How to Live in Bel Air
A bunch of my comedy friends were moving to Los Angeles. I decided to go too.
I worked seven days a week and saved three thousand in cash in an envelope. I kept the envelope in my desk drawer, and when I hit the target number, I wrote “You did it!” and doodled stars and palm trees around the words. My parents discussed renting out my bedroom. I packed up my silver Kia hatchback and drove cross-country.
The best part about driving across the country was feeling justified to eat whatever you wanted. I got pie at 3 pm in Flagstaff, Arizona. The waitress was a tiny woman with missing teeth. She said as she put the plate down, “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.” On my pie slice she had drawn a smiley face in whipped cream.
When I got to L.A., I went to a nanny agency to get a nine-to-five. I wore stockings and flats and a wrap dress to the boutique office in West Hollywood, where a stack of books including The Nanny Diaries sat on a glass-topped desk. You could tell this agency chewed up young girls and spit them out.
The girl behind the desk was aggressively peppy. “You’d be a great candidate for the Musk family!” she said. “Elon Musk. They tend to go through nannies quickly, and they’re looking for someone now! They’re SO smart. They want someone who’s smart!”
I spent a few days researching Elon Musk and found a video interview of him with his wife and the five kids. The whole family was wearing white shirts. Did I really want to work for someone who prioritized his nanny being “smart”, as opposed to having the Marine-level psychological strength necessary to put up with his bullshit?
The agency emailed me with an interview opportunity. It wasn’t for the Musks. I guess they did a background check on my AP Calculus performance (exam score: 1; drew comics all over the answer spaces). Instead, it was a family who wanted a live-in nanny for a three-month period before they finished a temporary California stay. The details were my least desired circumstance: they didn’t want the nanny to be alone with the child; both mother and grandmother would be around while I cared for a sixteen-month-old. But it was a short contract at twelve hundred dollars a week. I went Daffy Duck: pupils dilating into dollar signs.
I started planning all the things I could do with the money. Pay off credit card debt. Pay down my student loan. Get a real haircut. Go to the movies!
The multi-page document from the agency described rules for their nannies’ appearance. Interview requirements: navy khakis, white polo shirt, white sneakers (dainty, please!). Hair: ponytail or otherwise tamed. Makeup: natural and conservative. All visible tattoos: covered. The instructions said to “look like the girl next door with a professional twist”.
Ignoring the Devil Wears Prada (book version) quote to beware all enterprises that require new clothes (jacked from Thoreau, I KNOW), I slunk into a Banana Republic. I tried on navy khaki pants of a fabric consistency heavier than I had worn in my entire life. The price tag was $86.
Do you know how much it hurt me inside to carry $86 pants that I hated and didn’t look good in to the register and hand over my debit card? I’ve never had a pet, but I felt like I was putting down a dog. The cashier put the pants into a sturdy bag with tissue paper and ribbon handles. Was this how all rich people shopped? They even got good bags? Did they even know what it was like to carry a plastic Walmart bag that rips through before you get to the car? How many people were out there living this way?
Next I went to Target. I got a white polo shirt from the tween boys section, clean white Keds, and a new conservative nude bra. Just in case.
At the Bel Air mansion they buzzed my Kia through the security gate, and a guy in shorts with shoulder-length hair answered the door. I followed him through a maze of marble to a glossy wood-paneled office, where Nanny Mom sat behind a desk. A household staffer in uniform stood there with the toddler in her arms. I knew too well the awful game of performing for guests under the eyes of your boss. Nanny Mom was very nice, and I was called back for a second interview, this time with her father.
The patriarch of the family sat behind the desk and grilled me. Drink? Smoke? Drugs? I held his gaze, pretending to myself that I had something to hide. You want the truth?! YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!
I was hired.
I went to Rite Aid and treated myself to a new bath pouf, tissues in the little packets, and some pink Suave body wash for the long haul of living in the palace. Then I browsed the shelf of paperbacks.
I was on a real chick-lit kick at the time. You know the type. Books with an illustration of a stiletto heel and champagne glass on the cover. Or the cozified down-home, older-woman version (muffin platter; yarn ball). Either way, I ate them up like candy. Time alone in motel rooms and sitting by bodies of water contemplating my future, and I was into the woman-hits-bottom-then-turns-life-around narrative. I bought two books to add to my current stock.
I moved into the palace. Phurpa, the long-haired house manager, gave me the lay of the land. As he talked, he called Nanny Mom “Madam” like we were in a BBC upstairs-downstairs colonial drama. I rolled my suitcase along the marble floor past black and white marble walls, gold statues, and a double staircase with gold handrails.
To reach the nanny chambers, I had to take multiple elevators. The first opened to the indoor pool room (a bowling alley was another level up). On the pool level, I walked along the edge of the pool deck and past squash courts on the far side to reach the second elevator. Sliding doors pushed open to my suite in the basement. It had a sitting area, kitchen, bedroom and enormous bathroom. There were dozens of white drawers with shiny handles that opened smoothly. Phurpa told me with importance that when Prince Harry had visited, he’d stayed in my room.
“Madam” instructed me not to talk to the other household staff, particularly about what I was getting paid. There was no internet available in my nanny quarters downstairs, and my cell phone got no service anywhere on the grounds. I had one day off a week, but otherwise was bound to the house. I was presented with a uniform: blue, white collar, white cuffs, white buttons.
The first couple days, I traveled with the baby, Madam, and Grandmother on outings to Rodeo Drive. I didn’t love the Escalade, because it was so high up it was impossible to get into, but the white Rolls Royce was also a pain because the ceiling was so low it was tough to get the baby into her car seat without bumping her head. I couldn’t find the seat belt for myself, or maybe there was none. I was going to die in a Rolls Royce while wearing a Mary Poppins uniform next to a toddler in Gucci. I did not want to go out like that. It wasn’t on brand.
I pushed the stroller down Rodeo Drive in my uniform, following Madam and Grandmother as they went in and out of Tiffany & Co. and Cartier buying stuff for the baby. I was squinting, because I thought it wouldn’t be appropriate to wear my five dollar sunglasses. I had a Gucci diaper bag strapped across my chest and the baby’s Gucci purse looped around my wrist.
On the second day, the baby spilled bubbles on her Juicy Couture pants. I looked in her closet to change them, but I didn’t know what to do. Could I put Ralph Lauren pants with a Juicy top? Then she was pointing at Dolce & Gabbana shoes. Was it a faux pas to mix them? I was from northeast Philly; my knowledge of designer fashion stopped at the Rising Sun Avenue Forman Mills (“Stretch those bills!”). I did have a Guess? sweatshirt once in high school, but that’s not much to go on.
In my few moments alone with the kid, I pushed her up and down the expansive outdoor grounds in her little push car. I sang “Mister Sun” and imagined I was a British governess as we circled the stone fountains.
Phurpa cooked all the meals. On the third day while standing at attention spoon feeding the baby, with Madam sitting and eating next to us, I let out the most delicate whisper of a fart. Madam's eyes flickered. After they finished, I ate my chicken and crispy rice in the other room.
I accompanied the family to a party at another mansion in the neighborhood. I wasn’t sure how to act. Was the statue of the naked mermaid going to fall over if I accidentally knocked it with the diaper bag? Was I allowed to accept the appetizers offered me by the caterers, or was I supposed to downcast my eyes, indicating, “Nay. I am but a servant”? I didn’t know what to do back at our palace, either. Was it okay that I disturb the tri-folded toilet paper and use one of the monogrammed hand towels in any of the twenty bathrooms in the house, or was I supposed to leave everything untouched and hold my pee until I could get to my own suite? Was I to wait until I was dismissed in the evening, or should I retire to my room when they took the baby to bed and I felt it was time to leave?
At the end of each day, I hunkered down in my nanny chambers. The humidity and scent of pool water was comforting as I walked through the dark and got onto the elevator. In the downstairs suite, I looked around at all the marble and drew out a calendar on paper so I could mark off days like a prisoner. People do this; this will be like a meditative retreat. I can do it. Within a day I metamorphosed into the girl in Tangled, filling her time with hobbies because there’s no one to talk to. I colored in my sketchbook, and cut and pasted pictures of flowers from Martha Stewart Weddings. I didn’t have a boyfriend per se, but I’d been talking to a ne’er-do-well ex, which had been enough to justify the purchase of the magazine. I settled in with my glue sticks.
In the mornings, the marble was cold on my feet and I liked to duck-walk around the huge space in my underwear, just because I could, but at night, I spent a lot of time in the bathroom. The shower was green marble and vast, with a bench and ten shower heads. I sat under the shower heads, letting the water spray over me like a Rudyard Kipling hippo. There was also a Jacuzzi tub. Every night I filled it and sunk into the hot water with a loaf of bread and package of cheese slices on the side of the tub next to me, and read my chick lit. It was the only good part of the day. I finished Sushi for Beginners (hard-driving Dublin workaholic softens up when she finds unexpected love with new boss) and started Shopaholic Ties the Knot (flighty Brit plans lavish Manhattan wedding while her parents think they’re hosting nuptials in backyard garden). I tried The Inn at Rose Harbor (widow takes over failing bed-and-breakfast; eligible bachelor from past hovers in wings) but it was so bad even I couldn’t read it.
On the fourth day of pretending this was worth it, I went upstairs to the kitchen and knew I was done. I burst into tears. Phurpa came in and before I knew what was happening, I quit. I went down to my quarters to pack.
I emptied my things from the glossy drawers and filled my suitcase. I took off the uniform and put on my navy khakis. I hated this place, I hated Los Angeles, and I wanted to go home. There was a knock at the door. It was Phurpa.
I was still crying, and Phurpa came over and gave me a hug. Then the hug was lasting too long. He took both my hands and reached out with his thumb to wipe a tear from my eye.
Oh shit. Phurpa really did think we were in a BBC upstairs-downstairs colonial drama and that we were going to make a baby on Prince Harry’s bed. I stepped away, got him out of there, closed the sliding doors and finished packing. I rolled my suitcases out of the palace and through the living room, past the girl from the nanny agency who in the forty-five minute span had already appeared, ready to take over the job and earn my twelve hundred dollars a week. I drove through the gates and away from the palace, headed straight for IHOP. I felt reborn.
I called my mom and said I was coming home. She said, “Of course you can come home! We have an exchange student from South Korea living in your old room, but we’ll work it out.”
For the journey back, I bought a new Fannie Flagg book. I don’t know if you know her? She wrote Fried Green Tomatoes, which was made into a movie with Mary-Louise Parker and Kathy Bates. Fannie Flagg books were very comforting. Characters were retired southern women dealing with an empty nest, or battling jaybirds in their front yard.
I liked to read at my solo dinners on the drive home, and I ate consistently at Cracker Barrel. I hit a Cracker Barrel in seven out of nine states. One night in Missouri, I was about to pull out my Fannie Flagg book at dinner, and I realized I was wearing my favorite red and white checkered flannel shirt. I knew that I couldn’t be in Cracker Barrel, wear a red and white flannel, AND read a Fannie Flagg book at the same time. I could do two out of three, but not all of them. I ate my Chicken n’ Dumplins and left the book in my bag.
I arrived back in Philly on a warm spring day. Because of the exchange student, I slept in my mom’s office where if I stretched I could almost touch all four walls. My mom said, “Marth, I’m sorry about your broken dreams and all,” (quick wave of hand: that’s taken care of) “but when I heard you were coming home I was thrilled!”
The exchange student and I coexisted for a few more weeks until she graduated high school and moved on. I finished the Fannie Flagg book. It wasn’t her best, but it did the job.