For twenty years, I lived in a broken down cottage in the middle of one of the richest counties in California. Amid mansions and manors, my hundred year old shack sat like an eye-sore in the middle of unbridled luxury.
The cottage had neither foundation nor insulation; I often thought that it wasn’t much cozier than living in a tent; especially in the winter. The cottage had no heat. And on really chilly nights, my water glass would freeze, and I would have a glass of solid ice next to the bed.
Various shrubberies and vines grew right through the walls. Each spring, I would excitedly anticipate which new delightful plant might surprise me; I especially enjoyed the flowering vines that would drape themselves over my furniture.
Not only did the plants make themselves welcome in my home, but so did the animals. I had my regular visitors; skunks, possums, deer and raccoons. These creatures could create their own kind of havoc. But I also had odd things, like slugs. There was a winter that if I got up in the night and turned on the lights really quick, the walls would be full of them, snaking their way in curvy silvery paths, creating green undulating wallpaper.
I was also invaded by rats for about a year. Aggressive little buggers, they were. We would see them chewing right through the walls, and we’d run around nailing bits of wood over every hole as fast as they chewed. I actually started hammering at their fangs. But they won. They built a nest in my couch, an intricate city of tunnels and holes all through the center of the furniture. I was forced to set out bigger and bigger rat traps, because nothing would catch them. But when I did, they were so large that I would find their plump bodies surrounded by a huge pools of blood like murder victims. Their blood was brighter than humans. It looked like melted cherry candy.
I fell right through the floorboards twice. A rather rude awakening, as both times it happened to me was the middle of the night. One moment I’m stumbling blindly to the bathroom; the next I’ve fallen down Alice’s hole; only this underground Wonderland was dark and muddy and filled with creatures.
My landlords were a horror show. A mother and daughter duo, who I watched age 20 years apiece, more than fulfilled my desire to observe lunacy. I dubbed the duo “Wigs Askew” because they both wore wigs that were always slightly off-kilter. The bangs, which should have hung over their foreheads, decorated their temples; and as they went off on one of their insane tirades, I could only stare at their wigs, thinking only of tugging them into place.
The mother was always angry, and though she walked with a cane, delighted in physically pushing me. She eventually stopped that, when one day my super power strength raged within my veins, and I found the muscle to pick her up and place her on the stoop like a bag of garbage. The daughter is still rumored to be a virgin. And her mother was her constant companion, to office Christmas parties and the like. When the daughter was 65 years old, she still called her “Mommy.”
Needless to say, repairs rarely happened. When my roof began to leak, the doddering duo climbed on my roof with plastic bags, tape, and bricks. “Okay, that should stop the rain!” the daughter would announce cheerily. “You know, if you get more leaks, you can do the same. Just get up on that old roof with plastic bags and bricks! You’ll have fun!” Their insane commentary was usually met with silence. At least in the early years. At the end of 20 years, I would actually reply as though I was as insane as they, spilling non-sequitors, nonsense and insane ramblings right back at them. I found out it didn’t matter what you said to them; they were permanently residing somewhere over the rainbow. So I took great pleasure in confusing them further.
Eventually, my roof began to leak quite badly. I had a rather beautiful waterfall that started right over the entrance to my bathroom. When it rained really hard, it would form a small stream right through my front parlor. There was a fireplace there, and my friends and I would huddle in front of it on cold winter nights, sipping on red wine, and musing. We would watch as the stream would turn into a small river, right down the center of the room and out the front door. Eventually, I couldn’t shut my front door in the winter months; it would swell to such a size, that the best I could do is sort of kick it into place. I could never shut it, as I would never be able to get it open again in the morning.
The problem grew worse when my door was replaced. It wasn’t replaced because of the swelling, but because a tree fell on my house one Valentine’s Day, on a stormy afternoon. It completely crushed my car port, and the trunk of the tree had gone right through the front door, pushing my door into the fireplace. Another large branch came into the kitchen, breaking through the ceiling like a claw of a monster, which had reached in to grab my stove. The enormous tree had all but buried me.
There was no light coming in any window. All I could see was green. I was underwater, in an ocean of foliage. And I lived this way for months, because the Wigs couldn’t fix it. The tree incident filled them with so much anxiety, they had trouble coping. And repairs were long and slow.
The first repair was the door. Even though no human being could have climbed over the tree filling my front parlor and murder me, I still needed a front door. “At the very least,” I told the Wigs, “get the tree trunk out of the front parlor and give me a door.”
“It’s not like anyone would bother climbing in here,” was their answer. “You don’t really NEED a door.”
After much pleading, a carpenter and a laborer were finally sent. The laborer cleared the tree that was in the front room, and the carpenter worked on the front door. I ended up sitting with the carpenter all afternoon, joking and laughing, as he struggled to make a standard door fit into a crooked door frame. “It’s impossible,” he kept telling me. And he kept sawing off slices of the door until it became a very odd shape. And the more he sawed off, the more we both laughed. And suddenly, I grabbed paper and pen and wrote this poem:
“And back to the carpenter.
After all his careful calculations
And neat -fingered enthusiasm
The new door
With perfect diamond windows
Did not fit.
Old houses have slanted walls and crooked roofs.
And I the crooked little woman
In the crooked little house
Living on a crooked little lane.”
My misfortunes had led to inspiration, and later that year I published a volume of poetry entitled, “A Crooked Little Woman.”
I wanted my rustic cottage to be a meeting place for the minds. I wanted art and music and poetry and the exchange of ideas to flourish in my hovel.
Of course I tried to create a perfect atmosphere in my home for such a delicious artistic klatch. And what I created felt more like a museum than it did a home. Or perhaps a North Beach bar; a hangout somewhere that Ginsberg and Kerouac might frequent; drinking espresso and smoking cigarettes. Poverty didn’t annoy me in those days. Rather it was part of the fabric of the vagabond hedonistic lifestyle I dreamed of creating.
Each room in the cottage was painted a different but equally bright color. Red, blue, yellow, orange and purple. It was filled with odd artifacts from all of my travels, black and white photos, sculptures, masks, neon signs, and stained glass.
In the bathroom I had “toilet paper from around the world,” and had dozens of labeled toilet paper samples which I grabbed from anywhere I had visited. One of my favorites was a particularly coarse sample from Paris, which was so rough you could actually see an entire twig of a tree running right through the middle of the square.
The ceiling of my living room was filled with umbrellas. There were mosquito tents draped over the love seats and fountains and colored lights. . Velvet couches. Piles of pillows. Candles. Signs and oddities. Cluttered and sweet. My den of iniquity.
In the early days of the cottage, my friends and I published a literary magazine in the bowels of that hovel. We had a wonderful staff; great writers, great artists, and great thinkers. We just didn’t have great advertisers. But nevertheless, it was an exciting adventure we pursued until we ran out of money.
After submitting my poetry to countless mags, rags, and other publications, it was fun to be on the other end of the spectrum; and have the power to accept or reject the musings of other hopeful poets. Our rejection and acceptance slips were simple. Each was a photo of the staff, all wearing Groucho-style “nose, mustache, and glasses.” For the acceptance slips, our thumbs were all pointed up. For the rejection slips, they were all pointed down. There were no words, no form letter, no “I’m sorry, but you just don’t meet our needs at this time.”
I remember my living room filled with friends and manila envelopes of every size, and all of us combing through piles and piles of submissions. I can still hear the peels of laughter as one of us would find one bad enough worthy to read to the rest of the staff. Or the gentle grunts when we’d read one aloud that we all really liked.
There was a force of creativity that rumbled through that cabin, and I wrote three novels there. I can remember musicians and actors. Poets and painters. I can remember wild parties and crazy singing. We were young, and we had plenty of time for all of our dreams to come true. Plenty of time. In fact, I think most of us believed that they already had come true.
It took me twenty years to exorcise my spirit out of that cottage. The fabric of our communal creativity seemed to fade, and suddenly the cottage seemed only broken and cold. Twenty years had passed, and nothing had changed. I was impoverished, shivering, middle-aged, and still a frustrated writer looking for an outlet.
What happened to me?
What happened to my dreams? I can only see each of my dreams written on yellow parchment paper, blowing away in the breeze.
“Life is something that happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”