Chapter 1: Hotel California
"Sepple-veedah," I tried to sound out the word. My inflection was on the "veedah." Such an odd-looking name. "That's where our hotel is, on Sepple-veedah Boulevard," I told my mother during the plane ride. It was all so exciting. In just one short hour, she and I would be landing in Los Angeles. Home to Hollywood, Disneyland, and Tom Cruise! This would be my first visit to California. I grew up in a town that prided itself on being quite familiar with the movie industry: Cottage Grove, Oregon. Well, kind of familiar. Our claim to fame was that Animal House had been filmed there. Okay, not exactly Hollywood's rival. So you can see why I was nearly bursting out of the confines of my cramped economy-class seat.
The first disappointment was our hotel room on Snapple-whatever Boulevard. It was, to be kind, one step below a Motel 6. When the nanny placement agency had said they would find a reasonably priced hotel in the area, I didn't expect one you could rent by the hour.
We had a view of a congested, dirty, and turbulent street somewhere in Los Angeles. By now-thanks to our cab driver, who wasted no time correcting my pronunciation in his own foreign accent-I learned it was Se-PUL-veda Boulevard. Either way you pronounced it, it was an ugly street in an ugly town. This was not the Los Angeles I had pictured. I couldn't imagine any movie stars living within a hundred miles. The street was lined with telephone poles, a morass of wires running in every direction. The exhaust from thousands of passing cars filtered into our room, and horns honked and sirens wailed throughout the night.
Everything seemed so flat and brown. I craned my neck out of the only window in the room, scanning above the rooftops of dingy discount liquor stores, laundromats, and porn shops to search for the Hollywood sign (how was I to know that we weren't even remotely close?). Not that I could have seen it, anyway, with the curtain of smog that hugged our windowsill, fighting the fumes from the street for entry. Cottage Grove didn't have much of a problem with smog, which I later discovered was a combination of smoke and fog. Based on the odor that pinched my nose and the sting that made my eyes water, there couldn't have been much fog in the formula.
My mother mostly kept quiet. She couldn't have missed my monumental disappointment, but she had always been good at making the best of even the worst situations. Of course, even she had limits. "Oh my, this motel is pretty shady," she trilled, inspecting the coin-operated, make-the-bed-vibrate thing attached to the headboard.
We hadn't even finished unpacking (well, as much as we dared) when the phone rang. It was three in the afternoon on a Thursday, and the nanny placement agency had my very first appointment "penciled in." Could I make it Friday morning? They'd "ink me in." The interview was in Hollywood. Maybe I'd even be able to see the sign. If it wasn't too smoggy.
I jumped up on the vibrating bed. "Hollywood, here I come!" I yelled, bouncing up and down wildly.
During my schooling at the Northwest Nannies Institute (NNI) in Portland, I had learned that nanny jobs came in two main varieties: live-out or live-in. In the live-out situation, you work for a couple during business hours, essentially nine to ten hours a day. These people want consistent care and want to avoid taking their children to a day-care center. Usually, both parents work outside the home, although you might get a stay-at-home mom who could afford a second pair of hands.
I was looking for a live-in job. Why? For one, I knew paying for housing in LA would eat up my whole paycheck. And two, odds were that families who had live-in help would also employ an official housekeeper. This was a must for me, based on the horror stories I'd heard. Some nannies had become a Jill of all trades, assuming the duties of maid, cook, and personal assistant. They were responsible for doing everything from buying the wife's underwear to booking the mistress's spa reservations.
Carolyn, one of my instructors at NNI, had assured me that job satisfaction depended upon a good match. So I dreamed up my ideal situation. I wanted a live-in family in Southern California with at least two children, preferably three, and I wanted one of them to be a newborn because I loved caring for infants. Religion and ethnic background didn't matter much. My plan was to be on duty during the day and available for extra duty over weekends and evenings. I would have two days off a week, and when the parents were home, I would be free to come and go.
What I couldn't have known was that many wealthy folks are never without hired help for their kids. They arrange their lives so there is a paid caregiver available to them twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. It had simply never occurred to me that there were people who really didn't want to spend as much time as possible with their children. That there were parents who did not hurry home after work so they could tuck Janie and Jack into bed. That there were, in fact, plenty of little Janies and Jacks in LA whose first words were uttered in Spanish, because they spent virtually all of their time with the Hispanic staff. "Isn't that cute-he's bilingual!" the mothers would brag to one another at charity events.
I would soon find out that LA is one big ladder. Nannies are the people who sit on the bottom rung, entertaining the kids, while the parents climb.
That night, after dinner at the International House of Pancakes, I spent two hours trying to decide what to wear for my interview the next morning. As it was late December, and I had come from the rain capital of the world, my suitcase held only clothing that would be appropriate for winter in Oregon. Mostly black, thick, and warm. And Friday was forecast to be one of the decade's hottest December days in Southern California. I was guaranteed to sweat rivers in my heavy black dress. But who cared about my discomfort-I feared I would look like a moron. Not that I had many options. I comforted myself with the thought that my black dress looked professional: It had clean simple lines, no distracting patterns, and an appropriate hemline. I decided to top it off with small gold hoop earrings and equally conservative black shoes with two-inch heels.
I didn't realize until much later how ridiculous I must have looked. I don't fit in here! my wardrobe shrieked. It only took one glance at my sandalfoot pantyhose to see that.
Finding an address in Los Angeles was more difficult than fishing the letter Z out of a bowl of Campbell's alphabet soup. For one thing, everything was in Spanish. For another, you couldn't tell if you were actually in Los Angeles, Studio City, Hollywood, or half a dozen other cities. Everything ran together, and unlike Cottage Grove, there were no signs that read YOU ARE ENTERING THE COVERED BRIDGE CAPITAL OF AMERICA, POPULATION 7,143. To make matters worse, street names were duplicated in every city. So, you might have been on Sepulveda in Westchester, or you might have been on Sepulveda in Van Nuys, which was in the Valley (what did that mean?) and technically part of LA.
Another problem was the division of cities into their eastern, western, northern, and southern parts. There was a North Hollywood, a West Hollywood, and just plain Hollywood. Where was the sign? Why no East Hollywood to round out the compass points? But more important, where was the Hollywood where all the stars lived? Where was Tom Cruise's house? No one told me that only a small number of famous people actually live in Hollywood. The real celebrity action is in Beverly Hills, Bel Air, or Malibu. And why didn't anyone mention that, besides Paramount Studios on Melrose Avenue, not much moviemaking actually takes place in Hollywood, either?
The placement agency did inform me that my first interview was with one of the top ten chefs in LA. Apparently his restaurant was so popular that it took three months to get a table. I didn't recognize his name. My mom steered the rental car high into the Hollywood Hills, on narrow, twisting old canyon roads. There were many lovely and stately homes in that area; some were beautifully restored to their original 1920s architecture. The address I'd been given matched a small but elegant Mediterranean-style house with a deep green front lawn. I hadn't been in California long enough yet to realize that this unassuming home cost as much as a mansion on ten acres (with swimming pool and tennis courts) would cost in Oregon.
Before going up to the front door, I looked at my mother and said, "Wish me luck. How do I look?"
"Honey, just beautiful," she said proudly. "Don't be nervous. I know you'll be able to explain to the family how much you love taking care of children."
She was right. I wasn't there to interview as a deep-space physicist; I was there as a prospective nanny. I loved kids. And I knew how to take care of them. I even had a certificate to prove it.
A tall woman, about thirty-five and quite attractive, answered the door. She appeared to be about seven months pregnant. She introduced herself and showed me into the immaculate living room. The minute I sat down, a rat dog (the small, Chihuahua-esque kind that yip nonstop) came bounding into the room, yapping. I've never really been a dog person, and the little fleabags always seem to know it. Before I could say anything, the rodent ran over and fastened her small but powerful jaws around my ankle as if I were a fresh ham bone. Her teeth tore through my stockings and punctured my skin.
I winced and grabbed the little devil by the neck. Would strangling her cost me the job?
"Oh, Mimi, leave the poor girl alone," the woman said languidly. Why was she just sitting there, motionless? Her dog's teeth were embedded in my leg!
I squeezed harder on the pooch's neck. She finally let go, and I kind of flung her backward, head over heels onto the carpet.
This, of course, caused convulsions of near-epileptic proportions in her owner.
She jumped up, grabbed the little rat, and hugged it so close to her chest I thought she would suffocate the thing.
This was clearly not the job for me. I had been there a scant three minutes, but I actually stood to leave.
Suddenly the woman became apologetic. "I'm so sorry. Mimi can get a little aggressive with strangers."
As the dog trotted toward me again, she patted her hand at the air as if making a feeble effort to shoo it away.
"Are you all right?" she said in a half-sincere way. Was she talking to the dog or to me?
"Um, yes, I'm fine. There's only a little bit of blood. I'll be okay," I offered, blotting the wound with a Kleenex I found in my purse. But it hurt. A lot. I bit my lip. The rodent snarled incessantly.
"My husband is Jacques LaRiviere. I'm sure you've heard of him," she began, rolling her eyes and looking heavenward. "He's one of the top ten chefs in Los Angeles."
Yeah, sure, of course. Who hasn't heard of Jacques? I feigned a knowing nod. It wouldn't have mattered what culinary celebrity she was married to; at the time, I didn't even know who Wolfgang Puck was. I did know this top-ten stuff sounded a bit dubious. I doubted the contest was anything like our annual chili cook-off, where blue ribbons were awarded by the Cottage Grove mayor after he tasted everyone's homemade entries.
"As you can see"-she patted her stomach lovingly-"I'm expecting, so I will need you to take care of little Dominic, our three-year-old. I'm due in March, so of course then I will also expect you to handle Zachary."
Handle? Like a prize Pomeranian?
"And of course I will need you to do the cooking as well." Probably seeing the look of shock on my face, she added, "Don't worry about pleasing my husband. He's never satisfied with any meal he ever eats."
She wanted me to cook for one of the foremost chefs in Los Angeles? This woman must be out of her hormone-saturated mind. I couldn't figure out what would possess her to think that an eighteen-year-old girl could please one of the most discriminating palates in all of LA. Did she know that my previous cooking experience mostly consisted of making bologna boats?
I thought it best to sidestep that whole cooking topic, feebly starting to talk about my love for kids. Mrs. LaRiviere seemed to be dutifully recording my comments, and possibly even her own observations, on a notepad. Or maybe she was composing a letter to her doggie psychiatrist about Mimi's recent trauma. I couldn't tell.
When she was through, she stood up as the dog continued to jump and yip. "Can you let yourself out?" she said, looking at her watch. "I must make a phone call. I didn't realize how late it was."
"Yes, Mrs. LaRiviere, of course," I answered.
The house wasn't particularly large. The living area we had been sitting in was just down the hall from the front door. I gracefully got up to make my exit, the dog still nipping at my heels. I kicked at her in a mildly threatening manner.
By this time, it was noon and stifling outside. As I was about to close the door behind me, the little ankle-biter came bounding out across the front lawn, darting like an escaped convict who hadn't seen the light of day in forty years. Oh great. Mrs. Famous Chef was undoubtedly engrossed in her phone conversation. What if the dog got away, never to be found again? What if she threw her skittering little self in front of an approaching car? Mrs. LaRiviere would be beside herself with grief and would have her famous husband roast my head slowly over hot coals. I would never get a job in this town.
My ever-resourceful mother, seeing the panic on my face and immediately sensing the gravity of the situation, jumped out of the car and joined me in the chase. But sensible heels weren't meant for sprinting, and it took us quite a while to catch up with the four-legged inmate and herd her, in a manner of speaking, back down the street.
As I began to scurry across the lawn, stooping, cajoling, and shooing at the dog, Mrs. LaRiviere ran out the front door, screaming in a high, frantic voice, "Mimi! Mimi! Where is my Mimi?"