Two days of nearly straight driving carried us almost coast to coast. Jody and I barely spoke, barely moved. We were barely awake. The closer we came to Los Angeles the heavier the morning traffic grew, millions of people packed onto a small patch of land, all trying to get somewhere quickly. The Cordoba hugged the white line, my motorcycle trailer shuddered with each passing car.
Blue lights flashed in the rear view mirror. “Shit,” I said.
“What did you do?” Jody asked.
“I don’t know. I’m going the speed limit.”
“You better pull over.”
“Where? There’s no shoulder.” The cop laid on his siren, whoop! whoop!
“Take that exit up there,” Jody said. I did, then pulled into a convenience store parking lot.
The cop took his time getting to my window. “You don’t pull over when you see lights?” he said.
“I’m sorry. I was looking for a safe place,” I said.
“License and registration.”
I handed him the documents and said, “Can I ask what I did?”
“I don’t understand. I was in the slow lane and I was going the speed limit.”
“You were impeding the flow of traffic.”
“They were speeding and I’m pulling a trailer. I’m supposed to drive a safe speed while towing, right?”
He stared at me. “Trailer doesn’t have a license plate.”
“We’re just moving here from South Carolina.”
“Doesn’t matter,” the cop said.
“South Carolina doesn’t register trailers. The plate on the motorcycle on the trailer counts as the license plate.”
“You aren’t in South Carolina. You’re in California.”
“We just got here, just now. You are the first person we’ve even met in Los Angeles.”
“Trailer has to have a license plate,” he said.
“What did you expect me to do?” I asked. “Was I supposed to go to the DMV before I left and say ‘please make me a special one of a kind license plate. I’m moving to California, and the instant I cross the state line I must be in compliance with all state and local vehicle codes”?
I knew nothing about the LAPD. If I did, I would have kept my mouth shut. Still, it all worked out: no ticket, no Rodney King-style beating, just a mirrored lens welcome to L.A.
The plan was to stay with Jody’s friend, Rebecca. The two went back to their teenaged years modeling around Spartanburg. Later Rebecca won a few beauty pageants and decided to take her shot in Hollywood. Knowing we had a place to crash was most of what kept us rolling down the freeway.
“What was the name of that exit again?”
“Vine Street,” Jody said.
“Damnit, I just passed it.” We drove to the next exit and turned around. “Check it out,” I said. Hanna Barbera studios.”
“Cool,” Jody said.
“I wonder if they’re hiring.”
This time I hit the exit, and we emerged at the top of Vine Street: a long, straight road descending into the belly of the beast. On our left was the legendary Capitol Records tower, a building designed to look like a stack of 45s waiting to drop onto the platter—the original playlist. On our right passed the Brown Derby. We crossed Sunset Boulevard, passed the Hollywood Greyhound station. Vine Street grew seedier and seedier, and then nicer and nicer: Elegant old apartment buildings with manicured landscaping. I noted one with a for rent sign on the door.
“Turn and find somewhere to park,” Jody said. “Her apartment is right close.” I pulled to the curb in front of a house we could never afford and let the big grey Cordoba rest.
The neighborhood was perfect: perfect landscaping, perfect weather, perfect buildings. We walked through Rebecca’s perfect lobby and closed the folding gates of a perfect old elevator and punched the perfect brass button for her floor.
Rebecca was perfect, too, and so was her apartment. Both were tall, thin, and graceful, though only one sported a head of curly red hair. “I love it!” Jody said, and she raked her fingers through Rebecca’s curls. “Why did you go red?”
“Jack likes it red.”
“Just a guy I date sometimes,” Rebecca said.
“Oh, that Jack. I don’t know how you can stand that,” Jody said.
“He takes care of me.”
“What’s it life having sex with a 50 year-old man?” Jody asked.
“Like having a 50 year-old bouncing around on top of you,” Rebecca said.
Rebecca laughed. “Want to know really gross? He makes me dye my bush, too.”
“So is he your boyfriend?” I asked.
“No, I just date him sometimes.”
I looked around. The living room was empty but for a futon and a large Deco-style painting. “That’s nice,” I said. “Who did it?”
“I did,” Rebecca said.
“Beautiful. Looks like a Tamara.”
“Jack loves Tamara,” she said.
“Where should we put our stuff?” Jody asked.
“What do you mean?” Rebecca said.
“You’re going to let us crash, aren’t you?”
“Oh, I forgot about that. I’m sorry, my roommate and I have dates with Jack and his friend, Bob.”
“That’s cool. We can just hang here,” I said.
“No, they’re coming here. I’m sorry, y’all.”
“Can’t you cancel?” Jody said.
“You don’t cancel on Jack,” Rebecca said. “Y’all can stay until about 4:00 if you want to.”
I backed my motorcycle off the trailer and we went exploring. Our first stop was the apartment building with the “for rent” sign. In the lobby a young man sat behind an old fashioned switchboard, connecting calls to various tenants. We waited quietly until he said, “May I help you?”
“Hey, we wanted to check out the apartment that’s for rent.”
He smiled carefully. “Our smallest studio rents for $1,000 a month and we need first and last months’ rent plus a security deposit.
“Thank you,” I said, and we left.
We puttered back up Vine Street. On the corner of Sunset we passed a record store with a dirty white “Now Hiring” banner hanging from the roof. I hung a left on Hollywood Boulevard, that famous stretch of road: the Walk of Fame, the Chinese Theater.
Punk rock runaways huddled like junkies in front of rundown tourist shops. A row of bikers loitered on and around their beat up Harleys. We passed a wig store with a giant pompadour in the window, a moldy-looking Frederick’s of Hollywood, a toy shop. Everything but the tourists looked worn out, tired, dangerous. The tourists looked both confused and scared. They avoided eye contact with the runaways trying to bum loose change. I felt like I was home.
We cut down La Brea Avenue and caught Sunset Boulevard. On the left stood the Seventh Veil strip club, right out of Motley Crue’s “Girls Girls Girls.” We passed the Sunset Grill and we watched the working girls go by and the basket people walk around and mumble; rows of guitar shops; a bookstore that sold nothing but plays; a hot dog stand made from an old rail car. To the right stood the legendary Tower Records. “Let’s go in so I can grab an application,” I said.
The place was packed with would be rock stars and the women who loved them. A blue Aqua Net haze hung over the record bins. Fishnet, spandex, and heavy makeup all were well represented, and that was just the guys.
“Hey, are y’all hiring?” I asked the Bret Michaels behind the counter. He rolled his eyes and pulled an application from beneath the counter. “Thanks,” I said. I found a quiet spot and filled it out: five years in record stores, management experience, what more could they ask? I walked back to the counter and hand the completed form to Pseudo-Bret.
“Thanks,” he said, and he stuffed my application under the counter.
“Aren’t you going to look at it?”
“We’ll call you.”
“I just got to town. I don’t even have an address yet.”
“We’ll be in touch,” he said, and he found a Sweet Sweet Connie to talk to.
We rode back to Vine Street and holed up in a booth at Bob’s Big Boy, LA Times classifieds spread out in front of us. I circled apartments and Jody circled jobs. “What are we going to do tonight?” she asked.
“There’s a motel across the street. We can stay there,” I said. We finished our burgers, rode back to Rebecca’s neighborhood and picked up the car, and then we checked into the Sunset Vine Motel.
The joint was a two story motel, the kind of place where all of the rooms open onto the parking lot. Our room was on the first floor. The chain lock and the television were broken, so I fetched my toolbox from the Cordoba’s trunk. Ten minutes later we had a locking door and an antenna made from a bent coat hanger. I lay down next to Jody and cupped her breast.
“I can’t, I’m exhausted,” she said, and she fell asleep. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them Jody was watching television.
“What time is it?” I asked.
“Morning or night?”
“I’m going to go get a Coke,” I said. It was night, but not even the sky was dark: so much goddamned light, and noise, and dirt. Ever since we rolled into town I couldn’t pass a sink without washing my hands.
A man leaned on the second floor railing, watching me plug coins into the vending machine. He looked to be my father’s age. “What’s happening?” he asked.
“Nothing. Just getting a drink.”
“You new in town?”
“Yeah, just got in today.”
“Right on. You must be tired,” he said.
“Have any friends in town?”
“Not really. We were supposed to stay with this one girl but she bailed,” I said.
“I’ll be your friend. Come on up to my room and we’ll party. I’ve got some blow.”
“I have money, too,” he said.
A helicopter flew over the motel so low that I could read “LAPD” on its side. The cops shone their spotlight on the parked cars and closed motel room doors. A disembodied voice barked orders at an unseen suspect: Get on the ground. Don’t move. I heard sirens coming down Vine Street.
Back in the room I shoved the dresser in front of the door and wedged screwdrivers in the gap between the door and the jamb. Welcome to the fucking jungle.
What it is like seeing my hometown through your incredibly sharp eyes is fascinating.
“Everything but the tourists looked worn out, tired, dangerous.” Yeaah, when you pulled into town I was living comfortably in dangerous.
I had no idea I grew up in the fucking jungle until I was in my 40’s when they started poodling up Hollywood and it’s even more beat up outskirts. My dirty, exhausted town had too much sun and folklore damage to be getting such a fancy facelift. I could see the corpses underneath the shiny new surface, and for the first time in my life, Los Angeles terrified me.
An oldie, but goodie. 🙂