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Al Martinez

They believe that their property rights ought to extend at least out to the edge of the continental shelf. : The Woman Who Lives in a Box

August 29, 1985|Al Martinez

The woman's voice came to me from an intercom box at the foot of her driveway. "How," she demanded, "would you like someone urinating against your house?"

It was an intriguing question and one I might have considered at some length were I not standing in the heat of the day talking to a box.

Only moments earlier a mother and her young daughter had passed and had heard me speaking but had not seen the intercom. The mother grabbed the girl and hurried away.

I could hear the little girl asking, "Mommy, was that a pervert?" Hush, Megan, and run!

I was in Malibu near three state beaches that opened a year ago. El Matador, El Pescador and La Piedra. They are flanked by homes that sell for anywhere from $1.5 million to $3 million. The disembodied voice lived in one of them.

She was enraged because people were wandering from the public beaches onto the private beach in front of her house.

The woman had telephoned me in the first place. But when I went to her home, she wouldn't let me in.

"Madam," I said to her, "I am not going to stand out here on the road and talk to a box."

I felt like a customer at a fast-food restaurant.

"How the hell much beach do they need?" she demanded, talking right over my objections. "They're like animals. Some don't even bother to crawl under blankets to have sex!"

I pictured her as painfully skinny and deeply tanned. She drank carrot juice and smoked cigarettes filter-tipped with gold paper.

It wasn't public sex or repulsive urinary habits that bothered her. She expected poor people to do that sort of thing. But they damned well better do it below the mean high tide line if they were doing it in front of her house.

The state has determined that beyond the mean high tide line, a private beach belongs to the public. Because the line varies, this has come to mean where the sand is wet. Those who live along the Malibu oceanfront do not make up what you might call an egalitarian community. They believe deeply that their property rights ought to extend at least out to the edge of the continental shelf.

The woman in the box was one of them.

"They live like pigs," she was saying of the public. "Filth scattered everywhere. Music turned as loud as they can play it. . . ."

"And sex outside the blankets," I added.

She didn't hear me because her control was on talk and she was not about to relinquish her strange and remote platform. Anonymity is the stuff of bravado.

I listened to her for a few minutes more, then left. Even as I drove away, she was still talking. The intercom box trembled with her rage.

I visited the beach nearest her home. It was difficult to find because someone had spray-painted over the state sign. I am told that once in a while a sign is torn down. The rich mean business.

They call them pocket beaches. Quiet coves at the end of pathways that wind down to the ocean from grassy slopes. Fences define the borders. Signs say, "Public Beach Ends."

I saw no garbage. I heard no loud music. No one wandered up off the wet sand to the golden homes and urinated against the private pilings. It was too hot for sex.

What the box-woman called "the Ugly People" were exceptionally well behaved. Perhaps they sensed my presence. The poor, it is said, retain instincts that more civilized primates lose as they evolve up the economic scale.

No doubt the moment I left, debauchery ran rampant. They're cunning, all right.

"Come back on the Labor Day weekend," the woman had said. "Then you'll see."

It's an imperfect world. Passers-by rest on my split-rail fence and knock down the top rail. I have put it back up a hundred times.

I was beginning to get crazy about it. Every weekend it was the same thing. One Sunday I sat in the window and waited, peeking out from behind drapes.

"Why don't you buy a rifle with a scope on it?" my wife asked. "Then you could shoot them right off the top rail." She leaned close to the window, squinted, pointed a finger and went pow!

I got her message. I left the window. I opened the drapes. I went about my business. That night, I checked the fence. A top rail was down.

It's the old territorial imperative. A turf mentality. Or, in Malibu, a beach mentality. The ocean is theirs, by God.

I stood on the wet sand looking up at the golden ghetto. A face appeared briefly in a window. I knew it was the woman in the box. The soaring design of her $3-million home created the sensation that it floated over the beach.

But it wasn't the beauty of wood and glass that impressed me. It was the ferocity of hate that radiated from the face in the window. Distance and the brevity of its appearance could not conceal the antipathy that burned across the dry sand.

I left feeling sorry not for those who are the targets of her rage, but for the remote and distant woman herself whose hate must inflame the world she inhabits.

It was, at least, clear why someone might urinate against the side of her house. They were only trying to put out the fire.

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