Where I Live
Originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times

     I grew up in south Louisiana where the swampy ground is flat and the horizon is the nearest tree line. When I was a boy, the tallest nearby structure was the Florida Drive-In Theater, a shingle-sided, weather-beaten movie screen that jutted from the earth like some stark pre-Arthur Clarke’s 2001 monolith, walled off from the surrounding homes by bamboo thickets and willow trees. But if I climbed the pecan tree behind my house, I could (and did) watch double-bills every night (Hell’s Angels on Wheels and Psych-Out, The Brain Eaters and Mondo Cane) and escape the insanity within my home. Having the high ground, such as it was, is where and why I learned how to dream.
     Back then, we lived on the feathery edges of town in what most Angelenos would consider “the country.” Alligators and turtles appeared as the marshes were filled, and older neighbors still raised chickens, pigs, and subsistence gardens. I chased bullfrogs and crawfish behind that same theater, all the while keeping an eye out for the man-eating snapping turtle my mother warned would latch onto my foot and not let go until struck by lightning. Water moccasins were a more likely threat, and more often seen.
     I loved the wild places then, and I love them now, only now I live in one of the world’s great cities surrounded by millions of people. No matter. These days, my wife and I share a mid-century glass house overlooking a canyon in that valley outpost known as Sherman Oaks. We fell in love with its open glass walls and the rural nature of its privacy. Here we are in an urban landscape covering 465 square miles, cut into 19 LAPD service areas and stitched together by thousands of miles of streets and freeways, but we share our yard with coyotes, hawks, owls, skunks, opossums, blacktail deer, rattlesnakes, and other wild things. You know something, Toto? Maybe I never left that pecan tree behind.
     I am mostly known for writing a series of novels about a detective named Elvis Cole. I am not Elvis, but we have similarities. For one, Elvis lives in an A-frame home sporting a glass wall overlooking Laurel Canyon. He has a deck off the back of his house, upon which he sorts out his life as he watches the hawks. Like Elvis, my wife and I live in the hills at the top of a canyon. Our home is not a classic A-frame, but close. Imagine an A-frame that has been squashed—resulting in an A that is not tall and thin, but short and squat.
     When we bought the place, my wife and I loved the glass walls because they filled our living space with flowers and birds and light. Of course, my being a writer and my wife being an editor, our home is also filled with books, but books and light do not get along. Too much light bleaches the spines. Here we are with all these books--first editions by Tony Hillerman and Sue Grafton—faded and unreadable.
     In a snit, we discussed replacing the glass with solid walls, but decided against it, unwilling to turn our home into a bunker. Now, we hide our books behind furniture, plants, and on shelves facing away from the light. Our book-collecting friends sneer at our paltry efforts, but we do what we can.
     As much as we enjoy living among the wild things, they seem to enjoy living around us. Once, the courtyard’s wooden gate shuddered as I worked. I glanced outside to see a bobcat cross our courtyard between the pepper trees. A nasty rat of a tree squirrel finds endless pleasure in dinging my car with pine cone bombs. Great horned owls call to us from the big pines in my neighbor’s yard. Skunks and opossums make the scene on a regular basis, their middle-of-the-night presence almost always announced by our cats, who race insanely through the house, charting the opossums passing. Opossums, it seems, love to peer through the glass at our cats. The skunks don’t seem to care.
     Coyotes roam the canyon behind our house, leaving their trail carved across our slope. I usually enjoy the coyotes, but last spring a brush rabbit and her baby took up residence on that same slope. We had just replanted the yard and noticed that the flowers, mysteriously, were disappearing. I stalked around the house for days, fuming that the nursery should return our money for selling us defective plants. Closer inspection revealed that each stem was nipped cleanly—a diagonal cut—about five inches from the ground. On a subsequent morning at sunrise when the canyon was filled with an almost magical light, I saw the two rabbits at work, the mother, herself small, and her baby, smaller. They were so much fun to watch we let them have the flowers. On nights when the coyotes sang particularly close to our house and we knew they were hunting, I would grab a flashlight and stand guard on the slope. Watching out for coyotes isn’t so very different from watching out for snapping turtles.
     As much as I love the rural aspects of hill life, our location has its drawbacks. When the heavy rains come, I suit up in rain gear to check the slope for cracks and movement. And during fire season when the Sepulveda Pass sprouts an occasional flame, the super-scoopers and water-dropping helicopters fly uncomfortably close to our home.
     My wife, unbeknownst to me and in an act of infinite kindness, had a deck built that hangs out over the canyon. I may not be Elvis Cole, but now I have a deck like his. Walnut trees and mellalucas anchor the slope below, their tops surrounding my little deck to give it the feeling of a treehouse. I sit there often, watching the sun lighten the eastern sky. In those moments before the sun peeks over the far ridge, the quality of the light that fills the canyon is the most beautiful I have ever seen. In those magic moments I am back in the pecan tree again, watching the movies that flicker at the Florida Drive-In Theater only now the movies are in my head. This rustic place in which we live serves as a great and wonderful counterpoint to the enormous city that surrounds us, and helps to nourish the part of myself that grew up with the wild things of a smoky southern town where I first learned to see the stories in my head, and dream.

© 2005 by Robert Crais.

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