In my late twenties, I was living in LA, living in a group house, doing theater and scraping together a living at my part time job at the Bodhi Tree Bookstore. All four of us living in that house worked together, too. It was a fun time. Three fabulous young women—a poet, a singer songwriter, a writer/actor--
One day, Jamye said someone had come into the store asking for help on behalf of a friend, an elderly woman, who was legally blind. She needed someone to help out with bills, reading, correspondence. Jamye had been going for a few weeks but didn’t have as much time as the woman required so she asked if any of us in the house wanted to take a day.
I was always broke—where did all the money go?—so I said yes.
We drove from our house in Elysian Park on the east side of town, into Hollywood. She lived at the Alto Nido, an old school Hollywood apartment building from the 1930s, designed in the Spanish Colonial Revival style. Originally an apartment hotel, for years it had housed actors who arrived by bus to the greyhound station down just a few blocks away on Cahuenga; kids from Iowa and Kentucky, Florida and Ohio—all in search of stardom. Over the decades, residents included Fatty Arbuckle, Claudette Colbert and George Cukor. The building’s greatest claim to fame was when Billy Wilder used it for its interiors; William Holden’s Joe Gillis was living there at the start of the movie, before he moves into Gloria Swanson’s mansion on, yes, Sunset Boulevard.
Alto Nido means High Nest in Spanish, and the 5 story buiding sits at the top of a hill above the flats of Hollywood. When it was originally built, the Hollywood freeway would not have been right next to it and its prominence would have been greater.
By the time of my visit, although the place had exchange its glamour for something closer to seedy, I still thrilled to walk up the street to the famed stucco building, rich in history and ghosts.
Terra cotta tiles in the lobby, a wrought iron sconce and hanging lamp, all alluded to the bygone days—the hallways were carpeted in what might have once been a low, red pile but by then were darkened with years of high heels, spilled drinks and gum shoes.
I wish I could remember the woman’s name. But the years have wiped that away, along with so many other details. Now when I dive into the past, I often enter vague, waters. I do know that as we waited for her to answer the door, Jamye said, pointing to an apartment door just a few feet away, “That’s the door of the apartment in Sunset Boulevard.”
The door opened and a tall woman with short white hair stood before us. Jamye and she were friendly with each other, she was so happy we had come. Introductions were made as we entered. It wasn’t exactly a disaster, but also not surprising that a person who could barely see lived here. And, the place was small, a studio. Thankfully there were large windows on two sides, it was a corner unit, and one window looked out over the freeway, across which I could see the Vedanta Center. Home to many of Hollywood’s greatest spiritual seekers.
We sat, or tried to. Jamye over there, I took an old leather club chair which had pamphlets on the wide armrests. The woman sat on the edge of her bed and, to give you an idea of the cramped quarters, by leaning forward she easily handed me a pamphlet.
“Here,” she said, “This is what I’m working on.”
I opened the tri-fold pamphlet to find a painting of Christ on the cross at Mt. Calvary.
“It’s the largest painting in the world, it’s at Forest Lawn, and I’m helping to get it restored.”
I was silent, looked at Jamye who nodded slowly. I gathered she knew about the painting.
“I’ve never seen it,” the woman said, “but this is my work, I want to help.”
A woman who could no longer see wanting to help restore a painting she had never seen, at a place she couldn’t see even if she could get someone to drive her there.
The job was helping with her correspondence, sending out fundraising letters, petitions of support.
I never went back—I was torn, she was a dear person, and it was the kind of strange, wonderful thing I would be drawn to. But admin’s not my strong suit, and I don’t think she was paying.
I’m not a religious person, but I long for that kind of faith. To work for something so meaningful to me, something so beautiful that, even if I never see it, I’ll keep the vision alive.