Article: The Rustic Cabin in the Woods
Written for the civilian. august 2016.
the prompt for this Editorial was community and gratitude.
The Rustic Cabin in the Woods
The first time I flew into LAX was during the sunset hours in March of 2014. After retrieving my rental car and traveling across the city, I arrived in Mt. Washington, where I would be staying for the next week. My friend, someone who grew up in my hometown, Grand Rapids, MI, gave me a tour of his place that took all of 30 seconds. He lived in a cave-like studio located in what I imagine was a storage space or small work-shed at some point in history. The doorway was low, and even at my short 5’4” stature, I had to duck my head to enter. To the right was what I later learned to call a “bachelor’s kitchen”—a mini fridge flanked by shelves which housed mismatched plates and silverware, two burners, and a convection oven. To the left of the entrance I noticed a sink with dishes waiting to be washed, and secured above was a shelf holding toiletries, cologne, toothpaste, a razor—making it clear that this sink served both the bathroom and the kitchen. The bedroom was straight ahead and consisted of a lofted bed in order to make space for storage and a bookshelf; it was separated from the kitchen/living room by curtain. A fan clicked as it rotated on it’s stand, pushing around the still-warm March night air, spreading the scent of an herbal tea that was keeping warm on one of the burners. His living situation was a far cry from the two-bedroom, spacious enough to do to cartwheels, apartment I was occupying in Grand Rapids, and the rent was nearly the same. I had always heard that living in Los Angeles was expensive, but witnessing it for the first time was astounding.
Not long before experiencing this reality check, I had impulsively decided it was time for a change and sunny California looked quite promising from inside Michigan’s Polar Vortex. In fact, this particularly miserable Michigan winter had turned what originally was planned as a vacation into a quest to discover an LA neighborhood I might be happy to call home. However, within the first hours of treading on the expensive and intimidating Los Angelean ground, my mind was reeling. A decision that once felt so clear was becoming foggy and the hopefulness I thought I would find was instead riddled with second-guessing.
That night I lie in bed, my face only a few feet from the ceiling, with doubt swirling in my mind. “You’ll never make it here. This city isn’t for you. You’re guaranteed to fail. You are not strong enough, brave enough, successful enough. Pretty enough. Dot dot dot enough... ” I don’t remember what I dreamed about that night, but I imagine it involved feelings of exposure, being found out, and intense vulnerability.
The next morning, I woke up abruptly to my friend remembering there was street sweeping at 8:00am. We were ten minutes too late, and there was already a parking ticket tucked underneath the windshield wiper on my rental car. $76. This astronomical fee struck me as hilarious as I had grown accustomed to bitching about $15 parking tickets in Grand Rapids. I couldn’t help but laugh over the ludicrousy of it all and with that laughter there also came a moment of life altering perspective.
For the first time since arriving in this monstrous city, I breathed deeply, looked around my friend’s studio, and felt a sense of peace. The high cost of rent and parking tickets—and as a soon learned, pretty much everything—encouraged a simplicity I had never experienced before. I appreciated the obligation to minimalism that he embraced, and began to understand the importance in valuing the things that were free: the sun beating down the front door, the birds singing outside, the warmth already radiating through the concrete walls of his humble, happy home. I made myself a cup of French press coffee and barely remembered to duck my head as I stepped outside. On the other side of that dangerous doorway, I was welcomed by a large patio surrounded in succulents that the dark had hidden the night prior. The neighbor’s adorably scruffy rescue dog came running to greet me, her tail a wagging blur… and in that moment, I understood what it would take for me to live in Los Angeles. Gratitude. And it was impossible to feel anything but grateful on that patio that morning.
And so I took a chance and decided to move. To the Eastside.
I discovered a backhouse in Highland Park on Craigslist under the title “Rustic Cabin in the Woods”. The description simply said, “New Hardwood Floors”. There were no photographs, but it was in my budget, and that was all I needed to know in order to investigate further. I spoke to the owner on the phone and he suggested I give myself a tour as a painter was there working. I didn’t hesitate. After trudging up a small hill around the side of a large home at the front of the property, the place for rent came into view. It was cabin-like, as promised, and absolutely charming. I walked up a few steps leading to the small, blue-green porch and stepped inside the already-open front door. I was instantly overwhelmed with the feeling that whoever built this house back in 1940 somehow knew I would exist someday… and that it had been waiting for me all this time. The painter, who was putting the second coat on a windows’ trim, looked up briefly to say hello, but to me it sounded more like “welcome home”. The living room was simple and bright, the dining room walls were covered in white-painted wood. Built in bookshelves flanked the entrance to the all-white kitchen, and the bedroom windows took up so much space I was unsure of where I would even put my bed. It was perfect.
Despite the fact that my housing application wasn’t strong, the owner, the dearest man who purchased the property in the 70s, was still willing to consider me as potential tenant. After sending him multiple heartfelt emails professing my adoration for the home, I invited him to a get-to-know-me lunch in an attempt to prove I would be a responsible tenant. We met at Kitchen Mouse. Over Moros Cakes (mine) and Breakfast Tacos (his), I shared the story of how I chose to move to Los Angeles, and he, in turn, told me about his family, showed me photos of his summer home in Oregon, and gave me no indication of whether or not I would ever refer to him as my landlord. Instead, he mentioned how astounded he was by the number of applications he received, but that he was planning to make his decision by the end of the day.
After a rainy afternoon that felt like it went on for weeks, my phone rang. I knew it was the call I had been waiting for. I anxiously answered. The voice on the other line started off slow, “It’s been lovely to meet you, and I have some bad news…”. My heart sunk. “You’re going to have to move all of your things up that hill.” I happy cried.
A few weeks later, on move-in day, he confirmed my suspicions that I wasn’t the strongest applicant on paper. He explained that he chose to take a chance on me because he could tell that I wanted it the most, and he knew that I would take care of it. Those words were my welcome mat to this community.
Now, and for the foreseeable future, I am living in this one bedroom backhouse perched on a hill in Highland Park. It’s the first time in my life I have lived alone, and finding this home in this special neighborhood has truly shaped my experience. It is quiet here. I can hear the intercom announcements from a nearby school on the mornings that I wake early. If I climb to the top of the property, I can see all the way to downtown, and when the sun sets outside the two biggest windows in my living room the sorbet shaded clouds shine a vibrant pink light onto the white walls throughout the house. Many of my neighbor’s families have lived here for generations. They are welcoming, kind, and smile when I pass them on the sidewalk. The man who lives across the street, when I asked if he had a jalapeño for the guacamole I was making, also brought me onions, tomatoes, and cilantro from his garden. Another neighbor, who works as a plumber, helped me move and install my washer and dryer. The older couple that lives in the front house introduced me to their grandchildren. The owners of local businesses recognize me and made the effort to learn my name.
I am convinced that I discovered a pocket of Los Angeles that has a heart. I can feel it beating in the constant evolution on Figueroa, York, and every side street, in both the new store fronts and the ones that have been open for generations, in the atmosphere that embraces entrepreneurs, in the familiar faces, in its rich history, and I am so proud to be a part of it. I like to believe that my landlord, who has lived in Highland Park for decades, saw qualities in me that made me a natural addition to this authentic part of the city. That somewhere in my emails and our lunch conversation he recognized an earnest groundedness… an appreciation for the little things and determination to take care of my surroundings, because he knew that these values mirrored those of the community.
I can see now that the feeling of belonging I first experienced when walking into the “Rustic Cabin in the Woods” was simply a preview of what it would be like to live in Highland Park. My sense of pride to live here extends far beyond the four walls of my house, and the gratitude that I first felt when visiting the Eastside has not waned, but grown exponentially stronger. This is so much more than the part of Los Angeles that I live in. This is my home.