How a Bungalow in Los Angeles Gave Me My Best “Plan B” Life

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Meredith Maran is the author of The New Old Me: My Late-Life Reinvention.

So shoot me: I’m a feminist, and a homebody. Domestic goddess. Nest-featherer. The world might be falling down around me (as it has, in fact, been doing since November)—but give me a cozy, uncluttered, tastefully decorated house to come home to, a well-stocked kitchen in which to bake my mother’s brownies and simmer the marmalade I make from the bounty of my own lemon tree, and I’ll be fine.

For decades, I had all of that. A painstakingly restored Victorian on the Berkeley-Oakland borders. A long, happy marriage to the woman of my dreams. A fulfilling career. Great friends. Enough money in the bank to keep our home in vintage glass doorknobs and period-perfect bathroom remodels.

And then, in 2012, it was gone. All of it. Marriage over. Career tanked. Best friend dying. Life’s savings gone. So I did what I had to do: I took the only offer I had, the first J-O-B I’d had in twenty years. I dried my tears, packed everything that would fit into my car, and drove to Los Angeles, where the job and the sunshine were.

I started my new life from scratch, because scratch was all I had. Spring through summer, until I’d saved enough for first and last month’s rent and cleaning deposit, I crashed on friends’ (and strangers’) couches. With zero privacy by day and zero privacy by night, I learned to have my conversations with my divorce lawyer, and my crying fits, in the car.

“I started my new life from scratch, because scratch was all I had.”

When my new checking account had more than two digits’ worth in it, I rented a tiny, funky, $2200-a-month Silver Lake apartment. It had a stunning view of the 7-Eleven across the alley and a bathroom not quite big enough to turn around in, but it gave me what I needed most: a door to close, a place to heal, a womb of my own.

Finally, finally, the divorce was final and my Oakland house sold—for three times what I’d paid for it twenty-five years before. When I started looking for a house to buy in Los Angeles, the average price of a single-family home within the city limits was $800,000. The phrase “affordable housing” was always followed by the word “crisis.”

Daunted but determined, I spent the next year making offers on houses I couldn’t afford and liked so little, I hoped I wouldn’t get them. Then one day, while I was walking (walking! In La-La Land!) to an open house, trying to talk myself into wanting yet another $750,000 fixer, I stumbled upon it: a classic, tiny, 1920s Spanish-style bungalow on a quiet Silver Lake street. It had one bedroom, and I needed two. It didn’t have a fireplace, and I’d promised myself I’d never live without one. Its 1926 garage was so narrow, my Honda Fit didn’t. But peeking through the bungalow’s tall casement windows, I saw its oak floors beaming, drenched in L.A.’s magical golden light. Down a steep outdoor stair, a huge deck led to a tiny guest house. I was in love, and the object of my affections was a “steal” at $580K.

Forty-five days later the “Bungalito” was mine. For the first time in sixteen years, I had a different address from my wife’s. Signing my solitary name on the deed broke my heart all over again—and strengthened my resolve to make my booby-prize, Plan B life a decent trade-off for the life I’d loved and lost.

“The Bungalito gives me so much more than shelter. It’s so much more than the booby prize I thought my new house and my new life would be.”

Since I’d left home at age sixteen to live with my first boyfriend, I’d never lived alone. Divorced or not, grief-struck or not, I didn’t plan to start now. So I fixed up the little one-bedroom apartment and christened it “Casita Artista.” Then I emailed the writer friends who’d sustained and sheltered my writing and me over the decades, and invited them to come and write in Casita Artista for a week or a month or more. I promised to feed them, which was more of a blessing than an imposition to this Jewish mother who’d learned to cook for commune-size crowds. I envisioned my guests and me writing in tandem, them at the long dining table on the deck, me in my hammock “office” a few yards away. I envisioned throwing dinner parties for my visiting East Coast writer friends at that long table, introducing them to my LA writer friends.

Shit happens, but so, it turns out, do miracles. I built it, and they came. I envisioned it, and it’s made my life a living heaven for the past three years. Loud, boisterous, hours-long bi-coastal writers’ dinners on the candle-lit, food-laden Casita deck. Inside the Casita, the conceiving of novels and episodes of Law & Order and Transparent and friendships and a marriage and even a baby.

The Bungalito gives me so much more than shelter. It’s so much more than the booby prize I thought my new house and my new life would be. It doesn’t give me the future I expected, the future I wanted. What it gives me is a richer, fuller, more creative life than I could ever have imagined.

Like a lot of women her age, Meredith Maran has a hard time believing she’s a woman of her age. And yet she’s published more than a dozen books, including The New Old Me, Why We Write About Ourselves, Why We Write, My Lie, and A Theory of Small Earthquakes. When she’s not hiking Mount Hollywood, attending readings at indie bookstores, or scouring Los Angeles’ finest thrift shops, she’s writing for venues including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, and Salon. The grateful recipient of fellowships from MacDowell and Yaddo and a member of the National Book Critics Circle, Meredith lives in a Silver Lake bungalow that’s even older than she is.

Re-edited from a post originally published 3.23.2017 – TW