What I’ve Learned: A Los Angeles Rental Story, A Love Story, A Shoe Story -The Toast

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What I’ve Learned: The look on a person’s face seeing a green-eyed black girl for the first time after speaking to me on the phone can be daunting.

A Los Angeles rental story. In 1988, after my dream apartment fell through, I went looking for another. This was before the internet, kids, so I did it old school:  scouring the newspapers’ want ads, circling in red those that looked interesting or driving around a neighborhood I liked, looking for “For Rent” signs, taking down the number and calling to make an appointment.

I always liked the Fairfax district. Friends lived there. I liked their apartments. They had the Old Hollywood feel to them that I wanted. (I was relatively new to LA, and why move here if you aren’t going to appreciate its Old Hollywoodness?) That’s where I looked.

I found several. Took down the numbers. Found a relatively clean public phone. Positioned myself there with a notepad and a stack of quarters and called. Most people I called had the Eastern European accents I was familiar with from my childhood. Necessary data: I was raised on the grounds of a state mental institution where physicians like my dad lived and practiced until they got their license; most of the other physicians were Russian, Polish, German, Slavic or Cuban. All took what they could grab from their homelands and started all over in a new country.

Renter: Hullo.

Me: Hello. Hi. I’m calling about the one bedroom you have for rent.

Renter: Yase?

Me: Could you tell me a bit about it?

Renter: Eess kewt.


Me: Oh. Kay. May I see it?

Renter: Ewe syingle? Nize gyirl?

Me: Single? Yes. Nice girl? My mother thinks so.

Renter [Hearty laughter]: Weyll, den ewe cyome by. Szee. No petz.

Me: No, I don’t have pets. Thank you. I’m right around the corner. I’ll be there in about 2 minutes.

Renter: Ewe’ll like. Eess kewt. Gudfoor gyirl.

I hung up the phone. Two minutes later I was ringing the renter’s doorbell. She opened the door, took one look at me, and her face nearly cracked from the corners of her mouth to her hairline and fell on the floor.

Me: Hi. I just called about the one bedroom. I’m Sherlynn. Nice to meet you.

Renter: Aaach. Eess rentit.

Me: Rented? But I just called two minutes…

Renter [Defiantly]: Yase. Rentit.

She steadied herself on the door jamb, right below the mezuzah. I could see the tattoo. Numbers that I knew meant she survived more than I have ever, will ever or could ever and certainly much more than being denied a one-bedroom because your speaking voice belies reality.

We looked at each other for a time, me eyeing her looking for admission of what was really going on, her for an equation summing the phone voice and the green-eyed black girl in front of her. Neither of us got what we were looking for. Faced with those numbers, I didn’t have the heart to point out the irony.

Me: Ah. I get it. Thank you for your time.

I won’t say she slammed the door, but she did close it forcefully. I lamented the single ’round the way nice girl who may have wanted to live in a bit of Old Hollywood but would never get past the phone call.

What I’ve Learned: I will go to my grave believing Tucumcari, New Mexico is the most romantic place on earth.

When I was graduated from Fisk University and headed back home to Kankakee, Illinois, only to find myself with a B.A. and back at my old job waiting tables at Dearborn Square restaurant, I did like I’ve found myself doing pretty much all my life. I looked up, realized that I didn’t have to be there, and sent myself in a new direction.

So I gave notice, called my cousin in San Diego to see if I could crash at his house until I found a place to live, packed up my badass 1976 Camaro V8 (and here’s the important part) convinced my boyfriend that even though I was starting a new life without him on virtually the other side of the land mass, it was really the best thing for both of us. He was never going to leave Kankakee and all I wanted to do was peel my badass car the hell out, with K3 shrinking in my rear view, and to get him to drive cross-country with me, his love notwithstanding. He looked forlorn for about a minute, but what guy doesn’t enjoy a road trip? With sex.

We set off. The southern route. Hooked up with I-40, the old Route 66, in Texas, straight on to San Diego.

We got pulled over in Texas three times. Here’s why. My boyfriend was absolutely, stunningly navy blue. Gorgeous, smooth, soft, blemishless yards of black…not brown…skin with big, bright white teeth. He had beautiful brown eyes but was one of those people who looked better in sunglasses; he’d take them off and his eyes were much closer than your imagination had put them. Me? You see me. I’m light bright. I’ve been called a nigger-lover from a-not-that-far-away pickup truck full of yahoos with bad eyesight, poor cultural awareness (black folks come in all colors, y’all) and godawful manners. The Texas State Police were no different.

My Camaro’s 8-track(!!!!!) had broken, so we took turns reading bodice-rippers to each other…and then would retire early to a roadside motel and spent the night as you would imagine. In hormone-waning hindsight, I see that the desperate, dramatic, closed-ended drama of it, all combined with those bodice-rippers was almost too much. It’s a wonder we didn’t just burst into fire.

With that demure description as backstory, note that we then stopped in Tucumcari, New Mexico and checked into a hotel. We were tired and horny and it was sunset in the southwest. I’d never seen southwestern architecture before. The ceiling curved into the walls. And our room had a kitchenette and a drain in the floor of the bathroom, which had a tub AND a shower. And a back door that opened out onto the desert. I was giddy about that room. This new architecture in a roadside fuck-motel for some reason heralded the beginning of my new life far away from everything regular in Kankakee, where the ceiling ended abruptly at right angles to the walls.

My beau tore the threadbare blanket off the god-only-knows-what-it’s-seen mattress, took my hand, led me out the back door, laid both the blanket and me under so many stars he had to tell me to shut up about the number because if I didn’t notice, we were busy with something else. Again, hindsight tells me that there were snakes and scorpions and coyotes and bugs that could have done some damage, but…I’m writing this now with tears in my eyes because it’s gone, that feeling of being so new to life and love and sex and sunsets and architecture…we didn’t know and even if we did know, the stars and the sweat and the knowing that this was a close-ended thing and the architecture would have made it not matter.

I should put that on my tombstone. “Tucumcari is the most romantic place on earth.”

What I’ve Learned: Be careful about complimenting a woman on her shoes. She may be engaged to your fiancé. Yeah, how’s that for an opening line.

I used to act for a living. One day, I was in my agent’s office when a woman who looked not unlike me was there to see my agent too. If you’re an actor, you take this with a grain of salt. You’d LIKE to be the only light-skinneded, curly-headed, green-eyed, “urban” girl your agent represents. (By the way, “light-skinneded” is not a typo.) You’d like to be the only one, but chances are, you’re not. So: grain taken and being the generally friendly person I am, I see the shoes she’s wearing and notice that they are awesome and I say so. We make small talk, I go in to see my agent. When I leave, I say goodbye to the badass-shoe-wearing girl who looks like me and go on home.

Off-topic side note: When I was auditioning, a task that I hated and which stopped me from progressing too far in the profession because I SUCKED at it, I often was asked to be more “urban” or, as the phalanx of non-“urban” casting folks would say to me, “be more ‘street.'” I would always counter that I couldn’t be more “street” if they paved me. That always got me a laugh but usually lost me the part.

When I get home, there’s the blinking light of a message on my machine. It was machines back then, kids. On comes the hushed voice of my agent saying “Sherlynn. Call me as soon as you get in. The minute you get in, call me. The minute. YOU GET IN. CALL ME.” Woo-hooo! One of my sucky auditions got me a part! I call.

My agent: You know that girl in the waiting room?

Me: Yeah. Heh. She was cute, if you like that type. She had great shoes. [Me being totally Hollywood and looking out for Numero Uno.] You gonna represent her?

My agent: No, I got you. [This is why she’s my agent; loyalty canNOT be taken for granted] But she’s engaged.

Me: Oooookay. Um, good for her?

My agent: She’s engaged to [my ex-fiancé, Manipulative Lying Sociopathic Triflin’ MF].

Me: [Kinda hurting but knew this day would come, so being glad I practiced being gracious] Well, um, good for her.

My agent: No, you don’t understand. She’s been engaged to [Manipulative Lying Sociopathic Triflin’ MF] for the past two years.

Me: Huh? Wait. [Manipulative Lying Sociopathic Triflin’ MF] was engaged to ME for the past two years.

My agent: Yeah.

Me: And [Manipulative Lying Sociopathic Triflin’ MF] and his two kids lived with ME for the past two years.

My agent: Yeah.

Me: In my one-bedroom.

My agent: Yeah.

Me: With my two cats.

My agent: Yeah.

Me [Processing]: Wow.

My agent: Yeah.

Me [Processing]: Wow.

My agent: Yeah.

Me [Still processing]: Wow. What’s her name?

My agent: [Name I heard once and again from Manipulative Lying Sociopathic Triflin’ MF’s lying lips but since I didn’t waste an inordinate amount of time and energy being jealous, never paid it much attention so in homage to Whitney Houston, let’s call her someone I’m not…]. Susan.

Me [Feeling like a schmuck]: Well. Good luck to Susan. [Manipulative Lying Sociopathic Triflin’ MF] is clearly a piece of work.

My agent: Yeah.

Me: Her shoes WERE nice, though.

Sherlynn Hicks is a wage slave with a history and a story to tell.

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