In the Shadow of the Hills

I used to live in an apartment building in a small, hip neighborhood in the foothills of Mount Lee: north of Hollywood and west of Los Feliz. From the bottom of the street two blocks west of my old street, you can see the Hollywood Sign. More than once, I saw a tourist standing in the center of the street to take a picture, oblivious to any cars that might be driving up the street. There are enough details in this blog post for you to figure out where I used to live. But, I’m gonna keep it vague, so people googling for actual factual information about a certain building or a certain neighborhood won’t find this post.

My street was only one block long, lined with jacaranda trees, musty-sweet in the spring, turning the sidewalks purple and slippery with fallen blossoms. So, I’m going to call the building I used to live in Jacaranda Pointe. I moved into my old neighborhood in 1996, when it was run down and unfashionable. Slightly sketchy, but less sketchy than Hollywood. Jacaranda Street sat perpendicular to a very busy thoroughfare, which I’ll call Frampton Avenue.

If you walked a block or two north from Jacaranda Street, the streets got steep, and the sidewalks tilted this way and that, pushed up at sharp angles by protruding tree roots. A few more blocks, and you’d be in the Hollywood hills. Sometimes on a Saturday, I’d pick a random street and follow it up and up and up, twisting around tall clusters of cacti and clattering palms, where the Porsches were parked on both sides of the street, squeezed in between recycling bins. If somebody was coming the other way, one of us would have to find a spot to pull over. But, turn some unanticipated corner, and my claustrophobic hairpin climb would tumble out to a sheer brown hillside, and the sudden sweeping vista of the city past the dented guardrail would steal my breath. I drove up as far as I could drive, and when I’d driven that far, I rambled west through the neighborhoods above the Sunset Strip, knowing I couldn’t get lost: I only had to point my nose downward, back toward civilization.

On the corner of Jacaranda Street and Frampton Avenue squatted a much older apartment building, gloriously dilapidated and one thousand percent haunted. People lived there. I never saw anybody go in or out, but I saw potted plants on windowsills, saw tabletop fans spinning in the summer, and I heard music wafting from stereos. I was intensely envious of those unseen tenants. I didn’t dare to venture farther than a peek into the crusty, hideous lobby whenever I walked past, and I always worried they would tear the place down (or that it would fall down) — but in the end, after I moved out of the neighborhood, it got refurbished, and turned it into an extended-stay hotel. Across the street from this Spanish colonial horror was a very dark and narrow coffee shop, illuminated only by the glow of laptop screens, rooms opening into rooms as you ventured deeper. It was a favorite hangout of mine for many years. In fact, it’s the model for Jitters in the Dark Roast blog story.

A tenant at my old building told me he’d gotten a memo from the property manager for Jacaranda Place Apartments, and a different logo on the letterhead. Wondering why and when the name of the building had been changed, he did some internetting, and he discovered that the Hillside Strangler had murdered somebody in our building. Except this isn’t true. Not exactly.

In December of 1977, sex worker Kimberly Diane Martin was sent by her escort agency, to an apartment in my old building, to meet her client. The apartment turned out to be vacant. It had been broken into, and the “client” was Kenneth Bianchi. Kimberly’s body was later discovered dumped near city hall. She was seventeen. I searched for more information on the internet, and found, on the now sadly defunct, that Kimberly Martin met Kenneth Bianchi in the apartment directly below mine.

To be honest, I was excited when I found this out. Not only had my building played a part of Hollywood history, I had my own little detail to add to the story.

It’s unclear whether Kimberly Martin was murdered inside the apartment or not. But, more to the point, my own double-checking for this very blog post turned up a photo on Murderpedia of my old building from the 1970s, and it had exactly the same name it does now. Right there in huge letters over the entryway. In fact, the building in that photo looks astonishingly like it did when I moved in. The property owners later added an awning and some other furbelows, but it looked almost exactly the same, and now I can’t stop thinking about this. I’ve lost touch with the tenant who first told me the story, so I can’t ask him. Did he make it all up? Possibly. He also told me once that he’d seen the ghost of a dark-haired woman in his closet. My spine was appropriately tingled. But… why? What would be the point of making up the story about the memo letterhead? The facts of Kimberly Martin’s murder are the same, regardless of what the building was called. Was he confused? Was my old building the site of some other unspeakable event, before the 1970s, and that’s why the name was changed? Honestly, I can believe that.

I am grateful every single day that I’m not spending the COVID19 lockdown in my apartment at Jacaranda Pointe. I had many happy years there, it’s true, but I lived there too long. I was still living there after my group of friends had dispersed to the far corners of the country, after the neighborhood theater company I volunteered at had morphed into something I was too shy to participate in; after the last building manager who took any pride in their job was gone, replaced by staff who were never in the office, never answered the phone, and had no idea who anybody was. By the time I finally moved out of Jacaranda Pointe, I had been itching to leave for about six years.

There was a vortex in that building. A dark feeling. I’m not usually one for believing in vortices and energies and whatnot. But, that building was weird. People either stayed in Jacaranda Pointe very short time, or they stayed a very long time. The guy who lived in the apartment below mine — you know: THE apartment — had been living there when I moved in, and he was still living there when I moved out. It was difficult to get out, once you were in. I stayed there twenty years. Much too long, unable to leave during those last few years, because my apartment was rent controlled, and I couldn’t afford another place that wasn’t as far away from work as the planet Neptune. My commute was already a brutal hour and a half to two hours each way, and I was stuck. Stuck like Artax in the Swamp of Sadness.

When I tell you it was bad — it was bad. My second floor apartment was gloomy: nearly all the sun blocked out by either the bulk of the building, or the a gigantic ficus tree in the courtyard. I didn’t have a car. I was long-term unemployed in 2012, and I couldn’t afford it any more. So, I took the bus from Hollywood to Santa Monica, and back again, five days a week. If I missed the last DASH bus at 7pm, I had to walk a mile up the hill to home, with a grinding pain in my left lower back (probably from lugging a heavy messenger bag), that I can still feel the ghost of sometimes. Luckily for me, I found a new position at my same company with a higher salary, that enabled me to move west to Santa Monica, very close to the office, to the apartment where I now live.

For a couple of years in the mid-2000s, I worked as the assistant property manager at Jacaranda Pointe, a part time job that I could do on evenings and weekends. I liked that job a lot. I liked working in the office and getting to know the tenants. I liked being of service. I got to know every inch of that building (or at least, I think I did). It was pretty large, just over a hundred apartments, and shaped like a capital E, with two enclosed courtyards, two heated (sometimes) pools, and a narrower courtyard/walkway that ran along the back of the building, and connected everything. I say “connected,” but you had better be damn sure you brought your keys, because you needed to go through about seventeen locked security gates between one end of the building and the other. The building was a warren of half floors, confusing hallways, secret staircases, and doors in startling places. Amenities included a dismal fitness room, two saunas (TWO!), that I don’t think anyone ever used, except for me. (I loved them), and two parking levels, the lower of which filled me with vague and confusing dread anytime I had to go down there.

The two pools were at opposite ends of the building. The north side pool was fine. The other one was… not great. The south side of the building in general was creepy. Somebody told me once that they heard someone had been murdered on the third floor, somewhere on the south side. I never found out which apartment. Or any more details. More than one tenant told me that they felt like the south side had a dark energy. A creepy vibe. I believed it. I felt it when I was on call at night, and did my walk-arounds of the hallways.

The south pool sat far back in a remote corner of the building, under the overhang of the first-floor apartments. Yes, I said first floor. You see, the pool faced the upper level of the parking garage, and a row of dark windows that looked in on the equipment storage room. The pool area was generally agreed upon to be haunted. A few tenants even claimed to have seen the ghost of a workman in overalls and a wide-brimmed straw hat that cast his face into deep shadow.

I never saw the ghost. But, I hated going back there, walking into the eerie snowfall silence of that back corner. Anywhere else in the courtyards, every little noise bounced and rebounded like a superball. But that south corner was dead silent. You couldn’t even hear the traffic on Frampton Avenue. Eventually, the management company tore out the second pool and put in a jaccuzi. Which nobody had asked for, and very few people used. But, at least it made lots of noise whenever it was switched on.

At the end of Jacaranda Street, opposite the ghostful Spanish colonial, there used to be a crappy bungalow that at first was just unloved, with sagging curtains and a lawn left to grow tall and wild, but obviously still inhabited. They held a garage sale at one point. But, after a few years, it became an actual abandoned house, with boarded up windows and a chain link fence hastily erected around it. My friend told me she’d been to a party there. The backyard, she said, extended nearly halfway down the block behind Frampton Avenue. Not coincidentally, I was certain, there was one spot on Frampton that could not keep a store or a restaurant open for more than a few months. Even when the neighborhood got trendier, even when a famous comedy ensemble moved into the teensy weensy theater, and the sidewalk got annoying crowded on evenings and weekends, that one spot still struggled to hang on to a single business. By the time that bungalow finally got torn down, the chain link fence sagged with a near-impenetrable mass of vines. But, I could see that the lot went back a long, long way.

I don’t miss living at Jacaranda Pointe. I don’t miss the leaky roofs, or the cockroaches, or the long, silent hallways. I was very unhappy there, in the end. Most of my good memories are overshadowed by the bad ones. That’s the way of the world, I suppose. But, I do miss the neighborhood. I miss the Hollywood hills. I still don’t own a car. I don’t really need one. My new apartment is walking distance from the office, but of course nowadays I work from home, and only go out to make grocery runs. Sometimes on a Saturday, I’ll do my rambling through the the real estate listings on Redfin or Zillow, looking at the interiors of the houses I used to drive past and wonder about. I’ll bookmark the “reasonable” ones. In the one to three million range. Nothing too fancy. I don’t need a bunch of empty rooms. I’m just looking for my own cozy little tree house high above the city, where I can see the stars, and hear the palms whisper to one another all through the night, up in those beautiful, haunted hills.