Faithfulness and devotion, things born of fire and roof,
were his; yet he retained his wildness and wiliness.
He was a thing of the wild, come in from the wild
to sit by John Thornton’s fire…
—from Call of the Wild by Jack London
After I left my apartment and job in Anaheim, I moved into one of the old mill houses across from the Oxford Theater. Even though the floors creaked and the house smelled of mold, and even though I cut my foot on a jagged piece of old linoleum, broken and protruding into the air like a sentry at the kitchen door, this was home. It was $25 a month, and it was mine. With a few bounding steps across Oxford Avenue, I was at work or school, depending on the day.
I never cooked in the old mill house. Occasionally, I lit a burner on the stove to boil water for instant coffee. Sometimes there was a quart of milk, a few beers, or maybe a couple of apples getting cold in the small refrigerator, which reminded me of the one we had when I was a kid. But most mornings I would walk to Western Avenue, buy three or four donuts and a cup of coffee, and go back to the theater, long before anyone else arrived.
I often sat on the stage looking out at the wooden seats, the rising sun projecting shadows of the steel-framed window panes across the scratched black backs of the empty rows. Bird song muffled its way through the glass and brick as morning advanced. There was nothing soft here; cushions, curtains, carpet, things to come with the remodeling, were expensive dreams now. In this once-upon-a-time factory, now a make-shift theater, a board would shift somewhere and resound off the high ceiling and bare walls like a lone applause. Above me a long piece of black pipe, suspended with chain, held the stage lighting sufficient to illuminate this arena when it came to life with story.
By exile and adventure, by mishap and naiveté, I was drawn here from the place of my birth in Ohio. Studying to be an actor was not something I felt sure about, but it was something meant to be. The idea of it thrilled me, giving the vigor of sinew and blood to the bones of print on a page. To achieve the ability to affect people and be appreciated for it dominated my dreams day and night. Knowing that there was the possibility to make more money in a day than I had ever made in a month was hypnotic, even as it seemed preposterous. The demon lurking in the wings was my self-consciousness. Ironically, being watched and judged became both an obstacle to be feared and the very goal I sought. This was my dilemma as I sat in class waiting to present a scene or to engage in my greatest fear—improvisation.
To feel at once both found and lost is not an easy road to be on. Yet those were my days as an acting student and a carpenter at the Oxford Theater. At first, I felt more fulfilled demolishing and rebuilding the existing stage than acting on it. I knew about boards and nails and what to do with them, about how to imagine something of wood and paint and make it real. As I learned more about acting and stage production, I found comfort in becoming characters and entering dramas often very different from my own life.
For several months I struggled with characteristics about myself I had never thought of before: how I moved, spoke, and reacted to the verbal and physical language of other actors, not just as characters engaged in scenes, but as real people living in another world where anything was possible. So much self-examination and attention to detail were required, along with a humility I had never experienced. These churned continuously in my head as I sat in class watching and listening, which is what I was doing the day a black cat walked into the theater directly toward me and lay under my chair. When class was over, I went to work on building the new stage, and the cat left. The next day the same thing happened. The cat seemed old. His left ear had a crescent tear in it. His fur was long, matted and dirty, clumped in places by an unidentifiable substance with a slight sheen. Out of this wretchedness, though, shone the most astounding blue eyes and the delicate tip of a pink tongue.
For weeks the cat came in from the streets to lie under my chair. I never saw him outside the theater, never saw him any other time at all. Everyone called him my cat. I would pet him briefly, and he would lie still in his usual spot. Even if I switched chairs, he would find me. One day he looked at me, and in the softest meow, he said hello. I could barely hear his voice. It was like my voice. I named him Bummer, because he must have lived a horrible and dangerous life. I began bringing him food and water, and eventually I decided to take him home. One week, I spent nearly my entire paycheck taking him to the vet for shots, bathing, and brushing. The day after, when Bummer entered the theater on his way to my chair, the class applauded. He was a beautiful, Persian-like cat, with lustrous fur the color of midnight, a striking metamorphosis.
Less miraculously and with great hesitation, I began my own transformation. I began to lift my head when I walked; my voice found its source deeper inside me, closer to my heart. I began to move with a purpose both on stage and in my daily personal activities. I became friends with some fellow actors (one I would come to regret). And there was Bummer, my constant companion. He slept in the mill house at night under the single wooden captain’s chair on a small rug, a secure extension of his daytime place in the theater.
One night, I woke up to Bummer making a sound I had never heard before. It was a guttural noise somewhere between a meow and a growl. He was staring into the kitchen at a spot of moonlight illuminating a giant rat sitting on his haunches on my counter top. The rat was the size of a Chihuahua, his paws around a scrap of food, his whiskers twitching in the silver light as he chewed on the new-found prize. His lipless mouth made a chilling, faint smacking sound that seemed to amplify on the bare walls of the otherwise dark house. I shouted “git!” and the rat bolted out of sight. I turned on the light, and Bummer followed me into the kitchen—there was no more rat, but no obvious entry point either. What little charm or sense of home I had assigned to the mill house vanished in that instant. I imagined Bummer getting into a fight or me getting bitten. The spectacle and sound of the rat in the moonlight, like an actor on a stage, exposed my self-deception in calling this place a home. It became clear: I had to move again.
Bill Sargent was an actor, an engineer, and a genius. He invented the ColorTran Mini-Crab Dolly for cinematography, still in use today. Early in his career he made a living on daytime soaps. When I met him, he regularly appeared in TV series like Dr. Kildare, The Fugitive, and Star Trek. He was another principle member of the Oxford Theater board and responsible for managing the remodeling. I told him about the rat and how I needed to move immediately. Bill had a practiced countenance from years of acting. Furrowing his brow, he listened to my story. Gradually his eyes widened a little and then crinkled at their edges along with a self-satisfied smile that said he was happy to have a solution for me.
“My girlfriend lives in a wonderful garage apartment on Gardner Street in Hollywood. She’ll be leaving in about two months. It’s owned by a lovely Polish couple, and I’m sure they’d let you have a cat. And it’s only $50 a month.”
I was relieved for a minute, but I had no idea what I should do in the meantime.
“I can’t stay in that mill house for another two months. I don’t want Bummer to get into a fight with a big rat. He’s probably had his fill of that, ” I said.
“You can stay in the back room of the theater. I’m sure Jack will be okay with it. There’s a bathroom and a shower, a small refrigerator and a hotplate. You could sleep on the stack of theater curtains; I’ve done it myself for a nap or two. They’re very comfortable, ” Bill responded matter-of-factly.
I was not convinced, but that night I spread some sheets across the seven inches of thick, maroon theater curtains and spent the night in a deep sleep. I stayed there with Bummer until the apartment came available. The theater did not feel like a home, but it was peaceful. Some nights I would sit outside on the fire escape and listen to the sounds drifting from the surrounding streets and sidewalks like a strange nocturnal theater: an occasional horn, a dog barking, shouts and laughter from drivers and pedestrians for whom the night and its music were a siren song that kept them wandering sleeplessly through the labyrinth of seduction that was L.A. I envisioned this nocturnal cacophony as the dreams of those who were sleeping elsewhere in Hollywood.
In the spring, I met Mr. and Mrs. Kaczmarek and moved into the garage apartment behind their house. It was clean, with one large room, a bathroom with a shower, and a small, fully-equipped kitchen with a breakfast nook. There was a freshly painted wooden back porch over which hung several branches of a lemon tree. The brightness of its abundant yellow seemed to extend through the curtains into the charming kitchen and beyond, giving the apartment a feeling of deep cleanliness.
Mrs. Kaczmarek smiled, “I hope you will feel at home here. Your cat is welcome as long as he’s a gentleman. Many people have lived here over the years and always found it a wonderful place to call home.”
“It’s a great apartment, ” I said. “I’ll take care of it. Thank you for such a lovely place.”
I stayed awake late into that first night, first sitting on the bed, then sitting in the breakfast nook sipping tea with fresh lemon, then standing at the sparkling kitchen sink turning the water off and on. I imagined all the days to come in this new home. As I stared at moonlight on the lemons through the screen door, it seemed my life was becoming more like me. There were fewer compromises. But this boundless new land with all its possibilities swelled toward me like the waves along the Pacific, crashing down on me at times with the gravity of its freedom. Choice was new to me. I had made a big choice to drive west into a life unknown, but many more choices lay inevitably ahead of me, all fettered to the road that had brought me here.
I looked at Bummer and thought we were much the same, shy but fearless. We shared this new beginning in our own ways, perhaps both knowing that new beginnings have their own dangers.
Browse more Memoir Notebook
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro