“And some famous old queer lives up there.”

“Really.” I squinted into the sunlight where the rental agent pointed and could see the edge of a patio to the right on the hill above us. We were standing in what he called the backyard—a long slab of concrete behind the cottage with iron clothesline poles at each end. I imagined hanging the laundry outside and remembered the fresh smell of sundried sheets from my childhood.

The concrete ended at a steep twenty-foot-high slope, overgrown with a tangle of ivy vines. Above that I could see a narrow alley and then another short wall, covered in bougainvillea, leading up to a few houses where he had made his comment about someone famous.

“This hillside looks iffy, like it could come crashing down in an earthquake,” I said.

“Oh, Barbara, you must be from the Midwest.” Another fly-over-country slight I’d become inured to.

“We’ll take it,” I said. Before stepping inside, I glanced back up the hill.  Famous, hmm.

Santa Monica Canyon

It was 1970, four years into my husband’s assistant professorship, still paying off his graduate school loan, and moving from one rental to the next.

When I saw an ad for this gem of a cottage in Santa Monica Canyon it was love at first sight. Not the cottage, but the way the sun and fog seemed to play tag that morning had softened my practicality. Even though I was concerned that it might be too small, I would make it work. This had become something of a mantra as I resettled the girls with each change of address.

I didn’t share with my husband how the sun gently warmed the lush ravine or how the faint smell of the ocean made me feel. Or the idea of reviving a dormant flower bed in the front yard would give me a sense of creating something besides dinner.

Instead, I went with the affordable rent and that he could have the car during the week. “The girls and I have great places to walk. We can even take the stairway at the end of our street. You walk down to a tunnel that goes under Pacific Coast Highway and opens up to a small beach,” I said, sounding like a travel agent.

In the bathroom, the moldy curtain that hung from the rod had tricked my eyes into thinking there was a bathtub. Our oldest daughter would have been fine with the shower, but her sister fought bath time. I bought a small wading pool for the girls to make up for the absent tub.

“Christ, this is like living on a boat,” their dad grumbled when we had to move the pool out of the way before he could take a shower.

The cottage sat at the top of a long, sloping green lawn down to the quiet street. A whitewashed wall separated our yard from our neighbor and the narrow sidewalk. Even while sorting through boxes stored in the garage, I took time to pull weeds and plant annuals and butterfly bushes in the front garden.

The girls spent most of the day outside playing on the lush grass. The new picnic table sat under a Loquat tree where they often ate lunch and painted with watercolors. Our oldest daughter, who was ready for first grade, was allowed to ride her bike in front of the house on the sidewalk. Her three-year-old sister had to stay in the yard since she tended to wander off, chatting with anyone.

Several weeks after we moved in the rental agent pulled into our driveway. “How’s it going?” He stayed seated in his sleek silver convertible and waited for me to walk over.

“Great. We love it.” My hands and shorts were covered with dirt from putting more flower starts into the front garden.

“I knew you’d be perfect. Just the kind of love this place needs,” he said. “Met any of the neighbors?”

“Not really. The elderly woman next door said hello once and commented on how noisy children can be. Why do people have these enormous front yards if they’re never in them?”

He laughed, shrugged his shoulders, and then began to gossip about the “prominents” on the street, as he called them. “You’re part of a small colony of writers, painters, and Hollywood types.”

Later that day, standing in the doorway of what the girls called Dad’s office but was really the enclosed front porch, I said: “You know what the rental agent told me? He said Greta Garbo often visited a Hollywood film director on our street. She would arrive in a long, black limo, hidden behind her hat and glasses, always accompanied by a younger man.”

“Hmm,” he said, looking up and then back down at the journal he was reading, marking the place with his finger.

“I think it’s cool living among the famous. He thought he was so hip telling me that Garbo’s real name was Gustafson. I’ve read that in several movie magazines.”

“Don’t tell me you buy movie magazines,” he said with a tinge of horror. Then he shifted to his freshman lecture tone, “Honestly, there’s enough good literature sitting around here . . . you’re so smart and yet . . . well, sometimes you surprise me.”

“I only read them when I get my hair cut,” I said, but felt I was offering up a puny excuse. In truth, being new to Santa Monica where famous people lived and with Hollywood nearby, I was fascinated. Like the Audubon bird list, I kept an accounting in a journal: Barbra Streisand at the plant nursery, Burt Lancaster jogging on San Vicente Boulevard, and Brian Keith ahead of me in the checkout line—amazing!

To be continued…

Photo Credit: Bougainvillea – abbashek-subba.