Janet by
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In the summer of ‘55 we moved from Baldwin Hills into a carnation pink two-story house—we called it a mansion—with front and back staircases and five bedrooms. It was situated on the northern edge of an area in L.A. called Hancock Park that’s on the southern edge of Hollywood. In the flats, just one block away in three directions, all the homes were single story with a patch of grass in front. On our block, each house sat high atop a steep sloping lawn with a long driveway. A stepped pathway lead up to a wide porch and formal front door. We hadn’t suddenly become rich but Daddy, who called himself a junkyard Jew, was making good money in the scrap metal business, Mom had a job, and Gaga had contributed the down payment and now lived with us. Her bedroom was on the ground floor and had its own bathroom and French doors leading out to the patio. We now had a built-in babysitter.

A man would be waiting for us—not always the same man—then off they would go and I would sit with her infant daughter, already fast asleep in her crib. 

Eventually I began babysitting for some of the families on our block. Mr. and Mrs. Doty had three kids, Mr. and Mrs. McComas had four (including twins), and Mr. and Mrs. Daniels had two. After getting my charges to sleep, I usually raided the refrigerator, snooped around a bit but, finding little of interest, talked on the phone, watched TV or read until I fell asleep myself, then tried to act like I was wide awake when Mr. and Mrs. got home and Mr. paid me and then walked me to my house.

Sometime during my senior year of high school, I began babysitting for a woman I remember only as Janet. She would pick me up in her off-white Volvo and a cloud of perfume and we’d head for the hills—she lived on the second floor of a tiny apartment on Franklin, a street that ran along the bottom rim of the hills below the Hollywood sign. A man would be waiting for us—not always the same man—then off they’d go into the night and I would sit with her infant daughter, already fast asleep in her crib. 

I was enchanted by Janet’s apartment, her car, her lifestyle. It was all so exotic, unlike anything I’d yet seen or experienced. I saw her as sophisticated and modern (as epitomized by her elegant coffee table adorned by just a huge ashtray and free-standing cigarette lighter), as exciting and romantic and mysterious. Of course I knew next to nothing of her circumstances but—and I have no way of ascertaining this—I can’t help wonder if I might have been influenced by her. Because not ten years later I would have my own daughter, my own apartment, and I would smoke, drive a European car, and date. Maybe Janet was my unwitting role model.

Being a single mother pretty much defined me until my daughter grew up–at least that’s how I defined myself. I sometimes wonder what happened to Janet, whether she forged ahead on her own, whether she became half of a Mr. and Mrs., whether her life was as tangled and tumultuous as mine, and whether she became that much stronger and more resilient for it all. Would I have planned it differently? Probably. But in retrospect, it worked for me.

Profile photo of Barbara Buckles Barbara Buckles
Artist, writer, storyteller, spy. Okay, not a spy…I was just going for the rhythm.

I call myself “an inveterate dabbler.” (And my husband calls me “an invertebrate babbler.”) I just love to create one way or another. My latest passion is telling true stories live, on stage. Because it scares the hell out of me.

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Characterizations: right on!

Comments

  1. Marian says:

    Janet was a very interesting role model, Barbara, especially in that era. I would be very intrigued by her lifestyle as well, so the fascination is understandable. My 5th grade teacher was unmarried (not a mom to my knowledge), had platinum blond hair, and lived in a high-rise apartment in a neighboring small city, and I wanted to be more like her than the moms for whom I babysat.

  2. Great story, Barbara. I suspect that each of us has multiple role models but that we’re not conscious of the influences. Like you,, I look back and wonder “whatever happened to . . . ” And the car: don’t know if the car in the picture was indeed the car you referenced in the story, but I remember that model well. I used to think of it as an eggplant, probably influenced by the fact that an ex-brother-in-law (or should that now be brother of an ex?) had one in purple.

    • Though the photo isn’t of Janet’s car specifically, that was the color of hers. Not long ago I saw a caravan of old Volvos on the freeway, must have been heading to a car show…a real treat for the eyes. It can be fun to trace your interest in something back to its inception…I really think it was Janet’s car that lead me to appreciate vintage automobiles. Hence several visits to the Petersen Automotive Museum here in L.A.

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    You write with such verve, Barbara. I was intrigued by Janet, based on your description. The cloud of perfume, her whole aura of mystery made her tantalizing and different than other women you would have come into contact with. Thank you for sharing this intriguing view into your world, as seen through the lens of the families you babysat for.

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    Loved your description of Janet, Barbara. I too would have been impressed by someone with the huge ashtray and free-standing cigarette lighter. While no one smoked in my house growing up, I remember those status symbols in my aunt’s house. I would be curious to see if you could track her down via the Internet & FaceBook (if you remember her last name and she still uses that name). There is risk in that, however. A few times, I have discovered the person I was seeking had died.

    • I don’t remember Janet’s last name and actually like that she’s still something of a mysterious icon in my life, but I have tracked down a few people via the internet, mostly friends that I’d lost touch with over the years. Once it led to rekindling a dormant friendship in a way that felt like we just picked up right where we’d left off, and now we’ve known each other for over 50 years. But another time, big disappointment. I was so excited to have tracked down one of my very first BFFs, Teri. We’d shared countless sleepovers at each other’s childhood home from the fifth grade on thru high school, then went to different colleges and drifted apart, but we stayed in touch and years later she even came to my baby shower. But when we finally spoke about ten years ago, it was as if she barely remembered me. I brought up several memories of times we’d shared but she was so vague I wondered if she was medicated in one form or another or might even have some dementia. Honestly, I’d like to give it another shot but have lost track of her again. My husband thinks I should just let it be.

      I’m thinking tracking people down could be a great prompt if it hasn’t been done.

  5. Barbara, a perfect Hollywood tale. it reads like a film script!
    Now who to cast as Janet and who as Barnard?!?

  6. Suzy says:

    Barbara, I love this story! Everything from your pink “mansion” in Hancock Park to your father calling himself a “junkyard Jew” and your Gaga living with you as a built-in babysitter. And then Janet – how glamorous and exotic she must have seemed. Your description of her is wonderful, she reminds me of characters in film noir movies like Chinatown. Thanks for introducing us to her.

    • Thanks so much, Suzy…and yes, Janet could actually have been played by Faye Dunaway back in the day. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of Chinatown was shot not far from where Janet lived since so much of it was filmed in and around L.A.

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