Friday, May 20, 2016

Marengo Apartments

When I was a little kid my mom lived in this rooftop apartment on Marengo Street in Pasadena.  But rooftop apartment isn’t quite the right description – it wasn’t an open-air bar atop a fancy hotel.  It was this building:


My dad had custody of me during the week, letting my mom have me for the weekends. This apartment was the first and best location for my mom weekends.  I was still crazy about her and she wasn’t out of control yet.  She was an alcoholic but she managed to keep the same part time job for years.  In her later years she became a hoarder; but at the apartment on Marengo she was just a scatter-brained collector with a perfect eye trained towards trash and cheap stuff that was beautiful.  In this apartment, the vintage children’s books weren’t on the floor and soaked in cat pee like they were in her last apartment, and the old toys weren’t mixed in with clothes she never wore in the bedroom she couldn’t open the door to get into (she opened it just enough to push a new acquisition in there and then closed it up again).  she had trunks and toy chests and glass-fronted shelves for her tin wind-up toys and spinning tops, Little Golden Books,  small vases full of cat's eye marbles and some of her more interesting jewelry and Beatles stuff.  Even her little collection of pigeon wings was kept tidy, each wing wrapped in tissue paper and stored in a special little trinkets box I knew to stay away from, since the wings grossed me out. 

There was a Murphy bed in the little living room and during the four or five years she was there, she had two different people stay with her (for long short terms), sleeping on that hideawy bed.  The first was Bill.   

Mom’s two best friends were named Bill, and to distinguish between them in conversation we called them Old Bill and Young Bill; the names stuck even when Young Bill wasn’t a part of our life anymore and Old Bill became such a part of our lives he spent his last months in mom’s apartment, dying from cancer, finally giving up the ghost on the bed in the room that ended up being too full of stuff to enter.  For a while I tried renaming Old Bill “Cat” Bill, out of decorum, but it never took and he liked his old nickname the best, anyway.   

It was young Bill who lived with mom for awhile at the Marengo apartment; it’s hard to describe him.  If I’d led a more sheltered life and was some Ohio Writer’s Workshop-trained novelist describing him, I’d say he was artistic.  And it’d be true:  he was an artist.  But I wish I could dissect that term and explain just what he was like.  He was still in the closet.  He was from a slightly rich family, and lived with his mom, who sounds like she was the stereotype of a mom living with her artistic closeted son – she was indulgent but clueless and was famous for her red lipstick, at least as a detail in her son’s few descriptions of her.  He wore the same clothes every day – a dingy long sleeved that always smelled freshly laundered (but it must have been more than one shirt?), corduroy pants and Birkenstocks with socks.  This uniform of his sounds really obnoxious when I write it down -- he sounds like some aggressively mellow hippie, but that's not how it was -- on him, this outfit looked just like the natural second skin of a smart, often unkind, bipolar young man.  I LOVED when he lived with us, as I loved his visits when he still lived with his mom.  There was a Denny’s-like 24-hour restaurant down the block from mom's apartment, where she used to meet up with him often during the week (even going there just to look for him sometimes when she couldn't get him on the phone, often finding him there). Every once in a while, before he lived with us, we’d also go meet up with him there on a weekend, like at midnight – or maybe it was 9 pm for all I knew, but it felt exciting and secret as something that could only occur at the witching hour.

their restaurant

A series of photos mom took of Young Bill

I guess he stopped staying there when my mom’s boyfriend David moved in.  David was homeless when mom met him – he was a drunk Vietnam vet who mom realized had embellished his tour of duty once -- it was before there was an internet – she was reading some nonfiction about the war, a pet subject of hers, when she accidentally found some information about the date of a specific battle that contradicted the timeline he used in his stories of abjection.   

Young Bill would have left the building if there was any kid around other than me – he was a sourpuss about the mainstream, including families and children – but he and I were very close and he sometimes found a way to express his fondness for me, like the time we sat on the ground in front of a grocery store and he put quarters in the same vending machine until I got the toy I wanted.  Not so with David – I thing he was ashamed of being a do-nothing drunk liar so he kept to himself when I was around, though my dad will attest to the fact that David perked up whenever dad picked me up and we were heading out the door – he’d always say the same thing in the same way, ‘you come back now, y’hear?’  It must’ve been some personal joke of his – he sounded like a happy southerner when he said it, and he wasn’t either of those things.  There was nothing wrong with him, though.  I liked him pretty well.  He was handsome and the tv-watching silence between us was companionable enough.

Then here’s what happened.  My mom set fire to the top story of the apartment building.  She'd always had tons of these catholic saint-decorated candles she kept lit in the bathroom all night.  Now there are slightly different versions of the story – the one she told most was that the wind blew the candles over and set fire to the curtains, but there was also mention of David getting up to pee in the middle of the night and knocking them over without realizing it at the time.  I think this story of her creating a cover story for him is the real cover story.  I think she did it herself, on accident probably, in one of many devastating moments of unadulterated carelessness.

Well, the fire was a practically unbearable tragedy for her for a long time.  Old Bill took her to Catalina Island for a few days right after the fire, a place I’ve never been to though it’s so close  -- I gather it was an occasional sanctuary for her back when Old Bill still had money to indulge her like that.

I really had loved that apartment.  It was only her and one other apartment on that floor, and the two places were so separate from the rest of the building, like a tugboat wheelhouse.  

The roof was all covered in tar paper, with turbines and vents and pipes all exposed -- we were not supposed to be walking around up there, and had to freeze for a moment whenever we heard someone walking up the stairs, in case it was one of the people who told on mom to the landlord.  There was more than one pink smoggy sunsetted night when we were just up there on the roof,  blowing bubbles or something dopey like that, just enjoying the night.

I used to always go back in circles to the same places from my past.  I lived in the same apartment building in Hollywood twice, once in my roaring twenties and the other time in my staid early thirties with my husband.  That’s the most extreme case of me circling back, but I dream all the time about revisiting the same places – I dream of moving back to Olympia or Philadelphia all the time, almost nightly in fact, and I sometimes tour my old dwellings.  I work far from home but close to where I used to live for a couple years in my early twenties, and I’ve gotten off the freeway to drive past that old apartment once or twice.  I have driven past my first childhood home on Wagner Street several times over the years, sometimes taking pictures of it -- I used to imagine being able to buy it and live there again.

the wagner street house

inside the wagner street house 

Once, when I was apartment-hunting, I even went to look at place in the Marengo apartment building.  I used to have such a self-mocking sense of humor, and thought to myself when I was standing there in that old familiar hallway next to the wall of mailslots:  wouldn't it be weird if I moved in there and ended up starting a fire as well?    

For years I’ve gone out of my way to drive past that building when I'm in the neighborhood.  I used to look at it and feel wistful about my childhood, mixed with a near-obsession over how my mom had marked me for doom so early on – she’d given me absolutely blissful nights of staying up all hours watching late night shows, eating oranges and popcorn, with her unhappy men sitting with us sometimes, me feeling like the luckiest daughter in the world, just getting to stay up late with her.  Then she’d burned it down.

I've been driving past it almost nightly on my way home from work these nights since she'd died, just to make myself a little sad. I feel the wholeness of her death when I pass by the building, and I feel that same old anger at her for her careless life.  Then I feel sorry for her for this same carelessness. 

marengo rooftop