This morning a friend messaged me from Australia. She’s travelling this year and last night her current landlord was sectioned, taking her deposit with him. She asked if I have any life lessons that may help owing to the fact she has no money, no job and now her only money has been swiped by her landlord. I’m not sure I have anything helpful in the moment, perhaps my only advice is not to worry, it will in someway resolve, because I’ve been there too, and I’m now sitting on a sofa overlooking Croydon, drinking coffee, still alive and about to tell you of my own insane rental disaster.
It’s 2008. I’m 22 and I’m going to live in Los Angeles. I am going to live in Los Angeles with my friend Becky George and life could not be more perfect; we’re going to set up a project out there for the final part of our degree. I need to find us a house and know not how to do this. I discover Craigslist, the American equivalent of Gumtree and eventually find us a gorgeous apartment situated in Santa Monica, I email the owner, Cheryl Weaver and ask for a bit of a discount on her asking price of $5000 for our entire stay. She agrees, she’s going to be working out of town, BUT will drop the price IF she can stay in her room on occasion when she pops back. Sounds like a deal.
Our leaving date draws ever closer, Cheryl gets in touch to say she’s going to be there when we arrive and will pick Becky up from the train station and me from the airport (Becky is travelling across from New York). So I arrive in the States, a little tired and hungover from the free plane wine, I collect my bags and meet Becky at the gate of LAX airport.
“Is Cheryl here?” I ask.
“Yes, she’s a little…. um. You’ll see.” Becky looks concerned. We go out to the car where Cheryl’s waiting. She’s about about fifty, bleached blonde and larger than life. She’s Canadian and has slipped the border, illegally living in Santa Monica with her pit-bull called Beau.
“Hey girly, climb on in. I can’t believe it, my two English roses have finally arrived. I’ve got big plans for you two. I’m pimping you out.” I shoot Becky a concerned look.
“I think it’s just her weird sense of humour,” Becky whispers across the back seat.
“Just kidding, you should have seen the looks on your faces,” laughs Cheryl. She becomes serious again. “Not really, I am pimping you out.” She roars with laughter again. “I’m just kidding! You two are too cute!”
And so the three of us end up living together in her apartment in South Bentley avenue. It soon becomes apparent she has no plans to leave, and Becky and I end up squeezed in to one bedroom at the end of the apartment. Cheryl has an odd array of friends and two boyfriends. She drinks beer for breakfast, eats hash cakes that she buys from the local pharmacy and doesn’t seem to have a job. One time she puts her hair in a nice clip, picks up an empty briefcase and says she’s going to work. She comes back half an hour later with a coffee and tells us about her morning at the office. We’re dubious.
It all comes to a head one night when I wake up and hear screaming and laughing. I get up and close our balcony door, presuming some drug crazed lunatic has entered our block, and fear they may try to mount our balcony and break in. Becky gets up to go to the loo, and comes back with a look of horror on her face.
“Those noises aren’t coming from outside, they’re coming from Cheryl’s bedroom!” We are in the same apartment as the drug crazed lunatic! We barricade ourselves in with suitcases, fortunately there are two doors we can lock between our room and Cheryl’s. We try to sleep, but the continual screeching and laughing continue in to the night.
The next day Becky approaches Cheryl about the noises.
“We found a Catholic girl on the freeway.” Cheryl’s eyes are wide. Too wide. “She’s seventeen and pregnant. Her daddy was gonna kill her, so we brought her back here. She was going crazy, screaming and shouting.”
“But Cheryl, it was your voice we heard.”
“Nu-uh. It was this girl, sixteen, pregnant, Catholic.” Cheryl is talking incredibly fast, the facts keep changing and she looks a bit sweaty, and then she changes the subject.
So we live on in the apartment for another month or so, with no other options.
One morning towards the end of our stay, Cheryl comes out of the bedroom, sweating and wearing nothing but a man’s shirt. She’s completely spaced and puts a block of cheese and a packet of sub rolls in the microwave (still in the wrappers). Before too long the smell of melted plastic overpowers the apartment. We stop the microwave. Cheryl seems unperturbed by the melted plastic when she reemerges from her room some minutes later, and instead makes the noises we heard her making a month previously (the pregnant catholic girl…?) Cheryl is out of control. Becky asks her what she’s taken.
“Pot. It’s just Pot. Pot, pot, POT.” Yells Cheryl. It is not pot. I go to our room and start packing. We’re leaving. I’m just clearing the bookshelf when Becky yells.
“AMIE, come and look at this, you will NEVER see this again in your life time!” I head from the bedroom and there in the kitchen, completely oblivious to us, Cheryl is eating, no, not eating, demolishing, an entire giant jar of mayonnaise with a spoon. It’s gross.
Eventually she passes out on the dining room table. We pack, and leave. Our friend Perrin’s parents own a beautiful house attached to Malibu beach, we can watch the dolphins from our bedroom window. It’s a far cry from Cheryl’s place. We live out the remainder of our LA days there, playing ball games on the beach, eating Thai food from a shack down the road, and bumping around town, visiting art exhibitions in Perrin’s 4×4. Finally, just for a little while, we get to live the dream we’d hoped for.
Later in the week Cheryl sends us a message saying she’d had a severe reaction to codeine and couldn’t understand why we’d left so suddenly. She returns $100 back of our $600 deposit and I spend it mostly on cake for Perrin and our other friend Grahame, who have been so kind to us during our stay.
Nowadays I would be out of that house faster than you could say ‘hash-cake brownies’, but back then I was much more naïve and genuinely didn’t know what my options were. In hindsight, I’m grateful for the lesson this experience taught me. I’m grateful for the friendship I have with Becky as the result of this crazy time (there were moments in the heat of it when we were not friends, and Cheryl was playing us off against one another), but we pulled through. It is my best story to tell, and one day it will be a radio drama (it’s written, I just need someone to like it enough to take it on.)
What’s important is we survived, and we learnt. And now I can sit on my sofa, drinking coffee and overlooking Croydon and laugh at those crazy LA days, which seem so far away from where I am now, but without a doubt played a big part in making me who I am today.
Never rent a house from Craigslist (or Gumtree)
The only photo I have of Cheryl. Never agree to stay in her apartment. (Becky G on the right, looking confused at one of Cheryl’s obscure proclamations.)
Happier LA days, Me and Becky with your Mama when she came to stay.