California, Family, Best of California Bull

Dark California Part 3 : Porn on My Block

I’ve been writing about crime on my block for the past two weeks. In this third installment, I want to write about something that’s not criminal, but it’s definitely naughty.

Pornography. For a year, on my block in Studio City in the San Fernando Valley, a neighbor was filming porn in her house across the street.

Nothing she did was criminal. In fact, pornography is big business in Southern California, especially in the San Fernando Valley. When Hollywood shoots its mainstream movies and TV shows out of town, and when the economy is bad, porn’s money lubricates a lot of businesses around here, so we mostly ignore it. It’s also easy to ignore because it’s always shot somewhere else, somewhere far from your home.

When actual porn is produced on your block, however, it’s impossible to ignore, and it gave our suburban lives a weird surreal skew. It also gave everyone who lived on the block something to talk about whenever we saw each other.

Across the street and three houses down is a small bungalow with a brick front facade. The house itself isn’t brick -- it’s insane to build a brick house in earthquake-prone California unless it’s reinforced with steel I-beams, so the body of the house is a wooden frame covered with stucco. And just like the house itself, our neighbor’s exterior appearances did not match their interior lives.

In other words, they looked just like us.

But then again, how else are porn producers supposed to look?

It started in 2006, when an undercover police officer lived in the house, a guy I’ll call Chuck. He was the one proud Republican on the block (most others are closeted around here) and he stuck placards for conservative candidates into his front lawn. He could never tell us what he was doing until the case he was working on was over. For a time he grew a long beard and rode motorcycles and never spoke to us -- and it turned out he was infiltrating a motorcycle gang somewhere at the north end of the vast Los Angeles urban sprawl.

He also had a girlfriend, whom I’ll call Margaret. She was an attractive redhead who never smiled and never made eye contact, but we could often hear them fighting at night, and her shouts were louder than his.

Chuck was a great neighbor (when he was around); he helped people with their cars and sprinkler systems, and he mowed the lawn for Sybil, the old lady who lived next door to him. Because he was so gregarious, the other guys who lived on the block (myself included) often ended up standing on his front lawn drinking a soda or a bottle of beer on a warm spring night. He told funny stories, and we all felt that some of his legit toughness might rub off on us.

Sam, the neighbor directly across from him, asked him about the shouting.

“I’m scared of her, man,” Chuck said. “She is freaking me out.”

“Why don’t you break up with her?” one of us asked.

“Because we bought the house together. With prices going up, it seemed like the smart thing to do,” said Chuck.

We all nodded in sympathy, but I’m sure we had the same thought. He’s one of LAPD’s toughest undercover cops, and he’s scared of his girlfriend Margaret?

How bad is she, if she can scare Chuck?

And then suddenly, Chuck was gone. He moved out without a word to anyone, and only Margaret lived in the house. She came and went and still never spoke to anyone. But she looked like an average middle class working woman in gray business skirts and blouses on the weekdays, walking to and from her Toyota in the morning and evening, and then in jeans and T-shirts on weekends...just like the rest of us.

Then her father moved in with her. He was in his 60’s, tan with gray hair, and he dressed in Hawaiian print shirts, drawstring pants and flip-flops. He was all beach, all the time. But that’s typical around here as well. Every fourth guy over 60 looks like a Jimmy Buffet fan or a Trader Joe’s employee.

Then her father bought a house further down our block. This was before the crash, when everyone was leveraging their money and getting crazy loans for homes, and suddenly Margaret and her Dad owned two, with Dad in one house and Margaret in the other.

And then movie production began.

It started at night, and it looked like a regular film production. They had a generator in the street, and a big burly guy in a t-shirt and cargo shorts was yanking cable from the generator into the house, and then they lit up the interior like Dodger Stadium, but kept the blinds drawn.

They parked a white cube truck with all the lighting and grip gear at the curb. A cube truck is a production vehicle with only four wheels, so it’s more like a moving van than a big movie truck, so it can be in a residential neighbor without special permits. Luxury cars would arrive and park and stay there into the wee hours. Coming home late, you’d notice the extra vehicles, the whirring electrical generator, the bright lights in the house, and the people coming and going from their cars.

But by the next morning, all the cars would be gone. Margaret and her Dad were following the rules, and as long as you have your permits in order and no car or 4-wheel truck stays in one place longer than 24 hours, you can shoot a student film or a sequel to “Titanic” in the privacy of your home.

None of us on the block really cared that much -- we’re used to movie and TV production happening everywhere in Los Angeles, and we were glad to see that people were working.

Then the shoots started happening twice a week, and then three times a week, and it went on for months. We started to notice and wonder -- what IS Margaret doing in there?

Neighbors asked her and her father, but neither of them volunteered much. When Sybil, the old lady who lived next door complained about the moaning and grappling she heard from next door seeping into her bedroom at night, Margaret and her Dad told her that they had the right to do whatever they wanted.

Then, the gossiping began. Instantly, we all knew that middle age Dad had been a porn star in the 1970’s and that Margaret had grown up with her mom and then her dad, but had really raised herself. Dad had connections in Japan, and together he and Margaret were making DVDs and Internet porn for the Asian market. And now the feral red haired child and her Dad were cranking out the porn three nights a week.

Then, just as quickly, Margaret and Dad switched to daytime shoots. Maybe they had to meet higher demand. Maybe Sybil complained too much about the bumping and grinding disturbing her sleep. Maybe they realized that fewer prying eyes were around in the daytime, there was more parking, they could use mostly daylight for their scenes, and as long as their cast and crew cars were gone before 6 p.m., hardly any neighbors would notice.

But I noticed. I was working from home during some of that time, and I witnessed some wild stuff. I remember playing with my then two-year old daughter Lily on our front lawn when a sleek black Mercedes pulled up in front of our house, so new it had no plates yet. Two brunettes were inside, and they cranked their music and were drinking Jack Daniels from the bottle and singing.

Then one answered her cell phone, the music went off, and they left their parked car and headed to Margaret’s house. One was dressed as a sexy red devil, with a headband with horns and a little tail coming out of her mini-skirt, and the other was wearing a teeny weeny nurse’s costume. Both teetered as they strutted down the street in their platform shoes, passing their bottle of Jack as they headed past Sybil sitting on her porch and into Margaret’s house. That was very common at 2 in the afternoon.

“Daddy, is she a nurse?”

“No Lily, that’s a costume.”

“They like dress-up?”

“Yes, sweetheart. They like dress-up.”

“I like dress-up too!”

It was hard to explain that it was a different kind of dress-up.

Later, the Dad grew bolder and bought a big RV and parked it in his driveway, and that became his make-up and costume department, with the house itself being used for props and storage. The performers would show up in their fancy cars but they were now dressed in street clothes, and then they’d knock on the RV door. Dad would swing it open, and they’d climb inside.

Music, laughter, howling and shouts would spill out of the RV’s windows, and then the door would open and the performers would emerge in a cloud of marijuana smoke, dressed as judges, cops, girl scouts, pool boys and pizza delivery guys. They’d trip over some empty bottles of booze as they came down the stairs and they’d head across the street from Dad’s house to Margaret’s house, to perform their scenes.

In the middle of the afternoon, actresses with curlers in their hair, wearing stiletto heels and bras and panties covered only by sheer negligees, would cross paths with the neighborhood school children walking home from school in their traditional uniforms.

The schoolgirls did head turns after the groups intersected, but the actresses did not. They could care less.

There is an adage that the biggest house on the biggest hill is always owned by the pornographer -- yet Dad and Margaret never upgraded. Although production was increasing, they never seemed to be driving better cars, and Margaret’s sprinkler system still shot a fountain of water straight in the air every second morning at 7 am.

Either the Japanese weren’t paying on time, or Dad and Margaret weren’t making money fast enough.

Then, the economy crashed.

The first clue that things weren’t perfect in porn land was their garage sale. They hung a hundred costumes of every variety on massive clothing racks in the driveway. Those who weren’t “in the know,” thought a costume company must have gone out of business or was releasing some excess inventory. The word spread to the other blocks and their garage sale did well. But on our block we knew where those clothes had been…and that they had a story to tell.

We shopped slowly and asked questions.

“What was this costume used for?”

“When was the last time this was dry-cleaned?”

“Do you know how to get these stains out?

Margaret answered questions with a shrug and “I don’t know.”

Dad’s house went into foreclosure first. The “Bank Owned” sign went up, and he moved out in a weekend. Margaret hung on a bit longer, then did a short sale with a broker, and she moved out as well.

No goodbyes, no nods, no waves as their cars drove away.

That was in 2008. It was a crazy time. New owners are in both homes -- and although that’s a story that could only happen in Los Angeles, homeowners have pulled some wild stunts to keep their homes.

What’s the craziest story from YOUR BLOCK?

What have people done to save their homes in your neighborhood?

Let me know!