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Home, Sweet (Safe, Sane and Sanitary) Home Away From Home

Remodeling Forced Margo Kaufman From Her Colorful Venice Neighborhood to Squeaky Clean Marina del Rey...Is She Homesick? Hardly.

May 23, 1999|MARGO KAUFMAN | Margo Kaufman last wrote for the magazine on her pug Sophie's vexingly successful adoption. She is the author of "Clara: The Early Years" (Villard)

The other morning, I awoke to a disconcerting calm. For the first time in years, I didn't hear a neighbor massacring the opening riff of "Stairway to Heaven" on his electric guitar. Out the window, I saw a fleet of expensive pleasure boats bobbing lazily in their slips, instead of locals stealing soda cans from recycling bins. And when I took my pug, Clara, out for her morning constitutional, a few joggers said, "Good morning," but not one asked for a quarter. Then it hit me: I wasn't in Venice Beach anymore.

I recalled a stroll that I took on the boardwalk just before we decamped to Marina del Rey. I was pushing Nicholas, our 2-year-old, in his stroller when we came upon a local fixture, Raul, the Bird and Reptile Man. He stood in front of a dozen brilliantly plumed macaws, cockatiels, parrots and toucans--all of which he claimed to have "rescued." My son was transfixed. "Parrot," Nick chirped. "Squawk, squawk."

Bird Man offered to relocate his entire flock to the bar on Nicholas' stroller so that I could take a picture in exchange for a $5 donation. I passed. Undaunted, he slipped behind a park bench and returned draped in a boa constrictor. He held the serpent out to my toddler, who reached for it and piped, "Snake, snake." I hated to interrupt this zoology lesson, but the boa was doing spitting things with his tongue. "Move!" I ordered, "before my son gets bitten."

"Boas don't bite, lady," the Bird Man said scornfully. "They squeeze their prey to death."

Over Nicholas's vociferous objections, I backed up the stroller and rolled far, far away.

"You know what your problem is, lady?" Bird Man called after me. "You're teaching your son to be afraid. You're putting fear into his heart. You're going to be sorry." Only in Venice would I be considered a bad mother because I wouldn't let my kid fondle a 12-foot boa.

This is not to suggest that I have given up on the old neighborhood. In what could be regarded as a triumph of hope over experience, my husband Duke and I are remodeling our bungalow --again. Four years ago we tarted up our 1,100-square-foot, 100-year-old cottage but didn't foresee that we'd adopt a baby who would quickly outgrow the only available "nursery"--a 5-by-7-foot cubicle that also housed the washer and dryer. Nick's collection of brightly colored trucks, puzzles, cars, balls and gewgaws overran our living room faster than imported thistles usurped the native California chaparral. For a while I indulged in that peculiarly Southern Californian exercise in masochism--scouring the real estate ads for a bigger house near the beach. (My husband, a littoral creature, has to be near water or his gills dry up.) But given that we live in one of the few places on earth where half a million dollars buys you something you'll hate, I was not surprised when the best the realtor came up with was an $895,000 one-bedroom fixer-upper in Santa Monica with no (yes, you're reading this right) kitchen.

Luckily, we had room on our lot to build. By summer, plans for an addition were approved and financing was arranged, and all that was left to do was find a place to live during the four to six months of construction. I didn't expect this to be a problem, even though we required a short term-rental large enough to accommodate the three of us and Clara with enough space for me to write.

At least five other apartments or houses within a block of ours came up for rent while I was looking, but all of the landlords decided that we were a bad bet. I found this unbelievable considering how many of their tenants had disappeared in the dead of night or in a police car, but I accepted that it might be necessary to look farther afield. If truth be told, I had been dreaming of escape since the day I moved in, 12 years before. Whereas Duke, a longtime Venetian, views the bohemian enclave with the kind of passion Israelis hold for Jerusalem, the most positive thing I can say is that a writer living there will never lack for material. So I was overjoyed when I found an attractive new apartment in Marina del Rey, with every modern convenience, right on the water on a street that reminds me of Cancun. The cheerful leasing agent could not have been more accommodating. In exchange for a small sum of money, the problem of Clara and the short-term lease vanished. I packed up the house, stored half of our belongings and moved the family back to civilization.

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