Laurel Canyon by
25
(47 Stories)

Prompted By Close Calls

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1973. David is incarcerated in the desert. They call it a rehabilitation center, but it’s a state prison . . . armed guards in towers, barbed wire, electronic gates. A visiting room where you’re not allowed to touch each other. Erin is about six months old, and every Saturday we make the two-hour trek in my little green VW bug to visit him, traveling on freeways I’ve never been on before, through areas of the city I’ve never been in, to a county I’ve heard called the armpit of L.A. I thought about moving out there to ease the drive, rentals were dirt cheap, even went so far as to make an appointment to look at one that sounded promising. It turned out to be a commune-type setup with funky little cottages painted in Day-Glo hues of orange, turquoise, purple and yellow. Miles off the main highway and set back in the desert scrub, it felt a little too Spahn-ranchlike so after pulling into the narrow driveway, I slowly backed out without stopping to talk to anyone, gravel crunching noisily under my tires. Charlie Manson’s killing spree in 1969 has left a pall over hippiedom.

We hit it off, our kids gurgle at each other, she could use some help, and the next thing I know I’m serving quiche Loraine, gazpacho, green salad, fruit salad, peach tarts, sparkling water and wine to about thirty members of the cast and crew on an old western set in Chatsworth.

Since David went behind bars, I’ve been couch surfing, Erin and Bosco in tow. I put most of our stuff in a small storage unit and spread the word that I’m available for house sitting, pet sitting, plant sitting, sitting of any kind. Our friends Michael and Madeline, rising steadily in the pot peddling hierarchy, have bought and are now living in a quintessentially charming cottage on Holly Place in Laurel Canyon set amidst lush greenery and decorated in the style of the day . . . Indian bedspreads, macramé planters, oriental rugs, and lots of warm wood. They ask me if I’d like to house sit for an entire month while they’re in Mexico, and I jump at the chance.

Truth be told, housesitting is almost as much curse as blessing. Sure, it means I can hang out in some really nice homes, but I always feel a skewed sense of entitlement, like this is where I was meant to live, where I belong. And then the rightful owners are due to return and I have to pack up the few things I’ve brought and clear out. It’s always a hard comedown.

Laurel Canyon begins just off Franklin about half a mile above Sunset — better known as the Strip — and wends its way through the west end of the Hollywood Hills, up over Mulholland Drive, and into Studio City in the San Fernando Valley. On the Hollywood side, it’s the hippie heart of L.A. . . .it’s where Graham pens “Our House” for Joni, and where she pens, “Ladies of the Canyon” for, well, the ladies of the canyon. Music is in the air, and the scents of patchouli oil, incense, pot — and even, if you’re lucky, hashish — waft on the breeze. The Country Store at the intersection of Laurel Canyon and Kirkwood is the hub. It’s also where I first become aware of what decades later will become the LGBTQ community. In a little boutique in a basement shop under the store, I’m struck by the array of vintage women’s shoes on display, all of them size 10 and larger.

Joni Mitchell – Ladies of the Canyon

“Do you have these in a size 7 narrow?” I ask the clerk, holding up a pair of brown pumps.

“Ah, no, sweetie, and, um, this isn’t really a shoe store,” she says…I mean he says. They say. An a-ha moment if ever there was one.

So I move a few personal belongings into Michael and Madeline’s place and set up temporary housekeeping. One sunny afternoon I’m taking Erin and Bosco for a walk and meet a neighbor who lives across the street, Shondra. She’s a single mother and runs a catering service, Sister Moon, for film productions. We hit it off, our kids gurgle at each other, she could use some help, and the next thing I know I’m serving quiche Loraine, gazpacho, green salad, fruit salad, peach tarts, sparkling water and wine to about thirty members of the cast and crew on an old western set in Chatsworth.

Late one afternoon, soft light filtering through the sheer-curtained windows, blurry shadows of leaves skittering on the walls, I’m on the floor in front of the TV breastfeeding Erin — not knowing that in about two weeks she’ll begin biting and by the end of the month I will have weaned her — and we drift off. A soft knock on the front door wakes me. I disentangle myself, stand up, and even as I walk to the front door I notice it isn’t completely shut. I quietly step closer to it, press my hand very lightly against it, and ask, “Who is it?”

“Pizza delivery,” comes the reply.

Yeah, right. With that I know something’s up and quickly try to push the door the rest of the way shut but a foot kicks it inward and a big dude comes at me with a gun in his hand. At almost the same time, another guy, he’s small and wiry, slams his way in through the back door, also gun in hand.

Bosco is barking madly.

“Shut that fucking dog up!” Wiry guy, pointing his gun at my dog.

I close Bosco off in the bedroom. Erin wakes up and begins to bawl at the commotion. I scoop her up and she instantly notches it down to a whimper, naively feeling safe in my arms and now just curious about our unexpected company.

I don’t know why, but I don’t panic. It’s not like I’m telling myself to keep it together, but I notice something about the guy that came in the back door, something familiar. Then it dawns on me. It’s the sniffling — the guy is dope sick, jonesing. This is about needing money, and needing it now. It isn’t about hurting anyone. Someone must have tipped them off about Michael and Madeline being dealers and being out of town. There’s bound to be money on the premises, maybe drugs.

“Look,” I say to the big guy, who seems to be running the show. “I know what he’s going through,” I nod towards his buddy. “I know he needs to get well. I can dig it, my old man’s in jail for the same thing. But I don’t live here, I’m just housesitting for some friends. Here’s my purse, take whatever you want.”

He dumps the contents of my purse out onto the coffee table. There’s a $25 check from the catering gig and a little hard cash, mostly ones and loose change. He stuffs the bills in his pocket, leaves the check after thinking about it for a second or two.

“Man, that’s all you got?” he says.

“Yeah, that’s it, I’m sorry,” I say.

The other guy starts poking around, opens a couple drawers, slams them. They look at each other.

“Hey, I’ll help you search the place,” I say. And that’s what we do. We rifle through drawers and cupboards, feel under the cushions and above the curtains, search the entire house. Nothing. Then I remember.

“There’s a shed in the backyard, maybe there’s something in there,” I say. The smaller guy goes to check it out but returns empty handed.

Finally the big dude says, “Look, man, you’re cool, but we can’t have you calling the police soon as we leave.”

They go into another room and, keeping an eye on me, hold a muffled conversation, then come back to where I sit with Erin. They usher me into the bathroom and have me climb into the tub and sit down, holding Erin in my lap with my arms in front of me. Then they bind my hands and my ankles with masking tape, put a strip over my mouth.

And then they leave.

I wait until I’m sure they’re long gone, then work my way out of the tape. It isn’t that hard. I walk over to the neighbor’s house and tell her what happened, ask her to keep an eye on the house. I call Michael and Madeline, leave a message on an answering machine, quickly pack up my shit, and I’m gone.

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.

As a memoirist, I focus on the undercurrents. Drawing from memory, diaries, notes, letters and photographs, I never ever lie, but I do claim creative license when fleshing out actual events in order to enhance the literary quality, i.e., what I might have been wearing, what might have been on the table, what season it might have been. By virtue of its genre, memoir also adds a patina of introspection and insight that most probably did not exist in real time.

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Characterizations: moving, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Laurie Levy says:

    Barb, this is an amazing story and a true example of a close call. I was riveted by it and couldn’t wait to get to the resolution (although, obviously, I know you survived). The description of both the prison environment and Laurel Canyon were wonderful. Great writing and a story that took me inside your mind as you made your way through a challenging time in your life and a frightful incident.

  2. John Shutkin says:

    Yikes, Barbara; that is one f*cking terrifying close call. Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Any further word/explanation/apology from M & M? Did you ever house sit again?

    • LOL, John…as you probably know by now, I’m a fan of the well-placed profanity. And although I don’t remember (because, as the saying almost goes, if you remember the 70s you weren’t really there), I’m not sure if I ever spoke to M&M again, or house sat again. It wasn’t long after this that I found a cute little place nestled in a different canyon and set up housekeeping for when my husband got out of jail (on New Year’s Day, no less). Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, that new beginning was short-lived.

  3. Marian says:

    Wow, Barbara, that has to have been the scariest close call ever, and with your baby as well … your story is riveting and perfectly evocative of LA in the 70s. I had my rental house broken into by a drug addict, also in the 70s, but thank god my roommate and I weren’t there. Some money and jewelry taken. To add insult to injury, the landlord said it was our fault.

  4. Suzy says:

    Babs, I love this story from beginning to end! So many great descriptions, starting with the prison and the available rentals nearby, then Laurel Canyon and the shoestore that wasn’t really a shoestore, the scene with neighbor Shondra, and finally the heart-stopping robbery. Your writing is so evocative, I felt like I was living it with you. Perfect for this prompt, and unquestionably the most terrifying close call I have ever heard of!

  5. Betsy Pfau says:

    Wow, Babs, I felt like I was in a terrifying movie! Your comment about Spahn ranch took me into the current Tarantino movie (set in 1969). I could visualize everything you described (great writing). You had me on the edge of my seat, holding my breath. This was like a noir movie. So glad you escaped, relatively unharmed and could share it with us today.

    • Thanks, Betsy! And your reference to “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is so very apt — clearly my experience could have been much, much worse! As a point of interest, I had friends that lived across the canyon from Spahn Ranch so I did see it once through binoculars. Things changed so much after Manson — suddenly we looked at our so-called peers through a different lens. I have another albeit much tamer story along the same lines I might have to find an excuse to write about.

  6. Wow BB, your life has indeed been fodder for your writing. I’m glad you sized up the situation and handled the housebreakers so well , I would have panicked if I was in your (;size 7) shoes!

    And your devotion to Erin is obvious in so many of your stories,. Thanks for sharing them.

  7. This is such an amazing piece! You manage to tell a harrowing tale while painting a brilliant picture of a time and place. As I read it, I was revisiting many aspects of the ’60’s that I had not thought about for years. I loved the way you tied in your mixed feelings about housesitting with the ultimate nightmare of the robbers. Bravo!

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