I’d been living in the “H” on the Hollywood sign. There had been a vacancy in the “O” too — Rick Caruso, the mall developer, had recently converted the back ends of the letters into apartments; the idea was it would subsidize lighting the sign up because inside people would turn on lamps — but I didn’t want that much noise. The “H” appealed because you had the hills on at least one side. The neighbors also were quieter.
Still, I can’t say it was the greatest setup. Sure, there was glamour, but one of the reasons the apartments weren’t prohibitively expensive was that you could still only reach them by foot (the parking garage was a half-mile away). This had been part of the deal when Caruso approached the city about zoning, and although he was hoping, indeed counting on, getting this provision changed, at the time it was in place indefinitely. I got good exercise, that was all.
The big problem, though? The tourists. The sheer volume. It didn’t help that my cat is named Greta Garbo. She’s a tiny, little thing, all black with silver eyes, and she’s a runner. Constantly itching to get out of the apartment, and I do let her play outside. But when I need to call her in I have to yell. Loudly. “Greta Garbo!” You can imagine the looks, but more than that, the excitement, this generates. Sure, the movie star’s not alive but for a moment people forget that. Their minds are fertile up here. It seems like a dreamscape, a place straight out of their fantasies.
Anyway, the other big problem? That turned out to be Walt. I’d met Walt a few times before our fateful meeting — which took place one night at Musso & Frank over a martini after they got my order wrong and I made a stink about it and they gave me a free one. I’d been there with a friend, and she knew him and introduced us. Walt was nice, not much more. At the end of the night we all went back to our apartments. He was in the “W” it turned out serendipitously, staying with another friend. I was, of course, still at my place.
Who knows why I didn’t get it the first time but soon I did: His attraction. How? He walked up to me the following morning and held an umbrella over my head. “What’s that for?” I asked.
“To shield you from the sun.”
I don’t know — something about how impossible it would be — but the effort he was willing to put in, the idea he could or he couldn’t but wanted to protect me: I fell straight away in love.
When we would roll down the hills outside, it was strange how for just a moment the stars in the sky would look like they were on the ground, and then they’d return to their rightful place. It was romantic how before I’d head to work at Kettle Donuts down on Franklin — making vanilla glazed with sprinkles, chocolate with custard inside, cruffins and cronut rip-offs so early in the mornings it still felt like night — he’d leave little notes for me with hearts and smiley faces on them. How, during dinner and drinks down on Sunset over things like the Marilyn Monroe roll at Geisha House and the guac with queso fresco at Beso, he’d make me laugh with tales of Lucy and Desi in the old Ciro’s on Sunset and deals done in back rooms of the old Ambassador Hotel. It felt like we were building something. I guess you know where I’m going with this. Soon, under the stars, Walt and I shared our first kiss.
Were there cartoon stars that came out of my head? Tiny hearts that alighted from my mouth? Kind of (metaphorically). I liked him; he liked me. We were up in the center of town, and I was falling more and more in love with my life in Hollywood.
Things got serious fast. When I think of it now we were like kids. Racing from the first “O” apartment to the ones where the “Y” was; sneaking out under the shade of the “D” and making out in the moonlight. Listening to coyotes while shaded by the upper quadrant of the “W”; walking down to Beachwood Market and sharing sandwiches with pickles and extra mustard. We got takeout sometimes from Musso’s and saw wild horses while walking back.
Walt moved in. Sure, tourists still abounded and Garbo ran out all the time, but it was like the magic of where I lived had met the magic of my mind. The inner and outer matched, you know? I felt like the luckiest girl in the world.
Then we had our first movie night. It was a joint project really — Walt and I putting our heads together to contribute to the sign community and also to have even more fun ourselves. It was private at first, but soon we ran a small announcement in The Beverly Hills Courier and someone at the Playboy Mansion got wind of it. Hef — who’s such a fan of the sign he gave a lot of money to have it refurbished at one point — wanted to come by. He brought Holly Madison, she brought a few other friends, and one even wore the outfit — pink and white bunny ears and a cotton-ball tail. But still it was intimate. Jeff from the upper “O” served as our projectionist. Maureen in the lower part of the “Y” made popcorn from an old-fashioned maker she’d gotten for Christmas that winter. The first night we screened “The Thin Man”: “Oh, Nicky, I love you because you know such lovely people”; “Haven’t you heard the news? I’m a gentleman now!” I can still hear Nick and Nora Charles’ voices, their slinky tones and barreling choices. Walt and I were the belle and beau of the ball, “Mr. and Mrs. Hollywood Sign” a few people even called us. It was silly but I felt delight. It seemed like we belonged together, and I can’t say it was a familiar feeling.
My whole life, I realized, I’d been looking for something. Not just a place or a job or an apartment, but a feeling. Of home. It seemed I’d found it with Walt in the “H.”
Enter Shirl. Shirl was a movie star the likes of which you might not have heard of but you could surely see it: She was meant to be one, looked like one, seemed straight out of Central Casting for that role. Platinum-but-still-soft hair, perfect little va-va-voom body, red-red lips and a drawl that dripped glamour. She’d recently moved into the “D.” At first, it was casual. She helped us with movie night for god’s’ sake. The next Thursday we showed “Waterloo Bridge.” The next, “Grey Gardens.” Another time, “The Great Santini.”
I saw them chatting closely in front of Robert Taylor and Vivien Leigh. Her silhouette was lit up when she crossed in front of Little Edie’s flag dance to get to him — to help with snacks. But still, nothing, at least in my mind. Then I saw them kiss in front of Robert Duvall.
I died. Not truly of course, but a part of me did. Now I see my tears dripping down the “H” itself, sopping wet, giving the dried-out ground at least a little moisture. I was green with envy and blue with grief. Red with anger and purple with frustration. It was awful. And back to just Greta and me. “Get out!” I yelled to Walt not long after like he was a character in a movie and he’d responded with a kind of alarm that seemed to set his very hair on edge; it looked styled to reflect anger, to impart shame and being humbled (though god knows if he was and these days I think he wasn’t).
“Garbo!” I sometimes call, just the last name because I’m tired and upset. It’s the details, the little things that portray someone’s — my — mental state.
It was weeks, then months. He’s not coming back, I guess. It kills me again and again. And I wonder about it. What was it that we had, and did I really need it? I didn’t think I was missing much until I met him and got more than I’d bargained for — inside. He made me feel young, for one thing. Not that I’m old — I just passed 30 to his 49 — but in this town it makes you think that way. I felt, with Walt, like I was on top of the world, a light on a hill, a sign for glamour and what you can have, but larger than that, too.
Now? I just live here. The “O’”s still the same — hell, of course, the Hollywood Sign is still the same. But I’ve changed. And what it signifies has, too. Look: It used to be magical to me but now I see what’s behind it. In a sense, I’m just the apartment now, the one that’s not too expensive and that you have to walk a half a mile to. I used to be — for a few magical weeks and moments and minutes and even as a cluster of atoms — the lit-up “H.”
Strawberry Saroyan is a writer in Los Angeles. Her memoir, “Girl Walks into a Bar,” was published by Random House and her stories — fiction and nonfiction — have appeared in The Believer, Five Chapters, Open City, The New York Times Magazine, Zyzzyva and Vogue. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice, and anthologized in “Personals: Dreams and Nightmares from the Lives of Twenty Young Writers” (Houghton Mifflin) and “They’re At it Again: An Open City Reader” (Grove).
Photo by Sheila M via Flickr