The storybook cottage was one of eight around a garden courtyard that included a castle tower. I moved into the Griffith Park property for peace of mind. It was a tragically sweet landmark, built in 1926. The first time I saw it, I could practically see a cuckoo poking its head out the front door on the half hour to tell the time. Having just broken up with my boyfriend, I envisioned it as a retreat where I could put my life back together. I was a writer and part-time clerk in a gift shop, but living in the French Normandy cottage I could pretend that I spent my days milking cows and watering flowers.
Unfortunately, the problems started the first week after I moved in. Walking home from the market one day, I arrived to find my garden patio teeming with police, firemen, yellow tape, and a volunteer cast of extras. I became an extra, straining to see what was going on, and whether I could get to my front door. Elliot Graves, a local musician, had been missing for several weeks. Starting that day, the police identified his cottage as a crime scene.
I had heard the cottages were haunted, but I thought they would be friendly ghosts. In the 1930s, Walt Disney had rented the property for his artists. His studio was a bungalow on the corner of Griffith Park and Hyperion, and his home was on the facing hillside on Hyperion. Because of its location in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains, in the 1930s, this neighborhood must have been a haven for wildlife. In 1937, the studio put out Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first full-length animated motion picture. The artists modeled the dwarfs' cottage on the Los Feliz cottages. Ever since the 1930s, they had been known as the Snow White Cottages, or Disney Cottages.
The ghosts I had hoped to see were Walt Disney and Gloria Swanson sitting on the patio. However, now I had a new ghost, a local rock musician, whose status is still a mystery. After yellow tape day, I started having dreams that Elliot was mad at me because I had moved in too soon after his lease was up, and forced him out. He had lived in my cottage at one time, years before. But the dreams seemed improbable; the people who lived in the cottage right before me had plenty of time to move. I even allowed the landlady to pro-rate my rent so the they could have an extra week.
Looking back, I think maybe the previous tenants could have been mad at me. Not because I rushed them out, but because of what I found when I cleaned out their garage: a collection of teddy bears that had been bound and tortured. It was the saddest thing I had ever seen. Everything else had been reduced to black gook that I had to scrape up with a shovel.
The next problem was that someone left a queen-sized mattress and a sheet of rotted plywood beside our dumpster. That was one of the things about living on the alley: other people's garbage. I swear, someone even left an old kitchen sink once.
I went out there to throw my garbage out and a man was standing around by the mattress. I threw my bag in the dumpster and walked away as quickly as I could. Great, I thought, now the garbage is attracting weirdos. I subsequently met the man from the alley, Richard, who lived in one of the cottages. He said he was also tired of people leaving trash in the alley.
That evening I went out to take a walk and noticed that someone had taken the old plywood. I could see the mattress was covered with dried blood.
Richard was often out there, working in his garage, so I talked to him from time to time at first. He lived with a partner named Boris, who was a gigantic man who looked like he was schooled in San Quentin. Boris did not say hi. Being a friendly neighborhood of Los Angeles, that seemed strange.
All too soon, another curiosity: the neighbors told me they considered Richard and Boris too generally creepy, and a menace to the peaceful courtyard. The men who had lived in my unit had been in with them, but moved. However, they did not move far. The neighborhood was all rental apartments, which made it easy to stay close by if you wanted to.
When I first moved in, I spent most of my mental energy trying to forget my ex-partner, Carl. He was a local drummer who played in most of the clubs around town. We were never the greatest couple. None of my friends could understand why I was with him. Usually every night he was either out at a rehearsal or playing a show. He also went on the road with his band, and who knows what went on. I was just an ornament he kept at home in a box.
Our last year together kept running through my mind. On Easter, he took me to a party where someone offered me pot. It had been a while since I had smoked, and I got too stoned. Carl had to haul me away because I was embarrassing him. Memorial Day and the Fourth he went to his friends' parties without me. Labor Day I had my family over. He made us a pot of coffee and a bowl of guacamole, then disappeared.
In November we drove to Oregon to spend Thanksgiving with our respective families; he in southern Oregon, and I in Portland. On the way home we had a fight coming up the Grapevine. I admit that I was criticizing his driving.
The most violent thing we ever did to each other was the night he took his pizza and went to his room in the middle of dinner. I tried to push my way in and threw my pizza at him. He picked it up and mashed it in my hair. After that we went to couples counseling, but our counselor turned out to be a fraud.
To close out the year, he went to see his relatives on Christmas Eve, leaving me alone. Then I went out with my friends on New Year's Eve, leaving him alone. New Year's day we went out to fly the kite he had given me. Even though we found a windy hillside in Glendale, everything took a different turn. That was the day he admitted that he had been having an affair since March, and that I had met the woman at the Easter party. Instead of flying the kite, I sat down on the ground and cried.
The cottages were quiet and cold through the end of winter. The early hours were the worst, since the only working heater was in my office. At least it motivated me to get out of bed and get to my desk early. There's a saying that ninety percent of success is just showing up. Apart from the hours I put in at the shop each week, I was usually at my desk writing.
As the weather warmed up, I needed the heater less, and that made the cottage more livable. Apart from thoughts of the situation in the alley, the man who disappeared, and the occasional strange dreams—everything was great. And I started to notice that due to the fame of the property, tourists frequently wandered through the patio with cameras, sometimes even pressing their faces up to the windows to look for the dwarfs. It was like living in a Disneyland ride.
The story of the rats, and how I killed Mickey Mouse, pales in comparison to the terrible events that ultimately came to pass. Killing Mickey Mouse was bad enough. When the landlady made all of us clean out our garages, the garage rats moved into my cottage. All the other residents had cats. I found rat droppings around the kitchen, and up in the loft, especially. I often saw one old rat running across the floor, so one night I caught him in a wastebasket. Being an animal lover, my intention was to relocate him after I got home from my writers group. However, when I got home, the poor thing had expired. With great sadness, and a touch of dread and guilt, I threw his carcass in the dumpster. After that I became a hardened rat killer, even purchasing a battery-operated rat trap. I learned that one set of batteries would kill up to two rats.
The worst horror of the rats was when one of them made its home in the wall of the oven. Not knowing he was in there, when I finally used the oven, it made the whole cottage smell of roasted rat. Soon after that, I called the Health Department. The inspector came over and advised me to get rid of the oven.
The cottages had years of deferred maintenance, and the next big maintenance issue that happened was when a ball of paint formed on the wall above the bathtub. It grew and grew, and when it finally popped, water came out. I scraped the wet paint off with a paper towel, then called it in to the landlady. She said her handyman would be out the next day.
With the first day of spring, a new beginning. My office had east-facing windows and my finches made quite a noise when they greeted the sun. I left them momentarily to pick up the paper, which was mercifully delivered right to the doorstep. That particular morning I got more than a newspaper. I caught a glimpse of Boris carrying a large duffle bag over his shoulder, into the parking lot. I heard a thud, then his truck started up and he drove away. Was it a dead body?
I sat down in the living room and took deep breaths, sipped warm water, and gently flexed my arms. Pacing around the room, breathing; breathing in, breathing out, calming my heart, breathing, sipping warm water. After fifteen minutes my heart stopped racing.
I brought the newspaper to the kitchen, freed it from its plastic bag, fixed a bowl of cereal, and retreated to my office. My usual routines allowed me to block out what I might have just seen. Hope he didn't see me open the door! Turn the computer on, eat cereal as it boots up. Put in the password, take another bite. Just act normal, ignore it, maybe nothing really happened.
The finches were unusually rowdy, so I opened their cage. They darted out and flew together in circles around the room. They landed on the curtain rod, then a lamp, then the cage, where they could watch me change their paper. They flew up and buzzed my head, then cackled like I was their favorite new private joke. Finally they flew back inside the cage.
I scanned the newspaper to see if there were any murders the previous day. A knock at the front door. Shuddering, I put on my shoes and ventured into the living room. I peeked out the window: the landlady's repairman. It was difficult for me, but I opened the door and invited him in. He looked at the paint bubble situation and said that he would have to break into the wall from the laundry room side. Fine. While he was working on that, I slipped out the front door and looked for Sharon. She and I were usually the only people home all day at the cottages. She sympathized with my concerns about Richard and Boris, but I did not dare tell her what I might have seen that morning.
Also, as far as the rats and plumbing problems, she said, "These cottages attract sentimental people who want to pay a fortune to live in a shack." Like most of the other residents, the adorable features of the cottages had lured me in, then I got stuck there. "Something we all have in common," she noted. The fact of Elliot missing or murdered shook her up too, since she and her husband had been friends with Elliot and his girlfriend all the years they had lived there.
I was splitting with paranoia, but as we talked in the morning sunshine, the ghosts receded. She had a bag of pecans we used to lure squirrels close enough to take them right from our hands. Upon receiving a nut, the squirrels would run a few feet, use one hand to scoop out a two inch divot of grass, pack the nut in the hole, and put the divot back. We sat out there for an hour or more, until the handyman emerged and said he would have to come back later in the week to patch the hole. Sharon recognized the man and said he was harmless. Okay.
On the Fourth of July, the Times carried a front-page story about the deadly Randolph Johns cult, with roots in Los Feliz. It was a cross between the murderous Charles Manson family and a UFO cult. Their leader, Mr. Randolph Johns himself, was once diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, but his followers see him as a prophet. He perceives bad spirits over people's heads, then gets his followers to kill them, or at least mess up his victims' lives. The article said the group had approximately sixty full-time followers, but Randolph and a dozen of the followers were now facing fraud and racketeering charges, as well as conspiracy to murder. I heard from one of the neighbors that the bloody mattress in the alley was part of a feud between the cult members who lived in the cottages, and ex-neighbors who now lived across the alley.
It was my warning, but I ignored it. Denial is easy; feeling gut feelings takes work. If only I had paid attention to what was going on! But no, like Sharon said, the cottages appeal to sentimental people. I stayed in the cottages. The months went by so fast. I kept trying to fix my mind on milking cows and tending flower gardens, and even started a colorful butterfly garden outside my front windows.
Then one boring October evening I decided to walk to the market for ice cream. It was something I had done dozens of times, but this night was tragic. On the way to the market, a man walked toward me and spit on the sidewalk. Another man jumped from behind a hedge and grabbed me. They threw me in the back of a waiting car, and sat on me.
When I came to, I was inside a run down hotel room with the three kidnappers. They appeared to lived there, and had trashed it. On a cheap wooden table in the middle of the room were candles, matches, spoons, empty heroin foil packets, and hypodermic needles. On the second night of my captivity, one of the men decided I should be his girlfriend, so he pulled me into his bed. I tried to reason with him, saying, "Let's get to know each other first. This is too fast." But to no avail. He said: "Shut the fuck up, I'm coming in." It was over in a few minutes.
I lay there in anguish. It was late and I could tell he immediately fell asleep because of his snoring. I also drifted off. At three a.m. I awoke to the sound of heavy snoring from all three beds. I put on my shoes, snagged a leather jacket from the back of a chair, and walked silently out the door.
Within a few minutes I was telling the police my story. They raided the hotel room and arrested the men, charging them with possession of drugs and stolen property, rape, and felony kidnapping. And the big news: these three were fugitives wanted by the FBI for their crimes in the Randy Johns cult.
The police took me to the station, where I saw a female officer for debriefing. She recorded my statement, then told me: "I have to deal with women in your situation nearly every day. The best thing you can do for yourself is to get into therapy." She added, "Try not to blame all men for the crimes of these three men." I thanked her for her advice.
I did get into counseling at the L.A. Gestalt Institute. Mostly we did artwork and talked. At first I drew cartoons of penis people playing jokes on each other and harassing women. Later, I used my drawings to do seventeen large canvases of penis people at work in offices, shops, restaurants, and train stations. Next I did a series of canvases where the penis people were made from the landscape, like the Green Man. I painted them in settings of pine forests, tropical jungles, and cornfields. My doctor liked these paintings. She said it was a good sign that I could integrate the penis people into the landscape. From talking to me, she said she could tell that I had healed the emotional damage of the rape.
For the next year, I lived in the cottage without further incident. But the living room and loft were crowded with canvases, and I kept making more, to the point that I considered moving to a bigger place. Then a friend suggested that I try to sell then. It had never occurred to me, but I gave it some thought. Soon afterward, my friend introduced me to her friend, Ms. Bovary, a Beverly Hills gallery owner.
After looking at snapshots of my work, Ms. Bovary came over in person to see what I had. A couple weeks later, Madeline Bovary appeared at my door again and asked to buy all my paintings. I said, "May I varnish them for you?" She just laughed and put a big check in my hand. When I agreed to sign, she waved three men over, who carried away all my canvases and put them in a truck. Madeline invited me to lunch where we got out our calendars and picked a date for my opening. We have been great business partners ever since. The storybook cottages and butterfly garden have become the center of my life, providing an inspiring place to work. The landlord even lets me hold art shows in the courtyard. The nightmares are gone, and so are the cult members. The Snow White Cottages turned out to be just what I needed.