by RIP RENSE
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
"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
"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
"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
"No reason that you should," I
That seemed to establish a bit of trust between
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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