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Inauspicious Start in Suburbia

July 16, 1987|ALAN MILLER | Times Staff Writer

As recent residents of mid-town Manhattan, we expected to ease quietly into suburban life in the San Fernando Valley with little of the mayhem we left behind.

But, as new homeowners, we quickly found the thorns in our rose bushes and acid in our oranges. In fact, if our first week foreshadows what awaits us, we may have to return east clutching whatever we have left.

Our welcome to Sherman Oaks is best characterized as "How Greedy Is Our Valley." We're hopeful this was a false start. Unfortunately, what follows is all too true.

Our very first night in our new home, someone tried to steal my wife's 1987 Honda. Yes, we'd left the Civic on the street because the garage was cluttered with boxes. But, after all, isn't that a perk of suburban living?

"What kind of neighborhood is this, anyway?" my wife tearfully lamented as I examined the glass shards where her window had been.

Professional Job

"These guys were pros," the locksmith said as he dug the screw out of the broken ignition. He explained that thieves use the screw to rip out the ignition's guts and then "hot wire" the car to start the engine. But they were foiled because a special pin renders new Hondas immune to this approach.

(As a former New Yorker, I quickly expressed gratitude the car was there at all. My 1985 Honda Prelude, in contrast, disappeared off Manhattan's mean streets last October, never to be heard from again. Gotham crooks don't mess around.)

When the repairs were completed, we had a $170 welcome to the neighborhood. Worse, it gave us an immediate sense of unease amid the neatly trimmed hedges and well-sodded lawns. Kind of a house-chilling, you might say.

Admittedly, cars are stolen off streets of every neighborhood in every city every week. Maybe we just had the bad timing to move on a weekend when a particular gang was doing our area.

But the bizarre experiences we had even before moving day are not so easily dismissed.

It began when we arrived at our home-to-be one morning to have a contractor measure the floor. Two young women had parked their car in the driveway and were poking about.

One identified herself as our new neighbor. She explained that she had knocked but found nobody home. She said she figured we'd want the cactus removed, referring to our majestic, decades-old cactus garden next to the driveway. We said we hadn't decided what to do with the cactuses, but we certainly weren't going to give them away. Quickly, she and her friend began to leave when my wife discovered two cactus branches in the back of their car. "Those were there before," the woman lied. Then my wife found the saw--and freshly cut stumps--and our sense of outrage grew.

Stealing our succulents? Is nothing sacred in suburbia?

The women offered to pay for the damage. They offered to replant the branches. My wife would have preferred to inflict a little corporal punishment. Nice guy that I am, I told them to replant the branches and we'd let it go. I took a name and number--just in case.

Well, adding insult to thievery, when I turned my back, they screeched off with a cactus branch in tow. The name and number, of course, turned out to be phony. Their gall, more than our loss, was infuriating.

But we had the license number, which I used to track down the car owner's address in well-to-do Rancho Palos Verdes. At least she wasn't a Valley girl.

"I am the man whose Sherman Oaks home you vandalized," my no-nonsense letter began. "Obviously, we know who you are and where you are."

Demanding Words

I suggested that, in addition to having trespassed and stolen, they may have broken a federal law because the saguaro is an endangered species (OK, the cactus may or may not be saguaro, but these women deserved the extra heat). I asked for $150 to relandscape the vandalized spot, and demanded our cactus branch back. If we can't work this out, my letter concluded ominously, "my attorney will contact you."

Actually, her attorney contacted me. He was polite, even contrite. He said the woman's family was ashamed of her and she had literally lost sleep over the matter. "Between me, you, and the lamppost," he confided, "if you wanted to teach her a lesson, you've succeeded."

In a triumph of reason over revenge, I settled for the return of the pilfered succulent branch in a pot. My wife would have preferred one of the woman's limbs. In New York, you see, victims take no prisoners.

Meanwhile (yes, there's more), between the failed theft attempts, we learned that valuables had allegedly disappeared from the house itself, before our purchase. They included a safe filled with precious jewels and a will worth at least $700,000. Did Raymond Chandler handle the Valley?

The intrigue centers on a dispute over the deceased owner's considerable inheritance. A copy of his will reportedly directed that everything, including the house and some valuable jewelry, be left to his niece, and nothing to his son. But the original, which was needed to authenticate this, was missing.

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