Monday, February 21, 2005

Letting The Days Go By

Saturday night I drove to a memorial in the Hollywood Hills for a former boss of mine. I’d worked for Joan for nearly six years. It was my second job in Los Angeles and my first job in the entertainment industry. Joan wasn’t my official boss; that was Kellam, but Kellam was not someone one could take seriously as a boss. We used to describe Kellam as “Mr. Peepers on Acid.” He was tall and sort of crane-like; he had a tendency to stutter and to flap his hands when he got agitated, which was frequently. The time I got the truest glimpse of Kellam’s soul was when he was making his annual Christmas punch. This stuff tasted like apple juice and caused hallucinations by the second cup. He stood there, wearing his thick, smudged glasses and a red tartan plaid vest, pouring bottles of liquor into the punch bowl with an intensely focused expression and a maniacal grin.

Though Kellam had originated the business (an esoteric form of entertainment research) and owned the company, Joan was the person who really knew the job, who you went to with questions and for judgments, whose word on all such matters was gospel and final. She held in her head the most amazing array of knowledge, of facts and statistics – well, everybody did at that place, actually. Jokes were often made about the quality of Jeopardy contestant or Trivial Pursuit team that could be assembled from that staff. But Joan was the Queen of Research – a benign monarch who at heart did not want the authority or the responsibility of running a business. And she was loyal, I think, to Kellam, who after all had started the whole thing. But when we moved to fancier digs in a Hollywood office building, it was Joan who got the biggest office at the end of the hall. Kellam, for whom the job was more of a hobby than a profession, squatted in one of the smaller offices on the days that he came into the office.

Joan loved that job. She prided herself on doing more work than anyone else, on never missing a day, except when she went on her annual three-week vacation to England. Joan wasn’t English, but she’d married an Englishman, Jerry, and there was something a little British in her pronunciations, in her regal, erect posture, in her slight formality. She’d grown up poor in Washington State at the tail end of the Depression; she never liked appearing weak or needy. She never got sick. Or wouldn’t admit to it at least.

Joan and Jerry lived idiosyncratic lives. Jerry was a writer, mostly of science fiction, a wiry Brit with a goatee who always carried a bowie knife of some sort tucked into his hand-tooled leather belt. They had a son, Scott, whom they adored, a pride of half-Abyssinian cats and a houseful of books, watercolors by their favorite artist and a collection of pottery. They were among the founders of the original Agoura Hills Renaissance Faire. They were the sort of sturdy, interesting people whom if I did picture getting old I assumed would do so slowly and in rude good health.

Of course things often don’t work out the way it seems they logically should. Jerry passed away almost two years ago. Joan fell ill late this fall and died in mid-January.

It has been more than ten years since I worked for Joan, something like fourteen. The business had problems; there was a bankruptcy, layoffs. I was in the first wave of departures. I’d never held the layoff against Joan; in fact I don’t think she had much if anything to do with the decision. She hated anything having to do with finances and that kind of responsibility, which given Kellam’s peculiar management style was more than understandable. Eventually Joan and the “senior researchers,” the core group that had been with Kellam the longest, had to split off and form their own company, a decision Joan made with great reluctance. But they'd had no better choice at the end.

Through all of this I stayed in touch. The people I met at that job were some of the first real friends I made in Los Angeles, and they are people I enjoy being around today.

So contemplating this memorial, I was looking forward to it on one level. Some of the research gang I see fairly often; others not so much, and I wanted to see them all. But the occasion was hard to fathom.

Scott, Joan and Jerry’s son, hosted the gathering at their old house off Beachwood in Hollywood. The house, he had noted in the invitation, is sort of a wreck. It’s one of the old Spanish-style houses built in the twenties, some of the area’s original architecture: two levels, wonderful massive beamed ceiling. I’d recalled it as showing its age a bit but not particularly wrecked. The last few years, apparently, had been rough. The paint is peeling off in sheets and smaller flakes. There’s water damage and chunks of plaster missing, wood grid visible in the ceiling in places. Most of it could have happened pretty recently, I guess, given the rains we’ve had this year. Still it’s a lovely house, with unexpected, graceful details: an original.

“It’ll be a lot cheaper to tear it down and start over,” commented one man, a family friend I did not know.

I wandered around the old house. Books are everywhere, on every wall, stored on bookcases ranging from solid wood to rickety shelves on metal brackets. Oh, the books. Old reference books on every subject. Histories of Costume. Treatises on the Marsh Arabs. Almanacs. The Watergate Hearings. Old dust thick on the tops of the pages. No wonder Joan was able to work from home in the late afternoons, in the days before the internet. She'd had everything she needed, right here.

But where were the cats? There were always cats. Every year I would receive a Christmas card from Joan and Jerry with a different photo of different cats. The last year, there was only one cat, a black one named Midnight, and the card was from Joan alone.

Only two cats were left at the end, I was told. I guess I'd known that the tribe had diminished over the years. One, Scott told me, was adopted by one of his new in-laws (he had just married in November). The other, Midnight, he'd taken to his new home with his new family in San Diego. But this cat was semi-feral and had run away twice. “He’ll come back, I think,” Scott told me, though it had been nearly a month since it disappeared the second time. I wasn’t so sure. Who knows what goes on in their little kitty minds, but I wonder if that cat went off in search of what had been familiar to it, its old people and its old place?

I spent a lot of time talking with Callista, one of the partners. It seems to me that she looks just the same as when I worked with her. But all of the old crew seems that way to me. A few lines and wrinkles and gray, but essentially the same. There were surprises (Michelle – engaged? To a guy she met over the phone who lives in Mississippi? Michelle?! Who as she put it wouldn’t go out for a cup of coffee with a guy she didn’t know? And the two of them have been a couple for the last six years!). But mostly there was the comfort in seeing a group of people whose company I always had enjoyed. Except now there was the huge missing piece. The inexplicable absence.

“We feel the same way,” Callista told me. “We haven’t come to grips with it at all. It just doesn’t seem real. She wasn’t feeling well and one day she went home. And we never saw her again.”

Joan hadn’t wanted company. Hadn’t wanted people to see her weak. “Two weeks before she died, she talked about coming back to work,” Callista said. “She told Scott, I’m feeling a little better. I could read some scripts. Work from home.”

“I thought she’d live into her hundreds,” Callista said.

At one point in the evening, Callista introduced me to Maria, an old family friend. I vaguely recalled her from parties past. Callista told Maria: “Joan was always so impressed by Lee," - my nickname at work, because there was another Lisa, and it would confuse Kellam to have two - “she always went on about how talented you were, how pretty, how smart. You know she even went out to see Lee play,” Callista continued, to Maria and me, “and you know how Joan was, she never liked to go out.”

Listening to this, I felt an odd combination of things: embarrassment, pride, an obscure sort of shame. Mostly melancholy. I hadn’t really considered that Joan felt that way about me, or hadn’t really thought of it in a long time. What the hell happened? What had happened to all that? What had I done with this supposed talent, these smarts? Where did all that time go? How is it that so much time can pass, without seeing people we care about? And how the hell can they disappear, just like that?

Later, I went downstairs, where Scott gave a couple of us a brief guided tour. “My old bedroom,” he explained. “Then it was Joan’s office. I fixed it up for her, and I’ve been working down here since she got sick.” Scott and his wife had taken care of Joan the last few months, with the help of Cedars’ hospice program.

Downstairs had suffered more than upstairs from the water damage. The office has a gaping hole in the ceiling and a strong smell of mildew.

“This part of the house was added on in the sixties,” Scott explained, leading us down the hall. At the end of the hall was his father’s office. Down a short hall, naturally lined with dusty books, was the bedroom where Joan had slept for almost forty years, and where she had died. You could tell the room had been built in the sixties, or at least decorated then. It has that ubiquitous plywood, wood-grained paneling found in rec-rooms across America. Something about the color of the carpet, the quality of the light, gave the room a slightly greenish tinge, as though it were under water.

Scott pointed to an empty space under the window. “Here’s where her bed was,” he told us. “That’s where she died. Per her wishes.” Next to where the bed had once been, Scott’s dog, Scooby, sat curled up on her doggie cushion, beneath a little electric heater, thumping her skinny tail.

“What are you going to do with the place?” I asked Scott.

“Fix it up,” he said. “It doesn’t look like the damage is structural. And everyone tells me, these old Spanish houses, the original houses that were built in this area, they have historical merit. So I’m going to repair, rent it out. Keep Dad’s old office for an apartment – it has a second entrance and its own bathroom.” Scott teaches three nights a week in Los Angeles, so that seemed like a sensible plan. “And that way you’ll be able to keep an eye on things, when you’re renting it,” I added.

“Well, I’ll be here in case anything goes wrong and needs attention,” he said, not seeming to see the issue in terms of having to watch what the tenants might do. Rather, he would be the caretaker of this old house, and he wanted to do right by it.

When I think about Joan, one memory comes strongly to mind. It was the year that I and a co-worker, the first Lisa, both turned thirty. To celebrate, we decided we would get Amtrak passes, skateboard across America and visit old boyfriends. We’d be gone for three weeks. It was the longest vacation either of us had taken since entering the working world.

Quite unexpectedly, Joan showed up to see us off at the downtown train station. “Here are some plastic bags,” she said, thrusting a handful of plastic grocery bags at us. “You always need bags while traveling.” She was, of course, absolutely right.

I remember her standing there as we boarded, a little shyness behind her benevolent smile, giving us her blessings as we embarked on our adventure.

4 comments:

joann said...

Hi,
Saw your comments from Peking Duck and checked out your blog. Great posts.

And this one - wow. I always find how one life intersects with another life -- and we're all transformed, even if just a little.

Thanks for sharing your story.

Other Lisa said...

Dear Joann,

Thanks for stopping by - I kind of wondered if anyone other than my best friends and a few family members would ever see this - and writing a post like this, I wondered how relevant it would be to others. It wasn't my intention to do a tell-all diary with this blog; I want to do things that mean something to people other than me. So I really do appreciate your comment. Thanks so much for reading!

Susan Hudgens said...

How lucky we are, to read your writing. Don't stop ... you have more stories to tell about these fascinating people in L.A. who I always felt, when I lived there, had the most interesting and secretly poignant stories.

Anonymous said...

Other Lisa:

Thanks for the memorial tribute to Joan and stories from our years as script researchers. I'd forgotten some of the details, still crisp in your mind. Joan coming down to the train station to send us off with plastic bags had completely slipped from my grey matter. If memory serves (and it appears to serve you better than me) our train/skater trip was taken during the writers strike.