A place of his own: A starter one-bedroom apartment in Bluff Heights for $200 a month

In 1977 I was a second-year copy boy for the Press-Telegram, still living at home in the La Marina neighborhood east of Cal State Long Beach, but it was time to move out into the world—and get out of the rent my mom was charging me. I wasn’t the only one who hankered for freedom.

I didn’t even look for a place. It landed in my lap when a reporter 10 years older than me mentioned that she and her partner were moving out of the top half of a duplex on Molino Avenue in Bluff Heights and the rent was reasonable. Would I like to take the place over?

Would I! It seemed like a grand place. It had a huge bedroom that came with a king-size bed and still had enough room for a piano, if I cared to lug a piano up to the second floor, which I didn’t.

It had a separate dining room, a cute little kitchen, built-ins all over the place, including a buffet in the dining room.

Without speaking to the landlord, I simply moved in one day, hauling my great-grandfather’s rocking chair, a fold-out bed/love seat, a mess of pots and pans and miscellaneous kitchen gadgets that my mom let me take, and my clothes and guitar.

I woke up the first morning realizing I didn’t have any salt and pepper. Or soap. Or sponges or light bulbs or butter (or a butter dish) and nothing to eat.

So, I went out and bought as much as I could afford. A couple of dishes, a couple of forks, a jar of peanut butter, beans and hot dogs, a box of cereal and a jug of milk.

A bit later the landlord dropped by. He didn’t need a first- or last-payment or cleaning deposit or a credit report. Just a monthly check for $200. After that, he was pretty much out of my hair. Difficult as it is to believe, $200 was fair, but hardly a steal. The town back then was lousy with nice apartments in good parts for town for less than $200.

The place came with a black and white TV, and I set the beanbag chair that my girlfriend and future wife made me and sat in front of the TV and almost always fell asleep watching whatever was on.

The place had a lovely balcony, big enough for three people and a hibachi, and my friends and I sat out there a lot, drinking cheap Lucky beer and trying to solve the rebus puzzles that were printed on the bottle caps.

The apartment was packed with cool features: a walk-in closet with drawers, the aforementioned built-ins and maybe most remarkably, a voice tube that allowed me to communicate with someone down below who wanted to be buzzed in. A sort of non-electrical intercom.

I was happy living there and a few months later, after we got married, Jane moved in and things were sort of awkward at first for her, I think. She would ask me things like could she use my skillet for making dinner and where do we keep our towels.

That was 41 years ago, so I don’t remember everything, but surely we must have blundered into acquiring a color TV somewhere along the way—I think it was a workhorse JVC that lasted far longer than it should have. I kept praying it would finally break so we could buy one with a remote control.

We moved out after a few months, making a deeply flawed calculation that the only way to achieve the American Dream was to buy a house, so we bought a little mobile home in Belmont Shores Mobile Estates which we lived in for a few years—and sold for a little less than we paid for it.

Another move to another duplex and then, finally, when our son was 2 a house, and later came a daughter and some dogs. American Dream box checked. How did we afford a house? A five-figure check from my beloved grandmother. White privilege box checked.

But I’ve always had great memories of my first place in my scuffling days. It was a great and quiet place to live, within a short stroll of the coast and, more importantly for a poor kid, even a shorter stroll to Taco Bell.

So, when my son told me last week that the duplex is for sale, my first inclination, naturally, was to snap it up, a feeling that quickly dissipated when I saw the $895,000 price tag. I haven’t achieved the part of the American Dream that gives me that kind of walking-around money.

But it was nice to see pictures of the home again and to chat with one of the building’s current owners, Natasha Schultheis, who is also the Realtor listing the property, which is already sold pending contingency.

She and her partner John Eddy had fixed the place up with a remodeled kitchen on the bottom floor, wood flooring and other improvements, including making the top-floor balcony safer, although I’d never felt in danger of toppling from it.

The rent now for one of the two units is about $2,195, which means if a copy boy (a job that doesn’t exist anymore as far as I know, along with lamplighters and pinsetter) wanted to keep his rent at a quarter of his income, would have to make $114,140 a year.

That’s well above double what a news reporter makes these days, so I’d guess that means a two-earner white-collar couple will move in.

Natasha, however, told me the place was purchased by a man for his daughter who’ll be attending Cal State Long Beach. So the nearby Taco Bell may still be getting a new customer.

While most of my memories of living on Molino are good and happy ones, there is one thing that’s had me kicking myself for more than 40 years: The place was sold by my friendly landlord shortly after I moved in for $40,000. It would’ve been hard, but even a copy boy could have afforded that.

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.
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