Thursday, September 09, 2010


When I should be cooking brisket, I'm listening to James Taylor's Mexico and reminiscing about our old house.  After a sweet, leisurely drive up the coast from Portuguese Bend, through Palos Verdes, Torrance and Redondo Beach, my daughter and I found ourselves in Westchester, on the other side of the airport, on the dear little street where we used to live thirteen years ago. Our house is the same: white, green shutters, dark red front door, white picket fence. The night-blooming jasmine is still there, and the lavender we grew by the fence, the enormous palm that I planted on a whim to shade the deck.  And they've added things: hanging baskets, herbs in pots by the front door, potted pansies in a row by the side gate, and a lovely big swing which hangs from the magnolia tree in front of the house. There's a Volvo outside. A Good Sign for sure.  The rest of the street isn't as pretty.  There are unwatered lawns, peeling paint on some walls.  I wrote a note.  "I love the way the house looks, was just driving by with my daughter, wanted to show her where we used to live." I hope I don't sound like a crazy stalker.  I added my phone number in the hope that it made me sound more legit.

As for James Taylor, he crept into our life surreptitiously. I mean, let's face it, I saw The Clash in 1978 at Aylesbury Friars and became a lifelong devotee of PiL, and there is no way that I expected James Taylor to appear.  But then again, there was a night in Newmarket, at my uncle's house, when I was about 8, when everyone had been drinking wine and all the lovely eighteen and twenty somethings sat around on the turquoise sofas singing along to the Bridge Over Troubled Water album (if you Genius James Taylor on iTunes, Simon & Garfunkel inevitably will pop up) and I remember thinking "this is the best moment of my life so far."   I remember that slightly smokey, wine-soaked breath, people with arms around each other, and singing, something so remote and strange to me, and yet somehow that feeling of "lerv" permeated everything. It was 1972 after all.

So, James Taylor.  It was 1991 and it was our first house.  My father had brilliantly lent us the down payment, or at least a large piece of it. We moved in with a one year-old baby and a Norfolk Terrier puppy, using every penny we had.  Friends came to help us unpack, to paint, to plant. Friends' parents brought gifts of trees and rose bushes.  It was a plain, yellow, 3 bedroom house built in 1944, with a lovely lawn, an apricot tree in the middle, suitable for stringing a hammock, and a huge garage at the back.  Ellen helped us paint the house white and we added dark green shutters for character.  Jack laid our kitchen floor -- large industrial dark green and white tiles.  We kept cold bottles of wine in the fridge and listened to the one CD we'd managed to unpack -- James Taylor's Greatest Hits.  To this day my son, a connoisseur of hip-hop and rap music, can recite the words to "Mexico" without knowing why. Like one of those science-fiction-horror films his mouth moves, and he is helpless to know what is coming out.  We wore cut-offs and bad sports t-shirts from the Maharishi's father's factory (he was a schmatta, did I say that?). We took trips to Home Depot in my Hyundai.  We listened to snooty friends trying to be kind about the "funny little house" we had bought.  Lovely Jewish friends brought sandwiches while we painted (there is something so wonderful about the Jewish tradition of bringing food for any occasion, a death, a birth, a new house; I am but a shiksa, in awe of this). But we learned to love it.  We cut a wide bed around the whole garden and filled it with roses and tomatoes and dahlias and lavender and liquorice and black-eyed susan and lemon verbena and arugula.  The hammock was hung.  The oddly shaped nissan hut which hung out surreptitiously behind the garage and just generally got hot, was removed and picked up by the garbage man, who Ned was, thanks to my neuroses about strangers, terrified. I will never forgive myself.  He was a perfectly sweet and confident child totally undone by the sound of the Tuesday rubbish removal.  He sat in the window seat, which we'd built probably incorrectly because it smelled of damp, and cover his eyes.  I remember being fearful of pine needles in the cellar of the house I grew up in  because I thought they were stick insects, but never the dustbin man.

There was lovely fabric everywhere. We covered our cheap little bathroom with swathes of glorious printed fabrics, Regency-style lines totally unsuitable for the cheap 50s-style bathroom. Jack, who was a brilliant designer even before he became Jack Deamer, helped us created enormous, fuck-off curtains that billowed out over the nasty ochre-yellow tile so that people didn't see it. Our bathrooms were heavenly.  Our bedroom too with pale blue flowery chintz festoons covering up the rotten sash windows, was the prettiest thing ever.  Round tables draped in fabric, with a glass top, pretty lamps, flowers, pictures.

And we had the best neighbors. On one side Althea, the hippy, who'd lived in Laurel Canyon and, can you believe it, partied with Jim Morrison in the day.  Her daughter, Vita, a gorgeous pre-Raphaelite who followed The Dead and was in love with Cricket, who lived (I kid you not) on road kill.  And on the other side, the pot-growing neighbors, with the son in a wheel chair, who came out at Christmas and Halloween.  Across the street an old couple lived, with an ancient blue Oldsmobile, which Ned, aged 3 crashed into after managing to release the handbrake on my equally ancient, brown Mercedes.  They couldn't have been nicer about the whole thing.

And so we lived on tomatoes that surged across our wooden fence at the back like Afghani rebels, and apricots that made the dog so fat he could do nothing in the summer but lay on his back and watch the clouds go by.

"Don't you hear the planes" said Westside friends.  "No" we said honestly.
"But you're so close to the airport" they said, smugly.
We didn't.
We heard nothing.
We slept well. We gardened. We cooked. We took turns with Ned in the hammock.  We had an earthquake and the M wasn't home and I lit candles. (Apparently it was the wrong thing to do.)
We had dinner parties and people complained they had to come so far. But they still came. And they brought flowers.  The room was yellow, brightest yellow like the Midi (but really) and the table was so long we had to open the front door.

It was a pretty cool house.


LPC said...

Rocking the casbah, in your own way.

Northern Snippet said...

Beautifully written,completely absorbing.

Wzzy said...

I got to the end and thought oh, I'd love to see a picture of the house, and then realized you'd already given us an album's worth in your words.

BTW You know the old joke about what every Jewish holiday boils down to, right?

"They tried to kill us; we won; let's eat!"


Miss Whistle said...

@LPC -- darn right!
@Northern Snippet -- that's extremely kind, thank you
@Wzzy -- I tried to find pictures but they're hidden away on an old laptop so great minds think alike, but thank you. The nostalgia got the better of me.

xx Miss W