In 2007, I moved across the country from Chicago to Los Angeles. Though one could quantify my relocation in miles, it felt like much more. Three months in, I was in hell. Allen, my Craigslist roommate and fellow University of Wisconsin Alum, would be my ferryman. Reed, his brother, would be my snarling, dreadlocked Cerberus.
I had been living comfortably with Allen, sure. Allen was a smallish man who looked 20 but was actually in his late 30’s. He would be the first of many people who presented themselves as- or who perhaps, were- wildly younger than their biological age. At first, these people frustrated me. Interactions with these people seemed to be a small betrayal of my own knowledge of the benchmarks and road signs that came with age. They were liars- if I couldn’t guess their age, I couldn’t gauge their opinions, life experiences and tastes. I realized that this sounds ageist, but it served me well in the Chicago bar scene, with befriending techniques in school and in the workplace. I mean, if I couldn’t trust my own experience and expectations with other human beings, I really WAS on my own.
Allen was a good guy and very seriously pursuing acting. His biggest role was as a dead Chubby Chaser on CSI. I never watched CSI, but others have told me that this was one of the more famous episodes of the show. Sometimes, Allen would even get recognized!
“Hey, I know you.” Someone would say- maybe it’d be a drunk guy at a bar, or a girl in yoga pants.
“Maybe.” Allen would say. “I do some commercial work.”
Pregnant pause, blank look.
“Also, I was on CSI.”
“YES!” Yoga pant’s plain face would light up, reflecting her joy. “That episode was so good. That must have been…so, like, fun.”
After calling out Allen’s acting ace, the inquisitor wouldn’t know what else to say, and would awkwardly slink off. Most of Allan’s screen time, he was dead: a painted body and the centerpiece within a tangle of lights, set pieces, production assistants and electrical cords. I always assumed it would be easier than saying lines.
“Not at all.” Allen declared, taking a gigantic pull off his daily Jamba Juice. “It is EXTREMELY CHALLENGING to accurately portray a dead person.”
To pay for rent, weed and support the mass amounts of Jamba Juice, Trader Joe’s pasta and pasta accessories Allen consumed, he worked as a fake patient at a doctor training center by the airport. A lot of actors did this because they were still using their acting skills, albeit to a confused and nervous audience of one. Allen played a 19-year-old patient who was a borderline alcoholic. The doctor would ask him questions, give him a fake exam, and make a diagnosis on him.
I thought this sounded cool, but I was busting my ass working as an executive assistant for 400 dollars a week.
ANYTHING sounded cool.
My job was unlike anything I had ever encountered. In Hollywood, people are never told “no.” They’re told “maybe,” “I’ll look into it,” “that might be difficult” and “Let’s play it by ear.” The assistant I was filling in for trained me for 2 hours and fucking booked it, leaving me to deal with a maniac boss and ringing phones.
I had to say yes.
One day I came home to our Less Than Zero-inspired apartment on Gower to find Allen and Reed sitting on the IKEA couch in our living room. Reed had his head in his hands, clutching his light blond hair. He was dressed many layers of clothing and had on very fancy Vans. Allen looked up at me.
“Hey Rebecca,” he said. “This is my brother, Reed.”
Reed looked like a cross between a stoner and a sporting goods store. He had a heavy-duty backpack, a thick-knit Mexican parka and a fishing jacket over that. His shoes were scuffed. His small fingers left his mass of hair for a moment and he turned to me.
“Hey.” He mumbled.
He was 21 but looked and behaved like a small 12. He was the son of an addict adopted by Allen’s dad and his dad’s second wife. He was drunk. He was bisexual. He had a fairly major learning disability that made him nearly illiterate.
And, he was my new roommate.
I HAD to say yes- he had nowhere to go! I had never encountered someone who had absolutely no place to stay, and I wasn’t going to let it happen on my watch. Plus, he seemed nice. Young, but nice. Misguided. Probably misunderstood. After all, his parents kicked him out. He used their credit cards to get on a bus from Chicago to Los Angeles. He’d been through a lot. Maybe I could be an example to him, someone to be his friend when he had none. Where I was, I was up for the challenge: where my work made me feel small and impotent, helping Reed might make me feel more useful, wanted.
I made Reed a little bed under our stairwell, where there was a room about large enough to put a twin bed. Reed’s things could go in the hall closet. Then, we all had new roommate beers.
The next morning, I noticed the 12 pack of Coors was gone. I looked all around, noticing cans littered around the apartment. We hadn’t drunk them all, had we? As my eyes searched the painted wrought-iron accents and thick beige carpeting of my apartment, I noticed some other bottles and miscellany- Robitussin, 5th of Whiskey. Cans. The trail led to Reed’s sleeping space, where I found him in his clothes, legs splayed and half out of his stairwell nook.
He was like my little Rasta hermit crab, BUT WITH A TREMENDOUS FUCKING DRINKING PROBLEM.
At first, I laughed it off. That sounds insensitive, but I really didn’t know what addiction was about until I lived with Reed. Allen warned me, in hushed tones, about addiction. I didn’t listen. This behavior became a nightly occurrence, and though I am VERY ACCEPTING of people who drink a lot (I did, mostly to combat my feelings of depression and hopelessness that came from the whorish nature of assisting), I got increasingly irritated as the liquor I bought for myself started to disappear.
“Reed.” I would say, outside of his little room. “Are you in there?”
“Yes.” He would mumble. One word, and I knew.
“Reed-“ I repeated.
“Did you drink the Boone’s farm I was saving for Valentine’s Day?”
“What Boone’s Farm?”
“The big purple bottles.”
“Okay, I did.”
“You promised you would ask me if you wanted anything. We’ve been over this.”
“I promise I won’t ever take any more of your alcohol. I really do promise. Is that okay?”
Of course, it kept happening. I figured he wouldn’t drink so much once he got a job. Still, Reed would go out, roam around for 12 hours, come home fucked up, make a mess of the apartment, listen to Phish on his Discman, and pass out.
I guess there’s something to be said for predictability.
So, I tried to help Reed find a job. I redid his resume. I sent him Craigslist links. I even told him we’d go eat at Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles on me, once he handed something. Allen told me I was going above and beyond my call of duty, but I felt good about helping. Allen— proactive on a different front— was trying to get his Dad and stepmom to take Reed back. They weren’t budging.
I wondered what kind of parents would force their son out into the world, with little to no guidance or resources. My parents— the constant and angelic foil to Reed’s— would never do such a thing. It must be Reed’s upbringing, I thought. Maybe they traumatized him. He was a nice guy.
It wasn’t all Reed-oriented community service, though: Reed and I did have our moments. When I was tired from work I’d watch shitty television with him. He’d eat pizza with me when I felt like overloading on carbs. Hell, he’d always go for weed, a drink or a cigarette.
“You know, or more, like if you want to.”
And he told me secrets about himself. He told me how he felt conflicted about his sexuality, about how much ridicule he received with his learning disability. I felt for him. He was not so different than I … I was 24, he was 21. We both came from the Midwest …
So we didn’t have a whole lot in common— but he trusted me! He thought I was really fucking smart, and cool. In retrospect, a lot of my friendships have hinged upon my appreciation of others’ appreciation of me.
Cue my poor, withered ego.
My work was suffering, too. Trying to get Reed on his feet cut into my sleep time, and made me far less capable of deflecting executive and client rage. One of my duties as assistant was to sneak into my boss’ office at night and arrange his desk together in a very particular way, at very particular angles. With three hours of sleep and a full day of fast-paced groveling, I couldn’t get the angles quite right, or I’d forget to put that one glass globe paperweight in the exact right spot. The next morning would be a SHITSHOW, and all I could do was apologize profusely— promising I’d be a better deskfairy.
But then, Reed got a job at a headshop! He was overjoyed, throwing his small hands up into the air, raising his voice.
But then, he was fired.
“That guy sucked. He didn’t trust me from the beginning. FUCK.”
“It’s okay.” I told Reed, exasperated. “It probably wasn’t a good fit for you.”
I still took him out for Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles. After that, he got a job at a McDonalds. He lasted the same amount of time: three days.
“My manager said I wasn’t doing well at my training.” Reed said, angrily, drinking from a 5th of Smirnoff. “That guy was a real DICK.”
Two weeks later, Allen had been talking to a social worker friend of his, who was pushing for Reed get a job as a bellhop at a hotel in the area. I gave Reed some coaching the night before he had his bellhop interview, that maybe so he’d maybe snag and keep this job for longer than his three-day streak.
“Okay, Reed.” I’d ask. “What do you say your greatest strength is?”
“Oh my greatest strength would definitely, definitely be the fact that I make friends hella easy. It’s just easy for me. I do it really well.”
Memories: me, exhausted. Entering my 1980s apartment to a cluster of cigarette-fondling, gaudily tatted, stinking homeless people. Fucking up grins. Slow laughs.
“And…why do you want this job?”
“Because I need the money.”
Then I thought of how Reed spent his last 20 on alcohol.
I worked with Reed on these answers, trying to evolve his responses.
“Reed- instead of saying your weakness is being late, say that your weakness is caring too much about people. Then you’ve turned a weakness into a kind of a strength.”
“But that’s not really true. Most people are TOTAL FUCKING SHITHEADS, Rebecca.”
I couldn’t argue with that.
By some modern miracle, the next day Reed snagged the bellhop job. We were all extremely happy. Five days later, I came home from work to Reed screaming.
“FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK!”
“What happened?” I asked. Allen was quiet in the corner, arms folded.
“I fucking HATE PEOPLE.” Reed screamed. He stormed around the apartment, like a tiny lion.
“Reed was fired.” Allen said. “He came to work drunk.”
“I WASN’T DRUNK!” Reed screeched.
“And,” Allen continued, “He stole money from a hotel patron.”
Every time Allen talked, Reed got angrier. He cursed. He paced. He denied that he had been fired under such egregious circumstances.
“Why would you do that?” I asked. I didn’t understand— we had tried so hard to help him get this job. Reed fucking it up wasn’t just a reflection of himself, but of our own trustworthiness and efforts. Allen shook his head. I knew he felt incredibly guilty, but also sad. He felt sad for his family, and embarrassed that he brought Reed into our house, embarrassed that he didn’t stop all the time I put into helping Reed.
“I want Reed to go to rehab.” Allen admitted. “I called a bunch of them.”
“I AM NOT GOING TO REHAB!” Reed screamed. “AND— I HATE YOU BOTH! I NEED A DRINK. THIS. MINUTE.” Then, he left our apartment. Tumult gave way to quiet uneasiness.
“I am so, so sorry.” Allen said. “He’s really not your problem. At all. And we’re going to find him a different place to live.”
I couldn’t help but feel like I’d failed, too. This blow-up should have been a clear delineation between ourselves and the difficulty with someone who could not be help. Instead, it left us feeling terrible, like it was us who had the problem. We both went to bed feeling unresolved.
The next day, I left for work and there was no sign of Reed. But that night, I came home to the door of my apartment wide open.
He was back.
Before I even entered my apartment, I smelled HOMELESS PEOPLE- that tart, dirty smell that only articulates itself when layers of clothing, sweat, street and nicotine collide. Terrible. One large man was drinking beer and smoking a cigarette on my couch. Reed was talking to a skinny white guy with dreadlocks and a large, patchwork backpack. A third man was urinating into a plant.
“Hey Rebecca!” Reed said. “Hey everyone! This is my roomie Rebecca! She is COOL.”
I stared at Reed. The guy peeing in the plant had finished.
“No, I said. No. I AM NOT COOL. Reed-get these people out of here. Right FUCKING NOW. I want to watch these people LEAVE MY FUCKING APARTMENT. And I want YOU to leave with them. And you will stay outside until I GET YOUR BROTHER AND FIND SOME FUCKING PLACE TO PUT YOU.”
I watched them as they ushered themselves from my apartment. Reed looked drunk and ashamed as he left, but he didn’t protest. “See ya, yo.”
I looked around. I realized that these strangers could have been a danger to me, and I began to cry to myself, silently. What had happened? What was I DOING? When Allen got home, we changed the locks on the doors, just in case. Allen tried to call his brother, with no luck. Eventually, Allen drove around our neighborhood and found Reed passed out outside a laundromat, and deposited him at a homeless shelter.
If I knew that that night in the apartment was the last time I’d see Reed, maybe I would have acted differently. Still— I think he knew that this situation was a temporary one. His lifestyle and mine— his lifestyle and his brothers’— didn’t match up. And, all the lies. I didn’t even realized how much lying had occurred, until I stepped back. Not even lying from Reed, but to myself.
The next couple months were quiet. I heard that Reed was in rehab, then out on the streets, then at his parents, then in Rehab. We kept in causal contact on facebook. He’d text me when he was really drunk. These messages were frustrating, illusive, and grammatically pretty hard to read. I heard he was living with an older lover of his. Later, I heard he was in jail for shoplifting. Then, he was back out. I wish I could say I felt better about housing him, good about kicking him out. I didn’t though. I knew he was totally fucked up, but I still felt badly. I couldn’t live with feeling helpless in this person’s life.
Six months after, Allen decided to move to upstate New York. I found a new place. I got a better job. And then, I lost contact with Reed altogether. Was he in Chicago? Was he in Los Angeles? I didn’t know. I still don’t know. Sometimes, I think I’ll see him on the streets— I live somewhat close to where Allen and I did— but I don’t. I never do.
Rebecca Leib is writing a series of short stories chronicling and inspired by her first year in Los Angeles.
**Above photo courtesy of Google Maps.