The Writers Voice
Ardsly and Lotte
From The Westlake Village Collection.
I think of them chained together like oarsmen in a galley, with nothing in common but the oar they pull. Ardsley and Lotte, the pepper and salt of life in Westlake Village. They are two bigots who have come to depend on each other, and with that dependence they have found respect, trust and finally a private love that even a poet would envy.
Every morning at seven, weather permitting, a stranger in Westlake Village can see a ragged group of elderly people converging on the local Dairy Barn to get their newspapers. It is as though a call to arms has been sounded, a call that only the elderly can hear. I find myself in the middle of this ragged army, walking in prudent cadence, fingering the proper change in my outside pocket. We're on our way to get the New York Times, The Post, or The Daily News. It's two miles to the Barn and back, and we get there just about the time the newspapers do. The paper is of lesser importance than the ritual. It's the ritual that counts.
On any particular morning some of us will be missing, and we'll speculate on the reason he or she is not there. "He didn't look good yesterday. Those bags under his eyes! -- liver I guess." "She's got this osteo-something, and it's hard for her to get going in the morning." The news of the day will take a back seat until the seniors have thoroughly discussed their medical conditions and the exorbitant price of pharmaceuticals.
Dairy Barns are built to serve people in automobiles, people barely awake enough to drive. There are no tables or chairs inside, and customers on foot, like the pigeons that keep the place free of crumbs, have to be on their toes. I dodge my way in, take the second paper from the top, (never the top one) give my seventy-five cents to Julio and go. Julio's the runner and Tony's the chef -- Tony keeps the coffee machine full and butters up the bagels.
Lotte was there this morning. Lotte is an elderly, raven haired lady with curvature of the spine. She lives alone in a rented room above a 60-minute photo shop on Westwood Avenue. Thirty years ago her husband left her for a more attractive woman. With assistance from the government and the Catholic Church, Lotte raised two children and supported two adult male friends who lived with her at different times. She is alone now. From the beginning, life has dealt Lotte a losing hand, and it's taken a physical toll on her, but it has not dimmed her soul. She is an outgoing woman, effusive in her greetings, and more than willing to accept her shortcomings as God's will. Most people avoid her if they can -- she will talk your ear off if you don't. She is an ageless siren, drawn to men like a moth to flame -- men of any color. Any age. Any political affinity.
Today she sat, like Quasimoto, on a stool in the Dairy Barn and gummed her bagel down while passing the time of day with Julio and Tony. Occasionally she shouted greetings to the old folks outside. I knew she was waiting for Father Stanley.
Father Stanley arrives about this time. Rather than driving through, he parks outside because Father Stan has a gentlemen's agreement with his parishioners to play their numbers in the state lotto. They figure their chances are better with God and Father Stan on their side. Father Stan does not trust Julio's accuracy with the number machine so he operates it himself. It was while Lotte was waiting for Father Stan to finish and drive her to early mass that she caught my eye.
"I had a hip replacement," she announced, and slid off the stool. She wriggled her hips and shoulders in a provocative manner an inch or two this way and that and gave me a nearly toothless grin. Approaching closer, she inquired about my 'love life.' She was careful to keep her voice down out of respect for Father Stan, busy punching numbers into the lotto machine. No question about it, she had an onion bagel for breakfast. I should have known.
I blushed as red as an octogenarian can blush and assured her that my 'love life' was full to overflowing. A proud man's lie! It was probably a mistake; I should have told her the honest truth. At my age sex is not only on the back burner, but the gas is not turned on. The joy of being granted another day of living, however diminished it may be, is all I can honestly ask for. But the honest truth would have ruined the day for both of us. Old people, like Lotte and me, must play the game of life.
At that moment a gaggle of angry voices outside heralded the arrival of Ardsley!
Everybody knows Ardsley. He lives in Castle Gardens, but he spends each day in Westlake Village. There, he directs traffic, and like a shepherd, leads children across the street on their way to and from school. He berates shopkeepers for not keeping their sidewalks swept, and with a rolled up newspaper he swats at speeding cars. During the Yuletide season he protects the village Christmas tree from vandalism. Some people think he should be put away, others think we're lucky to have him on patrol.
Ardsley is a Korean War veteran, and still wears his government issue overseas cap. The rest of his wardrobe comes from the army and navy store on Westlake Avenue. He proudly wears a fireman's badge he shoplifted at a garage sale. His appearance, to those who don't know him, is vaguely official, and his military bearing lends him an authority he really doesn't have.
The towns of Westlake Village and Castle Gardens are side by side. Their names imply a chic that neither of them possess. Few of the eight thousand or more people living in the two towns have, as the saying goes, a pot to piss in. They get by and that's about it.
There are no lakes or castles and there are few gardens to grace the two seedy towns. They were baptized long before they developed and like black sheep, never lived up to their names. Castle Gardens is largely populated by West Indians, Asians and Blacks, Westlake Village by Italians and Poles, and hence largely Catholic. The people in both towns live in relative harmony and are free to cross the uncertain border that separates them. Many of the men in Castle Gardens mow the lawns of people in Westlake Village and many of the women are nannies for their children. I live in Westlake Village, but I am neither Polish nor Italian, therefore I can bask in the detachment that a foreigner would enjoy in a foreign land. Should I find myself in the midst of hostilities, I can always claim immunity.
The people of Westlake Village consider Ardsley to be a black man. He is not. He is cafe-au-lait, and far less swarthy in complexion than many of my Italian friends. Some of us wonder why he doesn't devote his civic concern to the problems of Castle Gardens. A hollow question indeed! One I would not venture to ask Ardsley any more than I would ask a plumber why he does not live where he plumbs! For better, for worse -- for richer for poorer, we are cut from the same cloth. It is prudent to engage Ardsley in discussions of this kind in any case. A discreet "good morning", and a comment on the weather is as far as any of us dare to go.
Ardsley boards the bus in Castle Gardens every weekday morning and lectures the bus driver on his careless driving habits, refuses to pay the exorbitant fare and threatens to report the driver to the Metro authority. Harsh words are exchanged with the bus driver en route, and about the time they arrive in Westlake Village, he is told to get out. This subterfuge, played like a game of chess, has provided him with free transit in both directions for nearly twenty years.
When he leaves the bus, he is carrying a home-made hexagonal "STOP" sign fastened to an umbrella handle. He heads for the Dairy Barn and threatens Julio and Tony with a citizen's arrest for blockage of the sidewalk by their drive-in customers. A complimentary buttered bagel and a coffee, (black with three sugars) keeps things moving. His next port-of-call is the Westlake Village triangular intersection where the crossing guard lady has her post. Ardsley takes over. Crossing guards have thrown up their hands in despair and some have been reduced to tears when he holds his home-made "STOP" sign above his head and, like the pied piper of Hamlin, leads the children from one side to the other. The children trust him and follow in his wake like minnows on the outgoing tide. They are not so apt to trust a woman dressed as a policeman.
The main drag of Westlake Village is Westlake Avenue. It is one mile in length, give or take a foot or two. It is barely wide enough for two-way traffic and commercial vehicles avoid it if they can. The street is lined with mom and pop stores and rickety old private homes converted to professional use. It is a pleasant walk in pleasant weather. Along the way you will find, along with the seedy editorial office of our newspaper, the Westlake "Guardian," a sandwich shop, a chiropractor, a bakery and a palm reader. Lately a Vietnamese couple have invested in a food store specializing in Far Eastern delicacies.
Westlake Avenue is Ardsley's beat. He will stick his head in every door and demand that the shopkeepers sweep their sidewalks and clean their windows or he will issue them a summons (or do it himself for a nominal fee). He is particularly abusive with the Vietnamese couple, he suspects them of selling marijuana and sexually stimulating herbs to minors. He is positive that their collection of ginseng roots are aborted fetuses.
Ardsley finishes his Westlake Avenue chores at the conclusion of the seven o'clock mass. There, on the top steps of Our Lady of Perpetual Devotion, he meets Lotte. They exchange unspoken greetings -- a wordless nod of the head. They accept each other like slaves in a Roman galley, ready for another day of rowing. For the next hour or two Ardsley will trail after her with his "STOP" sign held high, Lotte, in turn will do her errands. She is oblivious to moving vehicles, and will dart across the street at the slightest provocation and it is Ardsley's self-assigned mission to keep her out of harm's way.
If fate had not stepped in, this story could well end here on a happy note. But fate is fickle, and just when you think the old Chevy is going to last another year the transmission starts making funny noises. In September of last year the highway department decided to repair potholes on a nearby highway and diverted all traffic to Westlake Avenue for the afternoon. The department neglected to inform Ardsley of their plans. It was a tragic error, for at the sight of the first eighteen wheeler barreling down Westlake Avenue, Ardsley sprang into action.
With blazing indignation in his eyes he held his "STOP" sign high and stepped in front of the truck to flag it down. At the sight of this strange, vaguely official looking figure, the driver jammed on his brakes and his vehicle jack-knifed. A police patrol car on duty but parked illegally at the curb in front of the doughnut shop was totaled and two non-fruit bearing peach trees were leveled.
The officers emerged from the shop, dusting powdered sugar from their uniforms, and to their credit sized up the situation immediately -- Ardsley had finally overstepped his authority.
One of them shouted, "Fer Chrissakes Ardsley, Waddafukkyadoon?!! He threw his half eaten doughnut down and with a great deal of huffing and puffing the two of them put the cuffs on Ardsley and called for assistance on their walkie talkie -- the radio in the squad car was no longer in working order. A second squad car arrived with its siren and flashing lights, and off they went -- two policemen in front and two in back with Ardsley and his "STOP" sign between them.
Here in Westlake Village, the grapevine is our only reliable source of information. Through it we have learned that Ardsley is now in Kings Park .... an institution for the unbalanced. The pace of justice in our town, (and perhaps in yours as well) is exceedingly slow. It does not move without provocation, and when it does it moves with measured tread. It took four months for the county to reach the decision to put Ardsley away.
After getting the news, some of us who knew him well got together and decided to drive out to King's Park and pay him a visit ....
I broached the subject. "We should ask Lotte, you know . . . after all they .... "
I didn't have firm ground upon which to base my argument, so we didn't ask her. We should have ....
He was hard to track down when we got there, and harder still to recognize without his uniform and his "STOP" sign. He was dressed like an extra in an old Ben Hur movie. The first thing he said was ....
"How's Lotte doin'?"
©Harry Buschman 1987
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