1 ~ Sans
Los Angeles was everything he’d hoped and less.
It felt like he could breathe for the first time. The light seemed different somehow. Perhaps it was the angle. Maybe it was just not filtered through the haze of bigotry and hypocrisy at the other end of the highway he’d followed there.
I-20 begins in Florence, South Carolina, his home town. It merges with the 10 in The-Middle-of-Nowhere, Texas and comes to an end in the tawny enclave of Santa Monica on the west side of Los Angeles.
Sanders Aiken Nicholson Santee — Sans to his friends — got on the 20 when there was nothing left for him at home but bad memories. The journey had been as liberating as it was unplanned.
His life had exploded. Everything he’d worked for since graduating from college was ripped from his hands. There was nothing to do but run away. Although, in truth, he’d been forced to leave.
Los Angeles was the end of the road. Literally. He got off the freeway, had a look at Venice, drove east on Santa Monica Boulevard back through Westwood and Beverly Hills. He stopped for lunch in West Hollywood at a restaurant called The Silver Spoon.
The thing that struck Sans most as he drove into the city was the lack of a city. There was no there, there. As he crossed the country he saw city after city, each unique but all the same. Each sprouted like a nipple, peaked at the center and radiated out to identical edges. All had the same stores, fast food polyps and housing blemishes. All were laid out from greatest concentration to least. Traversing each was the same. There was more and more and then there was less and less until there was no more, over and over.
But Los Angeles wasn’t like that. It was all less and then more less. There was no center.
Sans felt lost and free. The city seemed to dismiss expectations by not meeting them.
He’d heard of West Hollywood all his life — well, he paid attention since puberty arrived with a surprise package. Body hair, wet dreams and you’re in love with your best friend, Roy – Surprise! He’d never denied his sexuality; he just never mentioned it. California in general and West Hollywood in particular loomed like legends. It was a magical land where people didn’t hate almost everyone and everything in the name of their god of love.
Sans hoped the legends were true.
As he sat alone at this table at The Silver Spoon, he looked around at the other diners. An old movie star he’d thought was dead, a mom and dad with their kids, two women kissing, two men holding hands waiting to be seated – all were of equal value. There was no shock. There were no stares. Well, other than Sans’.
He peered at the marvelous alien landscape around him over the top of the newspaper he’d bought out front.
“What are you looking for?” the waiter asked, stopping by to refill Sans’ iced tea.
“I’m sorry?” Sans answered, reddening, caught.
“The classifieds?” the waiter said, giving the paper a thump.
“Oh, that,” Sans laughed. “I’m looking for an apartment. I’m new to town.”
“Really?” the waiter said with a meaningful grin that Sans missed. “Well, that’s not how you find an apartment in LA.”
“The best way is to go to the neighborhood you like and walk around,” the waiter explained. “Write down the phone numbers from the For Rent signs and call them.”
“What neighborhoods do you like?” Sans asked, looking for the code.
“This one’s great,” the waiter answered with a sly smile.
Could he be? Sans wondered of the waiter. It was hard to be a part of an invisible minority.
After lunch, Sans tossed the paper into his car. He set out into the neighborhood in the landscape that rose behind the restaurant.
The Hollywood Hills begin their steep incline just north of Santa Monica Boulevard, the Main Street of West Hollywood. Sans wandered up the gentle grade for a bit of sightseeing. He could hardly believe the waiter’s notion. Ads and rental services seemed a much more sensible way to go about finding a place in a new and unfamiliar city.
It took West Hollywood a little more than two blocks to change his mind. Up one block, over one and up a little farther, there it was. The sign out front said “Sweetzer Court, bachelor and 1 br for rent.”
It was a strange building, a little out of place on the block. It was surrounded by huge glassy modern structures, pocked with balconies. The one immediately next door was an embarrassing leftover from the pastel and glass block architecture of the Miami Vice era that would have been more at home in South Beach.
Sweetzer Court was a cross between the familiar Victorian architecture Sans remembered from back home in the South and the pictures he’d seen of the Alhambra in Spain. The asymmetrical profile of the building seemed almost whimsical. Tile roofed turrets protruded from walls and corners and sprouted on the roof like a fairy ring of mushrooms. The walls were scored with mismatched windows and sculpted from stucco, not the clapboard he knew from home.
As he stood on the street out front, the building gave Sans the feeling of back lot facade or stage set more than a real place. The archway that opened onto the street led into a motor court that reminded him of the movie Sabrina. The circle of narrow ports opened onto a jigsaw of terracotta tile and cement medallions grouted with wide bands of grass. Above, a gallery lined with windows and numbered doors looked down through clouds of magenta bougainvillea blossoms onto the fanciful car park.
The sound of splashing water beckoned Sans through the second barrel archway. Flanked with brass mailboxes, set into cracked and gap-toothed blue and white mosaic tiles, the little passage opened onto a second courtyard. The forbidding iron gate stood open, like a hand extended. Sans could not resist.
He stepped through into a secret garden, at once frowsy and grand.
Old roses, unkempt and heavy with white blossoms tangled around the pilasters and railings of the double galleries that bounded the plaza on three sides. The same grass grouted medallions radiated out from a moldy looking tile fountain at center court. Two cherubs, on the backs of entwined dolphins, spit water onto the tile and lilies below them. The water drained lazily through notches in the four sides of the central square pool below the angelic pair. The water collected in a cross shaped pond surrounding the angels set even with the ground. Gold and white koi flashed against the blue and white tile at Sans feet.
It was a place of magic and it held its new visitor in its thrall.
Sans cried out.
The cough tinged laughter was deeper and more elegant than the voice that had given Sans such fright.
“I’m so sorry,” Sans apologized, ever the southerner. “I didn’t mean to intrude. I just couldn’t resist. Such a perfect place. ”
“You must be the new tenant,” the man said drawing nearer. The panama hat he wore cast a shadow over his face that made it hard to make out his features. There was a grandeur to his manner that put Sans at ease in the way that knowing the words to a prayer gave him a sense of his place in the universe.
“I’d love to be,” Sans said, taking the hand that was offered. “I’ve only just gotten here. I saw the sign and, well, here I am.”
“South Carolina,” Sans blushed. “Mouth full of grits?”
“I love southern boys,” the man smiled. He looked past Sans though he still held his hand. “That accent. I had a beau from Savannah, a sailor. Drove up from San Diego so he could come out without getting found out. But that was more than your lifetime ago. I’m Randolph, welcome to the Sweetzer Court. I’m sure you’ll be very happy here.” He gave Sans’ hand another little shake, more an embrace, with both of his.
“No, I’m not the new tenant,” Sans said. He laughed nervously.
“Dear boy, I’ll decide that,” Randolph said, releasing Sans’ hand. “You’re looking aren’t you?”
“Yes, sir,” Sans nodded.
“Sir,” Randolph laughed. “You’ll make me feel old.”
“Sorry, sir, I mean . . .”
“And you like it here don’t you?” Randolph spread his hands to include their exotic and homely surroundings.
“I love it,” Sans grinned, nodding.
“Then welcome home,” Randolph said, lacing his arm into Sans. “I’ll make us some tea and you can tell me what you can afford. I’m sure that we’ve got something in this rambling old heap that will suit. I’ve got a sense about these things.”
To be continued . . .
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