While working on the setting for my current writing project, I’ve been thinking about how Rick and I started out. Rick was an ex-Marine Vietnam vet and I was a college grad high on women’s lib with lots of ideas on how to change the world. Those first years were rocky, but we had lots of good times because we had been good friends before we fell in love.
The first house we purchased stood in a declining inner-city Oakland neighborhood a few blocks from the Hell’s Angels headquarters. It was a “fixer-upper” with the price tag of $19,500. All we could afford in the early 70s. The house sat on a large corner lot, was built of redwood, stone and plaster. Inside, it had high curved ceilings, crown molding, built in china cabinet with beveled glass, a fireplace, wood floors and floor heaters, and one pink-green-and-black tile bathroom. We both worked at restoring the house while Rick stayed on the Deans’ lists of Chabot Junior College and then UC Berkeley while I worked as a secretary for the California Lung Association.
Rick stood precariously on an extension ladder while sanding the eaves. He sanded layers of paint from kitchen cabinets and helped his uncle restore the gorgeous wood floors. I painted rooms and made window treatments out of lacy sheers and patterned sheets. We both like color. Hence, the living room was sunshine yellow with white trim. Our (first) baby’s room was tropical sea blue with ship curtains. The sunroom was celery with draping pathos plants in macramé hangers. Our bedroom was red. We were “poor”, and rejoiced over hand-me-down furniture. We splurged on clothing at Goodwill and Salvation Army stores.
The yard had once been a paradise. We managed to weed, mow and trim bushes and lawn back into some semblance of order. A gentleman stopped by one day and admired our camellia trees. When he offered to pay us $20 to trim them, we said “Sure!” He made them look like topiaries in a palace garden. He came back every year, spruced up our place and carried away the beautiful trimmings for his florist business.
As much as we loved the house, we didn’t always feel welcome in the neighborhood. We were one of two white families there, and the other couple was in their seventies and raising chinchillas in their basement. We had a brick fly through our dining room window once. We often heard gun fire at night. When the secretary pool at the office talked about car pooling, I said I was game, but one secretary, an African-American, snorted and said, “Nobody lives in my neighborhood!” Turned out we were only a few blocks apart. Turned out her husband was one of the founders of the Black Panthers. Turned out they both had Master’s degrees, angst and attitude. All I had was a BA in English, naivete, and a lot of hope. We had some interesting discussions during our rides to work. Turned out, despite our different backgrounds, we had more in common than any of us imagined.
It took five years to restore the house to its former glory. Shortly after that, Rick was offered a job in southern California. We put the house on the market. The first gentleman who walked in the front door, looked around and said, “I’ll take it.” It was a shock how fast it sold.
With a mixture of pride in a job well done and sadness at leaving our finished project, we packed a rented u-Haul, strapped our eight-month old son into his car seat and headed south for the next chapter of our lives together: living in a white-walled two bedroom apartment in a modernistic white apartment building between Gelson’s Market and the Hollywood Freeway.
And a tsunami of culture shock!