It was two weeks before Halloween, and I was on a Metro bus headed toward Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard. Ahead I saw the ninety-year-old Vista Theater, which is just down the hill from the strip mall where Jerry’s video store used to be, and this was the season when I particularly missed the store. Its owner, Jerry Neeley, claimed an inventory of 20,000 titles of every genre, but horror was his specialty, so that I would observe Halloween by renting movies that only he would insist on stocking: The Astounding She-Monster, The Hideous Sun Demon, The Thing That Couldn’t Die. In his twenties Jerry had contributed articles to Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, my preadolescent bible, and to rent a movie from him was to invite anecdotes like this one about The Astounding She-Monster: “You’ll notice that the lead actress never turns her back to the camera. That’s because she split the back of her costume open on the first day of shooting and they didn’t have time to repair it.” Jerry’s knack for trivia was a magnet for regular customers, and it was shared by his wife, Mary, an animal lover who taped snapshots of customers’ pets to the side of a filing cabinet behind the counter. She and Jerry could both be peevish, and the store was frankly homely, with its cinderblock walls and ramshackle racks, while its musty smell must have been off-putting to some; but there was no shortage of corporate alternatives that smelled vaguely of plastic and were staffed by cheerful teenagers who consulted computers when asked about offbeat titles and said, as expected, “Sorry, we don’t carry that.” Jerry’s store wasn’t computerized. Everything there was done by hand: the bookkeeping, the checkout slips, the signs that distinguished the Fellini section from the Fassbinder section, the Gable section from the Garbo section, and so on.
The bus passed the Vista and stopped at the corner of Sunset and Virgil, where it was boarded by the purple lady, a sixtyish platinum blonde, nearly six feet tall, famous locally for dressing exclusively in purple. I used to see her daily at Jerry’s store, scrutinizing video boxes with a lorgnette—spectacles on a stick—or chatting with Jerry in a dizzy, fluty voice that turned the heads of customers who had somehow overlooked her remarkable appearance. She was like the missing link between human and bird of paradise, but my curiosity about her was trumped by a reflexive wariness of her eccentricity, so that I kept my distance at Jerry’s and later, when I saw her occasionally in Hollywood, especially at Amoeba Music, the last of the great L.A. record stores. Jerry once told me her name, which I remembered as Edna, though I was sure I must be mistaken, since Edna suited her a little too well. I had forgotten everything else Jerry told me about her, save that she idolized a certain actor—was it Richard Burton? Stewart Granger? Kirk Douglas?—whose movies and memorabilia she collected, and I wondered if that had anything to do with my recent sightings of her at Amoeba, where DVDs are also sold.
She sat behind the bus driver, in a seat reserved for the handicapped, and stared straight ahead with a rapt yet vacant expression. As always, her hair was gathered in a high ponytail, like a white plume on a Victorian cavalry helmet, and of course she wore purple from neck to toe, with a purple Hello Kitty tote bag and pink-tinted, purple-framed glasses. A stop later, she relinquished her seat to a man in a wheelchair and alighted next to me. She didn’t tacitly acknowledge me as people sometimes do when they find themselves brushing against strangers. She continued to stare vacantly ahead, while I oscillated between my usual wariness and curiosity.
“Excuse me,” I said finally. “Didn’t you used to go to Jerry’s video store?”
She flinched. I had startled her. “Oh,” she said in her dizzy voice, “yes, I used to go to Jerry’s, but I couldn’t walk up that hill no more. I have a heart condition.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Yes, and some kid ran into me on the street and hurt my wrist, but I can’t afford a doctor.” She seemed eager to relate her collision with the kid, but I couldn’t make out if he had been walking or running or skating or biking, and that wasn’t the point anyway. The point was her pain and penury.
“I don’t know what I’d do if I lost my job,” she trilled. “Or my apartment. My landlord tried to evict me.”
“There’s a lot of that going on. The same thing happened to me. Where do you live?”
“Behind the Vista.”
“Right, you just said you used to walk up the hill to Jerry’s. Well, that neighborhood has really gotten hot. All these West Side types are invading the East Side now and the rents are going through the roof. It’s the same in Echo Park, where I live.”
“My landlord said he needed his apartment for himself.”
“It’s called an owner occupancy, yeah. That’s how landlords usually evict tenants in L.A. They claim they need your place for themselves, but you can beat them if you take them to court. You just have to establish that they’re trying to get you out so they can jack up the rent.”
But that was no longer a problem for the purple lady; her landlord had died and bequeathed the building to his sisters, who dropped the eviction and let Edna stay on at a reasonable rent. I had remembered her name correctly: it was Edna, she confirmed, though she appeared to welcome the exchange only when it concerned her financial and medical worries, responding to my questions as if trapped by a Jehovah’s Witness on her doorstep. No, she wasn’t a native of L.A., but she had lived here since the age of eight. Yes, she worked in Hollywood, as either a seamstress or designer—I couldn’t quite tell—for a fashion company. Now I wondered if she made her own clothes, but I couldn’t think of a way to ask without it coming off like “What’s the deal with purple?” She worked constantly, she said, even at home, and didn’t have time for a social life, even of the digital kind—she had no use for computers—but she did make time for watching movies, and Charlton Heston was one of her favorite actors. Others included Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, who often played adversaries in British horror films of the fifties and sixties, but Heston was the favorite mentioned by Jerry.
“Well,” I said, “no wonder you got along with Jerry. He could recite the complete résumés of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.”
“What happened to Jerry? One day I walked up to the store and it wasn’t there anymore.”
“He closed it.”
“Well, he’d been talking about it for a while. The neighborhood was changing and he didn’t like the new breed of customer he was getting, those self-important West Side types, and he wanted to retire and take it easy. That’s what he said, you know, but I later heard the store was losing money. I mean, Netflix must have taken a bite out of business, but Jerry said he was going to keep it going for another year. Then the landlord raised the rent and he decided not to wait.”
“When was this?”
“The summer of 2007. It happened really quickly. The landlord raised the rent toward the end of August and the store closed right after Labor Day. I was devastated. That store gave me a place to go, you know? I could be sitting around, feeling lonely, and I’d think, Oh, hey, I’ll just go to Jerry’s and hang around and talk to him or Mary or John Sullivan. Do you remember John? He used to work there, and he knew everything about Westerns. I thought he and Jerry were related when I first started going there. You know, they were both in their forties, and John had a mustache and Jerry had a beard, and sometimes John wore a cowboy hat and Jerry always wore that Greek fisherman’s cap. He was in the hospital the first time I ever saw him without it. He had all kinds of health problems with his diabetes, you know. Did you ever notice his fingernails? He had that fungus thing you get with diabetes, where the fingernails are yellow and kind of scaly, the poor guy.”
Edna had avoided my eye before the subject turned to Jerry. Now she faced me and asked if I had stayed in touch with Jerry after the store closed. Yes, I told her. He and Mary lived just up the street from the store, and whenever I was in the neighborhood, I would drop by to watch movies or play Trivial Pursuit. They were both formidable players, naturally, and unbeatable when they broke out the Silver Screen edition of the game.
“But how did they support themselves?”
“Well, at first they sold memorabilia. Jerry had been collecting that stuff since he was a kid, posters and props and all that, and he used to sell it at the store—you used to buy from him, didn’t you?—and then they started selling it online. But they ran into some kind of problem with eBay, so Mary started a dog-walking business, and Jerry would help out with that. I mean, he couldn’t walk the dogs, because his diabetes had gotten so bad he could barely walk at all, but Mary would also sit for dogs when their owners were out of town, and she would be at one place and Jerry would be at another. It was the perfect job for Mary. You remember how she used to post photos of pets at the store. Yeah, she didn’t miss the store at all. Neither one of them did. They ran it for twenty years.”
“Is she still walking dogs?”
“I assume she is. I haven’t talked to her in a year and a half. The last time I called, they didn’t call back, and Mary used to keep in touch by e-mail and that stopped, so I thought she and Jerry were mad at me for some reason. Then Jerry died—”
“Six weeks ago. It was the weirdest thing. I was having lunch with these friends of mine, a married couple, and we were talking about the Manson murders, and Mary knew everything about that case. And I mentioned that, and I was telling my friends about the store—they just moved to L.A. a couple of years ago, so they never went—and I said, ‘Well, the murders happened in a house right up the street from the store, and the house is still there; want to see it?’ So we got in the car and we drove by the store—it’s now a Thai massage parlor—and I said, ‘Oh, hey, that’s where Jerry’s used to be. Oh, and see that building there? That’s where Jerry lives—if he’s still alive.’ Because, you know, his diabetes had gotten really bad, like I said. He had trouble walking, he was blind in one eye, and he was sixty-seven and he always said he didn’t think he’d live to see seventy. Anyway, I pointed out the Manson house and my friends dropped my off at my place, and an hour later I got a text message saying Jerry was dead. I mean, I hadn’t been up that street in months, and then to say what I did and an hour later—it was really spooky.”
I had gotten the text message from a friend who had heard the news from Jerry’s brother. “It was a heart attack, apparently,” I told Edna. “Mary went out to walk a dog, or something, and when she came back, she found Jerry dead. I sent her a card, and she wrote me a note to thank me, but she wasn’t up to talking, which is understandable. They’d been together since 1978. But she did send me a picture of his urn. Well, technically, it’s not an urn. She put his ashes in a King Kong bank—you know, like a piggy bank? King Kong was his favorite movie.”
“Was there a service?”
“He didn’t want one, but I think one of her clients held some kind of service for him. You know, when the store closed, I wanted to write something about it for the LA Weekly, but he said no, he wanted the store to close quietly. I don’t think he realized how much it meant to people. I wasn’t the only one. People still talk about that place, the ones who haven’t been forced out of the neighborhood. It’s kind of a local legend.”
“Like you,” I almost added. Edna’s oddness had always, in my mind, symbolized the oddness of the store itself, even if I had nothing to do with her there, and talking to her now was therapeutic, though she seemed to have run out of questions, again staring straight ahead. I took her withdrawal for shock at learning of Jerry’s death, and I left her in peace until the bus approached Sunset and Ivar, the site of Amoeba Music, and Edna pressed the stop button and moved her purple tote bag from her lap to her shoulder.
“Amoeba,” I said. “I’m always going to Amoeba. Haven’t I seen you there?”
“That’s where I buy movies,” she nodded absently. “Nobody rents anymore.” Then she stood and, just before she stepped to the front of the bus, she turned in my direction and said, “Say hello to Jerry for me. I think about him a lot.”
Say hello to Jerry? Did she foresee me joining him soon? But she had probably already forgotten what I told her about him, and now she stood by the driver as she waited for him to pull up to the curb, apprising him of her idée fixe: “This kid on the street ran into me and hurt my wrist.” The driver ignored her, and so did nearby passengers, as if the world were overpopulated with platinum-blonde amazons dressed entirely in purple. Maybe she would find solace at Amoeba, which I imagined was struggling now that so many people applauded the death of physical media; and if and when Amoeba became another casualty of progress, Edna and all the other oddballs, including me, would effectively be rendered homeless.