When I think of home, the home of my youth, I think of a gray,
two-bedroom house in Huntington Park.
My family and I lived in many houses while I was growing up, but
this was the one that took, the home in which we stayed long enough
to put down some roots and lay plans for things other than our next
move. It was a big, single-story, 1900s holdout, so old it sagged in
the middle. It had a short brick walkway that led to the front porch.
The walkway leaned to the left during the first couple of years we
lived there, then to the right following the Sylmar quake in ’71.
My mother had found the house purely by accident. She was walking
to the corner store one day and noticed it for the first time,
forsaken and overrun with weeds and grass. Later, when my father and
brothers and I took on the task of getting rid of all that weed and
grass, we found a rusty “for rent” sign that had fallen and
disappeared in the overgrowth three years earlier. My mother talked
to a neighbor who put her in contact with the owner, who was so
excited at the prospect of a tenant that she rented the house to us
for $75 a month.
“It’s a fixer-upper,” my mother told us later that night. “Don’t
turn on the heater or it’ll blow up.”
A week later, the eight of us were moved in.
Mom’s first step toward home improvement was to rip the thermostat
off the wall, certain that one of the boys would turn the heater on
one night to see if it really would blow up. But the place still
needed a lot of work.
Besides the heating system being shot, there were holes in the
walls, gashes in the ceiling you could see the stars through, exposed
wiring everywhere. Forget about the bugs. The floor in the laundry
room had almost disintegrated with dry rot. You’d turn on the water
and the pipes would groan and think about it. In the mornings, my
mother hung blankets up against the walls to keep the cold out, and
the blankets would billow in the draft.
The neighbors thought we were out of our minds for living there,
and they warned their children to keep away from us. When I told my
mother about this, she just laughed. She had been in a good and
progressively better mood since we had moved in.
My mother had been at her wits’ end before finding that house. She
was 30 days past a 30-day notice to vacate, and had spent the past
month searching the lowest income neighborhoods in L.A. for someone
who would let to an impoverished family of eight. She’d have had an
easier time finding a homeland in the Middle East. No one would rent
to us. Desperate, she turned to the state for subsidized housing
assistance, and was put on a waiting list so long she might just be
getting a place about now had she waited.
Then, finally, when it seemed like the eight of us might be
spending a few nights in my dad’s Rambler, my mother stumbled upon
this house. She began smiling the moment she laid eyes on it. It was
big enough. It had to be cheap enough. And my mother’s feet were
really starting to kill her.
So when the landlady asked my mother how many children she had, my
“How many are you willing to take?” she asked.
“I wouldn’t want to rent to more than a family of four.”
My mother sighed. She had a hard time believing that termites, dry
rot and explosive heaters could be considered harder on a property
than six children, but there it was. She made a decision right then
to stop playing by the rules.
“Well, there are five of us.”
The landlady looked at the sagging old house.
“Well, I suppose I can live with that.”
That night, my mother gathered us together and with a big smile on
her face told us that three of us had to go.
And so began the days of the big family conspiracy. Whenever the
landlady would make one her unannounced quarterly visits, whoever
spotted her car first would shout “The landlady! The landlady!” My
father would stall the landlady at the door while my mother shooed
three of us into the linen closet. Then she would rush out to greet
the landlady and steer her to the backyard where she would show her
how beautifully she was fixing it up and how big her three little
darlings were getting. Meanwhile, in the linen closet, three little
hostages to rental fraud would jostle and charley-horse each other
and curse the landlady under our breaths.
Of course, it wasn’t a well-thought-out conspiracy. My mother
could never quite remember which three kids she had frantically swept
into the closet the last time the landlady showed up. So sometimes
she’d bring three of her darlings out and the landlady, a very old
woman, would scratch her head and stare for a long moment, and say
things like, “Didn’t you used to have three girls?”
And my mother, without batting a lash, would shake her head, and
say things like, “Oh no. Michael has always been a very pretty boy.”
And the landlady would nod and wonder if she was starting to go
But you can be certain that, whomever my mother brought out to
meet the landlady, I wasn’t one of them. Being the youngest, my
official existence wasn’t even open to debate. I’d hear the cry “The
landlady! The landlady!” and immediately drop my toys and run to the
closet. One time, I ran in and closed the door, and there with me was
my brother Junior -- and my dad. He looked at me and made a “shush”
gesture with his finger. I just shook my head and sighed. I didn’t
even want to know.
We lived in that house for six years before I finally saw our
landlady’s face. It was on the night before my sister Linda’s
wedding, a big production in which the efforts of every member of the
family was enlisted. My job was to tie little silk bows around
plastic champagne glasses. The eight of us were all laboring away in
the living room when the landlady strolled through the open screen
door, carrying a big, gift-wrapped box.
Sixteen eyes followed her as she walked across the room and handed
the gift to my sister and kissed her on the cheek. My sister thanked
her; the rest of us were as silent as deer at an NRA convention. Then
the landlady turned and started walking back toward the door.
And just when we were starting to think our luck would hold out,
the landlady stopped at the door and turned to the six children, five
of whom had already been introduced her over the years as my mother’s
own. The old woman stood there with her hands on her hips and wearing
a triumphant expression, as though she could finally prove at last
that she hadn’t been losing her mind. Then she turned to my mother
and announced that she was raising the rent 50 bucks a month, and
My mother stared after her for a long time.
“Well,” she said at last. “I suppose we can live with that.”
* DAVID SILVA is the News-Press city editor. Reach him at
637-3233; or by e-mail at email@example.com.