Changes in Management
by Peter Gerrard
When we get home one evening there’s a letter stuck in the gate on our back patio. Cornell Court management often does this, the envelopes a neat white accent stretching down the soldierly line of apartments.
But today ours is the only unit with a letter.
The two-story apartments are butted-up to each other like row houses, more uniform in their unremarkable stucco earth-tone motif than East Coast brownstones, and cheerier than the Soviet-style structures my wife and I saw in Croatia.
We are not in a tenement or ultra-dense urban housing. This is Irvine, Spring 1986.We bought in to the pitch that renting here offers the promises of The Irvine Lifestyle. Sunshine, progress, open space, community, and a chance to realize the dream described in the marketing brochure.
While Kim untangles our two-year-old son Graham from his car seat, I walk up to the gate and deftly snag the letter as I open the latch. I hold the gate open for Kim and Graham. Then I unlock the sliding glass door and we’re home.
On our side of the complex everyone uses their back gates as front doors. The front doors face out onto Campus Drive, where there’s no parking permitted. I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve used the front door during the eleven months we’ve lived here.
It’s oddly in sync with Irvine as we’ve come to understand it, in that the residents don’t seem to consider the front of the house as a part of a community experience. Front entrances are often behind a security gate. People drive up, hit the garage remote, drive in, the door rumbles down, and they quietly disappear into their cocoons.
We take care of our fussy kid and decompress for a few minutes before I remember the letter.
It’s addressed to “Resident, 211 Cornell Court” on the envelope, and “Dear Mr. and Mrs. Gerrard” is the letter’s salutation. “Cornell Court Apartments” and “The Irvine Company Apartment Communities” anchor the top and bottom of the single page.
For a moment I imagine I’m eighteen years old and the salutation is “Greetings,” which was always how the bad news about your 1A draft status was announced. A minor sort of Viet Nam-era PTSD side effect. I got one of those letters and remembered the dread of what it could mean. It still surfaces, and now I’m going on thirty-four.
“This letter is to inform you that your surfboard is protruding above your back fence, and this is in direct violation of our apartment community policies.” Or words to that effect. “Please rectify this within five days of the date on this notice.” That date is March 28, 1986. We have until April 1 to figure out what we’re going to do.
About a year earlier, we watch our friend Kirby’s panel truck lumber out of Cornell Court, our new home across the street from UC Irvine. Kirby is more of an acquaintance than a good friend, the Venn Diagram of our Mammoth Lakes social circles overlapping here and there. He transports goods from Southern California to small businesses in Mammoth Lakes. On the trip south his truck is empty, and he’s open to covering the costs of his dead miles. For us, it’s less expensive and involved than hiring a moving van or renting a truck.
He’s just dropped off the contents of our former apartment in the shadow of Mammoth Mountain, memories and furniture piled and scattered in the living room.
We wave as he gets to the driveway by the complex’s office. He must see us from his side mirror. His arm appears, one wave, then it retracts back into the cab, and he’s gone. Our old life vanishes up the street with him.
We briefly pause, taking in our new world with its different lighting, sounds, and the humidity high mountain life lacks. Taking hands, we turn and walk through the back gate, past the windsurfer we’d propped upright against the fence and wall, the open sliding glass door, and sit on the floor amid the boxes and furniture. We will have to find a pay phone to call my parents in L.A. and check on our son. Apartments, we now know, don’t include a phone anymore. We found this out when we picked up the keys, and we haven’t had time to find a copy of the Yellow Pages and look up a phone store.
Kim looks at me and asks, “What have we done?”
What we have done is uproot our life, which had been tied to the economy created by the ski industry. We skied, but weren’t ski bums.
Neither of us was from originally Mammoth Lakes, California. Kim arrived in this small Eastern Sierra town from Chicago, and I was a SoCal boy. While we’d come from different worlds, we both had answered a nagging and unspoken challenge to create our own lives and make a living. Maybe we should’ve been focused on making money. I doubt we appreciated the distinction. I recall once casually telling my dad that I was graduating from UCLA in two weeks. He looked up from his papers, stunned. I don’t think he realized I’d finished high school. He asked, “Did you take any business course?” Of course, I hadn’t. Never even considered it. “I’ve been there for four years. You could have said something.”
I wonder if there are cultural trappings left from whatever spurred settlers to move West, abandoning stability, comfort, and security. A spirit of adventure? Romanticism? The hope that there was something more somewhere in the unknown wilderness?
Kim and I met, we connected, we stayed. Mammoth (and skiing) was our nexus point of commonality. We discovered we loved each other. We got married. One year became two, and we were settled in. “You move here for the skiing. You stay because of the summers,” one friend told us.
Living in Mammoth was like eternally being in school. After Labor Day people start prepping for winter, cutting, splitting, and stacking firewood mirroring the ritual of September shopping. Street tires get switched for snow treads. The ski season itself carries an almost K-12 schedule, with bells replaced by time clocks—especially if you worked in customer-facing jobs for Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. After Memorial Day the atmosphere changed. It was time for summer and slacking off. Sometimes summer weather didn’t kick-in until late June or July. You embraced the weather and soaked it up as much as possible while the getting was good. You knew the days would get shorter and colder soon, and while you’d wistfully knew you’d miss summer the certainty of winter was on the horizon, hopefully (as until it snowed you were on tenterhooks) and with it the energy of the upcoming ski season.
We came to justify staying there as a sort of public service. As one ski rep told us at a meeting:
“You live in one of the most beautiful places in the world. And you get to ski at one of the best mountains. Then there’s the visitors, who deal with hours of driving, traffic, chains, and long weekend lift lines. They are the poor dumb shmucks who actually keep the real world running. Your job is to make sure they have the time of their lives while they’re here.”
We grew many friendships. It felt like almost everyone knew each other. One of the smaller markets allowed locals to have a charge account— there was no limit, but if you didn’t pay your outstanding balance by the 10th of the next month you were cut-off. You could write a check at most places without producing an ID.
Willie Nelson’s song “Denver” perfectly reflected the ethos embraced by those who’d left their home and families to try and make their own lives.
“And it's nobody's business
where you're goin' or where you come from
And you're judged by the look in your eye.”
Within the community, if you showed up for work and delivered, you were good. You fit in, your reputation stamped with a silent, unwritten seal of approval.
This worked well for us from 1978 through 1984.
Then Graham popped into our world.
By then Mammoth Mountain was in the first stages of mutating from a family business to a corporation, a fatal variant of skiing’s transformation from being about skiing to being about selling real estate (there’s a great monograph on this, Downhill Slide, by Hal Clifford). We sensed the writing on the wall more than saw it. With Graham’s arrival we had new priorities; more dependable jobs, healthcare benefits and schools being at the top of the list. And Kim’s dad had a heart condition that prohibited him coming to altitude. We knew that getting to Chicago from Mammoth Lakes was a major chore. My parents weren’t enamored with the drive from Southern California, either. They’d emigrated from the East Coast to get away from the snow and seemed perpetually bemused with why I’d moved to the mountains.
When Graham turned one, I got a job offer in Los Angeles with Los Angeles News Service, LANS for short. It was my sister and brother-in-law’s growing independent television news gathering company. At double what I was earning in Mammoth. And it was enough to cover our current incomes combined.
It didn’t cross our minds that it was way more expensive to live in Southern California. The job was in Hollywood. My parents, younger sister, and my new bosses all lived in L.A.'s Westside. We knew we needed some distance from them. I’d spent two years in UC Irvine’s History Graduate Program, and I recalled open spaces and minimal traffic. We took a trip to Irvine and found the Cornell Court Apartments, right across the street from UCI. It spanned a city block along Campus Drive. It’s still called Cornell Court, but the open spaces around it started disappearing rapidly from the day we arrived. The Irvine Company, the corporation that evolved form the original Irvine Ranch, was in the business of planting buildings, not crops.
Irvine had a lot going for it. Beaches were close, so we’d certainly get good use from our windsurfer. There was easy access to the freeway for my commute. Shopping was a block away. The public schools were famously top-notch. And John Wayne Airport was so close that the daily operations were hard to ignore. JWA was big enough to have regional and national flights, but small enough to serve private aviation. There was plenty of both crisscrossing the skies above Cornell Court. This could also solve the issues with seeing Kim’s parents.
The Leasing Office rep was an excellent saleswoman. We got to see the floor plans via the brochure we received. But she said it was “impossible” to do a walk-through. However, a two-bedroom unit would be available in six weeks. Which gave us time to wrap things up in Mammoth. We signed on the dotted line.
We had a tough first year. Yes, there were open spaces, the complex had two Tot Lots, there was an Olympic-sized pool and spa within walking distance, and a seemingly endless selection of local parks. I quickly found my daily commute to Hollywood that I’d assumed might be an occasional nuisance was a living beast that consumed gas, time patience, energy, and vehicles themselves.
The job itself was exciting, challenging, but quickly demanded a six-day work schedule. It was so opposite working in Mammoth. At the ski area we had clients coming to us; we opened the doors and there they were. At LANS we were always hustling and scrambling. Our product was breaking news stories. Anything scheduled (on the daily City News Budget, which came in via teletype) had to be covered by a union crew. We had to be fast, nimble, take risks, and sell the stations on what we had. Actual footage was better than a graphic slate behind an anchor behind the news desk reading a teleprompter. Seeing a fire burning was more engaging than a graphic with words on a screen.
We had a helicopter and used the same broadcast-quality cameras. We monitored scanners in the office, as did our crew driving around the city. We made “beat checks,” which phone calls to city and county law enforcement precincts, agencies, fires departments, the Coroner’s Office, the Coast Guard and Highway Patrol. “Anything going on in your area?” we’d ask. Everyone except the police and sheriffs were usually helpful. You could ask the police whose face was on the dollar bill and the officer on duty would say, “Can’t tell you, that’s privileged information.”
We had great contacts at many of the local stations, as the Assignment Editors would often call with tips. Their crews in the field were always on assignments, and if one was pulled to check out a story and it was a dead end there was trouble. It was safer to tell us. And the hushed calls always ended with, “If it’s anything I get first tape.”
LANS operated 24-7, and so apparently did the Bureau Manager. Which was my title, although I often was in the field. And I was always on call. My brother-in-law liked to vent at all hours to express his displeasure with the anything that bothered him. And there was no shortage of annoyances.
Kim couldn’t find a job that covered the cost of day care. Being resourceful, and a little desperate, she found we could get help from WIC, a free nutrition program for “Women, Infants & Children.” A bus ride to Santa Ana was all it took to get the largest brick of cheddar cheese I’d ever seen.
We’d traded a feeling of community to become invisible cyphers in a world that was swallowing us whole.
Between the stress of the job and the commuting I was becoming a bear. This strained our marriage at times.
The reality of living paycheck to paycheck was draining, especially since my checks and expense reimbursements were increasingly late.
One Saturday, when Graham was almost two, we drove to Huntington Beach. After searching our pockets and scrabbling under the car’s seats, we cobbled together enough change to feed the parking meter for an hour and buy a piece of pizza to split among the three of us.
Once again, Kim asked, “What have we done?”
I drop by the Leasing Office the next day, March 29, to plead my case. First, I tell the woman in the white shirt, khaki pants, and Irvine Apartment Communities badge that we have a windsurfer, not a surfboard. Windsurfers, I explain, are way more expensive (ergo statusy) than simple surfboards. This reasoning gets me nowhere. I expect this but mention it on the off chance that arguing added value might help.
Then I play the Southern California lifestyle card: what is more symbolic of the area than the dazzling wide white sand local beaches and surfing? How could an iconic totem of our culture be treated so shabbily? She is unmoved.
As I start to leave, I turn back and ask her what changed since we moved in. For eleven months the windsurfer showing above the fence wasn’t an issue.
“New complex manager,” she says with a shrug. “New priorities.”
We lay the windsurfer, mast, and boom diagonally below the fence line. It’s out of sight but protrudes onto the patio, seriously crowding Graham’s play area. We’re well ahead of the letter’s deadline. We think we are successfully compliant, though it strikes us that compliant also means bendable and accommodating.
The last day of March something breaks.
In the year we’ve been in this apartment, parking has become untenable. One reason is the rent. Two-bedroom units now house more people per dwelling, and each person has a car. You can’t make a living without one. Kim finally got a job at UCI with an entry level salary but full health benefits. A neighbor, Michelle, with two daughters, is willing to watch Graham, cash under the table. We know that we’re due for a rent increase. By now I’ve logged 40,000 miles commuting and our resolute little Honda is showing the strain.
We need to do something. But what?
Graham is asleep now. The notice about the windsurfer—which we don’t use often but is one of our last symbols of Mammoth, hope and freedom—is still on the dining room table.
“He learned a new word today,” Kim tells me. “Vlou-vlou. I have no idea what it means.” “Huh,” is all I have the energy to say.
I’m not certain which one of us has the idea first, but it dawns on us that we can use the Cornell Court “surfboard” letter as a template to write one of our own. And distribute it in the accepted manner, in envelopes neatly placed in the gates of every back fence.
We have a good time figuring out the right words, and the correct officially officious tone warranted.
“Dear Residents,” it begins…
We have great news! In answer to many of your requests, we’ll be installing a spa and kiddie pool for the exclusive use of Cornell Court residents. Of course, you’ll still have access to the Olympic pool and jacuzzi across the street from our complex. Both of our Tot Lots will remain. Work is expected to begin in the next few weeks and be completed by Memorial Day weekend. The new facilities will be next to the Leasing Office.
However, to accommodate this, we’ll be losing thirty on-site parking places. We realize that this will affect an already tight parking situation. As such, we will be issuing parking permits for the spaces inside our complex.
In the interest of being as equitable as possible, each unit will be allowed a maximum of one permit. Rest assured that the on-street parking will not be affected.
We are aware that there will not be enough spaces to grant a permit to each unit. Sign-ups for these new permits starts tomorrow morning, Wednesday, at the Leasing Office, which will open at 8:00 a.m. Permits are first come, first served.
It’s signed, “The Cornell Court Management Team.”
A little cut and paste, and the Cornell Court and Irvine Apartment Community logos are in position.
Oh, and just above the salutation is the date: April 1, 1986.
There’s a Kinko’s Copy Center conveniently located down the street in the University Town Center.
The next afternoon we load Graham in his stroller and go on our mission. Shortly, we’re back home with a stack of letters and a supply of crisp white business envelopes.
After midnight I sneak out our back gate and walk to the far end of our section of apartments, and carefully, lovingly put a letter just below the latch of each gate. Including ours.
The complex has two main sections, divided by one of the Tot Lots. I pause there. The stars are out, and a small plane, running lights blinking, passes overhead. Somebody is going somewhere.
I continue distributing my stack of envelopes and letters. But a car pulls in and I dodge behind a tree. Three people get out, laughing tipsily, and enter one of the gates which clangs shut behind them. This was too close. I need to be anonymous, unidentified, the placement of the letters a mystery. I go home carefully and quietly and don’t encounter anyone else.
I’m out the door at five the next morning. The letters all seem to be where I’d left them. I will miss any immediate consequences. I spend the commute wondering what might happen.
Kim phones me at work round nine. She tells me that she’d called our babysitter Michelle a little before 8 to let her know she’d be dropping off Graham soon. A breathless Michelle says she needs a little more time, as she must go to the office to get a parking permit. “Didn’t you get the letter? Check your gate,” she says. “Wait…you’ll need one too. Come over and we can wait in line together with the kids.” Kim tells Michelle she’ll see her soon.
“Better hurry, there’s already a line,” Michelle advises.
From the upstairs window facing the parking lot, Kim sees people milling about the Leasing Office’s front door. “They look kinda angry and irritated,” she tells me.
A day later there are letters in all the gates. New ones, addressed to “Resident.”
“You may have received a letter that appears to be from Cornell Court about a change in our parking situation. This is to assure you,” it reads, “No parking spaces are being cleared for a kiddie pool and jacuzzi. The parking rules remain unchanged.”
It continues, “Someone thought they were being funny. We think it was an April Fool’s Day joke. And we apologize for any confusion.”
In the Tot Lot that weekend, we enjoy hearing conversations about the letter, and join in the ruminations about the identity of the invisible local heroes. “Maybe they just want to stay underground. It’s probably safer,” someone opines. “You’re probably right,” Kim replies. There’s nods and murmurs of agreement. “I hear the office manager is seething,” Michelle muses. A guy we don’t know opens a beer, and says, “Here’s a toast to whoever stuck it to The Man.”
We chat and watch our kids play in the sand. An airplane passes above us. Graham points at it, and says, “Vlou-vlou.” Now, at last, we know what it means. Graham waves at the plane, and at the people on it going places.
Kim and I realize we could be going places, too, and now perhaps on our own terms. The modest prank has given us a sense of our own agency. Indeed, we can be going forward, and we will now be our own managers.
Peter Gerrard grew up in Southern California, and ended up “Behind the Orange Curtain,” specifically Irvine. While he attended UCI for graduate school (which he never finished), his wife Kim and two sons are Anteaters with degrees. He likes to ski, and ride bikes that are embarrassingly expensive but at least environmentally justifiable. Classes and seminars at IVC and Chapman keep his interest in writing fresh. (Illustration by Kim Gerrard.)