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The Ghost Next Door : The old bungalow has known love and loss, nurture and neglect. Is its sad tale over? Don’t bet on it.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

My neighbor is in bad shape. She’s decrepit, she’s broken; all she seems to have are memories. She’s been alone and abandoned, in embarrassingly declining health, for about 10 years. People pass her daily, glance curiously, and move along. Some say they care, but they’re not in a position to do anything.

I refer to my neighbor as a “she” because she has always struck me as such. She’s an “it,” though. She’s a house. I have looked out on her windows for 15 years.

She was built around 1929 or ’30. Her owner was a proud guy named Joe, who used to run a big dairy in the Valley way-back-when. Joe and his wife raised their family in the modest, economical, square, flat-topped, Spanish-style bungalow, with its sleepy, awning-shaded front-window eyes, red-tile roof trim and soft-looking beige walls. Adorned her surroundings with pecan, orange and passion fruit trees, a date palm, roses, holly, fuchsias, poinsettias, birds of paradise, all manner of petunias.

Mr. and Mrs. Joe (I never knew her name, nor their last) lived most of their lives in the little house in Sherman Oaks. It was their world. They were taciturn and polite people, they treated neighbors deferentially but distantly. Over the decades, as the Valley’s fields and orange groves filled with post-World War II apartments, the house remained. By 1979, it was the only free-standing, single-family dwelling left on the block. People actually stopped to gawk at it, a picturesque holdover from a simpler time.

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As they entered their 70s and 80s, Joe and his wife spent most of their time doting on the place. He was forever painting, repainting, hammering, sweeping. She was forever pruning, planting, watering. You could tell what time of year it was (spring) by the tar-papering of the roof and patching of wall cracks. Even after a stroke crippled the wife in the early 1980s, the routine remained mostly intact. Joe, long retired, cared for the woman as meticulously as he did the house: dressing her, steadying her as she feebly walked, guiding her as she pruned and watered her beloved rose bushes, ultimately wheeling her to the corner church each Sunday.

The lady died a couple years later, and Joe retreated into the house. Weeks passed. When he finally emerged, ashen and a half-step slow, I had the feeling of watching someone stepping into a land he’d never seen before.

Slowly, the old man managed to reassemble a daily life. The crows helped. They descended annually on the little estate, by the hundreds, to harvest nuts from the big, sheltering pecan tree in the back yard. In past years, Joe would pilfer some of the crows’ scattered bounty, and his wife would bake a pecan pie or two.

Now the crows had returned on schedule, and I watched for all of that October, and then November, as Joe shuffled out each morning to harvest fallen pecans--bags and bags of them. He carried them slowly to the back yard and spent the better part of the afternoons there, alone, tap-tapping the nuts open with a hammer, shelling them and placing the edible parts in a bucket. The sound of that hammer was one of the loneliest things I’ve ever heard.

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Joe baked the pies this time--for friends, family, church, strangers. Must have baked 50 or 60. Then, when the pecans and crows were gone, he turned his attentions back to the house: trimming, painting, weatherproofing, putting new awnings over her windows, bracing her chimney, sweeping her porches. It was all he had left.

Amazingly, Joe eventually caved in to the parade of real estate agents urging him to sell while market value was still high. If parting with his home of 50-plus years broke his heart, he never showed it. The former dairyman made out like a bandit. The property, which had been purchased new for a few thousand, was unloaded for about $600,000. Old Joe, as attached to the neighborhood as the towering date palm he had planted so long ago, moved into a condo two doors away.

The house went to pieces. It was almost as if being sold was too much for her. The back patio roof cracked and sagged under the weight of leaves and branches falling from the pecan tree. A magnificent array of weeds and wildflowers swallowed the holly, the roses; surrounded the soft beige adobe walls. It was remarkable how fast nature reclaimed things. Generations of possums lived and died beneath her foundation. An entomologist’s dream assortment of insects and spiders moved inside. I went in to look once. Giant webs drifted from the ceilings. Things scurried. Neighborhood cats, which had made the place a prime hangout, bounded out through opened windows.

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The new owner had his plans, of course. Trees would be felled, the plot ground up and leveled, and a row of condos would rise up. Yet year after year, no condos appeared. Permits and licenses and blueprints took time and money; they were held up on technicalities, loans fell through.

And the house, for decades the pride of the neighborhood, became a public nuisance. Some residents parked cars among the mustard weeds of the once-carefully clipped front lawn, which led to fixing cars there, which led to drinking beer and partying there. Vagabonds joined the spiders in the house and stripped it of cupboard fixtures, sinks and anything that could be sold at a swap meet. Some of them peeped in the apartment windows of neighboring women. Two nearby residents became victims of attempted rape. Another was repeatedly burglarized. Campsites were found in the back yard. Police were called to roust squatting transients almost weekly. Angry threats finally made the new owner put up a chain-link fence and board up the old home’s windows.

Still no bulldozer came to tear it down.

On a street where house after lovely old apartment building after house had been replaced by cookie-cutter condos, the neglected, degraded bungalow was hanging on. Just as Joe, enfeebled in his 90s, continued to do in his condo two doors away. Then, in a move as abrupt as Joe’s decision to sell the place, the new owner gave up on his condo profiteering dream. Declining property values and slow government bureaucracy had driven him to exasperation. The house went up for sale again.

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That was four or five years ago. There have since been many realty signs from many companies, few lookers and no takers. The asking price of the $600,000 property reportedly dropped to $325,000 and below. Even a recent sign proclaiming “drastic reduction” has added little enticement. Then came Jan. 17. The earthquake badly injured neighboring buildings, killed a few, but left the old house with no more than a crashed chimney, fractures and further loss of dignity. And so she rests.

*

I still look out my window at my sorry neighbor, with her jungle of a yard, eyes long shut with wood and nails, chimney still in a heap, striped awnings incongruously jolly. But I’ve stopped wondering when she’ll be torn down. I’m starting to doubt that it’s going to happen. I think this durable, stylish old thing, this relic from a more gentle, staid Los Angeles, will survive--having prevailed through the post-World War II apartment boom, through the great condo infection of the ‘70s and ‘80s, through abandonment, through the biggest Southern California earthquake of the century.

And I just might be right. Two weeks ago, Federal Emergency Management Agency inspectors came by, looked her over carefully and slapped a green tag on her chain-link fence.

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There seems to be life in the old girl yet.


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