Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Circus Without Elephants--Chapter-Four



UCLA WASN’T STANFORD—-no school was Stanford except Stanford—-but it was okay, because I was there with Rob. After awhile the school began to soften and feel comfortable and even “fit” like an old pair of jeans. What wasn’t okay was where we lived, especially now that I was newly pregnant and had morning sickness, a horse-and-buggy misnomer that stands for day-long nausea, which only fades as your head hits the pillow and your stomach goes to sleep and drifts out of reach of the churning swells.

Our “home” was not a home, but a dingy apartment in a brown stucco building in downtown Santa Monica, designed not around central air but central odor. The place reeked. As we entered the building after school, a familiar smell hit us, as though the tenants were cooking some abominable mix of Brussels Sprouts and cabbage. I found myself breathing shallowly and longing for open windows. Rob wrinkled his nose and said, “Cabbage again?” and I wondered aloud whether it was the same family boiling new vegetables every day, or different families rotating through the same stinky menu. Never mind. The answer was unimportant; in my queasy state, daily contentment was impossible, living as we were among the fumes of simmering garbage.

Even without its odors, the apartment building was charmless: the halls were dark enough for a mole and the wall paint older than the carvings on a Mayan temple.

One Saturday Rob and I went for a drive, looped up over a small mountain and came down again on a winding road, and voila! we discovered the San Fernando Valley.

THE VALLEY WAS just over the hill from UCLA. It was a honeymooner’s dreamscape abloom with freshly minted tract homes and opportunistic contractors charging around old cow pastures with blueprints under their arms. Dairies had once abounded there. Now everything above the well-fertilized soil was new, and even the sun shone brighter. It all looked so promising.

For not much money, which--with a Cal-Vet loan and help from our parents--was all we had, we could swing a brand new house and escape those malignant cooking odors.

“WE’LL TAKE THAT ONE,” Rob and I chorused as our newly-chosen contractor, handsome Mr. Young of Young, Rosenberg and Spiegel, unfurled a sheet of sketches. We were looking at four renditions of an 850-square-foot house: two bedrooms, a bath, a kitchen, a living-room, and a dining nook. A mansion, really. Every sketch was basically the same house except for subtle differences (huge differences we thought), in windows or doors. But just claiming one of them as ours was like staking out a beachfront in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Rob and I pored over the sketches, examining them minutely as though they contained intricacies worthy of Hearst Castle.

Privately, the two of us slipped each other proud smiles, and then we signed important papers and wrote a big check for all the money we possessed, which was somewhere around two hundred dollars.

The house came with its own rectangle of earth, and that, too, was ours! As laid out on a flat piece of paper, the project seemed ideal. “Perfect, don’t you think, Rob?” and he said, “Of course it’s perfect--couldn’t be better!” I was thinking how this topped our first car, even my first wrist watch, which I still remembered—-the thrill of Mickey Mouse and his white-gloved finger, and how I felt so old wearing that watch at age six.

AS YOUNGISH ADULTS with limited life experience, Rob and I knew not the ways of contractors. We were innocently unaware of how some of them operated, or from what shadowy sources they drew the men who did the actual work--some of which we were about to find out.

Now that we’d signed the papers, the newly poured foundation drew us so irresistibly we couldn’t stay away. Our chateau in the San Fernando Valley soon became Rob’s personal challenge. I was growing a baby, but he was growing a house.

At first the place shaped up quickly, like a ripening plum. Exulting in its progress, Rob drove us out to the Valley every day after school just to look. The framing went up so fast we knew we’d have the home sooner than its due date. Much sooner. Which dovetailed perfectly with all the people who took one look at my generous stomach and asked, “Oh, are you due next month?”

One afternoon Rob walked across the cement, squeezed between a couple of two-by-fours and did a double-take. “Hey, what’s this? There’s supposed to be a door here!”

“You sure, Rob?”

“Sure I’m sure. I’m standing in the kitchen. I’m looking toward the garage. How are we supposed to get from one to the other?”

I eased in beside him. “How could they forget something as big as a . . . door?”

“Can’t imagine. We’ll have to find Mr. Young.”

Full of purpose and youth, we sprinted down the row of half-framed houses and finally located Mr. Young. “You say they left out a door?” he asked pleasantly. “Well, that’s a new one. I’ll have to tell Mr. Rosenberg.”

As it turned out, missing doors were new only to us. Days later the framers misplaced a window in the living room. “It’s three feet off center,” Rob explained patiently to Mr. Young, whom he’d found with some difficulty. “It’s butted right up against the front door.”

“Can’t have that,” said Young. “I’ll see that Mr. Rosenberg gets on it immediately.”

But Rosenberg didn’t get on it—-not until the lathers had covered up the frame. Rob marched up to the blank lathe and with a heavy, felt-tipped pen wrote “WINDOW HERE!” Still not satisfied, he drew the outline of a window in bold, thick strokes. Later, someone was sent to rip out half the living-room wall and re-locate the missing aperture.

Rob is nothing if not a man with audacious penmanship. I began to see his oversized words sprouting like modern-art daisies in all parts of the house.

Oddly, to the builders--to Mr. Young--Rob appeared monkishly calm. Aware of Rob’s prickly impatience at home, how his temper sometimes flared like a sudden summer storm, I marveled that he was staying cool.

As the mistakes multiplied, Rob began to make lists, with letters big enough for the blind, which he handed to Mr. Young. Young accepted the lists agreeably and put them in his pocket, and we could only surmise that Mrs. Young ran the pockets through the washing machine with Rob’s lists still in them.

Farther down the line, things got worse. Rob caught the flooring man hiking toward our bathroom with someone else’s roll of linoleum slung over his shoulder. The cabinet maker banged away in the kitchen framing out the wrong kitchen sink. And later he found the concrete man down on his knees busily forming the wrong patio. Still Rob never spoke of abandoning those contractors, and none of them saw the summer storm.

“This place is like a baby bird,” Rob said, with a hint of affection. “We can’t leave it alone for a minute.”

“What do you suppose Young, Rosenberg and Spiegel did before they became contractors?”

He thought about it. “Nothing important. I can’t picture them anywhere . . . even box boys would know the watermelon doesn’t go on top of the bread.”

OUR PALACE DID NOT arrive on time (any more than our first baby). By the end, its creation had slowed to such a crawl that it was two months late and we weren’t given the keys until four days before Christmas.

Before we unloaded our few treasures at the new house, I ran inside to get a drink—-and found no water coming from the faucets. Then I flipped a switch in the kitchen and discovered we had no electricity. Rob said evenly, “I suppose there’s no heat in the floor furnace, either.”

And there wasn’t.

He looked around the living room and began to laugh. “Smile, Babe,” he said, pulling me close and pointing. “Look over there. We’re on Candid Camera.” I honestly thought he’d seen Allen Funt.

He turned serious. “Tonight there’s going to be a cold snap,” he said, and I asked how he knew.

“Heard it on the car radio. They’re warning the citrus growers to fire up their smudge pots.”

“Oh,” I said. I was thinking about how we had no heat for the cold snap and no hot water. But then I remembered we had no water of any kind, either hot or cold.

I began feeling nostalgic about our apartment. It may have smelled of cabbage, but at least it was warm cabbage. And the place had water, too, of both varieties. I said, “What should we do?”

Rob threw a look at our non-functioning floor furnace and said with a grim smile, “I could always go out and buy a smudge pot.”

That evening, as he held a flashlight and we lowered ourselves to a bare mattress, I said, “Honey, do you realize this is our first night living in our very first house?” My voice hit the bare walls and echoed back, as in a cave.

“What you mean is, it’s our first night camping in our first house. Living is when you can turn on a light and flush a toilet.”

“Well,” I said, always the keeper of the flame of optimism, “at least there aren’t any ants or mosquitoes.”

“I’ll grant you that, Babe.” He laughed ironically and pulled me closer. “It’s too cold for ants and you can’t have mosquitoes without water.”

ROB TOOK OVER. Naturally, we had no phone, either, a service that could only be obtained in the exploding frontiers of the San Fernando Valley by submitting a sob story worthy of Queen for a Day: “My husband is stuck on a ten-story roof. He’s waiting for a call from a ladder co.”

Which meant Rob spent every minute until Christmas down at the corner phone booth, pumping nickels into a slot as he tried to score a few basics, like water.

Each problem came with its own excuse: some idiot who thought he understood tractors had graded the front yard and torn out the water pipe; three idiots who considered themselves contractors had neglected to obtain any of the final inspections; an idiot in a cowboy hat who imagined he was an electrician had failed to bring the bathroom heater up to code. Having floundered in their pretenses, they all walked away.

Using his head and an endless supply of nickels, Rob turned contractor and slowly made things right.

By Friday night, the night before Christmas Eve, peace of a sort had come to Lindley Avenue. The furnace was now working, water came through the pipes, and we were the proud owners of a single strand of electricity . . . albeit from the contractor’s power pole. Our mattress was still on the floor, but the floor was WARM. “Just think,” I murmured to Rob, “tomorrow we can take a bath.”

TOMORROW CAME, BUT not the bath. Christmas eve morning we awoke to the sound of something large, an engine of some sort moving back and forth just outside our bedroom window. And then the doorbell rang. A man from the water company stood there asking if I knew we’d sprung a leak.

“A leak!” I howled, looking past his shoulder. In our front yard, a thin stream of water was shooting ten feet into the air. “That’s not a leak. It’s a geyser!”

“What happened?” he asked accusingly, as if he thought I’d been out there hacking at the pipe in my pajamas.

“No idea,” I said. “We were asleep.”

“I’ll have to shut the water off.”

“I suppose so.” After all, we’d had water for eleven hours, maybe our quota for the year. Too bad so much of it disappeared in the ground.

Rob appeared at the door, watching as the geyser slowly receded. “You should see what else this one-man wrecking crew has done.” He ran off to get his pants.

The wrecking crew was in our backyard. About seventeen years old, pimply and male, the lad was sitting atop a small yellow tractor, now stopped, blandly surveying our yard. Here, I realized, was one of the culprits . . . foolishly hired by Rosenberg to grade our lot. It was evident that Rob had already expressed a few opinions out the bedroom window, but that the youth was a bit simple and didn’t comprehend what all the fuss was about.

I stared at the kid curiously, wondering how his mind worked—-or whether it worked at all--and how he’d managed to find and relentlessly destroy our underground plumbing. Not once, it seemed, but twice.

Rob gestured toward the front of the house. “WHY . . “ he asked with exasperation he couldn’t conceal, “didn’t you stop when all the water broke loose?”

The boy looked at him blankly and said nothing.

“He sets off a geyser bigger than Yellowstone and he doesn’t even notice,” said Rob under his breath. “And why did you bury all this stuff I had piled up next to the house? Did you think we wanted cement bags and lathing mesh planted in our lawn?” So much stupidity, Rob seemed to think, must have a REASON.

He was talking to the wrong person. I wasn’t sure the kid was even listening.

“And that’s not all,” Rob said to me, because I was the only one paying attention. “Look over there--in the corner.”

I looked. There was our power line dangling loose--our precious source of electricity doing a little dance in the corner of the yard.

“Why wasn’t he electrocuted?”

Since the boy had had nothing to say so far, not even a comment as to how he’d managed to plow through 120 volts and live, there seemed no point in pushing him further.

Seeing that Rob and I had lapsed into disgruntled silence, the kid abruptly turned on the engine of his tractor. One could almost see him thinking, Well, if they’re through yapping at me, I guess I’ll finish.

Rob came to life and leaped in front of the tractor. “Oh no!” he said. “No you don’t! You’re not running that machine one more time. You’re staying right here until I find Mr. Young.” And with that he trekked off to the phone booth for the 99th time in four days.

To our surprise and relief, Mr. Young dragged himself away from a holiday party to attend to our problems--but only momentarily. He instructed the KID to find us a plumber, and while he also dredged up another electric wire, he left ROB to install it.

Neither was successful.

The kid wasn’t able to locate a plumber on Christmas Eve, and after an hour’s work Rob discovered the replacement wire was no good.

Also, during the afternoon the garage door blew shut on three of Rob’s fingers, and his yelp was so bloodcurdling I thought he’d been electrocuted and the house had done us in at last.

I raced outside to find Rob hopping around over his smashed fingers, and was so relieved to see him still alive I screamed, “Oh, thank God!” much to his surprise.

Meanwhile, the kid--still plumberless at 4:00 p.m.--brought his father to our front yard, and the two of them knelt in the mud and wrestled with the broken water pipe. I was overjoyed to see them, especially the father.

Ultimately the two made a union of sorts and, lacking pipe joint compound, painted the union with red paint.

For non-plumbers it was quite an achievement, and Rob and I ran to the bathroom to test this latest plumbing job. To our surprise, when Rob turned on the water it came through red. For a moment we just stood there, looking.

And then I started cracking up--I couldn’t help it--and so did Rob, both of us laughing hysterically, because what else could you expect after such a debacle but red water?

I can’t recall exactly how we resolved all this. I do know that Rob found another electrical wire, and this one was good. Also, the water finally came through clear.

Since the banks, unaware of our disasters, had rudely closed early, leaving us penniless over the holidays, the tract salesman kindly lent us ten dollars. That night at 10:30 we found a lonely Christmas tree lot on Ventura Boulevard and bought a huge aromatic spruce for fifty cents and decorated it until three in the morning with popcorn and a few ornaments shipped to us by my mother. Somehow we felt entirely at peace because, after all, this was our first Christmas in our first, our very own home.

THE DAY AFTER CHRISTMAS, Monday morning early, a familiar sound broke into our dreams. A tractor!

In disbelief, we jerked awake to the ominous growl, the approaching and receding across the backyard.

This time we didn’t lie in bed until the kid had run it through the house. Rob shot off the mattress and was outside in seconds, waving his arms like someone trying to flag down a train.

The kid stopped scooping building scraps into our flower beds and turned off the engine. Rob walked up to him and pointed toward the road. “Take that machine away--and don’t ever come back!”

The last we saw of him, our lad was in the empty field across the street having a race ON THE TRACTOR with a friend in a hot rod.

IN SPITE OF YOUNG, ROSENBERG, and Spiegal, Rob made his house come out all right.

After weeks of negotiation and a masterful letter from Rob, we settled the bill. In essence, Rob obtained their agreement that THEY pay for THEIR mistakes.

ULTIMATELY, THE INFLUENCE OF Young, Rosenberg and Spiegal on our lives was profound. Because of what they did for us--or rather, TO US--our next forty-five years were markedly different than they might otherwise have been.

After Rob wrote them his summing-up letter, he gave it to me to read. He was outside lying on his back under the car when I finished the last page. Only his shoes were visible.

I was so excited I couldn’t wait, and rushed up to the car and yelled down at his feet, “This letter is fantastic, Rob! It’s great!”

“Yeah?” I could hardly hear his muffled response.

“I thought you’d blast those guys, I thought you’d pulverize them, but you didn’t. Your letter is calm. It’s rational. It says everything you needed to say. And every sentence is important.”

His answer was garbled.

“Rob!” I cried, waving the letter excitedly as I made my final point to his shoes. “You should be a lawyer!”

Until then, he’d been getting a master’s degree in psychometrics.

That letter changed his life.

And so, thanks to Young, Rosenberg and Spiegal, Rob did what nature and nurture intended him to do all along. He applied to enter the brand new Law School at UCLA.

A FEW MONTHS LATER, IN June, I wore a cap and gown (the gown designated for an oversized male) which barely covered what seemed to be an unusually generous pregnancy. Three weeks after I graduated from UCLA, our son, Bobby, was born. To everyone’s surprise, even the obstetrician’s, he was eleven pounds, two ounces, and might have been cuter if he hadn’t arrived with padded shoulders and what appeared to be nuts squirreled away in his cheeks. He was also the largest baby ever born in that hospital.

Everyone loved the idea but me. The nurses thought he was quite the handsome little fellow, and peppered me with quips. “We caught him sitting up, reading.” “I expect he’ll be walking to the car.”

They never knew that I was mortified, that I imagined, in my young-girl ignorance, I must have eaten too much and created a monument to gluttony.

I couldn’t wait to take him home.

Rob had no such thoughts. He was endlessly proud and took great pains filling out Bobby’s baby book. When he came to a section labeled “Special Problems,” he sat up straighter and wrote in his great, intimidating hand, “This baby HAS no problems!”

We’d had our son a whole week, now, and maternal pride had finally rushed over me like a tsunami on post-partum hormones. I, too, thought Bobby was perfect.

When I found Bobby’s baby book years later, I read Rob’s words with chagrin, shaking my head. Nobody who’s ever been a parent for more than two weeks would taunt the humility gods with a statement like that!

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