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A Little Personal Business

June 02, 1993|PETER H. KING

It was a first house, and for that reason alone probably will go down as the favorite house. It was an old house, at least by California standards, where anything that predates Levolor blinds is considered antique. It was built at the close of World War I by a butcher who operated out of what is now called Pasadena Old Town. Materials cost $5,500 and plans for the structure, described somewhat loftily as an American Colonial Revival bungalow, were purchased from a Sears catalogue.

It was a house where a family grew. Four years ago, when it was purchased, there were only the parents and a newborn daughter. Today, there are two children, and a dog, and a mouse, and a fish, and friends from down the block who come tap-tap-tapping every day with little hands on the front door. The mouse, by the way, is the second of its species. The cage of the first was found out back, chewed open by the dog. The official version is that Mouse escaped and lives still in the car barn or ivy, although the satiated glaze in the dog's eyes suggested an alternative outcome.

It was a house of first steps and first words, of two broken bones and a hundred private screenings of "The Little Mermaid." It was a house of nightly barbecues beneath a shaggy palm tree and a stream of innocent questions with no good answers. It had a wall of finger-paintings and a pale green bedroom decorated with a universe of glowing stars and moons. This was where bedtime stories often were read, and often the story was "Good Night Moon," the Margaret Wise Brown classic:

In the great green room there was a telephone and a red balloon and a picture of the cow jumping over the moon. . . . Good night moon. Good night cow jumping over the moon. Good night light and the red balloon. Good night little house and good night mouse.


This is being composed on the kitchen table. The table is one of the last pieces of furniture left. Everything else has been packed and loaded, 15,000 pounds of material goods, a household. Escrow closes in two days. We are moving, and it's hard right now to remember why.

The short answer is that my wife has a new assignment in San Francisco, and theoretically I can write this column from anywhere in California. It is also, though, that we have family up north and figure that a chance to surround young children with aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents should not be squandered. That the air is cleaner and the public schools finer is, in my case anyway, more consolation than incentive.

I've lived in Greater Los Angeles now for more than a dozen years. At first I hated it; now, as we load to leave, I almost love it. Part of the change involves learning to live in a complicated place. Part of it has to do with a contrarian streak: having endured a riot and all those premature obituaries, sticking around to enjoy the inevitable comeback would be a kick. And part of it, too, has to do with this little house in north Pasadena.

We bought it at the peak of the last boom, when the market was frantic and so were we. The foundation was shot, the yard a jungle, the interior a mess of absurd wallpaper, the exterior a box of prefabricated tiles. All that is changed now. Now there are refurbished hardwood floors and redwood siding and pastel walls and gardens of roses and petunias. In every room there is a story to tell. There just isn't any time to tell it.


The kids have been off their feed all week. "Why do we have to move?" the 4-year-old asked last night. "I like this house." It was another question without a good answer, although I tried with talk of bigger back yards and new friends and a nice school.

"Now," I asked, "are you excited or sad?"

"Sad," she said, and I couldn't blame her for not buying my line. It's funny about houses. You come as mercenaries, fixated on square footage and neighborhood comps and interest rates and all the rest of the real estate tribal talk. You leave a gloomy romantic with a sense of almost guilt about abandoning, not a house, but a home--for walking away from so many things that cannot fit into any box.

I'm sure the movers don't see it that way. They're pros, and they just want this table. Now. And so it's goodby green room. And goodby stars and moon. Goodby little neighbors who won't again come knocking. Goodby tree. And goodby Mouse, wherever you are. Goodby house.

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