flack had been right: I was a lucky English teacher, but not for the reason she thought.

Entering the Walkstreet

IMG_3299We had been living in Beverly Hills for three years when Jamie decided that he wanted to move. I wasn’t surprised. While appearing outwardly glamorous in some ways, it is really just an overly-populated, rich people’s small town, and to us, coming from Manhattan, it was a very small town, indeed.

Frankly, I wondered why it took him so long to grow restless. After all, we had seen designer stores before. We had seen Rolls and Bentleys before. We had seen gawking tourists before. And we had seen more movie stars in New York than we ever saw in LA. I think because he spent long weekdays at work and generally returned to New York at the weekends, he had very little time to grow bored; however, when I arrived for holidays or at the end of June and we spent every moment in a town of 5.71 square miles, it didn’t take long for us to weary of it.

One night just before Christmas, Jamie announced that he intended to begin looking for a house. Since I was in New York, he viewed the available ones with a real estate broker after work. After he had seen many and narrowed the field to four, he sent me links to the Google Earth pages so I could participate in the final decision. Benedict Canyon. Hmm. Nice but I did not drive so what was I supposed to do with myself all day besides sit alone at the pool, something I had been doing in BH for years? The same for Coldwater Canyon. Venice? Great, but was that a drug rehab clinic next door?  Oh, no, no, no, not that one. The final choice, in Santa Monica, however, was different.

The late nineteenth century house in the walkstreet was charming. Judging from the photos, it had neighbors, a park, Main Street down the hill, and the ocean two blocks away. There were coffee shops, salons, clothes stores, and a branch library. It wouldn’t matter that I didn’t drive.

Jamie had put off closing on the house until late January, just before the Oscars. I was coming to LA for the long weekend’s festivities; from the gifting suites to the Academy Awards themselves, we had a lot of time already committed, but I wanted to see the house first.

I arrived on Saturday morning. We drove the short distance from LAX to Santa Monica in a wobble of anticipation. I had been to Santa Monica before but, as we had always stayed at the beach hotels, I had no clear idea of its topography.   This time we didn’t go near Loews or Shutters or the Third Street Promenade. We didn’t even get that far. Turning off Ocean Park Boulevard, Jamie pulled into a short driveway and hopped out of the car. I followed. The air was cool and salty. I liked it already.

Jamie tapped the residents’ code into the security gate’s keypad and we entered the walkstreet. I had never seen a more charming place. Two rows of historic bungalows faced each other as the sidewalk joined the postage stamp-sized front gardens. No one was about. Heads swiveling to take it all in, we trotted up the rise to our house. It was sage-green with eggshell trim. It had wide steps and a wider wooden porch with two huge glass picture windows, one in the living room and one in the dining room. Gazing from the house to the west, I could see the Pacific from the rise of the hill. We tiptoed up the steps, excitedly, and peered in the windows. Hardwood floors, open space, a new kitchen. . . I was unbelievably excited, even more than I had been when we bought our first home together.

We stayed only a few minutes. I had hair and nail appointments to begin the long process of getting ready for the big Night Before the Oscars party at the Beverly Hills Hotel. We sauntered back along the walkstreet and re-entered the car then drove back along Ocean Park to eat a quick lunch at Jamie’s favorite burger restaurant, The Counter.

Many years later, I can still feel the excitement I felt that day as, although I didn’t know it, this day was the beginning of so many things – living near my niece, Vikki, and her cat, Finn, again; meeting Debbie and Glenn, who ultimately became among our dearest friends; learning about rats and the proximity of movie star neighbors; and, finally, finding the stray kitten who became our Spencer.

It’s often said that a life’s path is determined with a single step. I think it’s true. My Santa Monica time was among the richest and happiest of my life so far. And it started with the keypad  entry on the walkstreet.

I’ll Never Do This Again, I Swear.


In LA you can always tell when the apartment dwellers are moving on because the narrow sidewalks in front of the low-slung walkups with matching carports are crowded with piles of whatever cannot be taken to the next, maybe even smaller, place with signs reading “Sidewalk Sale.” In the NYC metro suburbs, however, we have actual garages and wide driveways to fill with our castoffs so our sidewalks remain clear.

All of my friends like garage sales, both going to them to find some special piece to fill the empty space on the kitchen display shelf and having them to sell the stuff that they no longer want to dust. Neither my mother nor my husband has ever liked them – both believe that filling one’s home with someone else’s driveway castoffs is a recipe for disaster – so I have neither gone to nor planned any.  Until today.

Today was my first and probably last garage sale. The preparation took forever – sorting through closets, boxes, and bags; organizing photos in albums and frames; deciding which books I may read again and which can go to new homes; loading all of the cds into ITunes in order to clear the clutter by selling them. And I stuck a price tag on every item because as one of my friends told me regarding her experience with signs falling or getting blown away, “people need to know how much every item costs so they can complain to you about it”.

Then I ran afoul of the local constabulary by taping the sign advertising my sale to a utility pole. I said to the policeman, “But I went on the town website to see whether there are any ordinances or restrictions on garage sales and there is nothing posted about that.” “Remove the sign,” he replied unsmilingly, so I did.

We had planned to open at 10 am but people began wandering around at 8, poking through baskets and bins and all but shoving us out of the way to dig for buried treasure, none of which was there, as mine was a rather utilitarian sale, and not one with Great Aunt Jenny’s unwanted sterling silver flatware up for grabs.  Everyone wanted costume jewelry. Everyone wanted Legos. Everyone wanted everything for less than it was marked.

“How much is this cd?”

“It’s got a sticker on it. See? One dollar.”

“Can I have two for one dollar?”


My favorite person was the man who offered twenty-five cents per cd for all two hundred of them. I refused. He didn’t seem too surprised. Probably a dealer, my husband said.

Then there was the query about the shoes. “How much are these shoes?”

“Ten dollars.”

“I’ll give you five.”

“No, thanks.”

“But I don’t know whether they will fit me for that price.”

Evidently they would fit for a lower price.  “Try them on,” I suggested.  He walked away scowling.

Until today I had no idea that garage saling is such a big hobby that everyone – from seven year old girls to elderly men with canes – does it. I have no idea why, except maybe it’s the thrill of the hunt, the hope of finding the green mermaid Wade Whimsie that you need to complete your collection. I also think people are voyeuristic; I cannot count how many people commented that they came because they live in the neighborhood and had always wanted to see our house up close and look at the back garden. (It’s a traditional 1920s Dutch Colonial house on an uncommonly large lot.)

After this experience, I have concluded that my mother and husband are right; displaying and flogging unwanted appliances and surplus cat carriers is a hell of a way to spend a glorious summer day. If it hadn’t been my mismatched coffee mugs and old Christmas ornaments on those tables, I certainly wouldn’t have been here. And it was barely worth it; the amount of time I spent working on it divided by the amount of money received comes to pitifully less than minimum wage.  Maybe I just wasn’t divesting myself of things anyone wanted – like my grandmother’s mixing bowls that one friend asked if I planned to sell or my French Bakelite jewelry that remains in my drawer despite repeated entreaties.  My stuff – books, cds, mugs, baskets – is out of favor with the salers. I think I will call the Goodwill or Vietnam Vets the next time I clean. That way will do good for all involved; someone else does all the work and receives the benefit and my basement is still tidy.