Ernie Marsh turned 21 the other night. His friend, Bob Makela, who sometimes wondered how Marsh would make it to that ripe old age, threw a party. It wasn't just any party, though. It took place in a vast sound stage at West Hollywood's Quixote Studios. Thirty-four of Marsh's artworks hung on the walls. About 200 people showed up, at least half of them strangers to Marsh. And many bid on the art. Suddenly, things that seemed out of reach for Ernie Marsh--college, a car, happiness--seemed possible. For that, he has Bob Makela to thank.
This story of a special relationship begins in 1989. That was when Makela, a "classic struggling writer," then in his late 20s, decided he wanted to do volunteer work with kids. Through an acquaintance, he got involved with Hollywood's Hollygrove orphanage. Makela was paired with a boy, 9, named Aaron "Ernie" Marsh.
Marsh never knew his parents. His mother suffered from schizophrenia and was a drug addict. He knew little about his father. Marsh was born into the foster-care system.
Before Hollygrove, Marsh spent three years with a Long Beach couple. He was a troublesome kid, he said, but it was the closest Marsh had come to having a family and a normal life. One day, the couple packed up Marsh's belongings. "I thought I was going to a summer camp," he said. He remembers arriving at the orphanage. His foster parents were "bawling their eyes out." Then they were gone.
Makela met Marsh shortly thereafter. He would pick up Ernie every other Saturday as part of the orphanage's friendship project. The two would hang out. Marsh would spend the night, and Makela would return him to Hollygrove the next day.
"The first time he came and picked me up," said Marsh, "he seemed really cool. He was wearing swim trunks. He had this little Jeep with no doors. He took me out and bought me ice cream. He was nice. And one big important thing: He listened to me and showed interest."
Though Makela doesn't recall the swim trunks, he does remember that first night. He had a couple of friends over, and "trying to be parental," he put Marsh to bed at a reasonable hour. Soon Makela heard the little boy "bawling tears."
"This poor kid has been shuffled around," Makela thought. "I'm just another stop on the train. That little moment of seeing really tangible evidence of his pain had an effect on me."
Over the next few years, Makela and Marsh spent every other weekend together. "He was such a cute little kid," said Makela, now an established writer. "He was so charming and funny and smart. Yet he definitely had two sides. He stole from me. He stole from my family. The first time I took him Christmas shopping, he shoplifted a whoopee cushion. He was like a vicious Dennis the Menace. People in my family got frustrated."
Even Makela's friends questioned his commitment. One person close to him said, "Some people are just born like that, and there's nothing you can do."
"That made me so angry," said Makela. "Everybody deserves a chance. I knew his story. I knew he never knew his parents. He had been rejected. . . . I didn't want to be another one of those people who rejected him."
Despite Makela's best intentions and Marsh's desire "to be good," by the time Marsh was a teen, he was ditching school and into drugs. "I was unhappy with myself mostly," recalls Marsh. "I just hated myself. Four months after his 18th birthday, he was sentenced to eight months for robbery. "I was pretty crushed," said Makela, who remembered thinking, "He's made zero progress. There's no gratitude, growth, no learning anything. This has been a complete failure."
Jail was a turning point for Marsh. He sent Makela a few letters that Makela found "profoundly moving. For the first time, it seemed he had some genuine gratitude."
"All the pain and hate I had for everyone was getting me nowhere," said Marsh. "It was destroying me and destroying the people around me. I made a decision to use all my anger and pain to do good things rather than bad things."
When he left jail, Marsh entered a Los Angeles rehabilitation center called Gateways Beit T'Shuvah. As part of the program, he studied Torah and attended 12-step meetings. "I crossed a mountain that I thought I never would," he said, but adds, "It's not like I woke up one day and was Mr. Rogers."
After seven months at Beit T'Shuvah, Marsh learned about a program at Covenant House, a residential program in Hollywood that prepares young people under 21 for independence. About a year and a half ago, Marsh decided he wanted to work in the printing business. He had been drawing and painting for several years and thought his artistic bent would serve him well. He opened the phone book and called every copy and printing shop. He was honest about his record. No one was interested.
There was one store on the list that Marsh didn't call at first--Copy Copy in Beverly Hills. The name was too "cheesy," he said. In desperation, though, he called. Joan Roman, one of the store's owners, asked him when he could come in. "Now?" he proposed.
"I've made him my assistant," said Roman. "I can't say enough about him. I feel like I got lucky."
So does Marsh. "I feel like I'm valued there," he said.
"She trusts me with money and bookkeeping. I have different ideas; I don't want to screw people over. If anyone has taught me to be a good person, it's Bob. He's completely patient and understanding. I pretty much modeled myself after him."
Going Public With His Art
At his birthday party, Marsh was nervous about sharing his art with so many people, putting it out there to be judged. And he resisted the idea that people would buy his work out of charity. "I'm not this poor puppy," he said. "I want them to buy it 'cause they like it."
The party, arranged by Makela, a magazine journalist and scriptwriter, started at 8 p.m. Friends of his, who own Quixote Studios, loaned the space. Opening bids on the 34 pieces were set from $25 to $100. Strangers asked him about the Cubist-flavored pieces, which Marsh describes as "honest" and "complicated." "What does this mean?" they asked. Marsh spoke frankly with party-goers about the jealousy he had of others' successes, their families. He talked about his anger and his drug use. He spoke eloquently. He was charming and funny.
When the silent auction was over, there was birthday cake and speeches. Marsh dedicated the night to Makela's sister, who died recently. Makela spoke about Marsh's amazing journey. "I know what it feels like to be a proud parent," he said. Thirty-two of 34 pieces sold that night. An etching fetched $825, a painting $650. Marsh's take: $9,000.
"It's a happy ending," said Pattee Stayrook, a friend in the art business who helped organize the show. "Or a happy middle."
Marsh hopes to start community college this summer. He's interested in art, computer animation, even psychology. He also intends to take Makela's last name. "The only family I ever really had," he said, "is Bob."