by Joe Tyburczy
I had bought the big pine armoire back when I lived on Cheremoya Avenue in Hollywood. It was really more of a cabinet for the TV --- and almost 6 feet tall. In that strange way that big pieces of furniture can sometimes be, it was surprisingly light for something so bulky. My friend Terry and I had managed to carry it up the stairs and set it into place without much trouble. Getting it into my apartment in Malibu was a whole different story. The front door to my particular unit was situated in such a way as to totally prohibit any of the usual backing and wedging maneuvers that would allow this monster a graceful entry.
Looking more anxious than anxious-to-please, my landlord Barry came up with the novel method of taking my cabinet through the unimpeded doorway of the next-door apartment and out onto the common oceanside deck. From there, the thing was boosted over a six-foot wall and onto my portion of the deck, and finally inside ---a process that required the complex choreography of four hefty moving men ---and featured Barry himself balanced like Nureyev on the small wooden railing that separated him from a 30 foot drop to the rocky beach.
As a newly-minted Malibu resident, I'd expected the transition to be more tranquil. Somehow I'd imagined myself communing with porpoises, legendary surfers and legions of bikinied godesses. I'd be spotting mariners in distress for the Coast Guard from my front window, and stroll the sand exchanging hearty greetings with celebrity neighbors each day. Golden sunsets and firelit clambakes would be mine forever. This entire illusion faded within moments of setting foot through the door. I'd realized I'd made a huge mistake, and the conviction only grew stronger as hours and days passed. The sea air made everything damp; a dead and corrupted all-permeating rotted fish-guts odor spread like a lethal virus over everything I owned. Planks fell out of the ceiling at odd intervals. Upon close examination, my new home proved to be a rough assemblage of crumbling concrete, decaying wood and plaster tentatively tacked together and clinging to an impossibly small scratch of steeply pitched earth. My evenings were shattered by the relentless, inescapable pounding of the sea against the house ---millions of gallons of seawater viciously hurling themselves against the rotted pilings under my floor, dragging uprooted tree trunks and huge boulders with a nightmare of deafening, apocalyptic sounds. The place literally shook under the assault.
The illusion of isolation was as complete as any medieval torture chamber. Nothing to see but water and sky, no human in sight; the monotony of the endless, roiling waves broken only by the occasional pelican diving for fish. I began to crave human contact. The post man. The telephone company truck. Low flying planes. Anyone.
Except Barry. Tall and fiftyish, his deeply sunken eyes betrayed years of drug abuse. He claimed to be a former musician, playing with "groups you've probably heard of" in the 60's. But his explanations would never go further than that. My introduction to him as a landlord was in the way of a confrontation. I'd arrived to find the bathroom sink backed up, its basin filled with sludgey water. He promised to send a plumber in the next morning. The plumber showed up, estimated the situation ---badly corroded pipes ----and his fee: $100. Barry reacted like a man who'd been gut-punched. He loudly pronounced the plumber a no-good con artist and a liar, quickly hustling him out the door with a chorus of threats and expletives. Moments later he was back inside to assure me that he'd get to that pesky drain clog "sometime next week".
Annoyed, I explained that I assumed my rent had included the privilege of washing my face in the bathroom sink, and I'd rather not wait a week to do it. A dark, hunted look crossed his face. I got the sense of some deeply buried, barely controlled primal rage edging itself closer to the surface as he struggled to contain himself. Finally, he exploded; not in violence, but in a torrent of self-pity, "Oh man.....this is bad...this is like a...a chick or something! I can't take this!"
After that, I resolved to get out. Two months later when I finally did, it was on the most cordial and carefully arranged terms I could manage. I'd lied and said I had gotten a job back "over the hill". Since the drive from the San Fernando Valley to Malibu was legendary in breaking the backs of all but the most dedicated commuters, he'd accepted my earnest and at least partially truthful explanation. A few days before the move, a dazed young woman appeared at my door and said she'd been a former tenant. She asked if I had Barry's phone number because he owed her money. I instantly worried about my own $400 "security deposit".
At 9 AM on the day of the move, I called and asked him to assist the armoire's extraction by opening up the apartment next door. He promised to be there between 11 AM and noon. By half-past noon the armoire sat magnificently alone in the empty apartment. Most everything else was loaded but Barry still hadn't shown. The movers were relaxing. At $80 an hour they'd sit and relax all day if necessary. I decided to walk the five houses up Pacific Coast Highway to Barry's address. My knocking brought no reply. I opened the gate and stepped through to find another locked door and a slime-dusted window. Through this, I saw what looked to be a couple of small, rough-planked rooms, filled floor to ceiling with junk ---records, books, reel-to-reel tapes. A few siamese cats stared back at me through the glass. Taped to the walls were crumbling posters rendered in psychedelic style: the Doors at the Fillmore, Hendrix, Janis Joplin. And these were the originals; not copies.
My worst fears were confirmed. Barry was living a marginal existence in a drug-addled fantasy state, pursued by psychotic fears of persecution, convinced that I was out to get him, desperate and capable of anything. He was probably at the hardware store right now, buying gallons of kerosene and rags, engineering a dramatic Viking funeral for the entire building that would claim me with it in a blaze of arson that would make headlines across the state.
I got back to the movers with a bold plan. We'd move the piece out the deck, over the wall, and through the other apartment ---the one recently taken by a mystery fellow whom I was told, was never home and never locked his doors. Both proved true. Within minutes we'd succeeded. The truckers lashed down the armoire and headed off for Burbank. A few minutes later Barry showed up. Rather than haunted with crazed vengance for imagined wrongs, he looked merely sleepy. I told him we'd miraculously gotten the armoire out the front door of my place. We talked about the deposition of my 400. Everything was in order, he agreed to cut me a check on Tuesday. As the minutes passed, his disposition grew more relaxed. He was harmless. Just a mellow dude with a few odd quirks. I finally asked him, "so what was that band you played with in the sixties?".
The story he told me was of an 18 year old drummer who'd gotten a job playing backup for Elvis Presley. "If you look real hard" he said, "you'll see me in the background of a lot of those silly movies Elvis did."
When Elvis stopped touring in the early 60's, Barry was a free-agent drummer, on the road with Tommy James and The Shondells, The Coasters and Gladys Knight. Later, when Elvis entered his Las Vegas phase, he invited Barry and many of the original band members out for a week-long kickoff party in the penthouse of the Sands Hotel.
"Boy, that was a party to remember", he recalled. "Forget about the Rolling Stones reputation for wild parties. Elvis outdid them all."
He was reticent about further details. Rather than being proud, it seemed like he'd almost rather forget it all. I let him.
I asked him about the new tenant. He told me the new guy had already bounced a check.
"Yeah," he shrugged, "I could write a book about tenants."
I told him I knew what he meant ---that I could probably write a book about landlords. Suddenly I saw that dark look cross his face, the one I'd seen two months before.
"You MEAN...." he struggled, "....NOT giving you DEPOSITS back.....RIPPING YOU OFF and like that? Is THAT WHAT YOU MEAN?".
I grabbed his arm, almost as if to stop him from whatever he was going to do next, and mustered the most charming manner I could manage.
"Oh no, not at all!" I said. "The property owners I've met all were interesting people. Very unique individuals. Like you".
He thought about this for a moment.The shadow seemed to lift from his face and within seconds he once again became a relaxed, almost likeable guy. He wished me the best of luck, after which we shook hands and I drove off.