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Renters keep finding good vibes with Freda Amsel

More than 30 years and 113 boarders later, Freda Amsel's tough love and loyalty still packs them in at her Northridge home.

January 01, 2011|By R. Daniel Foster, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Freda Amsel has a collage of her rommates on the refrigerator. She still keeps in touch with many of her former boarders.
Freda Amsel has a collage of her rommates on the refrigerator. She still… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

"Gee whiz, it's good to see you again!" With a solid punch to my arm, Freda Amsel banished decades of distance. She has that effect on people — especially the 113 roommates who have shared her three-bedroom home since 1977.

Twenty years have passed since The Times published my first feature about Amsel and her boarders, who totaled 44 on Jan. 3, 1991. Back then, I termed Amsel a "New Age Donna Reed," which was dated even for '91. "They call me Mother Freda, Mama-san, Mamacita and my favorite, Sugar Mamma," she said, showing one of many roommate photo montages. Much better.

Surveying her Northridge home last month, I found it still strewn with her lighthouse collection — photos, paintings, mugs, models and other depictions — a beacon of hope, she says, for those floundering on life's rocky shoals. Now 78, she recently self-published a book that chronicles her 34-year journey harboring a wealth of personalities. "87 Roommates ... and Still Counting" is named after Stephen, her 87th roommate who suggested the idea. The book stops at Junjun, No. 108, who spoke four dialects of Chinese.

The pages detail those who found her home too hot, those who found it too cold, the mountainous stuffed animal collection that trailed one boarder, the 36-caliber rifle slung by another, the slobs, the neat freaks, the neat freaks who became slobs, fierce fights, enduring friendships, $500 bail posted for one boarder, rent paid in turquoise jewelry by another, a Buddhist monk who "vegetated instead of meditated," an atheist who became a Sikh, the 20 boarders who bilked her out of $4,700, and the 29 romances and three marriages between housemates — among other tales.

"Have you ever considered a reality show?" I asked Amsel, seated in her living room surrounded by angel figures, a fat Buddha and flickering vigil candles.

"Do you know any producers?" she said, fingering gold hoop earrings framed by fire-red hair.

Amsel's parade of roommates has provided plenty of material as well as personal lessons.

"Back then, I was a schnook," said Amsel, who divorced in 1975 ("I came alive in '75!") and has three sons. She said she would wait for the more dubious roommates "to turn a corner and shape up," and when she realized waiting wouldn't work, she learned to accept them for who they were, to practice tough love and to remember "that it's not my job to save anyone."

Some former boarders have settled their unpaid rent and others have not. Phil, No. 6, left owing $1,000. After expressing his love, respect and admiration for Amsel, he told her: "I'd stop a bullet for you, Mother Freda." Her retort: "Would you consider paying me $25 a month instead?" Phil has since paid up.

This Mrs. Madrigal of Northridge has doled out considerable advice to what has become a tight clan that hails from 13 countries. Whenever Jason, No. 51, complained about childhood verbal abuse, Amsel played an imaginary violin. "He soon stopped," she writes, and he penned two self-help books based on Amsel's sayings.

"The single most important advice I give is to meditate each day," said Amsel, who rents two of her rooms and a guesthouse. "There's nothing better for finding peace."

Bianca Baghaie, No. 39 and No. 47, spent two- and one-year stints at Amsel's home when Baghaie was in her early 30s.

"She got me through a lot of things," said Baghaie, now 55. "She was really good for my self-esteem at the time — so positive, always lifted me up, just an extraordinary woman. The time with Freda — that will always be a part of my life. It's made me who I am today."

Amsel said she "does a number" on each new arrival, using numerology to calculate their "destiny number." "Sometimes they'd ask, 'Oh Freda, Freda! What's my number this month?'" she said of roommates who grew too dependent on guidance. "I'd just answer, 'Oh puh-leeze! Get a life!'"

Her book includes a wrap-up of where former boarders are now and a renter's manual rich with advice about opening one's home to strangers. Amsel includes her own past, as manager of the Cosmic Connection bookstore in Northridge in the mid-1980s and as a participant in the Great Peace March from Los Angeles to Washington in 1986 and the American-Soviet Walk from Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) to Moscow in 1987.

Through it all, Amsel has survived three bouts of cancer and one leg and two hip operations. "But the worst experience were the bedbugs, honest to goodness," she said. "If the chemo and radiation made me tired, I just rested. No big deal, and I don't fear dying. But the bedbugs ..." With that, she was on to bedbugs with no further mention of her grueling nine-year battle with cancer.

As Amsel often says, "this too shall pass." She's free of cancer and the bedbugs, brought in by No. 107.

She's also free of about one-third of her boarders.

"One-third of them, good luck and good riddance," said Amsel, who has self-produced meditation CDs and the upcoming book "Numerology for Newborns."

"The other third, we keep in touch now and then. The final third are unforgettable. They've touched my heart. We're extremely close and in good contact."

Rent is no longer the $350 to $400 a month it was 20 years ago. It's $650. But with boarder No. 113 nearly out the door and advertisements slated for No. 114, Amsel said she no longer rents rooms for need of money.

"It's become a fun game for me," she said. "Who's going to show up next?"

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