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The Pretenders

May 04, 1997|Mary McNamara

Verbs rule. Nouns are static, adverbs and adjectives dependent, and the rest--articles, conjunctions and their ilk--are the twist ties of communication. So when a noun becomes a verb, it says something about the significance of the thing that the noun names.

In Los Angeles, open-house is a verb. "We open-housed Silver Lake yesterday," says the man in the tiny aquamarine sunglasses over vegetarian sandwiches, hold the avocado, at Say Cheese. "Way too many cinder blocks and cedar shingles."

In fact, in L.A., open-house is not just a verb, it's a lifestyle. Every Saturday and Sunday at 9, the dedicated and the dilettante suck up the dregs of their double espressos, grab their marked-up real estate sections and hit the road. Until closing time at 4, they troop past the frozen smiles of overly made-up real estate agents, dropping insults like gum wrappers. "Did you see those drapes?" says a woman in maroon rayon hip-huggers to her pale, reedy husband. "I think they're the ones Scarlett O'Hara wore in 'Gone With the Wind.' " "I don't understand the politics of shag carpeting," he replies.

Open-housing, by the way, is in no way connected to the search for, or the purchase of, a home. Open-housing is essentially an adult version of let's pretend: Let's pretend we live on this street, let's pretend we have two fireplaces and a marble entranceway, let's pretend we once went through an inexplicable orange period, let's pretend we have a bidet.

I myself am an apprentice open-houser, having joined the ranks unintentionally by agreeing to join my brother and his friend for a Sunday drive. Baby bro informed me that I am officially too old to be renting and it was time I settled down, met a nice contractor and got mortgaged. I'm not ready, but I was hooked--on the process, on the verb. On this whole other world of permissible voyeurism.

Whenever I think my life is a mess, I can go look at someone else's. I chortle at the dining room lined with veined mirror paneling, reassure myself that white carpeting is a decorator's "Kick Me" sign and vow that no wall should ever be painted black. I look out at other people's views and wonder what went wrong, or right, to make them leave. Was it the lack of parking? The lights from Dodger Stadium? Death, divorce, sitcom spin-off?

Of course, some open-house with a specific quest--the Hollywood moments. The discovery that Olivia de Havilland lived right next door and used this very pool; that the catalog on the doorstep is addressed to one of the other Jackson boys; that the reason the person in all those photos on the baby grand looks so familiar is because it is Mel Gibson. The El Dorado of L.A. open-housing has only happened to one person I know, and it happened so fast, he says, it was like a dream. The agent was in the other room but Steven had just enough time to do what he had to do: heft it, hold it at shoulder height, find a mirror (one thing about houses in L.A., always plenty of mirrors) and thank the Academy. OK, it was only an Emmy, but still. . . .

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