SOME OF MY FRIENDS CALL IT MIRACLE Mile, some call it Wilshire Vista and some mistakenly call it Carthay Circle. Others don't know what to call my neighborhood except creepy. They say that because Carmona Avenue -- a tiny, beautiful street between the always reliable Olympic Boulevard to the south and the fickle San Vicente Boulevard to the north -- is a stone's throw from several infamous after-hours joints and right on the fringe of some gang activity.
It's also smack dab in the middle of an area bustling with integrated pride, where any preconceived notions of prejudice dissipate at our corner. Plain and simple: Living in a segregated neighborhood is more boring than watching Dick Clark age. It's too quiet, too low on drama.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 05, 2003 Home Edition Home Part F Page 2 Features Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Neighborhood location -- An article last Thursday about author A.J. Benza's neighborhood said that a segment of Carmona Avenue lies between Olympic Boulevard to the south and San Vicente Boulevard to the north. In fact, it lies with Olympic to the north and San Vicente to the south.
On one side of me is a black parole officer. On the other side is a white woman whose world travels have gotten her a duplex full of wonderful artifacts and a lifetime of elegance and grace. A few doors down is an Asian woman who loves to perform sexy floor shows at night with all the lights on and the blinds raised. Around the corner is a young black man who sits on his stoop and reads scriptures from the Bible. Down at the end of the street are Latino families whose relatives are in and out of their houses with a pleasant constancy. And I trust them all with the keys to my pad as well as the key to my vintage 1964 Caddy.
My neighbors have brought me wine and I have brought them homemade pasta and tomato sauce. I pull lemons from their trees and they pluck basil from my garden. When the traffic cop crawls down the block, we protect each other's vehicles as though we were making the payment ourselves. Say what you want, but in my 'hood, we all got each other's back, and we've all paid the cost to be the boss.
Growing up in Brooklyn and Long Island in the early '60s and then making a living in Manhattan's West Village as a newspaper columnist, I got used to each neighborhood's anxieties and quirks with the same precision a doctor detects an irregular heartbeat in a baby. I bleed tabloid black, and I need a block that speaks to me in headlines. I need noise squeezing through my ground-floor screened windows. I need to hear the young Mexican boy across the way pull his younger sister in an old red wagon, and watch my pro-football-playing neighbor toss neat spirals to his young son. And when the Lakers lose a tight game, I like to lean my head out the window and take in the angst that explodes and swirls around our little block where the lavender and bird of paradise burst forth from gardens and the ghetto birds fly low.
"Get it to Shaq! Get it to Shaq! Let go the rock, Kobe!"
And being a suffering New York Knicks fan, I like to shout through my screen, "Lots of jealousy there. Told you the Lakers would never repeat playing like that."
"Shut up, fool," they shoot back. "Where the Knicks at? Oh yeah, they home."
In my neighborhood I can get good ribs and a good ribbin'.
When a TV career first called me to California five years ago, I didn't decide to test the deep and turbulent waters of Hollywood by sticking my toe in. I did a one-and-a-half in pike position, landing in a tiny bungalow off Poinsettia Avenue in a landmark complex that Charlie Chaplin had once built for his mistress.
Normandie Towers at various times housed Rudolph Valentino, Thelma Ritter, Errol Flynn, John Barrymore and Marilyn Monroe because of its proximity to Warner Bros. Studios. All I cared about was that my Hansel and Gretel-type studio was once where Marilyn looked up at the same water-stained and stuccoed ceiling I had. There were sculptors, actresses, drug dealers, a stripper whose clogs kept me awake at night and, of course, my cross-dressing landlord. If I were in a pitch meeting, I'd call it "Melrose Place" meets "Oz" and "Trainspotting."
As interesting as it was, this was no place for a first-time author to sit and think and wait for the words to come. Still, it took me two years to pull myself away from the lusty allure of Marilyn's aura. You think my dates didn't respond to that? (It's one thing to have a small Yorkie on a leash, which I do, but a lot more powerful to have the same bedroom as the world's biggest sex symbol).
I took a two-year lease on a tidy block in Culver City, home of the hotel that housed the midgets from "The Wizard of Oz." Legend has it the tiny actors trashed the hotel once filming was complete, years before the Rolling Stones would even dream of it. That, as far as I ever knew, was the town's only claim to fame. I hoped and prayed every night that the dwarfs would come back and display their famous Yellow Brick Road rage. Anything for some fun in that town.