Every Sunday morning, when most of the young hipsters in my Los Angeles neighborhood are still sleeping, I head out the door for a long, solitary walk.
I like seeing the unexpected, things like a modern house teetering on a hillside, a gigantic American flag hanging off the back. Then there’s the half burned-to-the-ground Craftsman bungalow with the flowers still blooming in the front yard. And this past Sunday, there was a black cat perched on a terrace ledge, staring down on me with a mixture of curiosity and disdain.
The cat climbed down and deigned to let me scratch its ears. Then it trotted along in front of me, pausing and turning, almost like it was checking to make sure I was following it. I decided to play along. After all, I had nowhere to be, no particular destination.
And then suddenly the cat ran into a yard and up into the lap of a man sitting out on his porch. I smiled for a second, listening to the man’s happiness as he scratched her back and said, “Well, well. Where have you been, Mousy? Daddy missed you.”
Then he looked at me and smiled. “And who is your friend, Mousy?”
His voice had a heavy, European-sounding accent and he stood to introduce himself. “I am Hans,” he said. “Thank you for bringing Mousy home. She’s been gone being naughty for two days.”
Hans was a silvery-haired elderly gentleman dressed neatly in dark wash jeans and a plaid shirt. I introduced myself and told him how I’d followed Mousy. I complimented Hans on her friendliness. He kindly complimented me back by saying that Mousy only talks to those who are themselves friendly.
We got to talking and before you know it, Hans and I were buddies. I found myself sitting in front of his house on his waist-high garden ledge petting Mousy and listening to some of his adventures from his seventy-two years on this Earth. I heard how he immigrated from Switzerland to Brooklyn, and later moved to Los Angeles because of love.
“My wife was in love with Los Angeles and I was in love with her. So we came and we stayed.”
He told me how he retired in 1998 because his wife had developed dementia and he needed to take care of her. He didn’t want to put her in a home, “Because somewhere I trusted was $5,000 a month.” And so he did his best to take care of her.
Hans told me, “Toward the end I’d have to turn off the gas in the house at night in case she’d wake up and try to go light the stove to cook me something. I woke up once and thought the whole place was going to blow, so I started doing that.”
And now he’s been rehabbing the house for the past three years because, “It occupies my time and takes my mind off how much I miss her.”
Hans freely shared that he only paid $18,000 for his house and he chuckled as my jaw dropped over such an inexpensive price for a place in Los Angeles. He went on to describe how no one wanted to live in our neighborhood back then. Even rents were a measly one-hundred dollars a month for a nicer two-bedroom apartment.
Hans can’t believe that the USC graduate students living next door are paying $2,500 a month to rent a one-bedroom house. “And they’re getting PhDs in English. Rent should be free for them!” he complained, as if he was witnessing injustices being done to his own children
“Do you have children?” I asked, sensing that this man with an easy smile most likely did.
“Yes, two. And one of my daughters moved back to LA to be with me.” He had a twinkle in his eye as he said, “She thinks I need taking care of but I told her, that’s what Mousy’s job is.”
I saw that he’s missing two fingers on his right hand and I asked him how it happened. He told me how he lost them in an accident while building an aircraft carrier. “But I never notice it these days. I’ve lived with it so long.”
And then his daughter came out of the house to check on her dad. She was just as friendly and down-to-earth as her father and told me to watch out because, “ Next thing you know, my dad will have you over, making dinner for you like he does for those poor grad students next door.” She smiled and mock whispered, “He’s a terrible cook!”
Hans laughed good-naturedly and as they teased each other, I realized that I’d probably been sitting there talking to him for at least half an hour. Probably longer, and I needed to get back home. So I said goodbye, gave Mousey one last scratch behind the ears and wished Hans good luck on his continued rehabbing.
I don’t know if my walk will take me past their house this coming Sunday. But if it does, that’s quite alright. Talking to Hans made me realize how rare it is to see the elderly in my neighborhood. I don’t think I’ll mind saying hello to Hans (and Mousy) again.