not-so-little orphan ernie

“Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.” ~Helen Keller

9.8.03                                                                                    los angeles, ca

ONE OF THE MANY THINGS I LOVE ABOUT ERNIE IS THE WAY HE JOKES ABOUT BEING AN ORPHAN. When someone does something nice for him, which is not uncommon, he’ll go into his endearingly cheesy game show announcer voice and deadpan something like: “Another generous donation to the Poor Orphan Relief Fund!”

Ernie is, without a doubt, one of the funniest, wittiest people I know.

Then again, it’s pretty much been that way from the day I met him nearly 15 years ago. Back when he was a fast-talking, sugar-loving 9-year-old living at the very same Hollywood orphanage where Marilyn Monroe was dropped off when she was 9.

Unlike Marilyn, though, Ernie never knew HIS schizophrenic, drug-addled mother. Never met his father, either. Instead, he had the good fortune to be dumped into the overcrowded, mismanaged child welfare system as a baby. For the first few years of his life he bounced from one foster home to the next. Finally, at age 6, Ernie was adopted by a Long Beach janitor and his Asian wife.

But the couple who bought him a million toys thinking THIS was how you loved a child eventually grew impatient—and violent—when Ernie began lying and selling his toys at school for candy money. More than once he went to school with welts and bruises on his back and butt from the punishment doled out by dear old “dad.”

When he was 9, Ernie’s frustrated “mother”—who’d signed papers making him her state-sanctioned son just 3 years earlier—gave her husband an ultimatum: “Either the kid goes or I go.”

And so he went. To Hollygrove in January of 1989, thinking he was being driven off to camp.  (Although he became suspicious when “mom” and “dad” were sobbing as they dropped him off at the big brick building 2 blocks from Paramount Studios.)

About 3 months later I was introduced to a knock-kneed runt who told big fish stories about his “dad” and gave me shit for taking so long to get my paperwork together so we could get started with this “special friend” thing.

On our first outing together he dripped his .25 cent triple scoop of Thrifty ice cream all over the front seat of my red convertible Jeep. And he entertained me with a hilarious self-composed rap called “Booger In the Bathtub,” complete with classic lyrics and thumping bass line.

He’s been teaching me patience and cracking me up ever since.

*     *     *

Today’s story might just be my favorite yet of this crazy trip. It’s a story that’s blown me away time and time again over the last decade and a half.

On the surface, my first Saturday night back in LA in over 3 months may not have looked like much. Nothing more than a few old friends—me, Ernie, his nurturing girlfriend Gloria and crazy Carver—getting together to hang out.

For me, though, the night felt so much more meaningful. Because it was my first visit to Ernie and Gloria’s new place, a charming little 2-bedroom in a well-kept 2-unit duplex. A stone’s throw from the 20th Century Fox lot, not far from the writer’s bungalows where the brilliance of The Simpsons is channeled. Doh! And a 40-yard dash across Pico to the 3-par where P. and I chased the ever-elusive hole-in-1 and sub-par round of golf nearly every weekend not so long ago. Ernie’s new home is even quiet, despite the fact that his next door neighbor is dating Marilyn Manson’s drummer.

What got me beaming with pride Saturday night, though, was seeing what Ernie and Gloria had done with the place.

The walls were painted in funky olive greens and candy apple reds. Ernie had ripped up the living room carpet and buffed out the dark hardwood floor. A string of bamboo chutes hung where a bedroom door once creaked. Red ceiling bulbs and a vintage Asian poster picked up at a thrift store gave the kitchen a cool vibe, The state-of-the-art dishwasher a previous tenant had won on The Price is Right was nice, too. Ernie even had an extra bedroom in the back to do his art and play his music. Not to mention a big backyard, a garden in need of TLC and a roomy garage.

After years of shitholes and state-funded way stations, Ernie finally had a HOME. And he pulled it off with sweat, perseverance and integrity.

*     *     *

I found myself getting choked up as I got the tour of Ernie’s new pad. I couldn’t help flashing back to where he’d been—and how far he’d come to get here. Amazing.

During our first 3 years together, when I’d pick him up every other weekend and bring him back to my bachelor pad in Manhattan Beach, Ernie lived in various “cottages” at Hollygrove, where the staff was kind and supportive. But Ernie was obviously scarred and scared by the circumstances that brought him there in the first place. So while he could be charming and hilarious one minute, he was just as likely to lose his temper or retreat into a shell of silence the next.

His 3 years at Hollygrove saw Ernie forever getting in trouble at school for things like putting Super Glue on his teacher’s chair, dumping itching powder down a classmate’s shirt and tossing rocks from the playground onto Melrose Avenue, where he once hit a pissed off dude on a chopper.

Our twice-a-month weekend visits consisted of hanging out at the beach, trips to Taco Bell and staying up late to watch Saturday Night Live. Once in a while Sister Tracy, who loved him like the adorable nephew she craved, would come out from Covina to hang out with us.

On drives along the coast we sang along to Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever (“I’m freeeeeee, free faaaaaaaaallin’…”) and I took him to movies like Field of Dreams, where he got an upset stomach from the Pink’s chili dogs and movie theater candy he wolfed down. Ernie even spent holidays with my big, disjointed family, which must’ve made getting dropped off back at Hollygrove excruciating for him.

For me, it was like being a divorced dad. Without the ex-wife and child support payments.

But there was a price to pay for having Ernie in my life. The behavior that drove the Long Beach couple to return him like an unwanted wedding gift also surfaced from time to time.

The first time I took Ernie Christmas shopping at the mall he shoplifted a whoopee cushion.

He later tried to “clean” the fish in my dad and stepmom’s backyard pond with laundry detergent, killing their entire collection of expensive koi.

While staying at my family’s cabin in Green Valley, Ernie took $20 bucks from my cousin’s purse on the same day he nearly started a forest fire, which brought a visit from the local fire department.

Then there was the time he lifted 5 credit cards out of my desk and took them to school, which somehow resulted in $4500 in charges from a pair of obscure towns I’d never heard of in Russia.

And that was just the first 3 years of our relationship. The Hollygrove years were only the beginning. Things were just starting to get interesting.

*     *     *

Ernie was finally moved to a group home in the rural town of Acton, which added another 90 minutes to my drive. Our visits became less frequent, though no less entertaining. But within 2 years, Ernie would get busted for doing speed in the boy’s bathroom at school.

Which led to a few years at a juvenile detention facility in Woodland Hills. He was no longer allowed to come stay with me. Holidays with my family were out of the question, too. It was during these years that I bought Ernie a guitar and the materials he needed to paint. I also encouraged him to write, which he did with alarming proficiency.

By his 16th birthday, Ernie was out on good behavior and living in a cramped foster home/soulless apartment with 3 other boys from child services and 6 cats that gave the place a foul stench. Plus Arnie, a sullen, obese career foster parent who treated me like a pariah every other weekend when I showed up to visit Ernie for the afternoon. (Overnight visits were still verboten, even though Arnie’s lax “parenting” helped Ernie return to a life of chronic drug use, habitual truancy and petty crime.)

Months before his 18th birthday, Ernie ran away from Arnie’s and began staying with various friends, at least one of whom became his partner in a series of thefts and other illegal activities I never quite got the details of.

A few months after his 18th birthday on March 31, with nowhere to live and no money to get his own place, I let Ernie move into my small 1-bedroom apartment near the Beverly Center. Despite the fact that I was in the thick of trying to finish “The Book” and had little time or space to help him get on his feet. I did, however, insist he find a job.

But after I caught him in yet another lie regarding his attempts at finding work, I told Ernie I was moving in with P. He had another month in my apartment to get his shit together before I gave up the place.

By the end of the summer, Ernie was in jail. Convicted of snatching a purse from an elderly woman. A crime that felt like a double slap in the face, seeing as how he knew I’d been visiting an amazing 88-year-old lady named Henrietta in my volunteer work for the local Friends to the Elderly program.

*     *     *

A year behind bars changed Ernie’s life. Since he was released from Wayside County Jail over 4 years ago he has completely transformed himself. He’s been working at a Beverly Hills printing company, where he started off making copies over 3 years ago. Now he manages a small staff of office workers, handles the accounting duties, goes on sales calls to million dollar companies and does much of the graphic design work.

Ernie’s also been going to college off and on at Santa Monica City College and wants to enroll full-time next fall in the same art school where Dennis Hopper went. A couple years ago on his 21st birthday we organized a gallery/fundraiser showing 35 of his art pieces. He sold 31 of them, raised over $10,000 and got featured on the local 5 o’clock news along with a big piece in the LA Times.

Despite his moral and spiritual transformation in the 4+ years since he got out of jail, Ernie’s post-jail living conditions have ranged from squalid to cramped to dangerous to even haunted. He went from a Jewish halfway house near downtown LA to the floor in a small nearby room occupied by his friend Shaun, Shaun’s mom and Shaun’s uncle. From there it was on to a room at the Covenant House in Hollywood, a shelter for homeless teens.

Ernie’s first apartment, shared with another “homeless” teen who never washed a dish or lifted a finger to help clean up, was a small, albeit inexpensive, Covenant House-owned apartment on Franklin near the Hollywood Bowl.

After he’d used up his eligibility in the Covenant House program, Ernie and Gloria moved into a tiny, roach-infested 1-bedroom hovel in a seedy area of Hollywood. Within a year they’d moved again, this time into another 1-bedroom place around the corner from the tourist buses at the Mann’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Blvd.

Before long Gloria became sick, thanks to a dangerous mold in the walls. Then Ernie had an odd experience one night when he heard some dishes rattling in the kitchen. Then he saw what looked to be the ghost of a young boy sitting on his couch. The next day the building manager told him a family had been murdered a few years back in the apartment above them.

So that’s why it was so gratifying to see Ernie in his new place tonight. The ghosts are behind him.

The future, finally, is looking bright.

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