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After All, We're Neighbors

Art Mitz became my friend, and taught me how to be a true neighbor.
April 5, 2010 |
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My friend Art Mitz, who died Wednesday morning, was the only neighbor I've ever had who complained to me about the excesses of Jacksonian democracy.

Seriously. How refreshing is that? He never asked to borrow sugar. He didn't complain about loud music. But on our very first encounter, he walked across the dirt road that separated our houses in the desert, leaned on my green wooden fence and started to worry out loud about the dangers of populism.

Last fall my wife and I bought a house in the desert to get away from all the noise and clamor in our Koreatown apartment house. We were after the sunsets, the cacti and -- at least for me -- that combination of thrill and chill I get every time I hear the cries and yelps of a pack of coyotes.

Our goal, in other words, was to seek solitude in a hut on 2 1/2 acres of sand, to be left alone more or less to commune with nature.

But Art and his fierce and amazing wife, Mimi, changed all that. Not long after Art's soliloquy on populism, the Mitzes invited us to dinner. It was then I learned that Art was a columnist's nightmare. He was one of those smart-alecky letter writers who said things well and argued them even better. After all, he had been the editor of the Hi-Desert Star in Yucca Valley for 15 years -- writing everything from editorials on local politics to theater reviews. For the last three years, he had taught U.S. history at Copper Mountain College in Joshua Tree.

Art knew his stuff. He was a clever man with a dry wit and -- even as cancer consumed him -- a mischievous glimmer in his eyes.

In short, it didn't take long for Art to start making cracks about my columns. He didn't like the way I ended one of them; he teased me about what he called Rodriguezisms. He already had a correspondence going with another Times opinion columnist.

As a writer who likes to keep his detractors on the far side of an e-mail exchange, at first I feared Art would be someone to avoid. Instead, he became something I've never had before: a neighbor I counted as a friend.

Mind you, I never visit with any of the people who live next door to me in Los Angeles. In fact, I had come to believe that in this era of virtual networks -- where you can connect with like-minded people by computer and smart phone any time, anywhere -- geography no longer determined one's community. And that goes double if you live in atomized, sprawling Los Angeles. Besides, I didn't quite know the rules of befriending the people down the hall or across the road.

Art and Mimi made it easy. They were honest about what was going on in their lives and let us play a role in it. And after Art told me he had lung cancer, for the second time, my wife and I tried to see them every time we went to the desert. Over the past few months, we found ourselves heading out the 10 Freeway just so we could visit with them.

I worried that we were becoming pesky Mertzes to the Mitzes. Maybe they'd prefer us not to visit so often. As Art's condition got worse, we would call ahead to schedule an audience.

In the end, it was those visits -- not the Joshua trees or the sunsets -- that grounded us in the desert. When Mimi e-mailed to tell us Art had died, she made sure to mention how much he enjoyed our visits and looked forward to them -- as we did -- all week.

The last time I saw Art, who was only 65, he was too exhausted to talk. But the weekend before that, he said something to me that has changed the way I see my neighbors, and made me think that as our realities become more virtual, it is closeness with the people around us we will crave most. As we were about to leave his room, he called me back in his ravaged, whispery voice. We didn't have to stand on ceremony, he told me. No more phone calls. We should feel free to come by -- any time. After all, he said, we're neighbors.

I so wish I could take him up on that. The best I can do is to try to be as generous a neighbor as Art was.