He had been a lawyer and he had owned a mining company. In the old days , when street cars roamed the streets of L.A. When letters were addressed only to the person and the hometown and cost two or three cents to mail . When mail was delivered in the morning and in the afternoon . When ancient half-blind and half-crazy old men were young , spry , and ambitious . And handsome too , perhaps . Who knows ?
I read to old half-blind , half-crazy Mr. Brown . The cantankerous old coot who built his house — right downtown — on what he said was a goldmine of a mineral deposit . Maybe he meant oil . Oil I would believe . Old Mr. Doheny knew it , too , and pumped the oil up like mad from the downtown LA ground in earlier days . LA unified went to build a new and state-of-the-art high school across the road from Mr. Brown’s in the 1980s but they hadn’t checked the leftover underground gasses and oil-field leftovers and the whole school project fell apart . Can’t have a school when poisonous gas might erupt from the ground at any time .
Old Mr. Brown lived right next to the 110 Freeway . He had a home-made billboard which faced the freeway and he’d spray-paint political messages for all the downtown commuters to read in an unsteady old-man script . Reagan Is Right . Love It or Leave It .Get the Commies Out .
Brown was a right winger , but he had a photo of himself sharing a piano stool with Harry S. Truman that stood framed on top of an old piano . The S stood for nothing , by the way , but Harry thought it sounded better for an up-and-coming young guy to have a middle initial . . Oh , Hugh Brown also wrote music . I guess I didn’t tell you that yet . He had a few of his pieces published .
He dictated a long letter , once , to an old friend of his in Scottsdale , Arizona . How’s business ? How is the wife ? But he gave me no address .
” You need a street , Mr. Brown . What’s the number and the street ? ”
He turned cranky , all of a sudden . One of his cranky moods .
” Just Scottsdale , Arizona , ” he growled . ” Everyone in town knows him ! ”
” When’s the last time you were in Scottsdale , Arizona , Mr; Brown ? ” , I asked. And then it came , of course , the answer that revealed his growing dementia .
” 1914 “. Sure . 1914.
” It’s changed since then , ” I said , but he insisted we send it , anyway . Everyone in town knows him . I thought the long-ago friend from 1914 had probably been dead for decades , anyway , but I sent the letter . It came back , of course , a few days later , marked ” no known address ” .
I read to the old coot because he was near-blind . I caught him once with a spray can of insecticide , his face about as close as a person could get to a wall without being part of the paint or the wallpaper . ” I think I see one , ” he said , as if the great hunter had spotted his prey off on the far horizon . The wall was completely covered with black ants . Covered . But , Mr. Brown thought he’d seen one . Maybe he had , after all . Maybe he had .
I felt sorry for the old miser . He was all alone . His friends and relatives had died off , I suppose , if he indeed had any friends . Perhaps not . He was a cantankerous old beast as an old man . Maybe he’d always been an S.O.B. and gone it alone all along .
I used to walk him down to LA’s Central Market and he’d buy a few cheap vegetables . Poor old man , I used to think , until his property tax bills began arriving at the house , and his several T-bill bank statements ; but , that’s another story .